Trip Start Nov 09, 2007
Trip End Feb 03, 2008

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Friday, January 11, 2008

I woke up to another fine day in Lisbon with no suitcase. I looked at my phone to find that it had run out of battery overnight. 'Oh no' I thought. The airport people have probably been trying desperately to reach me to explain why the suitcase never turned up. Urgently I plugged the phone in and turned it on. No messages. Nothing. Nada.
I rang them. 'Oh' they said. 'We were expecting it last night, but it never came. I'll send another message to Brussels'.
I had a plan for the day in my head that would be an improvement on yesterday. Not that we had a bad day, just a little unfulfilling. I think the bag situation was not helping. First place I wanted to visit was the Castelo Sao Jorge which is right above us. I checked the map, took my bearing and confidently led our family through the streets, alleyways and passages of the Alfama. Piece of cake.
After a bit of walking we came across a very narrow street with tram tracks on it. Ah hah, I thought. This will be the tracks for the famous number 28 tram that runs up to the castle. We followed the tracks for a while until we came to a massive structure. Not the Castelo, but the Church of Sao Vicente. Never mind, we'd visit that first. Really, it must have been part of my plan all along.
I took Maggie's hand as we walked around the church. When we re-emerged into the daylight, she appeared less than impressed. Maggie is not a fan of churches, and even though I have kept church visits to almost none this time, she still prefers the outside to the inside.
Across the road from the castle we spotted a café that had baguettes on the menu for a reasonable price. As it was just about lunch time we decided to stop and have a note to eat before tackling the castle. The lunch was delicious, with fresh ingredients and crispy rolls. Topped with an excellent coffee it was a great stop.
Despite my confidence with the map, I decided to double check with the woman in the café. She concurred with my opinion as to the best route to take (of course) so we headed off. When we got close to the castle it was not immediately apparent which road to take, so I chose one of the two available. This turned out to be the scenic route so we had a chance to circumnavigate the castle from the bottom. We need to stop along the way for a toilet stop so picked a hotel that seemed to be called 'Rooms with a view" that had a café as well. We sat in the rather up-market surrounding and enjoyed our second coffee in half an hour. Then we took the other road.
On the way into the castle there are little shops selling ceramics, postcards, linen and wine as well as a variety of other souvenirs. We looked in a few but bought nothing.
Entry into the castle costs 5 euros per adult. Children are free. However, if you are there with our family there is a 50% discount as well, so we only paid 2.50 euro per adult. Strange pricing but I wasn't going to argue.
The castle has a commanding view over the Baixa and Chiado districts and wonderful views of the Targus River on which Lisbon sits. We took a few panoramic shots, the girls put 1 euro into a telescope, which they had been itching to do, and promptly lost their money. Once bitten they tried another machine, this time with only 50 euro cents. This time they had more luck but seemed to spend more time looking at each other through the lens than at the view.
We walked around the castle grounds, which are very pretty then went inside the castle itself. This is basically and empty structure so it was a lot of fun on the castle walls, watching out for invaders, poking about in all of the nooks and crannies.
When we had had our fill of castle-plundering it was time to catch the historic number 28 tram back down to the bottom. From what I could tell of the transport map that I had, this tram would take us all the way to our next destination, Belem. It careered through the streets plummeting down narrow alleyways relentlessly towards the bottom of the hill and the Baixa. Then it slipped across town and climbed up the other side through the Chiado and reaching the Barrio Alto. Where it stopped.
'Finito' the driver turned and told us, aware that we were still on the tram. He made a cutting gesture in the air to indicate that we had reached the end of the road. I told him that I though he went to Belem and he said no but told us how to get there. Following his instructions we walked down the hill and jumped on the number 15 tram. I had no tickets but there is a machine on board so I spent the next ten minutes feeding coins into the ticket machine. My advice would be to buy your tickets beforehand!
We wanted to go to Belem for one reason. Portuguese tarts. The most famous Portuguese tart shop in the world is in Belem. Jean, who had been to Lisbon 18 months earlier, had given us clear instructions about going to Belem and getting the tarts.
The first thing we noticed when we got there was an impressive white building that comprises a church, a monastery and a museum. Yes, all very interesting but where were the tarts? As luck would have it there is a tourist information booth right there at the tram stop so we asked for some advice.
