I thought Lisbon would be like most other European cities. pretty but predictable. Pretty it was, but not in the usual made-for-tourists way. It had shades of San Francisco (hilly and and a bridge strikingly similar to that what-is-the-big-hype-about-Golden-Gate-bridge), Rome (charming old structures) and possibly Calcutta (dripping with everyday life). Between the attractions, there were run down buildings, narrow alleys going and up and down dramatically, clothes hanging outside, smells of fishes being cooked, locals hanging out at street corners. Somehow all the imperfections actually makes it all the more charming.
I set out with no clear plan in mind. The overwhelming landmark is the castle (Castelo de São Jorge) at the top of a steep little hill, but rather than climbing all the way up there, I boarded the cute tram #28. It meanders through the densely populated mini hills and the valleys that make up the city, navigating the dramatic slopes precariously, barely wiggling through the narrowest of alleys, passing by the river Tagues, often presenting striking views.
In addition, there was music. Fado is the traditional Portuguese music, soulful songs of love and heartbreak, probably originated in the bygone era of lonely sailors. There were musicians performing live on the tram (link to a recording), as a part of summer festival, with locals spontaneously joining in, vastly outnumbering the tourists.
Hopping out of the tram I walked randomly across the almost maze like Bairro Alto, zigzagging through the cobblestone roads and inclines. And when my feet started complaining from all the climbing, there were these lovely elevators, one going up along a metallic cage (Elevador da Santa Justa), another more like an antique streetcar (Elevador da Glória).
The suburb of Belem was next. The much advertised monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos) was indeed grand, and contained the tomb of Vasco da Gama, who would always have a special place in Indian history.
Standing across the road was the monument to all those brave explorers and discoveries, and a big world map showing the glorious days of the Portuguese domination, from coasts of America to Asia.
The adjacent tower of Belem has a forlorn aura about it, overlooking the river with boats passing by, headed to the sea.
It is interesting how British and Portuguese (and the Spanish, of course), so different in every other respect, ended up conquering so many distant shores. I may be totally wrong, but my feeling is, while the British were more of resource hunters and their reminiscence is one of pride, Portuguese legacy is more of the adventurous spirit, and exploration.
The Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art was rather small, but worth a quick visit. I also dropped by the Museu da Electricidade to have a look at the world press photo exhibition going on there.
I had no idea what awaited me when I headed to Sintra next morning, an UNESCO heritage town half an hour away from the city, The bus climbed up the hill up from the station and stopped at the ruins of Moorish castle (Castelo dos Mouros).
I always wanted to a visit a real, once functional European castle, and this was it!
This is probably one of he most underrated attractions I have visited for a long while. While I must admit that not too much has survived the time, the remnants are definitely worth the short hike. I walked along the ramparts, climbed up to the towers, overlooking the vast expanse and the stunning Pena Palace at a distance.
The Pena Palace itself was royally gorgeous and more colorful than Disney, and offering nice views of the rather dull National Palace and the lovely Monserrate Palace down there.
Lisbon was lively no doubt and, but Sintra captured by imagination, a living testament to the tales of yore.
Finally to this tiny coastal town calld Foz de Arhelo, for the actual physics workshop. This is Atlantic from the "other" side. And it feels so much more virgin than from overtly commercialized Florida. My hotel room is on a cliff, overlooking the mouth of a lagoon meeting the ocean, and I can hear waves roaring all night. Pure, unspoiled sand and water, a fantastic landscape.
Any trip is not complete without sampling local food and drink. I was asked by a friendly waiter if I want the "beef" of pork or cow -I ended up going with the pork, crisply fried succulent pieces. However, this is a seafood lovers paradise, fresh fish, octopus, squids abound, all fresh and rather affordable. All these years I thought of Sardines as somethings which originate in those tiny cans, and it was a revelation to devour big shiny and tasty Sardines. How would I go back to those cans again? Pastel de Belém is the famous local creamy and ultra sweet pastry, and yummy. Sangria is plentiful and cheap. This is a country where Port wine came from, and while I am no wine connoisseur, the ones I sampled were aromatic and full.