Keep hold of your belongings, we’re going to Lisbon

Quite a while ago, long before anyone knew of my cancer diagnosis, my parents booked a Smithsonian tour to Portugal and Spain. As with their trips to Greece and Europe, it seemed a good opportunity for me snag a mini-vacation by hopping a quick flight and joining them at one end of their trip. Luckily, we opted for a pre-tour visit, which allowed me to meet up with them in Lisbon just a few days before, as it turned out, my chemotherapy would be scheduled to start. It was the perfect last-minute fling.

I’ve been to several countries that are, in many ways, like Portugal–I immediately saw reminders of France, Spain, Italy, and Greece–but I’d never been to Portugal itself. When friends heard of my upcoming trip, many told me how lucky I was and said that Lisbon was one of their favorite cities in Europe. I was, therefore, expecting a bit more than I got, but I worry that I am being overly harsh because of the somewhat stressful circumstances of the visit.

Portugal is proud of its navigators/discoverers, as you can see from the ship motifs dotted around Lisbon.
Wavy tiles
Lisbon is also well known for its limestone and basalt mosaic sidewalks, which are beautiful but can be very slippery when it rains–as we found out on our first afternoon in the city.
Water features
Lisbon appears to be a city of fountains, from smaller affairs such as the one along the sidewalk near our hotel (top left) to the more ornate variety found near the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (bottom).

To start with, my parents’ transatlantic flight was delayed by a day, so they ended up arriving the morning after my arrival rather than the morning before. Additionally, nobody had really done any planning because we were all too distracted by the whole cancer thing. My parents’ Smithsonian tour itinerary was all taken care of, but none of us had actually put much thought into what the three of us would do while we were in the city together; this resulted in a lot of shrugging and winging it. Normally, I’m quite happy to roll with the punches in this way, and so I didn’t anticipate that these issues would be that problematic. However,  I don’t think any of us felt particularly drawn to Lisbon itself–although perhaps my parents found it more appealing once their more rigorous tour began in earnest.

The city had some nice enough features and areas, but, on the whole, I wasn’t as blown away by it as I had been expecting given everyone’s comments prior to the trip. The adjective I kept mentally applying to the city was “crumbly”. Luckily, it has just enough cobblestone streets, and is slathered with just enough ornate tiling, that my eyes could tolerate the many boxy communist-style offices and apartment buildings that crowded the skyline; there are also a number of interesting statues and monuments dotted around the city, along with a fair amount of attractive greenery lining the streets.

The Torre de Belem, one of the many impressive sights in the monument district
Monument of discoverers compilation
The Padrao dos Descobrimentos–the monument to the discoverers–is dedicated not just to Henry the Navigator, but also to all the key players (engineers, mathematicians, builders, artists, etc.) who helped make Portugal’s many geographical discoveries possible. In addition to Henry, there are 33 other specific historical figures shown on the two sides of the monument.
Monument part 2
The monument’s main features are those mimicking sails and the prow of a ship–very appropriate for something associated with voyages of discovery. A bit more perplexing, as my mother pointed out, is the very obvious presence of a sword, which seems to clearly link discovery with violence. Perhaps that is why Philippa of Lancaster looks so grim as she prays?
The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, which I have photographed only in segments so as to avoid capturing any of the scaffolding that inevitably seems to be erected around the beautiful old buildings you want to document while on holiday.

Our first day–when all of us were still battling with fatigue from our respective journeys–was probably our most pleasant and relaxing. After a leisurely late breakfast at the hotel, we headed to Lisbon’s renowned Oceanario. The aquarium features a massive central tank where you can see several types of sharks, rays, eels, sunfish, and various other species of saltwater fauna. There were also many smaller exhibits were you could view more delicate specimens such as sea dragons, jellies, flatfish, and garden eels.

Afterwards, we hopped on the Telecabine, which is a cable car ride that runs along the Tagus River in the Parque das Nacoes that incorporates the Oceanario. It wasn’t a very long ride, but it was an extremely pleasant one, offering views of the Lisbon skyline and the many jellyfish down in the water. (Photos from that portion of the journey can be found on Facebook.)

Garden view
View down the Parque Eduardo VII to the statue of the Marques de Pombal–an incredibly accomplished leader who appears to have earned every bit of the recognition he is given throughout the city.
The Marques de Pombal

The defining moment of the trip–the thing that has probably forever prevented me (however unfairly) from ranking Lisbon in my top 10 vacation destination list–is the loss of my parents’ backpack, and the subsequent loss of my cell phone, at the Santa Apolonia train station. We’d been riding a hop-on, hop-off City Sightseeing bus and had accidentally gotten on board the blue line rather than the red line. This prompted us to make such a hasty departure at the train station that the backpack was left behind. I dashed after the bus for several blocks, hoping it might eventually reach a stoplight, but eventually I had to call it quits. Stranded with no other way to get to our next destination, we opted to take a taxi; as we got into the car, my phone–unbeknownst to me–slipped out of my bag and fell onto the sidewalk. Although I discovered its absence within seconds, and subsequently performed a thorough inspection of the interior of the station, the taxi waiting area, and the lost and found, I had no luck finding it.

Amazingly, though this misadventure necessitated a 90-minute phone call that caused me to miss our entire visit to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, it does actually have a happy ending. The phone was found by a man who was traveling to Porta to visit his daughter–who had the technical savvy to track me down via social media so that she could coordinate a way to return the phone to me; it is, as I type, en route to Cornwall.

Santa Apolonia station
The scene of the “crime”
Blue line tour
A few of the more attractive sights on the very appropriately named blue line
Both the blue and red lines spend quite a bit of time along the shores of the Tagus River


This poor, put-upon plant was one of the many glorious specimens at the Jardim da Estrela, which is apparently considered one of the most romantic places to take a walk in Lisbon.
The Jardim is a pleasant place for birds and humans alike.
One of my favorite sights in Lisbon was the Basilica da Estrela, which is lovelier on the inside than it is on the outside. It was the first church in the world dedicated to the sacred heart of Jesus.
Church interior
We entered the basilica just as a service was ending, and the building still smelled of incense. Although it is a bit plain on the outside, the interior is much warmer and more welcoming.
Statues in church
As I paused to take one last photo before exiting the basilica, the building was filled with the quiet sound of Latin chants, emerging from the rear of the church where, I assume, the priest was being divested of his ceremonial raiments.
Blindfolded statues
These two blindfolded statues were on opposite sides of an intersection from each other on the road–Avenida de la Liberdade–where our hotel was located. We wondered if the accessories were a form of political protest?

This grand gesture is only one of the many kindnesses we were shown during our time in Lisbon, and that is what I will remember most about the trip: The people were generous, friendly, and incredibly helpful. From shopkeepers to waitstaff to strangers on the street, there was a consistent attitude of openness and welcome. For example, when we left the Gulbenkian, one of the employees insisted on walking us to the nearest metro stop to ensure that we wouldn’t get lost; there was no need for him to do more than point, but he graciously took the extra step–literally–to guarantee that we reached our goal.

I suspect that I would probably enjoy Lisbon more if I had the time to visit it again in better health, over an extended period, and with more of an opportunity to really explore the ins and outs of the city rather than take such a hectic, scattered approach. That said, I still feel lucky to have been able set aside a few days to go and enjoy some late summer sunshine in great company, and to replace “lymphoma” with “Lisbon” as the L-word most prominent in my mind!

(For more photos of Lisbon, visit my Flickr gallery)