Our guests left early this morning, leaving us with a too-quiet flat, an empty fridge, and lots of work and laundry to catch up on.  We had a fantastic time with them, and in fact I realized this morning that this was the longest I’d spent as an adult with my half-brother and his wife. We traveled with and visited them frequently as kids, and I had the occasional (not frequent enough) dinner with them during grad school, but that’s different than spending nearly 96 hours of quality time with them as an adult, hosting them in our home as they have done for me so many times in my life. I truly enjoyed the experience.

We spent our three and a half days together more or less as a microcosm of what Gabe and I have been doing for the past five months. We walked all over Lisbon and beyond, stopping for lunch, dinner, and various snacks in between, talking, drinking, and laughing, and of course playing our favorite killer card game every evening.

The weather cooperated for the most part, and the much-threatened rain held out until late last night, when we had to run home from dinner through a heavy downpour. Luckily we’d chosen last night to eat at the local haunt around the corner, so we didn’t have far to sprint. Other than that though, we only had a couple of showers, and even a few periods of gorgeous sunshine, both on the day they arrived and again on Friday. Of course we’d thought of contingency plans for rain, but the relatively dry (though cold) weather let us do what we really wanted to do: walk them into the ground, showing them our favorite haunts and neighborhoods, stopping at museums and monuments along the way.

A quick summary of said mission:

Day 1, Weds: We picked them up from the airport in the late morning, dropped off their bags at the flat, then took advantage of the surprisingly clear afternoon to  walk through our neighborhood, around through the shopping areas of Chiado and Baixa, up to the castle, then back down again through the labyrinthine alleyways of Alfama on the far side of the castle. That night, we made dinner at home, and caught up on gossip, news, and honed our Racing Demons skills.

Day 2, Thursday: Despite the threatening clouds and cold air, we took the tram down to Belem, as they wanted to see a couple things down there  — and we had never made it down there while the monuments were actually open. So at last we saw such famous sites as the Tower of Belem, which guarded the riverfront in older, more dangerous times, and the Jeronimos Monastery, a huge monument to the riches brought in from the Portuguese colonies. It was stunning, but I couldn’t help but wonder: how could the monks possibly focus on their vows of piety and poverty when surrounded by such massive wealth?!

Our reward for such culturally enriching activities was to introduce our guests to the pasteis de Belem, those heavenly pieces of custardy delight that I am developing a serious addiction to (and already wondering how I’ll live without when we go home!) I was looking forward to my pasteis all day, but was slightly disappointed when they arrived slightly less fresh and warm than in the past. That didn’t deter us from inhaling them, however, as did the masses of people packed into every table in the cavernous array of dining rooms. Could have had something to do with the rain that had started falling just before we ducked into the restaurant — little wonder everyone else had the same idea as we did!

We returned to the flat for a few hours of down time, then ventured back out again that evening to our favorite Goan restaurant, where Gabe and I ate on Thanksgiving. To our amazement, the guy remembered us, even down to where we’d sat and what we’d eaten. Now that is good service! He quickly sussed out that these particular patrons were well endowed with a sense of humor, so he teased my brother mercilessly, joking that he’d already eaten all his food, refusing to give him another beer, etc. Despite his jokes, the service was impeccable, and the food as excellent as before. Our waiter summed it up when we asked his advice on ordering. He said, “You came here to eat. I will take care of you.” And so he did.

Day 3, Friday: The day dawned clear and slightly warmer, so we set out on another walking tour, this time up and around the area on other side of our flat. We walked to the end of aqueduct and the park we love, then up to the park and basilica at Estrela (where we also stopped for a quick coffee near the duck pond). We walked by the Casa da Fernando Pessoa, then caught the 28 tram back to the other side of town. It let us out just past the castle, so we took the opportunity to walk up and over the highest miradouro in Lisbon, which we visited last weekend (via a much easier route, since we were already on top of that hill). We stopped at last for lunch at the miradouro of Torel, which faces our house, and then limped our way home to rest for a few hours before dinner.

Revitalized, we went out for dinner at a place we’d ducked into with our friend on Carnival day: the Casa do Alentejo. We’ve walked by it a thousand times, never suspecting that the drab storefront with the neon lettering housed a spectacular Moorish interior coated in tiles and delicate arches, with a giant ballroom and two packed dining rooms upstairs. We went just to see the interior, but were pleasantly surprised both by the traditional Alentejan food and the service — the waiter, while rushed and surly, saw my brother lift his empty beer glass on his way to the kitchen, and returned with another flagon before we could even ask for it. Good man!

Day 4, Saturday: We completed our whirlwind highlight tour of Lisbon with a trip up to Sintra, my favorite town, with its hills and queijadas and castles in the clouds. Despite the rain that started pouring down almost as soon as we set out, we persisted, and got off the train to a clear blue sky — only going to prove our theory that the weather in Sintra is always the opposite of what it is in Lisbon.

We explored the first castle before lunch, which was far emptier than it had been when Gabe and I visited it in November. Among other advantages, that enabled us to have a chat with the guy stationed in the main audience chamber, who in his boredom was more than happy to explain the intricate symbolism of the ornate paintings and tiles on the ceiling.

After a delicious lunch at the same cafe we’d gone to on our first visit, we split up. Gabe and my brother hiked up the hill to the Moorish castle while my sister-in-law and I took the bus, agreeing to meet them at the entrance. (I couldn’t let her get lost, you understand!) Some time later, we met our puffing, sweating menfolk on the trail up to the castle, and we all entered its grand walls together. Gabe and I had been discouraged from going inside on our previous visit, as it was so stormy and misty that day that the ticket guy said we wouldn’t be able to see anything, so it would be a waste of our money.

Now we knew why he had deterred us: from the castle walls, you can see for miles and miles around, all the way back to Lisbon on one side, and the nearby Palacio da Pena on the other. I’ve seen quite a few castles in my lifetime, but this was by far one of the best. It was spectacular, foreboding, and seemingly impenetrable — although as my brother pointed out, I’m not sure what stopped the invading hordes from just going around it, since it was so far up the hill that it would’ve taken ages for the defenders to make their way down to the plain below. Oh well.

With the skies looking increasingly somber, we went over to the last palace on the circuit, the fairy tale patchwork castle that I love. Inside we found all the tourists who had forsaken the first castle, so we slowly wound our way through the intricately maintained chambers, with their ornate Oriental trappings, tiny books, and china tchotchkes. Whenever it got too crowded, we just skipped over that room, knowing we’d be back again in the future. It’s nice to be a repeat offender when it comes to tourism.

We caught the bus back to the train station and returned to Lisbon, once again thoroughly spent from all that walking (even those of us who didn’t climb the hill!) For dinner, we decided to go to the restaurant around the corner — wisely, as it turned out. Gabe and I have long been fascinated by this place, for despite its size, it is always packed, at any hour of the day or night. We wanted to know what they were doing right, so we used our guests as guinea pigs. Once the table of rowdy beer-drinking regulars calmed down a bit, we had a surprisingly good (if slightly salty) dinner, accompanied by some excellent people watching.

After running home through the rain, we stayed up late yet again playing cards, then saw them off early this morning. We had a great time, and already the house seems too quiet and empty without them. Most of all though, their visit highlighted how comfortable we’ve become here, and how much ground we’ve covered in just five months — which we can now distill into a highlight reel of the best of what’s around.

Now it’s back to real life for a while, although as we discovered by seeing our city through others’ eyes — real life here ain’t so bad.

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