I. Love. Lisbon.
I am so remarkably surprised by this city it’s incredible. There are still many, many cities planned for this trip, but Lisbon has secured its place at the top of my list of favorite cities in the world! While much of the experience can be attributed to excellent timing and fantastic people, Lisbon will forever have a special place in my heart. This sprawling metropolis has everything a person could possibly want in a big city - even just walking through the winding roads is a pleasure.
From the moment I arrived, I was awed by Lisbon’s beauty and intimidated by the sheer size of the city. Until now, my travels have taken me to places such as Faro, Lagos, and Sagres - which all pale in comparison to Lisbon. The erratic layout of the city streets and ornate architecture remind me of what Paris probably looked like before being rebuilt according to the strict city planning regulations. The dense network of roads in the oldest part of town, Alfama, is an absolute joy to aimlessly wander through.
Which is convenient, as you’ll likely spend most of your time lost anyway.
Each of the innumerable cramped buildings throughout the city are adorned with beautiful balconies complete with elaborate wrought iron railings and facades covered in colorful, hand-painted tiles. Few, if any, buildings are taller than five stories, but the multitude of hills that form the city’s foundation gives the illusion that each one was built on top of another. The condition of these structures varies significantly and while many close to the tourist areas are well maintained, others are so neglected that trees, bushes, and weeds grow between the dilapidated roofing tiles.
After navigating to my hostel just north of town, I noticed what appeared to be people setting up for a large concert in the adjacent plaza. I didn’t think much of it initially, but when I was shown to my room, I realized the stage was directly below my window! As I unpacked, the crew began testing the massive sound system by playing some electronic music. I couldn’t help but smile - there is nothing more soothing than the untz, untz, untz of EDM to lull me to sleep at night.
My old neighbors in NY would say differently, but they just don’t understand.
I was excited to see what kind of concert it would be, but I assumed it was an isolated event. As I explored the city, I quickly noticed a significant amount of activity throughout town. Every street I walked through had vendors on both sidewalks setting up tables and grills. Everywhere I looked there were carts with the logos of the two main local beer companies Sagres and Super Bock. I have never seen so many carts in my life. The distance between any two carts was never more than 50 feet. Something was going down in Lisbon tonight.
Because if this were a “normal” day in Lisbon, I’d say I just found my new home.
I returned to the hostel to enquire about what all the commotion in the city was for and was informed that I had arrived in Lisbon on the biggest party night of the year - the Festival of Santo Antonio.
For those of you (like me) who don’t know, The Festival of Santo Antonio is an enormous celebration each year in honor of the city’s native-born patron saint. During the night of July 12th, the entire city of Lisbon and the surrounding suburbs, along with thousands of tourists, descend upon downtown Lisbon for a night full of great music, cheap beer, and delicious food. From what I was told, if there was ever a time to visit Lisbon, this was it.
Which made me wonder how the hell I was even able to reserve a hostel.
Upon hearing the news, I was immediately filled with a combination of unbridled excitement and terrified anxiety. I had to make the most of this rare opportunity, but I had just arrived and I didn’t know anyone! I went to my room in the hopes of crossing paths with someone, and sure enough, found a man sitting on one of the beds rummaging through his backpack. I introduced myself, and we were off to the races.
Again, anyone who claims that traveling by yourself is lonely is doing it wrong!
From what I understood, the man's name was “Tommy,” but through his thick accent it was difficult to discern. He appeared to confirm I was pronouncing it correctly when I repeated it, but to this day, I still I think I said his name wrong. Regardless, Tommy and I quickly struck up a conversation. I found out that he was originally from Israel and was traveling through Europe for an indeterminate amount of time.
I like this guy already.
Tommy is a remarkably entertaining character. His dark complexion, thick accent, and beard all pointed to a man of Middle Eastern origin. Although he looked a bit older (around 40 years old as I later discovered), the man was always in great spirits and never failed to have a smile on his face. I don’t think it was possible to piss this guy off. His signature mannerism - which I found myself mimicking over the next few days - was to tilt his head down slightly, shrug his shoulders, raise his hands, and bend his arms at a 90-degree angle, as if to say, “It is what it is.”
A Buddhist monk on muscle relaxers would have a difficult time being more at ease than this guy.
We talked in the common area over a bottle of wine and the more we spoke, the more fascinated I became with his perspective on traveling. I have never met a more laid back person in my entire life - he seemed genuinely relaxed and happy. Tommy was a firm believer that what ever happens, happens for a reason and never really questioned what life threw his way. He was always open to any random adventure in the city – regardless of how stupid it seemed - or was completely content to sit around at the hostel and do absolutely nothing. Either way, you would never hear him complain. Tommy had literally no idea where he was going next or what there was to do in Lisbon for that matter. During our conversation, he asked if I recommended any cities in Southern Portugal that had a nice beach.
Easiest question ever - Lagos.
Midway through our conversation, two Germans, Katharina and Anton, joined us on the couch to watch the Brazil v. Croatia World Cup game. Both are huge fans of surfing and were making a stopover in Lisbon to pick up an old school Volkswagen van before driving down the coast of Portugal to look for waves. The four of us talked for several hours and before I knew it, the sun had set, the festival was picking up, and we could clearly hear the bassline of the concert next door.
Crisis avoided! I made friends!
From the onset, my only goal for the evening was to get my hands on one of the tantalizing sardines that I smelled grilling outside. During the Festival of Santo Antonio, it is tradition to eat foods historically associated with poverty; this boils down to two things: pork and sardines. The moment we stepped outside the delightful aromas wafting from the numerous grills filled our noses. While I can’t speak for my fellow compatriots, I began salivating like a rabid dog.
If only they made an air freshener like this.
We started the night at the nearby concert, but very quickly began wandering the streets. Never in my life have I seen so many people crammed into a city before! In the US, festival organizers typically block off a few streets for pedestrians, but here in Lisbon, the entire city was on lock down. Every single street in the old Alfama district was packed with people shoulder to shoulder – much like the very sardines they were consuming by the truckload. Periodically, small groups of locals would parade through the streets drumming and cheering away. Invariably, these groups created mobile dance parties that flowed freely throughout the crowds. While we spent the evening in Alfama, I’m told the entire city of Lisbon was exactly like this!
As we wandered, the heavenly scent of salted sardines cooking on an open fire permeated the air around us. It didn’t matter where you went, the intoxicating smell of grilled meat and fish was omnipresent. On different stages throughout town, local bands played regional folk music. Katharina, Anton, and I spent the evening drinking, eating, and dancing throughout Lisbon making spontaneous conga lines through the crowds as we went.
Due to a communications break down as a result of thick German and Hebrew accents, we inadvertently walked off without Tommy at the first concert. When we discovered our mistake the following morning, we felt terrible, but Tommy responded with his signature gesture and replied, “No worries, it was meant to happen. I made new friends and had a great night.”
I love this man.
I could not have possibly planned for a better evening. After spending the past few weeks hiking through Lagos and Sagres, it was refreshing to be back in a large city, partying, and socializing with my fellow travelers. It was an exceptional introduction to Lisbon that few people ever get to experience, and I will forever remember June 12th, 2014 as the night I got dance my way through the streets of Lisbon – beer in one hand, sardine in the other. Even with all of the excitement, Lisbon still had a few more surprises in store for me.
But that’s another post…