I am always drawn to water, the same way some people are mesmerized by the flames in a fireplace on a cold winter night. I was born and raised on an island, so I’m guessing islanders will always be drawn to water. Regardless of where the sounds of the water are coming from — the splash of a fountain, the waves at a beach, the rippling waters of a lake — my mind goes elsewhere. Like it does here, on this 8Km walking trail by the river Tejo in Lisbon.
Lisbon by the river feels like you’ve left the city. The Tagus becomes so wide here that most people think they’ve reached the ocean already. And, in fact, at its mouth after Torre de Belém (Belém Tower), there is a very thin line between the two.
I must confess Belém isn’t my favorite part of the city, although there are places you can’t miss here: the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery), the Berardo Collection Museum at CCB, the Pastéis, the Palace and the Museum (the official President of the Portuguese Republic residence), the Museu dos Coches (Coach Museum), the Vasco da Gama gardens. But as you come up the stairs of the underground passage on the other side of Avenida Brasilia, everything changes. Your pace changes. You breathe deeply. You slow down. And the river pulls you in to walk along its side.
The Portuguese have a Historical connection to the sea and sailing and you can easily tell: by the private boats and yachts at the small marinas along the walk, by the importance of remembering the age of Discoveries with Padrão dos Descobrimentos, by how Torre de Belém welcomes you in and out of Lisbon.
From the tower to the Praça do Comércio in Lisbon downtown, the track is almost 8 Km long but don’t expect a straight route — this “lady” likes to lure you in. When it’s not your place to be in, it will gently divert you into inner streets and guide you back to the riverside when it’s acceptable again.
The changes of scenery aren’t subtle either: from the open sidewalks of Portuguese calçada and large green grass patches in Belém, to the slightly more industrial and gloomy feel of Alcântara and Cais do Sodré, with its old warehouses turned into restaurants, bars, nightclubs, to the end of the track in Cais das Colunas where Historical figures used to disembark.
We got lost in time in this walk. We couldn’t care less what the time was and how long until we reached the ferry station at Terreiro do Paço.
It’s hard not to feel mesmerized by the river and the boat traffic: the ferries that connect Lisbon to the south bank, the cruise ships, the sailboats (some private, some for guided tours).
As we were reaching the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, I couldn’t help asking a group of men fishing what was the catch of the day. “Dourada. Corvina,” they told me. But it was a slow day. However, they still stood there, patiently. Hoping that something would bite soon.
I admire their perseverance. (I’m not good at naming fish in other languages, but a quick google search tells me these can be called gilthead bream and croaker. I’d love some help from you knowing if these are correct)
As the sun was slowly setting behind us, we were loving the change and highlight in colors: the orange bricks of the Museu da Electricidade (Electricity Museum); the fire red of the Ponte 25 de Abril (25th April Bridge) with the painted dolphins on its pillars and the cars rushing on the metallic grid above our heads; the rusty black of the warehouses.
The Daytime and The Nightlife
Facing the river: the cafes, the bars, the restaurants and the nightclubs. The view is as important as the company as you chat over a pint of beer, a glass of red wine, an espresso or a starter of octopus salad (or a plate of stewed snails in the summer, heavily seasoned with fresh oregano — more than two decades of this city and I’m still not a fan…)
No matter what time of the year it is, the restaurants and cafes will make the most of the location and welcome you to sit outside — most areas will be shielded from the cold and the wind with glass walls, some of them will comfort you with blankets.
As night falls, approximately between 8 and 11, the warehouses of the Alcântara Docks light up with music, dancing and karaoke singing, secluded from the residential area, unless of course, you consider your boat to be your house.
It’s a different side of Lisbon, one I’m not crazy in love with at this point in my life but one that tells a different story nevertheless (and I feel the city will do a good job of reinventing itself here).