Holiday: Lisbon (July 2 - July 9)

19 August 2006


A Blue Perspective: Holiday: Lisbon (July 2 - July 9)

Portugal was planned as our holiday from the holiday, and it filled that niche perfectly – quiet, relaxed, and peaceful ... mostly.

On the flight from Barcelona to Lisbon, Portugal had gone into penalties against the always-lamentable English. Midway over Spain the pilot's voice crackled over the PA and muttered some words of Portuguese which – judging from a cabin half full of cheering Portuguese – I assumed to mean that England had suffered their usual World Cup demise.

When we got out of the airport the streets were, shall we say, lively. Green and Red flags flew from every available car window, blaring horns assaulted our ears, and piles of testosterone-laden youths teetered on the back of rickety trucks. Celebration!

As our Portuguese was even more pitiful than any of the other languages we'd attempted to mangle on our odyssey, we had to resort to waving writing directions in the face of a bewildered taxi driver. He wasn't all too helpful himself though, dropping us off at the bottom of a steep, one way incline and waving vaguely up the hill; unsuccessfully trying to mask the fact that he couldn't be bothered driving around the block to put us outside our building. That ascent was where we first met Portuguese cobblestones; those unique, ever-present, and luggage-wheel destroying pieces of calcada that were synonymous with Portugal. They look good, though.

Henrique was actually born in Lisbon and lived there for five years, then spent the next 21 forgetting everything about it. Luckily, some of his relatives had stayed on and were kind enough to offer us a free apartment while we were in the country. After staying in hostels and cramped hotel rooms, it was a joy to be able to call a place home, no matter how briefly. Hang out your own washing, cook your own meals (not that we actually did, be we could have), watch MTV, and most important of all ... 24-hour, free Internet access! I was in heaven.

There was another match on that night, so we decided to stroll the streets and find the most authentic hangout we could find. We were reasonably successfully and were sat watching the Brazil v France match in cramped quarters, under fluorescent lights when we got our first taste of Portuguese cuisine. All I can say is that it must be hard for Portuguese vegetarians; they like their meat, and they like it strong. After the dainty tapas of Barcelona and the fresh produce of Italy, it was good to get my teeth into something solid and meaty, with flavour you can actually cut with a knife. It does become a bit of a slog when you eat it for an entire week, though.

The next day ... I really couldn't be bothered doing anything. I made it outside for a quick breakfast of pasteis de nata (more on that later), but retreated back to shade and Internet while Lynn and Rick went off for a bit of sight seeing. A good rest day. We fended for ourselves again that night and chose a slightly more upmarket restaurant this time – you could tell because we were 3 of 5 people in there. Might have also been the fact it was a Sunday. Apparently no one does anything on a Sunday in Lisbon. There I had some of the best pork chops I've ever tasted. So good in fact, that the chef couldn't reproduce it when we returned five days later.

Monday, that was the day I started Lisbon. After their wanderings the day before, my cohorts figured they'd head to the city centre and it didn't look too far on the map, so we decided to use our feet. After two weeks of navigating European cities, I was a bit sick of looking up map references, so I decided to leave our course in the hands of my esteemed colleagues. Bad idea. Rick gets lost on the way home from work, and Lynn ... well she's a girl. After going past the Lisbon Polytechnic about five times, we decided to scratch the last hour and start over about two blocks from our apartment. Walking perfectly straight took us where we wanted to go, and we had a light brunch in the shopping district. It was there I saw the cows.

In a stroke of public artwork genius, the powers-that-be in Lisbon decided to commission the decoration of cow-shaped sculptures by various artists, and place them around the city. In the shopping district I think I must have seen at least 12, all of which I had to photo document. Their decorations ranged from psychedelic murals, to synthetic grass, to industrial metal panelling and everything in between. The airport even had tiny reproductions of them all, which I was oh so tempted to purchase, but lack of space (and money – you want 35 Euros for a five inch cow?) prevented it.

