a vida português

Just as suddenly as it swept me up in its current, the great wave of Macao deposited me in front of the picturesque ruins of the 17th century cathedral of St. Paul’s. It’s like I’m back in Lisbon – as the streets signs, architecture and cobblestones readily attest. If this is the true heart of Macao, perhaps all those naysayers doth protest too much; it’s a beautiful clash of culture. Just one niggling little question remains: is the way out the same as the way in?

 

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video: fado, fado, fado, fado

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Not to get too dramatic but fado is a song of the sea and by extension the Portuguese soul. The word comes from the Latin fatum, which means fate or destiny. For a style of music that’s all about embracing what destiny brings it couldn’t be more appropriately named. Disappointments in love, the longing for someone who has gone away, all are fodder for Fado; so, too, are the everyday joys and pleasures of life. The ingredients for good fado are simple:  a shawl, a guitar, and a voice ripe with emotion.  What I found so fascinating about this music on my last night in Portugal is that it’s ancient but not antiquated; sad, but not unhappy; dark, but not grey.  And if you think it’s camp, think again: fado is pure feeling, set to music.  When an audience feels it, they swoon, unable to resist mouthing the words or singing along. As the video below shows, even the cook – who spent the evening in the open kitchen singing along with three successive fadistas – couldn’t resist the urge to step in front of the restaurant and share her feelings after the headliners were finished. That’s fado.  And that, too, dear readers, is Portugal.

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crazy in chiado

No matter what time of day you pass Cafe á Brasileira, it’s packed. The infamous coffee shop in Chiado is one of Lisbon’s oldest cafes, having gained recognition as the favorite hang out of the famous – yet crazy – poet, Fernando Pessoa. A man who drank copious amounts of absinthe, Pessoa spent countless hours getting blitzed here, letting go with his creative flow, so to speak. In dedication, there is a bronze statue of him sitting outside the cafe and that’s where you want to be. Always full, it’s the perfect place to people watch. So stand at the bar, order a pingado, a pastry and check out the turn of the century interiors while waiting for a table to clear. Then plant yourself.  You won’t hear anyone spouting poetry at the top of their lungs, but the parade of people going by makes for its own fun distraction.

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pasteis de belem

Conveniently triangulated between the monastery, coach museum and monument, there’s a cafe called Pastéis de Belém that is worth a special stop for its namesake confections. The original recipe was invented by two Catholic sisters in the convent at neighboring Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and called Pastéis de Belém – a version of pasteis de nata, the bite-size custard tarts that are a commonplace treat at every pasteleria in Portugal. Around 1837, clerics from the monastery set up a shop to sell the pastries in order to raise money for the building. The proximity of the shop to the port allowed sailors and tourists to quickly become familiar with the tarts and news quickly spread that there was a new kind of deliciousness coming out of the ovens in Belem. What makes it so good? I can’t tell you; since then the secret recipe has been heavily guarded. You can pick up packages of the tarts in certain markets – or at the airport – but nothing quite compares to sitting in the cafe with a coffee and scarfing them hot out of the oven, sprinkled copiously with powdered sugar.

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monastery of st. jeronimos

Chosen as the royal pantheon by King Manuel I and financed by the fabulous wealth that came from trade with India, the monumental Jeronimos Monastery is a brilliant synthesis of late-Gothic and early Renaissance styles.  (You’ve heard me talk about Manueline architecture and design earlier. In this building it reaches its apotheosis)  Begun in 1501, it’s also an example of unquestionable technical mastery; especially in the elegant and bold ribbed dome that covers the entire church and the graceful double arches and extravagantly carved columns of the interior cloister. Standing at the entrance to Lisbon harbor in Belem, the monastery is a testament to Portugal’s continued belief in the Age of Exploration.  Inside the main door of the church is another manifestation of that faith: the tomb of Vasco da Gama.

