Sunday, 30 March 2014

Charmingly Raw Streets & Alarmingly Sore Feets

I recently found the time to visit somewhere that has been lingering near the top of my to-go list for quite some time: Lisbon.

Most visitors bound for Portugal tend to head to the south - to the package-holiday haven of the Algarve with its lush beaches and bountiful vineyards - making Lisbon, straddling the Atlantic on the east coast, one of the least touristified* European capitals I've been to. (*not a word, apparently, but in a blog with a title in which I've intentionally double-pluralised the word 'foot' for the sake of a rhyme, I'm going with it).

It was a surprise to read, then, that Lisbon is currently experiencing a tourism boom - no doubt partly thanks to its recent bittersweet emergence as a Ryanair destination - and is fast becoming one of the most visited cities on the continent. Well, I can assure you: they're hiding it well. Actually, it shouldn't be a surprise at all. Lisbon has everything a weekend city-breaker could possibly desire: a lively nightlife, a delightful old town, the ocean, good food, warm weather, cheap wine. What's not to love?

© Ryan Chapman
© Ryan Chapman
For me, one of the joys of visiting a new city is getting lost in its streets. Lisbon, then, provided unavoidable pleasure due to getting lost being an inevitability. Twisted, disorienting streets and alleyways snake over and around its seven hills like a violently vagarious vine making Lisbon nigh on impossible to navigate. Had I not had access to maps on my phone we'd probably still be wandering aimlessly, wondering whether that was the same dog gazing down on us curiously from the same leafy, laundry-laden balcony; or the same rickety tram we'd seen just minutes ago trundling noisily around the steep, winding streets like a vintage fair ride as it has done every day for generations.

Quaint, well lived-in and in some places simply dilapidated - without the heaving crowds of Prague; without the immaculately restored Disneyland-esque medieval flourishes of Tallinn; or the polished cobbles and gleaming glitz of Dubrovnik - Lisbon's old quarters are rough around the edges, crumbling in the middle, and all the more charming for it.


© Ryan Chapman
© Ryan Chapman
After a long afternoon of pedestrianing (yeah, that's right, I'm making up another word - and what?) it would have been wise to rest our aching lower extremities. But no, it was Friday night, one of my favourite DJs happened to be in town, and my upper extremities - clearly jealous of all the exercise enjoyed by their lower counterparts throughout the day - wanted to spend the night thrashing around to techno music.

Now, of course, we were aware that clubbing in Lisbon would work on a similar time-scale to that of their Iberian neighbours, and we adjusted accordingly. At least, we thought we had, arriving at the venue at half past midnight only to be embarrassed when we were told it wouldn't even be opening for another hour, at least. Back to the bar and lesson learnt: when going out in Lisbon don't start drinking games with wine at 8pm if you want to be on top form all the way 'til dawn.


© Ryan Chapman
© Ryan Chapman

Love it as I did, there is something that irked me. Namely, the antipathy shown by some Lisboans towards foreign visitors. Don't get me wrong: I don't want to tar an entire city's population with the same brush (I would only ever dream of doing such a thing when in reference to Paris) - and I did encounter many lovely locals who went out of their way to offer help - but Lisbon seems to have more than it's fair share of rude buggers. Maybe these individuals are not exclusively rude to tourists, but it certainly didn't come across that way.

Like the supermarket check-out lady who literally threw the change at me because I had the nerve to respond with 'sorry, I don't understand' to whatever it was she was asking me; or the cafe barista who refused to clarify the wifi password upon my polite request for him to repeat himself; or the ticket booth attendant who served up a helping of suspicious questioning and lengthy paperwork when my fellow metro rider's perfectly valid ticket failed to open the automatic gate.

Maybe they were each just having a bad day. Either way, looking beyond the occasional case of f*** you, tourist!, Lisbon is wonderful. The bustling city centre is begging to be explored and the seaside suburbs of the Estoril coast offer some relative serenity and provide momentary relief with its chilly Atlantic surf in which to dip those tired feets.