Despite being surrounded on two sides by Spain, Portugal has undeniably carved out its own distinctive character. Different language, different daily schedule, different work ethic and different walking speed are just a few adjustments you should be prepared for when you venture away from Spain’s lackadaisical embrace.
My first tip-off to the Portuguese expeditious, borderline reckless mindset was their hurried, every-man-for-himself walking style. The Portuguese not only kick out the jams with the pace, but they are in such a delirious hurry to get where they are going that they will plow straight through a crowd of people like a running back lunging for the goal line. The Portuguese knife their way down teeming city streets where there is seemingly no space to do so, cutting us less aggressive, startled tourists off, even if it’s just to get onto a waiting metro where the speed in which you board the train has absolutely no bearing on how fast you get to your destination. This logic doesn’t seem to enter the minds of the Portuguese. Even if you are standing close enough to the person in front of you to risk a sexually transmitted disease, one Portuguese after another, men, women and children alike, will dive in front of you from the side to gain that vital .5 seconds in their critical, time sensitive quest to get on the metro and stand around while everyone else boards. This appears to be totally normal and non-rude behavior, as it happened to me constantly and no one bothered to acknowledge what would have been a huge social faux pas anywhere else in Europe. So, just to fit in, I started doing the same.
Things get even uglier and more perilous when the Portuguese get behind the wheel of a car. They use their horns more often than they use their brakes. The car horns in Portugal get so much wear and tear that they should have their own extended warranty and servicing schedule. They use their horns when they want people to speed up. They use their horns when they want people to slow down. They use their horns to inquire to the person in front of them why they haven’t yet floored the gas pedal .004 seconds after the light has turned green. They use their horns to inform others that the timing of their lane change was not optimum. They use their horns when they are hopelessly stuck behind dozens of jammed up cars to signal that they are bored and would like to move now. You can’t go three seconds on the streets of Lisbon without hearing someone unleash a healthy, earsplitting toot, which, in addition to being endlessly irritating, nixes any possibility of having a proper conversation with whoever you may be walking with.
Additionally, Portugal happens to have the dubious distinction of boasting Europe’s highest road fatality rate, a fact that was not lost on me during my bus ride into Lisbon and subsequent trips within the country. Apparently the Portuguese like to invoke the “God Is My Co-pilot” approach to navigating the open road; accelerator stomped to the floor, passing on blind curves and generally disregarding prudent driving ability in favor of faith and on-the-fly divination to get themselves to their destinations. After two bus rides in Portugal, my nerves had endured enough and I splurged for a soothing train seat to get my ass safely out of the country. But enough about dangers and annoyances.
Lisbon is built over and around seven extraordinarily steep hills, making it the San Francisco of western Europe. While this arrangement is endlessly scenic, some of the roads and alleys that traverse these hills make Lombard Street look like a bunny slope. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge for walking tourists, the Lisbon city planners have also made a habit out of paving their sidewalks with millions of flat, tiny, highly polished stones, which become dangerously slippery when they get wet. Fortunately, I was not in Lisbon during the rainy season, but I was nevertheless repeatedly put in extreme personal danger as the thousands of over-worked window air conditioners in Lisbon dribbled water onto the sidewalks all day long, creating random, surprise slick spots that could marry your ass to the sidewalk in a very ungraceful way if you weren’t vigilant.
Lisbon is one of those cities that is way bigger than the scale of the map leads you to believe. On my first foray into the city, I made the mistake of plotting and embarking on what I thought was a happy little cake-walk and wandered contently for almost an hour before I whipped out my map to check my progress only to realize that I had moved but a small fraction through my planned course. As much as I detest taking the metro, the pain in my feet from the four previous months of tourist foot abuse demanded that I either turn back immediately or seek some kind of public transportation assistance. I try to avoid the metro when at all possible as it robs you of the all-important and rewarding process of accidentally stumbling onto all of the cool stuff that a city has to offer that the tourism bureau didn’t see fit to include on the map. Taking a bus is acceptable in a pinch, as you can still see the city, even if you are forced to observe and absorb your surroundings at high speed, but typically I stick to hoofing it everywhere which is why my feet were so damaged in the first place. Unfortunately, not having the time or desire to master Lisbon’s bus routes, I submitted myself to the metro.
I found a happy medium between taking the metro and walking while treating myself to several, prolonged rest stops each day. While the female scenery was not quite at Spanish levels of scandalously clad, drooling intensity, it was nevertheless refreshing and as I rested I wondered at length about the feasibility of a web site that simply featured pictures of super-hot, Euro-babes walking down the street. I would market it mainly in the U.S. and call it Lookatwhatyouaremissing.com. Judging from the comments from several of my U.S. male readers and their desperate pleas for pictures of these heart-stopping women, I concluded that the site would do rather well.
