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From Lisbon

By Sahand Rabbani

from Lisbon

Dear Friends,

My already too-short weekend jaunt to Lisbon was pre-abridged by a two-hour delay out of Heathrow, placing me in downtown Lisbon well into Saturday's AM. After a short but restful night of sleep, I hopped on a city train to Belém, a district of Lisbon notable for its role in Portugal's glorious maritime history. There, I visited the Jerónimos Monastery and the Tower of Belém on the Tagus River. On the way back to central Lisbon, I picked up a pastel de nata from the celebrated Casa Pastéis de Belém, the pastry shop famous for its flaky custard desserts. I enjoyed my pastel after a delicious lunch of grilled sardines and Portuguese wine at a fish restaurant on the Santo Amaro Docks (Docas) under the 25 de Abril Bridge (with its uncanny likeness to San Francisco's Golden Gate).

By early afternoon, I was back to Baixa, Lisbon's commercial and touristic center, sitting just to the west of the more rewarding Alfama district. I trekked up the narrow medieval streets and steps of Alfama, one of the few areas of Lisbon that survived the 1755 earthquake mostly intact, to the Castelo de São Jorge. In spite of recommendations from other travelers to skip the castle, I proceeded, even with the imminently setting sun and threats of rain. The spectacular views of the city from the fort were well worth it, undoubtedly the highlight of the day's sights.

By evening at the hostel, I had made some friends with whom I enjoyed dinner and a night out in Lisbon's thronging Bairro Alto, unassuming in daytime but, by night, a hilly patchwork of drunken international youth, swelling streams of pub crawlers following flag-bearing promoters ("Come with me: 10 shots of vodka for five euros."), and persistent drug peddlers ("Marijuana? Marijuana? ... Cocaine?").

The following morning, I ventured afield to the nearby town of Sintra, home to a few remarkable historic buildings. Paramount among them is the Palácio Nacional da Pena. This eighteenth century palace is the closest worldly instance of a fairy tale that I have ever seen. An amalgamation of various architectural styles in a soothing gamut of pastels, the palace floated dreamfully and mystically in the fog as I neared it in my ascent of the hill. While I found the tour of the inside much less interesting, save the occasional window views of the small villages along the Atlantic coastline below, I could not satisfy my desire to explore every corner of the palace's terraces and balconies outside.

With limited time, I was only able to thoroughly explore one other site in Sintra, the Castelo dos Mouros, notable to me not so much for its casteldom but for its spectacular views, including one of Pena.

Remaining before me was then the long journey from the hilltop of Sintra to the airport. The Sintra train station was a thirty-minute bus ride from the castle, Lisbon a forty-minute train ride from Sintra, and the airport another thirty minutes, I estimated. I rounded that up to two hours and added an hour for transfer time and another hour prior to departure at the airport. But my generous buffer dwindled away quite early and savagely as the bus to Sintra, allegedly arriving every fifteen minutes, did not show for an entire hour. With an unfavorable position in line and a likely crowded bus, if any, I figured that I would have to wait until at least the third bus before I would have a chance at boarding. With no taxis in sight and insufficient time for the two-hour descent by foot, I resorted, in desperation, to soliciting rides from passing cars.

Thanks to a very generous quartet of some young Spanish dudes, I was able to make it back to Lisbon with even some small time to spare, so I toasted a cerveja to the health of my saviors (in absentia) over a plate of salted cod. And I arrived at the airport in time, only to learn that my flight, unsurprisingly, was delayed, scoring TAP Portugal a whopping oh-for-two, in line with its peer, the Sintra bus service.


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