The bus screeched to a halt on a silent December morning and the driver calmly announced we had reached our destination. Still groggy from sleep, I realised Lisbon was a long way from the allure of Porto, the other big city of Portugal famed for its rivalry with the capital. Lisbon thrived as a big city with booming nightlife, and hosted an astonishing number of monuments and museums. But first, I had to check-in at the artistic Lost Inn hostel (near Cais do Sodre metro station) where revellers gathered sharp at 8:30pm over free sangrias every night..
It hadn’t imagined I’d see the Golden Gate Bridge in Lisbon. Called Ponte 25 de Abril (it’s name has changed repeatedly), its red tentacles were suspended proudly over River Tagus that snakes through Lisbon. Local lore says there were two models of the bridge commissioned and the one rejected by San Francisco was taken graciously by Lisbon. Obviously, even Google cannot vouch for the story’s veracity.
And yet, the bridge wasn’t the only landmark with a resemblance. Looking out from the window of a metro train as it rattled over the Ponte 25 de Abril , I realised Lisbon also has something in common with Rio de Janeiro: A sober version of Christ the Redeemer -- named Christ the King –that can be spotted from the bridge from Belem, which stands at the mouth of Tagus. Like the original, the statue of Jesus appears to be hugging the city with his arms outstretched atop a concrete pedestal.
It took a walking tour to discover and fall in love with Lisbon’s other quirks.The city’s landmarks are embedded in crests and troughs of its hills. A famed yellow tram, complete with bygone wooden interiors, jittered past me as I strolled uphill towards the moorish Sao Jorge Castle (entry ticket: €8). There, a sweeping view of Lisbon awaited – the Tagus’ shimmering blues stretching into vastness as chirpy cottages, modern offices and cranes hanging lazily in the air, dotted its skyline.
But even more interesting were the downtown alleys of Alfama, a cocooned mini-town where Lisbon’s culture blossoms. Multi-storeyed homes no wider than a dozen metres clustered together in the tapering streets. Flowers plastered on window frames and squares filled with orange trees awakened senses as I searched for a restaurant to tune in to ‘Fado’ -- a traditional folk song driven by baritones that evoke melancholy and love. Graffiti of Fado’s renowned musicians and portraits of the elderly who have lived in Alfama popped up as I walked through the lanes in silent awe. Night took over and I settled at a cozy restaurant that promised Fado performances. With little space between tables occupied mostly by tourists, wafts of cooked fish flowed generously while I ordered the only vegetarian dish on the menu: cheese omelette. As if on nature’s cue, a singer dressed in black and white held a guitarra portuguesa, an instrument similar to the guitar but with different chords, and began playing, his deep voice resonating with the sound of rain splattering outside. The waitress, a vivacious woman who called herself ‘Shakira’ because she looked a lot like the ‘Hips don’t Lie’ singer, shook the place with her enthusiasm and started performing. She shouted, she danced, she sang, she joked, and she lit up the restaurant with her exuberant personality. It was like being part of a musical I hadn’t signed up for, but one that left me enamoured by the city and its people.
The next day, a bus dropped me at the Santa Maria de Belem church, a manuelline-style structure that towered poignantly over buildings and museums around it. Inside it, floral patterns were woven with a geometric precision on the roof and concrete ropes were coiled ornately on its columns. The church was perhaps second only to St Peter’s Basilica in sheer grandiosity, and the marvel it evoked.
Less than a kilometre from the church stood the famous Torre de Belem (Belem tower). Its armoured walls blinked on Tagus’ waters as small yachts bobbled in a dock nearby. At the shore, a lone woman looked out to Ponte bridge and Christ the king as they paled with darkness spreading into the night.
Cascais on a rainy day
Another day down, eternal blues blinked back at me from the window of the Lisbon-Cascais urban train (single ticket: €2.20). Armed with very little research, Cascais – a resort town an hour away from Lisbon – took my breath away. The route alone culminated with stormy clouds enveloping the coast and making Atlantic’s deeper waters bellow in tumult while palm trees swayed on land.
I got off at the tiny station, populated by tourists even in off-season, and walked along the coast. With every step, Cascais changed its colours as if walking through a shop of fabrics while the ocean kept coming back to it like a loyal partner. Squares buzzing with cafes and shops opened into a deserted beach where seagulls waded into shallow waters and finally, after walking for two kilometres, I hit the climatic end. There it was:, The sight I’ve only seen in movies before. Waves bashed themselves against the dramatic fall of a cliff as Atlantic’s might sapped more power from a drizzle. I stood on the edge with only the sound of the ocean crashing on rocks and wind whispering into my ears. A little ahead, an arched opening into the cliff had moulded a small lagoon where salt water quivered from wall to wall.
I was fortunate the grey tones of the sky had outdone the clichéd sun, sand and beach.
I was envious of people who had the privilege of living in Lisbon. If Cascais was the perfect coast, Sintra was the idyllic mountainside just one-and-a-half hour from the capital. The train journey from Rossio railway station at the Rossio square was simply magnifico, as the Portuguese would claim appreciatively. The route crossed lush valleys and vibrant homes, as if preparing their viewers to the spectacle that lay ahead.
Who needs sunshine when rains and cloudy weather are a lucky charm even in the hills. Mountains thick with foliage were blanketed by fog by the time I reached Sintra. TheEuropean Pena Palace was all the more romantic with its vivid yellow and red facades posing against the colourless sky. But it was the Moorish fort reminiscent of Portugal’s erstwhile Islamic rulers, that heightened the intrigue. Its stone boundary wall played hide-and-seek with fog, and twisted branches of trees bowed with dew, as though I was part of a Harry Potter movie.
Downtown in the commercial centre, I ran into Cantinho Lord Byron, a pub where I imagined the young romantic poet soaking inspiration from Sintra’s many mysteries.
The end was nigh and when it was time to leave, I thought Portugal was the one that got away.