Making Friends Over Fado Music

We had spoken to Ricardo, the concierge at the hotel who booked our trip to Lagos, about the Fado music he played, and he wrote down the name of the restaurant he was playing at on Thursday night, the night of our return from Lagos to Lisbon. He played there every week, but he warned us that there was a chance he wouldn’t make it this time because his wife was nine months pregnant. Still, with no cell phones or way to contact him, we decided to take a cab to the restaurant to see what kind of adventure we’d have there.

As our cab pulled up to the restaurant, I heard Randi speaking to someone out the window. I stepped out and saw a woman with a full pregnant belly, who ran up to us, kissed us on both cheeks and said, “Ricardo, these are the girls you told me about? Oh I’m so glad you came!”

Ricardo and Elena led us into the restaurant, and Elena sat with us as Ricardo went to set up his guitar with the other musicians. It was a small restaurant, with only about 10 tables inside. Everyone in this restaurant clearly knew each other very well and looked at us quizzically, wondering why these foreign strangers had come to join in their weekly Fado tradition. Elena introduced us to our waitress, Matilda, and then suggested we order the cod. I was so sick of cod by this point in the trip, but I really wanted to take her up on this recommendation, so I agreed.

Elena told us about her upbringing in a small town outside of Naples, Italy, and how she met Ricardo while working in Ireland. He won her over by playing an acoustic version of “Hit Me Baby One More Time” on his guitar one night in their hostel. Elena was engaged to someone else back in Italy, but after meeting Ricardo, she decided to marry him instead. They had a traditional wedding near Elena’s family in Italy, but they now live in Lisbon, close to Ricardo’s family.

Before the music started, Elena prepared us for exactly what was about to happen, which we were so grateful for. The tradition of playing Fado music is very different than anything I’ve seen in America. The closest form of music I can compare it to is opera. After our meal was served, the lights in the restaurant were dimmed, everyone grew completely quiet and the four men softly began playing their Fado guitars – these beautiful, round bodied string instruments. A man from the audience stood up and began singing a slow, emotional tune, which I was fascinated by, but Elena whispered to us that he was one of the worst Fado singers in their group. Other singers from the audience took their turns, performing about three songs each. Then, to our surprise, our waitress, Matilda, took her turn. Once this petite woman began singing such an emotional, moving piece, Randi and I finally understood why Fado was such an incredible art form. She put her entire soul into this performance, conducting the entire thing with her eyes closed, and bringing the entire restaurant to tears. Elena told me that earlier this year, Matilda had lost her husband to cancer, and this was her way of expressing her grief. I couldn’t understand the words, but I could feel how much Matilda ached by listening to her song.

We eventually finished our meal and said goodbye to the group, and Ricardo and Elena drove us back to the hotel. We hugged them and thanked them profusely for giving us this amazing, truly unique and authentic Portugese experience on our last night in Lisbon.

We left for New York the next day, and our vacation was over, but Randi and I now have lifelong friends in Portugal.  Two weeks later, we got an email that baby Francesco was born, weighting 3.320 kg, and the family couldn’t be happier.

Lagos: A Rocky Finish

We’re overjoyed to wake up in our new hotel the next morning to see sun shining over the marina.  This is our beach day, and it doesn’t take us long after doing a bit of shopping in town (supporting a local artist and his wife) to find an outdoor café overlooking a beautiful sandy beach.  We eat a breakfast of eggs and freshly squeezed orange juice, and walk down the steep steps to join the other sunbathers on this beach.  Randi suggests we stay at this beach all day, but I’ve heard people talking about the Pont de Piedade, and I have this strong feeling that it might be worth checking out.  I push her to come with me to try and find this sight, the western most point in the Algarves.  We ask a local shop owner how far of a walk it is, and he tells us 20 minutes.  So we begin our trek.

