Flowering April cools and dies~From ‘Alphonso of Castile’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson
In the insufficient skies;
Imps at high Midsummer blot
Half the sun’s disk with a spot;
‘Twill not now avail to tan
Orange cheek, or skin of man:
Roses bleach, the goats are dry,
Lisbon quakes, the people cry.
It was a drizzly mid-October afternoon when we arrived in Portugal’s iconic capital city of Lisbon. Vince and I had decided to join a group trip (our first one since 2019 when we went to Egypt and Jordan) with Percussive Tours, so we were accompanied by a group of twenty other travelers. All of us were overjoyed to be done with airports for the time being, and we were eager to check into our rooms at the MeraPrime Hotel which offered us easy access to several famous parts of the city. After settling into our hotel room and freshening up, Vince and I wasted no time in heading out into the city with our friends Rachel and Jared. The MeraPrime is just a couple of blocks away from sights like Commerce Square, Rua Augusta, and the Santa Justa Elevator, so there was plenty for us to see by just stepping outside the hotel doors.
The first of these sights that we actually encountered was the Santa Justa Lift, a wrought iron elevator that was designed by Raoul Mesnier, who was a student of Gustave Eiffel. The lift was opened to the public in 1902 and still attracts long queues of tourists every day. Lisbon is known for having seven hills (some argue that there are actually eight hills), so there are free elevators around the city to help people get up hill faster and easier. The Santa Justa lift costs something like €6, and it brings passengers uphill to the ruins of Carmo Convent. We didn’t ride the lift ourselves because we didn’t care to wait in a long line just to avoid walking up a staircase, but we did admire the its beautiful design from street level.
Just across the street from the lift was Rua Augusta, a pedestrian road lined with shops and resaurants. We poked around in some souvenir shops and then settled down at a random restaurant to eat dinner. It had been a long day of airplane food before this, so we were all very excited to get something more substantial to eat. I highly recommend branching out from Rua Augusta for food while in Lisbon. Its atmosphere is fun, and its easy to get to, but cheaper and better food can be found practically everywhere else in the city. For the time being, Rua Augusta would suffice though because we were on a bit of a time crunch. We had an evening walking tour scheduled with the rest of the group, so we walked back to the MeraPrime after paying for our meal.
Our tour guide, Kate, was right on time, and she led us into the city just as it was beginning to lightly rain. Luckily, I had my rain coat with me, so the mild sprinkling was of little consequence. First, Kate brought us to Praça de D. Pedro IV, more commonly known as Rossio. This central square has been a meeting place in the city for centuries, and presently it was occupied by a group of Lula supporters waving Brazilian flags. The square was paved with a hypnotic pattern of waving black and white tiles that Kate said symbolized the overlapping waters of the Atlantic ocean and the Tagus river.
It started raining harder, so we ducked into the entry way of a nearby Cathedral where we could see lingering evidence of the devastating 1755 earthquake that struck Lisbon at a magnitude of 7.7 on the morning of All Saints Day. Shortly after the earthquake, a tsunami followed, leaving even more destruction in its wake. Because so much of the city was damaged or destroyed by the quake, Lisbon’s infrastructure is all relatively new when compared to the rest of Europe, but there are vestiges left from before the disaster, such as the Carmo Convent and the Igreja de São Domingos, where we could still see evidence of the several catastrophes that have befallen it over the centuries.
The rain had eased up by the time Kate had finished telling us the somber story of the Lisbon Earthquake, and she led us uphill to Alfama, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. Cable cars lumbered past as we walked down the streets and learned about the development of Fado, a haunting musical style that originated in Alfama. We also got to take in some breathtaking views of the city from one of the many miradores that sit on its hill tops. From there we could see the Ponte 25 de Abril, a red suspension bridge that put me to mind of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco, and the far off Sanctuary of Christ the King, a monument that was inspired by Rio de Janero’s Christ the Redeemer statue.
Apart from these more famous sights, Alfama also had an enticing atmosphere. Art galleries and antique shops lined the tiled streets, musicians sang at popular viewpoints, and we got so see some amazing examples of hand-painted tile work on the outside of its buildings. We watched a sunset of muted pastels over the Tagus River. The rain had subsided, but the sky was still awash with clouds that glowed with a subtle pink. It was dark by the time Kate dropped us back off at the MeraPrime, and I could hardly believe how much we’d seen in just the few hours since we’d arrived in the city. It may have been a short first day, but we’d certainly been able to get our bearings, and we now had several ideas of where to shop, eat, and sightsee once we had more time. About half of the group went out afterwards to cap off our first night in Lisbon at a nearby cocktail lounge, where we all chatted excitedly over drinks and tapas about all of the things the next week would have in store us.