Having a firm grip on Spanish does not give one a communication advantage in Portugal. Aside from the Portuguese not being too keen to be spoken to in Spanish, due to Spain’s historical imposition on the country, trying to cut through the Portuguese accent can be arduous. Unlike the sing-song, punchy Portuguese spoken in Brazil, the almost Russian-like accent in Portugal is a monotone, run-on, indecipherable mess. Reverting to English will be slightly more beneficial, in theory. Unlike northern Europe, where everyone has six to eight years of mandatory English classes inflicted on them in primary and secondary school, the southern Europeans generally regard English as an elective, third or fourth language option, but it can still get you through simple transactions. The exceptions to this rule are the language fragments that can be gleaned from the “American Pie” movies and “The Osbornes” on European MTV, which are shown in their original English with subtitles, through which the Portuguese have collected an impressive depth of sexual innuendo phrases and extraordinary strings of curse words.
On my third day in Lisbon, with the help of the bus, I made my way along the huge Tejo River to a very old suburb of Lisbon called Belém where I was told that I would find a more tranquil atmosphere, really cool, aging buildings and the cheapest lunch in the Lisbon metropolitan area. The huge, Manueline style – which employs twists, turns, spirals and nautical themes for decoration – Jerónimos Monastery was the big find of the afternoon in that not only was it ancient and gnarly, but in a grand departure from most of the rest of Europe, they permitted flash photography inside the place. This filled me with bouncing anticipation before I started snapping pictures whereupon I discovered that my camera’s tiny flash wasn’t powerful enough to illuminate the cavernous innards of the monastery. Trying to disable the flash and let the camera’s auto-shutter take care of things with a longer exposure backfired too, as I did not have the steady hand needed for sustained exposures. Since I didn’t have the desire (or opportunity) to accost someone and beg for the use of their tripod, I was screwed. I sulked over a super cheap lunch that left me so bloated and mentally disabled that I woozily headed back into the city, completely overlooking a visit to the Torre de Belém (“Belém Tower”), Portugal’s number one postcard model, which is only a 10 minute walk further down the river from the Monastery. D’oh!
Back in Lisbon proper I discovered that the Arabs had inflicted their micro-maze-on-the-side-of-a-steep-hill blueprint for city planning on Lisbon much in the same way as they had in Granada, Spain, as I climbed up and tramped through the neighborhood of Alfama. I didn’t think it possible, but the streets of Alfama are even more tight and snarled than Granada’s Albaicín neighborhood, making the sweet buzz of random exploration and discovery even more satisfying. Unfortunately, several parts of Alfama have clearly been overlooked by gentrification efforts and have been left to fall into a deteriorating, slum-like state. After a healthy dosage of beautiful patches and visiting the spotless, model-like cathedral, I blundered into an ugly section that had a distinctly unwelcoming feel which was accentuated by the stares that I drew from some of the residents, suggesting that I was unsuitably afield of the blond haired, green-eyed tourist beaten path. I took the hint and promptly evacuated the area.
Lisbon has the usual capitol city glut of museum offerings, highlighted by the massive Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, touted as Portugal’s finest museum, with exhibits of paintings, sculptures, carpets, coins and ceramics collected from around the globe. If museum fatigue hasn’t gripped you by the time you stagger out of the Calouste Gulbenkian, you can take in the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, which sports outstanding examples of decorative tile art or the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, home to the national collection of Portuguese paintings.
Lisbon’s nightlife nexus is located high up in the Barrio Alto (“High Neighborhood”) district. This name is not just a cute moniker, dreamt up by the city council. The death march up to the thin air of Barrio Alto can be a crushing test of will, particularly if you started dipping into the sauce while you were still at home. There’s a torment-saving funicular that shuttles people up the hill from the Rossio train station to the northeast end of the neighborhood, but this doesn’t come into play when you’ve submitted to blindly following the leadership of your deeply inebriated companions, who have not yet become wise to the convenience. All the same, once you’ve gasped up to cruising altitude it’s all gravy. Bars, clubs and pricey restaurants are literally on top of one another and you could spend weeks and destroy a generous portion of your liver unlocking all of Barrio Alto’s offerings while socializing with the cheerful and personable locals. My big night out in Lisbon quickly deteriorated, in the most pleasing manner possible, into a literally wine soaked “bar crawl” that started with me and five other guys from my hostel and peaked at about 2:00am when our wandering group had swelled into an international assembly of about 15 people from all over Europe and South America. It was the quintessential cultural fusion experience that one hopes to stumble into during a jaunt through Europe and we reveled in it.
It could very well have been my foul luck and perpetually out-of-tune sense of direction, but I could not find a moderate, fine dinning option while I was in Lisbon. I frittered away two dinners in the affordable, but bland Baixa district and struck out in surprising fashion in what appeared to be a couple of upscale restaurants on Avenida da República that ended up only serving, dressed up, greasy crap. By the time I belatedly learned that good ol’ Barrio Alto had acceptable cuisine potential hidden somewhere up in its knot of alleyways, I was irreversibly on my way out of town.
After five fairly persistent days in Lisbon, without stepping foot in a single museum, I was saturated and spent. Lisbon is one of those cities where unless you earmark two weeks of measured time – accounting for the intermittent drunken hysteria and hangover recovery interval, of course – or, conversely, five days of dead-sober, unhinged sprint-touring, you will be forced to move on before you’re ready. Ah, the vexing woes of too much prospective culture.