Wednesday, November 13, 2013


If Argentina built monuments for an empire that never came, Portugal built monuments for an empire that ebbed away.  Although Lisbon today is a vibrant, modern city, solemn monuments and abandoned castles bear witness to the days when brave Portuguese navigators launched explorations that spanned two-thirds of the globe.  The results of their discoveries remain evident today in a melting pot of people, unique architecture, and food imbued with flavors from India, Africa, and South America.

Lisbon is beautiful for many reasons.  Situated on the banks of the Tagus River, much of the lower town was destroyed in a cataclysmic 1755 earthquake that sparked flooding and fires and killed an estimated one-third of the city's populace.  A prosperous Portugal rebuilt the city in less than fifty years, constructing a modernized Lisbon, with better sanitation, sturdier buildings, and streets laid out in a grid.  Squares were erected, graced by elaborate fountains.  Black and white mosaic sidewalks, symbolizing Lisbon's flag, border streets and boulevards.  The 'upper town', or Bairro Alto, was not extensively damaged by the earthquake and retains a charm of its own, with narrow, twisting cobblestone streets that weave between old homes and eclectic shops.  And tiles--beautiful, multi-colored tiles are everywhere, adorning the façade of building after building.  Although some tiles have chipped or become faded, the overall effect is striking and unique amongst European cities.  Popularized during the Moorish occupation of Portugal before the 11th century, the tradition has thankfully endured.

The low area was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake and subsequently rebuilt.

With its numerous hills and steep climbs, Lisbon is reminiscent of San Francisco, California.  Heightening the similarity is the fact that the architect of the famed Golden Gate Bridge designed a replica which spans the Tagus.  Near the bridge, and creating a bit of geographic confusion, is a replica of Brazil's noted Christ the Redeemer statute.  We enjoyed this view from the rooftop terrace of our hotel, the Bairro Alto, located--of course--in upper town.  Near the hotel is the popular café, A Brasileira, and the dark, richly carved wooden interior reminded us of cafes we've enjoyed in Buenos Aires and Paris.  Outside the café is a seated statute of the famed poet Fernando Pessoa and a photo seated on the bench next to him is an obligatory tourist ritual.  Our first evening in Lisbon, we dined at Casa de Linhares, a restaurant known for its Fado shows.  Fado, with its haunting, mournful, lyrics is a captivating musical style.

We sipped a nightcap on the Bairro Alto's terrace and watched the ferry boats, their lights bobbing in rhythm with the Tagus, as they floated across the river in the twilight.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Fabled Monuments of Belem

The historic heart of Lisbon is Belem, where the Tagus meets the sea.  From this point, Portugal's famed navigators--such as Vasco de Gama and Ferdinand Magellan--set sail into what was then labeled the "Sea of Darkness."  As astonishing riches flowed into the port, magnificent edifices were constructed in Belem.  Foremost amongst these is the striking Jeronimos Monastery.  Built to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for the successful voyage of Vasco de Gama to India, the Monastery is built in the flamboyant 'manueline' architectural style, named for the then-king, Manuel I, the Fortunate.  Manueline combines Gothic and Moorish architecture and imbues it with elements that reflect Portugal, such as boats and fishing nets.  While the exterior alone is striking, the Monastery was unfortunately closed the day of our visit and we were unable to visit the famed interior, which includes the famous Cloisters.

The Manueline-style Tower of Belem, perched right on the water's edge, was built in the 1500's as a monument to Portugal's Age of Discovery.  The monument's façade includes battered stone images of an elephant and a rhinoceros, both reputedly gifts to the Pope.  While the rhino drowned en route, the elephant survived.  These gifts faded into history until modern day excavations in Italy revealed mysterious bones that were tentatively identified as those of an unidentified dinosaur.  Only when researchers uncovered the legend of the Portuguese gifts did they understand that the bones were those of the elephant.

Unveiled in1960, the Monument to the Discoveries is a striking memorial built to resemble the prow of a ship and arches skyward on the riverbank of the Tagus.  Ramps on each side depict notable explorers from Portuguese history and, where the ramps merge, stands the figure of Henry the Navigator.  Henry, the third child of King John I and Phillipa, the sister of King Henry the IV of England, was noted for his role in developing the caravel, a ship that was much lighter and faster than other vessels then in use.  The only female depicted in the pantheon is Phillipa.

Map depicting Portuguese voyages and the different types of ships they sailed.

