After a fairly uneventful 7 hour flight from Toronto to Lisbon, we finally wound up in the airport. The man walking in front of us lit up a cigarette and, as dutiful Canadians, our first instinct was to run around in a panic screaming, “Somebody call 911!” That’s a small exaggeration but it’s quite amazing how sensitive you are to smoke when you haven’t smelled it for a few years. Apparently much of Europe doesn’t view smoking with the same revulsion that we do.
We proceeded to customs where our first of many non-experiences took place. To jump ahead and ruin the ending a bit, our transitions through customs could not have been more uneventful this trip. Coming into Portugal, the agent held out his hand for our passports, stamped them and gave them back without ever saying a word. Gibraltar involved us holding up our passports long enough for them to see the outside cover, not even opening them, before waving us through which was a little disappointing because we really wanted a UK stamp. The EU stamps you when you leave as well but once again, this was a completely non-verbal process. The Canadian customs agent was the only one who actually spoke to us. He said, “passports”, looked at ours, wrote some secret codes on our entrance form and waved us on. No one ever looked at our bags, the ‘Nothing to Declare’ lines were unmanned and nobody wearing rubber gloves carrying a tub of vaseline ever even glanced at us.
To return to the story, in Lisbon we picked up our bags and headed towards the car rental counter. On the way there, we spotted a travel agent booth called ‘AbreuTravel’. Since that is Sharon’s maiden name and her family has Portuguese heritage, we made a great deal of this and took pictures with her posing in front of it. I’m sure that we looked pretty silly to other airport dwellers but what’s the point in being a tourist if you don’t act like one?
Finally we got our rental car, which was small but surprisingly roomy and a pretty good performer. More about the car later but for now, it’s time to begin the first of our many adventures in finding hotels.
One of the first lessons learned that we’d like to share with you has to do with Google’s European driving directions. You may find it useful to peruse the area of the hotel in the map so that you at least have a general ‘gut feeling’ that you might be in the right area but as far as being useful for finding things, you’re better off just winging it.
In retrospect, I think we could have done a bit better if we had known what to expect. Here we were, naively expecting that roads would be marked with signs and that our little direction maps from Google that we so carefully printed before leaving would lead right to our hotel. After all, it seemed simple. Leave the airport to the roundabout and take that road straight into the heart of the city until we came to our hotel. Well, after a few laps in the roundabout and realizing that none of the signs had anything to do with street names or anything else which made sense to us, we picked the one that said ‘Centro’ and off we went. We drove for what seemed like quite a while and you can imagine our shock when we finally saw our hotel. Driving around lost and then suddenly finding our hotel will turn out to be somewhat of a recurring theme on this trip.
If you come down to it, we weren’t completely lost. We knew that there was a big castle on a hill somewhat to the west of our hotel so the fact that we could see it was a good sign. Of course, it’s big enough to see from almost anywhere but you have to take what you can get. At any rate, after finding our hotel, circling it in various directions 3 or 4 times because of one way streets and roundabouts until we found a way to get into the parking garage, we were finally there.
Now one should note, at this point, since we didn’t get any sleep on the plane and it’s 8am Portugal time, we’ve now been up for about 24 hours. We also know that if we go to sleep too early, we’re going to have a hard time adjusting so we need to be up at least another 12 or so. Since we can’t check into our hotel anyway, sleep is out of the question but at least we manage to dump the car and the bags and go out wandering.
Since I’m writing things down as I remember them, this narrative may lose direction now and again with little side notes such as this one. It has to do with navigation in Portugal. As it happens, the Portuguese settled their part of the world over a thousand years ago and immediately began tiling anything that would stand still long enough for them to trowel some mortar onto. This is not an exaggeration. Tile and stonework are like a religion. So as it happens, we finally figured out where the street signs are. Tiles on the sides of buildings. Now this is a nice thing to know because now we can actually find out what street we’re on, if we happen to be at the right part of the street where the sign is, if there happens to be a sign on that particular street, if it isn’t covered up by trees and if it’s big enough to actually read. So in fact, we still almost never know what street we’re on but, as it turns out, this is often less important than you might think. When we do manage to read a sign, it is usually to say, “Oops..we should have turned back there.”
We now had at least a few hours to kill before checking into our hotel so we decided to go and wander around. Just being in such an old city is quite an experience and it takes a while to soak it in. We happened upon this elevator whose purpose was to get people up a really steep hill and also to provide a nice view of the city so we decided to go up to get our bearings.
Yes, that’s right. An elevator in the middle of the street, apparently going to nowhere. As a matter of fact, the top floor has a walkway that leads to the top of the hill and upper floors of the buildings behind but it certainly gives that illusion. There are a number of these types of elevators as well as funiculars like the one in Quebec city throughout Lisbon. From the top floor you can climb a little stairway to the coffee shop at the top which is also where you get the nice view. Note the elaborate cobblestone patterns. We saw a lot of this throughout Portugal.
Here’s a panoramic of the view up there. Unfortunately our first day was fairly cloudy and not great for photography but it’s still fairly impressive. Note the large castle that provided us with some small amount of orientation on our drive into the city. If you click on the image for the BIG version and view it full size, to the very left you can see the Hotel Mundial where we stayed.
Lisbon is a very hilly town. In fact, it’s built on seven hills. Much of it got knocked down by a huge earthquake back in 1755 so much of the architecture is more modern than some other parts of Europe. Here’s a plaza and a rooftop garden viewed from the elevator. Click the images for larger versions.
After taking in this view, we went to do some more wandering around. Down towards the harborfront you pass through a large archway that takes you to the Plaza Commercial. This is a pretty good place to start since many city buses, trolleys and tours come here. We’ll pretend that the crooked horizon is done for artistic effect and not because I’m tired and disoriented. 😉
We were hungry and a number of people had insisted that the Pasteis de Belem were the bomb so we figured out which bus would get us there and hopped on for a scenic drive along Lisbon’s waterfront. No pictures of the the shop but it’s pretty much like the link above except more crowded. These are some popular little tarts so it takes a bit of work to get through the crowd and belly up to the counter but they’re totally worth it. We stopped in the park across from the palace to eat one or two which quickly turned into three or four since they easily lived up to the hype. Ah yes, the palace:
Even the park benches are cool:
After the pasteis, we made our way back to our hotel, got checked in, cleaned up and made plans for the rest of the day. Oh yes, and on our way we saw this guy playing accordian with his dog who held the money tin in his mouth and howled along with his master whenever he was singing.
Tune in next time when we head for Sintra.
Kris and Sharon