Though the Meter Man Lurks, Lisbon Still Delights

Monday, July 20, 2009 | Lisbon, Portugal

Each of Lisbon's hills has a distinct atmosphere, from the seedy to the sacred, making the city a thrill to explore.
Why, oh why, did we decide to drive?

I first began to ask myself this question on the highway just outside Lisbon, as we sat in full horizon-to-horizon gridlock, creeping imperceptibly toward the Portuguese capital.

Strangely, when we finally reached the center of the city it looked almost deserted. Late on a Sunday afternoon, most shops were closed and the pedestrians were few.

So too were the parking spaces. Thus, while Jacqueline and I walked around downtown searching for a suitable place to stay, our rental car sat in a garage, racking up a substantial bill. We finally opted to stay in the brand new Shiado Hostel, on Rua Anchieta in the Chiado district, a hopelessly parked-up maze of narrow streets sandwiched between two of the city's most popular neighborhoods. The car spent the night parked far, far away.

And when Monday morning came, I jumped up at dawn and walked far, far away to feed the parking meter. Oh, that meter, which counted, ruthlessly, from 8:00am until 2:00am every day. Which accepted only ("only?!") €5.15 at once, good for four hours of freedom. Which I dutifully visited every four hours for the next day and a half. Which only accepted coins.

* * *

In most cities, this ball and chain, this testament to municipal idiocracy that begged to be fed five times daily, would have been a deal breaker. But Lisbon, I realized—in the rare moments when I wasn't worrying about the time left on our parking meter—was a beautiful city. Its severe hills, brisk air, and trolley cars gave it the feel of an Old World San Francisco.

As we were settling into our hotel that first evening, I managed to forget my parking neurosis when we heard an orchestra start up just outside our window, in the Largo de São Carlos square. It happened to be the final night's performance of Orff's "Carmina Burana", part of the Festival ao Largo, and Jacqueline and I had unwittingly found ourselves free balcony seating. We settled in with a bottle of wine and—you guessed it—the last of the warmed-up paella, and listened through the grand finale (video) before hitting the town.

* * *

By night, Lisbon's Bairro Alto district teems with tourists and locals alike, ducking in and out of the restaurants and many dive bars, which serve in plastic "to go" cups for those inclined to drinking on the move. Traditional fado songs, performed live each night at the casas de fado, spill into the streets. Graffiti covers the walls. Young loiterers—many of them foreign themselves—offer weed, coke, or harder drugs in Portuguese and heavily accented English. While certainly seedy, the neighborhood exuded a thrill of illicit charm.

By day, Jacqueline and I walked to cathedrals and public gardens, snacked on tapas or tarts in cafés, and sipped vinho verde at wine bars in the evening. In one of our more ambitious four-hour windows, we hopped on the trolley for the steep ascent to the old Alfama district, where we visited some of the city's most famous sites: the Igreja de São Vicente de Fora, Panteão Nacional, Sé cathedral, and the 11th century Castelo de São Jorge, with views over all of Lisbon.

* * *

On Tuesday we woke late. By the time we reached the car, the ticket was already fluttering on the windshield. The city of Lisbon had invited us to kindly make good on "o pagamento de taxa de estacionamento no valor de €5.15 correspondente ao tempo máximo de estacionamento permitido." Methods of payment accepted? Check only.

An hour later, on the other side of the city, I idled in a loading dock (that's right, no parking) while Jacqueline did her best to convince some parking agency stooges that a mistake had been made.

Finally she found a sympathetic bureaucrat. "He asked me if I liked Lisbon. I said 'Yes, but not the parking.' He cancelled the ticket in his computer system, then said 'I hope you will come back one day.'"

I scoffed, and pulled out into the traffic, eager to escape but still grudgingly fond of the city. I'm already looking forward to our promised return someday—sem automóvel, of course.

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