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.

A Night Out in Lisbon: Confusion, followed by Laughter

When we return to the hotel after our first meal debacle and admiring a fusion of Asian, European, Egyptian and Persian art at the Gulbenkian, there is a message for us in our room.  The hotel has to move us out of the room they originally put us in when we arrived at 6 a.m. that morning, because they’re doing renovations on the floor.  We’re just happy they were able to accommodate us at that early hour, so we don’t mind moving rooms at all.  When we go to the front desk to exchange our keys, we’re told that we are being upgraded to the top floor, with windows that overlook a sprawling view of the entire city of Lisbon.  And for our inconvenience of having to switch rooms, we’ll be granted VIP spa access.  Again, Portugal, is this REALLY happening? You really love us, don’t you?

We move to our new room and get dressed for dinner.  We’re feeling really special here, so we decide to continue with this theme and eat dinner at a five star restaurant that came highly recommended.  Our cab driver can’t find the restaurant.  He pulls the cab over not once but three times to look at a map, get out of the cab and ask pedestrians for directions, while leaving the meter running.  Not knowing our way around this city yet, we don’t have much choice but to wait for him to return to the cab and try to find his way to our destination.  Eventually, we find the restaurant, which was supposed to only be five minutes from the hotel.

The doors are closed, and we have to ring a buzzer to get in.  A uniformed woman retrieves us at the door and escorts us down some stairs to a regal looking couch adjacent to a small coffee table, the whole setup overlooking an outdoor garden with palm trees and greenery.  We’re again, confused in Portugal.  Is this where we’ll be eating our dinner? Why do other people seem to be at normal looking dinner tables? Are they simply placing us in this strange situation because we’re two seemingly naïve American girls? The waitress finally comes over and takes our order.  We order two entrees, but there is no wine on the menu, so she asks if we like white or red wine.  We respond with white, completely unsure of what she’ll come back with or how much we’ll be paying for this bottle.  Meanwhile, we’re served appertifs upon appertifs, which were all delicious, but now I’m growing concerned about what kind of appetite I’ll have for the main course, and will I be scolded again for not eating it all, and is our entire meal going to be eaten while bending over this coffee table, and is there any more of this ridiculously ornate restaurant that we haven’t seen yet, and also, what the hell are we even eating right now?  Just as maximum levels of confusion overwhelm, our waitress comes over and in a chipper, pleasant voice, asks, “Shall we go?”  She motions to one of the tables with normal dinner chairs and silverware, similar to the tables the other Portugese patrons are sitting at.  We’re pleased to see that we haven’t been pushed into a corner because we’re two American girls, not because they’re shunning or tricking us, but this is simply the process in which this particular restaurant serves dinner.  So if anyone goes to the Casa de Comida restaurant in Lisbon, just enjoy the unique progression of your meal.  By the way, it was delicious.  And yes, they were disappointed because I didn’t lick my plate clean.

After dinner, we head to the Al Canterra neighborhood, with the waitress telling us to go to the “docas.”  The docks? We pull up to a roundabout and are greeted by a swimming pool on its side, lit up like a sculpture at night.  The “docas” remind us a bit of South Street Seaport, a line of bars along the water, with a mix of American pop music and Portugese dance music blaring out of every nightclub we pass.  We take a video of two couples dancing beautifully to Portugese music, and one of the women comes up to me and says, “This is not photo for YouTube.”  Laughing a little, I shake my head and wildly stress to her that no, no, I’m just taking photos from my vacation, not for YouTube.  She eases my concern by putting her hand on my shoulder, saying, “It is only to laugh.”  I know she meant to say she’s only kidding, but I really like this new expression.  Because so many times in life, “it is only to laugh.”

After making our way through a few of these nightclubs and enjoying the nighttime waterfront scenery and carefree culture, we are ready to head back to the hotel.  It’s around 1:30 a.m., and our taxi driver’s name is Marco.  He was a law student who had to stop his studies to go back to work, because of Portugal’s current financial crisis.  He’s determined to go back to finish his law degree in the fall, and wants to visit New York as soon as he gets his life in order.  We’re stopped at a red light when out of nowhere, Randi and I hear whistling and a voice yelling “taxi, taxi!” over and over again.  We look all around us to see where this voice is coming from.  Turns out, it is Marco’s cell phone ringtone.

Portugal – utter confusion followed by laughter and delight.

Arriving in Portugal, or, “Is this Really Happening?”