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coach and four (and more)

For many years the National Coach Museum was the only museum of note in Lisbon.  (That’s since changed.) It has also been derided among certain culturati for it’s royalist leanings and lack of panache, but remains, in my mind, one of the more interesting exhibitions of its kind. The collection of royal coaches is the largest in the world, ranging from a rare 17th century coach belonging to King Phillip (with a cleverly hidden potty seat) to the famous 19th century carriages sent by King João V to Pope Clement XI.  Also on view is a royal sedan built in London and last used by Queen Elizabeth II for a state visit.  The carriages – made in Italy, Portugal, Spain, Austria, France and England – make for fascinating historical snapshots; moreover, they trace the development of sculpture, gilt work and the applied arts over the course of two centuries.  For this we have to thank Amelia, the last Queen of Portugal.  In 1905 she saw the advent of more efficient means of transportation and to that end thought the royal collection worth preserving. A good thing she saved them when she did: three years later her husband, the King, would be assassinated; two years after that, the royal family was sent into exile with the establishment of the Portuguese Republic.

 

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street art

The sidewalks in Lisbon are works of art unto themselves:  mosaics of black and white cobblestones that range from intricate geometric patterns to more free-form organic designs.  It seems as though every other street holds its own surprise, yet I can’t help but wonder what it costs to maintain them all.

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let us now praise great men

There was a time when most of the known world fell under the influence of the crowns of Spain and Portugal.  From the early 15th century through to the 17th, these two countries engaged in a rivalrous exploration, establishing contact with Africa, Asia, and the Americas, while mapping the globe. It was the Age of Discovery, also know as the Age of Exploration; a bridge from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, fueled by great men performing feats of derring-do. To prevent a conflict  the two countries entered into a formal treaty that essentially divided the world in half, giving each exclusive rights to their newly discovered lands. When Columbus sailed west towards the New World, Vasco da Gama headed east, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and finding a route to India, the Spice Islands, and ultimately China.  Spheres of influence overlapped once Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the globe, however, and suddenly the English, French, and Dutch woke up to the fact there was a lot of money to be made on the road – to use an old theatrical phrase.  But that takes nothing away from Portugal, whose sailors went beyond the limits of human imagination at a time when the sea was dominated by little more than myths and mystery.  It’s with that in mind that the Monument to the Discoveries was erected along the Tagus River for the Portuguese World’s Fair in 1940.  A 170-foot high slab of concrete carved in the shape of a ship’s prow, at the tip is Henry the Navigator – sponsor of Bartolomeu Dias’ 1460 exploration of sub-Saharan Africa – flanked by 33 other explorers, cartographers, and scientists of the time. (It’s not nearly as Soviet as it sounds.) An enormous world map mosaic occupies the front plaza and outlines the routes of various Portuguese explorers. Oh and yes, you can go to the top of the monument and take in the view, too.

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of the many castle amenities

Of the many amenities to be found at Castelo de São Jorge perhaps my favorite is the en plein air urinal at the front gate. A hole in the ground; half a hemisphere of shoulder-height metal for privacy.  Simple and practical, it certainly beats hunting down a public toilet.  Plus, who could resist the urge to relieve oneself under such decorous signage?  Sorry, ladies.

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castelo de são jorge

After the tricked out palaces of Sintra, the shell of Castelo de São Jorge – or St. George’s Castle – is a bit of an architectural come down.  (Although it must be noted that this former fortress has borne witness to the entire sweep of Portuguese history: from the Iron Age through to the Phoenicians, Romans, and Moors.)  Occupying the highest hill in the city, the views from the citadel survey the wide expanse of Lisbon, as you’d expect. That alone makes it worth the climb. That and the peacocks.

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video: elevador de santa justa

Yesterday I mentioned Lisbon’s elevators so I thought it would be fun to post a few little videos of the most famous, Elevador de Santa Justa, which connects Baixa to Largo do Carmo and the ruined convent on the square.  Built in 1902 by Raul Ponsard – an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel – the lift was originally powered by steam and converted to electricity only in 2002. There are easier ways to get up the hill – the mall next door has escalators and its own elevator, for one – but nothing compares to the intricate neo-Gothic  iron work or the views of Lisbon Castle, Rossio  Square and the Baixa neighborhood from the terrace on top. Play both videos at the same time for a fun perspective.

