Lisbon: That’s How We Roll

March-April2010 202My husband and I are standing on a cobbled road of the Alfama, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Lisbon.  The stones beneath our feet are smooth from generations of footsteps.  Colorful tiles dating back hundreds of years climb the walls around us creating intricate swaths of blues and greens.  Fountains run with water that splashes merrily in a way that seems to say, “we are old!  we are old!”.  We are surrounded by buildings that have stood for centuries, by neighborhoods that have seen the dramas of so many lives.  We are surrounded by history.

And I can’t stop blowing my nose.  I’ve gone through twelve travel packs of tissues in seven hours.  I’m exhausted.  It appears that I have an allergy to Lisbon.

You may recall the springtime antics of my nose from last year.  I, certainly, have not forgotten.  And yet the impact of those nasal nightmares had dimmed slightly over the last months.  During our long weekend trip to Portugal this spring, however, I was reminded.  Oh, how I was reminded.  But I digress.  Back to Lisbon.

We had the good fortune to stay with Byron’s cousin, Markus, in Lisbon for the first two nights of our travel.  We met his beautiful children, Matias (4) and Catarina (8).  Unfortunately for us, we don’t speak any Portuguese and the children don’t speak much English.  I say unfortunately because we could tell that they were both such funny and intelligent little characters and we were dying to know what they were saying.  In the end, though, just being in their company was a treat.

It’s such a bonus to get to know a country through the locals and Markus was a wonderful tour guide.  He took such care in showing us all over Lisbon.  We walked so many of the streets of this incredible city that I felt like I really got a sense for the place, even in such a short time.  We explored many different neighborhoods, including the Baixa, the Alfama and Estrela, with its beautiful gardens and Basilica.  We ate pastels (a local, very addictive, delicacy – small, light pastries filled with a delicious and creamy custard) and drank espressos in the Rossio.  Espressos are very big in Portugal.  Very big.  People have their small cups of espresso many times per day, almost like water.  Byron and I couldn’t keep up with that kind of caffeine intake.  It’s a wonder the whole country isn’t running around on perpetual and spastic caffeine highs.  In actual fact, they are quite a relaxed culture.  Perhaps it’s in their DNA that caffeine affects them differently?  All that coffee gave us the energy to hike up the hill to the Castle of St. George, which affords an absolutely incredible view of Lisbon and the Tagus.  We visited the Lisbon Cathedral on the way, exploring its fascinating cloisters, under which they’ve discovered remains from the Phoenician (8C BC) and Roman periods, in addition to ruins from a former mosque (9C and 10C) that are remarkably well-preserved.

Lisbon is lovely pastel colored buildings, amazing tiles covering almost every surface you see, delicious food and some of the friendliest people we’ve met on our travels thus far.  We thoroughly enjoyed our time there.  One disappointing thing that I noticed, however, was the amazing amount of graffiti adorning almost as much of the wall space as the beautiful and historical tile work.  More often than not the writing would read, “Nazis go home”.  I’m tempted here to go into a weighty discussion of Portugal’s current economic and political climate (a topic both fascinating and disheartening), but I have an inkling that it wouldn’t make for the most exciting of my blogs and I’d likely lose a fair amount of readers in the first sentence.  So I’ll stick to happier topics.

On our third day in Portugal, after loving Lisbon, we rented a car and headed out to the coast for some much-needed beach time.  This didn’t exactly turn out as we had originally planned – but more on that later.  Our first stop was Cascais (where my nose-blowing, which had previously reached epic proportions, began to subside slightly).  Cascais was originally a small fishing village, but has now become somewhat of a fashionable and cosmopolitan little town.  There are cobbled pedestrian streets and shop after shop selling interesting trinkets.  By interesting trinkets I mean scarves.  I’ve never seen so many shops selling so many different types of scarves.  Yes, I bought one – orange with threads of gold.  I’m in love with it and it only cost me 3 Euros.  I haggled the sweet vendor down from 5 Euros and I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt about it.  Scarves weren’t the only items in the shops (although they did make up the majority of the product).  There were also really beautiful hand-painted tiles and ceramics, for which Portugal is famous.  Poor Byron was unwillingly dragged into so many of these ceramic shops, I’m surprised he didn’t eventually just bonk me over the head with one of the painstakingly-crafted plates in his frustration.  He did eventually convince me to leave the shops behind, sans any head-bonking, and we had a relaxing lunch in Cascais overlooking the water, dunked our toes in the cold, cold, cold water and decided to make our way further up the coast.

