Arrival in a new city after several long days of travel can be overwhelming and usually comes with a welcome sigh of relief. First impressions are usually formed from nervous excitement, personal expectations, trepidation on how to find your way to your accommodation and the impact of the immediate physical surroundings.
Lisbon was all of this for us. We had just completed 5 days of travel from Swindon, England, and this was to be our first extended stay in continental Europe. So we had the mixture of romantic ideals, apprehension about our ability to adapt to the way of life, getting by with limited Portuguese and the anticipation to explore our new home all running through our minds.
Our first few hours in the city was everything we hoped for and more. Santa Apolonia Station as we have come to learn, is like much of Lisbon. It is gritty, charming and has a unique character all of its own. Parts of it are run down and faded but yet it maintains its purpose and looks exactly as it should.
Purchasing rechargeable “zapping” transit cards is essential and was easy once we found the friendly attendant on the lower level of the station. The smell of roasting chestnuts greeted us as we stepped onto the streets for the first time and searched for our bus.
Ah the buses. We still marvel every time they take us up or down the narrow cobblestone streets in the Graca District where we are staying. The drivers must have skill and patience to make the trips through these neighbourhoods dozens of times each day without serious incidents.
We are staying in an Airbnb rental apartment and we love this one. We were met by our friendly host after we climbed steep and narrow steps to the third floor, and we quickly knew that we would love our new home.
The lower floor has plenty of light with small balconies and upstairs is a bedroom which opens onto a very pleasant rooftop patio from which we have sweeping views above the streets to the Tagus River. We can relax and watch aircraft, cloud formations and birds above us, and below us ships plying the Tagus River and life unfolding on the patios.
Graca is a working class neighbourhood just next to its more famous neighbour the Alfama district. We have many small mercados nearby where we can get fresh fruit, vegetables and other necessities. A meat market is right next door, several pastry shops (pastelarias) and cafes line the surrounding streets, and a bustling local commercial district is a 15 minute walk away.
Our day to day life here is very relaxed when we choose it to be. We quickly found a fabulous walk from our apartment along the famous Tram 28 route that takes us to the central Praca do Comercio within 45 minutes. Something we will not tire of is jostling along the narrow winding streets of the Alfama with the locals and tourists, and dodging cars, tuk tuks and trams, all the while marveling at the colours, sights, sounds, and the smells of the pastelarias and cafes. There is always something new to see!
This particular walk leads you through the historic streets of the Alfama past the stunning 16th Century Sao Vincente de Fora Church and Monastery, takes in superb views from the Portas do Sol, passes in front of the imposing 12th Century Se Cathedral and ends at the Praca do Comercio. Just on this walk alone you see much of what many visitors to Lisbon experience in their entire visits.
The graffiti and street art is already a favorite of ours. There are many intentional canvases on buildings, walls and unused space but also many impromptu works that appear when you least expect it. While we may not understand all of the messages, it adds colour, character and a personal feeling to street scenes.
We have found October to be an excellent time of year to be here. The temperatures are in the low 20s most days, there is still a lot of sunshine and the crowds are relatively thin. Cruise ships are docked every day so there are plenty of customers for the vendors, street performers, tour operators, tuk tuk drivers and the hundreds of shops along the Rua Augusta through Baixa and surrounding areas. Vibrancy abounds on the streets and we are starting to feel a little more like locals than tourists already.
Another favorite walk we have found is to begin at the lively waterfront of the Praca Commercio where Lisboetas and tourists stroll and socialize every day of the week. Gulls and pigeons constantly seek patiently for scraps, waves lap against the boardwalk, street performers show something oddly entertaining, and vendors are somewhat unobtrusive at selling sunglasses, selfie sticks, roasted chestnuts and tours. It appears to all merge into a contented blend that works.
Heading from the square into the Baixa District you pass along bank fronts through Rua Augusta which is aimed mainly at visitors. Trams and trolleys rattle by and tuk tuks putter along amid a myriad of souvenir shops, cafes, street restaurants and specialty shops.
However just a street or two over and it is very calm and you can stroll leisurely along fascinated by the touches of colour, the fading glory of some of the buildings not knowing what is around the corner.
We have already discovered and enjoyed the Feira da Ladra flea market, which is believed to have been in continuous operation for over 400 years. Originally called the “Thieves Market”, it is today an eclectic mix of vendors selling everything from vintage vinyl to African artwork to used clothing to centuries old tiles and so much more.
It operates every Tuesday and Saturday and should be included in any visit if you have the time. The setting is stunning just below the Santa Engracia Panteao Nacional which dominates the lower Alfama skyline. The entrance fee is 4€ and well worth it as the interior views as you climb your way around the stairwells are fabulous. When you emerge onto the upper terrace you are greeted with a breathtaking panorama of the Tagus River and the Lisbon riverfront.
We will continue to visit some of the major tourist attractions and have already spent a day at the coast in Cascais and visited the remarkable town of Sintra. Both are very worthwhile and deserve separate posts. Lisbon has already given us so many memories, images, information and ideas that it will be a wonderful challenge to capture and convey it all in the coming weeks. We could spend a year here and only hope to portray a little of the vibrancy and culture of this city and its people.
We are settling into this life very well and are continuously captivated by the complex depth and feeling of the character of Lisbon. Around every corner is something different to arouse your senses. It is all very new to us but we cannot see that the charms will fade. In fact every day we spend here it feels more comfortable and a wonderful place to call home, if only for a few weeks. We will be back!