As we clearly exit the beach town and find ourselves wandering into what looks like the local business/abandoned homes area, we find ourselves completely lost and unsure of how to get to our destination.  We stop at a real estate office, because we figure, hey, if they sell homes in Lagos, they probably know how to get to places in the area.  Wrong.  Three of the workers standing out front on their cigarette break have never heard of this Point de Piedade.  But they all speak perfect English, which is incredibly helpful.  Luckily, there’s a British man inside the office who comes out to help us.  Why the Portugese natives didn’t know where this place was but the British fellow did, we’ll never know.  But we’ll go with it.  He looks at us quizzically when we tell him our destination, and laughs when he realizes we’re trying to get there on foot.  We’re directed back to town, where we are to take a taxi or a public bus.  After our experience with the public bus in Cascais, we opt for the taxi.

Our second try – we take the taxi up to our destination, and the driver leaves us off at what looks like an abandoned cliff, with only two shops standing out front – one selling souvenirs, one selling pizza.  She tells us to be careful and not walk too close to the edge.  We realize what she’s referring to as we walk towards the edge and see that we’re at the top of a ridiculously steep set of rocky stairs with no railing.  My fear of heights kicks in, but we’ve made it here on our second try, and we have to see it through after all this effort.  I climb down the steps, crouching just enough to have my hand next to me for balance at all times.  Randi is walking in front of me (below me?), and reaches a break in the steps.  She looks out and calls up to me.

“Amy, you’re really going to like this.”

I do my awkward crouch-walk down to where she’s standing, and look out.  Before me is the most beautiful natural scenery I’ve ever encountered.  It literally makes me gasp, and I now understand the meaning of the word breathtaking.  There’s no way I’ll ever be able to describe this in words, so here are some photos.

We continue climbing down these steps to get a better look.  Every point we stop at is more glorious than the next.  When we reach the bottom, we park ourselves on what seems to be a dock that no one else is currently occupying.  We sit, staring in awe at these grottoes, a magical aquatic fantasy that we seem to have found ourselves in.  Randi comments that this is certainly the grand finale of our Portugal trip.  It was definitely the most visually stunning thing we saw on the trip, but our cultural grand finale was still a few hours away.

Lagos: A Rocky Start

Our adventure in Lagos had one overall theme: Get it Right the Second Time. 

We booked a night in Dom Pedro’s sister hotel called Praia Maia Beach Resort.  Sounds lovely, right? We soon discovered that not all sister hotels are created equal in Portugal.   After having a cab take us to what seemed to be a deserted apartment complex in the middle of the night in this brand new city, we finally found the “resort,” which was really a collection of grimy apartments set up motel style, with outdoor entrances to each room, accessible through a parking lot.  We got our key from the motel clerk, who seemed to be the only human being anywhere in the vicinity.  We opened the door to our room, and flipped on the switch to a flickering light.  Our two twin beds were set up against either wall of the tiny room, with about an inch in between the two beds.  Randi commented that it felt like we had entered a military bunker.  We nervously explored the bathroom, afraid to really touch anything, and when I discovered a spider the size of my hand crawling on my bed, I lost it.  I picked up our bags and ran back to the check in desk.  I knew if we stayed here, I would be standing upright all night long, afraid of the critters and possibly serial killers that lurked nearby.  Since the only people within fifty miles of us seemed to be me, Randi and the hotel clerk, it really did feel like the beginning of a scary movie.

I explained to the hotel clerk that we were on vacation, and if we got a hotel closer to town, we’d be a lot happier because we wanted to go out to the nightclubs (this was a lie – all we really wanted was some semblance of normalcy and a hotel that would allow us to sleep through the night, but this was my way of not completely insulting the accommodations we were in).  Luckily, his friend had shown up to hang out with him while he was on duty at this abandoned shack, and she told us that she worked in a four star hotel right by the marina.  We begged the clerk to call that hotel to see if they had availability, and luckily, they did.  He called us a cab, we apologized, and we were off.

The Marina Rio was by no means a four star hotel, but we were just happy to see a real hotel, seemingly near civilization, other hotels, and with other people staying at this one.  We put our stuff down in our normal sized room, and went to the hotel bar to have a Sagres, relieved that we had changed our situation.

