Waking up to grey skies in London is something that feels kind of different to everywhere else, particularly where we were staying, in the heart of the city. It was a Monday morning, so at least everything had come to life, with suits walking hither and thither, trying to look important (or just awake – it was 7am!) I was not short of sympathy as, at 7:05, with our train tickets to the airport bought, we trudged to the Sainsbury’s Local and grabbed a couple of cinnamon danishes and coffees. Then it was back to City Thameslink, under the ground and onto the platform to wait for the train to Luton. The 10 minute wait gave us time to ingest breakfast and generally wake up/stop feeling sorry for ourselves.
The train rumbled in, and we boarded, still toting the dregs of our coffees. Sitting down at the table, I realised I had managed to cut my hand open on something and was dripping blood on our table. This was not a stupendous start to the next stage of our journey. As luck would have it, the ticket inspector of all people showed up fully armed with plasters and, with a cheerful bit of chit chat, I was patched up and feeling so much the better for a bit of customer service – and on a British railway service, too! Exiting the tunnel under the city, speeding north towards Luton, it immediately started raining. That classic, British spitting, which looks like nothing, but renders everything soaking in a matter of minutes. Lisbon could not come soon enough.
The train journey was swift and eventless and, before long, we were on the bus chugging up the hill to Luton Airport, with all of its hideous orange livery, as the home of Easyjet. Of course, the orange livery is the only thing not to like about Easyjet, especially when you are as unfortunate as myself to be more accustomed to flying Ryanair these days. With a couple hours to wait, on arrival, we opted to head to the observation deck and watch the planes defying the drizzle, trying to second guess where the bronzed passengers, clinging to their coats for dear life might have been a couple of hours ago. After that, it was time for a sandwich and then time to fly. The flight was smooth and short and before long we landed in Lisbon. Clambering down from the plane onto the Lisbon tarmac, my Polish winter coat felt immediately superfluous. Damn.
Lisbon is one of those airports where you have to wait for a bus to take you to the terminal building. Nothing annoys me more than when the bus journey takes 3 minutes, when a walk would have taken… 3 minutes… so it was nice when we realised that the landing area for low cost airlines is actually about 3km from the terminal. The driver sped around the roadway on the bendy bus, with all the passengers standing in varying states of calm and alarm. But everyone made it in one piece and the passport control process was mercifully swift. From here, there was a surprisingly common sense connection to the metro, ticket machines which spoke English and, in half a jiff, we were speeding down the metro track to the centre.
Like most things in Lisbon, the metro is a beautiful set up. The lines have colours and names, just as they do in London, Paris, or anywhere else, but they also have beautiful symbols associated with each:
The interior of the metro stations is also often quite ornate, as well as modern and practical. After a quick change from red to green, we arrived at our destination in Baixa-Chiado, right in the heart of the Lisboa district. We jumped out and found ourselves in a bustling street, full of people and the temperature at a happy 14 degrees. A welcome change from blustery 5s and 6s in London and Bydgoszcz’s minus 10!
From here it was a remarkably short walk to our hotel: Duas Nacoes (2 nations) themed around the partnership of Brazil and Portugal. It was a simple place, but in a truly excellent location and they did a mean breakfast, too. We had a small juilet balcony, looking out to the street.
Putting our bags down reminded us that we’d barely eaten at all so far that day, so it was time to find something to eat. The sandwich place opposite seemed pretty easy to negotiate and so, to get something fast, we walked in. I managed to ask the lady behind the counter in Portuguese if she spoke English. The response was laughter from her and her colleague and a flat “no”. I ordered a chicken sandwich (chicken is ‘frango’ in Portuguese – where the hell does that come from?!) and a drink and sat and waited. Food showed up promptly, was cheap and really tasty, so we evidently made the right choice. Then it was time to explore! Turning left at the end of our street, we could see an enormous arch at the end of the road, so we decided to investigate. We were really unprepared for the grandeur that awaited us there.
After this quite spectacular triumphal arch, you find yourself in a truly enormous square, facing out to the river Tejo, in front of you. And of course, Lisbon is the gaping mouth of this huge river, flowing out into the Atlantic, beyond. It’s quite a sight. I was also impressed by the signs for “The world’s sexiest toilet” – but I didn’t have go. Sorry.
In spite of the menacing-looking grey skies in these images, it was a warm day, with a gentle breeze coming in off the river. It felt most un-February-like for a pair of northern Europeans. After marvelling at the square, the monuments and the water for a while, we decided to head back inland and to explore the city a bit.
I was told two things about Lisbon before going there. The first is that you really should explore without a map, as it’s an excellent place to get lost. This is absolutely true. We stumbled upon countless gardens, artworks, pieces of remarkable architecture, without ever really trying. The other thing I was told about was that when people say Lisbon is built on 7 hills, they are SERIOUS hills. This is also absolutely true. I cannot imagine how slippery some of them would be in the rain. If you come here, prepare for a leg workout!
Walking up Avenida de Liberdade (freedom avenue to you and me) we walked past some fountains, museums and hotels. Lost of which was very grand. Then, over to our left, we spotted a stone stairway, tucked away, leading up to one of these famous hills. We decided it was worth investigating.
