Hello dear reader! I suppose you might be wondering where I’ve been. Well, I returned from the US to Paris, finished out my second-to-last semester of teaching, and went to Portugal with B for a week and a half. I’ve done most of this while nursing one of the ugliest and clingiest colds on either side of the Atlantic. In a dismal coincidence, I started getting pretty sick right before we left on our trip, and managed to make my first-ever visit to Portugal a veritable death march. In the final few days of our trip, I developed some kind of crunchy noise in my right lung, which I’ve been delighted to find out is a mean case of bronchitis. So I know I’ve been a really bad internet boyfriend for the past month or so, but trust me, I’ve been pretty lousy company in real life too.
I’ve got loads to tell you about, including two schmancy meals at La Gazzetta and Spring for my and M’s respective birthdays. As I’m full of phlegm, however, I’m going to leave that for later this weekend and instead give you a little bit of a rundown about our trip.
Honestly, we really didn’t love Portugal. It certainly didn’t help that I was particularly ill most of the time and B got a wicked case of food poisoning in the last leg of our trip. While the weather was sunny and crisp, so I can’t complain about rain, I certainly think that it might be a better summer tourist destination. One of our biggest gripes was with the food. I know these are fighting words to some people, and I want to acknowledge that we don’t speak a lick of Portuguese and were largely beholden to recommendations from our friends and our guidebook (Lonely Planet, though I’m thinking of leaving them for never updating their goddamn listings) and the internets at large. In the past, that kind of research has been more than enough for us to be two happily fed campers, but it felt like we couldn’t score a hit in Portugal, no matter how hard we tried. We tried all the things we were supposed to at places where they were supposed to be good. In Lisbon, we ate bacalhau espiritual (salt-cod soufflé), porco a alentejana (garlicy pork cooked with clams and lots of lard), spit-roasted frango (chicken) with piri-piri on the side, caldeirada rica (spicy fish stew), pastéis de nata (custard tarts), and lulas recheadas (stuffed squid). We sipped ginjinha (sweet cherry liqueur) at the place where it was invented. In Porto, I sampled sardinhas fritas (battered and deep-fried sardines) and arroz de tomate (tomato risotto) while B dug in to a giant bowl of tripas á moda do Porto (Porto-style tripe), a cassolet-type dish of pigs feet, white beans, tripe, chicken, sausages, and vegetables cooked with lots of cumin.
All this is to say, well, we tried. We found the sweets often verged on cloyingly so, and the reliance upon pork fat for everything (including most desserts) made a lot of things heavier than I might have liked. I obviously don’t have the same palate for salt as the Portuguese, and found most of the soups and rice dishes I sampled to be overwhelmingly salty. I don’t say all this to trash an entire national culinary tradition, which I suspect is varied and interesting and flat-out delectable in the right circumstances. But we had pretty bad luck, and it was disheartening at points. By the end it seemed like all we were consuming was sour drip coffee and grilled ham and cheese sandwiches.
Rather than dwell on the negative, however, I want to share with you the best moments of our trip (some food-related!). This won’t be nearly as comprehensive as our last vacation entries (I don’t think anyone could or should plan a trip to Lisbon and Porto from my recommendations). But if you’re going anyway, here’s what we particularly liked.
In Lisbon, our favorite day was spent seeing the major sites. The Sé, Castelo de São Jorge, and museum at Igreja de São Vicente de Fora are the things that every tourist does in Lisbon for a reason – they are truly amazing. The views from the Castelo de São Jorge can’t be beat, but my favorite view was from the very top of Igreja de São Vicente de Fora, where we were miraculously alone at sunset. Despite the occasional miseries we went through on our vacation (just wait until I tell you all the different places B barfed in Porto!), we did see some pretty memorable (and romantic) sunsets in Lisbon. Another great sunset spot (though hardly the “best kept secret” Lonely Planet described it as) is at Noobai Café (Miradouro de Santa Catarina). Get there an hour before sunset like we did to snag a table, then watch the Wayfarer-clad Portuguese hipsters give you the evil eye when they arrive too late in the game for the money shot.
We also really dug the Convento do Carmo and the Museu Arqueológico. With a clear blue sky, the skeletal arches of the nave (which was never fully rebuilt after the Lisbon earthquake) is pretty phenomenal.
For the weirdoes like yours truly out there, the museum has without a doubt the most terrifying mummified bodies I’ve ever seen: two 16th century Peruvian children curled up in little balls. They didn’t allow pictures, but I’m still having nightmares.
We took an afternoon and went to the Oceánario, which I’d also really recommend doing. The second-largest aquarium in Europe and a distinctly conservation-oriented space, the Oceánario is really is an amazing facility. They grow their own coral reefs there! I suspect that it will be even more amazing when they finish the ear-shatteringly loud renovations they were working on during our visit. Come to think of it, a lot of the bad taste in my mouth about Lisbon comes from the fact that I swear I could hear jackhammers at every single moment. The price of beauty, I guess.
