Friday, 26 December 2014


Ah, jeeze, where has the time gone?

It seems like 5 minutes ago, I was on a plane, but if you've ever flown Ryanair, you know the feeling.  It seeps into your pores and takes hours of scrubbing to get out.  The return flight on EasyJet (SleazyJet, QuesyJet) seemed downright luxurious in comparison.

While the cut-rate air travel is a bit more expensive in the UK then it was in Paris, it's still fairly easy to do.  You know?  The one place I hadn't hit in Western Europe so far has been Portugal, so away we go....

Portugal is still kind of an enigma to me.  It's one of the cheapest places in Europe to travel around, so it gets bonus points right there.  The Moorish invasion left its mark: old-town cities are crammed around hillside forts, with steep, winding, stair-cased street, reminding me more of the Souks of Marrakesh rather than the plazas and piazzas of Spain and Italy.  

Still, it felt very European.

The street art was just fantastic.  I love places that encourage the practice of letting local artist splash a bit of color on the blank spaces.  

Lisbon was beautiful and old, with steep streets winding up and down hillsides, and a valley of plazas with fountains and statues that spit you out to the Sea.  

The weather was a real mixed bag- the day after we left, there were violent downpours that resulted in cars floating away down the main thoroughfare.  It was warmer than Angle-land, slightly longer in daylight hours, and, in late November, quite a bit greener as well.

Accommodation was fantastically cheap- for the price we paid to stay in a run-down pub, we had a huge apartment with designer touches and a courtyard, right in Barrio Alto, the ancient hilltop village, now filled with fun kitsch shops and hip bars with Fado music spilling out onto the pavement.   With a steep climb and a vintage tram to keep you company on the climb up, I fell in love with the city.

I found Portuguese incomprehensible, but Lisbonites were happy to accommodate and help with just a smile and an "Obrigato!"  Oh, and hard drugs are tolerated here, and a couple times enormous handfuls of hash got flashed before me, with weather-worn men smiling and looking for customers anywhere tourist were gathered.

The food was fairly dismal: uninspired and uninspiring, heavy with oil and fried and breadcrumb-crusted.  Despite so much fresh seafood, no one seemed to be doing too much with it.  Yet, there was wine!  More than just Port, they had lovely reds and fresh whites, and a hearty cherry brandy called Ginja.  Thankfully, I found my food salvation:

The Ribeira Market, right on the waterfront.  What was a failing ancient fruit and vege market was bought by TimeOut editors, spruced up and installed with 300 seats, and then populated with some of the best chefs in Portugal.

Seriously.  I went back 3 times in a frantic attempt to try one dish from each booth, plus grabbed a sandwich for the flight home.  Henrique Sa Pessoa, I salute you.  Everything I had there was fantastic.    I couldn't get enough- truffled egg and asparagus, steak sandwiches, perfectly lovely sardines.

The idea of it was just astounding- all the cutlery and plates are the same, so everything gets bused centrally, and the quality of the food made me consider learning Portugese and finding a nice flat close by.  This was a huge hit- even though it only opened in May, you could tell that it was what the neighborhood needed, and trendy groups of Lisbonites seemed permanently fixed to the chairs.  Pizza, sushi, pastry, gelato, tins of sardines, and loads of authentic local cuisine, all very reasonably priced.

In the center of the market, there were bars serving cocktails and wine and beer and Ginja, which we sampled every kind they had.  Warmed and ready to face the weather, we were.

A wearisome and wet walk up to Castelo Sao Jorge, the Moorish fortress that overlooks the city, helped whet the appetite for the next visit to Ribeira.

Sadly, the steep admission to the Castelo wasn't worth it- it was a shell of a fort with very little to actually see or do aside from skirt the castle walls and get the rapidly-disappearing view of the city.

I did make it out to the sublime Tile Museum, but mostly, just walking around was a real treat.  

It's a city oblivious to its charm, with so many nooks and crannies filled with surprises and vistas, and a slightly run-down air gave it a shabby but comfortable feel, with lots of unique shops and bars popping up where the chains usually end up, and locals crowded around a wine barrel to drink and gossip.

It was a truly enjoyable three days:  while it may not have the world-class museums or attractions or swagger of other cities, it seemed lived-in and loved, although maybe not always the good kind of love.

Shoe leather thinner, memory card full.  That sums up my time in Lisbon.

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