Nazaré—Lisbon day 1

Tuesday 2 July 2013

When we woke, our view of Nazaré was no longer obscure; it had vanished altogether. The mist blowing in from the Atlantic had completely blanketed the town in an opaque fug that was so thick you needed a raincoat to walk through it. And walk through it we did. After packing up and cleaning our apartment, we took the funicular railway down the hill and located the bus station, which was an un-signposted demountable somewhere way back off the beach that was not easy to locate. At the bus “station”, Susan got talking to two middle-aged Australian women who were travelling together, while I did my best to control the unspeakable symptoms of acute sinusitis.

At length we boarded a Rede Expressos bus that was not an express at all, but it did drop us at a bus station in Lisbon that was located almost directly above a metro station. The public transport in both Spain and Portugal has been excellent in this respect: the different modes of transport are well-articulated in terms of both location and timing, so that it is relatively easy to get into and out of major urban centres. Our main bugbear has been the necessity to print tickets that are purchased online: it is not always easy to find a shop that will do this. Nevertheless, the transport systems generally make Australia look like a backwater that is designed by people who hold public transport users in contempt and aim to frustrate them with inconveniences at every turn. If you really want to get people out of cars and onto public transport, the simple truth is that you need to make it easy for them. Australia has a lot to learn from France, Spain and Portugal in this respect.

One of Susan’s many excellent decisions on this trip was to locate us in the Alfama during our stay in Lisbon. The Alfama is the part of “old city”, and it contains several impressive monuments that survived the massive earthquake of 1755. It retains much of its original character and charm, consisting of winding cobblestone streets that are virtually impossible to navigate save by cleaving to the basic directions of “uphill” or “downhill”.

We almost located our apartment, but got snookered at the last turn, so we had to phone our host, André, who greeted us warmly and let us into the apartment. We had to put off the orientation until later that afternoon, however, as we had an arrangement to meet our friends Jim Martin and Sue Hood, along with a colleague of theirs from the University of Lisbon, Carlos Gouveia, for lunch.

Carlos suggested we meet outside the national Coach Museum in Belém. We made it by the appointed time by catching a taxi outside the Praça do Commercio. Carlos escorted us to a restaurant nearby in Belém which was packed to the rafters inside. The walls were decorated with traditional blue and white tiles, and it was also cool and shady, which was a welcome relief from the heat outside.

We ordered several dishes including barbecued Dourada (Gilt Bream), Espadarte (swordfish—but not the same species that goes by that name in English), and an intriguing dish called Açorda de Marisco. Carlos described how it was originally a means of using up stale bread at the end of the week: the bread was made palatable by adding lots of water and garlic. Later, Portuguese chefs added seafood to turn peasant fare into something fancy. It is served in a clay pot hot from the oven, and when the waiter brings the dish to the table, he cracks a raw egg into it and mixes it through.  Carlos evidently enjoyed it; Jim regarded it with a degree of incredulity; and Susie was intrigued.

Carlos made a wonderful tour guide: he was constantly providing background information about the food, wine and architecture. It was he who first explained to us what vinho verde is, and as he kindly gave us a lift back to the Alfama, he provided a commentary about the buildings and the city which helped to bring it all to life for us. Our lunch had been immensely enjoyable, if all too brief. We bid farewell to friends near the Praça do Commercio, and walked back into the Alfama to meet our host again.

André gave us an extended orientation to the apartment which he had renovated and live in for some years. The apartment had a split-level design with the bedroom located on a mezzanine, which made it relatively comfortable in hot weather without the need for air conditioning. He also recommended several local attractions, including two music venues that helped to make our stay in Lisbon a very memorable one.

After our orientation we took a siesta and then walked up the hill to take in the view of the Rio Tejo and sink a cold beer. We then walked back down the hill to the small plaza near the Church of São Miguel where we were based. We ate in the local restaurant on the plaza. I ordered barbecued Robalo (sea bass) and Susan ordered a fettucini dish, and we shared a bottle of wine.

The setting was perfect for our first night in Lisbon. There had recently been a festival in the Alfama, and there were posters and bunting and tinsel draped all over the buildings. We were sitting under a grapevine, and we heard our first strains of fado from a wandering singer with a guitar. The conversation gravitated to important issues that usually get swamped by the minutiæ of everyday life; yet somebody’s washing was hanging above us as an ironic reminder us of the latter. At midnight, as we strolled the remaining fifty paces to our door, we peeled a couple of posters off the walls that advertised two great icons of Portugal and the Alfama: sardinhas and fado, respectively.

We had arrived in Lisbon, and in a single afternoon, Lisbon had stolen our hearts.

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