Friday, April 12, 2019

Take off! Toronto to Lisbon and exploration!

It was with a definite sense of excitement and anticipation that we set out early this morning, but just for good measure, there was a bit of apprehension thrown in as well.  After two glorious weeks of sunshine and warm spring temperatures in southwestern Ontario, this morning was marked by an unexpected snowfall.  Road conditions during the two hour drive from London to Toronto's Pearson International Airport weren't too bad, but for two hopeful pilgrims whose backpacks were full of shorts and lightweight Merino wool clothes, the Weather Network reports of unseasonably cold temperatures in Europe, combined with the evident snow, weren't too encouraging.

We arrived at the airport with plenty of time and made it through security with the usual questions and extra inspections warranted by camera gear and hiking poles. Soon we were on board our nonstop Air Transat flight to Lisbon, Portugal.  As we watched the lights of Toronto recede into the darkness after takeoff, our last-minute decision to the walk this Camino still didn't feel quite real.

The enthusiasm of a local youth soccer team on their first trip overseas was infectious.  We spent much of the overnight flight reading our Brierley guidebook for the first time, and trying to learn some basic Portuguese phrases.  The more Portuguese we tried to learn the more fervently we hoped that we would be fortunate enough to meet friendly, English speaking people along the way.


Shortly after the sun rose over the vast, sparkling, deep blue Atlantic Ocean we caught our first glimpse of Portugal!  As we came in for a landing the rolling hills of Lisbon stretched out below us, covered with red roofs, white buildings, and palm trees.  Long, white, sandy beached stretched out along the coast, and we could see several cathedrals and an enormous statue of Jesus down below.

When we emerged from the Lisbon Portela Airport half an hour later we were greeted with a gorgeous, sunny spring day and temperatures of 22 C.  All worries about snow were immediately forgotten. The airport is located a short 6 km outside of downtown Lisbon, and we soon learned that we could make the short journey by hopping on an Aerobus for a couple Euros.  We were delighted to find that the staff at the airport and on the bus were extremely helpful, friendly, and spoke fluent English.  A huge thank you to them!

Anticipating that we would be tired and jet lagged upon arrival we had taken the precaution of reserving a private room in the Liv'in Lisbon Hostel for two nights.  The bus dropped us off a few blocks from the hostel, at Marquis de Palombra.  From there we made our way through the narrow, winding, tile covered streets to our accommodations.  Although we arrived about 5 hours before the 3 pm check-in time, the super nice staff offered us a cold drink, and let us drop our backpacks off until we could check in later that afternoon.

Once free of our packs, we found a nice cafe (Charlies), and enjoyed a platter of veggies and various dips and fruit smoothies.

Like our surroundings, the homemade hummus, guacamole, and beet dip were very colourful, and overall it was a very refreshing and energizing snack after a long flight with no sleep.  As we sat in the shade on our little sidewalk table we very quickly realized that everyone we had met so far had been very patient with us, extremely helpful, friendly, generous, joyful, and talkative.  Many of the Portuguese people we met actually apologized for not speaking better English, making us feel even worse about visiting their country without being able to say more than 'Abgrigada' in their language.  Our first and lasting impression was that you couldn't ask for a nicer people.


Feeling fortified by our delicious snack, we began exploring.With no particular destination in mind we made our way through the winding streets to the Se Cathdral. This Roman Catholic cathedral was built in 1147, and is the oldest church in the city.  It has survived many earthquakes, and been modified and restored many times over the years, making it a mixture of architectural styles.  It was very beautiful, and seemed to us to share some similarities with the Cathedral in Conques, France. It was very crowded, but still quite cool and peaceful. We walked through the part of the cloister that was open, and visited the treasury.


After visiting the cathedral we stopped by the Igreja Santo Antonio.  From the outside this Baroque style church looked almost more like a residence than a religious building, but inside it was very ornate, complete with a gold covered alter.  This Roman Catholic church was the birthplace of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of Lisbon.

Next we wandered down to the Atlantic Ocean.  Our route took us through the large and impressive Arco da Rua Augusta.  This large, white, triumphal archway was built to commemorate the city's restoration after the 1755 earthquake.  The arch shows Portugal's coat of arms, as well as various statues, and is topped by Glory rewarding Valor and Genius.


This archway leads into the Praca do Comercio, one of Lisbon's grandest plazas.  This huge, open square used to be bordered by Lisbon's royal palace, but it was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake  Afterwards it was used by merchants and traders, and was a center for Portugal's wealth and ambitions.  Now it is bordered by museums and interesting yellow buildings with tall white columns.  It was a very grand feeling place, but very full of tourists.

We made our way across the square to the shore of the Tagus river, and sat on some rocks for a bit, enjoying the warmth and sunshine, listening to live music, and watching the waves lap the beach.

After a short break we continued our wanderings, up past the Elevador de Santa Justa, an exterior, wrought iron elevator that transports people 45 m up from the Braixa to the Largo do Carmo districts.  This 19th century industrial age marvel is a work of art, and undoubtedly offers great views of the city from the top.  We decided to give it a miss as there was a huge lineup of people waiting to go up.

As evening arrived it brought some cooler temperatures with it, which felt like a relief.  However, it also brought a host of restauranteurs out onto the street, all vying for attention, offering their menus for consideration, and trying to temp people to sit down at their outdoor patios.  As we slowly climbed the main tourist street we were also approached multiple times by street vendors trying to sell us pot and hashish. Although the directness of the various vendors was a little unexpected, no one was rude or threatening, and we generally had a peaceful walk home.

On the way back to the hostel we stopped at Pizza Misura, a tiny, out-of-the way restaurant full of locals.  The place had a great atmosphere, and offered homemade, fresh pizza by the slice and cold beer.  The staff was amazing, and it was a wonderful stop for two exhausted English speakers.  We would definitely recommend it!

We returned to our hostel around 8 pm, tired, but happy.  It has been a wonderful first day in Portugal's capital city, which is the financial center for the country, one of the largest Atlantic ports of trade in Europe, and one of the oldest cities in the world.  Let the adventure begin!

Accommodation: Liv'in Lisbon Hostel

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