mind the gap

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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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poetry in motion

On the subway this morning I looked up and saw what I’ve always considered to be one of the few redeeming things about riding the subway:  Poetry in Motion, the joint project of the MTA and the Poetry Society of America.  Each year, they would select a handful of poems and post them in the ad space just above head height on the buses and subway.  Auden, Verlaine, Neruda, Shakespeare, the mix was eclectic, eccentric, and a perfect little respite from the drudgery of mass transit. The project was discontinued back in 2008, so it was a pleasant surprise to see one still hanging – even if  only out of neglect.  I’ve written about Russian poet Vera Pavlova on here before.  I had no idea until this morning that one of my favorite of her poems – “If there is something to desire” – had been featured on the subway as far back as three years ago.


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live blog: cafe tortoni

We started our day today with a ride on the subway.  For less than a quarter, it’s a no brainer for getting around the city if you don’t have the luxury of a car and driver at your disposal.  BA has the oldest underground in South America – who knew? – and one line even continues to run the early 20th century vintage wooden cars.  It made the perfect overture to Café Tortoni, a Belle Epoque coffeehouse where we stopped off for a snack and a surprise.

Appointed in wood, stained glass, and old marble on a grand scale, you’d be forgiven for thinking you landed in one of the baroque 19th century cafes of Budapest.  Also as in Hungary, the cafés served as an intellectual and artistic meeting place.  For Buenos Aires that place has been the Tortoni since 1858.  (Quinquela Martin, the famous socialist realist painter from La Boca, regularly held his salons here up until his death in the late 1970’s.)  Even if you’ve not the time for a coffee, I’d stop by and use the toilet, just for the glimpse back in time.

As for the surprise……you’ll have to check back later.

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