07 Apr A Heartfelt Experience at Lisbon’s Tower of Belém
AFTER MY FIRST few days living in Lisbon, Portugal, where I’m working and living at a hostel in the lively Bairro Alto neighborhood, I felt ready to stray from the city center.
“I’m not saying you’ll fall,” my hostel’s colorful manager told me before handing over the old metal bike that sits in the tight hallway. “But there’s about a ninety percent chance.”
He lifted his shirt and flashed a scar on his hip: “ah not that one, this one.” He spun and lifted the other side to present another scar — the badge of a Lisbon cyclist.
“Be careful of the metal tram tracks. Everybody falls in them — and no curb hopping, Vincent!” With no intention of returning bloodied and dismayed, I assured him I’d be extra careful.
With my camera dangling from my chest and my notebook in a small backpack, I stepped into the cheerful Portuguese afternoon. A few listless clouds drifted through the blue sky.
I threw my leg over the bike and began my descent, carefully riding downhill along the cobblestone streets avoiding the tram tracks and doing everything I could to dodge potholes.
I cruised until I hit the Tagus River, where sailboats, rowers and cargo ships float by in tandem. The Tagus is the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, beginning in central-eastern Spain and emptying into the Atlantic Ocean in Lisbon.
My destination would be the 16th-century Tower of Belém in Lisbon’s riverside area of Ajuda-Belém.
I rode along the river for about forty minutes, passing river-side cafés, charming pastel colored buildings in light blues, pinks and yellows, and graffiti-covered structures made of cargo crates and decrepit sailboats.
After days of navigating the city’s hilly landscape by foot, it felt wonderful to coast along the river and feel the salty wind on my face. My orange flannel flowed in the breeze behind me.
I stopped beneath the 25 de Abril Bridge, which looks identical to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, donning the same International Orange, a sort of rusty-red.
The bridge connects Lisbon to the municipality of Almada, which sits on the south bank of the Tagus. Originally called the Salazar Bridge after 20th-century Portuguese Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar, the bridge was renamed for April 25th, the date of the 1974 Carnation Revolution, which overthrew Salazar’s authoritarian regime and resulted in a transition to democracy in Portugal.
As I looked across the Tagus, an inspiring realization overwhelmed me: Lisbon is now my home, not just a city which I’m passing through. This felt like the first solitary venture to establish my rhythm.
I’ve dreamed of moments like this, something as simple as biking along an ancient river, listening to music bumping in my ears, getting away from the action and into the outskirts where locals reside and the energy shifts.
I’m now a part of that energy, contributing to it in my own way. I climbed back on my bike after a moment of gratitude and continued down the river.
I reached Ajuda-Belém and slowly cruised through the grassy pathways to the Tower of Belém. The 16th-century jewel of gothic architecture was built to honor Lisbon’s Patron Saint, St. Vincent. There’s something so cool about gothic architecture that entwines with the sea.
It evokes the Portuguese spirit of adventure, of history, of a time so fascinating to me. I walked my bike to the steps beside the bridge which leads to the tower and sat amongst a leisurely crowd.
Green seawater lapped against the medieval tower’s base. A man playing the violin set a marvelous vibe; tears came to my eyes.
This life — this world — it can be so good. I wiped away the tears of joy and looked around at smiling faces, at hair blowing in the wind, at people hugging, swaying to the tune, sitting on the steps, laying in the grass.
A little girl ran in front of the violinist, did a jump and a spin and began to dance. Everyone broke into a joyful laugh, as if the weight of the world evaporated all at once.
I don’t know what life’s supposed to be, but I feel something here; I felt something in this moment that can only be described as love. Many emotions flooded me at once. The violinist smiled and tapped his foot while the little girl continued to dance.
This is what I love about the European way of life: more than anything, it’s focused on enjoying our time on earth. This man likely comes to this same spot every day and plays his blue violin to an appreciative audience. To me, he seemed happy.
This lifestyle is focused on people and spending the little time we have with company, eating, drinking, watching the world go by, just being.
It’s centered around beauty — music, architecture, history, art, the joy that is a long dinner into the morning hours with good company.
This life is too short to waste; yet, I’m still grappling with, and probably always will feel challenged by, what it means to waste our time on earth.
I don’t know what it means to waste it.
Somehow, we must find our way in an often confusing world. To enjoy life, to work towards something and leave our mark, to fulfill our potential, to seek a balance of these different pursuits — this is a sort of endless dance we learn to navigate. So many of us never find our rhythm.
We must survive, but what’s beyond that? What do we need to thrive? Is it money, success, a deep sense of purpose; or are we simply here to experience love? That which the world is full of but is often difficult to grasp, perceive, share, understand?
Something about being alone and watching this man play and this little girl dance — two strangers creating something magical for the world — filled me with an unexplainable emotion.
This world is full of love, ours to share, ours to create, ours to continue seeking until the end of our days. There’s a spirit here in Lisbon — blowing through the trees is the sound of music.
Rolling with the waves is a sense of peace. The song finished, the little girl bowed along with the violinist and ran to her father. He gave her a big hug, and they held each other for a while.
I stopped at Pastéis de Belém on my bike ride home, the historic location to try Lisbon’s iconic pastry, Pastéis De Nata.
As the legend goes in 1837, the monks at the neighboring Jerónimos Monastery were the first to shell out these hot, flaky, sugary egg tarts.
They needed to bring in some extra cash when religious institutions in Portugal were being shut down after the Liberal Revolution of 1820. They found their answer in selling what they called pastéis de Belém.
They eventually sold the recipe to a local sugar refinery, and now these bad boys can be found pretty much anywhere in Lisbon.
None are like those at Pastéis de Belém, my hostel manager told me. “My minimum when I go is three. You have to try them.”
I picked up a couple, threw the white paper bag in my bike basket and rode to the monastery, where I gobbled these delicacies down in a grassy field below the towering white spires. Flaky and burnt on the outside, warm and creamy on the inside — delicious.
Evening clouds rolled in and turned the sky dark and moody. I rode along the river, passing groups sipping beers on the docks and wine in the cafés.
Darkness fell over Lisbon and turned the buildings into mosaics of sharp shadows, soft light and color.
Unscathed and happy, I climbed the now bustling cobblestone streets to Bairro Alto, what already feels like home to me. I hope this will be the first of many similar outings. But I’ll always remember how this one moved me.