Kathi, my long powerful legged travel companion, and I start our weekend in Lisbon with a bike tour through the city.
There was a miscommunication at the hotel and on Friday night late there was no tour reservation for us. (All on them I swear… my Portuguese is superb albeit a bit more classical than you’ll find in the lower regions of the country and I admit to having trouble reciting with proper emotive inflection Elliot’s Four Quartets.) At 8am we get a call and it is all set up. There will be only three in the urban cycling tour — our guide and the two of us!
We have a quick European meal of rich coffee, pão, presunto, and creamy local cheese called Azeitão that I am in love with and make our way to the meeting point near the Tegas.
There are seven hills within the city of Lisbon situated along the Tegas river including Miradouro de Santa Luzi and Castelo de São Jorge and Largo das Portas do Sol. To someone used to living in Texas as is my travel companion these hills are alpine-esque tour-de-france climbs up glass surfaced cobble stone streets. The company provided electric motored bikes that kick in when you pedal lightly unfortunately their Spanish-made batteries worked sporadically at best and there were times when I had to stand up on the pedals to get up the street. Each Miradouro offers a spectacular view of the city and river.
Lisbon is made up of small neighborhoods including Castello which houses a medieval castle that was owned by Moors and taken back during the Crusades. Graca and Alfama adjacent to the castle grounds that are high up with beautiful views and small houses and shops; Baixa which was completely wiped out in the 1755 earthquake and rebuilt on wood pilings and tight crisscrossing limestone tiled streets; Chiado which is the chic cool place to shop and hang out; and Bairro Alto which is full of cafés, places to drink and eat and at any night swarmed with young people (the drinking age is 18.)
Our first hotel is an old 1800’s residential palace — Pestana Palace — brought back to life and in Belem a bit west of the center and near the river.
We start for Alfama and Graca around the castle walls where, because it is Saturday, throngs of locals selling old items, some of them antiques and some of them just old used junk, begin to call out. This is the market of thieves, called that since the 1100’s and still true today as this is where you come to sell that hubcap you took off that Mercedes a few nights ago or buy back that unique bathroom faucet your contractor misplaced during your remodel.
We then keep going up and get to one of the vistas over looking the city.
In this quarter of Lisbon the neighborhoods are still traditional with very small apartments in small streets with tiny markets to buy vegetables and dry goods and other tiny shops to buy your meat and yet other shops to buy your fish (remember that fishermen do not fish on Sunday so never plan on buying fish on Monday and look for clear eyeballs.)
Lisbon is also known for its beautiful but decaying buildings. The rent control here started in Salazar’s time before the 70’s and there are tenants paying thousands of euros and some older ones paying one or two euros a month. Depending on the ratios of each that make up your tenants many landlords cannot afford to maintain their buildings and if the plumbing stops working it never gets fixed. In the 80’s the government tried to force them to fix the buildings by giving them ultimatums and seizing the buildings renovating them and then putting the same tenants back at the same prices. That obviously turned out to be not so fiscally prudent for a country short on cash. Some entrepreneurial minded are buying these old buildings and just waiting for their customers to pass away but the diet here is made up of a lot of fish, vegetables, and olive oil and many locals are looking at this investment strategy with a raised eyebrow.
After our bike ride and now much more knowledgable of the city we have lunch along the river and go back to the hotel and take a nap around the pool.
In Lisbon dinner starts very late and so it isn’t until 9pm that we stop at the very cool Victorian era bar at the hotel for a cocktail and then make our way to Lisboà Noite in Bairro Alto.
I highly recommend this restaurant and it is packed at 10pm on a Saturday evening. They put us in a small waiting area and we get a gin and vodka tonic. A small server pulls up a table and puts the ice in each huge glass one by one. He takes the lime or cucumber in a silver tong and gently circles the glass and carefully places each tucked into the ice. He pours without measuring his assessment of our alcohol tolerance in each glass. Then he lovingly pours the tonic down his stirring spoon so as not to bruise the distilled liquid. The process took some 15-20 minutes but was beautiful to watch.
We started with octopus carpaccio which was unbelievable — tender with olive oil and light fresh seasonings. I get the salted cod called Bacalhau. Kathi got the clams that she can not stop thinking about. The clams were small and tender in a broth with presunto. We had wine from Duoro to accompany and ended with a reserva port and meringue for dessert.
Its now 12:30 am and after a cab ride we walk up the cobblestone streets past the locals sitting in the streets drinking espresso and smoking and after a few attempts find a plain door unmarked. This is Incognito a small nightclub that we found on Google which dumbfounded a few locals that we told.
This is a normal saturday night in Lisbon mind you and the nicely dressed thirty-something crowd started drifting in around 2am and the music started going. This is a very small place with three floors including one small dance area. I’m by far twice the height of the next Lisboan and Kathi and I are a bit noticeable on the dance floor.