I'm not a big shopper, so I tend to wander aimlessly behind the more motivated when I'm in a shopping environment. So I spent the next couple of hours tagging along behind Rick as he looked for alcohol and chocolates while Lynn went all goofy in Zara.

I'm not sure if I've mentioned it before, but for the fifteenth time this trip I was eyeballed by a local drug dealer and offered skunk in a brief walk-by exchange. By now I was beginning to wonder exactly what it was about my appearance that made me seem desperate for some ganja. Perhaps it was the scuffed black Converses. Just to test out whether it was my own peculiar allure, Rick walked by the same seedy fellow, slowed down, gave him a knowing look ... and nothing. Not even a shifty eye. Grrrrrr.

After lunch it was back to homebase for a bit of a siesta – such a great invention – and then our first meeting with an actual local: Sophia Falcao, one of Rick's cousins who lived on the outskirts of Lisbon. She'd arranged for us to meet in Cascais, basically a small resort village that's pretty much in Lisbon, but just far out enough to not really be. The train ride there from the city centre travels all the way up the coast, the ocean just out of reach through the window. It's a great trip, but when we got to Cascais it was nighttime, so we didn't really get the full impact of its charm. However, we knew we wanted to come back during the day, and pencilled it in.

Dinner al fresco was beautiful, though a little chilly, and it was great to see Rick catch up with family he so rarely gets to meet. Sophia regaled us with the insider's view of Lisbon, and gave us a list of things to see and do over the next couple of days. First stop next day: Belem, for pasteis de nata.

Ahhhhh ... pasteis de nata, food of the gods. Back in Melbourne I'd had a couple of Portuguese tarts, but they're nothing like what you get in Lisbon. They're everywhere – crisp little cups of pastry filled with sweet egg custard – and people eat them by the dozens. By all accounts though, there's only one real place to eat pasteis de nata, and that's Belem. It's a suburb, but there's also a patisserie there that goes by the same name, and that's where everyone heads.

We took the tram there, and arrived just in time for lunch, which meant we had to postpone our indulgence for a while with some more filling fare. The waiter at the restaurant we chose begged the Lord to forgive me when I tried to order cranberry juice, so I decided to make up for it by ordering the most manly dish on the menu – chargrilled spare ribs. The waiting staff here were real characters, and Rick almost got spoon fed sardines when he asked for a demonstration of the proper way to fillet them. However, this fine feast left us too full for afters, so we went for a bit of a constitutional before trying pasteis de Belem.

Digestion over, seated at a small table, we ordered a pair each from the elderly waiter with the charming manner, and waited with baited breath as he brought them out. Their quivering surface was a beautiful bronzed yellow, the pastry shell a crisp and crunchy armour for what lay inside. As I took my first bite it was ... exactly the same as the half dozen I'd had the day before. Maybe you need to have grown up on a diet of them to discern the subtle differences, but I couldn't tell how they were better than any others. Don't get me wrong: good, but in Lisbon they're all good.

Belem's halfway to Cascais, so we decided to check it out in some daylight. Apparently Bryan Adams had lived there for a stint – perhaps in the Summer of '69 – and it's easy to see why. It dips straight into the Atlantic Ocean, so you have the open sea right there, and in the middle of Summer the temperatures hit a balmy 30/35, with not a cloud in the sky. It was approaching dinnertime, and the Germany v Italy semi-final was scheduled to show, so we joined the masses in a big open courtyard bordered by restaurants to watch the match on "Live! Widescreen TV!".

Purchasing my Italia hat in Prague was beginning to look like a foreboding omen, as again Italy made it through on dubious skill and lack of dominance. Damn their attractive shade of blue! It was a pissed off train ride home.

For the next two days we delved further into the depths of Portugal by staying at Rick's aunt's farm just outside of Coimbra. It's a two hour train ride from Lisbon, and is the home one of Europe's oldest universities; but we weren't really there for the city, it was all about the farm, which was, in one word: idyllic.

