Lovely Lisboa

The sidewalks of Lisbon deserve an ode themselves.

They curve, sweep, stagger, climb and drop, leaving a visitor dizzy. But it’s not just that. Paved with sturdy, usually ivory-white cubes of hardy stone, they sometimes burst into a flurry of artistic expression. In plazas and circles and other notably historic spots they mingle with black, blue and other-color stones to make beautiful motifs. And, I suspect, these slippery-when-wet footpaths are responsible for slowing the city down to its charming, easygoing pace.

Desi and I spent a wonderful week recently falling in love with Lisbon, the City of Seven Hills. We landed there on a Sunday, and learned our first lesson about the sidewalks as we (or at least I) huffed and puffed and made our way from the bus stop to the hotel, up one steep hill then another, bags and all.  
When traveling, we are hardy believers in using public transport whenever possible: it gives us, more than anything else, a great little window into the local life. Imagine this in Lisbon: as the bus buzzes around narrow, old-city streets and past buildings festooned with freshly washed laundry and people hanging out at windows, it plays host to a 40-something man in a fading trenchcoat, briefcase clutched in hand and brow creased as he worries, maybe, about how much longer he has his job in the shifting economy? There’s an older woman clutching huge bags of potatoes and chestnuts and other goodies she has just bought at the market and which she will no doubt turn into a delicious dinner for her family. Three happy schoolgirls talking their heads off and sprawled across two seats each, not a care in the world as they chatter on about, perhaps, boys and the new teacher. A teenager with his iPod blaring what sounds like Portuguese hip-hop so loud that it feels as though the bus has piped-in music.

 

You can’t find an easier city than Lisbon to navigate by public transport. Trams and funiculares scurry up and down the hills, an efficient metro chugs swiftly underground, and massive ferries glide across the historic Tejo or Tagus river which was the starting point of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama’s world-changing voyages.

 

Despite all that Lisbon has going for it, in the week before we left, a question we’d often get from friends was: Why Lisbon?

The cynicism, of course, stems from the fact that Lisbon does not enjoy the hip glamor of its European cousins like London, Paris, Rome, etc. At this moment, Portugal also stands at a particularly trying point in its long life. Once a colonial superpower that ruled nations overseas, the tiny country now plays poor cousin in the European Union to heavyweights like France and Germany. On our flight to Portugal, every international newspaper I picked buzzed with news about Portugal’s deep financial troubles, strikes to protest government austerity measures, and the inevitability of an EU bailout.

 
 

But all of this is just a speck in Portugal’s glory-studded history and does not, for sure, take away from the pure delight of being a visitor to this country. Lisbon is rivetingly, breathtakingly beautiful, and it’s not the polished, sophisticated beauty of your average European city but rather the beauty of raw, real life. In fact, at times the back-to-back apartment buildings with curving balconies and water-stained paint almost reminded me of being back in my delicious hometown, Bombay.  
Climb or take the funiculaire up to one of those high points in the city designed to take a visitor’s breath away and a picture-postcard beauty reveals itself. Houses with walls covered with beautifully painted tiles and red-earth-tiled roofs roll up and down the hills, all the way to the horizon where the Tagus twinkles in the mild November sunlight. Here and there a palace or a church or a castle raises its head. 

 
 

There’s a lot to see and do in and around Lisbon, especially for a history buff. You can visit the beautiful Monasterios Jeronimos in Belem with the tomb of Vasco da Gama, the Belem Tower on the Tagus, or take a bus up to the historic Castelo de Sao Jorge. Or, just for fun, take the 100-year-old, intricately beautiful elevator– Elevador Santa Justa– all the way up to the top to get another great view of Lisbon. Once up top, you can walk to the hip Baixa district, reconstructed after a massive earthquake that rocked Lisbon in 1755, and now a trendy home to restaurants and retailers from around the world.
Or you can just take a load off your feet at one of those broad, beautiful plazas, each one home to a statue of some Portuguese hero or the other, like the Praca de Rossio where young people roller-skate at night on a makeshift rink.
   
More beautiful places are just a short train ride away. We took one morning the train to Sintra, a quaint, delicately beautiful town with rich summer palaces, some now converted to hotels and inns in an effort to preserve them. The colorfully beautiful Pena Palace, open to visitors, looks down on the city and on the Atlantic from its privileged spot on a hill.