Our next stop was Sintra, a fairytale village complete with palaces nestled in the lush hills overlooking the ocean, about a half-hour’s drive from Cascais.  In Sintra, I only used one package of tissues.  An almost-victory over my wayward nose!  Once again we were surrounded by beautiful pastel colored buildings and walked along smoothly cobbled pedestrian streets.  What a beautiful place Sintra is.  We spent a few hours just wandering around and found that Sintra was a town frequented by Lord Byron in his day.  My Byron was quite chuffed, to use an English word, and insisted on having his picture taken by a pub named after Lord Byron.  He’s easily pleased.

Our next stop was Ericeira (two tissues), another fishing village further up the coast.  While Cascais has taken on more of resort town feel, Ericeira has maintained its identity as an old-world fishing village.  Again with the cobble-stoned streets and again with the lovely shops and restaurants.  But this time, the air was distinctly tinged with the scent of fresh-caught fish and the fishing boats could be seen dotting the harbor.  We loved Ericeira.  It has such a warm and charming feel about it.  We would have liked to stay there but we just couldn’t find a place that felt right.

And here’s where the drama starts.  You thought this whole blog would just be namby-pamby “oh we had a lovely time and isn’t life grand”, eh?  Not so fast.  This is Emily’s life, right?  So you know there’s bound to be drama.  Read on.

Our goal in finding a place to stay for that night was simple:  ocean front, windows opening to the water, sound of the waves.  Easy, right?  Not so much.  There’s really nothing like that in Ericeira, with the exception of a large, almost corporate looking, hotel.  We asked and asked for other options until it became clear that the corporate hotel was our only option if we wanted ocean front.  We asked them to show us a room.  It looked like a Holiday Inn.  Here’s where we got greedy.  We wanted romance.  We wanted shutters that we could throw open to take in the salty ocean breeze.  We wanted small and quaint.  We wanted that old-world feel.  We wanted, we wanted, we wanted.  So we gave the nice lady at the corporate hotel big American smiles (the kind that say, “we know better”) and told her we’d prefer to drive up the coast a bit farther before we stopped for the night.  In our minds, we would find our perfect quaint little ocean-front pension with just a short drive North.  Her smile said something different, but we didn’t decode that until it was too late.  So we hopped in the car and headed North.

Emily:  Let’s take the route closest to the ocean!

Byron:  That’s a nifty idea!

We happily pulled out our crappy little unhelpful map and began the journey.  An hour later, the map having been more trouble than anything, we found ourselves winding down one-lane roads with no indication of civilization in sight.  The road signs (which in Portugal are questionable, at best) were becoming fewer and farther between, the sun was beginning to set and our stomachs had taken up a volcanic grumble in time with the (bad) Portuguese radio station.  And we were cranky.  It was around this time that I forgot to blow my nose altogether.

Byron:  Well, what does the map say?

Emily:  The map stopped being applicable about twenty minutes ago.

Byron:  Here, let me see.  [Said in the manly, I-know-best tone that always makes me want to pull out some of his nose hairs].

Emily:  Byron, I think I can navigate fine.  But we are no longer on this map.  And we don’t have another one.

Byron:  Honey, I’m sure we’re still on that map.  Let me see.  [Said in same annoying tone and followed by blind reaching for the map as he attempts to keep his eyes on the road.]

