The Back Streets of Lisbon

I must correct an observation that I made a few days ago when I said that Lisbon was not a pretty city. Yesterday’s tour showed us that it was just the opposite.

We had booked on a small group tour of the city and with a couple of ‘no shows’ our expected party of eight was reduced to us spending the day with just two other women from Calgary We had a virtually private tour by our guide/driver. The tour was billed as showing us Lisbon ‘as the locals know it’ and it certainly lived up to its reputation. 

We started out with a visit to the waterfront. At the southern end is the historic Belem Tower which was built as a fortress and housed the offices of the tax collector for ships entering the port. It was, in fact, one of the world’s first customs offices. A few hundred metres along to the north was the tall and striking memorial to Portuguese sea farers. It represents the prow of a ship with sculptures of famous explorers looking out expectantly to sea. In its heyday in the 1400s, Portugal was a leading maritime nation with its explorers reaching amazing places in Africa, India, Japan, Asia and possibly even Australia.



Nearby this monument is a square that contains the tomb to the unknown soldier. Unlike our wars where this type of memorial commemorates this killed in the Great War, the one in Lisbon commemorates those killed in the Portuguese Colonial Wars. I think these were conflicts in places around the world, and most likely Africa, where soldiers died either acquiring, or defending colonies. The ceremonial guards are very disciplined in their drill.


From the waterfront, we drive through a large number of narrow and winding streets around the city of Lisbon. At the top of the street in which our hotels is situated (Liberation Avenue) is a very impressive monument to the Marquis of Pombol. At the time of the earthquake in 1755, when most of Lisbon was destroyed, he was the Prime Minister and took responsibility for the redevelopment of the city. Seismologists estimate that the earthquake had a magnitude of between 8.5 and 9.0. It could be felt as far away as Scandinavia. We have heard various reports of the number of deaths, but they range from between 10,000 and 100,000 people.


On our way around the city, our guide pointed out so many buildings and features that we had no hope of remembering all of  them. We drove past the enormous Commerce Square and into the old town. One of our stops was to a bakery that made a famous egg tart in flaky pastry (Pastel de Nata). With a dusting of cinnamon and icing sugar, they were quite delicious. A delicious Portuguese favourite. 


We stopped for lunch in a little sidewalk cafe. They had a small platform that created a flat niche on the steep hillside and we ate under umbrellas enjoying a guitarist playing music. The cafe was on a street serviced by the old Number 28 tram that winds its way through the narrow streets of this part of town. In other parts of Lisbon the teams have been replaced by buses and some more modern European style trams. The old trams here are a great tourist attraction and every one is packed full of people gazing out through the windows with cameras at the ready.  


Our lunch was a traditional Portuguese dish of Cod Fish. This is the same salted cod that my mother used to cook at Easter – now coming from Norway. I disliked it intensely but here it actually tasted like nice fish rather than salty leather. It seems that the secret is to soak it in water for three days (changing the water every day) to remove the salt. That wasn’t the way my mother ever knew how to cook it. No wonder it tasted terrible!


After lunch, our tour continued along little narrow cobble stone streets that were barely wide enough for a car. We passed every church in Lisbon. Driving here is a continual game of bluff. It’s necessary to drive on the wrong side of the narrow roads occasionally to pass the trams and every corner requires a deft bit of driving to avoid turning traffic. Our driver was forced to make a number of U-turns where we shuffled around parked cars, pedestrians and taxis. I will be driving through parts of France in a few days but I’m glad I’m not driving around here. It was very interesting to see something of life behind the scenes, especially life in some of the poorer areas of the city.


We found some splendid vantage points on the hill by the castle that gave us excellent views across the city. In Portuguese, these are called ‘Miradores’ and each one was heavily populated with people enjoying the sunny day with a beer, wine, or coffee. The castle was positioned on a hill that gave good views from every direction of a possible threat. It was begin by the Phoenicians, continued as a fortress by the Romans and operated as a castle by the Moors and then finally by the Portuguese. It has had more owners than Young & Jackson’s Hotel. All that remains today are the battlements and a few towers. Archeologists have a field day in places like this.


We didn’t have time to visit a few of the places that the tour described but with the very personal attention that we had in such a small tour group, it was easily forgiven. Right now we are flying at 36,000 feet on our way to Barcelona where we have a day to look at a little of the architecture by the famous Spanish architect Gaudi.


Bruce is a keen traveller and photographer. This web site describes his travel and family interests

2 thoughts on “The Back Streets of Lisbon

  1. Looking at the photos brought back happy memories, lucky you with the city tour. The Tagas looks huge in the background. xx

  2. A city of great contrast and History. Your tour sounds both fascinating and nerve wracking with respect to driving.

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