The City of Seven Hills

I travelled to Lisbon from London on New Year’s Eve. A lot of people head to London on the 31st of December every year. However, I was more than happy to escape from my adopted city for a few days.

The City of Seven Hills


I travelled to Lisbon from London on New Year’s Eve. A lot of people head to London on the 31st of December every year. However, I was more than happy to escape from my adopted city for a few days. In the past, the clock always struck midnight when I reached Spaniards Road cycling home from work and I would see fireworks going off in Central London from far afield together with a small crowd of curious Londoners who stood in the dark on the edge of Hampstead Heath to see the spectacle.

It was Sunday morning and so the cab ride to the airport took less than an hour. When I sent a photo from Lisbon to a friend in Kashmir, he thought I was visiting San Francisco, having seen a long orange-coloured suspension bridge in the background. I had no idea until recently that this bridge, which bore an uncanny resemblance to the Golden Gate, was built by the same American steel company. I had been to San Francisco three decades earlier and crossed the Golden Gate a few times. Lisbon, like San Francisco, is hilly and you can find quaint trams trudging along the streets in both cities. Hence, my friend could be forgiven for having mistaken Lisbon for San Francisco.

I decided to visit the city in January when I learnt that most of the homes in Lisbon don’t have heating because of its mild winters. I stayed at a hotel located halfway between the airport and the city centre. The receptionist welcomed me with open arms to her hotel. Someone in London had told me once that the friendliest neighbour you could wish for is a Portuguese and therefore I was keen to experience their hospitality.


New Year’s Day is ideal for exploring a new city as there isn’t much traffic on the roads and the sightseeing buses in many cities are running as usual. Luckily, it turned out to be a bright day and I saw a few cyclists in shorts and jerseys cruising the nearempty streets. I boarded a sightseeing bus at Praça do Marquês de Pombal and got off near Belém the Portuguese name for Bethlehem which in Arabic means a house of meat but in Hebrew a house of bread.

The English noun bedlam is also derived from the same name and refers to the hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem in London which was used as a psychiatric institution. Inside Belém Tower, they make custard tarts known as pastel de nata. I first tasted a pastel de nata at an Italian coffee shop in London and it was divine. As it was a public holiday, the Tower was closed and so I couldn’t taste a pastel de nata in Lisbon. Belém Tower is built on the bank of River Tagus which looks like a shimmering sea on a sunny day.

Walking along the promenade near the Tower, you can catch a full view of the long suspension bridge known as Ponte 25 de Abril and a statue of Christo Rei (Christ the King) overlooking the city just like Christ the Redeemer on top of Sugarloaf Mountain is guarding Rio de Janeiro. I came to know later that the construction of this religious monument in Portugal was indeed inspired by its precursor in Brazil. The city of Lisbon was born among seven hills and destroyed by the Great Earthquake of 1755. The rebuilding of the city was assigned to Marquês de Pombal. A century and a half earlier, a Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, had discovered the sea route to India thereby ushering not only an age of discovery but also prosperity for his country. As a child growing up in Srinagar, I learnt Vasco da Gama’s name even before I had heard the name of Christopher Columbus.

In fact, this foreign-sounding name was on the tip of the tongue of all the school children in India attributing to him the actual discovery of India rather than a sea route as if he had discovered the New World like Columbus even though Portugal and India belong to the same Eurasian landmass. I wanted to see Lisbon from above and what better vantage point is there than one of its Miradouros? Therefore, I decided to go to Alfama the next day. The castle atop this hill was a Moorish citadel once but it is named after the patron saint of England – São Jorge.

The friendship between these two erstwhile colonial powers goes back more than 600 years. Britain had the largest and Portugal the longest empire in the world. Portugal had retained Goa as a colony for more than a decade after the British had left India. The minibus I boarded struggled a bit to climb up a steep hill, but the views of the city and its terracotta roofed houses from the Miradouro in Alfama are breathtaking. There was a long queue of visitors outside São Jorge Castelo even in the lean winter period.

The castle itself is a thousand years old but there is an archaeological site inside it that dates back to Iron Age. Moors introduced the art of Azulejos in the Iberian peninsula in the 13th century and you find the facades of many buildings in Lisbon these days adorned with the intricately patterned tiles. Azulejos’ name originates from the Arabic al-zilij meaning polished stone. Although most of these glazed tiles are embellished with geometrical designs, some of the facades depict allegorical scenes.

And unlike the grimy brick walls of the old buildings in London, the tiled exteriors of the buildings in Lisbon are shiny. The city also has a museum dedicated to Azulejos. On my way back from São Jorge Castelo, I boarded a tram and it moved downhill with ease. There are many Fado clubs and bars in Alfama. The melancholy songs of the heartbreak sung by Amalia Rodrigues among others remind me of Ghazals sung by Begum Akhtar as the two genres of music are connected by a common thread of ‘Saudade’ or longing for an absent beloved. I roamed around in Lisbon for two days and then on the third day decided to venture out to Sintra. The hotel concierge had advised me to book the ticket for Pena Palace in advance as it attracts a large number of visitors. It was a direct train ride from my hotel to Sintra.

When I exited the station, I found many drivers outside offering rides in their private vehicles to the Palace on a mountaintop, but I took a shuttle bus instead which drove through a forested landscape to reach the Palace. There was a much longer queue outside Pena Palace than the São Jorge Castelo. The Pena Palace was once a monastery that was turned into a romantic palace in the 19th century and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1990s. The Azulejos painted in yellow and celestial blue on the exterior walls of this palace look exquisite.

I took the shuttle service back to the town and then boarded a bus to go to Cabo de Roca which is the westernmost point of Continental Europe. It was considered as the end of the known world before the European explorers sailed across the Atlantic in search of the New World. I took another bus from there to go to the town of Cascais. It was already dark when I reached the destination and therefore didn’t go to see its sandy beaches or busy marina. I knew about a historic hotel in Cascais where the British novelist, Ian Fleming, had stayed during World War II and where spies from the warring countries also stayed since Portugal was a neutral country.

As a teenager, I had seen a few James Bond films at a cinema in Srinagar that showed foreign films and the hotel guests and spies gave him the inspiration to create 007 character. When I arrived in London, I found work in a shop in Hampstead that was round the corner of a modernist building designed by the Hungarian architect, Erno Goldfinger. Fleming had chosen his unusual surname as the name for an infamous villain in one of his books to the displeasure of the modernist architect.

On my last day in Lisbon, I jumped on a funicular to stroll in the Bairro Alto neighbourhood. The sun was playing hide and seek behind some passing clouds, but it was still pleasant to soak up warm sunshine in winter sitting on a bench at a Miradouro. You could see aircraft descending on Humberto Delgado Airport from there.

On my ride to the airport in the afternoon, I recalled having read somewhere that Portugal is a country where many travellers want to return again and again. I couldn’t agree more. (The writer is a London-based