Continued from here.
Following the band-bus ride, Nick and I slept like babies. We awoke on Saturday morning to near-freezing temperatures, and gray skies. I thought we left Paris? No matter, It was time for more coffee and custard tarts.
Founded in 1829, the Confeitaria Nacional is special not only for its vintage décor, but for the fact that they roast their own coffee. It was ever so slightly more expensive than the other pastry shops we visited – coffee was 70 cents and our four-pastry breakfast with two coffees cost a little over five euros – but the quality was evident. If I were to continue the rankings, I’d say these were the second-best pastéis de nata we ate, after Pastéis de Belém.
Nicely browned, flaky crust, creamy custard, and the cute, for-some-reason-makes-me-think-of-old-pharmacies surroundings made these tarts almost worth the extra 10 cents.
After breakfast we wanted to catch the famous tram 28 up the hill to the moorish Alfama district and the Castelo de São Jorge (st. George’s castle). But when we finally found the right tram stop, it was already populated by more than a tram’s worth of tourists. We waited a few minutes, then set off on foot, figuring that the uphill walk would warm us up as well as work off our breakfast. It didn’t take too long before we arrived at the Sé Cathedral.
Built in 1150 on top of the ruins of a mosque, this cathedral is decidedly heavy. I guess I haven’t visited very many Romanesque cathedrals, but the simple design and small windows really make you appreciate the architectural innovations of the Gothic period, Chartres being a prime example).
I didn’t get a picture of it, but there was graffiti on the front of the cathedral, which is not something I’ve seen before. Seems awfully disrespectful. Leaving the cathedral, we continued uphill to the Museu de Teatro Romano, an uncovered, then buried, then re-excavated Roman amphitheater. The current excavation has been going on since the 1960’s. Then we got to our goal: the castle. It was the only sight the whole weekend that required waiting in line, and said wait was only about five minutes. Ah, the joys of traveling in the low season!
The Castelo São Jorge, really more of a fortress than a castle, sits on the highest of Lisbon’s seven hills. The views over the city from the ramparts is breathtaking, and climbing on the castle walls, which curiously lacked safety railings, certainly got my heart racing, especially when it started raining. We explored the grounds and poked our heads into the on-site museum, and then decided it was time for a hearty, warming lunch. Pizza sounded really good, and we had a tip on a wood-fired pizza place down in the warehouse district. After getting a little lost in the winding streets of Alfama (a misadventure that would have been a lot more fun had it not been so cold and wet) we found our way to the metro station and made it to Casanova, where the line was a mile long. The thin-crusted pizzas coming out of the oven looked fantastic and smelled even better, so we decided to wait. We were rewarded with some very tasty pies, one topped with spicy salami and the other with prosciutto and mushrooms. My tummy was starting to miss real vegetables, though.
Given the cold weather we didn’t feel too bad about planning indoor activities for the rest of the day, so we decided to pass the afternoon at ViniPortugal. They offer free wine tastings in exchange for your opinions – free market research for them. Of course, the tastings are offered every hour or so, and we had just missed the start of one, so we had some time to kill. We used it to look for a hat shop, which wasn’t as fun as I had hoped – I like to browse, as opposed to talking to a salesperson about things locked away behind glass cases. But it took enough time for us to get into the next wine tasting session. The woman running it was less than friendly, and the process was more than a little unclear, but I guess that’s the price you pay for free wine. We had some very good ones and some very mediocre ones, but it was interesting to learn a little bit about Portuguese wines.
We were still full from lunch, so we decided to take a walk through the Chiado, Lisbon’s traditionally literary neighborhood, former home to several beloved Portuguese poets. We ended up at the top lof another hill, in the party-centric Bairro Alto. We figured we had earned a cocktail, so we stopped into a little Latin bar that served very good caipirinhas. We used the time to look into restaurants in the neighborhood and discovered that one of Lisbon’s best Portuguese places, O Barrigas, was right down the street from where we were. We got there just in time, before the dinner rush began in earnest, and were thankful to have gotten a table. The place was cozy, the waitress friendly, and the food – best described as updated classics – was just what we needed after a day of climbing hills. I had turkey in spiced port sauce, and Nick got the cod soufflé, a house specialty.
After dinner we felt rejuvenated and decided to check out some of the bars in the very lively neighborhood. Walking down the street we ran into Lee and Doug, the couple we had met the day before at the Enoteca de Belém. They were going to a hipster bar called Bedroom and asked if we wanted to join them. Why not? The rest of the evening is a bit hazy, but we had a great time, and the outdoor temperature warmed up so much that I forgot (read: lost) my sweater, which was upsetting, because Paris is still really cold. The night ended with me chasing a bus that was holding Nick hostage for about two blocks, then giving up on the buses and just taking a taxi back to the hotel. Apparently this is not an atypical Bairro Alto experience.
In the morning we were feeling less than stellar, so what did we do? Climbed another hill, of course, to try one more pastelaria.
It’s not much on the outside, but the Pastelaria São Roque was beautiful, if a little run-down, on the inside. Mirrors, frescoes, and gilt moldings surround an ordinary-looking counter where we bought four pastéis de nata and two coffees.
It was windy but warm, and we were overheated from the steep climb, so we grabbed a table outside and tucked into the tarts. These had a different custard, sweeter and slightly lemony, but they hit the spot all the same. We did a quick tour of the Centro de Arte Moderna and its accompanying gardens, then it was time to grab our bags from the hotel and try to find a taxi, which we did, in the nick of time. Moments after shutting the door of the old Mercedes and telling the driver “airport” in halting Portuguese, the sky opened up. If not for that taxi, we would have been drenched. I noticed, on the way out of town, that the temperature was 18 degrees Celsius. I shuddered to think of the frigid 3 degrees back in Paris, and checked to make sure my scarf and hat were easily accessible.
Lisbon surprised me in a lot of ways. It was legitimately cheap – it seems that most places people tell you are cheap really aren’t so much anymore, but in Portugal it still seems to be true. It looks like nowhere else I’ve been, with its cracked facades and tile-covered buildings, and yet it’s also reminiscent of several places: San Francisco with its hills and suspension bridges, Torino with its big arcaded squares and right angled streets, even Rio (where I haven’t been…yet) with its huge statue of Jesus, arms outspread, overlooking the city. The food was great, and it’s always fun to discover a new-to-me cuisine. I’d have loved to spend even more time exploring this fascinating city, but I guess that just means I’ll have to go back.
Originally published on Croque-Camille.