Lisbon 2011

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While I was in Lisbon, I posted to Google Plus. These are the posts, somewhat cleaned up.


So why am I sitting in the Toronto Airport (and utterly amazed that it's really true - free Wifi!) waiting for a flight to Lisbon? If you know me, you know I like to tell stories ...

About three months ago my boss decided we needed a page on the Toronto Public Library website for travel books. Sandra did a mock-up and gave it to me because I'm the travel guy. She laid it out with big headings for each country, smaller headings below for popular city destinations in that country - so under Russia were Moscow and St. Petersburg, and under Spain were Madrid and Lisbon.

I had a week vacation time booked at the end of September, but I came up with this grand plan to drive around Lake Superior - sounds great, but I'd definitely need more than a week. About three and a half weeks prior to departure I asked my boss if I could have another week. It took a couple days for her to answer. In the meantime one of our patrons emailed to let us know that Lisbon is in Portugal, not Spain - a minor detail that had slipped right by Sandra and myself. Shortly after I moved Lisbon back to its rightful place, I was informed that I couldn't have another week's vacation. I was so upset I went straight home and booked a flight to Lisbon. I mean, when you move a city several hundred kilometers, it's good to check that it arrived. I'm a librarian: I believe in primary sources. Sandra says she's telling patrons that TPL is sending a fact-checker to verify, just because we're that dedicated ...

The less humorous but more honest explanation is that it was $500 cheaper for air and hotel than any other European city I'd looked at recently, and sounded more interesting as well. I'm pretty sure Lake Superior will still be there next year, and I'll plan my vacation time better. Maybe it's a sign of advancing age, but I find it really, really amazing that I can board a plane in Toronto and step back off that plane seven hours later in Lisbon.


Being a mechanical engineer and librarian, my idea of "fun" may strike some as a little odd. The two highlights of my day were riding the Elevador de Santa Justa and walking the Aqueduto das Águas Livres (the "Free Water Aqueduct"). That was pretty damn cool: they've opened a 1.5km run of the aqueduct to foot traffic. Lisbon is on very hilly ground and aqueducts tend to be very flat, so this one is up to 70m above the ground, making for a cool technical achievement and good views.

I had my first Bacalhau: as the guidebook(s) point out, it's more than a little ironic that a major ocean port should have developed a lasting (at least a couple hundred years) love for salted and/or dried cod from distant seas (Newfoundland was mentioned). And the pateis de nata (custard tarts) are every bit as good as promised: I've never liked custard so much.

Many years ago a friend brought me a bottle of port from Portugal. I wasn't the port fan then that I am now, but I loved that bottle. I nursed it along for a couple years, enjoying every sip. In researching my trip here I dredged up this memory (it's 22 years old, dredging was required), and realised I didn't know the brand. I thought it might be "Ferreira Family Reserve" or similar, and I'm pleased to find that "Ferreira" is a relatively common brand here. I haven't seen any "Reserve"-branded bottles yet, but I'll look. The quality of the brand may have changed or my tastes may have shifted, but the quest will be fun and there's certainly no shortage of other ports to try should Ferreira fail to please.


Today I headed for Sintra, a hill town near Lisbon. I started at the Palácio Nacional: between fighting bus tour groups at every step and this being a not-so impressive palace, it wasn't a great experience. Fortunate, then, that it was the first of the day: the rest were fantastic. From there I went to Castelo dos Mouros, a long-abandoned fort on top of a couple hills with fantastic views. Next up was Palácio de Pena, the first of two major follies for the day. Rough Guide refers to the contents as "a compelling riot of kitsch," and they're not kidding: beauty and grandeur occasionally tumbling over into the absurd. And finally to Quinta da Regaleira, the second folly. There's a lovely mansion on the grounds, but the thing that got me through the door was a picture of "the Initiation Well." This is a 40 meter deep, six meter wide hole in the ground, with a spiral staircase descending into the dimness. But it gets better: running off from the bottom are various tunnels, some quite long, that pop out in various places on the grounds. The man who had the place built was interested in the Masons and alchemy, and had some very odd (but fascinating) inspirations. The gardens were beautiful too.

I returned to Lisbon and had dinner at A Berlenga: I had Açorda, bread soup with seafood. As they serve it, "sludge" might be a better term (not that I have any problem with that). The server lifted the lid when he brought it to the table and mashed in the raw egg yolk sitting in the centre. "Seafood" in this case meant shrimp and mussels, and it was loaded with garlic and cilantro. Excellent. I closed the evening with some Ginjinha, locally made cherry brandy. Really good stuff: a lot of fruit-flavoured alcohols suffer from the fruit tasting artificial - even when it's natural - but this was a mellow and wonderful blend.


