Sunday, July 20, 2008

Lisbon, Portugal

What time of the day is it for you? If it's morning, perhaps you can make yourself a cafe bombom, a shot of espresso enriched with sweetened condensed milk. Midday? Pour a cool glass of vinho verde to sip while you read. If you're getting to my site in the evening, when your work is done and you're not going to need to think very hard for the rest of the day, perhaps a dribble of port would do. Whatever you do, allow yourself the time to enjoy the images of Lisbon, because it was a fascinating, frustrating city, but boy it sure looks good.

ECG and I spent a week in Lisbon. He had to be there for a conference; I had to be there because, "My husband gets to go to Lisbon, so gosh darn it, I'm going to go too!" The first weekend in Portugal, before the conference began, we hiked together in Sintra on Saturday, and we explored Alfama together on Sunday, poking around in all sorts of neighborhoods on our long walks. This was all very fun and relatively easy, because ECG speaks Portuguese. On the other hand, when I was alone during the days of the workweek, it took a lot of preparation for me to leave the hotel room by myself each morning. I reviewed the route I planned to take over and over on the maps, trying to ensure I wouldn't get lost (to little avail, as I always got lost). And, I practiced whatever phrases I may need to use. I wrote those phrases down in my little notebook, but of course, when the time came to use them, I stammered and stuttered and tried to speak in Spanish. No matter what others have told me, Spanish and Portuguese are not close enough so that if one understands the first she should understand the second. Although I very much enjoyed the sights and experiences I was I able to have in Portugal, each sight and experience required much testicular fortitude. I feel that in Portugal, I earned my traveler's stripes.

What follows are some of the observations I made while exploring Lisbon, with and without my husband.

The History
Everywhere I looked in Lisbon, the history of the country is right there, tangible. It is impossible to forget its former naval might and its history of empire, because remnants of that history are everywhere, in the architecture, the churches, the food.

I visited a monastery one day in a neighborhood called Belem. The primary purpose of this brotherhood of monks (now defunct in Portugal with only two outposts left in Spain) was to pray for the safety of the sailors at sea and to take their confessions upon return. This building is one of the most beautiful I've ever stepped into, with cloisters of honey-colored stone and intricate tile work and windows. This was no severe, humble abode for tightly-wrapped ascetic monks; this was the home of the people who the Portuguese believed kept their empire afloat. If these brothers were going to spend their lives praying for sailors, Lisbon was certainly going to make sure that their lives were comfortable.

Also evident everywhere in Lisbon is the aftermath of the 1755 earthquake that devastated the city. Measuring 9 on the Richter scale, the earthquake caused huge initial damage, followed by a tsunami and a city-wide fire. Very few structures date from before the quake and those that do bear the scars of history.

Earthquakes haven't been the only difficulty; a visitor can easily see, by the remnants of embattlements and castles, that once upon a time, this was a culture of war.

The Tiles
Everywhere, gorgeous, handpainted tiles that add color and temperature control reflect light into the narrow streets of the buildings they line. The Moors brought tiles with them to Lisbon, and now tiles cover the floors, the ceilings, and the walls of many (maybe even most) of Lisbon's buildings. Some whole streets have tiled houses, each house with different colors and patterns. My favorite tiles are the ones that don't have people or animals on them, but intricate geometric designs.

The Food and Drink
Unfortunately, I failed to take pictures of some of my favorite foods because I was too busy eating them. One day with a little time away from the conference, ECG and I went to lunch with his Portuguese colleague at his cousin's restaurant. It was quite a walk away from the museum grounds that housed the conference, set in this neighborhood on a steep bank that used to be the city's shanty-town, but has begun the process of gentrification. It was the best meal of the trip. We started with amazing smoky salami and aged goat cheese with good bread. ECG ordered a steak—decent—and I took a recommendation and ordered the octopus—amazing. My plate was large and oval, with a pile of pink, tender, large, grilled octopus tentacles set on a puddle of pale green olive oil and garlic slivers, flanked with broccoli on one side and roasted baby potatoes on the other. Oh my. We washed down our meals with vinho verde and I finished up with a slice of the sweet, aromatic melon I encountered everywhere in Lisbon. (On a side note, does anyone know what kind of melon this is? Everywhere I asked, everyone just told me it was called melao. The fruit itself was elongated, the flesh honeydew-like but more succulent, and ranging in color from white near the rind to a soft green then salmon pink near the seed cavity.)

All over, restaurants and markets sell bacalhau, dried salted cod that must be soaked in several changes of fresh water before used in food. We ate it frequently mixed with potatoes and fried into croquettes, but I also ate it tossed with olives, potatoes, hard boiled egg, and drizzled with oil and parsley. I saw it on every menu, prepared thousands of different ways, and from everything I could tell, bacalhau is at the heart of Portuguese food.

Another excellent nibble found all over Lisbon, but decidedly spectacular at Cafe Pasteis de Belem, are the pasteis de nata, little custard tarts that are browned and haphazardly caramelized and dangerously addictive. So good, so simple, so hard to replicate elsewhere.

The basic tipple is vinho verde, a low-alcohol, slightly minerally and spritzy, very dry white wine. It is made from not-quite-ripe grapes and it is perfect with seafood. Like the pasteis de nata, vinho verde is a simple, good thing. When I ordered the house red, I was usually disappointed, but I was never disappointed when I ordered vinho verde.

The Transportation
To be blunt, it would suck to be a handicapped person in Lisbon. There is no shortage of means of public transportation—the trams, public elevators, buses, subways (Metro), and trains are all very easy to use and can get a traveler almost anywhere—but, every sidewalk is a cobbled jumble of black and white stone, roads suddenly turn into stairwells, and streets turn corners and begin steep, unexpected ascents. I can't imagine rolling myself in a wheelchair through Lisbon; healthy women pushing baby carts were struggling enough. I can't imagine relying on a cane or being blind or even just getting old. It is hard to move over the surfaces of Lisbon.

