Monday, 11 October 2010

Lisbon: European Trinidad

I suspect that Portuguese (and other Lisbon-lovers) might just want to have my guts for garters after reading this post, but then I never said I was here to please anyone (apart from myself, of course)...

But wait, you may say, Trinidad (the one in Cuba) is quite high;y regarded as a tourist destination. And I will concur - happily. I've been there. Have you? Yes, it is a nice specimen of colonial architecture, and still harbours almost tangible ghosts of times past. Yet, it is a sad town to behold all the same.

The reason for this is - and if you've been you'd have to be blind not to have noticed - is that it is so horribly dilapidated that it almost made me physically sick. And Lisbon, well, it most certainly is not in anywhere near as ruinous state as Trinidad, but for a western European country it is most decidedly in a sad state of repair. Or rather, in quite a bad need of a lot of repairs. To be honest, a large part looks as if people fled with no plan of ever returning - whole buildings empty, crumbling, and boarded up. And I'm talking very close to city centre here (see photo on top, for one example, not five minutes walk from the high street).

There's a fair bit to be seen, for sure. There's history, architecture, art - the usual lot of an ex-colonial power capital. Unfortunately, most of what is there to see (and worth seeing) is marred by bad organisation - something that seems to be a very Portuguese thing. It's either unclear how to go about seeing something - and what actually is important to see once you do get inside, or there are massive queues for no good (or at least no apparent) reason whatsoever.

Oh, if you expected me to now list attractions and tell you what to see (or not) in Lisbon you've come to the wrong place. There are much better guides, both in content and style than I can ever attempt to create. Plus, I run a risk of putting you off too much, by being left cool by things that you may actually like.

Instead, I will give just a few dos and don'ts from my (admittedly short) Lisbon experience. I think they'll stand you in good stead, being quite practical. And because I expect you to be good, I may even throw in a place or two that you actually should go and see.

Now, without further ado, my dos and don'ts of Lisbon:

DO: Go to and see Lisbon. It is well worth a weekend. But not much more.
DON'T: Do it at the height of the tourist season. Queues for everything are only just bearable outside it.

DO: Take a taxi from the airport. The queue is horrendous, but it actually moves quickly. And it's cheap.
DON'T: Laugh at the way armed policeman direct who goes into which taxi.

DO: Get all your tourist information beforehand. Tourist information points either aren't or are hidden behind a massive queue.
DON'T: Buy a Lisbon Pass. The public transport is cheap as it is, and there are better museums elsewhere.

DO: Go see Castelo de Sao Jorge, Torre de Belem, and Jeronimos Monastery.
DON'T: Go see the latter two other than on a Sunday between 10am and 2pm when they're free.

DO: Go see Torre de Belem first thing, before the queue snakes for a mile.
DON'T: Try jumping the queue to the top. This is where the Portuguese get very, very mad.

DO: Go into the long tiled room in Jeronimos Monastery - and try the acoustics by raising your voice. Fabulous.
DON'T: Go into Jeronimos before the end of the mass when the queue beggars belief. But make sure you get in before 2pm when they start charging - it's not quite worth paying for.

DO: Have a look at the old lift in the centre of the city.
DON'T: Bother queueing to get up only to have a look and get down. Views are better from the Castelo de Sao Jorge, and the Se.

DO: Try proper home made Portuguese cuisine (even if it looks repulsive).
DON'T: Bother with the famous patisserie in Belem. The "famous" pastries are substandard.

So, it seems you have been a good audience, and I have rewarded you with a few sightseeing cues and clues. Well done. To finish off this little travelogue (hey! look! I didn't split the infinitive!) here's a final thing not to do:

DON'T: Visit Lisbon if there's any chance of rain stronger than a brief shower. Any strong rain (and we had more than our fair share) will make streets, shops, and even four star hotels flood. And the foru star hotel when flooded, everybody knows this, suffers from a power cut. For which it does not have either a emergency diesel generator, or a supply of safe lights for the guests. We had to settle for a handful of mood candles from the bar, kindly donated by the barlady. reception didn't have any, and in any case were too busy phoning the fire department (for whatever reason, one would thing that coast guard would have been more appropriate), and trying to shove all the water from the reception back into the street - with limited success (after failing miserably to stop it coming in in the first place by throwing a few snow white hotel towels in the floor). The inept hotel name? Jeronimos 8. It is an excellent hotel otherwise, but in an emergency - well, a bit of torrential downpour which can't be so much out of character for a city on the Atlantic ocean - totally useless. Polite, pleasant and attempting to be helpful, but still useless.

Do you still want to go see Lisbon?

No?

But you'd be wrong! It is worth seeing.

Have a look at some of the photos here.

It's just that you should manage your expectations.

Very carefully.