I started today at Museu Calouste Gulbenkian. Ain't philanthropy wonderful? He made his fortune in oil, amassed a huge and spectacular art collection, and shared it with the world after his death. I'm afraid the Egyptian, Mesopotamian and ancient Chinese stuff was all pretty much lost on me ... And the Turkish stuff - well, I felt I'd seen more and better when I was in Istanbul a couple years ago, although the Gulbenkian is actually very good in that area. But that's okay, because the Gulbenkian collection is extremely wide-ranging, including three Rodins I'd never seen and a fourth I love (one of the Burghers of Calais). My interest in art starts, approximately, in 1800 and starts to taper out around 1930. My favourite piece at the Gulbenkian was "Diana" by Jean Antoine-Houdon, who I'd never heard of before. Not that that's unusual. Apparently I'm not the only one to notice this lovely sculpture: the Gulbenkian had chosen it for the cover of their hand-out brochure. Second place would go to pretty much anything in the room full of marvelous Art Nouveau jewelry by René Lalique. Also worth a mention is the almost pornographic "Love of the Centaurs" by Peter Paul Reuben (my 1800 cut-off is anything but absolute).

The associated Centre of Modern Art was a bit of a bust for me - odd, I usually like those. The shared grounds (with the Gulbenkian) are gorgeous. Then it was off to the Se Cathedral, large but dull. And up the hill to Castelo de São Jorge, where the esplanade dazzled with fantastic views and a peacefulness absolutely not to be expected amidst dozens of other tourists: a lovely place. Towards the end of the day the air was filled with sports team cheering and chanting: as the people making the noise were young and in matching shirts, I assumed a local football (soccer) team had had a win. But later, after getting too close while taking photos of one of these groups, I received my own personal serenade (in Portuguese): they're university freshmen, and they would sing to me until I gave them "coin." They were happy to have their picture taken, and it was all so absurd and amusing I was happy to give them a couple Euros for booze. Interesting to see that the stupid traditions are supported the world over. I was hazed like that, and I'm guessing you were too.

I ended the day at Solar do Vinho do Porto Lisboa, the Lisbon branch of the Port Wine Institute. Port wine by the glass, running the gamut from €1.50 for Ferreira White (I mention that one in particular because I tried it), all the way up to 1961 Krohn Colheita at €26.20. I also tried Noval Black and 2005 Burmester LBV, but I won't burden you with my thoroughly uneducated opinions of them - suffice to say I enjoyed it. But the real decision, what bottles to carry home ... well, Port loses out: I'll be carrying three bottles from A Ginginha (see yesterday's note) unless something changes significantly. Canada Customs at their most vindictive (umm, excuse me - "protective" or "sin-taxing," I'm no longer sure which) charges 100% on bottles over your two bottle limit (I know this, I verified for whisky and tequila). A Ginginha charges €9.80 per bottle, and even at 100% tax, these are still easily worth $30 a bottle to me. I can get comparable port in Canada: I don't think I can get cherry brandy anything like this good.


Sometimes it's the little things that get you - you expect the language and food to be different, and you've read up on the sights ... I've grown accustomed to having two single beds stuffed together in the room in European hotels. But the elevator ... I could have dealt with the broom closet size, or the manually operated pull-out door, but what really (still) kind of freaks me out is the lack of an inner door. You get to watch the walls and doors slide by.

On the recommendation of a co-worker recently returned from Portugal, I grabbed a train out to Queluz this morning. With the understanding that I don't have a great ear for languages (sad in an inveterate traveler), I would transliterate the name's pronunciation to "Kelloozsh." Beautiful palace: reminded me a lot of Sanssouci (Potsdam, Germany). Better yet, it had sphinxes too - they weren't a highlight for anyone else and not as good as the one at Sanssouci, but I like them. I didn't really have a plan after that visit, so some flipping through the guidebook was called for. I had lunch at "Bom Jardim, Rei dos Frangos" where a half a spit-roasted chicken is €6.40. I've never quite "got" that idea before, as the few I'd tried had either been dry or lacking in flavour. Now I get it: damn that was excellent.