We had no idea that this theme of getting it right the second time would follow us well into the next day.

Cascais

We weren’t sure what to expect in Cascais. We knew it was a coastal town and a fishing village, and that there was something called the Boca d’inferno there, but that was really it. We made the 40 minute ride out there, on a train that went along the Tagus River and showed passengers the beauty of the coast as the ride opened up to the Atlantic en route. After enjoying this most pleasant and scenic train ride, we hopped off at the station and found ourselves in the middle of a quaint, historic town.

We hesitantly wore bathing suits that morning, since we weren’t completely sure if there would be a need for them. We were completely overjoyed when about ten steps from the train station, we came to an outdoor restaurant perched atop a cliff which provided a great view of the ocean. Steps led down the side of the cliff, and just below the restaurant, sunbathers were climbing down to enjoy the sandy beach on this beautiful day. We ate a small breakfast at the restaurant and then joined the sunbathers for the next few hours. It was glorious. The water and parts of the beach were dotted with rock formations like nothing I’d ever seen before. Randi took pictures as I jumped from rock to rock, awkwardly dancing around and trying to balance on them.

A few hours later, we tried to make our way over to the famous Boca d’inferno, or “Mouth of Hell,” where apparently the waves of the Atlantic crash so hard onto the rocky shore, the top of a cavern was completely blown off. We try to ask people how to get there, and we receive several recommendations – bus, train, walk, cab. We eventually go with the bus, but then find ourselves being taken on a journey which is clearly in the opposite direction of where we want to go, as we pass the signs to the Boca d’inferno and our bus drives away from them.

We get off at a random stop and try to use the road signs to walk to the Boca d’inferno. We find ourselves on some sort of path clearly not meant for pedestrians, but we have a feeling we’re close. We can see the ocean ahead of us so we assume we’ll be okay as we get closer to the ocean. Finally, we find it. Unfortunately, today is a beautiful day with hardly any wind, so the waves are not as scary as usual. We still enjoy the scenery and walk around this new area, soaking up the beauty of this landscape before we have to head back to Lisbon.

Sintra, where Fairytales Come True

We eat breakfast at an outdoor café – it’s the first normal breakfast I’ve had since we arrived. Ham and egg on a baguette for me, and Randi orders bacon and eggs with a “double coffee,” which means there are probably about eight shots of espresso in it. We board a train to Sintra from Rossio Station, a beautiful old train station in the middle of Rossio Square.

Sintra is even more magical than we imagined. A quaint little town built on a hill; we spend our morning exploring the grounds of the Quinta de Regaleira, a large garden that once belonged to a wealthy family. Deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site, wandering around this garden is basically a game of “what beautiful amazing hidden thing will you find next?” From a seemingly secret lily pond with a stone bridge hanging above it, to a multitude of stone castle-like towers and dark, inviting caves, Randi and I once again find ourselves in a real life fairy tale, running around and exploring the grounds to see what we’ll discover next. We come across a secret door made of stone – it looked just like another rock structure in the garden – but when pushed open, reveals a steep, old well.

The initiation well is a masonry well supposedly inspired by the Knights of Templar. I heard something about being reborn when you climb all the way down the well and then back up, but I can’t seem to find anything about that here on the internet, so I’m not sure how accurate that is. But I like to think we went through some kind of symbolic rejuvenation while climbing down the steep, dark steps with water dripping on us. It was completely surreal. I don’t know if we were reborn, but reaching the bottom of this structure and looking up at the circular opening so high above us that allowed just a bit of sunlight to creep down and illuminate the small space we were in felt like some kind of spiritual experience.

We continued exploring this place, climbing up magical castles and looking out at the lush gardens around us. We even retraced our steps on the way back so we could experience every part of it one more time. We ended up spending about three hours at the Quinta de Regaleira, which is pretty ridiculous when on vacation and trying to cram lots of sightseeing into a short amount of time. But it was well worth it – this place will be etched in our memories forever, and will be my absolute must see recommendation for anyone planning a trip to Portugal.

