Tuesday, 28 May 2013

It smells like Lisbon

There's a famous Portuguese song by songstress extraordinaire, Amalia Rodigues, that goes: "Cheira bem, cheira a Lisboa" (It smells good, it smells like Lisbon)... hmm maybe it loses some of its poetry in English. But if you were to ask Amalia why Lisbon smells so good, she would tell you that it's because it smells of flowers and the ocean.  Ah, now that's better.  

Being of Portuguese descent, I've had the pleasure of visiting the homeland numerous times.  I do not however remember visiting Lisbon before the age of 16.  Since then, I've been thrice and have had a great time every time I've been.

Here's what I remember from my first trip in the summer of '98, before I had a digital camera to take a million photos to help me remember the details.  Did anyone have a digital camera in '98?  It was summer and it was hot, like scorching, I think my shoes are melting to the sidewalk hot.  I was with my parents and my sister and we were off to meet one of my dad's friends for lunch.  I remember being 1- totally confused by which direction we were headed as there are lots of winding roads and round abouts.  The grid system at home has totally spoiled me and 2 - I couldn't believe how beautiful and old the buildings were.  I remember the Nike store had giant columns and the front of the building was covered in detailed carvings.  It was probably my first experience with seeing old structures that had been restored to their original glory while creating a modern space that could be used in contemporary every day life. Fantastic.

We also visited the carriage museum where we were treated to some of the most extravagant carriages I'd ever seen.  They were adorned with intricate carvings, tapestries and gold, lots and lots of gold.  I couldn't help but be carried off in a day dream where I was the princess being taken to the ball wearing a beautiful dress in one of these elaborate carriages.  (Oh Cinderella, how you've built up all these false expectations...) The museum is fairly small and doesn't take very long to get through, but the workmanship that is on display is really remarkable. 

My parents also took us to see the Expo site.  Expo had happened the previous year and there didn't seem to be too much going on there at the time we were there, but we did get to go to the aquarium.  I love aquariums and the penguin enclosure in this one was especially memorable.  It was a fun time indeed.  And it was nice and cool in the aquarium which was a much needed reprieve from the summer heat.

It wasn't until eight years later that I returned to Lisbon.  Now an adult travelling with my sister and my cousin, Lisbon looked and felt different.  The buildings were still beautiful and the streets were still bustling, but I felt more at ease, like a calm had extended over the city somehow.  Probably a symptom of my own maturity, but in any case, I was ready to see Lisbon through different eyes.

We started our trip with a couple of days in the town of Sintra, just a short train ride from Lisbon.  Sintra is often referred to as the "birthplace of Portugal".  It's a small town with little to do but sight see, but the sights are well worth seeing.  I think the three of us would have voted the Regaleira as having the most enchanting gardens.  It had fountains, small stone pathways, big archways and secret passageways.  And come on, who doesn't love a secret passageway? We could have wandered these gardens all day making up stories about what could have happened in those hidden spaces.  Stories of romance, espionage, treason; the possibilities were endless.     

The next day we hopped into a cab and headed up to the Pena Palace and the Moorish ruins.  It's a walkable distance from the center of town, but it's an uphill climb, which is a little less than fun, so we opted to take a cab instead. We decided to go to the Pena Palace first.  What a delight! It was sunny and colourful and the rooms were set up to look as if someone had just gotten up and walked away.  They were full of antique furniture, art and table settings.  It was difficult to absorb it all, there was so much to look at.  We then walked down the hill a little to the Moorish ruins.  There isn't much left (I guess that's

why they call them ruins), but it was interesting to see how they took natural rock formations and built on them to create their structures.  We then took
the suggestion of one of the employees to walk back to town.  We were ill prepared for this walk back.  The way back was along a path that was not very well maintained.  It was overgrown and there were many rocks and wobbly steps along the way.  Not ideal for flip flop wearers.  I wish someone had given us the heads up on that one.  It took us about an hour to make it back into town.  With proper footwear, this could probably have been a little quicker.

Back in Lisbon we visited the Belem Tower and St Jerome's monastery.  This was my second time visiting these locations and they were exactly how I remembered them.  The Torre de Belem is an old fortress that is built on the shore of the Tagus River (rio Tejo for all you Portuguese speakers) and was very important for protecting Lisbon from would be invaders from attacks from the water.  You can walk through the tower's narrow halls and inspect the old canons.  I often think about places like this as tree houses for grown-ups where you get to pretend like you're valiantly protecting your city from pirates, or whatever.  It's fun to pretend.  And even if you decide not to go in, the surrounding gardens are nice to walk through.     