I ended up at the Museu do Chiado - very much my period, since they do essentially 1850 to 1950. Not a huge collection but I enjoyed it, with a couple stand-outs: "A Viúva" ("The Widow" if the Rough Guide is correct) by António Teixeira Lopes, clearly a fan of Rodin, although more naturalistic. And "Raiz, caule, folhas, flores e frutos" by Alberto Carneiro which undoubtedly qualifies as the most disturbing non-specific sculpture I've ever seen. It's purely abstract ... but it looks flat-out obscene. Or nasty. I'm really not sure. Either way, it surely made an impression. I wonder if it made an impression on Geiger before he did "Alien?"

Last stop for the day was the Oceanarium (if you follow this geographically, you'll see there was no plan at all ...). Rough Guide says it's the second-largest aquarium in the world, but fails to mention which one holds the prize (Update: a friend looked it up and apparently it's the one in Atlanta, Georgia). Having been to the one in San Francisco, it's probably in the running: they have a HUGE tank. But I think this one is presented better: all the other displays are around the central tank (two storeys tall, large enough for multiple sharks and manta rays, and thousands of other fish), and each view is different. Once I came face to face with a grouper that weighed more than I did who seemed even more fascinated with us than we were with him: he just hung there staring at us. And, in other displays, they had sea otters, poison dart frogs, penguins ... Definitely a very cool place.


Ah, the minutiae ... Riding the metro is easy, once you get the hang of the machines. They have an "English" button, and are very similar to machines in other cities. You buy your first Viva Viagem card for €0.50, then charge it up with one or several fares. As you enter and exit the metro, you pass the card over a sensor at the gate and you're debited appropriately. Better yet, the Viva Viagem can carry fares for not only the metro, but also the commuter train system, the trams, and the buses. Sounds great, right? Yes and no. The Viva Viagem card isn't actually all that bright. It can only carry one kind of fare at a time (even thought single fares for three of the four cost exactly the same). So when I exhausted the Sintra-Rossio commuter fare on my first VV card, I charged it up for the metro. Great! But the next day I wanted to use the commuter trains again (to go to Queluz), but I still had metro fares on the VV ... no go. So now I had two of them. And neither of them worked on the tram this morning, so I had to pay €2.85 cash to get to Belem. But after asking at the tourist information office, I went to the Post Office(!) to get tram fares, so it only cost €1.05 on the way back. Same as the metro and bus. But they can't live on the same card, or at least not a Viva Viagem. I've seen people weilding other types of cards: I bet they're smarter, but they probably cost more. (Update: to confuse matters further, a Post-Office-purchased tram fare worked on the metro on my last day.)

I started the day in a little cafe near the hotel, where I had a pasteis de nata and a "coffee" standing up, like a proper Lisboeta. "Coffee" is in quotes because to them that means a shot of espresso (really - we're talking a liquid ounce here). I'll see if I can figure out how to order a regular coffee or cappuccino later ... Then off to Torre de Belém by tram: originally a defensive tower at the entrance to the river mouth/harbour of Lisbon. Distinctively Manueline in style, surprisingly attractive for a defensive emplacement. I get the impression that it used to be 100-200 meters from the shore: no longer. The land has been reclaimed, and the tourists walk right into the tower.

300 meters away is the "Monument to the Discoveries," a huge memorial commemorating the glory days of the Portuguese empire and naval discoveries ... and wow, they did that one right. It's definitely grandiose, but in the best possible way: it's attractive and successfully emblematic. I really enjoyed it.

After lunch I went to the very large Berardo Collection of modern art. Typical of the collection is the Andy Warhol can of Campbell's Soup: dear lord I hate that thing, but I took a picture anyway as it's become one of the great icons of American society. The collection wasn't always to my taste, but it's still a really good collection with several things I greatly enjoyed.

Across the street is the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a massive church with a gorgeous cloister in a mash-up Gothic/Manueline style. The church is awe-inspiring through its sheer size, but I thought it a little chunky (ah, but the fan-vaulted ceilings ...). But the cloister ... well, I could have stayed there all day. Stunning. I hope my photos can begin to do it justice.

Next stop was the Museu da Electricidade. Housed in an old coal-fired power plant, the setting is really awesome: most of the original generating equipment is still in place, and dissected for your viewing pleasure. Unfortunately, the displays are a bit weak, not really living up to the setting.

They're still torturing frosh all over the city: humiliate them and they'll bond as a class over their shared suffering ... and they'll probably even be proud of it. This presents the occasional photo op, but the upper years were crowding in huge numbers around A Ginginha. Which is really weird from a Canadian perspective: A Ginginha has approximately enough room for three drinking patrons, so all the rest of us take our plastic cups and drink in the square outside. Or, in the case of the upper classmen, buy liter bottles and serve it to their friends and the freshmen in a public space. Now that's a real "Not in Canada" moment. I bought three one liter bottles of cherry brandy: wish me luck getting them back to Canada. Air Transat broke something I would have considered unbreakable on the way over (part of the head of my monopod). I may have spectacular-smelling laundry when I return!


