Walking through the city is visually entertaining…almost absurdly so. The city’s building stock is a mix of the falling apart, the beautifully preserved, and obvious gentrification. Our Airbnb apartment is sparkling new, formerly a printing business of some kind, reached by a broad refinished wood staircase and outfitted in Ikea or Ikea analog modern. Directly across the narrow street is a renovation in progress—almost every block has such change underway. Good time to be in the building trades!
One feature of the older buildings is the gigantic-human-figure on a large number of public or quasi-public buildings. It is a tiny bit creepy…they loom over the population, sometimes posed to be peering down, sometimes crowning the roof. A few of many:
Along with the gorgeous buildings there is an array of street art. I snapped just a few…but don’t you love that cat?
The river winds between Porto and Gaia, with the iron bridge that allows pedestrians on both levels, walkers sharing with cars on the lower and the metro on the upper. We walked to Gaia on the upper level, then wandered our way down to river level and crossed on the lower level back to Porto, climbing the long stairway from sidewalk, past both abandoned and occupied buildings wedged along and under the bridge, finally coming out into the city proper. So glad it wasn’t hot!
People and vehicles seem to mesh rather well…cars, buses, and trucks always pause for walkers as in Lisbon and Evora, with a fair bit of jaywalking well tolerated. Many of the streets are so narrow, with extremely narrow sidewalks (one person with a shopping bag wide) that it really couldn’t work any other way.
Of course Porto buildings often show off the gorgeousness tiles for which Portugal is famous, some of which are above. When we arrived we scooted through the train station anxious to find our apartment, but returned to take it all in and snap a few pictures which do not do it justice.
I look forward to my next post…the food! Have to go to dinner now.
What a lovely, peaceful, history- and religious art-packed town, a perfect weekend between hopping Lisbon and as yet unknown Porto. We had chosen to come here hoping for a contrast with the two major cities and it met our needs fully.
The historic center, a town within the town, is surrounded by a wall built in the 1400’s, though some is newer (1700’s?), and an aqueduct appears here and there, still functioning and in places the arches are filled in with houses. Every building is white, mostly with gold trim and dark green doors, but a few buildings are trimmed in grey…presenting a charmingly consistent look even in the commercial areas which have both cave-like mini mercados as well as modern stores and souvenir shops. Our weekend here turned out to be a holiday, the long weekend celebrations rather subdued, though Saturday morning on the main square were an exercise competition with perhaps twenty participants and a “motorway” around the central fountain on which little kids rode dune buggie bicycles to cheering grandparents.
We stayed in an old-fashioned B&B, converted from a long held family home of 3 or 4 stories, with a very pretty and practical kitchen outfitted with coffee. (French press), loaves of the delicious local pao (bread) which I am certain was sourdough, made of the local wheat which is white but extremely flavorful and made fantastic toast, milk and fruit, and capacity to cook your own food if desired. A tiny patio that held a two person metal table and chairs was open to the sky…several stories up. Free WiFi, a generous bedroom, a shared (with one other room) bathroom bigger than our dining room…sitting on a small praca (square) next to city hall. The location was perfect, and from our room we looked down on the square and out to the surrounding countryside.
Evora has been a cultural center for 2,000 years and we were astounded at the church wealth evidenced by several convent museums. The cathedral, Se de Evora, boasts a relic of the cross, plus many saintly relics housed in tiny glass windows in the chests of the saints’ images. The cathedral was built in the late 12th century and it is marvelous. While we wandered the cloister we could hear liturgical choir music occasionally wafting from the cathedral, which we wrongly assumed was recorded to add to the atmosphere, and were surprised to find a choral group rehearsing. The music, even in the short bursts as the director gave feedback and the singers made notes, was stunning. How lucky we were to find there was a performance that evening by the group Contrapunctus, 12 singers who tour the world and are in residence at Oxford University. For 7€ we so enjoyed the concert, in the cathedral with mind-blowing acoustics and a wildly enthusiastic audience.
For our two days in Evora we wandered the city with stops to see the Chapel of Bones, built in the 1600’s by monks, of monks’ bones from the area, as a reminder to the wealthy and materialistic residents that life is fleeting, several other churches and church museums, parks, and the seriously quaint neighborhoods of impossibly narrow streets and impractical small doors. Honestly I do know how they can move furniture into them! As the town was settled in Roman times there are the remains of a temple, lovely, and where the Roman town center was is now a museum.
