I am in no haste. I absorb her 12,000 year-old beauty slowly. Very slowly in fact, huffing and puffing my way up the steep, cobbled alleys of the Moorish Alfama district. I look up and there is a castle in the sky – Castelo de Sao Jorge, a dominating structure amidst the cascading skyline of pastel hued houses. I turn around and look down and there is a vertigo inducing, panoramic vista of the city sleeping at the feet of the shimmering Rio Tejo.
I lose myself and wonder aimlessly in the Alfama’s bewitching maze of lanes and alleyways that reflect its Moorish heart. Clambering up the travessas (narrow lanes), I come across neat rows of virgin white underpants. As locals hang out washing on the streets and gossip, the next generation of Ronaldos and Luis Figos weave circles around me effortlessly, the ball glued to their feet.
I take cover in the garish yellow iconic tram 28 for a magical mystery tour of Lisbon’s greatest landmarks. The tram hisses and groans its way further up the Alfama and then comes into sight of the towering stone edifice of Se Cathedral, where tourists lean out of the window desperately trying to get a motion shot of the place. I hop off at Miradouro Portas do Sol. From here, it’s a few minutes’ walk to the Castelo de Sao Jorge (Five Euros entrance fee).
From the Moors to the Crusaders – Castelo has changed ownership frequently through the centuries, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the view. Every vantage point on the fortress walls offers a breathtaking vista of the pastel-coloured rooftops of the city. I retrace my steps to the Miradouro (viewpoint) Portas do Sol for another postcard vista. It is the perfect place to soak in the sun and the views of the Alfama over a cocktail.
For those looking for a taste of the best local dishes, let me introduce you to the Restaurante O Pitéu. Situated off the beaten track in the ancient neighbourhood of Graca, just next door to Alfama, you will discover the unassuming humble façade of Piteu. You can sample local Portuguese fish dishes like the dourada (golden bream) and the yummy bacalhau à bras (salt cod with eggs and fried potatoes).
As the sun settles on the horizon of the River Tejo and the shadows of the rooftops cast long dark shadows onto the miradours, the melancholy strains of the Fado start filtering through as I amble down the Alfama. Having withstood various foreign invaders and even a devastating earthquake, the Fado is symbolic of the fiery spirit of Lisbon. The Fado sings with great nostalgia and tells stories of Lisbon’s history and its people - from jealous lovers and husbands lost at sea to daring seafaring adventures and bullfights. The tune of the Fado merges with the hissing of the grill on the pavements outside where sardines are tossed to create a tasty evening snack.
Instead of the traditional cup of tea or coffee, Lisboans at dusk congregate on the sticky cobbled doorstep of A Ginjinhas in Largo de Sao Domingos to drink their favourite drink – Ginjihna (cherry brandy), invented by local monks by fermenting the sour ginja cherries in the brandy. The result is something very potent that gives you a nice warm buzz.
My day ends on the cobbled streets of the infamous party district of Lisbon – the Barrio Alto. The Barrio is basically Europe’s biggest non-stop street party spread across a maze of cobbled streets, brimming with cocktail bars and intimate diners.
The following day, a few hours before my flight, I headed to Belem – home to one of Lisbon’s most famous pastelarias to try the famous Pasties de nata, the flaky, silky, creamy custard tarts. After quaffing a few at the historic Antiga Confitaria de Belem, I was on my way to my final destination – The Belem Tower. Vasco de Gama had set sail from Lisbon on his fateful journey to India from this tower. Carved in the 16th-century Manueline style with exotic imaginative carvings, the tower is a haunting and evocative stone jewel. Standing there, as it pokes out into the Atlantic, you can feel the weight of history sending a chill down your spine.
With that, my journey came to an end.But as I peered into the wide expansive abyss of the Atlantic, I felt like it was just the beginning...