Let's hear it for Hieronymus Bosch: mad as a hatter and four hundred years ahead of his time. I wasn't sure what to do today, so I took the advice of both guidebooks, which both highly recommended the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. Not my time period so I didn't rush there, but I did take note that they had a Bosch painting. And I'm very glad I got out there. If they'd had a single room with the Bosch in it and a sign pointing to the gift shop, the visit would have been worthwhile. They have Bosch's triptych ot the "Temptations of Saint Anthony," and it's pure genius. Incredibly sick and twisted genius from 1500. I spent a lot of time staring at this, and (as well as thinking about his madness), it occurred to me that Salvador Dalí really didn't do much that Bosch didn't do first ... The rest of the collection would have been quite satisfactory even without the Bosch, it's a very large and very good collection. But the Bosch was definitely the highlight.

In the afternoon I went to Basílica da Estrela, a very big church with a lovely dome on the top. Like most churches here, it's Catholic. The interior is big, but I didn't like it much: big tasteless sculptures, all the interior stone painted in various colours. But they had a surprise for me: go to one of the little niches off the entrance, and a dodgy looking guy takes €5 off you and lets you up to the roof (which is stone, almost flat, and has a massive stone balustrade). Not only did I get great photos of the dome I couldn't decently shoot from ground level, I got up one of the bell towers, and I got great views of the entire neighbourhood. And I even got to walk around the inside of the dome. Really cool.

I finally found the port I've been searching for, and I was close to the right name. It's Ferreira Dona Antonia Reserva Porto. I saw it in a store window. So ... I climbed the staggering Elevador do Glória hill on foot once again to get to the Port Wine Institute and have exactly one drink. It's actually fairly decent stuff, but not quite so good that I'm going to throw over any of my already purchased Ginjinha (which from my point of view is a fairly satisfactory conclusion to the quest).

Perhaps on the flight back I'll have the strength to tackle a discussion about bullfighting. The Portuguese bullfight is less notorious than its Spanish cousin, but I'm not sure it deserves that break. My hotel is a block from Campo Pequeno, one of the main bullrings in the country, and Thursday was (I think) the last show of the season, so it kind of came up for me.


The last day of a trip is always a clean-up day, which means multiple transit trips to several parts of the city. (I don't much like Lisbon's trams, but their metro is excellent.) By now I've done all the stuff I consider most important, and I'm picking off stuff I didn't have time to do on the first pass. This has been my practice, and it's one of the better things Rick Steves says: never leave stuff that's important to you until late in the trip: if they close for maintenance or the hours change from what's listed in the guidebook and you get there to find it closed on your last day ... you'll be heartbroken. So I don't mind my messy clean-up days. They're also usually my most relaxed, because I know I've covered the important stuff. And I get a good meal, because I usually replay the best meal of the trip to say goodbye to the city.

This morning I went back out to Parque das Nações to ride the cable car. Sounds silly, but it's my kind of thing and I really enjoyed it.

I hadn't got my church fix on this trip, so off I went to a totally different area of town to see Santa Engrácia - not really a church anymore, but a national monument? Lovely, and you can get up to both the dome and the roof, both very cool. I was a little surprised to find the dome actually got me slightly dizzy - I'm not usually sensitive to heights, but this was very high and the path inside the dome is a bit of an overhang. One of the other folks walking around stuck to the wall like glue for the entire circuit. This is a seriously large church.

Between there and the next nearby church I was headed for there were several streets worth of flea market. 100 or so people were out with their blankets or tables and assortments of junk (from old cellphones to plumbing to used clothing to bad cameras ... and believe me, I know bad cameras). I love markets like that: I don't know if it really gives me a feel for the city, but it seems like it does ...

The next church was São Vicente da Fora, a nice church with an impressive monastery attached: huge, with azulejos (painted tiles) throughout. The latter left me cold - but once again, up to the roof and I was happy. Great views, including over the somewhat lower down Santa Engrácia.

Back to the Bairro Alto area to see the Convento do Carmo, a convent destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. Huge arches pointed to the sky and a museum in the remaining intact chapels. I got in free because there was a public choir concert - a lovely image, a choir singing in a ruined church that's open to the sky.

