Portugal: Easter in Lisbon

April 9, 2015.  Easter week is a big deal in Norway.  Oddly, folks don’t seem to acknowledge Ash Wednesday, but they do commemorate Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Easter Monday (which I’ve never even heard of but have been told it’s the day that the resurrected Jesus first appeared to the disciples.)  Regardless, with all these back-to-back religious observances, Norway gives the whole week off as a holiday.  Everyone heads to their hytte (mountain cabins) to read crime novels (no joke — I have no idea why this is a tradition), and civilization as we know it here in Oslo pretty much shuts down.

Our Norwegian Easter Tree. Note the tufts of feathers and decorated eggs, which are traditional.

Matthew and I had been advised to vacate the country in search of livelier ways to celebrate the season, so our chosen destination was Portugal.  We’d wanted to travel here for years, specifically in search of beautiful architecture and gorgeous beaches, so our plan was to hit Lisbon (Age-of-Discovery history), then Evora (Neolithic, Roman, and Moorish architecture), and finally the Algarve (beaches).  So we hastily planned our trip, booked our rooms, and packed our bags, hoping for a little warmth and sunshine as a remedy for the rainy, chilly spring that Oslo has offered so far.

We arrived late in the evening and headed straight to Hotel Portugal, a last-minute find we’d selected because it was reasonably priced and in the heart of the city.  Wow, were we in for a surprise.  Hands down, it’s the swankiest hotel we’ve ever stayed in.  Completely new and modern, yet tastefully gilded and glammed up like old Hollywood, it came complete with a TV in the mirror and a marbled, bidet-equipped bathroom.  I felt a bit like I’d stumbled into someone else’s fab life and would soon be ferreted out as an impostor.  But the staff was welcoming and friendly, not snooty at all, and the breakfasts were delicious — amazing what $125/night will get you in Portugal versus Norway.

After thoroughly video-taping our sumptuous surroundings, we decided to scamper out for a quick nighttime tour of the city.  And I have to say our first taste was a bit of an eye-opener.  Just a block away, in one of the main tourist squares, we were accosted every few steps by shady characters elbowing us with offers of “Hashish? Cocaine?” and open handfuls of samples.  I started to wonder if we were in a rough neighborhood, and the sight of several tumble-down buildings nearby made me seriously question our vacation choice.

A typical street in Lisbon, where the squalid and splendid nestle together.

But in the light of day, after logging several miles on trolleys and our feet, I began to get a better handle on the city’s vibe.  It reminds me a bit of New Orleans or Nice:  lovingly restored mansions rub shoulders with ramshackle shanties; pristine shops spill their luxury labels onto grimy, trash-strewn streets; stately baroque cathedrals proudly weather the years next door to ruined edifices encrusted in graffiti.  It’s a city of stark contrasts that has obviously seen better times and greater wealth, but it still manages to retain its dignity and beauty despite the hardships.

While Lisbon has fantastic historic sites (a few of which I touch on below), I advise wandering aimlessly through the city’s streets to savor its eccentric atmosphere.  My favorite moments?

Top Memory #1:
Donning sunglasses to shade ourselves from the blindingly white brilliance of the Manueline confection that is the Monestery of Jerónimos, paying our respects at the tomb of Vasco de Gama, then ambling across the street to take in the monolithic “Monument to the Discoveries” while munching on Portuguese hotdogs (the Funyon strings are a condiment must!)

Top Memory #2:
Working up my nerve to tiptoe across the filigree bridge of the Eiffel-inspired Elevador de Santa Justa and climb its spiral stairs to the viewing platform, then taking “baby steps” to reach the railing for a bird’s-eye view of the city, and finally …. holding my breath while descending creakily to ground level via a 113-year-old iron elevator.

Top Memory #3:
Perching high above the city in a plateaued park, where we sipped our Sagres on draft and reclined in old-fashioned canvas lawn chairs next to a Victorian gazebo — all while being entertained by a pierced-and-tatooed guy from the Netherlands who juggled fire batons for spare coins.

Top Memory #4:
Ducking into countless Baroque churches with sedate exteriors that disguised an internal riot of Rococo ornamentation, all encrusted in gold and gems beyond dreams of avarice, but made macabre by the dusty fingers, skulls, and other boney bits of long-forgotten saints.

Top Memory #5:
Careening through the streets aboard historic, San-Francisco-like cable cars for a kaleidescopic tour of the town’s neighborhoods, nightlife, and graffiti art, then settling our stomachs with about 20 pastéis de nata (custard-filled pastries) and tiny cups of bica (espresso) and café com leite (espresso with a smidge of milk).

Top Memory #6:
Cataloging the myriad designs of marbled mosaic sidewalks and Moorish tilework that liberally coat Lisbon’s streets and buildings, giving the impression that the entire city is made of ceramic.

Top Memory #7:
Meandering through the winding alleys of the Alfama district and São Jorge Castle, where we were alternately serenaded by a beggar with a voice like Pavarotti, shrieked at by a flock of preening peacocks, then lulled to sleep in the ruins of a Medieval-age village by two locals playing classical Spanish guitar.

  • Top Memory #8:
    Making a pilgrimage alongside hundreds of other Portuguese to witness the Good Friday Procissão do Senhor Morto (Procession of the Dead Lord) — accompanied by a brass-band funeral dirge, showered by confetti and flowers tossed from balconies above, and engulfed in the smoke from incense burners and thousands of candles held by the penitent.

    After three days in Lisbon, I’d like to say that it’s one of the prettiest cities I’ve visited, but “pretty” is a trite word.  “Lovely” and “beautiful” are too weak, also.  They’re words you use to describe the untried, insipid looks of an adolescent girl. Lisbon has the rugged handsomeness of a grand dame who has been loved by many, endured much, and survived to reinvent herself and bask in the sun again.

3 thoughts on “Portugal: Easter in Lisbon”

  1. Hi Kim,

    My wife and I are in Lisbon for Easter weekend right now actually and we came across your blog post!

    We would really like to see the Good Friday night candle lit procession.

    Do you happen to remember where it takes place?

    Thanks very much,
    Anya and Stephen


    1. Hi Stephen,

      The processional winds quite a distance, and stops by several churches before it ends at the Cathedral. The main street seems to be Rua da Rosa, then is circles around through the Barrio Alto and back up R. Luz Soriano. There were also some posters in some of the windows in the area talking about it, and we asked around a bit in different churches to get the exact directions. It started at around sunset and it took at least more than an hour, maybe two, so you’ll have some time to catch up to it if you’re running late from dinner. (We were.) Good luck and hope you enjoy it!


      1. Hi Kimberly,

        Thanks so much for all the details it is really very appreciated. We are really looking forward to it and thanks for the hint about being able to catch up with it!

        Best wishes,


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