 

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funiculi, funicular

Lisbon is hilly. I mean really unexpectedly hilly. The central downtown valley of Baixa is relatively flat and plotted out along grid-lines. (Pretty much leveled by the great earthquake of 1755, the neighborhood was razed and subsequently planned.) Yet the surrounding neighborhoods of Barrio Alto, The Alfama, and Chiado – the areas that give this city so much of its vitality – spring up higgledy-piggledy on the surrounding hills.  Which means Lisbon, my friends, is not for the weak of leg. Fear not, however, the public transport is excellent:  a spacious and efficient subway is coupled with an extensive bus system.  As for navigating those pesky hills, you can take one of the vintage trolleys that slowly amble along crooked streets, ride one of the handful of turn of the century iron elevators that move people from plateau to plateau, or wait for the funicular, which will slowly ratchet you up a steep incline. Whatever you do, be sure to get the Lisboa Card, a magic wand that covers all your mass transit needs. Certainly you’ll want to be adventurous and do a little hill climbing at first but trust an inveterate hiker on this one: after a day lost in the labyrinth of The Alfama your bloody stumps will be begging you for mercy.

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lisbon (un)bound

After such a restful time in the countryside, I’m a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of heading to the city.  Add to that the fact that I am reading  Jose Saramago’s Blindness right now and you’ll understand why I am even more unsettled. (The Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese novelist’s haunting story is about an epidemic of white blindness that strikes the city and upends civilization entirely.)  But Lisbon is relatively calm – and absent the roving packs of blind scavengers that have been haunting my sleep lately. I’m staying at a Four Seasons, too, so really, life ain’t so bad. The hotel is just off Avenida de Liberdade, a grand avenue similar to the Champs-Elysees, or more accurately, Berlin’s Unter der Linden, with four lanes of traffic divided by landscaped promenades large enough to be considered proper parks.  It cuts down the valley towards the port on the Tagus River, dividing the hills of Lisbon on either side.  To get my bearings I go for a stroll; there will be lots of time for exploration tomorrow but today I just want to ramble and figure out the landscape of the city.

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cascais by night

By the time I left Cabo da Roca the light was fading fast, so it was no surprise when the bus dropped me off in Cascais in total darkness.  My guidebook, alas, neglected to highlight this little seaside town, so I was in the swim without a map, so to speak.  I had heard that Cascais was practically a suburb of Lisbon; a charming Hampton-esque escape for the moneyed classes.  But in the dark – without a map or a clue – the charms of town were difficult to pin down.  After a few minutes walk, I stumbled across the train station and yippie: a large map was posted on a billboard outside.  Thanks to the trusty iPhone I was able to snap a picture and use it to navigate my way towards the seafront and the pedestrianized part of town.  There I had the fresh fish dinner I’d been craving:  a whole snapper baked in salt, along with two bottles of amazingly cheap – and delicious – wine.  Belly sated, my curiosity for Cascais, however, wasn’t exactly satisfied. One day I’ll have to return and see it with the lights on.

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cabo da roca

The area around Sintra is blessed with great public transportation – thankfully, since I don’t drive.  From the center of town I was able to catch a bus out to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of both mainland Portugal and continental Europe. There’s not much here, save a lighthouse, a cafe, and a gift shop that sells official looking diplomas certifying your visit to what 16th century Portuguese poet Luis de Camões described as the point “where the land ends and the sea begins.” (Yes, thank you – I bought one.) And of course, there’s the ocean:  in every direction and as far as the eye can see.  Staring out at the water it’s quite easy to imagine how people once believed the world was flat.  Or that there couldn’t possibly be anything out beyond the great expanse of water.  During the great age of Portuguese discoveries the Cape was known as the Rock of Lisbon – the sheer rock face rises dramatically out of the Atlantic Ocean – and served as a landmark for Vasco de Gama returning from India, and Ferdinand Magellan after circumnavigating the globe. As luck would have it, I arrived just in time to catch the last of the daylight  – after half an hour the sky turned a flurry of pink and lavender as the sun set over the ocean.

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