Portugal is certainly a confusing place.  From the mosaic tiled walls of the airport that remind me of the locker room of a public pool to the fact that classical music seems to be narrating our journey from the tarmac to the hotel elevators.

We deplane, and our luggage is the first to come off the conveyor belt (a first in my travel experiences to date.)  We take a cab to the hotel, and are only slightly ripped off by the cab driver.  We’re shocked to see how beautiful our hotel is – we booked it based on a flight/hotel package we found on Expedia (my first time doing so), and never imagined it’d actually be close to luxurious.  But it is – sprawling lobby with cherub statues, a spiral staircase leading up to the second floor and a friendly concierge staff eager to help us out.

It’s 6 a.m., and we know we can’t check in until after 2 p.m.  But we plan to drop off our bags at the front desk for them to hold until we check in.  We’re dreading this sleepy, delirious part of the trip, where we picture ourselves wandering the streets of Lisbon, tired and jetlagged, searching for pastries and coffee.   So when our concierge tells us he has a room available right away, we’re overjoyed.  They take our bags up to the room, and Randi and I collapse onto our beds, where we sleep for the next seven hours.  We’re both happy and completely horrified when we wake up at 1:30 p.m. and realize we’ve slept through our first morning in Portugal.

We shower and get dressed immediately and head down to the lobby, asking the helpful concierge where we can get a bite to eat near the Gulbenkian Museum, which we’ve deemed as our first stop due to the ominous rain clouds we see outside.  They recommend a bierhaus right near the museum, and when we arrive, we ask the uniformed guards standing outside the museum to help direct us to the restaurant, but they shake their heads and suggest a better restaurant.  In fact, they’ll lead us there themselves.  Now, I realize this might not be the best idea, two American girls gleefully following the young (and handsome) Portugese men, but remember – they had uniforms on, were on duty…

and it was broad daylight.  We follow them through the museum grounds, comprised of beautiful gardens, stepping stones, trees that make natural archways that seemingly lead to secret gardens but just keep opening up into sprawling greenery all around.  We step out of the gardens and are back in the city, and after passing a bride taking photos in front of the garden, we cross the street and arrive at the restaurant.  We are seated while the guards talk to the owners and help translate for us.   By translate, I mean they simply order for us.  I am told I’ll have the cod, the national fish of Portugal, and Randi will have the pork.  They also give us a bottle of white wine, which feels strange because we just woke up, but we go with it since we are, in fact, on vacation.

One of the guards, Ricardo, sits down with us and tells us all about his recent trip to New York, showing us photos on his cell phone.  Then he asks if we’re on Facebook.  The guards have to go do their rounds, but tell us to stay put.  This shouldn’t be a problem, since we haven’t gotten our food yet.  It’s interesting how we thought we were picking up a coffee and pastry for breakfast and yet, here we are, two glasses of wine deep and about to devour a meal of fish and meat.  They serve us delicious appetizers of bread and prosciutto.  I’ve been told to say no when they put extra food down on your table because they’ll make you pay for it, but I’m so hungry I just let them – and it seems rude to say no.

We never denied the food they offered in the beginning throughout the whole trip for fear of being rude – I suspect we probably paid a lot for that, but it was worth it.  I can barely speak the language; I can’t afford to be rude.  By the time my cod arrives, I’m too full of prosciutto to eat anything, but this ends up being a good thing because the cod isn’t very tasty.   The owner comes over, looking disappointed as he picks up our not entirely finished plates of food. He shakes his head to signify that we didn’t like the food.  We respond by rubbing our stomachs, trying to communicate that we were too full – but giving an “mmm” noise, to show that we really did enjoy the meal (lie.)  Still looking disappointed, the owner brings our plates to the kitchen.

The guards come back, carrying with them two tickets for the museum.  They speak with the owners, and then translate to us in a very stern voice, “They said you didn’t like the meal.” Again, we tell them how we were just too full to finish it.  After a series of eye rolls and back and forth between the guards and the owners in Portugese, we’ve clearly communicated our message, but no one seems any less disappointed in us.  We feel like we’ve represented America poorly here – aren’t we supposed to be obese and clean our plates?  Randi tells me that I simply need to lick my plate clean for the rest of the meals we have in this country (something I will fail to do, leading to more scolding and disappointment from restaurant owners all over Portugal.)  It really is a testament to how wasteful we are in America, the fact that we don’t even think twice about sending a plate back to the kitchen if it has some remnants of our meal left on it.