My time in Lisbon has left me little time to write. Every single day was full of new adventures that I rarely had a free moment to sit by myself and think. The hostel's wonderfully dynamic atmosphere with incredibly friendly people make it an easy place to call home, and I can’t help but get caught up in the excitement of everything. Without fail, every time I start writing a post, somebody at the hostel sits next to me and we end up talking for hours on end. I know this will come back to bite me later, but I can’t pass up the opportunity for hours of conversation with these great people.
Considering my posts are now more than a month behind, I think it has.
With the "Hangover of Santo Antonio" finally subsided from last night’s festivities, I spent the day wandering Lisbon with my newly minted friends, Tommy, Katharina, and Anton. The only person with any definitive plans was Tommy, who for some reason was determined to check out some church-related event that he saw in a flyer. Bewildered by his single-minded focus on this seemingly arbitrary flyer - which the rest of us would have casually thrown away 15 seconds after receiving it - we followed along. Tommy’s low-key personality reassured us that, good or bad, we were just there to see what happens, “Maybe it will be exciting, maybe not. Let’s see.”
OKAY I’M IN WHERE DO WE GO?!?!
We navigated the streets of Lisbon in the sweltering heat for 30 minutes trying to find this mysterious place on Tommy’s flyer, and before we knew it, we found ourselves in the local Church of Latter Day Saints.
Exotic, I know.
Confused as to what we had signed up for, we solicited help from - what we assumed - was a receptionist who spoke only Portuguese and Spanish. Among the group we had German, Hebrew, and English covered, and for the first time I was the only one who knew Spanish. Proudly, I stepped up and mesmerized this group of foreigners with my wondrous grasp of the Spanish language.
“Wondrous” is probably overselling it.
After talking with the receptionist and figuring out what the hell was going on, we waited in a large dark room and eventually found ourselves talking to a bunch of guys from Arizona about what it means to be a part of the Church of Latter Day Saints.
I flew around the world for this?
Needless to say, Katharina, Anton, and I were all of the same mindset; we made some small talk, politely excused ourselves, and graciously raced for the exit as fast as possible. It is worth noting that this time around Tommy willing chose to stay behind - we did not mistakenly ditch him like the night before. Given our limited time in Lisbon (and our general lack of faith) the three of us wanted to spend our day doing anything else. So after an exhausting hike back to the center of town in the blistering sun, we found a tree and all took a nap.
I stand by my decision.
When the three of us finally came to, we headed to the hostel to watch the Spain vs. Netherlands World Cup game. As the afternoon slowly turned to evening, people began trickling into the room and by the end of the game we had a group of fifteen people in the room - half screaming at the television while the others chatted amongst themselves. Since everyone was in town for the Festival of Santo Antonio, there was still a general party mentality among the group. All it took was one person to suggest we visit Bairro Alto for everyone to became wildly excited.
Bairro Alto translates to “High Neighborhood” in English and is a central district in Lisbon just Northwest of the town center. As it’s name implies, the entire neighborhood is located high above the rest Lisbon on top of a large hill. Originally developed in response to the swelling population of the city in the 15th century, this space is dominated by numerous residential apartments crammed into tiny, narrow streets. Over time, the area fell into disrepair; and as part of a revitalization process years ago, numerous shops, bars, and restaurants opened throughout the neighborhood.
This day in age, Bairro Alto, is now renowned for its thriving, energetic nightlife and is a go to place for anyone looking for live music and cheap bars. Being a bunch of budget-conscious backpackers, this was our kind of place. We rallied the troops and managed to get a group of six for a night on the town.
The moment we arrived I felt immediately at home - it was as if someone had transported the “dirty” part of Sixth Street in Austin all the way to Portugal. Bairro Alto is a delightfully trashy labyrinth of narrow streets lined with bars and restaurants on both sides. From the street, everything is so crammed together that each of these establishments has only enough space to accommodate a door and small window to display the drink specials of the night. It doesn’t take much effort to find a drink under two euros, and much like Austin, you can go out with a 20, have a great night, and maybe even come back with change.
