Europe 2015: A Lisbon (Lisboa)-Based Stay
Every trip starts with some kind of hazy vision of what it will be like. Perhaps it's the imagery of a morning coffee, gloriously drained and ever-refilled while listening to the chatter of exotic birds... which is naturally experienced under the ambiance of a faint trickle of water... while under the shade of tropical trees. Sounds good! Or, more actively, maybe it's an adventurous hike instead, traipsing along a jagged ridge line en route to a summit, simultaneously surveying all lands far and wide. Yeah, either one, or a thousand others. All that stuff. Sign me up!
On the eve of yet another trip, then, I've got such a picture. It's a return to a familiar motif for me - cycling down country roads - but this time it'll be through the kinds of ancient villages as can only be found in a place that has the right to be called The Old World: Europe. Namely, my plan is to do so starting from Portugal's Lisbon, in Europe's southwest corner, all the way over to my Grandmother's village in Slovakia. Looking at a map, that's just about as east as one can get while still being in Europe, in the process moving perhaps halfway to the north of its land mass. (It's meanwhile worth noting that, at least during my Grandma's lifetime, what goes for Slovakia today was merely an small portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then for most of her life was one-half (one-third population-wise) of Czechoslovakia. I'm guessing that her former Empire passport would be an interesting collector's item.)
Anywho, the upshot of having such a pre-travel vision is... well... it's good to have dreams! Or, rather, a plan - if unfortunately the kind of plan which one need only look at the chapter headings of this tome to be a bit suspicious... to realize that said plan didn't quite happen. Nope, no Slovakia, no Austria (although I'll enjoy the company of an Austrian fellow traveler for a spell, if that counts!). Not even France or Switzerland, not to mention Germany, The Czech Republic, or possibly even Hungary. Oops.
But think oops-GOOD. The good news - and I mean the VERY good news - is that the very first part of my wild hair's adventure DOES happen: I arrive in Lisbon! Plane tickets work that way, fortunately, and they furthermore have a habit of not changing themselves regardless of the numbnut in whose hands they end up. So it's still to Lisbon that I first go, then still harboring the promising idea of starting my trip on the right foot in executing it per my Grand Plan. Hopefully this'll being in saying hey to an acquaintance made on the Amazon River in Colombia, followed by buying a bike, then ditching town to marvelous strains of The Ride of the Valkyries as I make tracks north and east. And there *would* be good news, too: I *would* get a bike and bolt town! That part's true! Eventually. But... hold the Wagner, and cue the musica misteriosa.
See, by the time I've said goodbye to my brother in Connecticut - a pleasant East Coast interlude in coming from the West Coast, even if much of it seemed spent on not getting bit by a tick to subsequently enjoy all the pleasures of contracting Lyme Disease - I find myself arriving in Lisbon already knowing a disappointing fact: I'll just be missing said acquaintance. Yep, Jose's off for a 3-month veterinary contract in Angola; he's left the day before I arrive. Fortunately, he's arranged for me to be hosted by his good friend, Ivo, but, in keeping with the theme, I naturally miss him at the airport (if but to nevertheless run into soon enough). I miss his friend S. at the airport, too, apparently diligently working at the airport's Information counter and on the lookout for me. I have no idea about any of this at the time, but we'll both realize some days later when we officially meet that, hey, yeah, I DID see you before!
But it doesn't happen then, so with a freebie tourist map from said info booth in hand, I bounce about the airport for a bit while looking to see if anyone is looking like they're looking for me. Guess not! After about ten minutes of such silliness, I head out of the 'port to take matters into my own hands. It's time to just head on into the city, I'm thinking, and having a Metro station right outside the airport's front door seems like an invitation. Moreover, I *do* have directions to the apartment at which I'll be staying, so that's that, and shortly I'm buying a ticket to enter the Metro (which, by the way, is more of a challenge than one would think or I'm alluding to here, what with its poor instructions and ungodly-long lines to access a few beleaguered machines). Trundling into a subway railcar with my excessive amount of baggage, I'm almost instantly already hot and sweaty. That's both from the random exertions involved with too much luggage *and* entering a metal box on wheels that's endowed with the funk of heated dampness underground. To add insult to injury, there's all-too-much humanity to magnify this situation, all of us jammed together in the depths below Lisbon's current sweatbox climate above. Air!
But so such things go, and a transfer and some stops later I emerge back at the surface to gasp before sucking in a lungful of glorious, fresh air - or such as it might be in a big city, anyway. I set to dragging my copious suitcase-on-wheels behind me, this monstrous-yet-disposable first-time reality for this traveler, at times walking back and forth a bit trying to orient myself with the map on my minitablet computer while simultaneously holding the street address in my notepad like a talisman. One thing I'm immediately learning is that, while the novelty of having my luggage on wheels instead of pressing on my back for the first time is a properly good thing, I *might* need to employ the addendum "except on cobblestone". Sigh. No, there's nothing like going from expiring merely misty BB pellets... to suddenly upping the ante to .50cal droplets that roll freely and rapidly down my sides. Then, when I eventually find the apartment on Rua Damascena, I have the pleasure of quickly realizing that it's a 5-story walk-up. Let the rivers flow! Thus it is, anyway, that I must present a most impressive specimen of drenched tourist when the door eventually opens to my new, temporary digs. Welcome to Lisbon!
