Lisbon City Guide: A Hot Tour from a local storyteller
Were you guys hot over in the past days? I’m sure you were! There was no trendiest topic to talk about than the recent heatwave spreading through south-western European countries. “How hot is it today? Jesus… This is too much!” In the case of Portugal, we broke temperature records like Cristiano Ronaldo does with goal-scoring. In simple words, everyone from locals to tourists got crazy with the heat in Lisbon. In fact, some days ago our capital reached 44 degrees which is the highest temperature ever seen!!
A HOT DAY IN LISBON
Now tell me: what would a reasonable person do in such case? I don’t see many options here. If you’re like my mother, you stay at home enjoying the freshness ventilated by our air-conditioning system. If you’re the type of person who can’t stay indoors on a weekend, you certainly go to the beach or to the swimming pool at one of your friend’s. Well… there’s also the storytelling unconventional way. Considering my mental struggle to come up with a decent story for this week, I decided to walk up to Alfama, Graça, and Mouraria: symbolic neighbourhoods located in Lisbon’s historic centre.
I know guys: who on earth is going to hike 3.5 kilometres at lunchtime, 44 degrees, especially with so many ups and downs around this area?
No need to say anything… We storytellers enjoy taking the hard road. The feeling of discovering hidden gems when people least expect is a good example of the way our brain works. In turbulent times highlighted by the gentrification effects on the city, I feel like I should take a look at what’s currently happening in “the soul of Lisbon”. Not only it’s a rewarding touristic experience through a local’s lens but I also find it a moral duty. As a proud and concerned “alfacinha”, it’s important to understand the social dynamics that have been shaping Lisbon over the past years.
That implies observation, curiosity, critical thinking and, most importantly, the urge to talk to people. If you’ve followed my stories, you know the incredible power of spontaneous interactions to a more fulfilling life. In this scenario, my Lisbon City Guide is nothing more than getting myself lost in its tidy narrow streets. Honestly, this is the best travel advice I can give you! Shall we begin the tour?
LET THE STORYTELLING TOUR BEGIN
As soon as I arrived in the Mouraria neighbourhood, there was almost no one in there. Imagine the scenario like a touristic buffet: an all you can go without any waiting line. Sweet! So, I decided to stop by a coffee shop which has winked at me for a long time. O Ninho (the nest in Portuguese), whose eye-catching brunch delights every foodie, was as naked as every nearby shop.
I entered the café and saw a couple having their meal. “Hey!” Our smiles couldn’t be more revealing about the hot day we were living. Soon after I realized that they were French as well as the owners of the place. Given the massive inflow of Gauls to Lisbon, I guess this is not a big news anymore. Don’t get me wrong! The ones I met living here are extremely friendly and these 2 likewise. As I gazed at the vintage cozy décor, the guy was telling me that mornings and late afternoons were the busiest times in Mouraria. “Then everyone is off to the beach!”
In contrast, I was sitting at a table with outside view while enjoying a refreshing iced coffee. Once in a while, a tourist would come inside asking for advice or just a glass of water. Overall, the atmosphere was awkwardly pleasant! Especially when a resident would get inside and say “mon ami, give me a bière s’il vous plaît!”
In the meantime, the “nest” was about to take a rest as it was nearly 6pm. “Where should I go next?” I didn’t care… Just kept moving! I ended up heading to the Alfama area where the Fado’s nostalgic music was born. Definitely a more crowded one as much as socially interventional. One could actually see locals’ protests scattered around the walls against government entities and short-term rentals:
LOCAL SHOPS: STORIES TO DISCOVER
Walking down Rua dos Remédios, one of the most emblematic streets in Alfama, there were plenty of wine bars, restaurants, and gift shops to choose from. Therefore, it seemed like I was watching a tennis match: looking left and right until the moment a little design shop drew my attention. A few seconds after, the woman behind the counter greeted me in English with a “hi! Welcome”. My outfit could perfectly mean I was a tourist indeed. Nevertheless, I replied to her “you can talk in Portuguese!… For how long does this shop exist?” This simple question turned out to be the starting point for an in-depth conversation: the rising tourism footprint in Lisbon’s historic centre.
“These small shops can only survive if the several artists/owners decide to join one another and sell their products under the same roof. If not, they’ve no option but to close down.” She also added that “the type of tourism coming here is not the one with money to spend. I often see tourists buying groceries and then eating sandwiches outside… The German tourist is a very meticulous one. They’re usually keen on taking local, handmade products like the jewelery we sell here. Guess what, they’re no longer coming. After all, no one wants to visit a place flooded with tourists right?”
My hot tour was not finished yet. With a few more sips of water, my batteries were recharged enough to keep discovering the other side of Lisbon. Anyway, this city has an amazing capacity to constantly surprise me with one of my favourites: the small beautiful houses enlightened by welcoming balconies.
