Simply showing my sheer ignorance of a majestically beautiful country, I was plenty surprised that Lisbon has gone through a major renaissance the last decade (well before their recent economic woes). The eastern board of the city has opened the continent’s longest bridge, and a commissioned area to host the World Exposition in 1998. Unlike most purposely-built areas, Lisbon has capitalised on developing the venue with residential, commercial and public spaces opening recently. The whole complex includes an aquarium, the Vasco do Gama mall, an international convention centre, and the Placa do Nacoes.
Its main centrepiece is its terminus train station, Gare do Oriente. Finally, an introduction to Santiago Calatrava! After much praise for his light, airy and modern designs all over, I finally got to see his work in the flesh, so to speak. At first, I thought that the platform canopies were inspired by spider webs, only to realise that they are patterned after the cloister ceilings west of the city (Belem).
Its space travel theme resonates across the station – from the shape of their waiting rooms, to the underground walkway connection the platforms, to the “beam me up, Scotty” elevators around the station. Furthermore impressive was the selection of materials for the building – simple glass, and brushed concrete. The photo below turned out much better than expected, it looks like an artist’s rendition of the interior, even if it is an actual photograph.
You may have noticed Portugal’s love for the blue-coloured tiles, called azulejos, and how they decorate their buildings with it. This affinity extends not just for the colour blue, as they decorate majority of the metro stations with tiles, though on a more playful note.
Finally, end the tour of the city’s modern side by dropping by Bairro Alto – a district known for its parties; between traditional pubs that feature melancholy singers belting their fado, you can find trendy spots to drink in. Here’s a photo of one we stumbled upon; apart from the standard drinks and requisite caipirinhas, it was delightful to discover a new mix: black vodka, crushed strawberries. Please let me know where to find this black vodka, it would be so interesting.
Providing inspiration to Calatrava for his train station, the monastic cloisters at Sao Jeronimos is definitely worth a visit. You might find the elaborately designed crypt of Vasco do Gama very interesting as well.
Just outside the garden plaza is a monument to commemorate the golden age of discovery of the 16th century as led by the Portuguese; you may remember a certain Ferdão do Magalhães (that’s Ferdinand Magellan to us) that ‘discovered’ us in 1521. At the end of the river promenade is the Torre de Belem, a watchtower that initially was at the middle of the mouth of the Rio Tejo, but has now been integrated with the rest of its northern flank. Climb the dizzying and narrow spiral staircase to have a sweeping view of the river and the 19 de Abril bridge. On Sundays and holidays, the €5 entrance fee is waived until 2pm (unfortunately, I took at a photo at the entrance of the tower, delaying me by a minute – d’oh!).
Finally, to recharge your weary bones, conclude the trip with a visit to Pasteis de Belem, a world-famous bakery selling Portuguese tarts. The custard-filled tarts are a well-kept secret (only 3 people know it, I heard), but reputation of the bakery isn’t – queues all the way around the next block are not uncommon. Whilst waiting for a table you can walk around the restaurant at marvel at the azulejo-filled walls depicting the history of the famous Portuguese sweets. Just a note of difference the tarts’ crusts are crispy, instead of the crumbly Macau versions I am used to.
Portugal was never on the travel list had I not met great people on my Japan trip in 2010. So taking up the invite to visit the country, I used the long weekend to pop in Portugal and see what the country had to offer.
Taking its cues from Europe’s great capitals, getting lost in Lisbon’s Alfama district is never boring. Hiding behind the winding cobblestone streets is a magnificent facade of apartments in pastel-washed colours, romantic balconies decorated by blue-hued tiles (called azulejos), and wafts of their custard-sweet pastries. The streets alone are a reason to visit this amazing capital.
Be warned though, Lisbon is the city of 7 hills, and trekking up these streets can get steep and tiring. There are funiculars around the area (reminiscent of the tram heading to Victoria Peak in Hong Kong); alternatively, you can take the trams that follow these winding streets and start your journey walking down.
Start with Castelo do Sao Jorge, a medieval fortress on top of the hills, to take hold of your bearings – you can see the Praca do Comercio below and the adjacent riverside walk of the Rio Tejo. There are plenty of churches scattered along the walk, I really don’t remember all of them – but watch out for the distinct Manueline architecture of the monuments, statues, and plazas around (more on this later).
There are two bridges connect the two flanks of the Rio Tejo – each having their own merits. Vasco do Gama bridge, on the eastern part of town, is the longest bridge in Europe, while the 19 de Abril bridge, with its red colour is designed by the same guy who did San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
The city is not filled with the world’s most familiar landmarks, but make no mistake – the experience of walking around Lisbon does not need blockbuster sights to put it on your must travel lists.