06.03.2012 - 15.03.2012 23 °C
Flying in to the Portuguese capital the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that at first sight , the place looks ...well...somewhat bland !
This (entirely false) impression explicable by the fact that from the air most buildings seem to be homogeneously crafted from the same greyish, white building material, and the overall impression is a little dull ! ...On the ground nothing could be further from the truth.
Up close, the building material turns out to be the rare Lioz limestone......a local product sitting somewhere between the more porous limestone of Northern England and the marble from which the better heeled amongst us fashion our swanky kitchen work surfaces...and rather like a blank canvas to the talented artist, provides a fitting backdrop to the colour,style and pizazz of this exciting city.
One of the first things that struck me is that every pavement and open public square in Lisbon is intricately paved with this beautiful stone...and one of the cities more memorable and appealing signatures are its wonderful cobblestones.
Architecturally and aesthetically Lisbon turns out to be an undiscovered gem and from my own perspective made all the more gratifying by the fact that prior to my visit ,I had rarely given Lisbon (or Portugal) more than a passing thought...and If I had these were undeveloped thoughts related to football ( Eusebio..Cristiano Ronaldo.....Benfica)...alcoholic beverages (Port....Vino Verde) ,erstwhile pioneering explorers ( Vasco da Gama et al ) and whether or not the Algarve was a viable alternative to the Greek islands in my "twenty something" travel plans.
Arriving in the country as a mature man (at least in years) and with a travellers eye sharpened by two months of new experiences, I have been more than delighted.....for around each corner in Lisbon is a new adventure , a new delight , and on foot exploration of the city ( as well as utilisation of the excellent and efficient public transport system) is its own reward..
It is also one of the worlds most ancient cities...predating London and Paris by hundreds of years and a melting pot of history that has included periods of domination by both the Germans ,Romans French and the Moors ,each leaving behind their particular architectural signature and contributing to a wonderful melting pot of building styles.
Lisbon is the Westernmost Capital City in Europe.....brazenly challenging the vast expanse of the Atlantic ocean before it like a question mark and whilst this may be a romantic notion ,it is easy to visualise a young Vasco Da Gama on the banks of the majestic River Tagus squinting into the westering sun and dreaming of lands yet to be discovered.
I have nothing but admiration for these early explorers....true pioneers in the spirit of adventure and it is no surprise therefore that there is an immense sense of pride on the part of the Portuguese people for this sparkling maritime tradition.
Whilst Santiago Chile is redolent of a new financial confidence and prosperity ,the ancient city of Lisbon reeks of "old money" ..... and let me tell you there must have been an abundance of the stuff back when Portugal ruled the waves...How could there not have been when the city is replete with such ornate and graceful architecture on such a grand scale?...... and whilst Portugal may be currently grappling with the ravages of the GFC...when in the ancient and beautiful Barrio of Belem in the shadow of its famous tower with the magnificent Monastery of Geronimo not far away, one can almost hear the wind in the white sails of the galleons in which Vasco de Gama and his colleagues set sail centuries ago to lay claim to half the planet and generate a cash bonanza in trade and commerce which would fuel the expansion of the nation for centuries......
One of the countries discovered by Da gama and colonised by the Portuguese is Brazil. By design the country immediately preceding Portugal on my RTW itinerary . There are obvious links between the two countries...the most intriguing being that at the beginning of the 19th century when Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in the city the King and Queen of Portugal suffered self imposed exile in South America and the seat of Portuguese government switched from Lisbon to Rio...a fascinating turn of events which Im fairly confident hasn't happened before or since!! and whilst there are some similarities (language being the most obvious)...culturally these countries are worlds apart.
It has to be said that whilst I enjoyed the frenetic new world energy of Brazil....my inital impression on arriving at my hostel in the classy and artistic Barrio Alto....which clings to one of the seven hills on which Lisbon is built ,was just how "old school" classy and very "European" this place is and significantly ,after several weeks in the coffee wilderness of South America........(sounds strange doesnt it because a significant portion of world coffee production is from there...but they cant make an espresso to save themselves)...Imagine the bliss when finding excellent espresso available seemingly at every street corner.
The next day I was to discover the perfect accompaniment to aforementioned coffee in the shape of the most agreeably delicious Custard tarts it has ever been my pleasure to inhale...Now.... coming from the North of England .....no sluggard in the production of excellent custard tarts itself...this is a rare accolade......but here is one thing you must not miss whilst in Lisbon....a custard tart...dressed with Cinnamon and Icing sugar...washed down with perfect espresso...and preferably from the celebrated "Pastis de Belem".... a much frequented cafe in the suburb of the same name.......Compulsory.
One of the passions in which I have indulged in every city I have visited is that of football....more specifically as a spectator to this magnificent sport...and probably the best game I have attended on my travels is Benfica versus Zenit in a Champions league quarter finals qualifier in the awe inspiring Estadio Da Luz.........60,000 passionate fans cheering their team (and my team for the evening...sorry dad it did necessitate wearing Red and White colours) to victory over the visiting Russians.
This really did give me some insight into the Portuguese People on my first night in the country.....not only because of their passion for the sport...but in the laid back, good natured fashion they indulge that passion.. Travelling back to Barrio Alto later that night the banter of the people...(though in a language I have great difficulty understanding) gave me the impression of a race of laid back individuals not dissimilar to the people of Australia. This was further reinforced during my stay....and in conversation with several of the young Portuguese staff at my hostel ( a very interesting building overlooking The Castle of St George across the valley which used to be the Swedish embassy).....we concluded that this must be the case because of the similarities in the climate...quite possibly.....since the climate is not dissimilar to my old stamping ground , Adelaide , and I was blessed with balmy temperatures throughout my visit.
This is also an extremely attractive race of people......obesity seems to be virtually absent..despite the quantity of food consumed by the populace . The Portuguese male is much more likely to be handsome than not ( girls check out the Portuguese football team... I rest my case!)and the female population are extremely attractive creatures...in general not as "comely" or buxom as your Brazilian or your Argentinian senorita ..(indeed the average height of the Portuguese lady seems to be greater than her south American counterpart) but with a calm ,almost regal grace.....cascading chestnut hair framing aquiline features and bewitching smiles....( steady Paul ..youre starting to sound like a fella who has been away from home too long !!).
It has to be said that leaving Portugal I was thinking that it would be a hard act to follow....and as I skipped across the Iberian peninsula from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.....I was to find that act..in the shape of the city of Barcelona.