We decided to teach these poor unenlightened some special dance floor maneuvers from home. We start with the “shopping cart” — a classic. Then move into the “library” and finish with the “washing machine” realizing they would never master the “Roger rabbit”. Pretty soon the entire dance floor is “going fishin'”. Here’s how that works. First your random Liboan dance partner starts half walking half dancing away from you across the opposite side of the dance floor. Then you wait just the right time and make your cast. Your dance partner looks around and takes the nonexistent hook in the air with his or her mouth and you reel that fish back to dancing with you while she tries to fight the line off while maneuvering through the crowd. It is now 4:30 am.
That’s when I decided I needed a refreshment which was two floors up. As I said, I am a very big person in a tiny neighborhood dance club with tiny people dancing, so I have learned to put my hand on a person’s back I am walking around so as not to scare them too much as I pass and get a drink spilled on me.
With Kathi in one hand behind me and my other on a few shoulders in front we make our way through a virtual wall of bodies. That’s when it happened. I grab a shoulder and it doesn’t feel like a shoulder. It didn’t have those normal shoulder qualities like a deltoid for instance. There was no clavicle, and after trying for a few more minutes I could not for the life of me find the scapula. I look down and this woman in her thirties looks up in wonderment as I have her unhindered mammary gland in my palm while I’m still trying to find something that resembled a rotator cuff. It took us both another minute to figure out what was going on. At that point my knees buckled and I asked for forgiveness and then grabbed Kathi and made for the top floor red-faced and trying to get lost in the throng of people, half my body and recognizable bald head high above the crowd.
Its now 5:30 am and I am reluctant to get back on the dance floor so we make our way out and I ask our doorman for an ocean front cafe to get a bite before bed. He sends us to the Lux. This is the largest nightclub in Lisbon and at 5:40am there is a long line. I ask the doorman and he lets us in front of the line. This club was four stories and each and every one filled to capacity with 20 year-olds who somehow did not find the love of their dreams that night and are left with 40 minutes before daylight to figure it out. We walked around and decided to leave. At 6:30 in the cab on the way home I tried desperately to get Kathi and the cab driver to pull over for some Portuguese street food but you can imagine the look I got from my travel partner. Instead of chorizo and presunto I had a half can of Pringles in the hotel room.
The next morning and even as I write this I do not see how it is medically possible that I can ever do anything like that night again ever in my life. We’ll just check that off the list.
That next morning we decide to sleep Sunday off on the beaches on the other side of the Tegas and south of Lisbon at Costa da Caparica. We get our beach towels from the pool not saying a word to each other, only slightly smiling or grunting. We explain to the doorman our intention and he gets us a long taxi ride and explains to the driver of our beach plans and my need of industrial strength sunscreen and we make our way to “beach 17” (beaches are named after km markers.)
Dropped off, sunscreen in had and still silent and blurry-eyed we begin walking down the beach to find a nice spot of warm white sand among a beach lined with locals sleeping or talking.
We find a spot between a few groups and put out our towels and lie down. Kathi is immediately asleep and I find myself restless and begin to look around at the hundreds of kite boarders in the waves.
As I’m looking a grown man about sixty and dark brown after years of Portuguese sun walks by me and I notice that his swim suit is the same color of his skin. I can only see his back and I figure that “well, its Europe and these guys out here wear thongs or something.”
He looks out at the sea, apparently relieving himself in the Atlantic and turns around to walk back. Dear Lord. There he was, every bit of him, just walking right past our sunbathing area without a care in the world. Perplexed I looked around more. I saw many women and most of them were in traditional swimsuits. A few had only bottoms but this is natural in all of Europe. It was the men. From 20 to 70 almost every single one of them was not wearing trunks at all! There were men playing tag with their kids as the mother smiled watching. There were grown men talking in complete un-modesty while their swimsuit clad wives talked separately. There were joggers and frisbee throwers and dog walkers and all kinds of beach goers and I for the life of me could not understand their upbringing. I looked down at my swimsuit almost in embarrassment but opted to keep it on for UV reasons.
I reluctantly woke Kathi up after a few hours (some of these guys were athletic twenty-somethings) to walk back and we stopped at a beach side cafe and enjoyed a Sangria. A lot of locals drink the Sangria here and it is made up of a lot of fruit, some wine, a lot of sugar, and some sparkling water.
We came back, took a shower and napped. With what little energy left we went to a top end adapted Portuguese restaurant called As Salgadeiras in Bairro Alto. This time Kathi had the Bacalhau which was just as good if not better than last night and I had the lamb chops which were a bit over cooked. I later learn its normal to cook meat over-well in Portugal and you must ask if you want it differently.
Drinking wonderful wine from Duoro I am retelling our beach story at the table waving my hands when I spilled my wine over my shirt. The waitress brings an aerosol drying cleaning fluid that I couldn’t figure out. I try a bit and it seemed to work which to me meant a lot more would work a lot better. So I kept spraying. I heard a cough from a big German woman and watched her and her husband get up, pay the bill, and leave. Then I noticed the couple next to us from Norway politely do the same. In 10 minutes I cleared out the entire restaurant while our waitress who was only trying to help watched dumbfounded.
We paid our bill and left too. It smelt like a dry cleaner.
Our weekend in Portugal was over. It was time for bed.