Imagine Studying Here
Our last stop was the university, initially built in the 1500’s and reopened forty or so years ago. For 3€ you can wander the original academic building, built around a quad with fountain. They have all the classrooms open for tourists, each room decorated with a blue tile mural depicting the subject originally taught there, as well as an ornate wooden pulpit reached by marble steps from which the Jesuit professors spoke…because words from a pulpit are not to be questioned. On the second floor is the small, ornamented biblioteca and the Azulejos do Centro do Mundo Octogono, a small tall room with tiled murals depicting air, water, earth, and fire. I bet you were unaware that the center of the world is in Evora.
Our first evening we were so tired…and so hungry. We started out for a restaurant our host recommended but en route came upon Mercado da Baixa…as mentioned above. I said it was fun and good and I meant it! to illustrate:
Tuesday night we did make it to the host-recommended restaurant, Cerqueira. We were a bit early and the only customers: sitting at the next table was the owner’s young boy, mesmerized by the soccer game on the TV, cheering his team’s two goals. We had grilled fish, David the bacalhao, I the dourada. Oh, yum for 24€ with wine. Note I started to dig into my fish before remembering to take a photo.
Wednesday we were at a loss. I looked at my “maybe try these?” restaurant notes and found one that was intriguing. A no reservation tiny place with small plates, which was a 15 or so minute walk from the apartment. We threw ourselves out the door, as it was almost 6 and after looking at Yelp (“I had to wait 2 hours for a table and am still giving it 5 stars…”) we didn’t think our chances were good. Got the last free table…and feasted. Honestly if we could have eaten another dish we would have, after the mackerel tartare, a spectacular raw chopped oyster thing in a mysterious broth, a mushroom thing, and cool slices of intensely beefy beef with 3 scrumptious sauces…and the lime mousse with white chocolate shards. (No picture of the mousse…we ate it so quickly!). With wine (they only serve Lisboa wine and locally supplied ingredients) the bill was 54€? Is that possible? Oh, yeah, and bread and olives to start (in Portugal these are never gratis.)
Thursday, we went to the famous Belém home of the ubiquitous pastry pastel de nata, Casa Pasteis de Belem. While they are scrumptious everywhere, here you eat them still warm from the oven. Oh, my. David also had a chocolate eclair which he loved and asked me to learn how to make choux pastry.
To round out our Belém experience we shared an enormous hot dog from a stand on the water because we were fascinated with the combination a customer ordered–crispy potato sticks, then ketchup, hot dog, mayo, mustard, and more potato sticks. Quite satisfying, and we knew we had a treat waiting for dinner…
Our final dinner in Lisbon was our only reservation which David made online before we left the States. Friend Laura (thank you Hannah for having Laura in our lives–not only for travel advice!) suggested Leopold, a 20 seat gem run by a husband and wife team who offer a set course and one seating a night. An uphill walk from our apartment turned out to be especially fascinatingly diverse, charming, and artsy in turns. We missed our street but had given ourselves plenty of time to wander and it was a lucky miss because it took us to a hilltop view complete with a Mozambiquian band, outdoor bar, women in headscarves and hip folk with kids…we paused a bit and enjoyed the scene before we realized we were headed in the wrong direction.
A few pictures from our walk up:
We easily corrected our route (again, hurrah for Google offline maps) and arrived 30 minutes before our reservation. As we stood looking at Leopold wondering if we were even too early to enter a woman stepped out, said “Catherine?” In we went. Started at 7:45, left around 11. ”Twas a great meal and great wine. Toddled down the hill and fell into bed.
I include the menu because the food was not at all recognizable (a few photos below). Wine pairing was really fun. The first was a truly flavorful sparkling wine (all were Portuguese), the vinho verde marvelous, the first red blend we loved (second one less so) and the fortified wine very much like a Madeira. All were surprising and creative!
I did take a photo of the vinho verde because it was virtually colorless!
I repeatedly forgot to take photos, but here is what I did manage to capture. First, the place. Yeah, it filled up but we had it to ourselves for a little while.
Okay, I missed taking a picture of the first course…it was a slice of a small pumpkin, charred, with a blob of coconut something or other with toasted coconut on top, and you dipped or spooned the blob onto the pumpkin. It was delicious!
“Bread, butter, seaweed” turned out to be a small half loaf of sourdough bread made with dark beer (?), a butter so good it was how you think butter should always be…and we finished it plain when the bread was gone, and a chopped seaweed, capers, mustard combo to put on top. Yummy.
