Some bread, maybe a mixed basket. Prawns cooked in olive oil, garlic and salt. Vinho tinto. Sitting in a simple homely bar called Marisqueira, around the corner from my apartment in Intendente. Evoking childhood memories, it was like being back in my nonno’s kitchen as a little fella. As young goats, all my siblings used to love dunking the ciabatta in the remaining ‘sauce’ as we called it. I recall ripping off bits of bread and catching a prawn in between a sly dunk into the delicious garlicky pool of life, before they were even ready to go. This simple dish has that same magic. I casually ask for more bread to mop up the remaining blessings of chopped garlic and oil in the hot pan, and take a few long sips of the remaining wine. Finishing of my ‘bife com ovos a cavalo’ and frites,(steak and eggs, french fries) after the memory refreshing prawns, i lumber off to my 1000 cushioned queen bed, looking forward to the next 6 days in Lisbon.
Monday brings with it a proper clear day, blue skies, and skin caressing warm weather. Right, so 18c might not be the warmest i’ve been, but compared to the endless rain, wind and one figure Celsius days i was having in Ireland, it was like being in a heated spa. While waiting for my train to Sintra, i stop for the notorious Pastel di Nata and an espresso. The first of many. One euro later, im in tart heaven. A custardy, eggy glory in thin pastry, slighty burnt on the top, melt in your mouth goodness. After the 45 minute train ride, i pick up more munchies to sustain myself, and take the short 20 min walk to Quinta da Regeleira. It’s a little paradise away from paradise. Sintra itself is dreamy, and serene, laid over a few hills and mountains, where the old moorish castle takes watch from on high. Quinta de Regeleira is a romantic little estate in Sintra, with footbridges, winding paths, fountains, it’s own waterfall and lake, a chapel, underground tunnels, fortlike creations and tiny grottos. It has the aura of an old abandoned ancient city, even though it was mostly recreated 100 years ago. I sit on the stone bench halfway up the hill, and tuck into my iberian pork and soft cheese while i soak it all up. Bliss.
Heading up the steep cobblestone trail towards Castelo dos Mouros (the old moorish fort) i drift past old houses and chapels, stone benches and cats. Lots of cats. Then i reach the stairs. At this point i’m a little sweaty and i’m making a good march out of it. Feeling a nice cool breeze on my privates, i wonder why that is so, and beholden unto me is a glorious rip, about halfway up my bumcrack, letting natures air conditioning do its work. Well there’s nothing to do but laugh and carry on, so carry on i do, past groups of unflattered sheilas and even less impressed seniors, up the steep winding stairs built into the mountain, the new air conditioning unit quite a welcome addition in the 20c weather. I finally make it to the castle, 1.5 hrs before closing time. I really only needed a half hour to wander around, but the views at sunset are amazing. Racing to the highest tower on the old and refurbished walls, i make it to the top, in what’s probably now a world record time, giving everyone inside a healthy view of my striped woolen boxers. The reason i race? Sunset over pena palace. In is every inch the magical farawayland castle once you see it at a sunset. Reds, yellows, pinks and purples that give pena palace some of its character, blend with the now golden orange sun going into hiding for another day, give me a spectacular view over the natural landscape of sintra. I had both the fort, and the sunset in the mountains of sintra to myself now. I was a king for an afternoon.
