Assassin’s Creed should have really done a Portuguese edition, and it should have been called Assassin’s Creed: Eminence. Imagine climbing over the colourful rooftops of Lisbon, and jumping from Castle to Cathedral.
This is not a thought I had recently; it has been about 13 months since I visited Lisbon. However, before I forget everything, and while it is still relevant, I want to record a few notes. I have been recommending the city to everyone for the past year. From many European airports it is not very expensive to reach, so I encourage anyone adventurous to save up for a few weeks and hop on an airplane. Just go.
Travel As A Student
For my annual holiday I go to either Easyjet.com or Ryanair.com, enter my local airport (Stansted), and see which locations it is possible to fly to. I pick a top 5, and then check which one is the cheapest for the dates I have in mind. Last year, this was Lisbon!
We stayed at Hostel Graça 28, which I can thoroughly recommend. It was clean, friendly, and the staff was very helpful. Confirmation of our excellent choice came in the form of another couple from Cambridge, who had made the same Easter break decision. My sister recently asked me how I choose hostels, so here is a quick overview:
- Google ‘placename+best cheap hostel’ or enter the place-name on a website such as hostelworld.com.
- Check: price (under 10 EUR), rating (over 80%), reviews (but do not get stuck on bad comments by picky people), location (a little out of the centre is often cheaper and more interesting at the same time), whether they serve breakfast, and, if you bring a laptop, whether they have safes/lockers.
- Select a top 3, and google them. Check if they have their own website. Check review on other websites. The internet can be very unreliable so cross-referencing is essential in making a good decision.
For vegetarian food, I sometimes check for a few places online, with the thought that if I cannot find it, there should be other places to eat nearby. I do not have a fancy internet phone, but I just take a photo on my camera (or, nowadays, because I am up-to-date on the world, my tablet), and use that as a digital map. Lisbon was so easy for food however, that I never wrote down where we ate, and I ate all the food before taking any photographs. The sign of a great meal is clearly eating it rather than instagramming it, so I make no apologies.
My itinerary always revolves around archaeology. That does not mean it is the only thing I ever want to see, or what I do all day, but it makes it easier to decide where to start for the day! It is totally fine with me if that day ends on the beach.
Of course we started with Lisbon Cathedral (St Mary’s), which is nice, but the Roman remains hidden underneath are even nicer. There are no astonishing frescoes or mosaics, but the ancient sewage system is still clearly visible. As I remember, it is the site of a few houses, and potentially a road which connected to the theatre a bit further away. The Cathedral itself was built on the site of an old mosque in the 12th century (sadly, leaving little to no trace of the mosque), and in the 14th century the beautiful cloisters were added, increasing the overall elegance of the fortress-like building. Due to a disastrous earthquake in the 18th century much of the Cathedral has also been re-built; but that goes for most Cathedrals nowadays. There was a little exhibition with some Cathedral treasures upstairs as well (not free). We also tried to find the Roman Theatre hanging out down the road, but failed and got lost instead. Not a punishment, as this is a very nice neighbourhood to just walk, and walk.
Next we went to Lisbon Castle (São Jorge), which was cool, but, (guess!), the little Iron Age site underneath was of course even more intriguing. Not much remains; maybe a kitchen; but it is exciting to walk around so many layers of the city’s history all at once. Hilltops are fantastic places for fortresses, and the first traces of fortification have been dated back to the 2nd century BCE. (Most of) the current castle was built in the 11th century. The castle was inhabited by a succession of Portuguese kings, but of course it got damaged in the disastrous earthquake too (and was later restored). Nevertheless, it continued to be used for military purposes as late as the 20th century. The Castle also incidentally had a nice museum explaining all the finds.
On the other hill, we went on a tour of very many churches (of which I should remember the names, but I do not). We also braved a few buses eventually, and traveled down to the Archaeology Museum. Unfortunately it took us a long time to figure out where and how to go and we reached it exactly as it closed. We thought maybe it was walk-able from our hostel, via a nice park, and another wonderful church, and some other nice buildings; but failed to take into account much of this would be up and down hills (or mountains, as I like to call them). The exterior of the Archaelogy museum is also fantastic though. Plus, next to it stands the Berardo Museum of contemporary art (free!), which includes works by Picasso, Tinguely, Mondrian and Warhol. As the sun set, we had an amazing walk back along the shore, via the Belem tower (although admittedly we did take another bus for the last few km).
There are a few cities that spring to mind when it comes to exquisite graffiti: Berlin, Reykjavik… and perhaps Lisbon deserves a place on the list. I did a terrible job at photographing any of it (like the food: I was too busy admiring it), so I will refer you to this article by Rojo & Harrington for additional pictures.