[A quick and hard-fought scrabble for the map – and for the nose hairs – ensues.  Map becomes torn.  Byron’s eyes water from nose hair plucking.]

Byron:  [Huffily]  Fine.

Emily:  [More huffily]  Fine.

At this point we realized that we needed to stop for some sort of sustenance or we were going to pummel each other in our hunger-induced crankiness.  Byron caught sight of a small building that looked like a bar.  Now, mind you, this is a “building” the size of a small, small house and it’s surrounded by about five other small, small buildings, making up what we can only assume is considered a town in this neck of the woods.  Byron pulled into the driveway and went inside.  He came back about five minutes later laughing.  Apparently it was like the Portuguese version of the old west saloon inside.  Several old men were sitting around not doing much of anything and they all eyed him up and down when he walked in.  He said it could have been a bit intimidating until he went to the register to pay for a bag of chips and a bottle of water.  He set the items on the counter and, one of the apparent regulars, eager to try out his English, bellowed from the corner in a thick Portuguese accent, “HOW MUCH?!” and gave a big proud grin.  All of the gentleman got a big kick out of this wise use of English and there was apparently much back-slapping and congratulatory chatter.  Once the men had calmed, Byron smartly asked for directions and was told that to get to Peniche (another fishing village we had been told was darling and a perfect place to spend the night), we just had to follow signs to Santa Maria.  Easy.  Uh huh.

We headed back out onto the one lane roads, me hungrily munching Ruffles as if my life depended on it (I know Byron’s certainly did) and attempted to find signs for Santa Maria.  There weren’t any signs for Santa Maria.  Or Peniche.  About 45 minutes later we did manage (Lord knows how) to find the highway.  We eagerly ventured onto the thoroughfare only to find ourselves in a series of roundabouts.  None of these roundabouts had signs that read Peniche.  Or Santa Maria.  So our roundabout experience went something like this:

Byron:  You’re gonna have to read the signs because I can’t see all of them as we’re going around.

Emily:  I know, Dear.

[We enter roundabout.  Long silence as Byron slowly travels the circumference, followed by angry honking and gesturing from the drivers behind us who seem to think we can go faster than 5 mph in a roundabout.]

Byron:  See anything?

Emily:  Nope.

Byron:  Nothing at all?  Remember we’re looking for Peniche or Santa Maria.  [That tone.]

[Small scuffle.]

Byron:  Ouch!!!!  Jesus!!!!

[Silence.]

Emily:  Maybe we should go around again.

This happened each time we came to a roundabout.  We’d look for signs, not see them and have to go around again.  And again.  Byron started quoting the movie European Vacation:  “Look kids, Big Ben, Parliament.”  It ceased being funny after the fourth time.

We eventually found our way to Peniche, but our joy at arriving at our destination was short-lived.  First, it was dark.  Second, driving into Peniche in the dark was like driving into a prison town:  no lights and lots of cinder-block buildings.  Although we did have to drive through an arch in a long wall that hinted at historical significance.  But it was dark.  And we were hungry.  And tired.  So the significance of the wall was completely lost on us.  In our minds it was just another barrier to us being able to sleep with the sounds of the ocean.  Once we finally reached the center of the village it was even darker and there were no signs.   And no hotels.  And no restaurants.  Period.  We hit a wall.  No, not literally.  But figuratively.  For a while we simply threaded our way through the dark and narrow streets, but not even the presumed homes had lights on.  It was eerie and, quite frankly, depressing.

We decided to keep driving North by the ocean.  Bad idea.  We found one hotel that reminded us of the Bates Motel.  It was a huge, cinder-block monstrosity with three cars in the parking lot and most of the lights off.  We had to poke around the reception for quite a while before a young woman appeared to show us a room.  She took us upstairs, turning on lights as she went (fre-aky!) and finally showed us into a room.  The floors were linoleum.  Need I say more?  I asked, very nicely, if this was the nicest room they had.  She suggested we see a suite!  I said, absolutely!  Just a short walk down the hall took us to a door that she flung open with all the pomp and circumstance owed to a suite.  It was the same room as the one we had just seen.  With a couch.  I turned to Byron as one turns to a life preserver when drowning and whimpered, “I can’t, I just can’t.”  He agreed and within two minutes we were out of there and back on the road.

