Tag Archives: Lisbon

The Tiled City

A view of Old Lisbon, painted on tile

A view of Old Lisbon, painted on tile

“This reminds me of Korea.”

That’s what the lieutenant said as I drove him through a rural section of Utah in our military vehicle.  I assumed he meant Korea (the country) and not Chorea (disease characterized by jerky movements).

“It looks like this?” I asked, not having been there.  “Well, not exactly — just those hills over there are sort of… I don’t know, something about it…”  He trailed off and then changed the subject.

That was decades ago, but in the intervening years I’ve had similar experiences:  There’s something about a place that momentarily conjures up memories of another place.  They aren’t identical, but one is somehow evocative of the other.  Maybe I’m the only person who ever thought so, but Lisbon reminded me of San Francisco.

The two cities do have some physical similarities; both are built on hilly terrain.  Narrow, winding streets in Lisbon lead down to a bay — the Portuguese capital is located at the mouth of the Tagus River where it empties into the Atlantic.  Lisbon’s bay isn’t as vast as San Francisco’s, but there is a long, orange suspension bridge that crosses it.

Both cities have fine views (miradouros is what they call them in Portuguese) and expansive parks.  In one of Lisbon’s, we saw a young couple having sex, oblivious to the other park visitors all around them.  One might expect to see that sort of thing in San Francisco, too.

Well, some or all of these factors made the connection in my brain, but there are several ways in which Lisbon is distinctive.  The main one is the tile.

It’s everywhere:  The exterior walls of buildings are covered with it (and interior walls, for that matter).  Sidewalks and fountains and even some of the old streets are made of ceramic tile.  The tiles vary in size, but often are 4″x 4″, or 8″x 8″, like you may have in your bathroom.  However, the tile in your bathroom probably isn’t a mural of battle scenes or saints or landscapes.

Not all of the tile in Lisbon is representational art; much of it is in geometric patterns — interlocking chains and so forth.  Apartments buildings that are six or seven stories high sometimes alternate:  A couple of stories will have what looks like lacework, and then there will be one that depicts a voyage by one of Portugal’s famed explorers.

The tiles are in all colors, but the favorite seems to be a specific shade of blue (see photo).  I’m not an expert on all the degrees of the color wheel, but let’s call it deep azure.  That works as a sort of mnemonic, since in Portuguese, the tiles are called azulejos.

Another distinctive feature of Lisbon is fado music, which is melancholy songs about fate and lost love and regrets.  If you go to one of the fado clubs or restaurants, you may also have regrets about the high cover charge.

Console yourself with Lisbon’s butter, though; I don’t know what their secret is, but it’s the best I’ve had anywhere in the world.  Just don’t expect to put it on sourdough bread — that’s a specialty of San Francisco.

Open Spaces

Cricket match at Stanley Park
Vancouver, British Columbia

“What?  You were in Cartagena and you didn’t visit the Palace of the Inquisition!?”

Because I don’t want to be tortured with questions like that after I’ve returned from a trip, I do some homework before we go.  You probably do, too.  Of course, we might assign different priorities to the attractions of any given city.  Maybe you’re an enthusiastic shopper, while on my top-10 list, shopping would be 17th.

My preference is to head for museums or sites of historical significance (and yes, we did visit the Palace of the Inquisition).  Recently, though, I realized that some of the most enjoyable times I’ve had while traveling were at places that hadn’t been on my pre-trip wish list.  They were at public parks.

Almost every city has them now, but parks are a relatively recent development.  Oh, there were many acres of elaborate gardens and paths and fountains and trees, but they were owned by kings and nobles and were intended for their own private gratification.  On weekends, the servants weren’t out on the lawn at Versailles tossing around a frisbee.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that cities began to provide open spaces for their citizens to enjoy fresh air and recreation.  New York’s famed Central Park is more centrally located now than it was in 1857 when it was transformed from rock piles and swamps into a good vantage point from which to see the city that has grown up around it.

London and Paris have parks that might qualify as tourist destinations:  Hyde Park and the Tuileries Garden come to mind.  A visit to Boston Common is essential when you visit that city.

When planning a trip to Madrid, though, I hadn’t realized that a highlight would be hours spent in Parque del Buen Retiro.  One Sunday we came up out of the subway near the park and heard live music; we wandered into an outdoor concert being given by Madrid’s symphony orchestra.

After that ended, we walked around a lake in the middle of the park and watched locals trying to maneuver rowboats they had rented.  Elsewhere, a pack of in-line roller skaters were showing off for each other.  Many Madrileños were relaxing and playing in Retiro Park, and unexpectedly, we got to be a part of it.

Before our visit to Beijing, I’m not sure I had even heard of the Summer Palace, which doesn’t sound like a park, does it?  Long ago it had been an imperial garden, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Its main feature is a good-sized lake where you can ride on a Dragon Boat.  They are ornately-decorated vessels, but have no interior amenities other than rows of banquet-room chairs.  I can’t honestly say the ride was thrilling, but it did get us out of the crush of tourists we encountered elsewhere in the city.

Stanley Park in Vancouver is a beautiful place to spend a day (see photo), and I have fond memories of Parque Eduardo VII in Lisbon.

Maybe the appeal of parks is that they can be appreciated at a more leisurely pace than travel schedules often demand.  They also provide opportunities to blend in with the locals and share with them a sense of community.

I realize that this has been a very short list of great parks and I’m aware that there are many others.  So — what’s the first one that comes to mind for you?