I have had some pretty adventuresome vacations: Banff, where I had my closest encounter with a grizzly bear; whitewater canoeing in Ontario and Quebec; and last year, when we got uncomfortably close to the wine country wildfires.
And last month, I encountered a different kind of adventure in Portugal. It’s a wonderful place, and my lovely wife and I fully enjoyed it—with one exception.
My pocket got half-picked. More on that in a little.
Today’s hot travel destination
When we arrived in Lisbon, we were immediately surprised by how crowded everything was: streets, shops, restaurants, hotels. We usually travel in September, to avoid the summer crowds, but as the locals explained, busy season lasts almost year round now.
We were also struck by the number of very tall people we saw. I’m 183 cm tall (6 feet—I lost an inch. Aging sucks.) Men and women towered over us. And they seemed to come from all over: the U.K., Germany, Scandinavia, North America, France, eastern Europe. I know that Brits and Scandinavians are often tall, but I was starting to feel that there was a convention for tall people in Lisbon that I was not invited to (I told you I had shrunk nearly an inch from my younger days).
The next thing we found is that the locals are almost uniformly friendly and happy to help. And the food is fantastic. Great seafood and pastries. The local favourite is a custard tart, and they are fantastic.
Prices are more reasonable than in France, Italy or California, but more expensive than the Czech Republic. The currency is the Euro, so you also have to be aware of the exchange factor—which is pretty steep for Canadians.
An exciting and beautiful city
There’s plenty to see and do in Lisbon. There is lots of beautiful architecture, lots of history. We started in the Baixa (lower) district, the centre of Lisbon rebuilt after a huge earthquake in 1755 according to Enlightenment ideas: streets laid out in a grid pattern, grand squares, graceful buildings. Many of the sidewalks and pedestrian streets are paved with mosaic-like, shiny, slippery tile that apparently has cooling properties. Portuguese pavement, or calçada portuguesa is often made into beautiful, intricate and often playful patterns.
One of my favourite parts was the Elevador de Santa Justa. Built in the 19th century, it’s really an elevator that takes pedestrians from the lower Baixa to the Alta neighbourhood.
The guidebooks warn you that Lisbon is hilly, but really, the whole country seems hilly. We did a lot of climbing. Hence elevators and funiculars in various spots.
We then went to Lisbon’s oldest district, the Alfama, whose name derives from the Moorish period. It’s on a hill crowned by the Castelo Castelo de Sao Jorge. If you go, don’t miss the display of the camera obscura, the periscope built into the keep from which you can see, in real time, the city around you.
A close call near the monastery
Take the metro to the western Belem neighbourhood. Don’t bother with the coastal train. The station is inconvenient, the line-ups long and the schedule restricting. But do go to see the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, or Monument to the Discoveries. It’s 52 metres high, shaped like a caravel, the vessel used by the storied Portuguese explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Not far from it is the 16th-century Torre de Belem, built to protect the city and the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos or Jeronimos Monastery.
As my wife and I crossed the foot bridge over the highway between the Tagus River and the Mosterio, I felt something on my backside. I reached back and found my wallet halfway out of my pocket. That pocket, by the way, was buttoned, but the button was gone by the time I interrupted the theft.
I turned quickly to see a young woman and a man very close behind me.
I confronted her, announcing in a loud voice to any other tourists that she had just tried to pick my pocket. She and the man with her both vehemently denied doing so. I blocked their way on the stairway down from the bridge, hoping a cop would happen by, but of course none did. Eventually, I had to let them go on their way—which was down off the staircase, and around to the stairs on the other side of the bridge to go up again.
Eventually, I did find two police officers near the Monastery, and reported the incident to them. They thanked me, warned me about crowded areas, and said they would look into it. Takeaway: don’t keep your wallet in your back pocket in areas crowded with tourists, beacause they’re a draw for thieves.
The main takeaway: if you can, do visit Portugal. Lots to see, lots to do, very warm and friendly people, lots of great food, and reasonable prices.