Day 2 – Baixa, Lisbon
Al Fama survived the 1755 quake, thus making this one of the oldest parts of Lisbon. I have researched Al Fama in-depth and imagined myself walking the polished to almost slippery cobbled streets and its narrow lanes with Portuguese grandmothers looking out of their pink or yellow coloured homes. Little did we know that this day would threaten to change our plans completely and ruin our mood for the entire trip.
We had not planned where to start the day, as we were not sure where our Uber would drop us. Our Uber driver dropped us near the Rossio Square (but of course!). It was early morning and I haven’t had my coffee so seeing my resting <insert a nasty word> face, Fernandified agreed to sit down for breakfast first before we start what would be a day of walking, climbing up and rolling down with tired feet. Everywhere we looked around Rossio Square, we saw very touristy looking cafes, which we imagined, would probably serve bad coffee and stale bread priced enough to burn any tourist’s fat wallet. We chose a not so conspicuous looking café (a lie we told ourselves because it was right in the Rossio Square) and battled through miscommunication and really slow service totally lost in translation.
Rossio Square is impressive and one could imagine many a celebrations and not so pleasant revolts and riots would have taken place in this square, confirmed so by Wikipedia which also added bullfights and executions to the list of activities that had taken place here.
Right beside the Rossio Square, peaking behind a building is Igreja de São Domingos, which is possibly the most scarred and the only monument – in my opinion – that projects the resilience and endurance of the Portuguese people. How else can you explain a church that has endured two earthquakes and a fire to be still standing and functioning till today? The church suffered its first earthquake in 1531 and then the great earthquake of 1755, which flattened most of modern day downtown Lisbon. Since the great earthquake took place on November 1st, All Saints Day, many a lives must have been lost within the confines of this church on that ill-fated day. Then in 1959, a ferocious fire engulfed the church and many precious paintings and statues were lost forever. The fire apparently took 6 days to douse and killed two firefighters. The third restoration of the church left the charred and damaged pillars for the entire world to see, not to be taken as “giving up” but a clear sign of defiance and strength of the Portuguese citizen’s faith and belief. This has left the Interiors of the church rather macabre with its light orange paint, which almost looks like the dying ember of the fires that engulfed its walls.
Coming out of the church, we were greeted by a mob of people going about their daily lives and right outside Igreja de São Domingos, we clamored through for a little treat – Ginjinha! Ginjinha or Ginja is a Portuguese liqueur made by infusing cherries in alcohol. It was still quite early in the morning but the crowd outside this shop for this sweet and sticky liqueur was growing; making it almost impossible to place our order. So we assumed – not that we needed any more convincing – that it must be Ginja O’Clock any time of the day as per strict Portuguese traditions and who are we to question the traditions eh?
Next stop – Castelo de São Jorge! The castle can be seen from every corner of the city of Lisbon. It towers above the sea of red roofed houses huddled together with little room to breathe. I’m sure there are other ways to reach the top but we decided to walk (as we always do since we love torturing ourselves). In an obscure little corner of the Rossio Square, we spotted stairs and plunged into what seemed like an endless ordeal uphill. The steps were narrow and major parts of it were blocked off for repairs. Sometimes, you would have to stop to let the people coming down pass. We had conquered Petra, Jordan on foot so this should be fine – we convinced ourselves.
The climb up was not for the faint hearted but the city teased with views that would quite literally take your breath away. The higher you climb, the prettier the city looked. It toyed and played with your emotions as you take every step. One minute you are exhausted, another minute you are filled with joy. One moment your lungs burned – out of breath – and then suddenly the cold air gives you a sudden burst of energy.
As you reach somewhere near the top, you will pass by many small restaurants with messages to lure you in. It looked so quaint and darling, I could not help myself from peaking into a few of them. But the Portuguese are friendly and someone would come out and speak to you, invite you and charm you – Portuguese are totally irresistible!