Anyway, the main draw of the aquarium is the central tank, which is staggeringly large and filled with a remarkable diversity of species (remarkable, I suppose, because I can’t believe that nobody gets eaten). Every exhibit returns the visitor to another view of the central tank to reinforce the idea of one ocean (I think), so you’ll have plenty of time to observe the animals for an extended period of time as they move through this enormous space. It’s worth the price of admission alone.
As for eating, we did enjoy the much-hyped pastéis de belém, served warm from the oven at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém (you’ll find it, don’t worry).
At 80 cents a pop, they are quite a bargain. Well, you also have to factor in a 5 euro tram ride to and from Belém into that bargain, but there are touristy things to do in Belém if you feel well enough to do things other than lie immobile on park benches and cough (I didn’t).
We also had a few totally decent meals during our time in Lisbon. Bonjardim (Travessa de Santa Antão 11, Lisboa), purveyor of succulent and flavorful rotisserie chickens and fries really floated our boat, though the piri-piri hygiene thing there is a bit weird. It was probably only because I was deathly ill that this even occurred to me. We also enjoyed a rather schmancy lunch at New York Times-recommended Aqui Há Peixe (Rua da Trindad 18A, Lisboa), where we were able to sample local oysters, salty-spicy fish stew, and grilled squid and red snapper. Was the food pretty good? Yeah. Would a restaurant serving that food and charging 80 euros for lunch last for one week in Paris? Nope. Maybe the antibiotics are making me more honest than usual.
We particularly enjoyed a dinner at O Barrigas (Travessa da Queimada 31, Lisboa) in the Barrio Alto. Aside from the very Clarence-friendly name of “the bellies,” we especially liked their house specialty, a bacalhau espiritual that combined salted cod, bread, and carrots (and probably a healthy amount of pork fat) into a baked, soufflé-like dish. It was salty and fatty and totally satisfying. Also yummy was a veal stew served with the omnipresent fries of Portugal. We were the only people there the night we ate, which is really too bad, because it is a pretty great little restaurant. So go there, internets, should you find yourself in Portugal.
The biggest plug I want to make is for Pois Café (Rua de São João da Praça 93, Lisboa), quite possibly one of the most darling little joints I’ve been to in a long time. Run by Austrians (all hail the cakes!), this place is somehow everything you really want a great café to be: kitschey, eclectic, and comfy, with great food and coffee. And a liquor license! Seriously, the sandwiches we ate there for lunch might have been the best thing we ate on our trip. No joke.
They have Wifi and encourage people to sit and read. It’s lovely, and I’d be all over it like a fat kid on fried chicken if I lived in Lisbon. Depressingly, I just visited their website, only to discover that it is FOR SALE. The optimist in me hopes that one savvy Keeping the Bear Garden in the Background reader buys the place and keeps it wonderful. The pessimist in me says owner-changes (when the original is a gem) never work out very well, so get there while it’s still hot peeps.
I also loved shopping in Libson. After scouring a dozen or so sapatarias, we scored B some pretty serious Fernando Silva leather shoes at about the third of the cost of what we would have paid in Paris. We loved visiting the 80-year-old Conserveira de Lisboa, a veritable canned-fish lover’s dream with the walls lined with beautifully packaged tins of sardines, salted cod, cockles, tuna, and cephalapods in every possible sauce and preparation. They wrap your purchases in printed brown paper and tie it with a string, and while I know that this kind of thing is really for the tourists nowadays, it still feels pretty old-world and special. It will feel less special, however, when you arrive for your flight leaving Portugal and discover that they will not allow you to carry canned food items on to the plane, meaning that you have to pay an additional 25 euros to check your suitcase, making those six cans of sardines that you purchased the most expensive cans of fish in the history of time. The EasyJet woman smiled and shook her head when I showed her my neat little package. “It’s always the sardines,” she said. It’s always the sardines.
The other place that you should go an do some conspicuous consuming is the gorgeous A Vida Portuguesa stores in both Lisbon and Porto (Rua Anchieta 11 Lisboa). I had read an article in the New York Times The Moment blog about this amazing place, but this store really does take the idea of a well-edited shop to a whole new level. Everything in the store is manufactured in Portugal, often by small companies that have been making beautiful products for generations. They have everything from toothpaste to metal polish to cans of olive oil, all in amazing, vintage-looking packages. They also carry a great selection of children’s’ toys, vintage postcards, and beautiful home textiles. I died over the handmade Emilio Braga notebooks and the Caldas da Rainha and Faianças Artísticas Bordalo Pinheiro ceramics.
While I showed a fair amount of restraint in the Lisbon store, the discovery that our hotel was next door to the Porto store broke my willpower. We ended up carting back a big bag of paper products, pencils, two amazing mugs, and the sugar bowl of my dreams, which looks like an oyster. Depending on how good your Portuguese is (snort), you can shop online for many of their products.