However, when I did notice the elderly (quite frankly, I did not see a handicapped person out and about) on the trams, trains, and buses, everyone made sure the they were helped on and off the vehicle and provided a seat. Perhaps assistance, of this type at least, is a private endeavor here, rather than a public one. One incident that ECG and I experienced together brought this idea home to me.

On Sunday, after ECG and I got lost in Alfama, feeling our way through the tiny alleys and stairways—we decided the only way out was down—we finally made it to a major thoroughfare and walked along it towards the downtown area. Two motorcycles, the first with a couple on it, the second with a lone female driver, rode towards us on the street. Just as they were about to pass us, the first lost control as the driver tried to brake while directly on the tram tracks. The motorcycle slid and fell over sideways on top of the two riders, and one of the luggage racks flew off and slid across the street, thudding like a body against the stone curb. As I stood there trying to figure out whose arms and legs belonged to whom—they were in a twisted mess under the motorcycle—ECG dropped his camera bag and immediately began trying to lift the bike off the riders. Other men joined him, drivers of cars who stopped the street to make sure everyone was okay. Another man called the ambulance. ECG and two others tried to set the bike on its stand, but because of the broken luggage rack, the remaining luggage rack threw the weight of the whole motorcycle off. After negotiating in Portuguese, the three of them pushed-carried the bike further down the street to sidewalk access and used the slant of the street to force the bike onto its stand. The second motorcyclist was with the riders of the first bike, and they were Germans with no Portuguese and limited English. Most of the conversation of assistance happened through intonation alone. As some local men tried to pull the passenger of the crashed bike (clearly the more injured of the two on the fallen bike) towards the sidewalk, others yelled to leave her there, as it was unclear how she was injured and they may hurt her more. The passenger, conscious though shocky, kept insisting, in English, that she wanted to get out of the street.

After a lot of arm waving, concerned yelling, lifting and carrying of very heavy things, finally, the riders were safely on the sidewalk with their luggage, their bikes were pushed out of the way of the tram tracks, and there were more than enough people there to be with them until the ambulance arrived.

The city itself may be hard-tiled and stony, the geography steep and frustrating, but one thing is very clear here: if anyone needs help, Lisbon's citizens will generously provide it.


Susan C said...

Astonishing beauty. Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

Your writing and photography are stunning.


Susan in Italy said...

What gorgeous photos! I've never been to Portugal but from people I know, you evidently love it or hate it. There's a charm or sadness in the decline of the place, I guess that puts you into one of two camps.

Anonymous said...

I loved reading about your adventures in my favourite city. Your pictures are fabulous too. I also love the azulejos (Portuguese tile) and geometric designs are also my favourite. I've found the Portuguese always very friendly and helpful.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful wonderful post, Christina. I appreciate your commentary on the various aspects of your visit - and fabulous photos.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations for such great pictures of Lisbon. Well done!

Anonymous said...

I love that one picture with the bridge, it reminds me so much of the Verrazano Narrows in my Brooklyn 'hood. Thanks so much for sharing. Have you ever read 'The History of the Siege of Lisbon'? Until this post, I've only ever seen Lisbon through Saramago's eyes. I like seeing it through yours too!

Jean Z. said...

Amazing. Makes me wish I could travel again. I've been to London and swore I'd be back. Then 9/11 happened, then I got married, now I have twin 3-year olds. When will I get into the world again?

Pleae keep posting those wonderful photos so we can all feel like we've been there, too. Thank you.

Lucy said...

Have just spend a glorious 20 minutes or so, cup of green tea in hand, sipping and loving your holiday. It looks old and bleached and romantic, despite the problems.

You know, the funniest (and incredibly successful) tip for de-salting the bacalhau I have ever heard is to place it in the top of your toilet. The water needs to be changed often...and the results, I can say from experience are very good. Hilarious, but it works!

(Your new header is, by the way, great.)

Christina said...

Susan Carrier: You're most welcome.

Kristan: Thanks, lady. YOU are stunning.

Susan in Italy: Yes, it seems to be a very complicated place, but one night after ECG and I went to dinner, he turned to me and said, "I really like it here." He's in the love it camp, that's for sure. As for me, I like it.

Lily: Yes, we had wonderful experiences with all the Portuguese people we spent time with. Thanks for the compliments, and I'm glad to hear about your affection for Lisbon.

NikkiPolani: Thanks!

Lisbon Portugal: Thank you!

Ann: No I haven't read that, but now I'll put it on my list. In fact, I hadn't read much about Portugal before visiting it, but now I definitely want to learn more.

Who Has Time to Cook: Someday, I'm sure, you'll travel with your kids. One of my most memorable family vacations when I was still pretty little was a trip to French Canada: Montreal, Quebec City, and all kinds of rural towns and rugged beauty in between. And later, when your kids are grown, you'll travel with them too. My parents and I had a fantastic Christmas and New Years in England a few years back.

Lucy: That made me laugh out loud. Thanks for sharing it. I'm glad you enjoyed the pictures; old and bleached and romantic are a great string of words to describe what we saw of Portugal.

Wendy said...

Pasteis de nata and vinho verde are what I think of first when Portugal comes up in conversation! Adore them both.

So much in one week. Sounds like you have indeed earned your travellers stripe. :)

Christine said...

wow everything looks amazing!! looks like you're enjoying yourself. ^^

Anonymous said...

Wonderful pictures! Thanks for sharing them with us! Hope your trip was great!