Lisbon in spring

The bus stop on the quays of the river Liffey, is a bus stop of promise. It brings you to the airport – to fly away to exotic places like Liverpool and Hull. And Lisbon. On Friday like a busy worker bee I was buzzing at the stop, waiting to be whisked to Terminal 1 of Dublin Airport for my Ryanair flight.

The flight was uneventful. I was last to arrive – even though there had been a pedicure induced delay among the others in the group.  I am always fairly last minute when it comes to travelling – skating in to the airport, having packed my case only moments before leaving my house. My attitude is uncomplicated. So long as I have my passport, ticket, keys, bankcard and insulin then I will be absolutely fine. You don’t need more than two minutes to stuff a bag with some spare socks; jocks; shirts and toothbrushes after all.

I felt a great deal of sympathy for the parents of that screaming child sitting in front of me. How unfortunate for them that they have such unpleasant offspring (I am joking – I understand that babies have only their lungs with which to express their dissatisfaction, That doesn’t mean I have to enjoy the noise).

The hotel was very comfortable. Located by a park where the jacaranda trees were in bloom with their fragrant purple flowers, it was all very peaceful.

We put on our party pants and hit the town. Lisbon is a city built on hills so there are spectacular views of the city-scape in the strangest of places. Our friend was working in a terrace bar with a gorgeous view of the Castle of Sao Jorge and the massive, modern bridge spanning the river Tagus. We had a drink with her before bidding farewell. A fish supper was on the agenda. A three course meal with a beer, in a neighbourhood café cost twenty euros. This was quite flabbergasting. Granted the food was not exotic, but it was of good quality, fresh, plentiful and very tasty. Impressive. To top it all off the word ‘eatery’ doesn’t seem to have a Portugese translation. This is my kind of town.

After the meal we hopped into a cab to the Bairro Alto district – this is the nightlife area. It is similar to Temple Bar in that it is a place devoted to partying. It is a hive of narrow streets and laneways, heaving with throngs of people out for the evening. The crowd seemed young. Maybe it’s just that we were older. In any case we found a bar without thumping music, and imbibed a few cocktails.

The next morning we went to the castle of Sao Jorge which we had seen from a distance the night before – it is a Moorish castle on  a hilltop overlooking the city. It is a fortified citadel with fantastic views of the city. Even more impressive were the peacocks which live in the grounds. Those boys are models. Posing and rotating for the admiring crowd, they were living for the spotlight.

After our visit we ventured forth towards Praça do Comércio (Commercial Square) where a friend from Amsterdam was having lunch. En-route I saw the most bizarre sight. A beggar was sitting, singing acapella into a loudspeaker while his dog lay on her back between his legs. His hand was on her belly and he was strumming the tune he was singing through the loudspeaker, on her nipples. It was creepy and gross. But the dog’s demeanour indicated that she was either very relaxed about the whole situation, or that she was a corpse.

Praça do Comércio is a vast and grandiose square which is entered through an elaborate archway. It lies by the water. It’s size and scale shows how Portugal was once a world superpower and colonial power. These days that is not regarded as a badge of merit by a country (violence, oppression, theft and genocide against people with fewer murder weapons than you is not something to be celebrated) but when this square was built, Portugal was showing off its wealth.

After a rubbery burger on the square (tourist prices in this square) I bid farewell to my Dutch friend and we headed over to the enormous Monument of the Discoveries where the colonisers are memorialised. It is from Belem tower –  slightly down the road – that the three Portugese boats set sail for Brazil seeking to bring God’s word to the natives (in exchange for all their wealth and control over their lands).

That evening we decided on an evening of musical culture. There is a district called the Alfama district which is the oldest region of the town. The old one carriage trams can take you there. It is a warren of tiny streets. It is also headquarters of traditional Portugese music style called Fado. Fado music is a form that is melancholy and slow. It is about the suffering, loss and resignation of a life by the sea, endured by the poor. The restaurants in this district all have their own Fado singer. And the Fado must be respected.

I was feeling slightly hypoglycaemic. So we decided that food was needed. We entered the restaurant to be greeted by Morticia Addams’ older sister – the black lipstick and eyeshadow tastefully framing her haggard, weather beaten face. She started screaming at the waiters to clear the staff section  of the restaurant. They screamed back at her. Heaven knows what they were saying, but it sounded offensive. At least we were seated.  Food and drinks would be forthcoming.

Not so fast though. The Fado started. Morticia and her daughter started wailing about their troubles. I have no idea what their specific complaint was but they were vocal about it. Bellowing their grief and pain at each other. Any noise from the audience / diners was ruthlessly hushed by the waiter. The Fado must be respected. Well so must my blood sugars. I was getting slightly delirious. When Morticia and daughter took a breather from their misery, we all rose and fled. To the consternation of the staff. They didn’t seem to grasp the alien notion that for non-aficionados of the Fado, when you enter a restaurant, it’s a reasonable expectation that food and drinks will be offered. This place acted like the restaurant was a complement to the Fado. When it should have been vice versa.

We found another Fado joint called the Taverna D’El Ray. This place was not exactly cheap (a main dish consisting of two prawns and a salad was 25euro) but at least it understood that  Fado does not take precedence over food. The owner / singer was another terrifying woman of a certain age. Howling her grief at the pain of her life.

After our meal we went to an outdoor bar, where one of our party took umbrage at the fact that the drinks menu so limited. We had all had quite a frustrating evening. With our drinks worries sorted we thought the evening was back on track. What was this though. Two men behind us were setting up. They wouldn’t, would they? Oh yes they would. From behind the curtains appeared the Fado diva. Long of tooth and sturdy of waist, she started howling about her painful life. Again I don’t know exactly what ailed her. It sounded mournful though.

I am not a fan of Fado music.

The next day feeling revivified we decided on a trip to the Sintra Mountains – a UNRESCO world heritage site thanks to the range of medieval castles located in the hillside forests. We had planned to visit two of the five castles. Thanks to a combination of a late start, heavy rain and massive crowds we only managed one – Pena Palace. This was a good choice. It was stunning. I imagine that Disney base their fairy-tale castles on this place – grand, ornate, atmospheric and moody. The mist surrounding the building made it quite spooky.

The evening’s adventures were more sedate – a tasty meal in a neighbourhood café called Josephine’s.

Our final day was at the beach resort of Cascais – which is a coastal suburb of Lisbon and one of the prettiest beach towns I have ever seen. It has the seedy glamour of every beach resort I have ever been to; only without the eyesores of slot machines and funfairs. The view into the Atlantic was beautiful. The sun beating down on my blue-hued legs felt like oxygen. We spent some very pleasant hours lolling in the sunshine before reluctantly heading back to the city.

Homeward bound. I reached my house at 3am. The flight from Lisbon to Dublin lasts three hours. When there is a two hour delay on a 10pm flight it can mean a late bedtime.

All told though it was an absolute triumph of a holiday. And the cherry on the cake – the four of us that travelled there are all still speaking to each other – as a group we travel well together. I am taking note of this for future weekend trips.

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