The very helpful woman there gave us a quick idea of what to do in Belem and then pointed us in the direction of Pasteis de Belem, the famous shop that had been operating, the sign says, since 1837. It was easy to see why. As we entered, the place was throbbing with people. Maybe a thousand or so packed the front counter placing their orders like stock brokers five minutes before the close of the Wall Street. There are some table immediately behind the front counter, but these were all taken. Jess took up a watch post while I went to see what other seating options were on offer. I went out the back and found maybe half a hectare of tables in various rooms, all taken.
I went back to tell Jess the sad news. Prowling like a cat, she had noted the next few tables likely to leave. Sure enough about five minutes later she had managed to shame one of them into gobbling up their pastries, slurping down their coffee and vacating their seats so that we could sit down.
We decide to be precautious and only ordered eight pasteis, along with a coffee and hot chocolate for the girls. The pasteis came first, and by the time the coffee came most of them had disappeared. 'What happened to our tarts?' I asked the waiter. 'Ah', he said, 'I have seen this before. I think they have had some Red Bull - they must have wings and have flown away'. Agreeing with him, I ordered four more. Looking a bit worried, Maggie said 'Don't you think we should only order one more each?' 'Yes', Jess replied, 'that's four'. 'Oh', said Maggie. 'I thought you meant four each.'
Thing is, I bet some people have ordered that many. They are just so good. There is a shaker of cinnamon on the table, and a shaker of icing sugar. You take the tarts, still warm from the oven, and shake a little of each on the top. Then you place this small piece of heaven in your mouth and bite on the crisp sweet pastry and the warm rich custard. It wouldn't matter how many superlatives I used to describe them, they are even better than that. We bought a tube of tarts to take away (that's how they are served) and reluctantly left the premises.
Next port of call was the cathedral that we had first noticed. We checked out the monastery and the museum and both had entry fees and we had little time to do them justice so we saved them for another day and popped our head into the cathedral instead. It is an impressive structure, but what impressed me most was near the entrance. There encased in white marble, is the tomb of Vasco de Gama. Georgie and Maggie didn't appear to recognise his name (what is school coming to?) so I explained that one day they will probably learn all about famous explorers other than Captain Cook, and he will be up there with the most famous.
We headed across the road and down to the water to look at the Monument to the Discoveries, an impressive structure that you are actually able to climb and view the city and the river from. There were also a couple of exhibitions on display so we paid the 2.50 euro entry fee each (the children were free) and went up. It's a very narrow space near the top but the view is excellent. One of the exhibitions had photos of people of the world. The photography was great, capturing the diversity that abounds in human nature.
From there it was a ten minute walk along the waterfront towards the Tower of Belem. When you get within about 100 meters you come across a break in the path where yachts are able to access a mariner, so you need to backtrack, walk along the road for a while and then go back down to the water. This diversion meant that we reached the tower about 10 minutes after the last entry. Still, it was interesting to view from the outside anyway.
It was getting dark as we headed for home. We found the tram stop and I bought some tickets from the newspaper kiosk this time, saving myself heaps in the fare in the process, not to mention the stress of using the onboard machines. We reached the terminus of the tram and were greeted by delicious smells of Indian food. Following our noses we found the source of this delight and very quickly agreed that we would eat Indian for dinner. The Ghandi Palace on Simao e Rodrigues turned out to be an excellent choice and we had a marvellous meal.
Replete with this splendour we ambled home through the Alfama, trying to find a different route home but not really succeeding. We did find some new alleyways and some different fado houses, but I think it would take a long time to get to know these streets well.
Oh - are you wondering about my bag? I rang the baggage agency at the airport this evening. Here's how the conversation went:
'Hello, I'm calling about my bag, reference number blah blah.'
'Ah, yes sir, unfortunately we have been unable to locate your bag.'
'What? Yesterday you told me it was located and would be delivered to me last night. This morning you told me that it missed last night's plane but would be here today. Now you're telling me you can't find it?'
'Ah, one moment please sir.'
A minute passes
'Yes sir your bag is right here.'
'Really? Can it be delivered tonight?'
'Certainly sir, some time before midnight.'
So I sat at home waiting for the bag to arrive. It never came. I think it doesn't love me anymore.
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