We made it to Lisbon! We had been anxiously watching the volcanic ash cloud hovering over the map of Europe and slowly moving south. Lucky for us, it never made it to Portugal! The hotel here is full of stranded people searching the Internet for ways to get home. Keep your fingers crossed for Munich (our stopover on the way back) to open by May 2!
So here we are, having arrived in the morning, we set off to explore Lisbon’s three historic neighborhoods. We started out taking a funicular up to the hills of Bairro Alto and Chiado. Now, I have had Lisbon described to me as unattractive and dirty, and was taken by surprise by the unique beauty of its streets lined up with 16th century buildings. With its picture perfect location on the hills which offer stunning views of terra cotta roofs in all shades of orange, its cobblestone streets flanked by mosaic sidewalks and framed by buildings whose facades are decorated with painted ceramic tiles and a lace of cast iron balconies, this city is a diamond in the rough. Yes, the buildings are crumbling and dilapidated, the graffiti is ubiquitous, the squares boast plastic chairs and tables set under cheap umbrellas, and the shop windows and signs rival those of Kmart, but all that is just Cinderella’s dirty rags and a princess of a city lies within.
And there is always a surprise awaiting you when you stumble upon an 18th century coffee shop, a stone staircase, an ornate streetlight, or a hidden courtyard. And there is a peek-a-boo effect of the buildings peeking from behind their fellow buildings on the lower hills.
From the hills of Bairro Alto we took a rickety trolley down to the medieval neighborhood of Alfama. Here, twisting and turning narrow streets led us up to the remains of a castle, past clothes lines of freshly washed underwear, old men in suits and hats taking a stroll, and old women carrying fresh produce from the market.
The third neighborhood is the newest of the old ones – rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed most of the lower city. Baixa is prim and proper, its balconies match each other and so do the buildings they are attached to. Yet here, the mosaic pavement is even more ornate than in the older sections of town, and grand squares could hold their own against their European counterparts.
Lisbon is poor, its inhabitants are not glamorous, but the city does not have the gloomy atmosphere of Eastern European capitals, it doesn’t seem to be touristy, and has a no-nonsense sincere appeal. The people are well mannered, quietly distinguished, and kind to the dumb foreigners who don’t speak their language and don’t understand their ways.