Saturday, November 30, 2013

The sea, outside

It was truly delightful to go to the sea today-- a sunny, mid-50s November 30th.

The round trip train to Cascais cost something like $6 round trip and took about 30 minutes each way. That's quite a fair price for a little diversion that offers some stunning coastal views along the way, not to mention a bit of fairy tale architecture.

Cascais and neighboring Estoril are very touristy. Even still I recommend a visit. I went for the ride, some fresh seafood, and a stroll along the sea in the sun. (Ask and you shall receive.) And I'd do it again.

I also found a nice crafts market to browse, and supported local artists by picking up a few gifts.

At O Poeta, I ordered the polvo (octopus). I ordered it in Foz up north, too. There, it had been served boiled, then chilled, sliced, and floating in a dish of olive oil and garlic, with pickled veggies for garnish. That was goooood. Today, however, I was a little taken aback when a whole octopus arrived, warm, atop a bed of boiled potatoes and spinach. Hmmm. It wasn't bad. It was just, perhaps, a little to close to the "before," and I prefer my food to stay closer to "after." I ate half of it anyway, but that was plenty. I mean.... a whole octopus!

But as the light faded a bit it was time to head back and get ready for my morning flight.

Tomorrow, December 1, Chicago, 32 F--maybe!

I strongly suspect I'll be back in Lisbon... and that's all I'll say, for now.

Paulistinha

The sea inside steals the show

Sleeping until lunch and then heading to a mini wine tasting at ViniPortugal: this is not a bad way to start the day.

Travel has changed so much since my first backpacking experience. Now we have global gadgets that remind us where to go, tell us how to get there, and tell us all the backstory we could hope to have--anywhere, instantly. Except, I don't have a global wi-fi package on my gadget and I forgot to sync my calendar before leaving the apartment. Therefore I don't have that sketch of the day and basics about the most efficient route to take between sights.

I shall have to rely on my wits--like the good ol' days.

This is nice. Really, it's good to go gadget-free sometimes.

The first non-alcohol-related stop was the Oceanário de Lisboa. The aquarium was on my "if I get to it" list. I'm glad I got to it! I paid the extra few Euros to see the temporary exhibit floor (featuring sea turtles), as well as the permanent (2) floors. What an impressive building and arrangement!

In the turtle exhibit, the highlight was the seating nook built into the tank... Imagine you are in a sleek sports car. Now imagine the path that the air follows, as you speed along: up over the hood, over the roof, down the back windshield, and off the trunk. So, this nook was the sports car and the aquarium bent around it like the air flow. There was a playful stingray just over my head for a long time, fish screamed by at top speed, and a giant sea turtle napped at my feet.

This would have been enough, for me, to justify the price of admission (approximately $20). But the turtles were just the beginning. (I almost wrote "just the appetizer" but that would be politically incorrect and in violation of my affinity for them.) Then you enter the permanent exhibit space from the third floor and you are standing in front of the main tank. It is very, very large. It holds your general assortment of sharks, stingrays, chimaeras, and bony fish. My favorite: the Ocean Sunfish.

Standing in front of this huge wall (of acrylic? tempered glass?), you have an opportunity to stand very close, which brings everything into proportion. The main aquarium provides two-story viewing from all four sides of the tank, in addition to peek-a-boo cutouts throughout the visitors' "journey." Adding to this spectacle are the four corners of the oceanarium, which feature tanks specific to various climates like tropical and Antarctic.

Just go there. Tri-legal. Super-bacana. Awesome.

And, at the end of the route, they present a "behind the scenes" video. First the audience is captivated by explanations of what, how, and how often the various species are fed. Then they discuss medical care--even showing a clip of a fish surgery: who knew?! Then they show the mega-operations behind running the facilities. (They import a crazy amount of sea salt from Israel and blend it with fresh water to manufacture ideal sea water!) Lastly, they discuss their research, education, and conservation initiatives.

Now that I work at a museum, I can appreciate the challenges museums are facing in staying relevant with advancing technology. The key is to engage the visitor, to bring them into the experience. At the Oceanário, man, they nailed it! But they also told me about the important things that I didn't get to see, and why I should care.

Oh, and the Oceanário is in the Parque das Nações complex. There is a great deal more to see. I also enjoyed the sculpture gardens and creative fountains on the grounds. A bonus for me: The Chimarrão Churrascaria just outside the oceanarium. And they served coração!

I head back across town to Bairro Alto for evening wine tasting at Solar dos Vinhos, but felt I was underdressed as I approached. Rather, I meandered the winding streets as they filled up for Friday night revelry. What I had read proved true: this neighborhood really does host all types at night. Older, younger, well-heeled or grungy, and everything in between. There are a handful of narrow pedestrian streets with little bars and restaurants of all sorts dotted along them. Occupancy caps out around 50 (like sardines), or 30 (for the less feverish places). Music pours out from open doors. It's like window shopping for the perfect vibe. If you like the vibe, you go in, sit if you can find a spot, order a drink, and relax. Maybe you order another, maybe you move on and repeat.

