Lisbon: Europe's San Francisco

When I first saw Lisbon, I wondered if the plane had gone too far as we were sailing over the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, at least it looked like the Golden Gate. Actually, the orange and white easyJet plane was sailing directly over and not too high above a red suspension bridge, which was the April 25 bridge, right next to a mini version of the Christ Redeemer statue.

Given that the flight plan takes aircrafts right over the bridge and then over the entire city, which was much larger than I imagined, we got a pretty good overview right from the start. It didn't hurt that it was all in the middle of a beautiful sunset. Getting from the airport to the city center was extremely simple. It was finding the hostel after we got off the bus in Rossio Square that proved to be the challenge. We didn't have a map and only street directions - but we didn't know where any of the streets were. Rachel stopped and asked several different people, all of whom were very nice but (naturally) only responded in Portuguese. So we were a bit lost, to say the least. But finally, we came across someone who spoke English, and after about 30 minutes of searching, we found the Living Lounge Hostel.

And we discovered that we were staying in the best hostel in the whole world. Really.

The Living Lounge Hostel is nicer than most hotels that I've stayed in. The staff were warm and welcoming, and all of the rooms (bedrooms, bathrooms, lounges, kitchen) were very modern, clean and had a theme. Plus there were several free amenities that other hostels normally charge for, including linens, towels, Internet and a hair dryer. Oh, and free Port wine for all! Given that we were staying in the "lomography" themed room and there was a lot of kitschy furniture abound, after a few minutes, I finally put my finger on it: We were staying in an Urban Outfitters. It was the most hipster place I'd ever seen.

Turns out that's fairly reflective of Lisbon as a whole, given that most young people were dressed like hipsters. That, plus the bridge lookalike, old cable cars on the streets and the city being famous for seven hills convinced me and Amy that Lisbon is truly Europe's San Francisco. I used to think it was Amsterdam, given the liberalness, laid-back attitudes on just about everything, tepid weather during the summer and relatively friendly people. But with the exception that San Francisco is far cleaner than Lisbon, the two cities could be cousins at the least.

After an entire day of traveling from Palma to Portugal, you can only imagine that both Rachel and I were very tired. Since Amy had arrived at the hostel before we did, she naturally went out and check out the sites, so we decided we'd wait for her to get back. And when she did, not only did she have two new Brazilian friends in tow, but also bags full of food! Oh, best day ever. So we all made dinner together (well, frozen pizzas and salad, but it was delicious), and just chilled at the hostel afterwards. Unfortunately, our new friends were leaving to go home to Brazil the next day, after a 45-day tour around Europe. It's too bad when you meet really cool people, and only get to know them for such a short time. Geography can suck sometimes.

The next day, it rained. As usual. So we decided this would be the best time to check out indoor attractions: museums. We checked out two museums, one on fashion and the other fine arts - both of which we got into for free with student IDs. (Well, I'm going to be a student again in May...sort of.) While both were good, I definitely loved the fashion museum more. The whole museum was dedicated to an exhibit on fashions from the 1960s and 1970s, enhanced by a soundtrack of  songs from those decades, a timeline involving world events and fashion plus screens with films made at that time (A Clockwork Orange seemed to stick out the most). Plus all of the hippie furniture reinforced my stance that Lisbon is a hipsterville. After checking out the fine arts museum on the other side of town, we realized it was time for another indoor activity: shopping.

We had a bit of a scare on the way back into town though. After walking out of the fine arts museum, we saw a bunch of preteen boys holding water balloons. The three of us said nothing, avoided eye-contact and tried to calmly walk away from the situation. Yet out of the corner of my eye, I could see them eyeing us. Amy and I were nervously looking at each other, constantly asking all the way down the block, "OMG, are they still looking?" fearing that all of a sudden they would charge down the street and attack. But luckily, no such thing happened. Then we waited for the cable car/trolley to arrive for about 15 minutes, while we watched three arrive at once in the other direction. Just like...MUNI. The similarities are endless.

After perusing some stores in Barrio Alto, a neighborhood filled with shops near our hostel, we decided to make a trip to Starbucks. Being the only one in Portugal and that we hadn't had Starbucks in a good long while, we thought it would be fun and a nice treat. But then when we walked into the shopping center where it was located, we noticed something strange. It was very dark inside. That was because the power was out - and not just in every store. We walked the few blocks back to our hostel, where there was also no power. A block on the grid must have been wiped out because there was no power anywhere nearby, meaning that all the shops and restaurants were closing early - and we were HUNGRY. But after an hour or two, it came back and we were all happy again.

We had dinner at the hostel, which has an 8€ prix-fixe menu each night. All of their dinners include three courses, then free bread and wine. And given that it was all delicious, it was a bargain. Actually, most of Portugal is a bargain in comparison to most countries in Western Europe. That night the main course was "vegetarian Shepherd's Pie," which I didn't quite understand given that ground beef is the heart of Shepherd's Pie, but I was curious nonetheless. While it was still tasty, it should have been called a potato and vegetable casserole.

