April 9th, 2015
After buzzing on port wine in Porto, it was time to make our way to the capital city of Lisbon. After a fortunately uneventful train ride (read about our earlier train misadventures), we arrived at Lisboa Santa Apolonia station and after picking up our Lisboa cards to get discounted or free entrance to museums and other attractions in the city as well as free use of all public transportation, we took the metro to our hotel. Dan and I love learning to use the public transit system in the cities we visit and traveling around town like the locals do. Saves money and gets you where you need to go much faster. Lisbon is set on seven hills so using the city’s metro lines and trams to get around will save your legs after a long day of sight seeing!
We put up our feet for awhile at the hotel and then we ventured out, walking down Avenida da Liberdade, a wide shopping boulevard lined with trees and outdoor kiosk cafes that links Praca dos Restauradores to Praca Marques de Pombal, named after the Portuguese prime minister who smartly redesigned the layout and infrastructure of the city after a devastating earthquake destroyed much of Lisbon in 1775.
We continued our way down toward the Tagus River, taking the Elevador Santa Justa, one of the many funiculars that dot the city to ferry passengers up the steep hills of Lisbon. Built by an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel in 1902, the elevador took us up to the shopping district of Baixa Chiado and the Praca Luis Camoes where we met Marcos from We Hate Tourism Tours (WHTT) for the Eat Dinner with Us or Starve dinner and night time driving tour.
Along with three other fellow Lisbon visitors who were to be our dinner companions for the evening, Marcos drove us to the Restaurante Lucimar in the Entre Campos neighborhood, a favorite of locals, to feast on Portuguese cuisine favorites such as bacalhau (cod), steak, piri piri, and acorda de gambas (bread stew with shrimp), and of course plenty of vinho verde wine. The back of the headrest of the drivers seat in the van is embroidered with the phrase “The driver sucks but this van is cool” to give you somewhat of an idea of the tongue in cheek humor of the guides and the tour company, although I think the company name says plenty!
After dinner, Marcos drove us south toward the Tagus River pointing out landmarks along the waterfront such as Praca do Comercio, the Monument of the Discoveries, and Jeronimos Monastery before stopping at Pasteis de Belem to pick up a few of the famous delicious custard egg tarts known generally as pastel de nata to enjoy at our next destination. The bakery has lines out the door for most of the day from 8am to 11pm close and makes anywhere from 30- 55, 000 of the tarts daily!
The origins of the sweet pastries can be attributed to a monk from the monastery who after the liberal revolution of 1820 and the expulsion of clergy and laborers in Portugal in 1834 offered the custards for sale in a small general store attached to a sugar cane refinery near the monastery to help raise funds. The pastries soon became known as ‘pasteis de Belem’ and the designation is used to exclusively reference the sweets made at the Belem bakery following the secret recipe which has remained unchanged to this day.
After picking up our desserts, we continued our scenic drive along the water before arriving at the Torre de Belem, a 16th century fortress finished during the reign of King Manuel I to defend the entrance of the city from the sea, to enjoy our custards with a view. They were absolutely amazing hot out of the oven sprinkled with cinnamon and did not disappoint. And neither did the view!
The tower’s design follows the Manueline architecture style, a variant of North Europe’s high Gothic style, noted for its richly ornate style and nautical-themed elements such as anchors and rope carved into limestone to celebrate the nation’s maritime successes during the Age of Discoveries and the rapidly expanding global spice trade .
We made our way next to the narrow, cobblestoned streets of Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood, Alfama; a name that reflects the area’s Arabic influence, to listen to authentic fado music at Mesa de Frades Restaurante, a tiny restaurant that used to be a chapel and is still covered with stunning azulejos.
Fado is a traditional Portuguese music genre that can be traced back to the early 1800s, characterized by a melancholy sound of mournful tunes and lyrics usually lamenting lost love and sung in dozens of clubs and restaurants in Lisbon’s older neighborhoods. There is only one rule when listening to fado.
The performers have the complete attention of the room and no one is allowed into or out of the club during songs, hence why I have no pictures to share with you! Fado can be a very moving, intimate, and sacred experience for those gathered together.