I have been in Lisbon for some three days and already I have hung out with a thousand completely naked middle aged men outside in public; inappropriately handled one bosom of an innocent thirty-something girl while we both looked at each other wondering what I am doing; intervened in one (so far) complete stranger’s addiction to nicotine at a cigarette machine; met one drummer for the rock band “Killers” and got invited as his guest to their tour; had one man uncomfortably caress my back without introducing himself; taught thirty-two Lisboans the Shopping Cart dance move at 5:30 am; got lost in one Bairro Alto neighborhood as one bladder distended; been told four times that I am not from California but from Norway; got six cans of sardines to bring home each hand wrapped; returned forty three hugs to local women (they asked permission first); cleared one top-end restaurant through asphyxiation; innocently helped two very well endowed 18 year old Italian girls take glamour bikini shots with their camera before my travel companion happened upon me; and twice ate reconstituted fish meat. The fish was very good.
But I will get to all that. It is still early in our trip and we are still trying to fit in.
Yes, that is a real door way of a real apartment here in Chiado (a neighborhood in Lisbon, Portugal.)
Lisbon has been around for a long time. It’s older than Rome. Locals hold that Ulysses founded Lisbon right after taking down Troy for his girlfriend Helen — “supposedly” the most beautiful woman in the world — and making his way home to his trustworthy wife Penelope. That said, it was probably the Phoenicians who founded Lisbon. Then Rome took it. Then they lost it to the Ottomans. Then the Knights Templar took it back. Then there was the golden age of exploration and colonization. Then there was Queen Catherine of Braganza, which our own New York Queens is named after. Then there was WWI and then WWII not to mention the Spanish Civil War. Throw in a dictator, president-for-life, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. And now Portugal is a quasi-socialist government trying to grow the economy, stay in the EU through fiscal prudence while providing a social framework under a maximum 40% progressive tax bracket.
I know… Portugal… I’m sure a lot of Californians are looking at Lisbon as an alternative to Texas or Florida. Anyway…
Lisbon is to the old world what San Francisco is to the New. They have a bridge exactly like the Golden Gate which they hold is designed by the same architect (but our guide says, like Ulysses, is not true.) There are cable cars winding through steep winding streets, although a Steve McQueen car chase in Lisbon would leave both actors dead. And, they like good food and good wine.
San Francisco lays on the edge of the New World; Portugal kisses the edge of the Old World. Both look West.
Both are filled with hope and promise and exploration.
It was during the Age of Discovery in the 15th to 17th centuries that Lisbon became a launching pad as pioneers from Spain and Portugal looked for new spice routes to China. Columbus and Magellan both left from this naturally protected port of Lisbon on their now famous and uncharted travels.
Below is a photo of the square on the mouth of the Tagus River that forms a harbor to the Atlantic and where the ships launched.
If you’re an explorer of any kind go to Lisbon. You can smell it in the Mediterranean breeze or in the special sunlight that bounces off the river water. Even today locals lament that they found the world and are only left with a small sliver of it.
For those explorers in high heels note that the city provides a few challenges. The steep and angled streets are high-polished small limestone bricks with the exact perfect gap in between that shoe designers measured and then standardized for stilettos around the world to fit perfectly inside. There are small plaques on the tight straight streets of Baixa in Portuguese noting the famous people over the last three centuries who have slipped and fallen on their rear-ends on these streets. There is a little plaque for Cesário Verde for example next to a book store.
We opt for a bicycle tour through these streets instead.
More on that tomorrow!