Lisbon was a bit out of the way, but I kept hearing what a special city it is, so I hopped on a red-eye train from Madrid.
My first impression of the city: Lots of hills and old architecture washed in light blues, pinks and yellows. The streets were a maze, but I could certainly think of worse places to get lost (yeah, that’s a recycled Facebook status for anyone keeping score – can’t always write things of stunning originality).
Skating around the slippery cobblestone roads in my flip-flops, I wasn’t sure how people get anything done in Lisbon. Thanks to lazy, sunny skies and a constant breeze from the ocean, my only real motivation was to plant myself on a bench overlooking the city and enjoy the sights. Felt like I’d just been injected with some kind of drug that made me totally relaxed and complacent, and couldn’t help but think “oh, so this is what being addicted to opium is like – hm, well that’s nice.”
My hostel was just as easy-going. Bean-bag chairs scattered around and an old 1950’s radio playing jazz records, it was a welcome change from some of the more hectic places I’ve stayed.
Bearing a resemblance to Vin Diesel, one of the guys I met in the hostel had been traveling the globe and could make a strong case for The Most Interesting Man in the World.
First piece of evidence: According to him, any tourist can rent a rocket launcher and shoot at cows in Vietnam. Next, he was just about to do the running of the bulls in Spain while wearing a “Where’s Waldo?” costume. If that’s not enough, Vin Diesel look-alike was recently kidnapped and held for three days in Egypt for apparently no reason. He was released without explanation. These are only a few stories. Don’t be surprised if he becomes the face of Dos Equis’ advertising campaign in the future. If nothing else, he’s been immortalized on a blog that’s received nearly 50 hits to date.
Met other memorable travelers, including a guy from Alabama, a German girl from Munich and a group of 17 Scottish people.
The next day, Alabama, The Most Interesting Man in the World and I hiked to the top of a nearby Moorish castle dating back to the 900’s. Enjoying a panoramic view of the city, I settled back into my too-content-to-move daze. Once I snapped out of it, I helped The Most Interesting Man in the World with his “Where’s Waldo?” project by taking a few pictures. Not only is he doing the running of the bulls in Waldo’s trademark red and white, but there are heeps of pictures of him on Facebook wearing the costume around the globe (favorite would have to be him packed into a crowded Asian subway).
Leaving the castle and descending back down the winding streets, we found a cafe that served a special kind of pork sandwich. Considered the local “working man’s sandwich,” I was hit with a guilty feeling as soon as I took my first bite. Since I’ve been living the dream for several months, I’ve been so far removed from anything that could be considered real, actual work.
Heard more stories from The Most Interesting Man in the World. One smaller one I thought was cool: If you ever find yourself wanting to cross a busy street with an uninterrupted stream of traffic in southeast Asia (they ignore all traffic signals), walk at a steady pace and don’t look in either direction. This seem counterintuitive, but looking either left or right will likely make you slow down or speed up, making you less predictable for approaching drivers. However, the same pace guarantees traffic can swerve around you with ease. Reminded me of that Greek myth Orpheus – the tale where a man goes to Hades to find his dead wife. Hades agrees to let him leave with his wife as long as he doesn’t look back in her direction – unfortunately he gives into temptation.
Sketchy figures don’t have to walk far to find temptation in Lisbon. I don’t partake, but lots of harder drugs have been decriminalized. I know many people are skeptical, but from what I’ve read, treating drugs as a public-health issue rather than a criminal problem has paid massive dividends in the form of less crime and lower addiction rates.
But there is a major drawback: Visitors will often hear offers of “cocaine, hash, marijuana” in many touristy areas. It got to be really annoying after a few days, so Alabama and I joked about a few solutions. He proposed blowing a rape whistle every time they approached. I said we should respond with the Simon and Garfunkel song title “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.” I’ll out hippy them yet.
The next day, Alabama and I went in search of surf. Lisbon is technically on a peninsula and it isn’t exposed to the Atlantic’s storms, meaning the closest beaches for catching waves are 30 to 45 minutes away by train. Unfortunately, the waves at the first beach we visited were glassy, yet small. The next beach was beautiful and had waves, but was too windy. For the anyone who is confused by the variation in conditions, the curving coastline is the culprit. Really small or really windy, decided not to take either poison and visit a really cool place – Sintra.
An old palace and an even older castle can be found atop a forested mountain hugging the coastline. It’s a worthy climb for for those with the endurance – or simply take a bus, which we regrettably discovered when we reached the top. But in retrospect, I’m happy we opted to make the trek instead of using public transportation. Pushing further and further into the trees as we climbed upward, I felt like we were part of some past wrapped in the outside present.
Later that night we enjoyed a European tradition: drinking on the streets.
Back in the U.S. several months ago, I asked my German friend who was on exchange what he missed most about home. He didn’t answer family or friends. No, he answered publicly consuming alcohol. I now understand why.
Festive people with glass bottles in hand poured out of more than a dozen streets. Sharing stories and laughing, it was an atmosphere that just can’t be replicated in a bar – and Lisbon has no shortage of cool bars.
There’s much more to say about Lisbon, but this post is already starting to resemble a novel. Among the other highlights: Listening to a local music style called Fado in funky bars splashed with color, teaching some Canadians I befriended how to surf and reading historical accounts of a large earthquake that destroyed the city in the mid-1700s. Recorded in Lisbon several years ago, the soundtrack to these experiences was a song recorded by one of my favorite musicians – I can feel the city’s influence in the melody – sunny and warm.