Never get tired of admiring these little treasures! This is one of the reasons why the storyteller’s travel guide never disappoints. Accordingly, Largo de S. Miguel surprised me with a brand new Kreativ World inside a tiny room. Here you can travel the world through a well-supplied showcase of Eastern-inspired ideas: jewelery, clothing, mythical objects like Buddha, elephants and so on and so forth. When chatting with the owner, he told me that most of the displayed products date back to his travels across the globe: Thailand, Vietnam, India, Nepal… “And the next one will be to Laos and Cambodia!”
Thin and bald, he showed himself to be a free mind. Based on my quick look-and-feel I’d bet he’s vegan, yoga practitioner and, who knows, devoted to Buddhism. Not long after I was pleased to hear the testimonials of his spiritual journeys: “For me, Thailand was the best. People are kind, friendly and safety is not an issue. I remember seeing many motorbikes parked with the key in the ignition. How come?” In fact, that was news to me! “You’ve got quite a good life! Working and traveling…” I told him. “Indeed! Although I only travel on those off-peak dates like December 24, 31 or when it’s not warm enough here. Not like today!”
With this in mind, I looked back to the sun and off we go! One more walk around Alfama’s heart without ever leaving my ears open.
LIVE ART PERFORMANCE: THE BEST OF THE DAY
Whether from tour guides or local residents you’d get some peculiar expressions along the way: “In Venice tourists arriving by cruises are welcomed with megaphones” or “this is António, a great Fado guitar player who has performed at this house for many years.” And there he was, enjoying a glass of wine across the street and waving to the man who mentioned him. Since wine was brought up for discussion let me tell you that I saved the best for last. On the street that goes up to Lisbon Cathedral, Rua de São João da Praça, several drawings were being displayed on the sidewalk. I checked the glass door right before them and read this sign:
Wow! I need to know more about it! Therefore, I checked everything more closely so as to get the whole picture. Beautiful setting. The main entrance surrounded by old Portuguese tile with the lettering “botica” on top of the glass door. Marvellous. Curiously, one of this word’s meanings is pharmacy which was the exact name printed slightly below: “Farmácia Nacional”.
Apparently, the shop has turned into an atelier. Against this background, I focused on the artworks around the place. Most of them portray symbolic elements of Portugal and Lisbon’s history: tram 28, sardines, carnation from April 25 Revolution and the poet Fernando Pessoa. “Ok, I can’t wait anymore. Let’s get into the creative temple and get to know the artist!”
It was a long, well-preserved room with a table each side full of paintings and more paintings. A brief analysis of them made me sure he or she is an absolute fan of Fernando Pessoa. The finesse of the poet’s masterpieces could be noticed in the refined delicacy of this artist’s brushstroke. To make it better, coffee and red wine are the raw materials that give color to the Portuguese heritage in line with our culture!
By the time 3 people were joyfully chatting in the back of the room. “Congrats on the paintings, I’m amazed! ” I said. “Thank you! What’s your name?” It must be him; the artist. The shape of his eyes tells me he’s an Asian man. All dressed in black and with the grey hair held in a ponytail. Intriguing character. As soon as I answered “Tomás” he took a brush and began to paint. Live art right here, right now. He stared at me 2 or 3 times and I didn’t know what to do but to remain silent without moving my body. 2 minutes later this painting was given to my hands.
Unbelievable. My name is written in Mongolian and my portrait is just like the way I looked in that day: yellow t-shirt, dark shorts, black backpack and with the hat backward. Ah! The beard as well. Although petrified, I was still able to come up with some questions for him: “how do you use the coffee? How do you get it? A friend of mine has a coffee roaster in Bairro da Madragoa and I’d like him to visit you one day.” He’s smiley and chilled but not a man of many words. Yet, he answers me saying “I just get normal coffee bought in a nearby shop.” So unique and natural at the same time…
The moment the artist leaves for a while, my storytelling vein goes toward the 2 women who were next to him. One of them is his partner (at least at work) and the other a neighbour who came to chitchat. Following a handful of questions, I was able to get a snapshot of such magic, artistic atmosphere. “The atelier has been here for 4 years. About him… He’s from Mongolia and an authentic working machine who’s in love with the Portuguese culture.” And I couldn’t agree more: “I loved this St. Anthony painting and since my mom is very devoted to him I’ll take it!” I confessed. Then it was a matter of time until we start talking like we had known each other for years. That’s what a storyteller is all about: to explore the world with a flaming desire to establish meaningful human relationships. “Did you know that Tomás’ mother works on History of Art?” I see him going back to his chair and “what’s your mother’s name?” Oh boy here we go again:
There’s nothing much to say right? The hottest day ever in Lisbon brightened my mind and soul with a surprising hot tour: an off the beaten track one. They even offered me a homemade iced-tea to face the heat! This is the beauty of getting lost in the middle of a city: you end up never feeling alone.
As long as you’re willing to discover, the storytelling city guide will always take care of you.