The Hill God Does Lisbon

Praça do Comércio on the Tagus River

Our first morning in Lisbon I go out for coffee and the famous Portuguese pastries pastéis de nata, which is a custard tart wet dream. The Rua Augusta, silent when we arrived the night before, is bustling this morning. The broad pedestrian way has several outdoor restaurants where tourists eat and locals serve them. Everyone else sets up shop for the day: pharmacies, souvenir shops, markets, gelaterias, restaurants. Workers wash off their patch of cobbles with hoses and buckets of water. It’s warm in the sun and cool in the shade. A breeze comes from the direction of the Praça do Comércio which is the square a couple of hundred yards off that sits on the Tagus. Perfect.

There are a number of pastry cafes and I dip into one and order two coffees, two pastéis de nata, and a large donut coated in sugar and filled with custard and which I have to eat over a trashcan because of the amount of sugar that drops off with each bite.

Oh fish cakes, where hath ye been all my life?

The center of Lisbon is narrow streets that run like a bowl of cooked spaghetti. The famous battered old yellow trams scoot up and down those streets. Though they are at times crammed with tourists, the steepness of Lisbon’s streets makes those trams tempting.

If you ask for directions in Lisbon, the answer always involves some form of the phrase: “you go up that hill…” Lisbon is one of the world’s several dozen cities built on seven hills. Others are Rome, Brussels, Bristol, Edinburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, Jerusalem, Tehran, and Prague. One of those hills in Prague I lived atop for more than a decade only to move to the top of another one.

I can’t seem to avoid hills. Not only have I lived on hills in Prague, I have always lived on hills. The street I grew up on was at the top of such a steep hill that cars stalled out and my siblings and I were consistently asked if we needed oxygen tanks to live up there. It was called, Hanukkah Hill, owing to the large Jewish population on the development. I then moved to Pittsburgh, which is a city of one hill atop another hill. In Pittsburgh I lived in Squirrel Hill and learned to drive stick shift there in a hill-borne birth by fire. And hills play a role in my life otherwise, too. Doctors, grocers, pharmacies, everything I need seems to be on top of a hill. It’s as if some universal entity is hell bent on helping me improve my heart health. More worrying, I’ve wondered if I am Hill Deity, and while I find these hills a pain in the neck, they are really just praising me, their long-suffering god. In any event, it seems that most of our walking time in Lisbon is spent walking up a very steep hill.

The buildings are colorful, sometimes pastel, or sometimes the stucco white of a desert church. And lots of walls are either made up of or have a decorated portion in blue and white azulejo tiles. These were an influence of the Moorish invasion in the 13th century and were eventually used to fill in the blank boring spots on walls, in hallways, and on buildings. And indeed, random backstreet buildings boast azulejo facades, artwork, or frescos depicting historical events. It was always pleasantly surprising.

Lisbon is a city of surprises. Turning a corner brings us out to a charming square where a jazz band is playing near an outdoor café where men are drinking early morning beers. We come across a small mostly-outdoor restaurant in an alley, whose tables and stool-seats wobble on a steep incline, and which has the most delicious fish and shrimp cakes (similar to crab cakes), pork sandwiches, and cherry liqueur. We come out onto a veranda from which we are granted a wonderful view of the city, the sun glinting off the river, guitarist playing, and locals smoking joints.

not pictured: photographer trying not to tumble down this alleyway after two beers.

There are treats. We started the morning with coffee, chocolate drinks, and the custard pastries, for which, I mentally note, I would lease out my family for hard labor. In the afternoon we ate the fish cakes and pork sandwiches in a brown gravy and on crusty bread. There is a mid-afternoon gelato. In between our treats, there is a ton of vertical walking. According to my Fitbit, we log over 25,000 steps (about 10 miles) on cobbles, slopes, and concrete.   

Though our feet are throbbing, that evening we hobble along the river from the Praça do Comércio until we hit another square with musicians playing and people dancing. Vendors sell cocktails and snacks. A row of restaurants on the walkway have outdoor seating, but at the friendly insistence of the bartender we take our bottles of Super Bock beer and sit on the concrete with our sore feet dangling over the river. Boaters and ferries chug around the broad river, the water laps against the rocks. The sun is out, the shade is cool. We enjoy it and relish the short, flat walk back, because tomorrow there will be another hill for the Hill God.

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