Eventually, we’re able to part with our new favorite place in the world, so we head back to town to get some lunch.  Randi read about a Portugese/French restaurant in a guidebook, so we make our way around the narrow cobblestone pathways until we find it.  This restaurant, Tacho Real, had the best salmon I’ve ever eaten – melty, super fresh and delicious.  Randi’s stuffed crab was pretty good, too – I now understand why guidebooks exist and why people buy them.

After lunch, we did a bit of shopping, and then made our way up to the Pena Palace, which sits atop the hill overlooking the entire village of Sintra. Yet another gorgeous place for us to explore while feeling like we’ve entered a magnificent fairy tale, the royal family once lived here. I particularly admired Portugal’s queen Amelia, whose glorious bedroom opened up to the “Queen’s Balcony,” which overlooks not just the entire castle, but all of Sintra and beyond.

Sintra was like a five-star, fifteen course decadent meal for the eyes.

San Jorge, Alfama, and Nutella Pizza

Today we’re going to the Alfama neighborhood and starting our day at Castelo San Jorge.  Our cab driver asks where we’re from, and when we tell him America, he says it’s a good day for us.  We ask why, and he tells us Osama Bin Laden was captured and killed by American troops.  We’ve hit possibly the most major turning point in the war on terror, and Randi and I are in Portugal.  But on a positive note, we get the BBC here, so we’re getting a global perspective on the situation versus a skewed view from American media. 

Arriving at Castelo San Jorge, we walk up onto the castle grounds and see the most amazing view of the city of Lisbon, terra cotta rooftops everywhere and an incredible view of the Tagus.  We start to wander towards the castle but are interrupted by a peacock walking around with its feathers extended.  We admire this guy, one of many stray peacocks that seem to wander the castle grounds.  We begin to make our way up to the castle itself, and soon, Randi and I are running around through ancient stone fortresses and climbing narrow staircases, peering through windows and exploring this ancient labyrinth.  We feel like we’ve walked into a fairytale.
After playing at the castle all morning, we begin to explore the narrow cobblestone streets of Alfama.  We wander into an artisan shop, where the owner asks if I voted for Bush, thoroughly relieved when I shake my head no.  I ask where the tiles I’m admiring are made, and he holds up his hands and says “with these.”  He lives across the river and has a workshop set up at his home, where he makes everything that he sells in the stores.  I buy a few of his hand painted tiles before leaving the shop.
 
We stumble upon a small park, with two men playing music next to a painter making watercolor depictions of the site we’re looking out on.  The park overlooks the river and sits next to a church with blue painted tiles depicting various biblical scenes.  We wander a bit more and head towards Rossio Square, on our way to explore the Bairro Alto neighborhood. We stop into a café for lunch.  As we’re enjoying our meal of calamari and pork, the weather changes our plans.  It starts raining, and we decide to visit the Oceanarium, the world’s second largest Aquarium.  The café owner, a sweet woman in her fifties who can’t do enough for us, gives us detailed directions on how to get to the aquarium by metro.  And then she scolds us for not finishing our meals.
 
Our afternoon at the aquarium is lovely – we see penguins, starfish, and the most adorable sea otters.  We can’t stop watching these furry otters as they glide around in the water, washing themselves and just enjoying their aquatic life to the fullest.   The aquarium is set up so you can see ecosystems from all the major oceans of the world, which is really interesting.  We walk outside the aquarium and stare at the Vasco de Gama bridge, the longest bridge in Europe.  It seems to go on forever.  We stroll back to the metro station on what seems to be a rickety wooden path over the water, somewhat unsettling, but we make it.
After many failed attempts to put money on my metrocard, we make it back to our hotel just in time for our exotic wood and bamboo massages.  Randi booked a bamboo massage, me an exotic wood drainage massage, but when we compared notes afterwards it seemed like the same thing – where the masseuse basically rolled a rolling pin down each of our backs at various points during the massage.  The spa at the hotel is a sight itself, containing an indoor pool that illuminates in different colors every few seconds, and has a tile mosaic of some ancient statue overlooking this glowing technicolor spectacle.
This evening, we’re eating at Guilty, a new restaurant opened by famous Lisbon restaurateur, Olivier.  Our waiter doesn’t speak a word of English, so we communicate with him through pointing and hand gestures.  He’s amused by us, and every time we buzz him on the buzzer in the middle of the table (apparently this is how you get your server’s attention in Lisbon), he cracks up and comes over to see what we want.  We’re too full for dessert tonight (obviously), but we order the nutella pizza anyway, which proves to be one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.