My kind of town.
As the night progressed, more and more people flooded the tiny streets; completely overwhelming any automobile traffic that was unfortunate enough to find itself in the area. Under normal circumstances, the narrow roads permitted only one “ European-sized" car to pass at a time, but with the hordes of drunk pedestrians, the vehicles sat completely powerless; honking their horns, but unable to budge even a few inches.
We took turns that night buying rounds of shots for the group - which at six euros a round, many of us bough several - but there was one shot in particular that stood out among the rest that evening. I have no idea what it was called nor can I remember where we found this drink, but it was a horrid assault on the taste buds. It can only be described as a cross between cough syrup, rubbing alcohol, and licorice - which is probably why it was so cheap. This unpalatable concoction was the specialty of the evening - costing one euro per shot - and, by default, was the group’s go-to drink. The shot consisted of some dark liquid (which I assumed was, Jägermeister) that floated on top of a mysterious clear liquid in the bottom half of the glass. The entire thing looked like miniature version of the BP oil spill in a cup and safe to say, this drink was as unappealing to look at as it was to taste, but after three of them, you could hardly tell the difference.
To this day I have no idea why we kept ordering the damn things.
Even though many of us just met a few hours before, our random little hostel group enjoyed the evening barhopping through Bairro Alto. By the end of the night two people from the hostel went home together, one wandered off taking a drunken tour of Lisbon at 3am, and the rest of us became really good friends with the local bartenders. Definitely a good follow up to the Festival of Santo Antonio.
On my last day in the city, as I sat in the main room at my hostel figuring out my logistics for Porto while I longingly looked at my map of Lisbon that sat on the table next to me. I realized I wasn’t through with Lisbon quite yet, and needed one more day here before I could come to terms with leaving. At that moment it occurred to me that I could just stay another day. While painfully obvious to the casual observer, it was an epiphany to me at the time. I marched up to the reception desk, extended my stay by a night, and just like, that I had an entire bonus day to explore Lisbon! The feeling was indescribable. If I ever had to single out one specific reason why I love traveling without an itinerary, it's that at any moment I can change my mind and just go with it.
I made it a point to spend the day walking down any street that looked even slightly unfamiliar and eventually made my way to the Castelo de São Jorge. This Moorish castle is situated at the top of the main hill in the Alfama district and is clearly visible to anybody walking around town. I saw the castle every day since I arrived in Lisbon, but never had the opportunity to check it out - today was my chance!
The castle itself is quite impressive, but my favorite thing was to sit one of the stone benches and simply look out over the sprawling city of Lisbon. From my vantage point, the torrent of people that coursed through the city streets appeared as insignificant ants navigating an unsolvable maze. The vast city that lied before me began at the river Tejo to the South, and stretched as far as the eye could see until finally disappearing over the hills to the North. This never-ending expanse of coral-red, created by the town’s roofing tiles, was punctuated by the various plazas and appeared like giant footprints in an otherwise sea of red.
As I sat on my bench at the top of Lisbon, I closed my eyes and imagined my little cubicle back in New York. It is a seemingly ironic exercise, but one that I find myself doing more frequently since it’s the exact opposite of what I did when I was working. I focused intensely on the sights and sounds that pervaded my life back in Corporate America: the “tack-tack-tack” of people pecking at their keyboards, the sight of the bland taupe walls, and the smell of stale, recycled air all came rushing back to me. I tried to become one with this old version of my life and once I was thoroughly depressed, I took a deep breath and opened my eyes.
Instantly the beautiful, sun-drenched city of Lisbon flooded my mind. I could feel the refreshing Portuguese breeze on my skin and hear the wonderful sounds of peacocks off in the distance. In that instant, I realized that I was actually here in Lisbon and not in my stuffy cubicle back in New York. That old life was now the dream and my dream had become reality. As I reflected, a giant, child-like smile spread across my face - I still can’t believe it.
Thank you Lisbon. You surprised me more than I ever could have imagined.
Next stop, Porto!