Lisbon Top 5

Josh and I just returned from Iberian Peninsular road trip (Seville to Lisbon), primarily spending time in Lisbon. Here are our top 5 things to do, taste and experience in the Portuguese capital, in no particular order.

 

  1. Alfama, and its Fado. Alfama has its roots in Moorish history – you can tell from the tiny narrow streets and the water fountains dotted throughout the neighbourhood that there is an Arab heritage in this quarter. It’s a very cool part of town to wander at night and get lost. IMG_0346                                                                                                    Go up the hill for a magnificent view at sunset, where a kiosk sells vinho verde and Doura varietals near an oldwhite church building with a large bell. If you listen for haunting singing coming from through the walls of some of the small restaurants, that’ll be the Fado. Get a seat if you can. IMG_0363
  2. Head to Pasteis de Belem for the original Pastels de Nata. This place was the the first to introduce these spectacular little tarts to the world and since has become a bit of a tourist mecca/trap, now seating over 400 and turning tables at an alarming rate. The interior is set with 18th century tiles (flowers and birds with blue splodges in each corner) and despite the crowds makes for a nice setting for tea and custard tart. These pastries are less sweet than expected, so don’t worry too much if, like me, you don’t have a sweet tooth. The flavour profile is extremely soft and delicate, sending your tastebuds with an eggy lullaby into a surreal dream. We set an over/under of 6 for Josh to consume, but we only managed four. But that’s just how we roll I guess, we’re just not that excessive even when we find things we really like. Four is just enough, right Josh? (Josh edit: No. No it’s not.)
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    Pure, unadulterated joy

    Okay but – we googled a recipe. It doesn’t look too difficult. The only problem is that while in Spain/Portugal I ate stuff that made me bloat up like a medicine ball. I’m sure it’s the sugar and gluten. So not sure if this will become part of Josh’s baking repertoire, but maybe some version of it will make it through. I enjoyed a gluten free version of one (as well as all of the stuff with gluten in it) that Josh found in a glorious little bakery called Caneças on Bernardino Costa street.  

  1. Blood sausage*. Now I’m not a huge fan of the British version which I find a little too strong. But I do like weird foods and strong flavours in general, so we gave this a go at a restaurant in Alfama. This was a good 
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    Morcillo!

    move. The effect was of something between a sausage and a cake (Sausage cake. Huge fan). The crumby texture of the interior, and the crisp outer edges of each thin slice were … dainty. The spices started out with cinnamon  but gave way to cumin. I searched for some at the stores and the airport but couldn’t find any of this deliciousness to bring back sadly. 

*The Portuguese name for this delicacy is Morcillo, which sounds aptly dark and sorcerous.

 

  1. Vaunted ceilings at the Mosteiro de Jerónimos. Architectural vocabulary is extremely elusive if, like me, you’ve been vaguely ignoring it most of your life. I think I know what a cornice is. When walking around any town or city, the vocabulary is all around you but out of reach. It’s a bit frustrating, but since this particular
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    In the Monastery, I believe the ceilings were ‘Fan Vaulted’. Another bit of knowledge to take home.

    ignorance has no real impact, requires no interaction, it can persist. It’s not like (mis)understanding a foreign language, getting the (beef) tartar instead of the tarte tartin (happened to me in Paris), but more like going to the zoo and viewing the exotic animals without names. Still, it would be nice to be able to describe all of that detail…all those… spiral things and cone-shaped-flying-turret-buttresses. Vaunted ceilings – those are things that I at least could identify (and I checked, the plaque on the wall confirmed the ceilings were indeed vaulted). These features were commonplace in both the medieval parts of the city that remained after the earthquake of 1755, and in some of the architecture from the enlightenment when the city was restored in modern fashion.

