Lisbon: City of stones, and Reggae
So a recapping of our time in Portugal is in order. We left Paris on June 20 and landed in Lisbon where we stayed for two nights before taking a train to the breathtaking Algarve in Southern Portugal, where we spent a week. Lisbon was as charming as I remembered it: a small city on the sandy banks of the Tejo river, built up of layers of history that one can literally see in the form of an open archaeological excavation on display in one of the city’s oldest churches, Sé Catedral de Lisboa, where pre-Christ Phoenician homes were intermingled with layers of Roman shops, canals and steps. Svetla had left Montreal a little sick, and by Lisbon the bug had become a night-time cough that kept both of us awake and made us zombie-like during the daytime. But we had a nice, affordable hotel room right in the heart of downtown Rossio square, and next to the city’s most famous and oldest cable car, Elevador de Santa Justa, that goes up and down a steep incline.
The downtown has some sketchy parts, but it’s mostly pick-pockets and drug sellers, nothing too major. That first evening we wandered around and plunked down on wobbly chairs atop uneven stones at one of hundreds of small traditional street restaurants. I had been having one of my hunger fits so the spot was chosen purely out of utility and not intuition. Sitting there eating our fish dinners (we ate a lot of sardines in Portugal since June was the Month of the Sardine) and sipping on local wine, a steady stream of men whispering “hashish, coke, weed” streamed by.
Walking toward the water after eating, one particular assertive fellow who was dressed in a pastel golf shirt and khakis (not your stereotypical drug dealer ensemble) with glasses and a finely cropped head of hair would not release us from his sales pitch. “Ahh, it’s the best deal, take a look.” As we walked he thrust out a large dark brown stick that looked vaguely like fudge and Vaseline wrapped in cellophane. “Just look at it bend! From Africa! For you, twenty Euros!” Despite our steady declines, he walked alongside us a few more blocks, seemingly emboldened by our smiles and feeble efforts to be polite. For the next few days, I saw this same character all over the city, indiscriminately performing his schtick on everyone and their grandmother.
The next day we did more wandering and took note of the intense heat that had descended on the city. We walked down to the water, browsed the numerous artisanal local merchant displays at Praca do Comércio and the sat in some cool primary coloured portable seat vestibules, each unit complete with its own shade-providing tiny tree. The European Union money transfers to Portugal from the last decade and more were visible everywhere: shiny new buses, trolleys, trams. That day we found the Sé Catedral de Lisboa where we cooled off and checked out the archeological dig mentioned above.
After cleaning up at the hotel, washing off another layer of sticky sweat, we headed for the river where we caught a small ferry that took us across the large distance to barrio on the other side, where we had heard there were good restaurants away from the throngs of tourists. After some exploring, we found a great place and sat down to fish, snails, wine, port. Our waiter was, like pretty much every Portuguese person we met, extremely friendly and generous, and brought us out some glasses of expensive Port at the end, on the house (a gesture he was able to get away with undetected because the restaurant’s computer system broke down). Kids running around in circles, an old man yelling at a dog, delicious port, a thoroughly delicious meal and inexpensive. We caught the midnight ferry back to the Lisbon and proud of our accomplishment of having such a money-saving day, headed for the bars to celebrate with a night cap.
I stumbled upon a fellow on the street who saw we were searching for something. A drink? I know just the place, follow me. He was, like so many of the young men in the area, from Kenya. As he took us further away from the hustle-bustle busy part of the restaurant area, into darker, quieter streets, I must admit I did have a paranoid pang that perhaps we were about to be robbed. I looked back and was relieved to see that Svetla was several paces behind us which would allow her to run for help should I be mugged. I did not allow this feeling much purchase however, and quickly banished it from my tourist mind. Bad things happen, but this guy has an honest face I thought. Sure enough, intuition played out in the positive and we were deposited into his friends bar – a tiny Reggae place, really a shrine to Bob Marley, where we joined the bar tender, his girlfriend and one other patron, all of them from Cape Verde.
Perhaps because I was feeling very white in this place, this part of the city, I let myself go and Svetla and I got perfectly silly. Drinks were flowing, smoke was fuming, music was loud and massage-like. At one point, the other patron, Johnny, joined us at our tiny table and chatted with us. The bar tender produced a guitar and Johnny started belting out tunes. He turned out to be a musician in a Reggae band and was soon heading to Sofia and then to Montreal to perform. I drummed the table like an intoxicated white man, but even this managed to impress them. We sang, we talked, we made friends. Twice the police pulled right up to the tiny bar door and the always-smiling, portly bar tender stuffed what looked like money and beer into a bag and handed it to them. Tax for the funny smelling smoke pluming out into the street, I suppose. A group of people did come in once during the night, but we quickly scared them away with our wild singing and glass-breaking. The bar tender didn’t seem to mind that we were scaring away business – it was a party after all. We staggered home at 4 AM and the next day our empty wallets and blood shot eyes reminded us just how much fun we had had the evening before.
The next day we did a bus tour all over the city. We rode on the top of a double-decker bus with no roof and because of a deceptively cool and constant breeze, I would later receive my first extreme sun burn of the summer: a bright red ring around my neck, made possible by a stretched out v-neck t-shirt and my typical laissez-faire attitude to applying sun block properly and thoroughly. For two weeks Svetla applied therapeutic cream on the injury and shook her head in disbelief at the pasty white Dutch descendant she had married.
The city tour was fantastic. We were able to hop on and off the bus at our leisure and did so at the top of a hill in Parque Eduardo VII which is overlooking the city. There we wandered off and found a quiet little bird oasis: ducks, swans, geese, pigeons, and other feathery folk nestled between a pond and a beautiful garden. The bus tour took us to historical spots, churches and monasteries, the bull-fighting arena, the business district, the oldest aqueduct which survived the strongest earthquake Lisbon ever saw in 1755, down to the water and to Torre de Belém, a fortress built in the river (that was unfortunately closed on that particular day). Bus tours seem cheesy, but they’re not: they just look cheesy. It’s actually a great way to see a larger area of a place, especially if you’re on foot and only there for a few days.
On the last night we went further down the river out of the city centre to the old docs under the 25th of April Bridge, where many restaurants were situated along a boardwalk. Svetla’s keen eye for quality dining prevailed, and she picked out a great place with incredibly delicious food. We sat outside in the brisk air next to sailboats in a small river arena. Blue shawls were supplied to patrons feeling chilly in the night air. The only thing wrong with the place was it was situated under the insanely noisy bridge that spanned the river. But the fabulous food and the excellent service cancelled out the hive-like noise.
When we got back to downtown Lisbon we sat in a large square where many young people had congregated, drinking, hanging out, listening to music. We were pretty tired, but indulged in a late evening outdoor night cap of port and port-wine. Once again, I was reminded of the civility of the European attitude toward alcohol consumption in public places: a teeny booth that miraculously encased two humans was home to a variety of late night aperitifs and other tasty libations.
The next morning we packed our bags and dragged them on the metro (where signs and announcements constantly warned of thieves – unnecessarily it seemed to us) across the city to the train station. We had checked out tickets the day before after reading online that the trains in Portugal were amazing and cheap. The information was accurate: clean, comfortable, fast, quiet and affordable. We opened our books (I was reading “Man Gone Down” and Svetla “Blindness”) and headed South. Or maybe it was East and then South. Anyway, we headed for the warm seaside embrace of the Algarve.