This is why it came as a total shock when I found out that I had been robbed on my way to the castle. It was an extremely crowded day (remember, bank holiday?) and the queue to the castle snaked all the way down the paved pathways. As Fernandified went to get water for us, I thought, I would get ready to pay at the gate for the tickets to enter the castle only to find that my bag’s zip was undone. To my utter surprise, my wallet was missing but our passports were still there. As I started rummaging through my belongings, a gentleman and his wife walked up to us and asked if we lost anything. I told him that I could not find my wallet and he seem to have connected some invisible dots in his head and exclaimed that he might have seen a man in a blue bomber jacket removing the wallet from my bag.
He said that he noticed a man walk very close to me and then turned and walk back in the same direction he came from. He thought it weird but since he did not see the wallet being removed, he did not raise an alarm. I am usually quite sharp about such things and very much attuned to my surroundings, but I think Dubai has made me slack. Moreover, I was distracted by all the beauty around – I remember I stopped to take a photo and knew that Fernandified was next to me so assumed nothing will happen to my wallet which was inside a zipped bag. I totally underestimated the professionalism of these thieves!
The kind gentleman offered to give his eyewitness statement and even went looking for the police with Fernandified while I chatted with his wife and recounted the entire episode for the 100th time as if we could conjure up my wallet by merely speaking about it endlessly.
Well, the Police took forever to arrive and considering the crowd; the lack of security was surprising. After waiting for many minutes, the couple got restless and wished us luck. The Police did not do much but basically told us to hope it would turn up tomorrow and advised us to go to the Tourism Police station. We were leaving Lisbon tomorrow and deep down; I knew I was not going to find the wallet. So, it didn’t make sense moping about and decided to get on with the day!
Castelo de São Jorge is a Moorish castle settled majestically and strategically located higher than the rest of the city making it almost omnipresent, wherever you are in Lisbon. Just by looking at it, one could tell how significant the castle might have been to retain control over this beautiful city. The Christians seized the castle from the Moors during the Second Crusade. According to a legend, a Knight named Martim Moniz noticed one of the doors to the castle open and threw his body to prevent the Moors from closing it allowing the Christian soldiers to enter the castle and take control.
After the castle was taken from the Moors by Portugal’s king Afonso Henriques, the castle was converted into a palace with massive reconstruction works. As a palace, the castle also hosted the reception of Vasco de Gama from his return voyage after discovering a sea route to India. The significance of the castle was demonstrated when the forts withstood many attacks from the troops of the Kingdom of Castile (modern day Spain).
We explored the polished cobbled streets stretching throughout the outer forts of the castle. It provided one of the best panoramic views of Lisbon and sprawling red roofs of Al Fama. We enjoyed a glass of Portuguese wine from a ‘Wine with a view’ cart where the lady was quite apologetic about my stolen wallet and totally cheered us up when she said that the wine glasses were for us to keep as souvenirs. Since then, every Portuguese who we have met and have narrated our story of our lost wallet has profusely apologized. Even Portuguese we have met outside of Portugal seem genuinely crestfallen when they hear this. Needless to say – irresistable.
We decided that we would go to the Police station and report our loss so we walked our way towards where we thought was the Police station we needed to go to and decided that we would cover Al Fama, as we would be passing through it.
Lisbon’s many hills provide breathtaking viewpoints or ‘Miradouros’. On our way, we passed by the popular Miradouro De Santa Luzia, which offers the view of Al Fama’s red roofs spread across towards the river. Miradouro De Santa Luzia’s azulejo decorations, rose garden and the sound trams squeezing down the hill is intoxicating and one can spend hours smelling the rain, the numbing sound of people chatting and eventually realizing how hungry you are when one of the many restaurants’ food smells come to tease you. We sat in one of these quaint restaurants with bougainvillea-covered façade and carved out on a steep slop.
We did not manage to venture into the winding and narrow alleys of Al Fama and made our way to the Police station through the rain. When we reached the said Police Station, it was empty except for the Policewomen and Policemen and they told us that this was not the Tourism Police Station and directed us to the other end of the city. We made our way there and once we reached the Tourism Police Station, we were gutted to find a long queue, which didn’t seem to move at all. In that hour of waiting, we chatted with many who have had similar experiences and heard some ridiculous stories of how they lost their money, wallet etc.
