I decided to go to Lisbon on a whim. About two weeks ago, I saw an article about the city in the New York Times, thought it sounded cool, and booked flights with my friend Cate. The article was called “36 Hours in Lisbon.” Of the 46 hours I spent in Lisbon this weekend, I was awake for 32 of them. Cate and I only did two of the 12 things on the NYT list of suggestions, but we managed to cover a lot of ground in not a lot of time. I wish we had had more time to visit, because I loved Lisbon.
We started early on Friday. Really early. Our cab to the airport arrived at the apartment building at 3:00 a.m. On the way out, we passed two of our roommates as they returned from the bars. It was my first time flying in Italy and my first time leaving the country this semester, so I wanted to have plenty of time at the airport before our 6:15 a.m. flight. Our tickets were with TAP Portugal, the Portuguese national airline. As it turns out, TAP is a Star Alliance member, so it was actually a legitimate airline (as opposed to budget carriers like EasyJet and RyanAir). We got breakfast and free newspapers on the plane – nice perks that we won’t have when we take cheaper flights.
Cate speaks Portuguese (she learned when she lived in Brazil for a summer), so it was great to be able to fall back on that when we needed to ask for directions. I was very surprised that nearly all of the Portuguese people I encountered spoke perfect, unaccented English. It wasn’t even the British English that so many Italians speak – it was almost like American English. The total absence of any sort of accent completely threw me for a loop. I was excited to discover that I able to understand a lot of the written and some of the spoken Portuguese because of my experience with Italian, but I couldn’t respond in Portuguese. I caught myself ordering in Italian at restaurants a few times, and while I tried to correct and use the few Portuguese phrases that Cate had taught me, the Italian usually got the message across.
Some of the highlights of our first day:
–Igreja de São Roque + Museum: I had seen an article online that raved about this church, which is home to The World’s Most Expensive Chapel. Of course, when we arrived (after a stop at the Lisbon Starbucks and a very satisfying, very American-sized hazlenut latte), the chapel was closed for restoration. As we perused the rest of the church, a woman with a nametag approached us. “Can I help you?” “Oh, we’re just looking around.” “Well we give free tours of the church and the adjoining museum every thirty minutes, if you’re interested.” We were interested.
Suzy, our tour guide, walked around with us for an hour and a half. She explained the evolution of art styles in the various side chapels, pointed out hidden relics behind paintings, described the craftsmanship involved in creating Florentine mosaic and gilded wood, and related the history of Lisbon and Portugal in terms of the Catholic Church. I made a comment about the baroque illusion of false domes on the ceiling and noted that our art history professor would be so excited to hear that we visited this church. Upon hearing this, Suzy abruptly turned and walked us to the front of the church. “Well, since you’re art students…” She lifted the drop cloth covering the World’s Most Expensive Chapel and ushered us inside past the prayer rail. Standing in the dark, she pointed out the precious types of marble and stone used to craft the chapel’s altar and paneling as we crouched underneath scaffolding to get a better look.
–Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa + Igreja de Santo António de Lisboa: Including São Roque, we managed to see seven churches on Friday. Visiting these two was simple because Santa Maria Maior, Lisbon’s cathedral, is conveniently located directly behind Santo António. The cathedral was built in 1147 in the Late Romanesque/Gothic style. I thought it looked a bit like a simple version of Notre Dame in Paris. The interior felt very medieval, and my favorite part was the collection of blinged-out bishops’ mitres (hats).
Santo António is just across the street. The church was constructed over the site of the house where St. Anthony was born. I saw the large church dedicated to St. Anthony in Padua, so I particularly enjoyed learning more about his life. St. Anthony was born in Lisbon, and when he decided to become a monk, he originally went to Africa. After some time, he got sick and wanted to return home to Lisbon, but his ship got blown off course and he ended up in Italy where he met St. Francis and became a Franciscan. There is great devotion to St. Anthony in Italy, but the Portuguese claim him as their own. The church itself was pretty much like every other church we visited in Portugal, but Cate and I were able to visit the shrine under the church that marks the spot of Anthony’s home. Pope John Paul II visited the shrine in the 1980s, so there were a lot of commemorative plaques and things celebrating that special trip.
–Castelo de São Jorge: This major Lisbon landmark stands on top of a hill that has been occupied by all sorts of folks – Celts, Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors – since the sixth century BC. Cate and I were rather disappointed to learn that it was a castle for battles, not princesses, but we had fun climbing around the towers anyhow.
–Fado Show: Fado is a type of Portuguese folk music, usually performed by a guitarist and singer. It has its roots in Lisbon’s status as a port city, and it was traditionally sung by women longing for their husbands at sea. The fado show that Cate and I went to on Friday was an after-dinner performance. We arrived at the tiny restaurant, formerly a chapel in a convent, around 9 p.m. for a Portuguese feast and spent much of our meal chatting with the American couple seated next to us.
After we had finished eating, the show began around 11:30 p.m. Three young men snagged unused chairs from the tables surrounding us and sat facing each other in the center of the restaurant. The place was small – I could have reached over and tapped one of the guys on the shoulder if I had wanted to. At first, they just played together, but then the singers came out one by one. Four different singers performed about five songs each. My favorite singer was a girl who couldn’t have been more than 17 years old. After her first song, a light near the door flashed, signifying that someone was outside. She turned to open the door and squealed, “Tiaaa!!” Her aunt had come to watch her sing. When the girl finished, she walked to the back of the small restaurant and greeted a little knot of adoring fans with kisses and hugs.