Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Portugal - Lisbon

I expected to love Lisbon. My mother lived there in her mid-20s, teaching English as a second language; it was one of my sister's favourite cities when she visited Europe last year; and Heidi of Apples Under My Bed  has recently done a series of glowing posts about her time in Lisbon on her honeymoon.

The thing about expectations, of course, is that they can be let down. Shortly after our arrival, we were unsure if we would even like Lisbon, let alone love it.

These sorts of views gradually won us over...

Part of this initial lacklustre experience, other than the aforementioned expectation issue, was probably due to the time and nature of our arrival. We came by overnight (sleeper) train from Madrid, arriving at the central Lisbon train station at 7.30am on Sunday morning. Few cities look their best at a train station on 7.30am on Sunday, and Lisbon was no exception. It didn't help that the walk to our accommodation, in one of the older parts of town, was  graffiti lined and smelt of urine.

In truth, Lisbon is grubby. Many European cities are. It grew on us - it is that sort of city, really, the growing on sort - but it remained dirty and I never did fall fully in love.

I did, however, fall in like with Lisbon. I can also see that with time, it would get under your skin. Lisbon is full of surprise views and glimpses of beauty, but they present themselves in stages and around corners rather than dazzling you straight up.

Belem Tower, Belem, Lisbon - in mist

Belem Tower, Belem, Lisbon - mist cleared

We started Sunday at Belem, a world heritage site with a renowned fortress tower and monastery. The day started misty but cleared by mid-morning, allowing the sunlight to lift things from slightly gloomy to quite spectacular.

Belem Tower, looking down

The Jeronimos Monastery was popular enough to involve a queue for entrance (although it was also free entrance, given it was Sunday), and the popularity was deserved.

Truly beautiful architecture.

Belem is also the site of the most famous of Lisbon's pasteis de nata (custard tarts). Pasteis de Belem was recommended to us by my sister, Lonely Planet and the owner of our accommodation, and on arrival was sufficiently busy to drive home its reputation.

Mr Bite bought two tarts and proclaimed them good. I tried about a quarter of one, a serious vegan exception, and could see how they would be good if you liked egg-y custard and pastry. I have lost the taste for egg-based desserts and was never a big fan of pastry (a terrible thing to say in Portugal) so appreciated them in theory but not so much in taste.

Fortunately, Lisbon provided plenty of other food that was to my taste. Portugese cuisine is largely meat focused, but this is balanced out by plenty of fresh produce, including gorgeous summer fruit and vegetable dishes or salads at restaurants and even corner stores. They also have good bread, which Spain really didn't!, and wonderful coffee. Gelatine-free yoghurt is something Europe does brilliantly, and that was also the case in Lisbon.

Cafe lunch at Lisbon castle; salad, fresh mango, baguette.

Another pleasant Portugal discovery was the friendliness. Several times, people stopped to ask us if we wanted help when we were consulting our map on the side of the street. Smiling was common, people were courteous, and as a bonus - most spoke English. 

The rest of our Sunday was spent wandering, an activity that Lisbon is highly suited to.

Coloured tiled walls, a characteristic of the city

Praca do Comercio (central plaza)

More tiles...

On Monday, we did more wandering, but in the old part of town, the Alfama. The area incorporates incredible views, the castle, and roads that are even narrower and steeper than those in the main part of the city.

We loved that the castle could be explored independently. It has retained its walls and turrets and is open to public meandering, no museum or set route involved.

Castelo de Sao Jorge

Our accommodation in Lisbon was B&B style, at Casio do Patio Bed & Breakfast, and was picked by virtue of glowing reviews on TripAdvisor. The reviews and pictures were entirely accurate and it provided a great base, not far from the central shopping and transport stretch. 

Casa do Patio B&B
The morning courtyard breakfast, with freshly squeezed orange juice (note that Mr Bite has two, below!) and wonderful coffee, was an added bonus.

Lisbon was a short stop, and we moved on to Porto yesterday, which is 3 hours north of Lisbon by train. In contrast to Lisbon, we have already fallen half in love with this city...more on that another time.

Sadly, my focus now switches to work for three days from tomorrow. It sounds terrible to say you have a conference in the middle of your honeymoon, but the trip was originally planned around this conference (before we even got engaged!) and was turned into a honeymoon later. Three days of work seems a small price to pay for externally paid airfares, but I will be glad to return to a holiday focus after Saturday.

Have you visited cities that turned out differently to your expectations? Or done much exploring in Portugal?


  1. Your photography is equisite and the food sounds tremendous. Enjoy the rest of your trip with mr. Bite, what a fantastic experience!!

  2. I'm so sorry Lisbon began as a disappointment. What a shame. I hate that smell of urine. I remember being shocked smelling it at Heathrow in London. It's just not something we smell here in Sydney. What's with the Europeans! Your photos are lovely though and yes, the architecture of Lisbon is gorgeous xx

    1. I think they need more public toilets!! I'm sure they'd save money on cleaning (well, the countries that bother with cleaning...) if they put more in. The architecture is a nice offset though, I agree :)

  3. I wouldn't go there for the tarts but I have always thought portugal sounded appealing without knowing much about it - your write up actually makes me think I would love to go there though I think that circumstances have a big bearing on whether you fall in love with a city - I also think that cities that amaze you at first aren't necessarily that ones you grow to love most with time spent there - enjoy your conference

    1. I agree with your point about growing to love places. That is especially true in the sense of loving somewhere to visit vs. loving somewhere to live. I adore NYC to visit but am not sure if I could live there.

  4. Yes, some cities wallop you with exhilaration from the moment you get off the plane (hello, New York!), and others take a day to recalibrate, understand, learn (Berlin, though to be fair I was ridiculously sick when I arrived...)

    Hurrah for taking the time to appreciate the glories, and now getting stressed about the fact that you didn't love it instantaneously!

    1. Being sick on arrival is definitely a way to not love a place :( Hopefully you had time to recover and get to know Berlin better!

  5. Great post and pictures, especially liked the ones from the Belem Tower, looks pretty neat! What is up with Euro cities smelling bad?! Such beautiful old historic cities smelling gross, I just don't get it!

    1. I think they need more public toilets, myself :P

      The Belem Tower was pretty wonderful - such an amazing building out of the water!

  6. It is so disappointing when something is built up so much in your mind and the reality doesn't quite match. I often find going somewhere with no expectation is best. Copacabana beach would be my example. It is really not great. A big wide boring stretch of sand next to a 6 lane highway. I mentioned this to a Brazillian girl I met on the plane and she was shocked. Then she saw Australian beaches. Not even particularly nice ones, just ones at the South Coast and she understood. We do have the best beaches in Australia.

    1. That is so funny, but so true too! We have caught glimpses of Portugal's beaches and they are nothing on ours :P

  7. Aww, I really hate that your expectations were a bit let down. The arcitecture looks amazing though!! The pictures are truly beautiful!

  8. I've been to Lisbon once and really enjoyed it! I love hearing about how friendly people were!

  9. I haven't been to Portugal but Mr Chocolate has and loved the place. I'd travel there for a tart :-)
    Gorgeous architecture though Kari. Sometimes I really do wish Australia had a few more buildings with some oomph to them!

  10. Oh man... you don't like pastry?! Crazy woman! I could eat croissants, baklava, etc all day long. Do you like spanakopita?

    Hopefully the conference is quick and easy and you can get back to honeymoon-ing soon.

    1. I don't think I know spanakopita?! I don't exactly dislike pastry, it's just not my favourite sweet thing :) I'm more into baked goods or straight up chocolate or frozen desserts!


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