Obrigada, Lisboa

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Three days in Lisbon was not really enough, but I managed to cram in some good stuff. One of the must-do things for tourists is to ride on Tram 28. It’s a vintage streetcar (well, one of several) that runs on a route that covers several of the tourist hotspots and, more importantly, does all the climbing to get you up to the Castle of São Jorge, in the Moorish old quarter of Alfama. It’s in all the guidebooks, and I was a bit aimless the afternoon I arrived so I thought that would be a good way to see a bit of Lisbon, but not have to make any decisions about what to actually do. I got on at Rossio, the origin of the route, and had a really nice ride. The tram is all wooden and creaky and rattly, and has to stop periodically to reset the electrical conductor bar thingie that connected it to the power lines above, or to wait for a car that was double-parked on the tram tracks. I had a window seat and the window was open, so I could lean out for a better look at things or just rest my arm on the windowsill. But some of the streets in the Alfama district are really really narrow - so narrow that there were a lot of times I had to duck my head back in quickly or risk being lobotomized by a passing building. I could easily have run my fingers along the wall, or plucked a toupee off the head of a pedestrian on the sidewalk.

Tram 28

I was enjoying the ride, so I decided I’d just stay on and see the whole route, reasoning that it must just end up back where it started from at some point. Heh. It turns out that reasoning was errado. In fact, Tram 28 delivers you to Estrela, quite a long hop from Rossio and then the route just ends. If you’re a (clueless) tourist, you then have to walk across the square and get bus #706, and ride all the way back. Consider yourself warned.

As I mentioned, I’ve taken quite a liking to a nice glass of port, and Freddie was kind enough to alert me to the location of the Solar do Vihno do Porto, which turned out to be just 275 steps from my hostel (and in Lisbon, steps mean stairs not paces. It was perhaps a ten minute walk, but in that ten minutes I climbed 275 steps. Lisbon is an exceptionally vertical city.) Anyways, the Solar do Vihno do Porto is lovely bar subsidized Portuguese port producers, where you can enjoy a glass of one of about 973 different kinds of port, ranging in price from €1.10 to about €16.00 per glass. Most of the stuff mere mortals drink clocks in around €2-6 per glass. I went two nights in a row, and tried two different ports each night. My favourite was the Ramos Pinto 10 year old tawny which was very very nice indeed. And the bar itself is just a lovely place to sit. It was quite warm and sticky while I was in Lisbon, and the SdVdP was enthusiastically air-conditioned, and open until midnight. And the inside is just like you’d imagine – dim lighting, red armchairs, big wooden beams, and stone walls. And the waiters wear aprons and bring your glass of port on a tray, along with the bottle, so you can check the label before you sample. I felt a bit like I should be wearing a smoking jacket and sucking on a pipe or something. Just great. You should go to the Solar do Vihno do Porto, probably right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

A fuzzy look at the Solar do Vihno do Porto Align Center

As I mentioned above, the castle is in the old Moorish quarter called Alfama. It’s got loads of little windy streets, and my guide book’s number one recommendation for things to do in Lisbon was to wander the tiny alleys and back streets of the area, getting lost and seeing what was to be seen. Given my oft-mentioned proclivity for wandering around lost, you’d think this would be right up my alley (It was not. Even though I knew it was going to happen, I was still annoyed when I got lost on my way back to the hostel.) The castle São Jorge was nice though – mostly deserted inside, but with excellent ramparts and stunning views of the city.

The view of Lisbon from the castle

On Wednesday I took a trip out to Belem, where there’s a nice monastery and a famous bakery that purports to be the origin of Portugal’s signature dessert, the pastel de nata. It’s a custard tart in flaky pastry, and goes nicely with a cup of coffee.

My favourite sight out at Belem, though, was the Berardo Collection – it’s a gallery of modern art pieces that were owned by José Manuel Rodrigues Berardo , and is now housed in part of the enormous cultural centre in Belem. (And admission is free, so there’s no excuse to skip it.) I was interested in seeing the permanent collection, which includes Hockney and Warhol and such, but the entire collection was being re-worked so there were only temporary exhibits open. One was a quite diverting (often very oblique) look at time and calendars such. There were a few really interesting things there, and it was the kind of discovery that’s especially nice because it was unexpected, and free.

There was also a big exhibit on the life and career of Amalia, a famous Portuguese fado singer who died ten years ago. I was not hugely interested in the exhibit, but there was one room that I just loved. It was dark, with black walls and there was a sound track of fado playing, and hanging in the room were three enormous sculptures that were rotating slowly. They looked a bit like giant paisley chandeliers: one red, one black and one yellow. They were really lovely, and caught the light beautifully. And then I looked closer and realized that they were constructed entirely from translucent plastic disposable cutlery – knives and forks and spoons – that had been twisted and curled and glued onto a frame of welded steel rods. And that just made it even more fantastic. I took quite a few pictures but they didn’t turn out well because the pieces were always in motion.

Here’s a close-up that I prefer to think of as “arty” rather than “out of focus”. (More “arty” shots over at Flickr)

I did make it out to the Museu des Azulejos – the Tile Museum (ceramic tiles, that is, which are absolutely EVERYWERE in Portugal. Entire buildings are covered with them). It came highly recommended, but I have to say I found the whole thing a bit of a snooze. I mean the displays were pretty, and the building was nice, but on reflection it may have been a bit ambitious to expect that a museum devoted soley to the history and display of ceramic tiles in Portugal would be hugely riveting.

Yup, there’s some tiles. (“Oh look over there! More tiles. I wonder what could be in the next room?…”)

And once again, the hash came through for me. After having a nice run with the Lisbon group on the previous Saturday, I met up with one of their number, Dave, and his Portuguese friend Antonio. We went for a nice dinner and had a great night chatting and drinking wine and eating. Then Dave and Antonio took me to a positively fantastic bar whose decor was not to be believed. It was a warren of cozy rooms, one after the other, and each room was absolutely crammed with odd collectibles of every possible type – dolls, toy soldiers, model airplanes, hats, ceramic figures, military medals, cigarette cards…. on and on and on. You could stare at a single wall for hours and still glance back and see something new. We played pool (badly) among the china frogs and action figures and drank beer (and port) and had such fun that they actually had to throw us out when the place closed at 2am. It was a great last night in Portugal.

And you’re right, I did not tell you the name of the bar. I have to have some secrets. If you want to go you’ll have to head to Lisbon and look up Dave. But I can assure you, it would be worth the effort, as is the case for the whole country, in fact.


Unknown said...

I got lost in Lisbon too. It was like being inside an Escher painting.

Didn't miss the ***'s at all. Reads very smoothly without them (IMHO).

Keep on truckin'


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