My vibe was A Tasca do Chico. Turns out it was Anthony Bourdain's vibe too--his picture is on the wall of fame, in good company--but I didn't know it when I walked in. There was also an Internacional centenário scarf on the ceiling.

Who needs a global gadget to find a good vibe?

Almost lost that good vibe when I returned "home" to find the souvenirs shop--my front door--all shuttered up. I stood on the street in a moment of panic, near tears, until I remembered that the apartment owner has some loose affiliation with a hostel around the corner. It turns out that a guy there used to rent this apartment, so he told me the trick to getting in. Phew.

Then there was just the sea outside... Cascais...

Friday, November 29, 2013

Sem preservativos!

Now that I have your attention, Portuguese speakers...

Actually, I wanted to mention how delightful wine is sem conservantes, without preservatives. English speakers: preservativos does not translate to preservatives, as we might guess. Rather, it means condoms. The title of this post, therefore, is "No condoms!"

I am sorry to disappoint you but that is as sexy as this post gets.

It's lovely to enjoy a nice glass of vinho tinto (or three--you know me by now) and not have any trace of the decision the following morning.

Yesterday I went to the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian. I expected this to be a highlight of my visit to Lisbon, both for the wealth of positive reviews and because, in my mind, I had likened it to the Instituto Ricard Brennand in Recife. (That link really loses something without the visual aids. Arg, I'll fix those broken photo links.)

Frankly, I was disappointed. Calouste Gulbenkian's life story interested me more than his collection.  His collection is impressive and it was very generous of him to bequeath so many objets d'art to the nation of Portugal. But sheerly in terms of awe--for vastness, diversity, display--Ricardo Brennand wins, no contest.

Given that my museum visit was shorter than expected, I popped in the the 8-story El Corte Inglés nearby. I'm not one who derives pleasure from shopping. This is a bit silly, but I once went to this department chain in Spain because I desperately needed new sandals during a trip. I was looking for the cheapest tide-me-over I could find. Sure enough, on the lower level I discovered a clearance section with a cute pair of black sandals in my size. As I recall, they may have cost $10. They ended up being the best pair of shoes I ever had. I was so disappointed to retire them.

So with positive memories of a shopping experience twelve years ago, in a different country... I figured I owed a visit to this store again.

I probably won't feel that way next time. I was looking at a little bag with a sweet quote in Portuguese and a little illustration when a saleswoman pounced. Uggg. She grabbed the bag from my hands, working feverishly to explain all of its benefits: "Look! It has four edges and one of them is open! There are handles! Here is a pocket--that's nice!" She really wanted me to converse with her about the bag. I just wanted her to leave me in peace to browse the alternatives. Eventually I did say, pseudo-curtly, "can I hold it?" I fought off the urge to rip it from her hands, roll my eyes, and storm off. I did buy the bag--but my fond memory of the store has been replaced with that of a haranguing nag.

By the way, this anecdote happened on Thanksgiving.
I am a non-contributing zero.
(Seriously, if you haven't seen comedian Louis CK's bit "Everything is amazing and nobody's happy,"  please Google it at once.)

Back to reality. Meandering back to Baixa, I passed the lovely Rossio Station. Nearby, Anthony Bourdain tells me, is A Ginjinha. Obviously I had to go there. As I watch the video linked herein, I realize that 5th-generation owner, José Paiva, served me my ginjinha, with 3 cherries.

I am totally going back there tomorrow.

My wander was quickly sobering though. I read that the very square that I was merrymaking in (in front of Igreja São Domingos) was home to the Lisbon Massacre (of 1,500+ Jews) in 1506, among other tragedies during the Inquisition some thirty years later. I read, too, that you can see where the interior columns split (eerily verified)--when the heavy stone roof and tops of the walls crashed in on the full church during All Saints Day mass in 1755. It was the same scenario all over the city, and there are a lot of churches. What wasn't destroyed by the quake was likely consumed by the fires that followed. I mentioned earlier that Lisbon lost 1/3 of its population in the events. Stunning.

And that leaves me with today... which I'll get to tomorrow!

Boa noite!





Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Because Bourdain

In addition to the quirky entrance of my apartment, during breakfast I noticed a lovely old wooden picture frame on the wall near the corner of the living room. It's empty. Hmm-k.

I headed to the Belém neighborhood this morning with two objectives: to visit Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (a monastery from the mid-1400s), and to eat a pastel de nata at Pastéis de Belém. Both of these are very worthwhile pursuits.

