Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Sights To See in Lisbon

A city that sits on seven hills, Lisbon, Portugal is well worth the hike. Once the richest city in Europe during the Golden Age, Lisbon continues to offer visitors a golden vacation - without the expense and pretension of some other popular European travel destinations.

Before you go, read up on the history of Lisbon, from the renowned spice-trading days to destructive earthquakes that shook this capital city. Emanating from a precarious fault line, the city is comprised of well-preserved sights against a backdrop of tree-lined boulevards that represent a new European era.

With a past that stems from the Celts to the intercontinental spice trade to destructive earthquakes, the history of Lisbon runs almost as long as its precarious fault line runs deep.

The land of Portugal has been a sought-after prize since the Celts first laid claim to it in 700 B.C and thereafter by a parade of occupants, including the Phoenicians, Romans, Moors and Spaniards. Although these inhabitants influenced the façade of Lisbon, the city has retained its own borders for nearly nine centuries.

The city's most influential visitor, Prince Henry the Navigator, arrived in 1418. This aspiring explorer founded a school of navigation at the southern tip of Portugal, where he plotted an exploratory mission. The members of this mission succeeded in finding Brazil, Africa, India, China and Japan, which established one of the most lucrative trade routes of the century. With spices coming from the east and gold coming from the west, Lisbon sat at the helm of the activity and triumphed as the richest city in Europe during the Golden Age.

Lisbon: once a wealthy city.

Lisbon's power relinquished in the 16th century after the Spanish usurped the throne. However, the monuments, palaces, statuary and other structures erected during this time period reflect the capital city's once wealthy dominion.

Before you go to Lisbon, find out some important trip planning information, including details about the location, climate and local culture. For a moderately priced vacation destination, Lisbon offers its visitors an unpretentious atmosphere that most other cities in Europe lack.

LOCATION, CLIMATE - Lisbon lies on the southwest border of Portugal, west of Spain and east of the Atlantic Ocean, on the River Tejo, as a port city. The city enjoys a temperate climate, ranging from 50 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit. The best months to visit are between April and October, during the dry season.

Modern-day Lisbon.

CITY, EARTHQUAKES - Lisbon sits on the Iberian Peninsula on top of the Meseta fault line. In effect, many earthquakes have struck the city. The most destructive earthquake rocked the city in 1755 and almost completely destroyed the center of Lisbon. The reconstruction that followed reshaped Lisbon into one of the best planned cities in Europe, with wide avenues and boulevards lined with trees and statuary.

PEOPLE - As the capital of Portugal, Lisbon holds almost one million Portuguese-speaking people. However, English is widely spoken as well. Natives refer to themselves as Lisboans and typically refer to Lisbon "Lisboa."

COSTS - Lisbon can be discovered on a budget. As one of the least expensive cities in Europe, you can find a good meal for under $5 and moderate hotel room for about $15 (the more extravagant traveler should double these prices). Lisbon, as well as most of Europe, adopted the European euro.

Familiarize yourself with Lisbon before stepping off the plane, ship, train or other means of transport. Thankfully, in a city that sits on hills, most of the activity revolves in the lower regions - so you won't get blisters. Get a glimpse of what you can expect to see.

Torre de Belém

There are many monuments, palaces, statuary, parks and churches remaining from Lisbon's wealthy spice-trading days (even after the earthquakes). One of the most exemplary attractions is the Torre de Belém, which marks the birth of the Golden Age of Portugal. This Manueline tower, built in 1515, stood to protect the city's harbor on the Rio Tejo. Today, it stands as a symbol of the famous voyages, from Vasco da Gama to Ferdinand Magellan, that made Portugal rich.

Tour historic Alfama.

Visit the Alfama, the oldest part of the city enclosed under medieval walls. Built on the highest hill, overlooking the Baixa (the heart of the city), Alfama retains its traditional splendor through narrow cobblestone streets and a provincial pace of life. Find typical Portuguese traditions here, such as fado music shows. Fado is known as Portuguese blues that was inherited from 16th-century sailors.

Go shopping for quality goods at a bargain. Open-air markets offer everything from leather and wool to pottery and lace. Find decorative tiles, called azulejos. The making of these tiles was handed down from the craftsmanship of the Moors.

