The last stop in our Portugal odyssey is Lisbon, or Lisboa as the Portuguese call it. It is an easy hour and a bit drive from Evora, and the car gods were smiling on us as there was a petrol station just before we entered downtown, and we found the apartment (and managed to park on the pavement for the short time we needed to unload the bags). The people from RentExperience, who are managing the airbnb apartment we have rented, kindly let us drop our bags off early, thank goodness as check in wasn’t until 3pm and we had a Food Tour booked for 3pm!
The very charming young man from RentExperience helped Hazel and I with the luggage while the boys returned the rental car. He then proceeded to show us around the very well appointed and comfortable apartment, and provided us with information about Lisboa. The boys returned from the car delivery as ‘John’ (which he said to call him as foreigners struggle with his name – the Portuguese language is a tongue twister) was wrapping up.
The apartment is perfectly located, in Rua da Madalena in the Baixa/Chiado district – we can walk to just about everything we want to see, and it is a busy, alive area. We are near a church, so can hear the church bells keeping their regular account of the day, but the excellent double glazing cuts out the racket of the night while we are sleeping.
‘John’ has warned us about pick pockets, but assured us there is very little violence in Lisboa – they are unlikely to threaten you for your possessions. Apparently we are also likely to be offered hash or cocaine or other drugs in this area – although he did then correct himself, saying maybe not given our age, bless him. Turns out he is right.
We have booked in to a Taste of Lisboa (http://www.tasteoflisboa.com) food walking tour at 3pm, so wander towards our meeting point just nearby Rossio square, at the Star of David sculpture:
We are met by our very delightful young guide, Dani, who turns out to be funny, vivacious, well informed and passionate about food, her city and country. Our tour is entitled Downtown-Mouraria Food & Cultural Tour, and we certainly learn about the history of the district as well as about the food. Dani explains that the sculpture relates to the Jewish massacre of 1506 that was triggered by a newly converted Christian Jew who questioned whether a claimed miracle apparition was indeed an apparition – upon hearing this the Catholics gathered in the Sao Domingos church praying for an end to the drought dragged him outside and beat him to death. This act set off a massacre of The New Christians (as they were known), who were blamed for the drought,famine and plague being suffered in the country. The Dominican priests fed the violence and some 500 people were killed on that Sunday, with a further 1000 the next day. The massacre was only stopped by the King’s forces. The King was appalled at the massacre, and had the two Dominican priests who had incited the initial murder burnt at the stake. This monument commemorates the massacre.
Dani then took us into the Sao Domingos church, which is truly amazing – and quite moving. As background, at 9.40 am on All Saints Day (1 November for all you heathens) in 1755, 3 massive earthquakes hit the city while everyone was at Mass. This was followed by a tsunami. It is estimated that up to 90,000 people died (and there were only 270,000 inhabitants of Lisboa at the time). So, whilst the antecedents of Lisboa are very old, much of its architecture dates from post 1755.
The church barely survived the 1755 earthquake, only to be burnt by fire in 1959. Rather than rebuild, the powers that be made the decision to leave the church in its battered and ruined state, a symbol of humility – how very rare for the church. It makes it a unique structure, and a very beautiful one.
Then, it was on to food. We stopped firstly at Manteigaria Silva, a deli jampacked with local delicacies, including lots of cod. Dani told us a bit about the history of Portugal’s long love affair with cod, and also about the lovely man serving the cod. He has been at the store for decades, and was featured in the paper during the cod riots of the 70’s, when there was a severe shortage of cod. Desperate queues of hopeful cod buyers formed at the store, and police were there to control the crowds – adorning the wall is a newspaper clipping of the Señor trying to cope with cod distribution.
From there we went on to try local canned tuna and sardines at Pioneiro, with a glass of rose. I can tell you, what the Portugese (and Spaniards) put in a can bears no resemblance to John West. Delicious. And they served it with more corn bread, olives, sun dried tomatoes in olive oil and very very yummy sweet & sour figs.
