Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Cobblestones and Lights in Lisbon

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Unlike its nearby European capital counterparts, not a whole lot has been written about Lisbon.  I know because I am a bit of a travel magazine junky.  I love a well written travel memoir (despite the embarrassing contrasts towards how mundane my own inadequate travel writing can be) and I love the accompanying pictures of the minutia that always look like they turn personal trips from discovery to epiphany.  Having said that, not much was publicized in recent magazines regarding Lisbon.  If anything, there is little to nothing commonly written about it. 

I think I saw a couple of blurbs – the ones that accompany dream lists of “100 places to do this” or “30 places to do that”.  That was it.  Barcelona and Madrid were simple decisions because it seemed at a certain point that I was the lone individual amongst some friends that had not gone to Spain.  Rhetoric about the food, the lifestyle, the picturesque architecture has been thrown around endlessly in magazines, movies and circles of conversations.  Everyone agrees Spain is a vital cultural, gastronomic and visual necessity for someone who loves travel.  As for Lisbon, it was just another possible option tagged to The Spanish Trip – the throw-in chip or figurative “bone” that people use to negotiate real terms.  It was almost Morocco instead. 

There were some of the typical travel website ramblings and a few NYTimes write-ups regarding newcomers to Lisbon’s food scene including a Bruni memoir piece on his short time there, but beyond that and relative to any of the cultural capitals of the world, it was the ant on a hill.  No big secret must see places, no blogs devoted to “my life in Lisbon”, and no Bourdain episode for his enthusiasts to go apeshit over(not that I know of).  Naturally, mystery can only evolve into intrigue. 

I think the idea of experiencing a city that doesn’t typically get explored by many is appealing in a raw and instinctual pioneering way, almost primitive – the feeling of knowing that there is the promise of limited ownership or precedence to what you see or what you discover is seducing.  The promise of going to Lisbon suddenly gave this trip a more natural purpose and a sharper sense of adventure than just the feeling of reliving the footsteps of all those who have frequented Spain.

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The first impression that Lisbon makes is at your feet.  Almost all of Lisbon’s streets are paved in cubic cobblestones, typically 1-2 inches long and wide.  At some point during my trip, I ran into a group of city workers putting together a series of broken sidewalk potholes, and unlike the pave, pour and flatten cement work of everywhere else, these city workers meticulously plug-in cobblestones block-by-block and adjust them until they line up from one block to the other.  As you can imagine, it seemed tiresome to just watch 5 men patch 3 cubic feet while I was sipping espresso (they filled only 3 tiny cubic blocks during that span of time) – now, imagine having to fill in an entire street, and then imagine how long it would take to fill an entire city.  When I finished marveling at the cobblestones, my rolling luggage found equal joy in experiencing the percussion of the variable geometry for each little stone and the grouted crags between – clicking and clacking in different sounds like a toddler echoing on a bouncing ball.  These square white cobblestones are the story of Lisbon – a city that is compact and interwoven, but  impressively vast, ancient and breathtaking in the composition of joined pieces.  

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Lisbon is not a small city in any measure, but most of its streets in its older neighborhoods are very narrow and compact.  Their trams are smaller and seemingly older than the ones of San Francisco and they maneuver through open tunnel turns surrounded by buildings mortared with pastel Portuguese tiles and eras-old stone cement flourishes.  Because Lisbon is compact in so many of its primary areas, there is always something that calls or requires your attention at every intersection – a random architectural note or historic structural link appearing out from unexpected corners or street blocks in the most ho-hum manner.

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Lisbon illuminates much like many parts of Paris does – the sunlight floods the ground in a classical shine – one that mixes rustic age-darkened tones and pale sheen of colored tiles with the warm golden glow of day.  At night, the antique lamps reflect off the smooth cobblestone streets with the romanticism meant for the movies.  And, despite acknowledging the annoyance of drizzle and rainy weather on a  couple of nights, the wet cobblestones of Lisbon shimmered and glistened for me in consolation.  The nightlife of Lisbon doesn’t lie beneath the radiating glow of skyscrapers, lit billboards or LED screens, but is only lit minimally by very soft warm golden hues from its street lamps.  A visual image worthy of appearing next to Webster’s dictionary entry for surreal.

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I’m not proficient at writing touristy sightseeing narratives – which I refer and leave to the professionals, but the baseline for sights to see include Castelo de Sao Jorge, Belem (entire area and its museums/monastery), Se Cathedral and an ancient Cathedral ruin.  All of which are worthy of two to three days of your time, but personal long-winded digressions on old architecture and monuments of the past aren’t going to tell you much that you won’t find in a Frommer’s guide.  Rather, I’d prefer to tell you about some of the quirks of a city and its lifestyle that I fell in love with; in hope that you can find some of the same wonders on if you decide to see this city.

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Portugal is known obviously for Port and, it is abundant in this city.  There is a good amount of good wine in Portugal.  Some of my issues with Portuguese red and white wine are typically associated with the lack of complexity or depth when it comes to either the production or grapes used (that’s just me).  What I have no issues with are the prices associated with drinking Portuguese wine.  For the most part, enjoyable and dangerously affordable.  If I had to do it again, I’d drink a lot more dry Madeira, which I do love. 