Of particular interest is the Underdogs project, which incorporates the art with the buildings in such a way that it looks as if it belongs there, and as if it has been there for years. The famous central Fado piece I photographed myself is by the Movimento os Amigos de São Cristóvão; a group of people who gathered together paint and artists to bring some more colour to their neighbourhood. It is full of symbols: famous Fado singers, São Cristóvão (patron of travelers), lyrics, food. Most people will wander past this piece as they explore the centre of Lisbon.
This is not exactly a hidden secret, and it is possible to go on street art tours (something I wish I had done, and will do when I return). Nevertheless, it is very easy to overlook many of these beautiful creations by simply missing the right street or being on the wrong side of a building – so it makes for an exciting artistic treasure hunt.
The Relationship Test
What is a holiday without a little bit of adventure. Or testing your relationship, as mum puts it. I googled Roman sites of Portugal, and Google told me to visit Conímbriga: the largest Roman settlement excavated in Portugal and famous for its well-preserved mosaics. It is near Coimbra, which is not too far from Lisbon. If you have a car. By car it is maybe 1.5-2 hours to get to the site. By coach, it was meant to be around 3 hours.
Of course the 3 hours did not include the bus we had to take to the central bus station of Lisbon, and then the bus we had to take from Coimbra to Condeixa. Or Condeixa-a-Nova, I am still not entirely sure. We certainly did get off at the wrong stop though, which was slightly disastrous, as it meant walking an extra 20 minutes in the pouring rain. We crossed a motorway, and a field. I still thought it was worth it. B was more doubtful.
Fortunately, the site turned out to have an absolutely amazing restaurant. Which museum ever comes with an affordable two-course-meal-plus-wine?! Not the British Museum anyway. The best possible reward for our heroic journey. We sat down, dried up a little, and then decided to brave the site. It was still pouring down however, with not much shelter in sight. Two cleaning ladies took pity on us (as we were the only people visiting, clearly) and lend us their colourful flower-adorned umbrellas. The one, and very significant, advantage of pouring rain… is that it makes mosaics look fantastic. Which is precisely what we came to see. Yes, it would have been lovely to skip through the fields in the sunshine, but I think I do have a slightly preference for the weather we ended up with.
The site dates back to the Iron Age, but, unavoidably, the Romans showed up and turned it into a prosperous settlement. A lot of fancy villas survive, as well as remains of baths and a forum. There is also a very nice museum explaining some of the history and artefacts. This is where things got even better: when we stumbled back in at the end of the day, drenched, despite the umbrellas, the remaining staff of the museum gathered, took our soaked clothes off the little heater we had located, and began to iron them! The kindness of complete strangers. This has to be one of my favourite travelling memories ever.
The buses back were a mystery to us, but eventually one materialised, and we returned to Lisbon around 8 or 9pm. Definitely worth it. If I were to return, I would stay in Coimbra for one or two days though, as it seemed like a wonderful city to have a little stroll around as well.
Fairytale Castles of Sintra
Friends, travel guides, and everything else had recommended we go visit Sintra, a little fairytale-town near Lisbon. As this place is much more popular with tourists than Conímbriga, it was very easy to reach by train. The train station was cause for another lovely walk across the city, and the trains were very frequent. As we feared though, there were many people on the same train, and every other building in Sintra was either a souvenir shop or an over-priced restaurant. If I were to visit again, I would definitely bring a packed lunch from a lovely, cheap, Lisbon bakery.
That said, you cannot claim to be allergic to tourists if you join them, and Sintra did not disappoint. We visited one of a selection of beautiful manors and gardens, on the recommendation of a Portuguese friend: Quinta da Regaleira. This is a Neo-Manueline originally belonging to the Barons of Regaleira. It later switched hands to Carvalho Monteiro, who did a lot of re-decorating with architect Luigi Manini, with symbols referring to Alchemy, Masonry, Templar Knights, and more. It was then sold to a number of other important people, to finally be acquired by the Sintra Town Hall. Most of the current estate, as it appears now, was constructed at the beginning of the 20th century. This place is brilliant for small children (and like-minded people) because it has hidden tunnels (including a place named ‘labyrinthic grotto’) and endless small, randomly splitting paths to run around.
Next we climbed up to the Castle. The Castle was constructed as early as the 8th century, but had to surrender to Christian forces by the 12th. The Big Earthquake also caused considerable damage in the 18th century, but Ferdinand II did some thorough re-constructing. The Castle was rather expensive, and claiming to be a student or an archaeologist made no difference. Which was frustrating, as it was really a rather long climb up the mountain to then decide not to enter! I see what they did there. So, grumbling, we entered. Ok, it was fantastic. The view was amazing. The remains were interesting. There was a little site in the basement. If you like Castles, this is a good one. I would go back to excavate there, if they ever do some more excavating. Although – climbing up there every morning??!
I wish I remembered more about the various sites we visited in and around Lisbon. Dates, structures. I mean, I do now, because I just googled all of them, but next time, I will write it down straight away, so I can be my own database.