From the Archives: Lisbon / by Heather

From December 2008: Lisbon, Portugal

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If the Isle of Skye was raw, wild, rough, and invigorating, the Portuguese city of Lisbon couldn’t have been more of a contrast. I traded in my scarves and jackets for skirts and tank tops and my hunkered-down posture for open arms and my face to the sun. I’m not quite sure why Jonathan and I went to Lisbon….I think he one day mentioned that he wanted to go there, I said “sure!” and off we went. Of course, there is hardly ever a reason not to go somewhere. I never think it is necessary to justify a trip.

We had rented an apartment in the Alfama district of the city, where the buildings are old and full of character and history, the streets are steep and winding mazes, and the Aramaic influence of the once-present Moors courses through the life of the neighborhood. The woman who owned our rental apartment included airport pick-up as part of the deal and so was there when we landed and drove us to our accommodations. Her name was Sophia, and I just adored her. Fluent in English (and encouraging of my small attempts at Portuguese), she loved to talk with us open and comfortably about the city, her life, the Portuguese people in general. She was, I felt, the epitome of the fun-loving, laid-back, and proud people of Portugal that we would get to know over the next few days. Sophia driving us to our apartment was such a valuable opportunity, as she told us all about the city and Alfama and places to see.

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Our apartment itself was wonderful, cozy and colorful, with a balcony that overlooked a little alleyway full of people, cats, clotheslines, and other balconies. We arrived on a Thursday and after unwinding at the apartment, wandered out in the maze that is Alfama, just enjoying the scenery and architecture. As we stopped to check out the view from El Plaza de Sol, we were approached by a beggar. He evaluated us and then spoke to me in Italian, then Spanish, before trying to get a response with English. This wouldn’t normally be a big deal, but I thought it was a noteworthy indication that he didn't think I was an American traveler right off the bat. Not that looking like an American is a bad thing, but it would be correct to say that our reputation precedes us, and not always in the best way. I was approached later in the trip too, by someone curious about my ethnicity. So it was a bit pleasing to be assured that when I walk down the street of a foreign country, at least I do not seem obviously American.

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We covered a lot of ground in the first day of walking. Amoung the places we visited was the enormous Praça do Comercio, a beautiful plaza on the banks of a river and almost blinding with its bright white and yellow architecture. I felt like the Portuguese had captured the sun in this square and I couldn’t help but feel completely refreshed standing in the middle of it. It was during this trip to Lisbon that I realized how much I missed the sun while living in Edinburgh. I had always thought I just needed to live near the ocean to feel happy and complete, and while that is still true, the warmth and calm of a bright sunny day is more important to me than I ever would have guessed. 

We also walked down the main pedestrianized street of Alfama, lined with shops, vendors, and street performers. And that’s when we saw it…..a boy, sitting on the ground playing an accordion, and, looking almost unreal, a tiny little dog, holding a little cup for money in his mouth. Being dangerously susceptible to tiny fuzzy things, I nearly died and had a chihauhaugasm right there on the street. I got a Euro out and went up to the tiny little dog (so exciting!) and put the coin in its cup. It didn’t even move (if it hadn’t turned its head later, I might have thought it was stuffed). I gestured to the boy if it was alright for me to take a picture, and he nodded.

That encounter right there made my day. I watched other people stop and stare at the boy and his dog. One woman came up, put money in the cup, and patted the little dog on its wee little head. Then she patted the boy on his head in the same exact way.

Finally pulling ourselves away from the amazing little dog, we found ourselves at the base of an elevator that rose above the buildings of Alfama and let out on a platform above the city. It was a beautiful view of the red-tiled roofs and white walls, with the river on one side and Lisbon’s Castelo de San Jorge in the distance. Because it is a very hilly city, the platform let out on one of the higher slopes, and we continued to explore from there. Lisbon is an amazing landscape, perfect for exploring and meandering through, just soaking up the sun, the sights, and the fish.

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Oh, the fish. I have a slightly morbid fascination with dead fish, and I love to just stare at seafood displays. Super creepy right? I don’t know why this is…perhaps it is because they are one of the few animals we eat displayed in its original form for purchase and that intrigues me. Anyway, Lisbon is the Mecca of seafood display, and every few blocks, I would make Jonathan stop and stare at dead fish with me. The displays were amazing and very elaborate. The shopkeepers would pose fish, hang fish off of hooks, put some fish inside other fish, and make entire fish scenes from sea life I had never even seen before. It was all very remarkable to me.

