Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Lisbon: Extremely Touristy, but Tastefully Done

Lisbon (or Lisboa in Portuguese) grows on you. It doesn’t have a specific central attraction like Disneyland or the Eiffel Tower, so the city is often overlooked by non-EU tourists. It hasn’t fully integrated its fascinating history in a meaningful way, but even the most casual visitor will notice an Arab-style castle near French-themed architecture near a Catholic Church that claims to have archeological remains of a mosque. The good people of Lisboa’s Tourism Board might direct you to Belem’s Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (aka the Jeronimo Monastery, a must-see), where an entire room on the top floor is dedicated to Portuguese and world history, and they’d be right to do so, except the exhibit doesn’t teach you about the rise and fall of different rulers in a coherent way.
Geronimo! Wait, wrong country.
If I lived in a country that had history involving the Moors (don’t miss the exhibit inside Castelo de S. Jorge), Napoleon, and the Crusaders, I’d at least try to explain why Portugal and Brasil are the only major countries today that speak Portuguese. Hint: apparently when Napoleon, the greatest military strategist of his time, arrived in Portugal as part of his fearsome sweep across Europe, some of Portugal’s royalty fell out with other family members, fled to Brasil, and then declared Brasil’s independence. I can’t be entirely sure, though—as I said, there’s no attempt to merge everything together in a meaningful way for English speakers. I read elsewhere that Portugal’s navy found the best route to ship spice from Goa, India, an admirable niche because there must have been fierce competition from the East India Companies as well as the Spanish Armada. In any case, if you visit Lisbon, consider staying in the Rossio or Restauradores district, near the beautifully-designed Estação do Rossio (Rossio Train Station).
I stayed at Hotel Gat Rossio, which had excellent breakfast. After two nights, I walked to the train station and went to Sintra, which was the best decision I made. Sintra is wonderful, and well-managed as a World Heritage site that includes Parque Natural de Sintra and Parque de Monserrate. Before I get to Sintra, let’s finish up with Lisbon. Why come to Lisbon when more intrepid tourists go to Coimbra or Sintra instead? 

First, Lisboa is easy to navigate. If you’re a new traveler and seeing Europe for the first time, it might be a fine idea to go to Lisbon first. Except for its malfunctioning tram ticket machines, it’s idiot-proof. All three “touristy” sections in the city centre are walkable (you can try www.lisboaautentica.com for walking tours, but you won’t need a guide if you have Google Maps) or accessible by bus. A Lisboa Card, available in 24, 48, or 72 hour increments, provides discounts to most tourist attractions along with free public transportation, including buses, trains, trams, and the subway. A direct airport transfer bus isn’t free but it’s discounted with the card. (I’m just happy a direct bus exists, even when the subway or a more circuitous bus route will get you to the airport as well.) 

The Lisboa Card comes with a booklet listing numerous attractions all over the city, along with helpful and detailed blurbs. I don’t know why every major city doesn’t offer such a card, along with a detailed booklet. It’s perfect advertising for lesser known attractions, especially away from the city centre, and it helps subsidize the local transportation system. I’m sure consultants are busy right now figuring out nickel-and-dime strategies (e.g., in small print, insert an additional charge to take photos in a museum) to increase revenue rather than more straightforward, sensible solutions. Those erratic tram ticket machines I mentioned earlier? You don’t need to bother with them if you buy the Lisboa Card. As I said, except for the direct airport bus, all public transport is included. 

Second, both Lisbon’s food and service are good, a rare European combination. Seafood and pastries are the highlights. Everyone will suggest going to the Belem neighborhood and getting the pastel de nata (aka egg tart), but the egg tarts everywhere in Portugal are excellent. I’m having one now in Lisboa Airport (code: LIS) with extra cinnamon in the soft center, and it’s delicious. I also found a plain flan—like flan pudding but without the caramel—but don’t expect to see it on every menu. I saw it only twice in the windows of nondescript restaurants, the kind where construction workers come to take shots together before returning to finish the day. 
Coming from Morocco, I was unhappy with Lisboa’s dining prices, but my trip afterwards to London convinced me I was wrong to complain. (If you’re going to a country that uses the euro, get used to things being at least a little more expensive than a usual backpacker/early retiree itinerary).

Third, if you stay in Rossio, you will have access to the train and can visit my favorite part of Portugal: Sintra. Sintra’s decision to protect its natural beauty has resulted in a park with castles and scenery that look straight out of a Disney film. Within a few minutes after entering Sintra’s Quinta da Regaleira, Parque Natural de Sintra, and Parque de Monserrate, I felt a kind of awed calm I haven’t felt in years. Sadly, when one travels often, regular and “ready-made” tourist attractions become bland. So many places use the same experts and consultants, every museum in the world will eventually have the same Moroccan tiles, cobalt-blue Persian bowls, Christian Orthodox mosaic tiles, antique guns, and Greek pottery. In Sintra, I remembered why I travel.
Most tourists will need one to two nights in Sintra, and two to three nights in Lisbon. I didn’t go to Coimbra, but I imagine it would be an excellent daytrip. I have a flight in a few hours and just enough time for another cinnamon-infused pastel de nata. Adeus and abrogado. 

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