Sunday started clear and warm, with the early morning’s thick fog receding gradually back over the river. To take advantage of both the weather and the fact that all the tourists would be heading south for the annual half-marathon over the bridge, we decided to conquer the castle.

As usual, we did so via a meandering and roundabout route, starting with the little yellow 28 tram up the hill and ending with a stroll down through the cramped winding streets of the Alfama district. The entire expedition took us about six hours to complete, and we returned to the flat exhausted and ready for refreshment. In the end, I think the castle just about conquered us. But we made a valiant effort.

Our first stop was at the highest mirador of the city, which as we learned last time, is much easier to get to via tram. There a Punjabi man tried to sell us his artwork, saying that he’d give us a discount for being his first customers of the day. He claimed that his paintings were all hand made and unique, which I know is a lie because there are guys selling the exact same paintings at nearly every other mirador in the city. In fact, we saw at least three more sets of identical “original” paintings by the end of the day. Nice try, guy.

After much wandering, we stopped for lunch at the hillside cafe that Gabe and I stumbled upon a while back. There is a small terrace there, crammed with tables and people, all jostling for a lunchtime view over the jumbled red roofs of the Alfama and on into the distance to the bridge. We got a table further back on the patio, which had less of a view but slightly more breathing room (when the people around us weren’t smoking their hand-rolled cigarettes, of course.)

Toward the end of our meal, we heard an enormous glassy crash coming from the kitchen inside, and as one, everyone’s heads whipped around at the terrible sound. A little while later, I could hear large piles of broken glass being swept up. It sounded like someone had dropped an entire dishwasher tray full of glasses. That someone was not having a good day.

We continued on up to the castle, which luckily was not as crowded as I thought it would be. Even so, I stood at the bottom of the stairs leading to the castle walls for quite some time, waiting for a big enough break in the line of people coming down that I could scramble my way up. Once I finally made it up there, we were joined on the walls by lots of French people, which was a break from the Spanish and British accents we’ve been hearing all weekend. I think most of Europe has a four day weekend, so clearly everyone thought it was a great idea to make a quick getaway to Portugal.

No matter their nationality, there were two things in the castle that fascinated all of the tourists, including myself. The first was a large herd of well-fed and docile cats, all of whom had fat bellies and well-tattered ears. They really did own the place. Perched on the castle walls and well out of the cats’ reach, there was a smaller but equally impressive flock of peacocks, whose raucous screams periodically split the air. Must be spring time.

Far more entertaining than either of these animals was the crowd of small schoolchildren having a medieval day at the castle. They were dressed as knights and ladies, in plastic helmets and tunics that came down their knees, learning how to shoot little plastic bows and playing with plastic swords. Two little boys had escaped further up the terrace, where they were turning pieces of tree bark into grenades and machine guns, counting “Un, deux, trois” and then mimicking a huge explosion. I didn’t dare point out that those weapons were slightly anachronistic for their costumes. Instead, I enjoyed their less structured play just as much as I did their fellows, who shouted, “On est pret, chevalier!” (We are ready, chevalier!) as they prepared to shoot their plastic arrows in the general direction of the target. I’m sure no siege of the castle was ever that cute.

Bidding adieu to the chevaliers, we continued back down the hill, via the crooked streets of the former Jewish and Arab district, the Alfama. This area was one of the few to survive the 1755 earthquake, so the architecture and streets are very old indeed. By necessity it’s mostly a pedestrian area, largely because the streets just weren’t designed to accommodate anything larger than a well-fed horse. One can easily spend an entire day lost in the maze of tiny streets, undisturbed by either cars or other tourists. That made it all the more jarring when a pair of smelly yellow GoCars came panting up the hill, their recorded English directions echoing cheerfully off the walls of the alleyways. I’m sure the neighbors love those things.

As we were going down one set of stairs, we saw a little old lady making her slow way up. Gabe greeted her in Portuguese, so she evidently decided we were OK, and proudly told me that the balcony I was peering up at through the tangle of wires, plants, and laundry was in fact hers. She was about a foot and a half shorter than me, but even so, she grabbed my arm in an iron grip and cheerfully started exhorting me to go see some gathering down the street. Apparently she thought these strange giant people could not miss such an event. Mystified by thoroughly charmed, I agreed that we would go, and we continued on our separate ways.

Soon we could hear what she’d been telling us about, a swelling of people and voices with one amplified above them all. We rounded the corner to find a big crowd of people filling a square, with a big purple banner and life size statues of both Mary and Jesus lifted on people’s shoulders above the crowd. The amplified voice we heard was a priest intoning prayers, which were then broadcast out of a handheld speaker held by a man on the other side of the square. The juxtaposition of new technology being used to amplify very old prayers was a beautiful one.

After a while, the entire gathering started moving off up the hill, led by the statues and aided by a rather rotund old dog, whom we’d spotted hanging around the edges of the crowd. I suspect he was in charge of the whole thing.

Once they’d left, we wandered on ourselves, rather bemused by the entire affair. We never did figure out what the gathering had been for — a saint’s day, presumably, or perhaps something to do with Easter? Who knows. Whatever it was, it was vastly entertaining, especially as we found this very Catholic event almost immediately before walking down a street named Rua da Judaria, or Jewry Street. Oh, the re-appropriation. It never ends.

Slowly, we made our way through the outskirts of the Alfama back to Baixa, where we caught the metro and limped our way home. It was tiring, but so wonderful to crawl around our city with two of my very favorite people. I love living in a place where simply turning a corner can elicit a “Wow” from all of our mouths, we who are a particularly well-traveled group of people. It never gets old.

At one point, we ran into a couple of Canadian ladies who were lost and trying to work up the courage to go up a dark staircase to the street above. We said they’d be fine and offered to go up with them, then stopped to chat for a while at the top. We told them we were living here for a year, and their response was, “You are so lucky! How did you manage that?”

An excellent question, and one I am starting to ask myself nearly every day.

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