Dog Town

A day trip outside of Lisbon goes to the dogs.

On our third day in Lisbon, we set out for Belém, a suburb twenty minutes west of the downtown. Every guidebook mentions Belém and with good reason; this suburb has as many cultural attractions as most mid-sized American cities. Belém contains a Renaissance monastery, a naval museum, medieval castle, a contemporary monument to Portuguese explorers and a nineteenth century pastry shop credited with inventing Portuguese custard tarts. These kinds of sites are common enough in most European cities.

But what brought us to Belém was the ferry terminal. The ferry serves local commuters by connecting the southern shore of the river with a commuter rail to Lisbon. For us, as tourists, it meant an affordable boating adventure. The trip across the river is quick. The ferry runs in a loop stopping twice before returning over the same route to Belém.

Trafaria is the more desirable of the two towns serviced by the ferry. Known for restaurants, bars, nightlife, and summer festivals, Trafaria attracts Portuguese daytrippers throughout the year. We, of course, disembarked at the first stop, Porto Brandao, known mostly for the giant gas storage tanks gracing the hillside and looking more like Bayonne, New Jersey, than scenic old world Europe. We are the only people leaving the ferry in Porto Brandao, though a small crowd eager to board pushed by us in their attempt to escape. The Portuguese, like most Europeans, never learned how to queue. The ferry hurriedly pulls away from the docks before we have even left the pier.

The town felt desolate as we wandered from the pier into the center of town. One and two-story hovels surrounded the town square. A few ailing trees waved lazily, but otherwise all is quiet. Whatever shops existed here had closed, whether for the evening or forever, we could not discern. The derelict houses are dark. A single café-bar at the far end of the plaza – what seemed the equivalent of a roadside hot dog stand – contained a few surly looking old men glaring at us. We kept walking.

We headed up the single road away from the village center. The road, cut into the side of the mountain, had no sidewalk and blind curves. A car speeding by pushed us into the storm drain. A channel of dirty water flowed to the river. We pressed on.

Walking up the hill, we looked back to survey the town. On the far hill we saw a pair of dogs chasing after each other, frolicking on the field. “This town has more dogs than people,” I say to my friends weary of continuing up the hill. We kept walking.

Walls surrounded each house. Metal bars and heavy gates protect windows and doors. Near the edge of the town, we found an abandoned playground with a beat up soccer field. Grass grew up through the concrete. A small boy holding a ball stared at us from across the field. He seemed unamused by our intrusion. Given that that the playground reminded us of something out of Chernobyl, we let the boy have has field to himself and continued walking up the hill. Everything in Lisbon is uphill.

Further along the road we see another dog. He is scrawny with thinning patches of hair. Without a map and with the sun setting, we decide maybe we have seen enough of this country road and turn back. As we walk down the hill, the dog begins following us.

We turn off onto a side street, but like most side streets we’ve seen in Lisbon, this street is actually a staircase. We climb. The pathway narrows. Elsewhere in Lisbon, views seem to justify the endless climbing, but here all we see is the decaying town and the massive gas storage tanks. On the opposite hillside we watch dogs wander through the grasses. At least the dog following us has gone disappeared.

The path twists around the yards of house. The walls and fences reassure our doubts about this place. We probably could keep climbing up the path, but the dog is gone and the sun is rapidly descending. The last thing any of us want is to end up stuck in Dog Town after dark. We return to the road.

Waiting for us at the base of the stairs is the dog king. The other dozen animals we had seen so far had been tiny, mangy things buy the dog king stood four foot tall and his shaggy coat added bulk. He stared at us like the old men in the café. We throw him a stick but the dog king is too smart for that. He does not want the stick.

We back away slowly before scrambling down the steep road. The dog king follows us briefly before losing interest and slipping into an alley, likely to eat a dinner of sacrificed village child. As we cross the plaza, dusk has faded into night. We see the ferry approaching the pier hustle toward the dock. Now we know why the crowds so eagerly pushed their way onto the ferry: they just wanted to leave Dog Town.

The guidebook was right: the Belém Ferry offers a cheap and affordable way to see the Tagus River. As we crossed, we could see the last wisps of sun set below the Atlantic Ocean.

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