Visit the countryside spanning Lisbon. You?ll see charming villages, abundant crops, and ancient churches and monasteries with waterfront vistas. You?re likely to see the coast, as Portugal (a country 300 miles long) holds almost 500 miles of coastline. Fishing, in reflection, is an important part of the country?s economy, which you'll find in outerlying fishing towns.

Walking the lavades of Madeira

In November, 1999, I was walking in the Lake District of England with some people that I had met who lived near Cambridge. One of them said, "If you like walking, go to Madeira. I just got back from there not long ago and it was great". I thought that I might give it a try but I had to look it up on the map first to find out where it was. Then I bought a book called, "Landscapes of Madeira", which told about travel by road and foot. The big attraction was walking along levadas otherwise known as aqueducts or levees which transfer water from the wet north side of the island to the dry south side for irrigation of crops. From the map in the book the island looked very mountainous.

I got a charter flight to Madeira for only £109 and when everyone got off the airplane I was the only one with nowhere to go. Everyone else was part of a package holiday and busied themselves with getting on the correct tour bus. I didn't know how else to get into town so I splurged and got a Taxi. I had booked a hotel, the Residencial Monaco, by telephone before I left and I was pleased to find out when I got there that the people that I needed to deal with at the hotel spoke English. That is always a worry of mine. Madeira is a part of Portugal and I noticed a big difference from England right away. The women here were beautiful. I never tired of looking at

Madeira is a small island only 13 miles wide and 25 miles long off of the coast of Africa and north of the Canary Islands. It is at about the same latitude at Phoenix, Arizona. It is extremely rugged and mountainous. Even the airport is partially built over the water. The main crop here is grapes for wine and terraced fields are found in every possible location. An oddity is the different climate on the island as a result of the high 6,000 foot mountains which causes
more rain to be dumped on one side than the other, hence the need for levadas. Amazingly, there are three climates on this small island. Most people live in the sunny part but the island is not popular with tourists due to the lack of beaches. Funchal is the main city and where I stayed. I didn't like it very much as it was crowded and very noisy, especially because of the small motorbikes. The population of Funchal is 120,000 while the total on the island is 300,000
people. So many people in such a small, rugged island means that it is very densely populated. You cannot find wilderness here except in the highest mountains. Every bit of land is put to use and you just cannot get away from people. Funchal did make the best base to get to the walks though. I used the islands bus system to do that and the main terminal was only a five minute walk from the hotel.

The very next day I started off on a hike. I was extra cautious because no one at the bus station spoke English and I didn't want to get on the wrong bus or miss it. The buses left from different places and it was a job sometimes to know where for sure. I first went to Curral das Freiras, a village tucked up in the mountains accessible by 10 miles of road. It was so mountainous though and the road so steep, narrow, and winding that it took 45 minutes to get there.

It was like this where ever you went on the island. There are many blind curves where the driver must honk the horn and sometimes even stop and back down often only inches from a rock wall, guard-rail or truck. It didn't matter that distances were short, it took a long time to get there anyway.

I did one walk here and then walked back to Funchal on levadas. It was quite an experience. The levada was usually a concrete strip only a foot wide and made out of concrete. Sometimes it was built on the side of a cliff (blasted out of solid rock) and there was no railing and nothing below me for 500 feet . It was kind of like walking on air and required great caution. The scenery was fjord like and dramatic and I had a birds eye view of it. The route was challenging. The structures were purpose built for commercial reasons. The builders have no interest in providing a pleasurable walking experience for people from other countries. Therefore, there are few signs on the levadas that give directions and no signs when you get to a village to tell you which one it
is or where you are. After all, going via a lavada I am taking an unusual route into town taken only by a few other locals. Most people go by road and the local people do not walk any more than they have to. The look upon the foreign people who come here to walk as being foolish. One thing was certain though. This was an experience unique in the world. There is no place else in the world like Madeira with it's rugged scenery and miles of lavadas that provide spectacular hiking.

I was very tired the next day and my legs were sore as well. It was not surprising as I had been living in Cambridge which is flat so there is no way to get used to walking the hills. So I had a rest day without much to do except try to find a quiet spot in Funchal. Not an easy thing to do in this crowded, noisy city. One place I found was the pier where decades of sailing boats had left their
calling card in the form of imaginative artwork painted on the walls of the pier. Another place was the city park which, if you found a spot away from the street and avoided the panhandlers, wasn't half bad.

