My first real trip abroad (ie outside the US), as an independent person was when I went to London, England when I was 16 years old, and spent 3-4 months with my aunt, and her assorted household, in a wonderful, funky old house on Parliament Hill, on the edge of the wondrous Hampstead Heath. On my arrival, my aunt advised me that the best way to get to know a city is to get on a bus, and ride it around and see where it goes. The temptation, of course, is to use the metro system in any big city, because you know that you’ll land where you mean to go, and there’s a comforting map to tell you where the main attractions are. But the downside of a subway is that you’re underground – so you can’t see any of the connecting areas between where you start, and where you get out. Buses allow you to see all that connecting stuff.
However, I’ve always feared dealing with buses – I know it’s irrational, and maybe fear is too strong a word – mild anxiety is more the level of emotion. I worry about missing the stop, not knowing where to get off, and I hate asking the driver or conductor to help me know where I am.
So, my solution, in getting to know a new city, tends to be to walk a lot. I’m happy to just start off, either with or without a specific destination, and see where my footsteps lead. And that’s how I started off this trip in Lisbon – dragging Ron along on my not completely aimless wanderings.
We arrived on Thursday, after a red-eye trans-Atlantic flight, so, when we got to the hotel, we both desperately needed a nap – which was hugely restorative. We woke at about 6pm, and went down to ask the concierge where to go to eat. We were pointed towards the Baixa-Chiado downtown area. We asked if we could walk there, to which the concierge replied with some mild horror – “Oh no! It’s much too far to walk, take the metro”. That was the heads-up to me right away that I probably didn’t want to take their advice about walking distances (which turned out to be correct). Anyway, we took their advice, and took the metro down to the Restauradores stop, emerged to street level and began to walk. We passed through the shopping area, and out to the bank of the River Tagus, marveling at the architecture, the monuments, and the tiles on the walls of most of the houses. We wandered up into the Alfama neighborhood, and passed many inviting restaurant entrances, each with a greeter at the door, encouraging passersby to come in. I’m not sure, that evening, why we ended up bypassing all the options there – but I guess we weren’t hungry enough, and we ended up passing the cathedral (which became a constant landmark for us – easily recognizable, and helpful in pointing the way back to the center of town), and returning to the downtown area, where we finally stopped at a restaurant with a particularly aggressive waiter (we subsequently watched him skillfully rope in numerous customers while we ate there). The food was great, actually, and we were seated next to two French women, who began chatting with us – I can’t remember how we ended up getting into a conversation. We mostly used my very elementary and mostly forgotten French (but I’m going to be going to Haiti to lecture on HIV, so the practice conversing in French was a great opportunity). In the end, they gave us a recommendation for a restaurant called the Alfama Grill, which we went to the next night, and had a lovely evening. These French ladies were curious about our opinion of President Obama – and, as I’ve found with every non-American that I’ve talked to since the election, they are so relieved that we elected him!!
We wandered around a little more after dinner, and then returned on the metro. That night we studied the map, and I thought that it would be nice to walk into the huge park that was clearly just a short walk from our hotel in the Praca de Espanha (and, of course, I wasn’t about to ask the concierge for directions, silly me!!). So, we set out, and after a couple of blocks, we saw the entrance to a garden, which I thought was our destination (and I thought to myself “See, that was easy!”), but it turned out that my sense of direction was completely off, and we had actually headed exactly in the opposite direction than I had intended, and we were in the Jardim Calouste Gulbenkian. It was quite a lovely spot, and we passed many school groups doing art studies in the park (something that one almost nevers sees in the US – can you imagine? Going out and drawing from nature as a part of your school curriculum?).
The park was small, and after leaving there, we headed in what I thought should be the direction to get into the huge park. We walked, and the road became a moderate-sized highway, and we walked down, which I thought seemed promising. We ended up walking under the Aqueduct, which was very impressive, but, the more we walked, the more obvious it became that there was a major barrier between us and the park – several major roadways, and a railway track – and there seemed to be no way to get across. We were walking into a neighborhood, which was a bit shabby, and passed a bus-stop where two women were waiting, and we asked them “Can we walk to the park from here?”. They obviously had never considered attempting to walk to the park, but they pointed us towards the next bridge that crossed the valley that was in our way, so we proceeded. We ended up walking through a few blocks of what basically looked like project housing (although nothing like the projects in Baltimore or Chicago – no used condoms and drug paraphernalia lying around), and then we emerged up a staircase that brought us to this odd kind of circular structure clearly meant as a viewing structure. I was going to upload a cool photo of the Aqueduct that we took from this structure, but, somehow – I’ve managed to delete it (rats!). – correction: I found the photo – see it here
But you can view a lot of our photos on my Facebook page.