We then walked around the corner to Tasca Ze Dos Cornos, a tiny local cafe, where we tried the famous pork sandwich so beloved by Lisboans. Not sure what the fuss is about – a grilled piece of thin pork with mustard on it, in a bread roll. They really need to talk to the Vietnamese – a banh mi is a pork roll to rave about!
We also tasted a few varieties of goats cheese, which is more often than not served with quince paste you’d be thrilled to hear Jill Adams. One in particular was very on the nose and unpleasant in the mouth.
We then walked into the area called Mouraria – an area of small winding laneways and the home of fado. Fado is the centuries old traditional music of the working class. The songs are sung usually by a lone singer, either male or female, accompanied by the 12 string Portuguese guitarra (and often also a normal guitar). The songs are very powerful and emotional, and the fado tradition is alive and well in Lisboa. Our entry into Mouraria was marked by a marble sculpture of the guitarra, and a phalanx of pictures of famous fado singers.
The 7 of us on the tour, plus Dani, then squeeze into a tiny local bar to taste ginja, a sweet cherry flavoured liqueur also beloved by the locals. This version of ginja tasted like cherry flavoured cough medicine, so I left mine hidden in a corner. But, it was a priceless experience when two old locals, one without a tooth in his head, also squeezed into the ginjinha to get their fix.
Dani then took us into the small square up the lane and explained a bit more about the history of the area and the famous fado singer, Maria Severa. We were standing outside a cute cafe, which turned out to be her house, now turned into a fado restaurant – a very good one she said, called Maria Da Mouraria (T: 218860165), so we promised ourselves we would come back the next night to experience the fado.
We also get to see life in the Mouraria up close as it turns out the restaurant had put its tables out in the lane way too early. A local was trying to drive down the lane, and the tables were impeding her way. Much tooting went on, and the local municipal guard came to tell the owner off. He then proceeded to move his tables one by one as she was determined to drive down that street.
Our final stop was to worship at the altar of the pasteis de nata at Confeitaria Nacional, which has been serving cakes to the people of Lisboa since 1829. And I have to say, they were pretty darn good.
We finished the tour better informed about Lisboa and its food, and well fed. Highly recommended. Luckily for us, the Confeitaria is only 10 minutes from our apartment (and yes, we have been back to re-sample the wares) so, we were soon back at the apartment, unpacking and relaxing and enjoying the sounds of the neighbourhood.
Day 2 dawned bright and sunny. We decided it would be our Belem day, so after a late breakfast chez home, we walked down to the water (which is a couple of blocks), admiring the sights along the way. There are numerous grand buildings, a church or two, large squares and monumental statues in the area – all built post the earthquake of course as all this area was completely devastated in 1755.
Along the waterfront there were tourists and locals alike. A few enterprising businessmen have sent up a bar, serving out of a boat, and there are kiosks selling drinks and snacks. Customers loll in deck chairs. A busker entertains the crowds. And, this is a weekday!
We flaff around trying to work out how best to get to Belem. The old 15E tram had a long queue waiting for it, so in the end we went by train, but went to two train stations before we found the right one. The second one, Cais do Sodre, was a beautifully restored deco building:
We finally arrive in Belem, together with the hoardes of other tourists, in time for lunch. We choose OS Jeronimos, where the owner speaks not only fluent English, but also French, and bits of Italian and German. He certainly knows how to work the crowd, as he insists on taking Hazel and I into the tiny kitchen so we can see how fresh the fish is, and to check out the specials of the day. Good value, good simple food. You will find it just down from the temple of the pasteis de belem, Confeitaria de Belem.
Which is where we repair to next, for coffee and tart. This place is amazing. A rabbit warren of rooms with tables. We estimate that it must seat at least 600 people – and it is pretty much packed. Everyone who visits Lisbon comes to this store to sample their crispy, still warm pasteis de Belem. There is a queue for take away and a queue for tables. We snag a table – the pasteis de belem are divine, the coffee terrible! We decide that the only thing that divides these pasteis de nata from those of Confeitaria Nacional is that these ones are warm. Both have crispy pastry, with a delightful custard filling.
