My trip to Portugal ended up to be one of my most memorable experiences in Western Europe with so many unexpected adventures and interesting encounters. So, I sectioned my stories based on our interesting encounters.
Portugal was once a great power in Western Europe with a long history and a unique culture. Today, the Portuguese language ranks 6th regarding the number of native speakers in the world (most of the population in Brazil, and ranked after Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindi, and Arabic.) But well, for many foreigners, like me, somehow the country is always overshadowed by its neighboring countries like Spain, France, UK, Germany, and Italy; more, Portugal’s geographic location in the westernmost part of the European continent often pushed the country outside the travel radar. After all, Portugal might have become Western Europe’s best-kept secret. It may not have a core-shaking wow factor, but it has a strong after-taste that lingers in your memories like a good coffee, or a good wine.
Not that I had a low expectation before visiting Portugal, I just really had no idea what to expect. I knew there were some places I opt to go, but I never had a mental picture of Portugal that stood out – Let say if I were to choose an album cover of a city, I had Big Ben for London, the Eiffel Tower for Paris, the Tokyo Skytree for Tokyo, the Hollywood sign for Los Angeles … But well, Portugal… I had no idea. If there’s one, it would probably be a streetcar running on narrow slopes in between some colorful, old houses in front of a cathedral (which I probably saw somewhere on the Internet or travel brochure). Unlike other hot travel destinations or grandeur capitals like Rome, Madrid, London, Paris, Vienna, Prague… the capital city, Lisboa, was quite low-key, layback, “down-to-earth”…. or closer to earth (in most parts). My first-day city walk was so relaxed that I did not have to “race” for lining up in front of the museums or contemplating my next move. We were just strolling around.
Before arriving in Lisbon, I had seen Azulejos in Porto and they were prominent there; so the Portuguese pavement has become more interesting to me. Portuguese pavements are mosaic arrangements of yellow and black cobblestones, forming intricate geometric patterns or symbols. As it is very labor-intensive and costly, it is actually a disappearing art that well-preserved in the main streets all over the country (and former Portuguese colonies – namely Brazil, and Macau). We wanted to take it slow the first day in town (and it was raining in the morning), so we planned to stay within the Lisbon town central area – Alfama and Baixa/Chiado.
Route of the Day
Starting from Restauradores and Rossio Square, take a good look at the surroundings and then we enjoyed a nice brunch in a cafe along the Rua Augusta. A highlight was to take a fun ride of the Santa Justa Lift which was built in 1902 (As I am a big fan of high viewpoints).
The Santa Justa lift is a functioning transportation system connecting the locals of two different city levels in Lisbon downtown, now it is well preserved as a historic scenic spot and the viewpoint on top really nice is just above the rooftops of the surrounding buildings. So there, I saw a 360 panoramic view of the Portugal capital’s cityscape, historic squares, the castle at the peak, the Lisbon Cathedral by the coast, and all the way to the waterfront of Tagus River.
After brunch, we continued our stroll along the main street and found ourselves in the Commerce Square at the waterfront and took fabulous pictures of the Rua Augusta Arch, which seemed to me the best-adorned monument in the city (from what I have seen :P). The plaza was an intercept point from all over the city and next – without delay, we headed to the Alfama with Tram 28.
The Lisbon Cathedral is not far away from the center of the city. Not long after the tram ride I finally saw the “photo of Lisbon” – A streetcar climbing up the hill and turn in front of the façade of the Cathedral. We continued our way up the hill and as an old district of the city, Alfama had actually a lot of historic sites and museums to see. Like the São Jorge Castle, Cerca Moura, and the Church of Santa Engrácia.
I am going to save some stories of the Castle for later, I had to start my Lisbon heart-racing encounter with a rather scary sight – a pickpocket. It was indeed my very first encounter (and hopefully, I am reminding myself – the last) after years of traveling in Europe, though I have heard (and witnessed some) worse stories in Italy.
Anyway, that’s what happened: we were strolling, having a great time in the Alfama alleys, tasting local food (Batatas Fritas and fried mashed potato balls), taking photos and then we hopped on a crowded tram and continue our journey. Just when I was busy navigating the maps and discussing with my companions about the next destination, I felt something was moving behind my back – and I immediately felt it – it was a sneaky man’s hands. I turned quickly around and I caught a glimpse of a young man retrieving his arm out of my backpack. I checked my backpack (YES, in front of the pickpocket, we are both still on the tram), and dummy me, found that I forgot to zip up my backpack (or did he open it? But my backpack – or in fact, it’s a back-sack – is rather complicated. I have trouble looking for any stuff in the sack in any circumstances. Well, blame fashion). Only this time I was saved by fashion and didn’t lose anything else except my trust and pride of the day.
We (me and the “guy”) exchanged fierce looks and I told my companions that I was “targeted”. He avoided any eye contact with me and moved around in the tram – waiting for the next target? And that’s the situation that sometimes got me feeling a little helpless: I knew he was up to no good, someone else might be a victim, yet I probably could do nothing…. So always be careful and never think such craziness would not happen to you.