Coincidentally, the girls seated across from us were American. When we asked what they were doing in Europe, they said they were studying in France. This led us down a procession of questions, narrowing their location down to Northern France, and down to Lille! What a small world. We actually ran into a lot of people living in France on this trip, either French people or others (Americans, Canadians and Brazilians) studying in France and all on vacation given that it was Vacances d'Hiver. I guess this is what Europe is like every six weeks. You can just expect a load of new tourists arriving from France now and again given how much vacation they give out in this country, and that a lot of it is doled out during the same time periods.

On Saturday morning, we woke up to the most lovely sight: sunshine. This was our one chance to do some serious outdoor activities, so we headed for the train station to go to Sintra, a touristy town about 40 minutes away with several castles and palaces along a mountainside.

Normally, getting train tickets is a very straightforward process. But given that there were several long lines at the ticket machines and windows, it wasn't quick. Luckily there are trains to this town every 10 minutes. As we couldn't figure out the automatic ticket machine, even with the help of a few nice locals, Rachel went and lined up to buy them in the ticket window. As she had been in line for a few minutes, we went and joined her. Everything was going fine until we got up to the window. It was pretty obvious that the three of us were together given we had been talking together in line for the past 10 minutes.

But then, as we approached the window, some nasty old man behind us in line started yelling at us in Portuguese and literally shoved me and Amy aside. And when I say shoved, I mean seriously pushed. I actually stumbled a bit. He didn't tap on our shoulders or try to get our attention before. He shoved us right at the counter window. Some woman next to him decided to join in at yelling at us. We had no idea why they reacted this way, given that Rachel had been in line before they were and we certainly didn't cut anyone. Even the ticket agent asked them what their problem was. Even if we had cut, to exhibit that kind of behavior where you actually put your hands on a stranger is rude, uncalled for and he should be ashamed of himself. To conduct yourself that way at any age is disgraceful. Rachel bought the tickets for all three of us, and as we walked away, Amy said to him in a voice that was firm yet somehow still sweet, "I hope you have a very bad day," which prompted the giggles for someone who understood English behind them.

Amy and I agreed that's where the similarities between Lisbon and San Francisco ended.

When we got to Sintra, the sun was shining, but it was still a bit chilly, especially at the top of the mountain. We took the shuttle to the top, around some very narrow woodland roads similar to Highway 17 on the way to Santa Cruz, only tighter. We decided to start at the top and make our way down, starting with the royal Pena Palace at the top. It was so colorful that it almost didn't look real. More like a casino in Vegas. The views from the top were spectacular given the clear day. I could see the Atlantic from one view, and all the way back to Lisbon from another.

The more photo-friendly palace was the outdoor, ruinous Moorish Castle just down the road. Dating back to at least the 10th century, stone staircases spiral around the mountain forming the perimeter for this old outpost. It also made a super location for a photo shoot. Given the lovely weather, some time in fresh air and visiting some really old stuff, I'd say it was a great day. Getting back down the mountain was a little more exciting, as the roads got narrower, making it more difficult for the bus driver to navigate. Then add 30 screaming school children on the bus and you get the picture.

When we finally got back to the hostel, we stopped into Vitaminas, a cute healthy food chain with a salad bar and tons of other healthy treats (banana yogurt purée, spinach strudel, etc.). We all got some pasta salads and brought them back to the hostel, where we mingled with some other new friends. This hostel was definitely the best I've been to for meeting new people. It attracted a more outgoing demographic of tourists, just creating a more lively atmosphere in general.

After dinner, a bunch of us went out to a few bars with traditional Fado music. Both were crowded, as both were about the size of a hole in the wall, but the music in the first bar was enchanting. The second wasn't so bad, except we had to sit on the floor and they were telling stories in Portuguese, making it hard to stay interested. I love music in foreign languages, but its hard to pay attention to narratives when you don't have any idea what they're about.

The sun hung on for a little bit longer on our last day, which also happened to be Valentine's Day. Not much was open in Lisbon, but one attraction that did have its gates open was the Castelo de São Jorge on top of one of Lisbon's seven hills. And it has the perfect view of the city, as seen in the photo below. After wandering around the castle, we headed back to the hostel, made some lunch, and wistfully bid adieu to the best hostel any of us had ever stayed in.

It was also a little bittersweet because I never knew how much Lisbon had to offer. We could have easily spent a week in Lisbon, exploring its quirky neighborhoods and venturing out for day trips to small towns nearby. It was also the first place in Europe where we could really stretch our money. But our time in Portugal wasn't quite over yet, as we got on a bus that afternoon for a four-hour ride north to Porto.