The grounds of both the Pena Palace and the Moorish castle nearby, built by Arab intruders all the way back in the 9th century, offer incredibly top-of-the-world views. Both are also swarming with cats. The cats are extremely friendly which perhaps is not surprising since they see the visitors as a source of food. Most will rub against your legs, let you scratch their ears, then sit down and look at you soulfully, much as my own kitty Pubm will when she wants to score a treat.

On the bus from Sintra to Cascais, with a stop at Cabo da Roca– the spectacularly rocky, westernmost point in Europe– my heart was stuck in my throat as the driver climbed up narrow, two-way streets, honking before each precarious turn because the bus swallowed both lanes, leaving no room for a vehicle driving in the opposite direction.

I’ve posted today some of the pictures Desi took of life in Lisbon– I thought you might enjoy looking at those more than just pictures of monuments and structures and landscapes because, honestly, don’t faces tell a better story?


Singing for a living against a beautiful backdrop in Lisbon’s Barrio Alto area

A couple tends to their roses outside their Sintra home.

The 25th of April Bridge across the Tagus, which looks awfully like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco– perhaps because, if Wikipedia is to be believed– it was built by the same company.

 


Colorful fruits and vegetables and more at the Mercado Ribeiro 

  
The traditional and the new: A woman sells roasted chestnuts outside the beautiful building of the Rossio Station, home also to an outlet of international coffee behemoth Starbucks.


A gentleman selling souvenirs in the Alfama district of Lisbon, home to lots of restaurants with live fado (blues) performances. 

Mid-day break 

 
 A local woman on the ferry home from Lisbon, across the mighty Tagus river.



 
All I could think of when I saw this highly self-restrained guy was, what would happen if I left Opie alone with an open door? I dare not think of the possibilities! :)

  
Colorful boats dot the harbor in Cascais



This young fellow, Momo, was a rescue from the streets of Spain, his mom told me. He couldn’t be cuter, as he ran around with her energetically, motivating her as she jogged and stretched at an overlook in Barrio Alto.

 
Locals ride the funiculaire home and to work. The sunshine-yellow tram travels a steep and short path lined on either side by homes and businesses.

 
Tourists enjoy a bird’s-eye view of Lisbon after taking a ride to the top in the Santa Justa elevador, a beautiful iron elevator built in 1902.

 

 
Picturesque Sintra
***
Our camera is on the fritz again, this time with a broken flash. We hope to have it back from the repair shop in a couple of days, and I can then share with you a vegan version of Lisbon’s uber-popular custard tart.

Until then!

(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.

Comments

  1. says

    wow,looks great. Waiting for the vegan tart Vaishali.

    BTW, have you worked with agar powder? Agar powder can be used for subing eggwhites? I wanted to try macaroon,but vegan versions are not there or I am not sure. I do not want coconut or banana as I have seen recipes with them.I am vary to try agar and want your opinion on subing egg whites.Do take your time to answer this. I am sorry for the trble I am causing

  2. says

    Curry, thanks. I’ve not tried macaroons with agar powder, only custards, but I would think it might work. At worst, it won’t be a total disaster. If you do try it, I’d love to know how they turned out.

    Sanjeeta, Thanks!

  3. says

    Hey Vaishali! Funny that you visited Lisbon. Coincidentally I was there too just 2 weeks back. My husband and I did a Spain and Portugal tour for 2 weeks around Thanksgiving. We ended our trip with 4 days in Lisbon and enjoyed it thoroughly. One of the prettiest capital cities I have seen. Loved your blog!

  4. says

    Hi Vaishali,
    Your pics look fab, and I can’t wait to see your vegan custard tart!! I was wondering, I’m planning a trip to Lisboa in a couple of months, so how did you manage to find vegetarian/vegan food? DO you have any suggestions?

  5. says

    G3, that’s a coincidence indeed– we were in Portugal just after Thanksgiving.:)

    Kumudha, Thanks.

    Ameya, It wasn’t very hard, although I did have to look around. Happy Cow has a pretty comprehensive listing of vegan/vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Lisbon at this link: http://www.happycow.net/europe/portugal/lisbon/
    I also found Indian, Italian and Middle Eastern restaurants where it was not at all hard to get vegan food. Better, some of the more tourist-centric Portuguese restaurants were more than willing to make me a delicious vegan meal. Have a great trip to Lisbon!

  6. Anonymous says

    Hi Vaishali, I follow your blog whenever I have time to read :) and craving to read something interesting..

