Geetanjali Krishna arrived in the capital of Portugal during the festival of St Anthony and experienced just how the city had reinvented itself as one of Europe's hottest travel destinations.
There's something oddly comforting about revisiting a city as a tourist. It's rather like visiting an old friend -- all you need to do is relax and, perhaps, relive pleasurable memories. Or so I thought, while planning a trip to Lisbon this June.
I couldn't have been more off the mark.
The last time I was in the capital of Portugal was about 10 years ago. It was a sleepy albeit picturesque backwater of Europe back then.
Soon after we visited, I heard from friends in Portugal that the worldwide economic recession in 2006 had extracted heavy toll on the city. Yet, today, with its azulejo-painted facades, vintage tramcars, sardines and custard tarts in all possible avatars and, of course, its enduring ease on the pocket, Lisbon has reinvented itself as one of the hottest travel destinations in Europe.
It was late afternoon when we drove into Lisbon, the massive River Tagus glinting blue in the sun.
Having chosen to stay in Alfama, a quaint neighbourhood on a hillside just beneath the iconic Castelo de Sao Jorge, we were looking forward to rediscovering its narrow cobbled streets lined with taverns and shops. The taverns and old shops were there, but the peaceful alleys I remembered were bedecked with coloured globes, pop-up stalls and garlands.
By the time my Fitbit had registered a climb of about 20 floors (Alfama involves seriously steep walking), parties had begun in earnest. An old lady selling buttons and homemade lace explained in halting English that we'd happened to arrive on the day of the festival of St Anthony, the patron saint of Lisbon.
The day, and the next few, were to be marked by street parties (locally known as arraiais) and the ceremonial exchanging of basil plants and romantic poems among lovers as well as devotees of Anthony, the saint of lost things.
As the sun set, the lanterns came to colourful life and music began to play in every square.
Wherever we looked, sardines were being grilled. In fact, sardine motifs were everywhere -- from the lovely terracotta plates on which the fish was being served to tablecovers, clothes and more.
According to myth, St Anthony decided to preach his sermons to fish in the sea, as his human followers were busy, presumably doing other things. His words were so mesmeric that he was soon surrounded by fish, big and small. The townspeople flocked to him, never having seen such a sight.
To date, the sardines symbolise the devotion the saint evoked.
Anyway, with the crowds of partygoers thronging to enjoy the festivities, it wasn't until 11 pm that we found a table at Clube de Fado, a magnet for the city's best musicians. And before we knew it, the next day had dawned.
Next morning, we decided to take a ride on the vintage tram No 28, which loops across the city's most iconic sights -- Alfama, Baixa, Graca, Castelo de Sao Jorge and Martim Moniz, to name some.
While most of the tram emptied out at the touristy spots, we chose to get off at Estrela for a picnic at the verdant Jardim da Estrela, facing the majestic basilica. The calm was much needed, for we were readying to party again with St Anthony that evening.
This time, in deference to our aching feet, we wore our most comfortable footwear.
Walking up one of Alfama's steep staircases to avoid the slow walk uphill, we decided to grab some grilled sardines before getting a table at one of the many fado restaurants around (they're known more for their music than food).
The music was beginning as we topped off the street side meal with fragrant lemon and rosemary gelato. As bottles of wine emptied, the fadistas sang their melancholy songs and yet another evening turned into night, and the night into yet another day.
Lisbon was still not asleep as we stumbled back to our room, and I mused that quite unexpectedly, I'd lost a piece of my heart to Lisbon -- yet again.
The basilica looming overhead was a reminder that St Anthony was also the finder of all things lost. So, I sent up a silent prayer that he'd keep it safe for me until the next time.
I hope there's one.
Recommended for you: Obidos, Batalha, Nazare & Fatima: Unravelling Portugal's other secrets