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The signature item in Portuguese cuisine is not the sardine – though you can make an argument for that.  It is a little pastry called Pastel de Nata.  it is a bruleed custard tart that resembles a Chinese egg custard tart (or dan tat as many know it).  Almost every pasteleria (and there are hundreds in Lisbon) make them.  The important part of eating Nata is understanding exactly what kind of Nata eater you are.  The first thing on your Nata discovery journey is that you must always look for the “fabricated on premise” sign.  Otherwise, there is no point in trying to buy from the same place over and over again.  I enjoy a slightly looser and eggier Nata tart with less sweetness and a darker flavor of brulee – almost a hint of char/smoke.  A lot of mediocre Nata ends up with a bit of over-starched/gelatin gummy texture.  There will be many shops for you to discover the one you like.  If you do not walk by a pastelaria within every 5 minutes of your walking radius, you are either not located in the middle of Lisbon or you are a really slow lazy walker. 

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Lisbon has a few great bars.  For cocktails, I enjoyed Cinco and the Ginbar at Taberna Moderna.  Be sure that you like Gin and Tonics before you go to the Ginbar – because that is all they will make with their 60+ different gins.  Though I am primarily a martini drinker, I have no issues with the gin and tonic policy because the bartenders complement and pair each gin and tonic appropriately with the proper accentuating spice/herbs for each type of gin.  My favorite part of Lisbon’s bar scene is actually  found in the staircase of one of the oddest and most ridiculously decorated bars in the world.  The bar is called Pensao Amor and is located in Lisbon’s former red light district (now coined as the next party neighborhood).  My favorite part of this bar – one that includes a neon and gold stripper pole room, a burlesque study cafĂ© room, and an erotic corner bookshop, is the back staircase.  Connecting floor after floor is a staircase with a series of different painting of the ladies of the burlesque – all done in a comic pop-art Moulin Rouge-type style.  It is appropriately inappropriate and wonderful to behold.

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One of my favorite and torturous (self-inflicted) travel things to do is to find beautiful markets.  Its some form of classical condition whereupon discovering great produce and meat, I am inclined to want to buy and cook it.  Living in a hotel obviously throws out any chance of that.  In Lisbon, there is the Mercado Da Ribeiro where you will find everything from local produce to butchers to fishmongers all neatly sectioned throughout the warehouse market.

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The Mercado feels accessible for tourists, but also has a very utilitarian approach; one that isn’t necessarily built or catered for nonlocals (i.e. perfect to me).  Going to a market enables me to understand two things: 1). how or what people cook and eat locally in a city and 2). what to order at a restaurant.  In this case, it was monkfish (seafood is always the thing to order in Lisbon).  The monkfish at the market was beautiful and saliva-inducing.  Thus, the monkfish during lunch at the restaurant Tagide was exactly as advertised hours before.  I employ simple travel logic.   

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Eating out in Lisbon can be hard to figure out because of the lack of trustworthy food information.  On this trip, I tried 1 recommendation from Bruni and the NYTimes, 1 recommendation from a consensus group of travellers, 1 super local recommendation from a girl at the front desk of the hotel, and 1 choice purely based on my own instinct and research.  All of which turned out remarkably well, but I will note that I rejected other Bruni picks, touristy front desk recommendations and others before I decided on the ones I would go to.  There’s a lot of filtering that needs to happen sometimes to have a successful food trip.

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Food in Lisbon is somewhat similar to what is found in coastal Spanish cuisine.  Some of the ingredients and styles seem to match what the Spanish do with their ingredients, but I felt cuisine was notably less emphasized on the utilization of brine and salt.  Obviously, there was plenty of salted cod (bacalhau) and anchovies, but the small local restaurants primarily focused on the simplest preparation (lots of grilling) of fresh daily meat and fish – an even less fussier approach than the minimalism employed by the Spanish.  Cuttlefish expertly grilled with the ink inside and served with young boiled potatoes was strong, aromatic, flavorful and (much like Lisbon, true to its form) appropriately antique.

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While there are modern Michelin starred restaurant options located in Lisbon, there seems to be a natural reluctance for cuisine to move outright in that direction.  Some of that can be reasoned to the size of the city (smaller by other standards) and some of that is due to the general locals’ approach towards food in Lisbon.  I’m sure some tourists have complained about the lack of upper echelon fine dining options in comparison to glamour of gastronomic powerhouse Spain, but the cuisine in Lisbon is down-to-earth, elegant, approachable and somewhat cheap compared to other European cities.  The value for finding the right restaurant and indulging in simple preparations of day-fresh seafood makes Lisbon food-desirable and adds to its unique character. 

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Most of the time, I find myself travelling solely based on what is to be expected: trips to US cities to visit friends, trips to tropical destinations for relaxation, trips to revisit destinations that I know and love and trips to cities with a lot of exposure.  It wasn’t that long ago (4 years), I went to Japan on a whim, purely out of the sake of discovery, and came out with a feeling; an instant nostalgia about how much I cared for my time there and how intimate the journey was.  Going back to Japan last year felt different and in many respects, it was a better and more efficient trip, but I can honestly say the return trip never echoed the magic of the first.  I had forgotten that Star Trek feeling of transportation and it didn’t resurface in those years – until the four wheels of my luggage click-clacked onto the streets of Lisbon – one that I’m not sure I entirely felt with Madrid or Barcelona (taking away nothing from how much I loved my time there though).  And, I’m sure the magic – this intangible emotion tied to the first experiences of a new city (and likened to the experience of love), will never be the same on a return trip.  Only two cities seem to be able to transfix me in that way: the one that I live in (San Francisco) and the other I question constantly about going to (Paris).