Uncle Jorge transported us from Coimbra into the surrounding hills as only the World's finest rally drivers can – taking dirt road corners at 60 kilometres per hour. As we mercifully slowed down to pull into their property, we entered another world. Their farm is virtually self sufficient, so we drank their own wine, ate their own vegetables, cooked in their own olive oil, and it all tasted so much better for it. There was a slight communication barrier – Rick's aunt spoke Portuguese and Hakka, Rick's uncle spoke Portuguese. Lynn and I spoke neither, so there was a giant circle of English-Hakka, Hakka-Portuguese, Portuguese-Hakka, Hakka-English translation going on. The only break in the circle was what I like to call the Devil's right hand child.

During the Summer holidays, Sophia – Rick's cousin – lets her 10-year-old daughter stay at her parent's place. Sophita – as this hurricane is named – gets to run rampant round the farm, and make life extremely uncomfortable for any wayward visitors. While her grandparents are around, Sophita is innocence personified, but as soon as they're out of the room, you shall feel her wrath! I think I ended up with more bruises, scratches and broken thumbs in two days with Sophita than I have in five years of soccer. The only possible thing that could keep her in check was Rick's ingenious procurement of some Chuppa Chups (called "Shoopa Shoopa" by she-who-shall-not-be-named), which acted as the perfect bribe.

I am being a little harsh – the hellion did calm down over the course of the two days – but I still wouldn't be game to stay in the same room alone. Her grasp of English did make her the perfect Portuguese tutor (if you didn't mind slaps to the head for improper pronunciation), and her added knowledge of French put my linguistic skills thoroughly to shame. At least I now know what my favourite animal is in Portuguese: Urso Polar!

Otherwise, the farm was what a holiday should be: hazy melting days, good home cooked food, a charming villa, afternoon naps, sprawling countryside; it was hard to leave the unbelieveable hospitality, but we took the train home late Thursday afternoon.

And oh yeah, Portugal lost their semi-final while we were in Portugal. Who'd have thunk it?

For our final day in Portugal we decided to fully embrace beach culture. We got off the train two stops before Cascais and walked along the shore, ice creams in hand, boardshorts on legs and searing sun overhead. After finding a nice secluded cove, we actually ventured into the water for the first time on the trip (other than showers, of course) but I don't think the Atlantic Ocean was the place to do it. Within about 40 seconds I was suffering first stage hypothermia, so I retreated to the sand and settled for some sun. Unfortunately, that was when my MP3 player broke, so that kind of spoiled it.

Nevertheless, it couldn't taint what had been the most relaxing week I've had in a good while. Paris lay ahead, but Portugal had already written its return ticket. Sometime, some summer ...



  1. 1/5

    Red Zebra commented on 22 August 2006 @ 02:52

    I liked your story. I believe Portugal is naturally charming, but like everything we only know that when we are away!!

    Just a minor correction regarding your favorite animal, Ursu ends with an o, like this Urso Polar.

    Have fun traveling and finding new cultures.

    What did you think about our beer ???

  2. 2/5

    The Man in Blue commented on 22 August 2006 @ 02:53

    Thanks for the correction :D

    I can't attest to Portuguese beer, as I hate all beer.

  3. 3/5

    Nick Dominguez commented on 25 August 2006 @ 08:14

    Although I've been in the states for 20 years, I grew up in Portugal, Cascais to be exact. This post was a nice read, brought back some memories, did you happen to go to the Santini ice cream (by the train station) parlor while in Cascais? is it still there?

  4. 4/5

    The Man in Blue commented on 25 August 2006 @ 13:12

    Yes, Santini's gelati place is still there. We visited it twice in one day, if I remember correctly :D

  5. 5/5

    Miguel commented on 26 August 2006 @ 02:13

    Glad you liked Lisbon. It is one of the most fantastic cities in Europe IMHO - I too grew up in Cascais by the way.

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