As much as I enjoyed spending January in bitterly cold but beautiful Prague, after a month of wearing multiple layers, I was ready to defrost. Cue Lisbon, the sunny setting for our final month in Europe and the perfect place to warm up, ready for the Americas.
And it’s not just the weather that will warm you up – Lisbon is sprawled across seven massively steep hills, so every walk is a work-out. Fortunately, though, there’s plenty to distract you from your aching thighs, as Lisbon really is one of those places where you find unexpected delights round every corner – whether it’s an ancient, crumbling but beautiful building, a restaurant serving only mushrooms, an amazing view across the city or yet another wine bar. One thing I certainly wasn’t expecting was all the tiles – and I don’t mean just in the kitchens or bathrooms. In some places, entire facades are plated from road-side to roof with hand-painted ceramics carrying intricate geometric patterns in blue, yellow, green or red (or all of the above), turning buildings into artworks in themselves, while in others they act as frames for tiled pictures of biblical scenes or tales of Portugal’s past. Even the pavements are tiled with black and white mosaics.
But I’d recommend you keep walking those hills, because the food in Lisbon is incredible – and impossible to pass up. We were lucky (or unlucky?) enough to have our garden-like workspace located immediately above the Time Out Market on the riverfront – essentially an upmarket version of the “food paradises” I enjoyed so much back in KL and Penang. The huge indoor space is ringed by kiosks cooking up every type of food you can imagine – lots of local seafood of course, but also Asian, Italian, hamburgers, croquettes, you name it. Every 15 minutes or so a loud, old-fashioned bell rings out from one corner and instantly a queue forms to buy Pasteis de Nata – the famous Portuguese custard tarts – fresh out of the oven. It’s hard not to roll home down the hills after leaving this place.
In between meals, we spent quite a bit of our spare time castle-hunting, which is even easier than it sounds in Portugal. Lisbon itself has the historic Castelo de S. Jorge, which together with the neighbouring district of Alfama provide perhaps the best idea of what Lisbon would have been like “back in the day”, because the vast majority of the city was destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1755. Alfama and the castle area emerged relatively unscathed due in part to their raised location on one of the hills, but also because at the time the area was populated primarily by Jews and Muslims, unlike the remainder of Lisbon which was mainly Catholic. The earthquake struck on the morning of 1 November – All Saints’ day – when many observing the holy day would have lit candles in their home to remember their dead, and gone to church. So anything that survived the tremor was soon engulfed in flames, set alight by the candles. Those who had escaped the falling rubble ran away from the fire towards the river to find safety – but instead found the water receding from the shore. The subsequent tsunami meant that all in all around two-thirds of the population is estimated to have killed. So, while parts of Lisbon are older than Rome, most of the city today dates from when it was rebuilt in the 18th century – complete with the world’s first intentional anti-seismic building constructions based on some of the few structures that had remained standing, the arched church windows.
About 25km outside Lisbon is Sintra, another town fond of castles. Perhaps the most dramatic – and certainly the most colourful – is Pena Palace. A multi-coloured mishmash of towers, spires, turrets and castellations, I like to think this is the type of house the 5 year-old me would have commissioned if asked. It just needs a couple of tame dragons to perch on its walls and it would be perfect. The nearby Quinta Da Regaleira is an estate with an equally mythical atmosphere, with a garden full of hidden caves, grottoes, waterfalls and mysterious initiatic wells – “inverted towers” bored into the ground and lined with spiral stairs. Another place that feels like it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
And to me this encapsulates Lisbon perfectly – it’s a relaxed, friendly, fun place with a definite sense of humour. Why else would you build a city on what feels like a mountain range, after all? If the only reason is so that you can install a tram network that’s more like a rollercoaster than a transport system, that’s absolutely fine by me.