Lisbon Part 1 - Alfama, the trams & a trip across the river
Lisbon has hovered on the edge of my consciousness for a few years now, aware that it was a pretty special place, but I didn't know much about. When R's dad mentioned before Christmas that he wanted to go to Lisbon, it suddenly seemed like a good opportunity to book a little trip with him and get away for a few days to escape the February gloom.
We booked an Airbnb apartment in Alfama, a southeastern district of the city that I had read was a beautiful, historic area of the city, full of narrow winding alleyways and pastel coloured houses. We stayed here, and it was perfect for our needs - comfortable, simply furnished and right in the heart of Alfama, with pretty views of the city below. Much to my delight, we were treated to mild weather (between 15 and 18 degrees C each day) and several uninterrupted hours of glorious, life affirming sunshine, which made the city sing and was just what we needed.
Alfama proved to be the perfect place to base ourselves - a short tram ride away from the centre but with enough restaurants, cafes and bars of its own to mean we didn't have to venture far if we didn't want to. I was completely enchanted by its tiny hidden cobbled squares, faded, crumbling facades and rows of vibrant pot plants, decorating windowsills, doorways and steps all over the place. One of my favourite aspects of the city was how incredibly fertile and green it was - dotted all over with fragrant citrus trees, overhanging tangles of vines and creepers, and feathery weeds emerging from every nook and cranny.
We spent lots of time happily exploring Alfama's warren of tiny steep streets, crisscrossed by tramways, adorned with lines of blowsy laundry high up above our heads, punctuated every now and again by breathtaking viewpoints of the city, intricately tiled walls and tiny intriguing shops and restaurants. As darkness fell, the beautiful and mournful sound of fado music from the bars and restaurants filled the air, adding to its undeniable charm. And unlike some other European cities, this area also seemed genuinely lived in and authentic, not overrun with tourists. I would recommend every visitor to Lisbon spends at least a few hours wandering this romantic little corner of the city.
Alfama is also home to Lisbon's iconic and wonderful castle, which sits perched high up in the clouds, visible from almost everywhere else in the city, and the best place for incredible views of the city below, and the river and sea beyond. I'm not usually a big fan of castles, but this one won me over with its crumbly sand-coloured walls, cool, shady corners and dusty olive trees and cypresses, where several squawking peacocks and peahens perched high up. We needed at least a couple of hours to properly do it justice - it's big and I wanted to climb all of the battlements for the stunning 360 degree views.
I may not be a big castle person, but I love a tram, and the bright yellow Lisbon trams were such a happy sight, shining in the sunshine, trundling up and down the many hills that the city is built on. The city also has several funicular railways which can be ridden for a small fee. The areas of Baixa and Chiado which form Lisbon's historic centre and downtown are home to the two that we took - the Elevador da Bica and the Elevador da Giulia, the latter of which climbs an extraordinarily steep lane up to a good but very popular view point (the Miradouro de Santa Caterina) and pretty if slightly shabby park where we rested our legs for a little while in bright warm sunshine. The funicular is also a good way of getting up to the "high district" of Barrio Alto, the city's bohemian quarter, tightly packed with pretty old (often graffiti laden) houses and lots and lots of bars - the best place in the city for nightlife. We spent a little time wandering around this lovely area, but if I was to come again I would make sure to spend more time there - it felt like an interesting and vibrant area.
Another aspect that makes Lisbon so special is its unique position on the vast River Tagus and the Atlantic coast. Inspired by the sunshine, we made the rather spontaneous decision to take the ferry across the river, and if you have the time and good weather, I would recommend doing this - both for the breezy ferry journey and also for the completely different perspective of the city that this gives. The ferry departs every 15 minutes from Cais de Sodre (just over the road from the Mercado), takes a few minutes and is cheap - €1.20. My impression of the district on the other side, Cacilhas, is nothing much to write home about (a rather uninspiring collection of fish restaurants set back from the seafront, and a bus terminal!), but the views of the river are spectacular, and we loved watching the ferries go back and forth and the seagulls swoop and glide, while sipping an early evening beer.
Taking the ferry also afforded us excellent views of the outstretched arms of the Cristo Rei, a towering statue inspired by Rio's famous Cristo Redentor, built in the fifties as a pilgrimage site to celebrate Portugal's non-participation in World War II. Sadly we didn't have time, but you can go to the top - a lift takes you 80m up to a viewing point where, on a clear day you can apparently see the palace in nearby Sintra. Something for next time!
If you've got to the end of this mammoth post, well done! In my next Lisbon post I will talk about the area of Belem, its monastery, tower and atmospheric botanical gardens, plus where we ate and shopped in the city:)
Hope you have a wonderful weekend!