Egg, onion, and buckwheat was a soup with a slightly cooked egg yolk, crunchy toasted buckwheat seeds, and a clear broth sweet from carmelized onions. Doesn’t make for much of a picture but we ate every bit. Oh, the green things were crunchy and salty…reminded us of the sea grapes we had in a salad in Kyoto.
Catch of the day was grouper (local, natch) sooooo good and perfect with the red wine.
The meat course was a very soft sausage, intensely flavorful and topped with purslane and shiitake powder. Oh, and a turnip purée (the white stuff). We were getting full…
I forgot to take a picture of the banana, avocado, and something or other sweet…I blame the fortified wine. And “box” was an intensely sweet thing, the ingredients of which we cannot remember. Paid the bill of 170€. Floated down the hill. Went to bed.
Oh what a good night’s sleep can do! We awoke ready for coffee, pastel de nata, the wondrous, and we now know irresistible, custard tart, and a walk through the city.
What we learned: Lisboa is accessible–smaller than we had expected. It is hilly–but hardly difficult for Bay Area folks. It is friendly–and so welcoming to even the most primitive Portuguese language attempts. And it is soaked in history, from Roman times to the fairly recent prosperity that emanated in part from its membership in the EU. (Hey, Britain? You sure you want to go down the Brexit path?)
The streets are typically old Europe, narrow, a bit treacherous from cobblestones which are in mediocre repair, and often solely or almost solely pedestrian. Though we had a few close calls no falls or twisted ankles yet–nor have we seen more than two or three women in heels. Honestly I don’t know how a woman could walk safely in other than flat soles. The tiled buildings are lovely and common, even newer construction, adding an exotic and often Moorish feel to the neighborhoods.
A highlight of our first ramble was Convento do Carmo whose roof and some walls were destroyed in the earthquake of 1755. The soaring Gothic arches remain, seeming to be a pan-holiness combining the arch construction technology of humans and a ceiling of the infinite sky. The small museum in the smaller apse at the rear contains many relics from the Bronze Age and a Roman times that have been excavated from the site.
We also stopped in Sao Roque with “3-D” tiles on some of the walls, and doorways of stone worn down to a concave. A lovely church.
We arrived on a very hot day, exhausted and headache-y, staggered into the metro which of course goes directly from the airport (oh, USA, when oh when will you get with the transit program in every city?), and were quickly at our stop. Free WiFi on the train platform alerted us to connect and get our map up. We had 2 hours to kill before our airbnb was ready, and with our luggage we could just squeeze into the restaurant across the way…taking 2 of the 12 seats in this tiny neighborhood hole-in-the-wall. Three small tables and three seats at the counter, and a steady stream of regulars in and out.
We had been advised to rely on Google translate for menu help. You open the app, select “camera” and aim at the page for instant translation. Wow. A few glitches…the second carne (meat) item was translated as “cub scouts.” We went with the fish.
Our apartment is modern and sparkling clean…and after we met the host and she was finishing up cleaning (we came in as the previous guests were leaving) we fell onto the bed and were fast asleep in minutes–didn’t even hear her leave. Refreshed and ready to get our bearings we headed to a recommended restaurant but on the way encountered Mercado da Baixa, a cluster of vendors of food, wine, sangria, crafts, and jumping with locals and tourists. It looked like such fun and we were so hungry we dove in. Little plates of cheeses, meats, bread, some with tiny cups of fruit jam to spread on the cheese, sandwiches of ham and spread with strong white cheeses, cups of olives, all sorts of nuts and dried fruits, recorded fado serenading the noisy eaters, boys on skateboards, German tourists drinking teeny cups of orange liqueur chased with huge glasses of beer…on a still hot evening it was a welcoming and welcome party.
After food and alcohol we strolled a bit. Yup, the cobbled streets and mosaics are amazing to look at and a bit treacherous to walk on. The patterns change by streets, sometimes by the block, and they are in mixed repair and often rather slippery. Another reason to be glad we have backpacks and not roller bags…most older tourist couples struggle to maneuver and we do feel especially smart. Thanks to Hannah and Mark!
We headed home and took a pedestrian walkway which looked perfect on the map but was a seemingly endless climb, finally depositing us on the street where the recommended restaurant was…it looked casual, friendly, and delicious so we will eat there our second night.
Welcome to Lisbon. Now, to fall into a long night’s sleep.