Friday, November 20, 2009

Lollygagging in Lisbon

LISBON - People in Spain told me to expect a more laid-back mood once I arrived in Lisbon. Big city or no big city, capital city or no capital city, it is a relaxed place, they said.

They were right. The locals were friendly and casual, unfailingly helpful and more-often fluent in English than I expected. I began with a checklist of places I wanted to see - the castle, the heritage monastery in the Belem district, the rakish bohemian neighborhood of Bairro Alto - and more, besides. I saw many of these places, but as time went by, I spent more and more of my waking hours lollygagging - just wandering, looking around.

Lisbon is relatively cheap - I don't have confirmed stats in front of me, but as a general observation, I'd say prices in Lisbon are two-thirds of what you'd pay for the same good or service in, say, Rome or London.

My wife booked me into the central-city Hotel Avenida Palace. She had stayed there on her own some time ago, and loved it. I swapped rooms at check-in so I could get a double bed, which probably put me into a smaller room, but I was fine with that. The hotel, restored in in the late 1990s to its century-old, Belle Epoque style, was closed while Lisbon prepared for the world's fair Expo 98. It is a traditional hotel, with a grand, curved central staircase, a quietly splendiferous bar, high ceilings and carpets and gilt trim. Right outside the six-story hotel is the Estacao do Rossio, the big train station. On the other side of the Avenida Palace is the Restauradores plaza, big, busy, filled with traffic. On the square, not 100 meters from the Avenida Palace, is a helpful tourist information office, marked with the small letter i and signs that read Ask Me Lisboa. The staff are multilingual and polite. Maybe 10 minutes by foot toward the river is the brand-new Museum of Design and Fashion, installed in a former bank.

It rained but once on my four-day visit, so I took advantage of the Avenida Palace's location to step out and explore the central city on foot. Lisbon is hilly, but downtown is reasonably compact and easy to navigate. The historic building fronts of Centro are listed, and thus protected, but the interiors of many structures have been gutted and modernized. The waterside multi-modal transport center, Cais do Soche, has a gorgeous Art Deco exterior and up-to-the minute facilities for river ferries, subways (the Metro) and light-rail on the inside. A transport museum, installed in March 2009, depicts the history of the city's efficient, cheap system, which includes, among other things, delightful, small, yellow and white trams and funiculars that run on tracks and climb the steepest of Lisbon's hills.

To get a broader sense of the city, I took a hop-on, hop-off bus tour for 15 euros. Recordings in eight languages tell you what you are looking at. There is a red line and a blue line. Each tour, if you stay on the bus, takes about two hours. There is not another tour bus for another hour, so don't hop off unless you really want to see and do something. The 24 hour ticket is good for both lines. If you have time enough for just one line, my advice is to take the red line: It goes to waterside Belem, and passes traditional and modern landmarks such as Lisbon Tower, the historic monastery with its fabulously detailed doorway, and the striking new architecture of the Belem Cultural Center; the center includes a good art museum. The blue line, which I took the day after my ride on the red line, includes the Expo 98 site, where modern Portuguese architects were given freedom to create, and came up with angular, vertical 'statement' buildings.

At the end of my lollygagging, I was pleased to return to the Avenida Palace, to its correct quietude and historic decor, and turn-in, dreaming of stops to come on my round-the-world journey.

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