  1. Take a Chill out Free walking tour – and make sure you are on a tour guided by Rafa. We’ve been on a few free walking tours around the world, not many but enough to know where the bar is typically set, and this tour by far raised that bar to another storey. Like it or not, the tour was infused with the political and cultural belief structure, perhaps even ideology, of Rafa, our guide. With enough charisma and intelligence to enter politics as a radical (neither Josh nor I felt that ‘revolutionary’ was taking it too far) this was less of a tour and more of an experience. He even conjured up a Fado singer to perform ‘spontaneously’ for us under an olive tree in Alfama. Sounds trippy? Maybe so, there was an indie festival feel to the tour. By the way, just as an aside, when you go on a ”free walking tour” , you know it’s not really supposed to be free right? You pay for what you felt the experience is worth. Couple sporint the shorts and crisps – we saw you sneak off without paying. It was refreshing, extremely memorable – probably the most memorable part of our trip –  and helped us to discover some of the more authentic parts of the city. Such as? The smell of clean laundry hanging from the many balconies. Can’t photograph that – maybe that’s the point. Pleasing everybody can only go so deep.

Bonus

  1. Hieronymous Bosch’s Triptych of the Temptation of St Antony – this is slightly more idiosyncratic and personal than the others mentioned above, but somehow those crafty Portuguese got their hands on this 15th Century painting that surely inspired Salvador Dali… In fact, I’m pretty sure that Sally and Hierony had a conversation over a bottle of wine somewhere across the centuries. I like museums. Living in Dubai with only a few museums (in the traditional Western sense) around, we like to head straight for the relevant fine arts warehouse as soon as we hit a new city. Such a place is usually housed in one of the finest buildings in the city, so the architecture is usually worthwhile, and of course the contents are quite flashy. In this case we made a dash straight for the Bosch painting because I had heard it was at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antigua (old art) and remembered a reference to Bosch made in the book The Old Patagonian Express by Theroux. I knew that if we saw that painting in reality, I would never forget it and would be better able to bring to life the scene from Theroux in a Quito church far more vividly. It was a pretty great painting, only marred by the two odd gentlemen who insisted on snapping every square inch of the poor canvas (with a Nokia dumb phone), 

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    Snapping away at Bosch with a Nokia ‘dumb phone’ for home printing

  1. Salted fish, sardines, canned fish… any kind of salted food and any kind of fish and preferably together. We saw a lot of salted cod for sale in many of the high street bodegas. One of the national dishes, Bacalhau, is basically salted fish, then desalted, then grilled with plenty of olive oil and served with either potatoes or chickpeas and some leafy greens. I ate this twice and was very pleased with myself.

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We packed like sardines

 

Treasures

Being in the country of Vasco de Gama, who essentially opened up the silk route to Portugal, we knew we needed to bring back some treasure of our own from Portugal and Spain as we drove through the countryside. And it had to be good stuff too. A post is forthcoming on the contents of the treasure chest. We plan to do a dinner party at some point in our new apartment with at least some of these. 

Josh’s Additions:

My dear wife has hit all of the above points with her typical precision, but I’d like to add on a few points that I particularly enjoyed:

#1 – Mercado da Ribeira – A giant warehouse full of food stalls featuring some of the best chefs in the city each serving only a few different dishes. Somehow, despite being a creation by Time Out Magazine, the market has a very authentic Portuguese feel as you creep slowly by each stall and devour each offering with your eyes before settling on one stall in particular. We tried 3 different places (and would have been more had Emily not stopped me).

#2 – The streets – You simply can’t escape walking through this city. And while the aforementioned 7 hills are tough on the knees, the tiled facade and cobblestones that continuously float in your periphery are a constant reminder of the country’s history that you’ll likely never tire of exploring. (Quick side note here that’d I’d be remiss for not mentioning: you can drink outside and in the streets! That ambling walk back to your room in the evening just got a lot more carefree)

#3 –  Chill Out Free Walking Tour – yes, it was mentioned above. But look here, we make the rules around these parts and if I want to repeat something I’m going to do it. Honestly, this one bears repeating – it’s that good. If you’re in Lisbon, go on this tour.

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