Initially, we thought we’d make the hour drive back down the coast to Ericeira.  But five minutes on the road trying to find the highway again in the pitch dark with no road lights and no road signs soon put that idea right out of our heads.  We decided to go to Obidos, a castle town, one day earlier than intended.  Best decision ever.  I checked the Michelin book and found several small hotels.  We pulled into Obidos around 9:30 p.m. and were greeting by a beautiful statue of Jesus standing with open arms at the head of the ramparts surrounding the city.  Thank you, Jesus, indeed.

The first hotel off of our Michelin list that we came across just outside of the city walls was … wait for it … a converted convent.  The spirit was with us.  The woman who greeted us was an absolute angel.  She showed us several rooms and let us have our pick.  We ended up in a beautiful large room with a balcony overlooking the gardens.  The nice woman then pointed us in the direction of a lovely restaurant that would still be open.  I can honestly say that we were so happy we were able to stay at this particular hotel.  If anyone finds themselves in Obidos, I highly recommend the Estalagem Do Convento.  It’s brilliant.

After a great dinner, and running into a film crew and a girl who I’m pretty darn sure is the Bachelorette in the streets doing an “after the date” interview (!), we had a fabulous night’s sleep and woke to perfect weather.  We spent the day exploring Obidos, which is an amazing walled city with a castle at its helm.  It’s sometimes referred to as the Wedding City as it has been regularly given throughout history as a wedding gift by the King to his new Queen.  It is filled with white-washed, bougainvillea-draped houses and cobblestoned streets.  There was ceramic shopping, which Byron was not thrilled and yet endlessly patient about (especially as it ended in not one purchase), and rampart climbing (the walls date back to the Moorish occupation but were restored in the 12th century, the 13th century and again in the 16th century), which I was not thrilled about.  I’m not sure where or when this fear of heights emerged, but I can honestly say that at one point on the ramparts (which have no railings, might I add) I thought I was going to die.  Eventually, however, I recovered and actually managed to really enjoy the view and the happy fact that I was standing on castle ramparts.  We had lunch near the ramparts, overlooking the town and the surrounding countryside.  After lunch we partook of the local drink, Ginja, which is a sweet brandy liqueur made with local cherries and served in a small chocolate shot glass.  Heady stuff.

That night we stayed, as previously arranged, in the castle itself, which was built in the 13thcentury.  It is a Pousada – an historic site/hotel owned by the government.  It wasn’t nearly as nice as the convent and was, of course, twice the price (because you’re staying in a castle, for petessake), but it was quite romantic.  We had dinner at the restaurant in the castle.  They gave us the best table and we watched the sun set over the ramparts while sipping our Portuguese “green” wine.  Which is delicious, by the way.  It really is amazing to look out a window and see the walls and turrets of a castle and to know that you’re staying there.

[Side note:  A lovely couple from Australia had dinner at a table near us and informed us that they were quite pleased to be staying about 15 minutes from Obidos in a beautiful and romantic oceanside hotel with a surfing beach.  Huh.]

The next day we headed back to the Lisbon airport, a fairly uneventful journey considering the ridiculousness that traveling North of Lisbon had entailed.  Throughout this trip I was continually amazed at how easy it is to travel while living over here.  On the plane flight to Lisbon, I realized that a trip to Portugal from home, California, would involve months of planning, a ridiculously long flight and no small sums of money.  Yet from England, we were able to make a trip to Portugal a long weekend and the plane flight was a simple two-hour affair and relatively affordable.  Those four days in Portugal can best be summed up in just a few words.  We are so blessed.

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