    I wonder how you manage with food, how you pick restaurants (especially in a place like Lisbon) etc which offer vegetarian/vegan food in their menu. Being a vegetarian family, my difficulty in traveling is we end up eating croissant or bread or something and end up hungry..

    your tricks ?

    Regards,
    Gayathri

  7. says

    Gayathri, Welcome!
    The key to finding great vegetarian food when you travel is to do plenty of research beforehand. Sites like Happy Cow,which I mentioned in an earlier comment, are invaluable. But learning to identify which cuisines include vegan possibilities is also very helpful. For instance, you’re almost certain to find something you can eat– or ask the cook to tweak a little– at a Middle Eastern, Italian, Greek, Chinese, Mexican and, of course, Indian restaurant. Another way to eat smart and vegetarian is to make a meal out of sides, which can be quite healthy and something I did quite often while traveling in Mexico where beans, guacamole, salsas, rice, etc are almost always on the menu.
    Hope that helps :)

  8. Anonymous says

    Thank you for this lovely entry! Armchair travel at it’s best for me!

    You are very resourceful when navigating vegan eating overseas. As you stated, the Iberian peninsula is not very vegetarian, let alone vegan, friendly.

    My question is: how much to you question/inquire the restaurant staff to determine if food is vegan? I mean, hummus would never contain animal anything, but oftentimes asian restaurants claim dishes are ‘veggie’ yet are cooked in animal broth/byproducts. Latin America food-lard/dairy issues galore can abound as well.

    Language/culture/class barriers can also prevent, derail the flow of accurate info.

    I guess the best one can do is ask and, past a certain point, trust and mentally move on.

    What’s your gauge?

    Again, thanks for the great entry!

    Paula

  9. says

    I read this post a few days after you posted but I didn’t have time to reply due to my mom’s illness, all my time is for her right now, but my 1st reaction when I read the post title was : “Oh My God… they were here!!!” with big smile on my face :).
    It’s always very pleasant to read such nice things about my home town, your words deeply touched my heart, because to enjoy Lisbon, to be embraced by this city you need to know a little bit of its story, the History of this country. Like you said, 95% of the people visiting Europe never come down here, at the most they visit our Spanish brothers but they don’t come to Portugal.
    I’m so glad that you guys had a wonderful time here and you had time to explore by yourselves the typical neighborhoods of Lisbon and to meet other beautiful places as well. I was born here, I left for a period of 8 years and I back again, and I honestly say that I never get tired of this town, I like to walk around just to look at these old buildings and monuments full of history.
    Thank you so much for the great pictures that tell it all about the town!
    And.. it’s true: we called in the American Engineers to build up the Tagus River bridge, that’s why it looks so alike Golden Gate bridge.
    For those who may question vegetarian/vegan options, there are good options of vegetarian restaurants in Lisbon, and most of them carry vegan options. We also have organic markets and groceries stores, where we can find a lot of stuff suitable for us.
    Thank you once more for this post!
    If you decide to visit Lisbon one more time don’t hesitate in contacting me, I would love to give you a big hug!

    Susana.

  10. says

    Being a Portuguese myself, living in Lisbon, and following your blog for quite some time, i found very interesting your walkabouts when in the Portuguese Capital.

    Needless to say that i am a fan of your vegan cooking. In our home we are all vegan. Cats included.

    Thanks for the grest inside on Lisboa. Its always good to have the city appreciated by someone abroad, for the locals dont care much.

    :)

  11. says

    Cham, thanks– we had the time of our lives :)

    Paula, I always ask the waiters about meat stock in Chinese and other Asian restaurants and yes, it isn’t easy when one doesn’t speak the local language, but usually I think they get the question. In Mexico, I had more luck because more people spoke English and for a few days when we were cooking for ourselves it was easy to find cans of stuff like vegan refried beans etc in supermarkets.
    But with restaurants, as you point out, at some point one needs to trust and move on, or else it would be impossible to eat. :)

    Peggy, thanks!

    Jagruti, We had a great time. And a very happy new year to you!

    Antonio, Welcome, and I am delighted to hear from a Lisbonian. Your vegan cats sound lovely. I can definitely say that Lisbon is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to in a long time. I wish I could go back tomorrow :)

  12. says

    Dear Daisy, Thanks for your comment. We really, really loved Lisbon. On our trip we met a Malaysian teacher who said she has been back three times in the last two years, and I can see why she was so addicted! In addition to how beautiful the city is, I also loved how warm and friendly the people were, and how helpful despite our complete lack of Portuguese!

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