Not only was I impressed by the architecture of the monastery's church, but also by the fact that it is older than my country. While I've stood in older places before, something about the magnitude of Portuguese innovation and achievement gripped me. In this same place, now-famous explorers paused to pray before boarding caravels to hopefully see shores of yet-unknown lands. Phenomenal, when you think about it.

Speaking of phenomenal, I didn't expect to be blown away by the pastel... I'm just not that into custard. Mas bah Tchê! Incredible! Right up there with the Ruszwurm Kreme in Budapest. Neither should be missed if you find yourself within a continent or two.

For the next culinary delight, I followed Anthony Bourdain's lead and found my way to Cervejaria Ramiro.  You know I'm quite particular when it comes to seafood. I eat sushi and  things that come in certain shells. No shrimp, nothing with scales that has been cooked. But when the catch is this fresh and this hyped, one must allow for a little adventure. I started with baby clams in garlic and olive oil broth. (Olive oil, here, is otherworldly.) Then, a lagostina (crayfish), boiled and plain--it didn't need the mayonnaise they served alongside. Then--and here's where I started to just go with it--I ate some percebes, or goose barnacles. Once sucked from the shell, these chewy cylinders taste like the sea itself. And finally, since this was all going so swimmingly [snare! cymbal crash!], I ordered just a few of the white prawns on the advice of the waiter. Self-imposed rules be damned. I was extremely novice at extracting the flesh, but I ate them, brains and all.  I finished my wine with "dessert": prego (a small steak pounded thin with fresh garlic, smooshed inside a soft roll, and squirted with the cheap mustard). Really. Go there.

I walked it all off roaming the zig-zag streets of Alfama.

Why isn't everyone coming to Lisbon?

Paulistinha

[Ugg. Blogger and iPad: not so compatible. Sorry for weird font colors and occasional typos. I'll upload pictures when I get back to Chicago and fix the weird stuff.]

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Oh, Lisboa!

Three hours after being whisked from Porto, my train arrived in Santa Apolónia station. A short taxi ride later and I found my temporary apartment in Baixa. Well, after a few puzzling moments on the pedestrian Rua de São Nicolau, looking for number 42.

Exit through the gift shop.

And enter. Literally. Walk into the tiny souvenir shop. Hidden beneath the various futebol jerseys is a narrow doorway that leads to a dimly lit staircase.

The proprietor of said souvenir shop, who speaks little English and even less Portuguese, directs me up two flights, where "she" is waiting.

Perhaps it's residual skepticism from my time in Brazil but this feels super-dodgy.

Ever curious, I climb... breathing a hesitant "uh, hello?" every few steps, until I hear Felipa respond, "Yes! I am here waiting for you!"

From the foyer chandelier, the apartment exceeds every expectation. Huge rooms (and more of them than i thought--it has two additional twin sleeping quarters aside from the master bedroom), twelve foot ceilings, seven gigantic windows that offer amazing light and views, lovely 5-inch plank flooring, decorative molding and ceiling detail throughout, but completely modernized in appliances and furnishings.

I want it.

As I gushed about how neat the apartment--indeed the whole neighborhood--was, Felipa explained the different look and feel to Baixa, compared to the other neighborhoods in Lisbon. "Baixa" means "low" and the area sits flat and low, adjacent to the river, with pedestrian streets laid out in a grid system. The surrounding hills contrast with winding, narrow streets and tiny staircases curling almost randomly throughout. Baixa was completely leveled by the 1755 earthquake (which reportedly also claimed the lives of one-third of the city's inhabitants). Reconstructed, cleverly, by the first Marquês de Pombal, the "new" architecture is known as Pombaline.

Baixa is almost exclusively tourists by night. It's expensive for Lisboetas to live here, and many prefer the modern conveniences afforded by newer construction on the outskirts of Lisbon to a costly retrofit of an (albeit charming) 18th century building. Despite being the heart of the tourist district, I'm glad I'm staying here--as much for the apartment itself as for the absolute convenience of transit and location, making everything easily accessible. Plus, unlike tourist areas in some cities around the world, it's quite safe, even at night. The biggest threat seems to be pickpockets, and they'd only get my Carmex and map.

After depositing my luggage I was off for a quick loop around the neighborhood. At Praça do Comércio I almost lost it. Lisboa is beautiful.

It was after 4pm, so taking advantage of the little remaining daylight I boarded the famed elétrico 28.

Normally, I would happily while away all of my days in a new place with aimless wandering... seeing what there is to see. But suddenly I knew this was serious. I needed a plan to maximize the coming days.

I de-stressed with a hot soak in the big tub.

I bought red wine, port, brie, salami, bread and chocolates and installed myself at the dining room table with an unread guidebook, my iPad, a map and a pen. Anthony Bourdain helped.

What more could a girl want?