Day #11,187: Having thoroughly wandered the city of Lisbon (I’m making the bold assumption that “thoroughly wandering” isn’t too egregious an oxymoron for you to stomach), our merry gang decided to take a day trip to the neighboring town of Belém.
The standard means of getting oneself to Belém involves taking one of Lisbon’s classic yellow trolleys.
We set off for the Praça da Figueira to hitch a ride and were abruptly stopped by an amorphous throng of folks waiting for… what else… the classic yellow trolley ride to Belém. As the trolley approached, the absurd horde mobbed the trolley door and quite literally trampled an older Portuguese woman waiting to get on (!), and Jess & I had to help her back to her feet. My goodness, people! Knocking old ladies down in the name of sightseeing?
It was an inauspicious start.
Although that was thankfully the low point, the whole trolley experience was a bit… aggravating to say the least. It was jam-packed with tourists (no, JAM-PACKED. From the ‘Surprises No One’ Files, I have a touch of claustrophobia, and I was having to concentrate pretty hard on not freaking out)… it was extremely slow-going… and reeeeally hot, even in December, as the windows don’t open all the way for circulation. I promptly shed all expendable layers and sweat through the rest before we’d made it out of Lisbon city limits.
Although there was zero system in place for monitoring, Mr. M & Bash- upstanding citizens that they are- tried to pay for our ride using the onboard designated machine, which only accepted coins, spit half of them out, and promptly sputtered & died, swallowing up 8 Euros with nothing for us to show for it.
Once in Belém, we decided to recover from the trolley setback with one of the egg custard tarts (Pastéis de Nata, or Christmas tarts), for which the city is known.
The warm custard tarts, served up across the glass countertop with immaculately browned tops and little packets of sprinkling cinnamon and sugar, were heavenly. Trolley troubles? What trolley?
Scrumptious pastéis de nata in belly, there was one site in Belém that simply could not be missed: the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Jerónimos Monastery, just next door and built over five hundred years ago.
King Manuel I ordered the monastery built as a sort of ‘thanks’ for Portugal’s success in world exploration. In fact, the site was chosen because this is where Vasco de Gama et. al. spent their last night in Portugal in prayer before embarking on their 1497 voyage to India. De Gama was entombed at Jeronimos when he died some years later.
We arrived to a massive group of people waiting to get in to the Monasterio… presumably the same folks from the trolley ride? Unlike egg custards, the concept of the “line” is not something Portugal does well. Like a school of fish, visitors swarmed one entrance, then the other… looking panicked and confused about protocol.
Let it be said that civilization prospers with queues.
For all its beauty (and there is a lot), Portugal- similar to Italy- is one of those laidback countries where Things Don’t Work. Ticket machines, timetables, lines… all of these things that we’ve come to take for granted will frequently ignore you, go on strike, and live & die according to their own Portuguese schedule, which is always when it is most inconvenient for yours.
Like Jess said (who lived in Italy for a few years and knows a thing or two about this brand of laissez-faire), some countries require a loose itinerary and hearty dose of shoulder-shrugging.
When we did make it inside (we finally just decided to enter in the ‘exit,’ where- amazingly- someone unquestioningly handed us six free tickets and ushered us in. Wha–? Ah, never mind…), the Monasterio was beautiful.
Just across the way from Jeronimos Monastery is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, or Explorers’ Monument. At the edge of the Rio Tejo, it marks the point from which all Portuguese explorers set out on their journeys.
And don’t you love that ‘explorer’ used to be a bona fide job title? While the looting + pillaging involved sounds rather deplorable, I’m eager to pass out business cards reading “Miranda, Swashbuckling Explorer.” Perhaps with a picture of myself in wide-brimmed safari hat, expectantly eyeballing the horizon in a Captain Morgan-esque pose. Not to be too specific, of course.
For a few euro, you can take an elevator to the top of the cross-sword-thing and survey the town of Belém for yourself.
After a true Explorer’s Afternoon in Belém, we were eager both to return to our far-less touristy home base of Lisbon and to visit the Castle of São Jorge that we’d missed the day before.
São Jorge (let it be known that ‘Sao Jorge’ is exactly what I would name my cat, if I had one) holds court over the city of Lisbon, which, like its Portuguese-speaking sister Rio de Janeiro, glimmers like waves of sparkling jewels from on high.
That night, feeling decidedly “over” the Portuguese fare of fish, fish, and more fish (and sad cheese omelets for the vegetarian), we decided to test out a Himalayan place down the street from our apartment.
It was absolutely terrible, in the best possible way.
The level of its badness was the stuff of legend (Exhibit A: the samosas were served with soy sauce), which made it full of laughter, bonding, and other flotsam from which great travel memories are spun. Besides- it had to be better than the hard tack that de Gama used to eat, right?
Travel necessarily has its ups and downs. (Or at least it should, or it becomes one quite boring exercise in indulgence.) The notable absence of ‘downs’ is the reason why I’m generally not a huge fan of the (very-lovely-for-someone-who’s-not-me) beach trips to the Caribbean: misadventures are part of the cultural learning process… of the exploration itself.
Life abroad- with its tricky transportation and AWOL organization- doesn’t always work out exactly as we imagine it should.
And that’s precisely the point.
To read about our next day’s adventure celebrating New Year’s Eve in Lisbon, click here!
Details of the Day:
I really, really wish that I could endorse taking the adorable yellow trolley from Lisbon to Belém. But even in the relative tourist dead-season of winter, it was crowded and miserable (albeit extremely cheap, seeing as how the fare meter was broken). Still… for around 15 Euros a ride, taxi it up, friends.
If you do decide you need the yellow trolley experience under your travel belt, you can either catch the #15E to Belem at Praça da Figueira (where you’re more likely to get a seat) or Praça do Comercio (further down the line, where you’ll have to sardine-stuff yourself into the already overcrowded car, but you’ll save around 15 minutes on the trip).
To Pee or Not to Pee: Public Restrooms in Portugal can be in short order. When he built Jerónimos Monastery, King Manuel didn’t plan on welcoming hundreds of café-guzzling tourists and decreed that only two women’s stalls be constructed, one of which would be permanently broken. The Explorer’s Monument does have a public restroom, (slip past the ropes up the stairs to your right)- but bring your own toilet paper.