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The Capital of Portugal

Written on: Tuesday September 13th, 2011

The buzz of the alarm stirred my consciousness entirely too soon.  After fumbling about the room to pack the remaining loose items, we quietly scrambled downstairs to meet the waiting taxi.  Traffic was non-existant, allowing us to reach the Lagos bus station 30 minutes prior to the scheduled departure.  With no coffee shops open at this early hour, we were stuck sipping orange soda and dining on stale Kit Kats.  No matter, the three hour bus ride to Lisbon would return us to the sacred slumber that had eluded us the night before.

Once in town we exited the bus and hopped on the subway.  Fortunately Liz had saved a map of the city on her Ipod, along with directions to the affectionately named 'House of Cats', a privately owned flat in the Alfama that we were renting for the duration of our stay in Lisbon.  It seemed so simple, follow the directions from one street to the next, and arrive at the flat.  Actuality, as it turned out, had something else in mind. 

First of all, it was essential to understand that the Alfama District of Lisbon was comprised of extremely hilly and winding roads.  The term 'roads' may actually have been an over-statement, as these stretches of cobblestone were narrow to the point that most American SUV owners would hear the scrape of side view mirrors along the stone buildings far before they arrived at their destinations.  So it was with a content mind that we set out on foot to discover our Lisbon home. 

After overshooting the initial road into the maze, we did our best to ask directions from a local on the street.  He directed us to an alley-like path and gestured roughly in a north-easterly direction.  The first of our many complications was to discover that, in order to walk north-east, we had to head west and scale one of the many hills in the district.  After following a road that seemed to match Liz's original directions, we once again lost our way.  Just determining our current location was difficult, as street signs were limited and not consistent along any one road.  Continuing uphill, we marched ever closer, often doubling back when a road eventually headed back down toward the sea.  Alas, we located the correct street, honing in further to the flat number.  Unsure of how to access the flat, we looked around aimlessly, only to discover the owner in the nearby plaza chatting with her friends.  Susana was a wonderfully friendly person, showing us both the lay of her flat, as well as the local neighborhood.  We discussed the many sights of Lisbon while dining on local custard pastries that she had previosuly set out for us. 

After Susana left we laid out a plan of exploration, starting with the most famous sight in the city, the Castle of Sao Jorge.  This Moorish extravaganza was a moderately short uphill hike from our flat.  Stopping often along the way to take in the sights of the city below, we eventually made our way to the castle and spent a couple hours navigating the many walls and open spaces on the grounds.  With a human occupation of the area dating back to the 6th century BC, the castle offered spectacular history and views.  There was even a now-defunct moat around the perimeter.

Meandering our way downhill, we set our sights on the Praca do Comercio, or Commercail Square.  This vast expanse located along the water offered delightful architecture, from the endless porticos along its perimeter to the statue of King Jose I in the center.  The Arc do Triumph (aka Rua Augusta Arch) was a proud passageway from the square to Augusta Street, the main road heading back into town.  Walking along this road, we once again noticed the attention to detail below our already-exhausted feet.  Hand laid cobblestone decorated the earth, with a new design installed on every block.  Being the major commerical area of the city, shops and restaurants lined the road.  We continued to exlpore our way through town, zigzagging from one plaza to the next.  A light snack of cod fish balls provided the energy needed to hike back to the flat.

Upon our return to home, we peeked inside the nearby cafe that would soon become our safe haven.  Dona Helena was the 60-something proprietor who welcomed us with a lively smile and a thick Portugese accent.  Completely unable to communicate with words, we gestured as best we could, and were unbelievably happy to be served the coffee and beer that we desired.

Returning to the room, we cleaned up and decided to hunt for a nice place to eat and hopefully take in a fado performance.  As I learned from Susana prior to our arrival, fado was the national music of Portugal.  Although the style varied greatly, the best fado was slow, passionate and powerful, and played in many of the restaurants in this part of town.  Fortunately, Susana had sent us a link a couple weeks before we arrived, and I was able to get a feel for what I liked best (for those who are interested, here is the link to the continuously-played fado radio station via the net: http://www.amalia.fm/radio-online/).

By chance, we ended up at Corazon, a romantic little restaurant a short saunter downhill from our flat.  Hearing the affectionate music already leaking out the open doors, we inquired about sitting at the only remaining empty table.  As we ordered our fish and prawns, and started to focus on the music, a content smile crept across my face.  This music feels right...so happy we are here. 

Fado was a social art in the Lisbon dining scene.  There were often multiple singers who took turns enchanting the audience.  Two guitarists accompanied the singers, who in this case were comprised of the wait staff in addition to the main female artist.  We ate and listened and enjoyed until the place was closed, actually being the last patrons to exit the eatery.

One final walk back up the hill brought us to the House of Cats.  Wiped from another long day of learning and exploration, we wearily climbed into bed and quickly faded into a dreamland of Portugese sights and sounds!