The following day I went on an island tour by bus. This was my first time on the north part of the island. I was glad that I brought a parka because it was cloudy and cold. This was the rainy side of the island and it was noticeably more lush and tropical looking. Some of the cliffs that went into the water were vertical almost to the point of unbelief. We visited one village that had a road built into it only in the last 10 years. The road was blasted out of a vertical cliff. Prior to the road being built many people lost their lives trying to negotiate the footpath that went to the village.

The man made scenery was usually the same consisting of plots of farmland for grapes and crops. It got tiring and boring as there was so much of it anywhere they could find a place to put it. Farming there is hard work, you can see it on the faces of the older farmers. On most of the plots they could not use machinery because the countryside was just to rugged. This meant everything had to be done by hand. In many places there were not even roads to get to the plots. It is small wonder that most young people leave when they can for life in a city even
when they inherit land. Madeira was discovered in 1419 and a settlement began 5 years later. The island used to be totally tree covered before Europeans arrived. Large fires started by the
settlers to clear the land and which took years to burn took care of the trees. I got back to walking the next day from Monte to Gaula. It took me 45 minutes at the Funchal bus station to find the correct bus to get to Monte. Without knowing the language the best I could do is ask for someone to point me in the right direction. I spent the best part of this day lost and unsure of where I was. There were no signs on the levadas or in the villages and the book seemed to
have gaps in it. I somehow managed to finish the walk at the correct place and get the bus back to Funchal. It was the worst route finding problems that I have ever had. I later realized that the government had built new roads since the book had been written and that was the main reason I got so lost. The bus connections worried me because there were only a few buses a day to anywhere. I usually had to catch the last bus of the day back and if I missed that I would
have no way of getting back. I was usually in the middle of nowhere by then and had just walked 15 miles. I was extremely tired, sore, and hungry. There was no back up plan other than hitchhiking. I had to get that bus.

I was lucky to have a supermarket just at the bottom of the hill from the hotel. When I returned from a hike I would go down and buy my supper from the take away section which usually consisted of milk, chicken or fish, and rice. The milk was the UHT long life kind. There were three things this milk would never do: It would never need refrigeration, it would never spoil, and it would never taste good. I bought enough food so I could eat it for two hours in the privacy of my room while I relaxed. I had usually pushed myself to nearly the limits of my endurance on these hikes and needed rest and lots of food when I returned.

The following day I started from Monte and did a beautiful sunny walk to Camacha. Monte is located at 1800 foot elevation so it was worth the $1.00 to get there even though it was only a few miles. It was a popular British resort for those who used to go there if they had respiratory problems for the clean, fresh, dry air. It was an easy but scenic day because I had a hard day planned the next day.

The next day I took the bus back to Curral das Freiras located at 2,132 feet. This time, instead of walking back to Funchal, I went the opposite way straight up into the rugged mountains with a full pack. This is not the normal way to get up to these mountains. Usually one takes public transport around to the north side of the island as it is much easier. However, I weighted the merits of going up from Curral versus the long bus ride around the island and decided that I didn't want to spend my time sitting in a bus. The children and farmers in Curral all thought I was nuts as I headed up in the driving rain and fog. When I finally reached the top of Pico Ruivo at 6,109 feet I had gained 4,000 feet under bad conditions. I was almost done in at the last and hadn't seen a lick of scenery due to the weather.

It was cold up here and I found the bunkhouse, surrounded by snow, right where it should be. There was no charge for staying here and the only other person was a German who had just finished his studies in Engineering. The hut had 10 beds, no electric lights, no heater, shower, running water, or towels, but it did have blankets and a kerosene lamp and was spotlessly clean. I thought that the route on the way up was like trekking in Nepal where you are finding your way through small villages and people work small plots of land and where you cannot speak
the language. The village people were helpful though. If they saw me going in a wrong direction, they would alert me and point me the right way which I greatly appreciated.

The next day found me in the hut with the same miserable weather and nothing to do. I did a lot of sleeping and resting. I read where the whole island is a giant sink hole, a self regulating reservoir. Water is absorbed into the porous volcanic soil flowing underground until it leaves by streams and waterfalls to the ocean. The north part of the island gets 80 inches of rain a year while the south part can be dry for 6 months. I thought what a beautiful island it was. It had mountains, a climate to suit your every desire, and scenery to match. It could be a paradise were it not overcrowded with people and the resulting pollution, congestion, and noise. Because of that I felt it was a nice place to explore but I wouldn't want to live here. So much of Europe is overcrowded. Only in Scandinavia does one start to feel free from the hordes of people.

