Lisbon: Beauty in Miniature and Generosity at Large

View of Lisbon city and bay from atop Castelo de Sao JorgeThe hills of Lisbon, stuttering with red-tiled roofs and church bells, swept down to an expansive estuary that came as a surprise when I walked out of the older districts, through the old town and across the shopping street and up to the castle-turned-public-gardens where, thankfully, vinho verde wine was served, sparkling and light and refreshing on a hot day.

The huge, calm water, spanned by busy bridges that seemed insignificant from a high distance, although their traffic was overwhelming up close, surprised because the older, picturesque parts of the city were hemmed in by close-knit, chipped multi-story buildings that shut out the light and provided convenient distance for slinging laundry lines across. The streets of LIsbon weren’t claustrophobically narrow, just closed in and hivelike enough to make me feel just a little lost in a different world, or the worlds of many different lives, as each cobbled turning seemed to lead to an entirely different neighborhood with its own families and cafes and flowered balconies and laundry lines.

A sample of the old tile work around Lisbon windowsMy second day-long walk through the city was meant to show me the sights, but, except for making it up to the hilltop Castelo de Sao Jorge, I didn’t take note of any particular churches, or historical monuments, or even the odd wrought-iron lift that linked the Baixa quarter with the Largo do Carmo (it looked an awful lot to me like a storage house for Inquisition victims, although I’m sure that wasn’t its intention when it was built to save people a hike less than 100 years ago). Instead, I got repeatedly lost, taking turning after turning to chase after the repetitive, delightful tile work that is one of Lisbon’s last remnants of its long-past Moorish invaders. I’d seen tile work like it in Turkey, although of a very different style, and found it ridiculously entrancing, as if it were a high art form akin to classical music, mesmerizing.

Deceptively simple tile work aorund a Lisbon doorwayMostly, it was just very pretty, and fitting for a city that wasn’t ashamed to flaunt superfluous flourishes, either in its architecture or its hospitality. As I hunted down tiled door after tiled window, I punctuated the day with coffee: um galao, um garoto escuro, uma italian, uma bica. I wanted to try all the varieties Lisbon could bring itself to make. Each request, with a halting por favor, brought a big smile and huge rush of friendly words from the waiter. Clean and beautiful and awash in EU money that sank a noisy road underground and modernized the subway, Lisbon residents seemed to have no expectation that visitors would attempt to learn their language, even though pride in their wine, their cheese, their culture, and their city, was more than evident, and rightfully so. I made myself almost sick on those soft cheeses, and, four months pregnant, could hardly do the wine justice.

But the kindness of the people and the beauty of the city was easy to drink in.

Narrow, friendly streets in LisbonWorn out from hours walking the streets of the Bairro Alto, I crossed the wide tree-lined thoroughfare leading toward the water and splitting the Bairro Alto from castle-hosting Alfama, the street just a touristy sunken valley between two hills buzzing with local life.

A tram line took a steep road up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, once the residence of Lisbon’s nobility, now public gardens. I caught the tram at the bottom of the hill and hung onto a strap, swaying as it pitched itself up an ever more precipitous grade. An old man watched me from his seat, his eyes focused at the level of my belly. He narrowed his eyes and gesticulated with hands and voice. “Sit,” he said, the demand clear even if I couldn’t understand the words. “No,” I said, smiling, “I’m fine. You sit. I’m okay.” Exasperated, he gathered his three plastic bags and two canes together and stood up, a hand that could almost be described as ancient pushing me into his seat. “You’ll fall, you’ll hurt your baby, you’ll end up in the hospital,” and, blushing, I sat, as the old man with the three full plastic bags used his canes to balance and got off at the next stop. I stared after him, wondering. In America, none of my friends could yet tell that I was pregnant.

The Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon's Alfama districtI got off at the top, the Castelo de Sao Jorge, a Moorish castle that had once hosted Portuguese royalty. Sitting on the ramparts, contemplating a glass of vinho verde with crusty bread and soft cheese, overlooking a tumbling city that seemed to rush like a red-tiled waterfall to the estuary, falling over itself with kindness. When I left, I walked down a tiny street where every house had a caged canary singing next to its front door.

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