We were losing precious time and having used up all our patience, we decided to abort mission and set off to see the rest of the city center before we lose light. Igreja de São Roque was next on our agenda and we entered to the world of opulence and baroque beauty. The Church of Saint Roch is one of the first Jesuit church in the world but it did not start off as a church. In 1505, the plague, which came from Italy via ship, wrecked Lisbon and the church was the cemetery of the Plague victims. Eventually, a shrine was built and a brotherhood was formed (exists till today) to look after the shrine. When the Jesuits arrived in 1540, they were looking for a more permanent base to settle and chose the site of São Roque to build their church before their expulsion after 200 odd years (a complex topic that I dare not venture into for the time being) which is why the church’s façade is deceptively simple in dramatic contrast to the grandeur of many Baroque chapels inside the church.
The most notable chapel was the Capela de São João Baptista built by Nicola Salvi whose works include the Trevi Fountain in Rome (anyone know that monument? ;)). The chapel is considered the world’s most expensive as it was built in Italy, blessed by The Pope and then dismantled to be brought back to Lisbon. Not to forget that the chapel was constructed using Gold, Ivory, Lapis Lazuli and Agate. The details on this chapel were extraordinary, for instance, what looks like a painting is actually mosaics! Apparently, mosaics are a Vatican specialty used to withstand candle smoke.
We missed out on Carmo Church as it was closed for entry by the time we reached, so we walked down towards Santa Justa Elevator. Perhaps – the only underwhelming monument in the entire Portugal, in my opinion. The elevator was built in 1902 a few years after Eiffel Tower, which is what it was inspired from. Apart from the use of wrought iron, I did not see any similarity to be quite honest. The main purpose of the elevator is to connect the lower town with the high town and since we just came down from the high town and noting the queue for the elevator, we decided to head out to the one destination I was adamant to see – LX Factory.
LX Factory would be the equivalent of Alserkal Avenue in Dubai. According to TripAdvisor, LX Factory used to be a fabric production plant in 1846. After the plant moved, the area was abandoned, derelict and run-down. A private investor took on the challenge and converted the space into the creative heart of the city. Today, many homegrown businesses call LX Factory home.
My eyes were set on Ler Devagar (translation: Read Slowly) – one of the 20 most beautiful bookshops in the world as proudly declared (deservedly so) on their website. Ler Devagar is extremely photogenic with books scaling from the floor to the roof. It also houses a café, bar and a cake shop. My heart was extremely happy at that point and I had just one more experience to complete my Lisbon exploration – a Fado night.
After a quick stop back at the apartment to shower and change, we were ready to experience Fado music – one of UNESCO’s World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. We chose O’Faia for tonight and as we walked up to the restaurant, a well-suited host with the most perfect body posture greeted us and asked us to wait. He explained to us that an artist was performing and that he would find us a table once the set is complete. We realized that it was a posh place and my God we were underdressed! As soon as the set was done, we were rushed off to our table and then the waiter handed us the menu and disappeared saying that he will be back to take our order after the next set was completed since the next in the line-up was already preparing to perform. I was transfixed and beyond mesmerized by the powerful vocals and beautiful music.
Fado or ‘Fate’ was born on the streets of Lisbon and captures the Portuguese emotion of Suadade which means ‘missing’ or Condé Nast Traveler perfectly puts it as ‘a yearning or longing for something lost’. Fado is sung to the accompaniment of the Portuguese 12-string guitars and transcends beyond language and nationalities as one can almost feel the pain and anguish of the Fado singers.
Speaking of pain, it was past midnight but we headed off to the Tourism Police Station for one more attempt at getting the Police report for my stolen wallet – thinking that the wait should be minor since it was late in the night. There was still a long queue and we spent more than an hour sitting on the cold floor in the Police Station (this time the correct one) waiting for our names to be called. After all that time waiting, we were only told that there was little to no chance of getting the wallet back and also learned that this is quite a common issue in Lisbon. We received our Police Report which we needed to make any claim from our travel insurance later on. I nearly gave up but needed that closure for peace of mind since all my IDs were stolen too (in case a Madonna Yumnam pops up in some Interpol list :P).
Oh what a day it has been!