That aside, I am not a huge seafood fan, and when one night Jonathan ordered bass and got the whole fish brought out to him on a plate, I disliked the meat, but greatly enjoyed poking his fish in the eye with my knife.

After our first full day of exploring the city and satisfying fish fetishes, we took the train to the district of Belem, near the banks of the Tagus River. This area is famous for its pasteis, little pastries with a soft, flaky crust, surrounding a rich, delicious custard, all traditionally topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar. Once we had seen the sights of Belem (a very impressive monument dedicated to the great Portuguese explorers of history, and the Torre de Belem, a beautiful stone watchtower located a few yards off shore), we were set upon discovering the real treats of Belem, the pasteis. We ended up, oddly enough, at a little unassuming café that had a special of lasagna and a TV playing 80s rock videos on VH1. The food was delicious and inexpensive, and the atmosphere low-key and relaxing. And then…the pasteis. Oh they were so good that once we each had one, we ordered two more. For the rest of the trip, we would stop at bakeries and cafes, sampling the pasteis they all had to offer, though I think we both agreed that our original samples were the best.

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As a side story, I had a couple embarrassing incidents in Lisbon, which were actually more funny than embarrassing, but still, they were probably not the best way to endear myself to the city. Because of the glorious presence of the sun, I took full advantage and brought two skirts. The first was a long, lightweight flowing thing that moved quite nicely with a breeze…perhaps too nicely. Jonathan and I were walking down one of the cobblestone streets, him behind and myself in front, when all of a sudden he moved up beside me and whispered to me, “Your skirt just blew up in the wind and you flashed me and the whole street.” Oops…luckily, I am mostly sensible and was wearing black shorts-like underwear, so my bum wasn’t making too much of a spectacle. Well that was awkward enough, but I found it unsettling that I didn’t even feel the entire back of my skirt fly up (a good sign of thoroughly comfortable climate conditions).

A couple days later, the two of us had just exited from an internet café in Alfama and were strolling along the streets and plazas. I had wised up and was wearing a thicker skirt that could not fly about on its own whim. All of a sudden, a cab came to a sudden halt on the street and the driver leaned out the window and started yelling at me in Portuguese. I was thoroughly befuddled and so waved and gave a sheepish smile (as is protocol when confronted with mysteriously yelling foreigners). I kept walking, but the cab driver stayed put in the middle of the street and kept yelling at me. I got the feeling that he was trying to tell me something and instinctively, I put my hand on my butt (I don’t know why this is an instinct). I almost died laughing right there in the plaza…the bottom of my skirt was tucked up into the top of my underwear shorts. I had walked for nearly two blocks with my ass hanging out. I pulled my skirt free and, still cracking up, whirled around to the cab driver to give him a heartfelt ‘Obrigado!’ I punched Jonathan for not noticing and from then on he carried out random skirt inspections to make sure that no more poor Lisboners had to be exposed to my little black shorts.

Besides baked goods and rampant flashing, another highlight of the trip included a Portuguese tradition unique to Alfama. Fado music is a beautiful type of singing, usually done by a woman who is accompanied by several men on guitars. The songs are often nostalgic and soulful, speaking of times that have past and deep memories that touch the core of the human heart. We got a late start to the night and so we ended up at the doorway of Club Fado, one of the most popular fado clubs in the city, around midnight. However, this turned out to be perfect timing as once we got inside and took a seat, we realized we were surrounded by almost all locals. The tourists had left and yet the fado still continued until two in the morning. There were four sets with different singers for each set (with the same three guitar players) and each had a very unique style. One was actually quite upbeat and sang something that must have been popular, because all the locals would sing along on the chorus. The others followed a more somber, touching tone in which every note reverberated emotion. It was a beautiful tradition to witness; amoung locals, tucked into the dark Alfama mazes, surrounded by a foreign, musical language.

Listen to an example of Fado by Portuguese singer Carminho here.

Lisbon was a rich and remarkable city. I was sad to leave the sun behind and return to Edinburgh, which seemed rather dark and colorless (and pasteis-less) in comparison. But Lisbon will be a colorful little memory in my mind and yet another place to revisit in the future.

“Life is not what we live; it is what we imagine we are living.” 

~ Pascal Mercier (Night Train to Lisbon)

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