And back to the Port Wine Institute. I swear it's research not alcoholism! This time I tried Sandeman dry white, Ferreira Duque de Bragança 20 Y.O. and Burmester Colheita 1996. The Colheita was a (interesting, slightly spicy) bust, but the Sandeman was nice ("dry" only by comparison to normal port, it's still quite sweet), and the Duque de Bragança was really, really good (also the most expensive of the bunch at €4.70 a glass ... and well worth it). For once I noticed the nose: incredibly rich and lovely, as is the taste.

As a postscript to yesterday, the LCBO now carries Ferreira Dona Antonia Reserva. Sadly, they don't carry Duque de Bragança.

I'll be back in Toronto tomorrow, and I look forward to that. Coming home is almost as good as going away. I'll see most of you soon.

The Portuguese Bullfight

I'm not very familiar with Spanish Bullfighting. My understanding of it doesn't extend much beyond the matadors with red capes taunting the bull, putting short spears into its back, and eventually finishing it off with a sword. My hotel in Lisbon was one block away from Campo Pequeno, the city's main (only?) bullfighting ring. And the Thursday night of my week-long visit was the last day of the season. I gave some serious thought to going to see the show, but I'm really not big on seeing animals tortured and I was also pretty sure I'd lose a friend or two in Toronto if I admitted to going. In my ambivalence, I didn't pursue it. But on a whim on Thursday night I turned on the TV in the hotel room for the first and last time - and what should be being broadcast, live, but the show from Campo Pequeno.

Here's how they do it in Portugal. First, the bull is let into the ring; they've sawed maybe 30cm off the ends of the bull's horns, no pointy bits. A matador comes out (everyone involved is flamboyantly dressed) and makes several passes with the bull, getting it to charge his cape and then evading it - I think to tire the bull out a little, and to cover the entry of the cavaleiros (a horseback rider). The rider seems to be the big draw, and it certainly requires skill to do what he does. He provokes the bull, allowing it to chase him and the horse around the ring, keeping it within inches of the horse so it will follow longer. Then he periodically makes a spectacular pass by the charging bull, leaving it with a short spear (up to six or seven of them eventually) embedded in its back. This is a difficult move, convincing the bull to charge one way and convincing your horse to suddenly cross the bull's path at exactly the right time to lean in and plant a spear without being broadsided by 500+ kilos of charging bull.

Then it gets really weird. The horseback rider leaves, to much applause. The matador comes out again, and while the bull is distracted, a group of eight men, the forcados, get into the ring. The matador exits, and the leader of the forcados puts on a silly hat (seriously: brightly coloured, conical, with a pom-pom on the top) and starts advancing on the bull one step at a time, while calling out some sort of formal routine consisting of a sing-song and possibly insults of the bull's masculinity (it really seemed that way, but how would I know? it's all in Portuguese). When he gets close enough, if the bull hasn't already charged, he'll make a short charge at the bull himself - and then stop and prepare himself for impact. This guy then takes the charging bull in the chest and stomach - this is called a "pega de caras" or "face catch." He deliberately goes over the head of the bull and I think trying to wrap his arms around its neck. Now the other seven guys are all swarming the bull, catching the horns, head, shoulders, and one yanking the tail about. The aim is to "subdue" the bull, bring it to a standstill, and if they do, the bullfight is over. All the men, except the tail guy, release their holds and exit the ring. The tail guy gets a spectacular short circular ride as he drags his heels and the bull turns, trying to get at him. When the bull pauses, this guy will also quickly exit the field. At that point, the fight is done: several cows enter through one gate and immediately exit through another, and the bull follows them off.

But if the bull isn't brought to a standstill ... I watched three fights, and one of the bulls still had a lot of energy left. The lead man didn't slow him down in the slightest and his team couldn't get a grip. The leader was thrown and went under the bull - I think he was kicked but not stepped on. The matador came out, and the team of forcados had to reassemble and do the whole routine again. The leader's face appeared to have had a couple encounters with the spears in the bull's back, and I'd be surprised if he didn't have a couple broken ribs. But he did the dance, took the hit, stopped the bull, and did his bleeding victory lap.

I had thought I might like it if the bull won, but I found that wasn't any more enjoyable. Even when the guy taking the hit is a testosterone-driven maniac who would probably improve the species by dying.

The bull isn't killed during the fight. But apparently the vast majority of the bulls are put down almost immediately because of their injuries. So the difference is academic (especially to the bull). The Portuguese use this as a positive point in favour of their bullfights over the Spanish ones, but it's not nearly as significant a difference as they'd like you to believe.

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by giles