Lisbon

IT SOMETIMES FEELS like things come into your life for a reason, at a time when you need them the most: books or people; cities too. Yes we look for them, are drawn to them, and try to attach meaning, but there are moments that can feel like markers, like punctuation - where it feels like everything comes together in a strange mix of old and new. Coming to Lisbon, flying over the bridge named after the date I arrived, felt like one of them.
I thought we were going to land on the city itself - skimming the terracotta roof tiles with the statue of Christo Rei guiding the way. But we reached the airport and after taking the cheap and efficient metro into the city, I negotiated some of the hills and cobbles to find the Airbnb flat (in the historic Alfama area) before exploring in the afternoon heat. Revived by a quick lunch and a tiny chocolate cup filled with cherry liqueur, I made my way to the sprawling Santa Clara flea market, admiring old tiles and postcards among the tat. Admiring too the pastel buildings that, framed by an azure sky, reminded me of Copenhagen.
Under the shadows of São Jorge Castle, I politely shooed away the first of what was to be many offers of recreational drugs, going back to taking pictures of rustic tiled facades.
Then at night, for dinner, I joined the queues and the buzz at Ramiro - feasting on langoustines, chunks of bread and clams drowning in garlic butter.
The next morning, eager to try the famous custard tarts, I took the tram to Pastéis de Belém
Arriving early, I avoided the usual hordes and sat with a cappuccino loaded with whipped cream and two pastéis de nata: crisp and flaky tarts with a silken filling, sprinkled liberally with cinnamon.
Though pastries are generally enough of a reason for travel, there's impressive architecture in the area too. Jerónimo's Monastery dominates - the vast walls and intricate carvings attracting crowds before its doors have even opened. Across the road is the equally impressive Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a monument to Portuguese exploration that looks to the Tagus River - like a ship poised to take to the sea. Nearby Belém Tower acts as a counterpoint, a Gothic chess piece at the other end of the marina.
Having not bothered to actually go in the monastery (or the tower), I forked out the two euros to go into the tropical gardens beside it. It looked a little bit sad and desiccated, but there were peacocks and ducklings and an interesting design exhibition in the building at the back. 
For lunch I found the Time Out market - a huge hall filled with tables that are surrounded by food vendors making everything from pizza to Portuguese dishes, sushi to sandwiches, with cakes, cocktails and more. From there I explored the twists and turns nearby, clambering up steps and stumbling onto brightly-paved Pink Street: the Wizard of Oz meets the Cheshire Cat.
At night (before going to the Time Out market again for dinner) I headed north to the Eduardo VII park where, from the top overlooking neat topiary, there are sweeping views to the castle and beyond.
With the next day set to heat up, it seemed like a good time to cool off. So with a surfing lesson booked (I'd done it once before) I hit the beach only half an hour away. Between falling off and managing to stand up for at least three seconds, I bobbed in the water, waiting. Under the sun and empty sky, moving with the waves, there were moments when it felt like nothing else existed. Later, in bed, I still seemed to rock back and forth, carried to sleep by the sea.
Just after surfing though, back in the city, I rested my legs with a jaunt on one of the quaint yellow trams. The number 12 does a nice little loop around the Alfama district (and isn't the crush that the more popular 28 always looked like), squeezing passed cars and up hills as people on the street grabbed their cameras for the classic Lisbon shot. Near the top of the loop, on a balcony over the red-tiled rooftops, I watched what felt like the softest sunset I'd ever seen - wisps of candy floss stretched across the sky and mirrored in the water with a rose glow.
The next day was a little more cultured, starting with a trip to the Gulbenkian Museum. Made up of the Modern Collection and the Founder's Collection (which I thought was much more interesting), there are objects and artworks ranging from Egyptian and Islamic pieces to contemporary Portuguese art. A display of exquisite René Lalique jewellery, including a huge dragonfly brooch I actually studied in high school, is not to be missed.
In the afternoon, after ending up near the docks and crossing a dual carriageway, I found the charming National Tile Museum, housed in a former convent. Most of the information was in Portuguese funnily enough, but I was happy looking at the colours and patterns and the impressive Lisbon panorama, as well as modern examples such as gold, three-dimensional bling.
Sensibly getting the bus back to the city centre, I perched at a huge open window for a late lunch of pig cheek croquettes, bread and herb-flecked butter. Mellowed by warm sun and cool wine, I watched the hustle and bustle of Lisbon as trams, tuk-tuks, taxis and tourists (and Segways) jostled for space.
With an ice cream then to get me up the hill, I had an early night to rest for the last day - and for the climb to the top of the Castle of the Moors...
Arriving at Sintra, emerging like evacuees from the packed train, the stream of people walked along the road that curves from the station to the National Palace, passing jewellers and artists perched on the wall.
After wandering the little streets in the old part of the town, fuelled by pastries and another little cherry brandy chocolate cup, I began the ascent to the castle under light-dappled trees, with whines in my head of "are we there yet?"
Guarding views of the mountains and sea, the Castelo dos Mouros lies at the top of the hill like an ancient dragon. Its walls and crenellations, grey and spiked, curl around the lush vegetation - the leaves, like scales, brought to life with the breath of the wind. I stomped back down the hill, resting in the sun watching more people arrive, brandishing their selfie sticks like swords.
After a quiet train back, with a few hours until my flight, I stood in the sun watching someone blow hundreds of bubbles for gathering crowds, drifting and bouncing and popping in the wind. I looked at the photos I'd taken in Lisbon - the pinks and greens that made me think of Venice - and thought about the warmth and smell in the air that reminded me of Cambodia.
Thinking too about why we're drawn to the cities we visit and the places we end up, about ideas of where we belong. I realised then, that I was going from one City of Seven Hills to another - things coming together in a strange mix of old and new. Flying back, over the bridge, looking for meaning.

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