The following day, Queluz greeted me with an empty palace all to myself. It didn’t look so tempting from the outside, battered and worn down from years of neglect, although it held a certain proud air on the faded pink walls. As always, opening the book is always more interesting then staring at the cover. Strolling through the great ballrooms, ceilings are painted in vibrant royal designs, each room different from the last. Winged babies watching with derision from above. Golden mythical gods casting their all seeing watch over the swathe of rooms. Hanging about in the richly decorated gardens of statues, fountains and well adorned palace wings, it was the bees knees. Trees waving about in ragged lines going in all directions, were shading dormant fountains, the trees still clinging to their autumn colours of rusty reds and yellows. As with most places of importance in portugal, tiles adorn the walls surrounding the canal, blues sketched onto white tiles, painting pictures of the ‘olden days’. Proud sculpted specimens ovelook this part of the gardens too, as if to rule their little domain of orange and lemon courtyards. Climbing into the old river bed and combing through the ‘closed’ sections of the palace gardens, more secrets are hidden. If you’re going to hang up the old ‘go under’ safety tape…
Cascais brought with it remarkable blue skies. Again, as always it seems, Lisbon and it’s surrounds love to soak you in golden, sunny weather. After swallowing two of the best Pastel di Nata of the journey to date, served warm with cinnamon and sugar, i begin the winding walk past the fisherman’s dock, where the green netted crab and lobster cages are stacked in droves. Fishing boats adorn Cascais bay, flashing their reds, yellows and greens in the sun like cheeky cabaret dancers while the praia do peixe (the beach in cascais bay) is being sculted by sandcastle engineers. Wandering up the incline to Boca de Inferno, the ocean invites me into the seabed at low tide to view the casa di Santa Maria, a nice looking coastal mansion. The phallic blue and white lighthouse stands with pride at the waters edge, with the aged yellow cheese museu conde de castro enviously overlooking the old stone bridge, towards the ocean. Taking a walk around on the base of the little sandy inlet passing underneath the stone bridge, surrounded by all these madmade watchmen, is pretty freakin’ cool man. Again, alone and without a person in sight, no touristy hordes of terrors to bother me. Winter travel is boss.
Enter Boca de Inferno, cliffs so named for the cannonfire waves that explode resoundingly on the rocks there. Not so on this day, but the view was well worth the trek over. Fishermen dangle their lines over the rocks, chatting to their mates without a worry in the world but catching their next fish. I meander back down the white cobblestones to move on to Belem, purely for more Pastel di Nata and the Torre de Belem. Munching down more glorious eggy, custardy sweetness, spraying bits of pastry across my face in the wind, i make my way over to observe the sun setting behind Torre de Belem. What a scene. The sun is feeding the fort reds and purples, turning it into a disco of colours, helped by the reflection off the water, adds to the present air of mystique of the tower. The fort is amazingly well preserved with crosses adorning the battlements, the manueline style evident in the twisted rope, crosses of christ and armillary spheres. Being a little adventurous, i make it down to the second last step leading to ocean level for a photo, doing a mega ultimate almost stack it body-shake break dance move and save myself going headfirst into the water. I ride the luck train still.
Being in Lisbon a few days, i had not really done much inside the main city, so i ventured out to Chiado and Alfama districts (i don’t have a 7 day week anymore, i live to the day now). Renowned for its infamous ‘up-down’ hills i had a warm and endeavouring exploration well underway. Chiado was a pleasant beginning after more Pastel di Nata and a ‘cafe'(espresso). Street art is hidden in worn facades on the small white cobblestone roads, tiled buildings of all colours line the streets as well rendered red, yellow, purple and green facades. Washing is hung out in a perfect order on the characteristic washing lines hanging outside the windows over the streets, adding a homely charm. The residents are cleaning their front steps and cobblestoned areas in front of their doors, while they sing out to each other from opposite sides of the street. Portuguese flags are flapping all around, mixed in with a few brazilian and spanish flags, like a happy union of cultures. Trams roll up and down the very steep streets, decorated in bright and colourful graffiti. More street art surfaces as i explore Chiado, accomanpied by fado bars preparing for another day of patrons to pass through their doors. I catch a cheerful gent on a bicycle sharpening knives for the small bars and restaurants all around, wearing a huge grin on his face. Strolling down the narrow streets from the higher points gift me great views over lisbon. The simple things man, the simple things…
Again in Alfama, i am greeted by the ever willing steep ‘up-down’ hills, which i am pleased to march up, taking well into consideration all the Pastel di Nata i have eaten in the last few days. It carries a slighty older air about it, maybe it’s the fact that Lisbon cathedral projects a bout of experienced authority in the middle of the suburb. The streets are steep and winding, going every which way, ending in small cafés or restaurants that are tucked back in small, almost hidden cul de sacs, which you’ll miss if you don’t look sharp. The twisting, turnaround streets are much different to the almost gridlike organisation of Chiado. Washing waves at me from above, inside courtyards that appear at the most curious junctions of adjacent buildings. Old ladies are watching from their balconies, pointing me in the right direction, or maybe away from more belly growing Pastel di Nata. Everywhere handwritten signs with bacalhau present themselves, porco preto is riveting my nose into a stupor and all i can think about now is food. Coming out of Alfama heading towards Cais dos Colunas (the pier of columns) on the river Tagus, i find a typical portuguese bar serving porco preto (iberian roast pig). Er. I can’t explain how good it was. Sorry, no explanation. I cannot convey the taste or the feelings. I’m trying to work it out in my head, but you just have to go yourself. Dumbfoundingly impressive. There you go.
