Last weekend, I embarked on a brief three-day city trip to the beautiful Portuguese Capital Lisbon. Visiting such a large city for the first time always raises two significant challenges for me: 1) there is so much to see in so little time and 2) with the Antwerp Marathon less than a month away, I want to get my runs in while not losing too much quality time with my wife during our vacation. The answer to my predicament: a guided early morning running tour of the city center of Lisbon.
A while ago, my older brother introduced me to running tours after having completed one in Copenhagen, Denmark while he was there for an academic conference. He had been thrilled about the experience and told me that these tours were popping up all over the world.
When I visited Estonia two summers, I was curious to see whether anybody would be organizing running tours of Tallinn. A quick internet search later, I had found the company City Bike that arranged both biking and running tours close to our hotel in the city center. The next mourning, my guide, a triathlete and former competitive rower, took me on a 12K tour around the outskirts of Tallinn to a point from where we had a great view of the city from across the water. During our run, he not only told me about Tallinn’s history, but also discussed topics like the Estonian society and its economy.
I now wanted to repeat this experience in Lisbon. In fact, I had already booked my tour online from Belgium with the organization Lisbon City Runners for Sunday morning. I had hoped to be able to go on Saturday morning, the first day of our trip, so that I would have a better idea of the city from the beginning, but that date had already been booked. I later learned that the Lisbon City Runners consists of two guides, Pedro and Nunu, who lead tours in their free time, which somewhat limits the options. The organization offers seven different tours online to cater to different levels of runners with varying interests: you can for example take a tour of the historical center (10K), the castle (7K), the newer suburbs (9K), a run along the river (11K), or a trail run (13K). They also offer customized runs that for example focus on hills or go a longer run. As I was completely new to the city, I chose the city center tour. One important fact is that the Lisbon City Runners explicitly state that they are running partners and not tour guides. In fact their website says:
“We hope to show you our wonderful city, but our main aim is to get you running.” Lisbon City Runners.
On Sunday, my running guide Nunu, a project manager in the IT sector and father of two children, met me in our hotel in the center of Lisbon at eight in the morning, which was also our point of departure. Nunu’s running credentials were that he has already completed six marathons and was at that time training for a triathlon (for the running geeks out there, he claimed that his best time for the marathon was around 3 hours and 30 minutes). This obviously more than qualifies him to keep up with me for a 10K run.
After a brief introduction, Nunu first took me to a lookout point on the hill close to our hotel from which you had a very clear view of the large Tagus River that runs through Lisbon and flows into the ocean shortly after. I had actually accidentally stumble on this place the previous morning while on a mission to find toothpaste and a toothbrush. What made this discovery extra special was that just at that moment, a flotilla of a half dozen warships were sailing out to sea. Nunu mentioned that the statue planted on the hill featured the age old sea monster Adamastor (see image below), mentioned in the famous Portuguese Poet, Luis de Camoes‘s work.
At a decent tempo of about 5:30 minutes per kilometer, which was set by me, Nunu and I chatted about the history of Lisbon. He emphasized what he described as the city’s most important and probably most traumatic event to date: the 1755 earthquake.
This natural disaster killed between 10,000 and 100,000 people and destroyed large parts of the city. Nunu showed me how following the earthquake, the area around the vast square Praca do Commercio had been redrawn into a more modern urban planning with broader straight streets and clearly outlined city blocks. This is in stark contrast with for example the older Alfama neighborhood, which we ran through a bit later, with its narrow winding streets that was largely spared by the earthquake. One very special commemorative monument to the earthquake is the abandoned ruin of the Carmo Convent at the top of the beautiful late nineteenth century Santa Justa lift (see image right), designed by Raul Mesnier de Ponsard, a student of the famous Gustave Eiffel. The convent was never fully repaired and currently houses an archeological museum. Running up the hill to the Convent from sea level, you and your calves learn to appreciate how high its location and steep the incline actually is.
As we reached the Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon’s grand main avenue running straight through the city center, the sky’s floodgates open up on us, making the tiled sidewalks feel more like a slip and slide than a pavement. This forced me to pay special attention to the intricate pattern of white and black stones on the sidewalks and squares. On the Avenida da Liberdade, I particularly liked the beautiful Art Deco buildings on either side of the avenue, constructed in the early 20th century, such as the old Sao Jorge Cinema, the current Hard Rock Cafe, and especially the breathtaking Eden Theater with its two towers and lavish garden on its grand balcony.
The tour also allowed me to ask a local about things I had noticed in Lisbon the previous day. For example, while walking in the city center, Katya and I had been approached three times by men who selling drugs as if they were selling selfy sticks. This had never happened to me before and I especially did not expect it the middle of the touristy center. My experience clearly frustrated Nunu somewhat, but it did not surprise him. He told me that a group of gypsies were behind this and that in most cases, they do not even sell real drugs, but instead rip off tourists with fake product. He added that the police does not do anything to stop this. Nunu also provided a lot of practical advice such as recommending me where to go to eat in the center and which types of places to avoid and what to visit on a rainy day.
Taking a running tour of a city is always a great way to get an initial taste of a city. As you cover quite a distance, it allows you to see a bunch of different highlights, while still having the opportunity to stop and take pictures whenever you want. To all the runners out there, I highly recommend looking into running city tours.
Thank you Nunu and thank you Lisbon City Runners.