Across the way is St. Jerome's monastery. It is incredible.  Truly.  The workmanship is breathtaking and the calm and serenity that you find there is perfectly quieting.  With all the moving about and rushing around to catch your train, bus or plane while you're on vacation, it's always nice to find a place where you can just sit and take a few minutes to appreciate your latest adventure.  For me, St. Jerome's is my favourite place to do this in Lisbon.  I love to sit in the courtyard to just be there.  

And since you're in the neighbourhood and all that calming energy can work up an appetite, you'd might as well head over to the the coffee shop and taste those delicious Pasteis de Belem, more commonly called Pasteis de Nata (custard tarts) from whence they came. They are the perfect balance of all things delicious and they'll give you a small package of cinnamon to go along with it... mmmm   You'll know you're in the right place 'cause you'll see the blue awning and a line up of people trying to get a taste.  Don't be intimidated by the line.  If you're doing take-away it moves really quickly.  There's a nice park just across the way and the tram stop is right there too.  The tasty treat will make waiting for the tram a much more pleasant experience. 

On this trip we also visited the art museum.  It's a relatively small collection, but the gallery is beautiful and it was a wide variety of pieces on display.  You can probably see the entire gallery in 2 hours.  We chose to walk to the gallery from our hostel near the Rossio.  It's a little bit of a far walk with very little to see along the way.  I wouldn't suggest you walk it.  Especially the day after enjoying the Lisbon nightlife and crawling into bed at dawn for a quick snooze.

The last time I was in Lisbon was two years ago and this time I was with my friends.  We stayed at the Rossio hostel again on my recommendation.  It really is a great place in a super location. I arrived in Lisbon and headed straight for the hostel where my friends were already waiting for me with a glass of wine in hand.  Well isn't that a nice way to say hello and a great way to start an adventure?  We headed off to Barrio Alto, which is just up the steps from our hostel.  As with my previous visit to Lisbon, this area was buzzing.  There are bars lining both sides of the street and you got into a bar you order your beverage and are then welcome to head outside.  You can walk freely from one establishment to another with a drink in hand.  This is the kind of non-pretentious nightlife I love.  A bar playing rock music will be two doors away from one playing house, and everyone gets along as they pass through. 

The next day we hopped on the train for a short trip to the beach in Cascais.  How great is it to be in a city and after a 30-45 minute train ride you're in a beach town? The weather was perfect and we were happy to be on the beach to sleep off the night before.  We had packed a lunch from the grocery store by the hostel and had ourselves a little picnic.  It was like being transported to a whole other vacation away from the bustle of the city.  Now Cascais hasn't totally capitalized on its beach drawing power, which is part of it's appeal, but we are seeing a few more beach front cafe's and bars opening which I think will add a whole new dimension to this area and if they're smart, it won't ruin its charm.

I was also able to enjoy the sounds of Fado again on this trip and introduce my friends to this unique style of music.   We happened to be in time to catch a free live performance outside the Fado Museum in the Alfama district of Lisbon.  There are many small places in the area that offer dinner and show deals.  My first experience was in a tiny spot called "O Fado Maior".  It was really unique in that the women who were performing would leave the stage and head back to the kitchen to finish preparing our dinner.  It was fantastic.  If you're interested in hearing some Fado while in Lisbon this is defininetly the place to do it.  The buildings are old, the roads are more like pathways that feel as though they're taking you in circles, but the sangria is always ready, the food is delicious and the music is fantastic.  The draw-back is that it can be rather touristy, so watch out for pick pockets and make sure to check your bill is correct before paying.

What to eat:
Both of these things originate from the Lisbon area
bacalhau a bras: cod fish with shredded potatoes
pasteis de Belem: custard tarts
What to drink:
As with most of Portugal there is no shortage of wine and the local beers Sagres and Super Bock are pretty tasty too.
A ginginha is the local liquer.  You drink it out of a small glass and there's a small stand next to the Rossio square where you can stop by for a taste.  (Personally, I think it tastes like cough syrup, but travel should be about trying new things, so bottoms up!)

Where to stay:
The Rossio hostel: http://www.rossiohostel.com
It's clean, convenient and the ladies who make breakfast are really sweet. 

What's that sound? 
It's Fado.  If you'd like an introduction, Dulce Pontes and Mariza are probably a good place to start. 

Boa Viagem! Divirta-se