Once at the top of these stairs, the only way to go was up. So, 10 minutes later and we had walked perhaps 200 metres up this oppressively sheer hill. Once at the top though, we were on the edge of one of the nicest neighbourhoods in the city – Principe Real. We walked around the large church there and then up to the very top of the hill and to the Jardim de Principe Real (a public garden). Not only was the garden itself quite beautiful, it also had a spectacular view out across the city to the hill of Alfama, and St George’s castle.
From here we walked past the historic hill climbing tram, the undercarriage and support stilts of which may give you some idea of just how steep these hills really are.
From here, we walked down Avenida de Liberdade, back into the city for cake and then a short rest and freshen up in our hotel. In the evening, we went for a walk to find dinner and happened upon a quite huge seafood specialist restaurant. Tragically I can’t remember its name, but all they seemed to sell was seafood and I ate a quite sublime whole sea bream, washed down with a cold beer. After that, we decided to turn in.
The next morning started with my real reason for being here – a job interview. So, shortly after breakfast, I donned my smart clothes and left Ania to do some additional sleeping – she’s a professional, where this is concerned – and trudged back up Avenida de Liberdade to Cambridge School, where I was hoping to get my next teaching job. Situated next to a huge cinema, it was quite a grand building. The security guard waved me in and I went to reception, where I was to fill in a formal application form and some other papers. Then the interview started. A 4 man panel of interviewers took turns to ask me questions and it seemed to be going ok, if not spectacularly. Then they started talking about contracts, which confused me. Finally, all became clear when they offered me a position for the next school year. I was delighted, accepted the position and left with a huge smile on my face.
When I got back to the hotel, Ania was still asleep, so I crept into the room and changed out of my smart clothes, before waking her up and telling her we were going to see the castle. We left our hotel and turned right, walking up to the ominous hill of Alfama. But all was far less ominous when we realised there was a completely free of charge glass elevator up to near the top of the hill. We shuffled in with an old woman ahead of us, who was sure to speak to us in rambling Portuguese, which we naturally understood none of. We waved her off and began walking in the direction of the castle itself. Walking through the gate, you begin to get some idea of how old this place is!
The weather was really nice, despite some threatening clouds approaching across the horizon and, with little time to explore the inside of the castle, we simply made our way around the perimeter, taking in the sights of the narrow streets, some of which are about 800 years old.
After much meandering around the streets, we turned a corner and a great vista opened out in front of us. We were standing above rooftops, as the steep slope led out in front of us to the water. We were at the portas do sol (gates of the sun). This is supposedly the most breathtaking of all the views in this city of landscapes and, even with all the cloud cover, it didn’t disappoint. I can only imagine how glorious this will be with the full glare of the summer sun.
After stopping to take in the spectacular views – and rest our hill weary legs – we wound our way round the hilly road and began to feel very hungry. We must have walked past 30 coffee shops and closed Angolan restaurants, orange trees, schools, dodgy old electronics shops, but nothing passing for a restaurant. Then, as all hope was fading and we rounded yet another winding cobbled hill street, we saw the Cantinho do Fatima. It really looked just like any other small, inconspicuous restaurant, but we were starving and went in.
Once inside we were presented with the options for the EUR 7.50 per person lunch menu of the day. I ordered something with veal and Ania something with turkey in a cream sauce. I was relieved to speak French, as the lady serving us knew no English at all. We sat and were presented with our starter of soup and bread along with a half litre jug of wine. The soup was a simple garden vegetable affair, but quite tasty; the bread soft and fresh. The wine too was quite palatable and the main course, when it came was enormous, comprising a large portion of meat with sauce, chips and rice. We eventually turned down our dessert and simply had the coffee. But for 15 Euros, we’d eaten more than we could (or probably should) have at an ordinary lunch. The fact that the place was rammed with locals when we arrived, I always like to think, is a sign of a quality place.
From there we descended from the hilltops of Alfama back down to sea level and walked along to one of the main train terminals of the city Santa Apollonia. Also one of the main hubs for metro connections, it was a big, grand old place.
And that’s when it started raining. And when I say raining, I come qualified to identify serious rain, as a Brit. This was serious rain, the kind of rain where you could barely see about 15 metres in front of you. The only positive we could find was that this was an excellent excuse to dive into a café opposite the station and try our first tarte de natas. It was a custardy masterpiece, with the café owner handing us a cinnamon shaker to sprinkle the spice to our tastes.
We decided to wait until the rain stopped. Then until the rain simply slowed down. Then we realised we were going to get soaked, and so we went out into it and tried to hug the walls, and canopies of grocers and cafés, all the way back to the hotel. Unfortunately, there are days like this in February, and the rain didn’t let up until we had gone to bed in the evening. It was a shame not to see more of the city, but there would be more opportunities for that. In the morning, after a quick breakfast, we were greeted by sunshine as we headed down to the metro for our return to the airport. The 4 hours of flights and 6 hours of transfer time at Stansted ahead of us was not very appealing, but it had been an excellent trip.