Sculpture based on the pilot's sextant

We visited the Pasteis de Belem, a pastry shop where the specialty is custard cream tarts.  They were supposedly developed in 1834, when the monasteries were closed and the clergy began selling sweets to support themselves.  Although we didn't sample any at the time, we strolled through the large and brightly-tiled shop rich with the aroma of custard and cinnamon.  As our tour drew to a close, we returned to the heart of Lisbon to rendezvous with our 'gastro guide' for an afternoon of eating and, hopefully, a little bit of drinking.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Gastronomic Stroll through Lisbon

We rarely recommend particular guides, but spending some time with the engaging Jose Antunes,, is a treat.  Jose has a wealth of knowledge about Lisbon's food, drink, and history and provided an informative commentary as we visited pastry shops, chocolatiers, and taverns.  We met Jose in the mammoth Commercial Square, used as a parking lot during the dictatorship but now restored and ringed by government buildings and various shops.  We enjoyed a custard cream tart at the Café Martinho da Arcada, which has stood on the same corner since 1782 and once attracted the Portuguese literati.  A bust of Fernando Pessoa is housed inside the café.

Fernando's table, books and hat, with articles about him on the wall

Fernando Pessoa, famous author

We strolled the vibrant Rua Augusta and Chiado area, with an array of shopping possibilities, and enjoyed chocolates at a charming shop near Rossio Square, which is flanked by two striking baroque fountains.  We visited a shop that specializes in selling canned fish, a store hawking salted cod (a Portuguese obsession) and marveled at the intricate tile work on so many of the buildings.  One former palace has triangular tiles that jut out from the façade and give the structure an odd 3-D appearance.

  Triangular studded tile facade.

Chocolate shop facade.

Salted cod store.

The San Domingos church was fascinating.  Badly damaged by a fire in 1950, the interior bears witness to a near disaster.   The church was not destroyed, and a new roof was erected over the charred walls.  Dark, red marble columns line the muted interior and the effect is haunting.

Steps from the church, we experienced our first ginjinhas, a storefront tavern plying eager customers with a sweet cherry liquor served in shot glasses, with or without actual cherries.  A group of satisfied folk milled about outside the tiny establishment and we enjoyed a drink ourselves.  Maybe two.  We moved on and paused to view the Santa Justa elevator, an ornate structure that was initially viewed with the same disdain as Parisians once viewed the Eiffel Tower.  Like the Eiffel, the Santa Justa elevator--which serves the practical purpose of transporting people between the lower and upper cities--is now a beloved part of the city.

We finished our gastrotour with a stop at another ginjinhas, although we had a shot of an anise liquor, Eduardino, created by and named for a beloved and now deceased clown.  After a rest at the hotel, we meandered through the dark and winding streets of the Bairro Alto to the restaurant 100 Maneiras.  This establishment offered some of the most inventive and delicious food that we have ever tasted.

Codfish stomach dried and deep fried as chips with coriander and red pepper dipping sauce.  Tasted just like potato chips!

Octopus and rice balls with shaved dried tuna, wasabi and micro sprouts. Salty creamy yum!

Rocket coulis, oyster, passion fruit and kiwi essence.

House cured salmon on parsley sauce with basil sorbet on top, a balsamic cookie and a citrus salad.

Lasagna with a port wine reduction, sauteed foie gras and micro greens.

Pan seared local grouper on spinach risotto, with wild strawberries and salmon roe.

Gin, vodka and red fruit juice with a lime meringue.  Name:  Drink my burned-out mind.

Pigeon breast, beet root sauce, Indian spices and a morsel of Indian spiced popcorn.

Goat cheese, toasted Jamon, fruit salad and watermelon sauce.

Coffee ice cream with a coffee foam, almond crisp, vanilla cream and phylo crisps and a cinnamon crisp stick.
                             This was the most amazing and amusing dinner we've ever had!!!

On the walk back to the hotel, we stopped for after-dinner drinks and I asked the bartender what Portuguese beverage he would recommend.  He eyed my for a moment and said, "You do not look like a man who would mind something illegal."  Reaching beneath the counter, he produced a clear gallon jug of something akin to lighter fluid.  I learned that it is called Madronho, and is distilled from a small, black-spotted berry called the arbutus.  Although legal in a less potent form, I can't imagine using it for anything other than to strip paint.  I proceeded to sample a licor beirao, distilled from several herbs, and an amendor amarga, which tasted much like amaretto.  I ended the evening by vowing, never again, to sip an unknown liquid from a plastic jug.