Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Lisbon Experience

Our neighbourhood was an older section of Lisbon called Alfalma. This doesn’t mean much in Lisbon because in 1755 there was a huge earthquake that leveled the city so the whole city is essentially only a few hundred years old. That’s kind of like Canada, really. After the earthquake, the city was rebuilt on a grid plan but somehow Alfalma escaped the grid. The fact that they rebuilt multi-level homes on steep, winding streets demonstrates the lack of “earthquake” awareness. You’d think them guys would not be too keen to live on slidey slopes after the one-two punch of the earthquake/tsunami…but then we have the whole “West Vancouver” phenomenon back home so I guess the killer views beat out the killer quakes.

Alfalma was the kind of area where you weren’t quite sure if the Bohemian atmosphere was ultra cool or life threatening. Do you make eye-contact with the large crowd of youths and say “Hola” or slink on by hoping they haven’t noticed your bright white tourist-type skin? The best part was the trolley cars. These yellow trams raced up and down the narrow, twisty streets forcing their passengers to hold on tight as they jerked and lurched about. The shops were fun to browse and we found several worth hanging out at for a while. One was the Port wine store. The salesclerk was quite friendly and chatted to us at length about various Port wines. Heather wanted to pick up a bottle so we had to taste a few Ports. We discovered that we all liked Port. As we chatted, he decided that to truly appreciate Port we should taste his 130 Euro bottle. We discovered that we all like expensive Port. Then we saw the Port jam. It is made from a thicker wine sludge and is eaten with cheese. It was fantastic and I wanted to get a jar but at 20 Euros we decided to pass. Instead, we crossed the street to where they sold tinned seafood products and invested 1.70 in a tin of marinated mussels.

From there we wandered about to a ceramic tile store and spent an enjoyable twenty minutes or so chatting to the owner there. He regaled us with tales of Portuguese history and encouraged us to visit various parts of the city. He insisted we visit the museum where the ancient mariner maps were housed so we could appreciate the importance of the water to Portugal. The Portuguese at one time had pretty well owned the seas. They controlled the maps of routes to India, China and islands along the south of Africa so they had the spice trade routes tied up. When Christopher Columbus came along, they turned him down; a mistake in hindsight, of course, but at the time, they were the strongest seafaring nation on the planet so his crazy “round the world” ideas weren’t necessary to fill their coffers.

They must have been a wealthy nation because it is reflected in all of the architecture and beauty of their port city. The whole city had to be rebuilt pretty much all at once and the costs must have been staggering. Therefore, every statue, monument and decoration adorning the streets is an impressive testimony to their wealth. The Port entry is magnificent. Pulling up in a tall-masted ship here, you would really feel like you had arrived.

Another sight we were encouraged to visit was the Patisserie Belem to try the famous Lisbon tart. According to our ceramic tile guide, visiting Lisbon and not trying this tart at that Patisserie is like visiting Rome and not seeing the “Papa”. Naturally, we made a special trip the next day to Belem, home of mariner maps and tarts. The tarts were a bit like a vanilla custard tart and were quite delicious. The mariner maps stayed hidden from our foreigner eyes as we opted to see other monuments that caught our interest. It was a beautiful day (unlike the monsoon weather the day prior) and we enjoyed lunch on a patio before wandering to the seaside to look at the stunning Lisbon Mariner Monument. We watched a long promotional movie inside which shared many, many repetitious facts and pictures but the one thing that we did appreciate was that the Romans had called this place, "Felicitas Julia". From the top we could see in all directions and took lots of neat pictures. The large bridge may look like the Golden Gate in San Francisco but the towering statue of Christ hovering at one end helps ground you back in Portugal. We also explored the lookout tower that had once been an integral part of the defense system for the port city. It was very picturesque with its Moorish style window frames.

For Heather’s last meal with us, we all ventured out into the dark streets of Alfalma to find a Fado bar. Fado is a type of music specific to Portugal. It doesn’t start until quite late, though, so although we were eating after 8pm, we missed the show. We did find a restaurant that had taped Fado music playing in the background. It was a little hole in the wall with about five tables. They immediately brought bread and a dish of grilled sausages to nibble on. We’d had some experience with this at a restaurant prior so we weren’t overly enthusiastic about eating it but we were hungry. The previous day’s lunch, the waiter had placed bread and a plate of cheeses on our table. When food comes without ordering, one naturally assumes it is gratis. Not so. The cheeses turned out to be 3.50 each and added up to an extra 14 Euros (about $18)! We were not pleased but assumed this was a Portugal thing.

The menu wasn’t written down and the owner described our choices: meat with rice and salad, fish with rice and salad, mixed grill with rice and salad. The adults went with the mixed grill and the children requested beef but when the meals arrived they all looked suspiciously the same. The food was very good, however, regardless of what was actually being served as meat. The wine was the real star as all Spanish/Portuguese red wines have been. I have never particularly cared for wine but I must say that the wines here are quite yummy. We asked if the children wanted to try a sip and the host ran to get more glasses and poured Julia a very generous “sip”. For Rhys, he poured a whole glass, beaming the entire time. Rhys was horrified and Julia was intrigued. They both tried a sip but declared it not as good as the water. At the end of the meal, the hostess brought us each a glass of Port (not the children as they’d had enogh to drink by then…just kidding Mom). The whole meal came to about $12 each (the grilled sausages and Port wine had been free). Rather reasonable we thought for a fun experience and a great feast.

1 comments: said...

Love ALL the pictures. YOu all look like you're having a grand time. The bag has now been moved into the living room...Ian did it! Will open it later today! Love the picture of Rhys in the window and the picture of Julia with RHys...Love Mom