May 1st – Belem

We’re told to take the tram to Belem, where Portugal’s most famous piece of architecture lives.  After boarding the crowded tram, we realize the machine accepts coins only, of which we have none.  We desperately ask people to make change for our paper money, but no one has any.  We notice that they really do make a valiant effort to look – very unlike what we’re used to in America.  After giving up and simply hoping we won’t be kicked off this tram, we notice that one of the men we originally asked for change had made his way to the front of the crowded tram, and is now pushing his way back in our direction.  He gives us coins, and it’s apparent that his trek through the crowd to the front of the tram was solely a mission to get us the change we needed.  We’re astounded by his kindness.

We pass our desired stop at Belem, but when we get off one stop later, we’re standing in front of the Jeronimos Monastery, a centuries’ old, vast building with domes and iron wrought spokes extending across its massive roof.  We admire the architecture for a long time and walk around the gardens surrounding the monastery.  There’s a beautiful fountain directly in front, which adds to this amazing scenery.  We see an interesting looking sculpture in the distance, up by the water, so we head in that direction.  The sculpture hangs over the Tagus River, depicting various 16th century prominent figures boarding a ship.  It was such an interesting structure, and the placement of it hanging over the river made it that much more impactful.
At the base of this sculpture, we find ourselves on a path along the Tagus, looking at the Torre de Belem in the distance.  As we enjoy our lovely stroll across the river, we stop at one of the ultra simplistic cafes that pop up along the path.  By simple, I mean the décor of these restaurants consisted only of white walls with floor to ceiling glass windows, with outdoor and indoor seating.  We had a quick orange juice and sandwich as we stared across the Tagus at the rolling hills and terra cotta covered homes dotting the Portugese landscape.
We continue on and reach the Torre de Belem, the most famous structure in Portugal, a castle/fortress standing since the 1500’s.  We walked around and admired it from all angles.  As we walked away from the fortress, we stumbled upon a military memorial, guarded by two military soldiers.  Fully dressed in uniform, the soldiers were slowly marching towards each other in front of the memorial.  When they reached each other, they promptly turned around, and slowly marched back to their individual posts at either end of the memorial.
 
Next, we made our way to the famous Pasteis de Belem, which I can only describe as the Café du Monde of Portugal.  Sitting at a table in a large area crowded by tourists, our disgruntled server brought us our coffee and pastries.  These were no beignets, though.  The following description won’t do the pastries justice, but these were the most amazing creations, crispy, caramelized goodness on the outside with creamy, cheesy deliciousness on the inside.  Randi and I were in a complete daze as we lost ourselves in these delicacies, savoring every single bite.
Dinner that night was at a restaurant called AlCantera, located in the neighborhood of the same name.  The expansive restaurant with high ceilings and nude statues was almost empty, and we’re told this is because it’s Sunday, and May 1st, which is Portugal’s national Labor Day holiday.  The décor reminds me of Morocco with the high ceilings, wood paneling and wooden fans hanging down from the ceiling.  Everywhere we go in this country reminds us of somewhere we’ve been, but really, it’s like nowhere we’ve seen.  There’s a little Israel, Spain, Italy, even New Orleans here.  We’re still encountering confusion followed by delight everywhere we go.