Collections from various notes and observations made during several trips to Lisbon.

Every time I visit Lisbon, I find the city’s nostalgia expressed in one of two forms: the century-old trams that still toddle up and down the narrow, cobblestoned, hilly lanes of the city. And songs of melancholy echoing against the walls of Rua de Santa Justa: Fado, as it is called – derived from a Latin word meaning fate – sung mostly by a man, with a guitar, expressing his sorrow, miseries and dreams that never look likely to be fulfilled.

A Portuguese friend, Fahd, once told me that fado emerged when the Portuguese lived in fear of “… the Spanish on one side, and the deep blue sea on the other.” I found it rather strange, having associated Lisbon as the starting point of many a brave sea voyage. Vasco da Gama set sail from Lisbon in his quest to find India.

I refrain from moving away from my routine during my visits to Lisbon. A walk towards Mounmento dos Restauradores down the clangorous Avenida Liberdade is akin to transiting from the present to the past, as you cross through an array of boutiques and cafes housing brands that you knew you could never afford, yet not missing the sights beyond on this city built on seven hills, like Rome, throwing every now and then, a view of colorful houses and roofs connected by narrow walk-ways and trams that run through the city. It is perverse, I would think, to shop brands in a city as historic as Lisbon, when I could have rather done the same in Paris, or Milan – both less historic, less charming to the curious traveler.

A quick stop at Starbucks for “… the usual, Chai Tea Latte. Venti,” is often followed by a waiter yelling my name, because I am absorbed by the sights of people walking across the Teatro Nacional de Maria.

“Sandro, right?”

“Uh …”

Chai Tea Latte?

“Yes.” And I would be given my drink, to find my cup diligently scribbled with the name “SANDRO”; the first few times, I grinned, until it came to a point where I’d be disappointed if they deduced my name.

It is here that I was once told, ironically, that Avenida Liberdade (Liberty Avenue) was once a promenade that was accessible only to those who paid taxes. The walls were later pulled down in the 18th century once the Liberals took over Lisbon.

The Market Square, Praca de Figueira, at Rossio always seems opulent: a crowded jumble of hawkers and customers are busy with their bags, and the tourists with their cameras. A bronze statue of King John I in the center of the square is often the focus of interest. And in the backdrop, the Castlo de S Jorge, on top of a hill, overlooks the city. To my right, the trams that connect the central neighborhoods of Lisbon rattle in slow-motion.

If I am hungry, I would head down the Rua Das Portas de Santao Antao, a commercial, cobblestoned street filled with restaurants and antique shops. The waiters of these restaurants are tasked with enticing customers, often not giving up on you until you either walk away faster, or yell “No, Obrigado. 

I would have it relatively easy, for these restaurants are known for their sea-food, and my vegetarian diet doesn’t include that. The luxury of having to choose between a few Indian restaurants – Sitar, Agra, The Gandhi Palace – soon follows.

National Geographic lists the Lisbon trams in their top 10 list for trolley rides around the world. Although I have always walked around the city, the ascents and descents, I have observed, are brought to life through the tram rides.

The first time I visited, I stopped by an antique shop in search of a replica model of the Sao Gabriel. I ended up buying a mariner’s map instead. Columbus’ journey had violated the Treaty of Torsedillas which stated that the lands belonging to the east of the Cape Verde Islands (off the western coast of Africa) would belong to Portugal, and those to the west to Castilla (Spain). History would follow a dramatically altered course since.

What I look forward to most is the stroll down Rua Agusta, where the numerous cafes and tourists never fail to keep me amused until I reach Lisbon’s famous Arch – Arco da Rua Augusta, which was built to commemorate the rebuilding of the city after the 1755 earthquake, opening a startling view of the Praca de Comercio.  A statue of King Jose I adorns the center of the Praca de Comercio, situated on the banks of the Tagus River.

During one of my most recent visits to Lisbon, the entire square was transformed into a Football Fan-Zone. The Euro 2016 was on, and Portugal eventually ended up as champions. On other days, evenings can be spent on the banks of the Tagus River watching the skies change colors, and visitors feeding ducks.

“For the traveller who comes in from the sea, Lisbon, even from afar, rises like a fair vision in a dream, clear-cut against a bright blue sky which the sun gladdens with its gold. And the domes, the monuments, the old castles jut up above the mass of houses, like far-off heralds of this delightful seat, of this blessed region,” writes Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s celebrated poet, on the opening page of his guide to Lisbon.

Pessoa left Lisbon at the age of five, studied in South Africa and returned to Lisbon never to leave the city again. He never became famous until well after his death. He had written an English guide on Lisbon in 1925, which he never published, expressing his sorrow in Lisbon’s demotion from a great European capital to a small-country town. His works were recovered in 1987, well after his death.

A bronze statue of Fernando Pessoa sits outside the Café A Brasileira in Chiado, a central neighborhood in Lisbon.

National Geographic lists the Lisbon trams in their top 10 list for trolley rides around the world. Although I have always walked around the city, the ascents and descents, I have observed, are brought to life through the tram rides.

There is no better view of Lisbon than from atop. I climb up the hill leading to Castelo de Sao Jorge and find it easy to understand why Lisbon is called the city of seven hills, the castle being situated on the highest acme within the city.

I overhear a tour-guide explaining to a small group that the hill was home to some of the earliest settlers in Lisbon. The fortified walls overlook the historic center on one side, and the Tagus River flowing into the Atlantic on the other. In the background, a suspension bridge and the statue of Christ the King (inspired by Christ the Redeemer from Rio de Janeiro) overlooks the river.

It is believed that the statue was built to thank the church for keeping Portugal out of the Second World War.

A walk along the Tagus River towards the Atlantic takes you back a few centuries – the Age of Discoveries, as History fondly remembers it. Some of the greatest maritime discoveries that shaped modern history commenced from Lisbon. For many sailors and adventurers leaving Lisbon, the Belem Tower remained their last sight of home for a long, long time.

Built as a fortress to guard the city from potential attacks through the sea, the tower was originally built on a small island in the middle of the Tagus River. Water levels have receded since, and it is now accessible by foot from mainland. Adjacent to the tower is another one – The Monument of Discoveries. The tower is adorned by over 30 statues of those prominent during the ages of discovery.

I have found often that I try hardest to master the art of doing nothing in the open cafes that are lined adjacent to the tower. It is a refreshing sight – the river, the bridge, the two towers and the Atlantic. Occasionally, I distract myself with a book.

A walk towards Santa Apolina along the Tagus River (away from the Atlantic) surprised me with the variety of street art that was in show. I am surprised graffiti-excursions aren’t common place here. Street art, like music, represents the hope and hassles of people in the region. “It is like an open-air museum,” a café owner in the area told me. Murals make the old, plain buildings come to life.

I was told after I reached Santa Apolina, Lisbon’s oldest railway station, that train art is another form of mural sighting. “Political murals came into prominence after the revolution in the 1970s,” a local informed me.

I enjoy walking through these neighborhoods – the first time I found myself exploring the streets without a map only to return to the point I’d started my walk from. Lisbon is a city best explored by foot; for the time-constrained traveler – trams.