Things were bleak enough by the time we intended to take the train to Porto that we actually shopped for flights directly back to Paris from Lisbon. Note to fellow travellers: traveling on bargain airlines like EasyJet means that when you call to ask if you can change your ticket, they laugh and hang up on you. It had begun to rain in Lisbon and the gods of the weather internets were saying that it was going to be even worse in Porto.
We were surprised, then, to find Porto to be a sunny, lovely town full of bookshops and bobos and picturesque abandoned buildings. Look, I’m not going to lie and say that I wasn’t still sick as a dog and somewhat miserable a lot of the time. I’m also not going to lie and say that the food was any better in Porto (though we had resigned ourselves to eating more toasted ham and cheese sandwiches, which are actually quite good across Portugal). But we liked Porto about a thousand times more than Lisbon. It’s full of young people and quirky shops and lovely parks. While Lisbon felt to us like a place we would only want to visit, Porto felt like a place we could actually live.
The wheels did fall off the bus a bit when after dining at A Tasquinha (Rua do Carmo 23, Porto), B came down with a pretty vicious case of food poisoning. He had ordered the tripe, an act that I joking observed his gastrointestinal system probably regarded as cannibalism.
Inspired perhaps by the walking-death impression I’d be doing the whole trip, B put on a brave face and we went sightseeing. I’m a bit of an architecture junkie (as most dilettantes are), so I wanted to see Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Música. Pretty underwhelming in person, and it appears that the main function of this 100 million euro project is as a skate park for the local youth. Grumble, grumble, where’s my Metamucil?
We went inside to see the interior, and B promptly announced that he had to find a restroom. We found an empty bar, and B rushed into the restroom while I waited on some strangely discordant looking furniture. An orchestral concert was taking place in the main concert hall and they piped the music through the entire space, so I got to listen to Rossini, as did B while his body attempted to turn itself inside out. He came out after a half hour, glowing and looking like he had seen God.
I suggested that we go back to the hotel room, but he insisted that we continue on our death march to Serralves, a wonderful contemporary arts space housed in a gorgeous park filled with art installations.
It’s very difficult to access via public transportation, however, as Porto’s slick new metro system does not reach to that part of the city. You can now imagine us walking along a peripheral freeway, me hacking out a lung or two, B green with nausea. By the time we arrived at the park, we decided it would be best to sit down. The map directed us to a teahouse in the park, where we discovered that fancy tea in Portugal is Lipton. It mattered little, as we were really there so B could vomit again.
Discovering that the men’s restroom was far too abject to even barf in, B commandeered the ladies’ room for another round of “that offal was really awful.” When the staff discovered him, he pretended to be French. That’s another point of the US of A right there. We then attempted to care about two exhibitions, one of political art and one a retrospective of letterist Gil J Wolman’s art. Well, actually we looked for benches to collapse on and film displays to curl up in the dark. But it’s a really amazing space, and certainly worth a visit should you find yourself healthy and in Porto.
My favorite day of the trip was when we took the train from Porto to Vila do Conde, a swish beach community with a gorgeous stretch of Atlantic coastline. It was obviously too cold to do much at the beach besides wander around and climb on the rocks, but we did this with great zeal.
A strange churro stand at the beach was pumping out old Fado music on a record player, lending a lilting soundtrack to our exploration. Best of all, we were virtually alone on the beach, making this perhaps the most romantic moment of what might very well have been one of the least romantic vacations ever (there’s nothing like handing your lover a snot or puke stained kleenex “to hold” to put a damper on things). Actually, we took pretty good care of each other on the trip, and there is nothing quite like knowing that you still really like somebody even when you both feel like crap. So maybe it was kind of romantic after all.
Did I mention the bookstores in Porto? Check out this beauty:
Meet Livraria Lello, an amazing 1906 Gothic revival bookshop that features this killer staircase. What I didn’t realize at first glance is that most of the “woodwork” is actually trompe l’oeil plaster, and the staircase itself is a solid cement structure (quite an engineering feat in 1906). Even cooler, perhaps, was the fact that many of Porto’s bookshops put of displays of “revolutionary” literature as things began to escalate in Egypt:
It was kind of frustrating being out of touch with English-speaking news while such amazing things were happening, but it was great to see everyone rallying and getting excited. If you are anything like me, dear reader, I suspect you’ve been weeping to images of the crowds rejoicing in the streets the past two days.
Well, at any rate, that’s about all I’ve got to say about our somewhat disappointing Portuguese foray, friends. I’d like to hear all the things you love about Portugal and all the things I failed to eat that would have turned my spirits around. I can’t help but feel like we missed the boat a little bit, which is somewhat inevitable if you travel enough (and you make the budget-driven decision to travel even when you are sick). I’m sorry to have been such a lousy bloguese as of late. I’ve missed you guys and I promise I’ll see you soon.