The first time I went to Lisbon I fell in love so hard I stole a paving stone to I would always have a piece of the city with me. I was enamored of every little thing, from the pasteis de nata, little sweet custard pies that I ate for breakfast every day, to the langorous Rio Tejo that expands beyond Lisboa’s front door. First love is a lasting love and I never forgot the city’s charms.
When I returned to Lisbon earlier this month for my 50th birthday I was disappointed. Not because the city had lost any of its charm, but because I wanted to find that buzz, that feeling of first love. It was there, like a ghost, but I couldn’t grasp it no matter how hard I tried. It was always just slightly out of reach.
This has happened to me before with cities I fall in love with and then return to: Barcelona, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, and New Orleans. The city I fell in love with is still there, but the initial butterflies in the stomach are gone. I no longer see the city with blinders, overlooking all its faults and complications. I see it for what it is and I come to understand it in a deeper way.
On this second visit to Lisbon I was traveling with my father, just like the firs trip, but also with my sister and old friend Kendra. We did many of the same things I did the first time when I was there with my Dad three years earlier. But I saw everything through a different lens.
We returned to Sr Vinho, an upscale Fado restaurant in the Lapa to hear the soulful music of the city. But we also went to a hole-in-the-wall Fado restaurant just down the street from the apartment we rented in Alfama where the restaurant owner not only serves your dinner but also sings to you. We crossed the Tejo again to see Lisbon from the opposite shore. Although this time we went to Cacilhas, walking for a half mile past abandoned warehouses painted with graffiti to eat monkfish stew at Ponto Final, a restaurant with vibrant yellow chairs looking out onto the river and the city in the distance. And we ate at our friend Ana’s restaurant Alfandega again, only this time it was because I turned 50 that day and Dad and I dressed up in tuxes.
We also did new things, like drink Ginja, a local liquor made from sour cherries, at a Ginja shop. We found a magical botanical garden at the Casa de Cerca, in Alamada, above the Ponto Final restaurant, that overlooks the Tejo and the city, where I decided then and there I want my ashes sprinkled when I die. And we walked from the town of Sintra up, through a tropical garden and woods to the Moorish Castle on top of the mountain.
I’ll never be able to return to the young love I had for Lisbon the first time I was there. But the love I felt for it after the second visit is deeper, stronger, more knowing. I didn’t steal a paving stone on the second trip because I realized that I now have a piece of the city embedded in my heart that will never go away.