Lisbon

Trip Start Jun 10, 2007
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Trip End Ongoing


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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

This is shaping up to be a long one as Lisbon as so much to offer. This is largely as a result of Lisbon's golden years during their age of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries. Maritimer Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route around Africa that connected Europe to the Indies. Shortly thereafter, the ensuing spice trade brought in ridiculous amounts of wealth and power to Lisbon and the Portuguese. Unfortunately, most of what was built was destroyed in the earthquake of 1755. It also killed a quarter of the population. They did rebuild to try to represent as best they could, the glory of the past. This is further accentuated by the facelift the city received when they hosted the 1998 world expo.
We arrived to find yet another lovely budget hotel right on the main square with all the amenities but without the high price tag. We quickly dumped our bags and headed out to explore. They have square after square of open gathering spots littered with shops and cafes in prime locations for good people watching sessions.
Within the first hour, I was approached three times by gentlemen wondering if I would like any hash or cocaine. I must look the type unfortunately (Meg was feeling left out, but her turn came the next day when she was approached by someone wondering if she wanted any weed). Most of these salesmen pretend to sell sunglasses and whisper their other wares once close enough.
We only had a short window to explore and fend off drug dealers anyway, as we had to jump on the subway (fabulous transportation system here by the way) and head to Benfica Stadium. Lisbon has two football (soccer) teams, and they were playing each other that evening. You have to go to the stadium to buy tickets. We had looked into a game in Munich, but the costs were pushing €200. Here tickets range from €32-77. We arrived about four hours early and could only get tickets to the nosebleeds up top. But we got tickets! As we had a few hours to kill, we needed an activity to keep us busy. Fortunately, Lisbon has one of the best malls in Europe, right next to the stadium. It was the biggest mall we had ever seen. It is four floors of shopping with seemingly countless wings. They even have street signs on each row of shops to try and help shoppers keep their bearings. You could easily spend a couple of days just going from shop to shop.
As we didn't want to miss any of our premier football experience, we headed over about an hour early to check it out. Wow. There were about 50 000 people with energy that would put a hard core NHL fan to shame. Some a little too much, as they have a need for 600 riot cops at each game. Outside the stadium we saw one group of officers sick both their batons and their German Sheperds on some fans at one point (they were throwing bottles at the officers and who knows what else).
Inside, it was slightly more tame. This may be due to the face that they don't serve alcohol inside at all - something we figured out after ordering two beers only to get the alcohol free sort. It was a home game for Benfica, so they had to sort of quarantine the Sporting Lisbon fans. They actually had them in a fenced-off area outside until it was time to let them in their own gate. They were then surrounded for the whole game by police officers that kept them separated from the Benfica fans for the safety of both groups. Once the game started, the singing, chanting, throwing of flares and gesturing began and didn't stop until the game was over. It ended in a 0-0 draw, but it was fabulous football. We suspect that a draw is preferred by the police for "after game activities." What an experience!
The next morning, we headed to the Gulbenkian Museum (thanks for the Lisbon tips by the way Professor!). The works here have been said to be one of the world´s finest private art collections. In our modest exposure to art and museums or art collections, this was surely one of the most magnificent and impeccably stellar collections we have seen. Everything is in such fabulous condition with such a variety of works and crafts. It is hard to imagine that all of it was acquired by one person. Monet, Rembrandt, Renoir, Rubens, fine silk embroidery, gorgeous textiles from Persia and the Ottoman Empire (one of which a tourist happened to trip and step on unfortunately - an Islamic carpet - if it had to be anything, that was probably best), a breathtaking collection. That evening, we headed back to the massive mall for dinner and a movie...in English! It had been awhile.
On the final day we were slightly limited in what we could do as virtually all attractions are closed on Mondays. We headed to the "Alfama" neighbourhood of Lisbon. This was once the stomping grounds for the aristocracy in Lisbon. It is perched atop a hill overlooking the whole city with a fortified castle and the finest churches. With the earthquake of 1755, the aristocracy abandoned the neighbourhood. It is now home to families and new immigrants closer to the poverty line. It is full of little shops and restaurants that cater mostly to those living in the neighbourhood. It has been said that the Alfama has been able to decay gracefully. It has a wonderful layout with the most sought after panoramic views, yet it maintains a very introverted existence - a fascinating and very engaging character.
From there we headed to the docas (the docks). In the middle of a massive industrial area, they have a boardwalk packed with bars and restaurants - one next to another overlooking the river. We happened to stumble across an Irish pub, and you guessed it, they had cider (Portuguese cider no less!). With it being such a nice sunny day, we relaxed on the boardwalk and let our Lisbon experience sink in.
After our brief introduction to the city, we have concluded that it is very unique for such a large place. Many of the other major centres we have visited are very diverse with widespread multiculturalism. Lisbon, however, seems very homogenous. It remains quite Portuguese in character. Besides the odd Italian restaurant, everything from the shops to the food to the people remains very Portuguese. And for the most part, the people seem almost oblivious to the tourists. They are not rude nor overtly helpful, but it is almost as if they don't see the tourists or something - quite an odd dynamic to a very unique and beautiful place.
On another note, Portuguese food has thus far failed to inspire. We are hoping this changes when we head to the Algarve with stops in Lagos and Faro.
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