Our first stop is the main attraction of Belem, apart from the cake shop – the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, which is yet another UNESCO listed building, and just beautiful. They are working on the facade, but the main entrance is beautiful as is inside with its towering carved stone pillars and web like ceiling.
Next stop is the Maritime Museum, although I must say my visit is very cursory – the others are more enthusiastic about this museum than me. I do however get captivated by the private quarters of the royal yacht Amelia:
We then wander along the foreshore to view the Torre de Belem, yet another UNESCO building. It was one of three towers built in a triangle around the harbour to protect Lisbon from naval attack.
From here we turn back to visit the Museu Coleccao Berardo, a huge pale pink and white modern building that houses the private modern art collection of billionaire Jose Berardo – and what a collection it is. Every major artist of the modern age seems to be represented. And, entry into the Gallery is free.
Time then to sit on the terrace of the Museu and relax with a beer for the boys, a mojito for Hazel and a G&T for me. The terrace overlooks the river, and a beautifully restored deco building (looks like a terminal of some kind) and the modern statue called Padrao dos Descobrimentos, a 52 metre high marble megalith commemorating Portuguese navigators and explorers.
We need now to get back to the apartment as we have an 8pm booking at the fado restaurant, but first we have to stock up on the famed Belem pastry – one for the road (eaten while we wait for the tram) and one for after dinner. Am I putting on weight on this trip? Hell, yes!
A quick freshen up and then it is a scurry to get to Maria da Mouraria. What a wonderful night it was. The restaurant is tiny – only 8 tables. The food is fine, the waiter very obliging. But, it is the fado that makes this a truly special experience. The performance starts around 9.30, and finishes around 11 (with several intervals) and we are entranced. First up we have the guitarra player and the normal guitarist, the latter sings the fado. The guitarra player’s fingers glide and scamper over his instrument as he creates the most beautiful sounds from it. The guitar player is no mean shakes either, both vocally and on the instrument (and, is very easy on the eye). After an interval, the two players are joined by a woman from our vintage who sings. Another interval, and the two players are joined by a stocky fellow who takes over the fado singing (he turns out to be the owner of the restaurant, who is determined to keep the tradition of fado alive and thriving). He at first sings solo, and later he and the guitar player sing a conversation -even though we can’t understand the words, the emotion in it is so obvious that it brings a tear to my eye.
One thing we notice is that the singers all sing with their eyes closed. We talk to the owner later about this, and he confirms that fado songs are very emotional, and closing the eyes helps the singer look inwards and really tap into the emotion of the words. We leave around 11.30, thoroughly transported by the experience. Beautiful music.
Day 3 is our Sintra day. Sintra is a 40 minute train trip from Lisboa, leaving from the lovely Rossio station (they sure do build ornate train stations in Spain and Portugal – they leave Southern Cross station in their wake).
The old centre of Sintra is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site (Portugal must have more UNESCO sites per kilometre than any other country I think). But, it is also on every tourists’ agenda and as soon as we arrive we wish we had stayed in Lisboa – tourists are swarming everywhere. There are queues for tickets, queues to shuffle through the buildings, and very lengthy queues to take the bus up the hill to the castle and Pena Palace. And, the restaurants are taking full advantage of the fact that this is a tourist Mecca – we pay 15 euro for 4 very bad coffees.
Pete decides the mayhem is not for him, so declines the visit into the Palacio Nacional and instead heads up the hill on foot. We meet him an hour later in the queue for a ticket into the garden and terraces of Palacio Nacional da Pena.
Even though the hoardes are horrendous, we three enjoy our visit through the Palacio Nacional. Hazel and I are enthralled by the range of tiles used within the Palace, and then there are the beautiful painted ceilings of many of the major rooms. The huge conical towers that dominate the building turn out to be chimneys in the massive kitchen. All very beautiful.