I spent that evening hanging out at Cais dos Colunas, which has an amazing view of the Ponte 25 de Abril, in short a bigarse bridge spanning the tagus. As always, winter and murpy on my side, i was gifted another amazing sunset of every shade of yellow through purple. You can see lisbon reeling all the way down the tagus from here, and although generally a popular area at sunset, numbers were limited thanks to the winter weather. It was another perfect sunset. As the sun entered the sandman domain, all the young lisbon romatics slowly made their moves down onto the seating and tables carved into the low stone walls. Fumbling around with my tripod, a rock band set up on the water, drum kit, electrics and all, and began to belt out some tunes, very similar to joe satriani and santana. Hah. Sensational. Here I am working on my shutter speeds, on a perfect sunset, listening to live Satriani covers. I’ll say it again. The simple things.
My last full day was spent in the old city of Evora, about 1.5 hrs by train to the east of Lisbon. On the way to the station, i again, relived in the glory that is the great one and only Pastel di Nata. This miniature, 4 bite, portugese eggy love affair was blossoming into a fully blown “whaddaya reckon, ya wanna chuck a ring on me finger love” kind of relationship. Anyhow, Evora… a great city for a wander, again, if you like hills. The roman temple has survived on top of the hill almost 2 millenia. Smashing a turkey schnitzel sandwich on the way downhill, castle walls rise up out of the ground, a 15th century aqueduct buries itself in houses, buildings, and in the middle of roads, and i get lost again. I find myself in a deserted field 30 mins later, waist high in weeds and flora, outside of a carpark, on the edge of town. Cool. Looking all nice and sweaty, decorated like an autumn flora christmas tree from woodstock, i go back up the hill in search of a bone chapel. Yeap, a chapel made of bones. Literally.
The chapel (Capella dos ossos) itself was located inside a larger establishment, by the name of St Francis. I’ve seen some oppulent shit in my time, but this church housing this chapel… everywhere you look inside the smaller open chapels (12 of them) is gold. Painted or real, i wasn’t about to take a bite and see. Doll replicas of saints are located in each open chapel, fully dressed in saintly or royal attire, surrounded by cities of gold and dense, fine carvings. I wander up the side of this richly decorated gig, and locate the entry to the infamous bone chapel. Over the doorway is written Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos (“We bones that here are, for yours await”). Now we are getting some spook. Nice. Built by a franciscan bloke in the 16th century, the air doesn’t move in here. Upon entry, there is bones everyone. Skulls adorn the columns and the roof trays, held together with mortar, the walls are stacked up like scrolls of bone, there is even candle holders above doors made out of pelvic and hip bones with skulls attached. The only parts that don’t seem to contain bones is the floor and ceiling. The air seems to just stop inside, like a thousand souls are holding their breath, listening to your every step. Maybe it was because i was the only one inside, and my footsteps were echoing off the floor like a supersized bass drum getting kicked by travis barker. Whatever the case, it was a memorable stoppage in time.
How can I sum up my time in Lisbon and the city itself? Pastel di Nata = Lisbon. A sweet tart, that offers maximum taste, that provides you just enough to keep you going until you rediscover another Pastel di Nata. A simple tart that i cannot get enough of, because i know that the next variant i try will be just as unique, just as delicious, and will increase my appetite for more of this flavoursome gem. There is not enough Pastel di Nata, as there is not enough Lisbon. It is a joy to have it your belly. Every bite, you relive your first taste. Whether warm or cold, with sugar or with cinnamon, every taste is a guaranteed lottery winning ticket. The slight burn you get on a Pastel di Nata, is the edge that makes it both interesting and sets it apart from the other sweets in the shop window. I really wish i had more time to celebrate the taste of this historic city. It’s been a great week.