It had been a long old winter with two potentially serious health scares that thankfully were gradually eliminated over repeated visits to doctors, hospitals and specialists. With good news ringing in my ears and strong encouragement from some friends I vowed to make up for lost time and treat myself to a weekend away. I wanted to go a bit further than the Eurostar trains for the sake of my long-suffering wife.
It’s a well known secret that I hate flying and always have. Despite the fact that I’ve made 27 flights before. I know what you’re thinking, 27 is an odd number… did Stephen chicken out of a return flight somewhere? No, Stephen didn’t! I made that odd number flight on the way back of a long overland journey.
Why do I hate flying so much? Aside from my natural predilection for hating flying I think much of it is due to circumstances. I was flying out of Paris the day Concorde blew up there, I’ve had various aborted foggy landings, failed take-offs due to electrical failures and to top it all some of my flights have been scheduled to places in Europe where by pure chance on the days leading up to the flights, there have been major crashes with hundreds dead such as was the case with my honeymoon in Spain.
Of course this time that we live in is probably the worst for decades for those of us who hate flying as terrorists, extremists and rogue states dream up ever new ways to crash planes and even if you get lucky and avoid that there is all the heightened security problems and various missing planes in the Far East. The problem with being a writer and having lots of imagination is that you can dream up all sorts of scenarios and it might be in everyones best interests if the CIA approached me right this minute to pursue my worst-case scenarios seeing as flying planes into tower blocks was something I thought was very obvious and worried about a decade before 9/11 albeit for entirely selfish reasons.
As a bonus flying from Britain you’re often likely to encounter bad weather during take-offs or landings and generally speaking at both. Nothing like torrential rain, strong winds and fog to make a take-off a little more death-defying.
Anyway I put all of that behind me at least for those crazy few seconds when I booked a long weekend in Lisbon. Take-off was at 7am which was good as everywhere is quiet. The carrier was British Airways which was good as they are the only ones I’ve never had a bad experience with and on the day it was clear blue skies and no wind. I even went to the extent of tacking the same flight numbers on my iPad to check my hunch that the flight to Lisbon was a straight forward one, none of those 270 degree banking when taking off in fog scenarios that I hate. Just a gentle dip to the south west and that was that.
I managed to grab the emergency exit seat over the left wing. For most people this gives the advantage of extra leg room but for me it allowed me the best chance possible to be sucked out of the door during an emergency situation or more likely, see the creature from The Twilight Zone that drives a passenger insane as he watches the wings and engine being picked apart.
I always like to fly by the windows as I can never sleep when travelling and I get irked by people having such a great view right next to them and they sleep or watch a movie the whole way through. I do love looking out of the plane windows and seeing what I can see, also if we are going to hit a mountain or one of those 270 degree banking manoeuvres sees us ditching into the ground, I want to be the first to know about it!
Remarkably everything went to plan and once we got past what I call the “Go with throttle-up” moment which doomed the Spaceshuttle Challenger in the 1980’s, the realisation struck me that I might actually have to plan what to do in Lisbon as my chances of arriving safely seemed to be increasing by the minute.
The British Airways plane interiors seem so much better than the budget airlines and dare I say it, the staff much more pleasant, the passengers too and with a delicious breakfast over the English Channel I decided nothing would go wrong until the landing anyway.
Two hours later we found ourselves on the Lisbon Metro. I found Lisbon a wonderful place to visit, it is surprisingly clean and modern and the people were probably the friendliest of anyplace I have ever visited. Egyptians are also very friendly but the Portuguese police don’t seem to want to threaten you with guns if you don’t pay bribes and 2 in 5 of the population don’t want baksheesh.
Spring had already arrived in Lisbon though I doubt Lisbon ever has a winter as I know it, there were certainly many oranges on trees. The streets were full of patisseries similar to Paris except the goods inside seemed more savoury than sweet as in Paris. The place is also deserted in my eyes but then the whole of Portugal has less people than London so know wonder I felt like I had the entire capital city to myself.
Whenever I go abroad I always try to live and travel like a local. Use their transport, go to non-touristy places, eat local foods from local markets and that sort of thing. Though there are more than a few modern buildings in Lisbon, I particularly liked the traditional buildings, they just look so ornate and Portuguese. Lisbon is also possible the hilliest or at least second hilliest city I have ever been too. They have slopes in Lisbon that you could ski down if they were in the country. A good pair of shoes and an adequate supply of asthma inhalers is my tip for visiting this great city.