We then join the queue for the bus. Half an hour later we manage to get on one, but opt not to get out at the Castelo dos Mouros when we see the queue waiting to get on to go further up the hill to Palacio Nacional da Pena.
The Palacio looks like something Walt Disney invented – buildings of different shapes and colours merging together in a fantastical whole. I regretted getting a ticket to view inside the Palace, as it is a very slow shuffle through 19 and early 20th century furniture and furnishings, and internally the buildings are relatively plain – all the show is on the outside.
We finally emerge, and then have to queue for the bus back to the station. Even though we have missed lunch and it is now well after 3, we just want to escape back to Lisboa to get away from the hoardes. So, we catch the next available train back to Rossio station, and find a small local bar for a cold beer and a bad ham & cheese something (not really sure what it was – Hazel and I only eat half of it).
We then get some supplies for a casual supper at the apartment – cheese, ham, sausage followed by a BBQ chicken and salad, and of course, wine. Perfect.
Day 4, our last in Lisboa, and in Portugal, is wet, wet, wet. We wake to rain, and it barely lets up all day. We all have a sleep in, then Pete and I head off to the Mercado Riberia, via a coffee and juice at a cafe on the corner – turns out to be close to the best coffee we have had in Portugal, and we find it on our last day!!
Mercado Ribeira is both a produce market and a food market. It was taken over by Time Out, the magazine, and they have rented the spaces out to local chefs and food vendors that they consider to be the best in Lisboa. The food stores ring the perimeter of the hall, while the central area is made of long tables and stools.
By now the crowds have swelled, and the stools have become valuable merchandise, they cannot be left unattended, so one of us minds the stools while the other goes off in search of more food. Pete returns with chicken samosas, and a tiny little chicken pie – delicious.
It is then my turn to hunt and gather. I decide on Bras de Pato, which is shredded duck, zucchini, mushrooms, potato all bound together in a lightly beaten egg mixture. It is very yummy.
We decide we have finally finished our brunch, besides someone is hovering beside us waiting for our stool – the place is now absolutely humming. The market is obviously the place to go to hang out. Several large groups of lads are here, sharing big platters of cheese and ham, and having a great time. One group may be a bucks turn as they are playing drinking games, and one young man, wearing bright green sunglasses, seems to be the main target. He has to skull a glass with his trousers round his ankles! At this point, the market security guards step in to have a quiet chat.
We emerge to find the rain has stopped, at least for the moment. We walk along the waterfront, heading for the Alfama district. We stop for a coffee in a funky looking cafe just near the Alfama cathedral – if we went on looks alone we could be in Melbourne, but if we go on the coffee we most definitely are not!
We have decided to go to a Lisboan food institution for dinner – Cervejaria Ramiro. A Cervejaria is either a specialist in meat, or seafood. In this case, it is seafood – simply cooked, good value and as fresh as fresh can be. Ramiro was recommended by Anthony Bourdain in his program on Lisbon, and is in my 1001 Restaurants book, so it is with high hopes that we head off. In theory this is a no bookings place, and when we arrive at 7pm there is already a queue to get in. I say in theory as we see groups of people heading straight in (including two huge Chinese tour groups). We eventually snag our table at around 7.45. Was it worth the wait? Yes. The seafood was terrific. Watching the waiters rushing around serving the crowds was entertaining. And knowing that this is a mecca for locals as well as tourists made it worthwhile.
We staggered out a couple of hours later, the rain had cleared, and there was still a queue to get in! Walking home we passed an artisanal ice cream shop just up from our apartment, and went in for some of the best ice cream I have tasted. Perfect way to end the evening.
And, so ended our stay both in Lisboa and Portugal. Really enjoyed Lisboa, and would have liked more time to explore it further. It is a very funky city. And Portugal has been interesting, especially in terms of its wealth of absolutely stunning ancient buildings.