This might be my favorite place in the entire world. Today’s Thursday sunset comes from Essouira, Morocco…just across the Atlantic:
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.
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.
Another night finding myself unable to sleep, I give in to the insomnia and sit up in bed, pulling my laptop off the side table (no room for a desk in my tiny bedroom in my NYC apartment).
Looking for distractions on the Internet, I’m thrilled when I see my good friend Michele sign online. See, Michele left for Uganda this weekend to start her 12 week stint as a Kiva Fellow.
Seeing her sign on showed me that she had arrived safely, and that in her different time zone, she might be up for a chat. It’s also crazy to think that if this had been 5-7 years earlier, this instantaneous conversation could never have happened between two people so far apart.
Part of her program requires that she blogs about her experience, so I’ll be sharing that as soon as she starts posting, but for those of you interested, here’s a quick snippet of our conversation – an update from the beginning of Michele’s adventures in Uganda.
me: are you there?
me: how is it?
Michele: it’s ok here still getting acclimated
Michele: got in late sat night and my luggage was lost
Michele: this is my 2nd day at work
Michele: so not much sunday i tried to explore a bit but was more focused on getting my luggage
me: and work is in an office?
Michele: yea and all the gov’t protests apparently take place on the road right infront of the office
me: oh wow
is it safe
Michele: yea i think so
yesterday there was a ruckus outside
but it ended quicly
Michele: i’m working out of 2 offices actulaly
this one is in the capital
the other is about 30 min outside
so not a village
but i have to go to villages to meet borrowers eventually
me: so awesome
did you get a motorbike
Michele: no you have to flag down dudes and hop on the back of their motorbikes – it’s kind of crazy
yea i need to get a helmet
it’s really the only way to get around the other way is a share taxi with like 50 ugandans
Michele: and it would take me an hour to get to work
me: ok get a helmet asap
Michele: yes i definitely will
So, this post is dedicated to Michele as I wish her luck on her African adventure – here’s hoping she gets herself a helmet to deal with that crazy Ugandan transportation… and that next time I find myself unable to sleep in the middle of the night, she’s signed online on the other side of the world.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.