We spent out first few hours wondering around pretty old streets and checking out some local churches. I had particularly planned to visit San Roque Church which is a little out of the way but a oasis of peace and tranquility with some of the most incredible painted interiors I’ve seen in a church since I last flew… to Malta in 2012. We visited a few other churches, local shops and some place selling fridge magnets where bizarrely the owner seemed to be an British Indian from Whitechapel in East London.
At midday we dropped our bags off at the Europa Turim hotel and took a bus to Jeronimo’s monastery. I thought it was apt to name monastery after the person who invented jumping out of planes with a parachute. It’s always a bit risky getting a bus in a city on your first day. You don’t know where you’re going to, where to get off and I only had a printed map and a memory that the bus journey from the hotel took approximately 43 minutes which still gave a huge amount of room for things to go wrong given traffic jams and the fact we didn’t have a watch or phone with us!
As it happened the route I remembered from Google Maps earlier in the week was vaguely correct and we exited the bus at precisely the right location. After a quick lunch we headed to Jeronimo’s monastery.
The monastery to Saint Jerome was built in 1501 and almost 600 years later became a World Heritage site granting it the same status the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge. It’s easy to see why, the outside of the vast building is one of the most incredible structures I have seen with fine archways and towers decorated with intricate carvings in the white rock.
It has a long and illustrious history surviving both physical earthquakes and political ones such as the Iberian union which for a long time united Spain and Portugal. Several royals were laid to rest here and for a long time is was possibly one of the mostly richly decorated Christian buildings in the world before many of the treasures were later confiscated by various monarchs.
The cloisters of the monastery are incredibly beautiful and the building is so big that despite there being many tourists it was easy to find deserted areas to admire the building and for a sun-starved Englishman to enjoy a few rays of sun. We could really have spent a lot more time here and in the adjoining museum but we were only in Lisbon for two days and there was lots to see on our busy schedule.
Part of the monastery includes a beautiful old church though in many ays it seemed more like a cathedral. Though it is no doubt the resting place for many of the greats in Lisbon and Portugal, it’s most famous inhabitant is likely to be the legendary Portuguese explore Vasco De Gama who was if my history is right the first man to sail from Europe round the bottom of South Africa to the west coast of India.
Understandably for such a great man, Lisbon is rather Vasco De Gama mad. Near to the monastery is a monument to the explorer who it seems is walking up a giant plank about to enter a sailing ship. A mile or so up the road is the relatively new Vasco De Gama bridge which is the longest bridge in Europe if you include the sections over the deep troughs of Lisbon streets at either end. For my wife and I it both reminded us of the Golden Gate Bridge, when I say reminded us, it is the sort of reminder we have for seeing it on television rather than in person but if I didn’t know better it was one and the same.
After leaving the monastery we walked through some ornate parks and encountered some ice-cream sellers who gave us the biggest scoops of ice-cream imaginable. I had chocolate chip, mint chocolate and vanilla. My wife and I both thought it funny as I had spend much of the last week or two in England loudly stating how I fancied an ice-cream and my wife being from a warmer country always thinks it is funny how us British eat ice-creams on the street even when the temperature is around freezing as it was for most of the last few months.
Around 10 minutes walk away along the coast is another Unesco site, The Belem Tower. Belem is one of several parts of Lisbon which is bursting with museums, galleries and palaces and in my opinion make it a bit of a hidden treasure for tourists. Thanks in no small part to Vasco De Gama, Portugal like Spain had a large empire but whilst Spain is famed for her empire in the New World, Portugal had ambitions all over the place and for good or for ill Lisbon is the beneficiary of a once wealthy and powerful empire.
Belem Tower sits right on the coast of the Atlantic and though isn’t very big, is quite ornately decorated. At one point it was largely a gun tower to protect the waters approaching Lisbon from enemy attack. Now it is a largely empty and at times very tight tourist attraction. From the open top roof however you have the most incredible views of the old royal palace up the hill and of the sunny coast line and looking back towards Lisbon you can see epic span of the Vasco De Gama Bridge and the statue of Christ The King on the far bank at Almada.
It was 6pm, we’d been up for 14 hours and it was time to head back our hotel before darkness fell. We walked back along the shoreline to our bus stop, it was safe to say that we were the only tourists on board. Before returning to our hotel we did a spot of shopping in local shops and markets coming away with a bag full of fruits, local cheeses, meats, breads and cakes. We had already fallen in love with Lisbon, it had been a great day and tomorrow would be even better.