I Left My Heart in Europe’s Most Affordable Capital City

Legend claims that the nuns used egg whites to stiffen their habits. Frugal and appreciative of God’s bounty, they also invented a way to use the discarded yolks. Pasteis de nata (egg tart) is the result of their devotion, and the object of mine.

The small custard-filled tarts convert non-believers to the existence of heaven. Prepared hot all day in bakeries, they are the national pastry of Portugal and sell for $1.20 apiece. Convenience stores and supermarkets serve them to the desperate, forced to endure hours without a hot one sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon.

My husband, Jeff, and I are roving retirees. We gave up our home and belongings almost two years ago to travel the world, and this Fall our travels took us to Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal.

The pastries were just the start of what we loved about the city.

The central district of Bairro Alto contains the soul of Lisbon. All small lanes here run one way as two cars cannot pass abreast. Lined with restaurants and cafés, delivery trucks and the occasional tuk-tuk employ them as roads, but they are mainly pedestrian thoroughfares.

Shopkeepers arrive by 10 a.m. and stay late into the evening. During the daylight hours, the streets remain quiet. People walk to the plaza to catch the tram for work or errands, and women hang their laundry from wrought-iron balconies.

Come sunset, the neighborhood transforms. What were open walkways during the day fill with tables and chairs. People eat dinner al fresco and spend hours visiting friends and family over full wine glasses. Live renditions of haunting Fado music flow out of the doorways and bind all inhabitants, even temporary ones.

Parties start long after bedtime every night. Early risers find evidence of the wee hours Mardi Gras when they open their doors. Street cleaners, manual and mechanical, dispose of the debris and wash the cobblestones fresh each morning before nine.

The most affordable European capital, Lisbon offers centuries of history and charm mingled with modern amenities. Rent has increased in recent years, though, and an outlay of $2,500 per month, all-inclusive, is required to provide a comfortable life for a couple. Outside of the city, that number drops dramatically.

The official language here is Portuguese, but many people speak English and rudimentary Spanish helps decode the rest. When spoken communication fails, animated charades always work.

The sea cools the city in the summer and middays max out at about 82 F. The Mediterranean climate also prevents temperatures below freezing, but heavy downpours of rain can make some winter days uncomfortable. The average January high is about 55 F dropping to 45 F at night.

Surf and swim beaches are accessible by public transportation and getting around the city by bus ($2.13 one-way), tram ($3.37 one-way), and metro ($1.65 one-way) is easy and cheaper when using refundable pre-paid cards. Regional trains and buses service suburban and outlying towns.

Lisbon imprinted itself on me. In my dreams, I walk its hills and absorb its spirit. Part of me never left. All of me yearns to return.

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