After an overnight stay at the hut, I walked back down to Curral and caught a bus back to Funchal. I had seen nothing up there except rain and wind. I didn't have a clue what the mountains looked like. I rested up the rest of the day so that I could do a beautiful hike on the north coast the next day. I was starting to go further afield now and bus journeys could take up to two hours each way even on this tiny island. The roads are so tortuous that 10 miles an hour is about the average speed. The north coast walk wasn't a levada walk but a proper cliff walk
with waves crashing below. It was truly a beautiful, spectacular, invigorating hike. It is the kind you think about when you consider the most beautiful places that you have been.

I met this stupid British guy named Robin who was doing the same hike as me. I usually didn't see many westerners and it was nice to talk to somebody. One thing that we discussed is how I felt it was difficult to follow the route instructions in the book sometimes while he said that it was just a piece of cake. We walked together for a short way when he said, "Oh, this is the way
up these steps". I said I didn't think so. I was sure it was straight ahead. He said, "Well, I believe it's this way so maybe I'll see you around. Cheers!". I was livid. He was just telling me how easy it was for him to follow the guide book and now he was abandoning me. I hated him at that
moment. I went the way I thought correct for 15 minutes before deciding that he must be right. I turned around and went back to follow the way he went.

I got super lost on the side of a hill and had some very embarrassing moments when a farmer and son were trying to help me out. We couldn't understand each other but I gathered that this was not where I wanted to be. Red faced and embarrassed and thanking them profusely I headed back to the original route that I had intended to take in the first place. It turned out to be correct. That detour had cost me an hour and a half plus some very embarrassing moments. When I finished the hike there was Robin having a beer at a restaurant. I was so mad
that I walked right by him without saying a word. He later came to the bus stop and we talked. He had gotten lost as well. It made me consider about having confidence in my own ability instead of listening blindly to others. That night we ate an excellent swordfish dinner at a fine restaurant together, the only time I ever ate out. I was glad for the company that evening but never wanted to see him again.


I only had a few days left on the island now and the weather had ranged from partly cloudy to driving rain with temperatures never above 70. That changed when I headed back to the mountains and the timing couldn't have been better. I went from Corticeiras to Encumeada over Pico Grande at 5,430 feet. I started at 2,300 feet and went nine miles. It seemed like a long day. The weather was a perfect 80 degrees though and in bright sun. This was my first chance to see the mountains that I had been so close to (even stood upon) for the past 12 days. They were amazing as you might expect and from the summit I could see both sides of the island. I was thankful that I was able to see Madeira properly before I left. I was hot most of the day as I hadn't brought anything for warm weather. My body was also very fit by now. I would get my heart rate up to 140 to 160 beats per minute and hold it there for awhile. I cut the 90 minute suggested hiking time up a large hill in half to 45 minutes. It felt good to be so fit.

The last day before I left I completed a pleasant 7 mile hike over good scenery. It wasn't difficult, just an enjoyable way to finish a trip. I had few people to speak to in Madeira. One person whose conversation I valued was that of the hotel receptionist, Gilda. She spoke pretty good English saying she learned most of it by watching American television. I would usually go down
after supper and hope that she was around so I could talk to her (I usually hadn't spoken with anyone all day). If she wasn't there, I would watch television for awhile hoping she would return. The programs were funny because they were old American ones like the Rifleman or the Invisible Man with Portuguese subtitles. I also liked being around her because she was extremely beautiful. She had dark hair, a pleasing face, a great figure, and a nice smile.
She was 27 years old and had a daughter who was 8. She had been married and lived on mainland Portugal with her husband who was rich. She said they didn't have much in common and he seemed to keep her around because she was so attractive and made a nice holding along with his other possessions.

Our philosophies of life seemed similar and we got on well. I liked her and was glad that I had gotten to know her. Just before I left I had some spare Portuguese money left over and decided to buy her some nice flowers as a measure of appreciation for what her company had meant to me. That pleased her and she gave me her address. I wrote to her later and she wrote back but we do not correspond now. I wonder if she is still living in Madeira?