The good news is that I'm truly welcomed. Ivo, Teresa, Lara, and Alphonse are my sudden and unsuspecting hosts, three veterinarians and the younger brother of yet another veterinarian (yet another Teresa). They're the current denizens of an urban apartment's revolving door of residents, evidently all connected in the past, present, and forevermore via their mutual veterinary school in town. This leads, of course, to the inescapable consequence of there being a couple of pesky cats to soon be my nemeses for anything I set down, but that'll be easily offset by the friendly spirit about the place and this group in particular. It needn't be said but will be, of course, that all of this is undoubtedly and immeasurably helped by all of us rapidly moving ensemble through coffee and then red wine on Day One (a routine to be followed rigorously each day). Naturally, if perhaps ego-maniacally, I like to think that soon pulling out my trumpet does its part as well: Nobody yells or throws anything when I eventually find myself in the wee hours on the rear balcony, serenading the survivors and the steep, abruptly-close hillside behind the apartment.
My new Best Friends Forever are talkative and friendly, perfect hosts to offer information and jokes aplenty about their lives and life in Lisbon/Portugal in general circa May 2015. By far the pressing news here is that, although *this* group is doing well enough in their jobs or studies, I'm apprised that unemployment is at roughly 25% and there's not much of a feeling of job security or mobility to be had even among my new friends. This is accompanied by a lot of wistful shoulder shrugging and sighs... before returning to the ever more hopeful and present reality of more good red wine and coffee. Both of these essentials, I'm assured encouragingly, can at least still be had at prices that can be considered reasonable, even for the locals. (The costs seem startlingly low to me, meanwhile, upon learning that it's only some 2-4 Euros for a decent bottle of red - and the average espresso costs 60-70 cents. Is this heaven? Yes, it is! When do I get my wings?)
Soooooo... Lisboa! Lisbon. Whatever. How long *has* it been? Well, lessee... only about three decades or so. Criminy, that's a lot! Yep, I last came through this burg before any inchoate gray or receding hairs on my noggin were even concepts. Certainly such couldn't have been the case, just having graduated from high school in (then West) Germany to board train after train on the day after graduation: All thoughts were consumed with heading to points South and away, to warmer (and hopefully more exotic) places than Germany. I spent exactly a month on this mission, accompanied by a friend and using an (Europe resident only) Interrail Pass to somehow at one point find ourselves us out in this offshoot of Europe. Lisbon wasn't a planned stop back then, likely merely an improvised one to tack on another country to the list by conveniently being in Spain. However, what with the trains in Spain and Portugal back in the 1980s still not connecting with each other because of different rail track sizes, this *did* necessitate a border walk of a kilometer or three to make the connection. So much for a grand, spur-of-the-moment decision being fully carefree. (Of this journey, meanwhile, I actually far better remember the nun sitting next to me on the Spanish train for the entire way, she who almost immediately upon our departure from whatever station in Spain we departed from proceeded to pass out and lean her head on me to drool nonstop for the ensuing and interminable hours. She looked like she was 100 years of age and perhaps measured all of four feet in height; I didn't have the heart to discourage her. On the plus side, I imagine that my shirt was already filthy and none the worse for the liquid assault.)
As for our morning arrival in Lisbon back then, I chiefly remember the seedy town we encountered although, granted, we barely ventured beyond the port area. (And isn't it a rule that port areas are SUPPOSED to be seedy? So... check!) Yes, the smell of fish and garbage was predominant, but the most memorable thing of our brief visit was that there was a movie being shot just outside of the train station, with the actors Robert Wagner and Terri Garr. No, I don't think it was ever released (title: To Catch A King), but we were nevertheless amazed at watching the main camera crew cinematically zipping down a temporary railtrack to film an action sequence (to give a proper notion of being "on set"). Well, there was that and overhearing a couple idiotic things said by Ms. Garr: "Some of them speak American here!". (I still cringe.)
Beyond the unexpected, impromptu film crashing, I don't recall much more. Lessee, there was that moment where my friend tried out his miserable Spanish on the information lady at the train station - only to be upbraided by her reply in perfect English that Portuguese was the local language, thank you very much for trying (NOT!). And then there was the fact that somehow us two clowns took a ferry to some nearby beaches across the estuary for a few days - where about the only food I ate was yogurt, hardly the culinary "adventurer" I am now. And, well, that was Lisbon, and I imagine that I x-ed off the country from a list or did something similarly mentally dismissive when we started the walk back over the border to catch our awaiting train in Badajoz, Spain.
What an idiot I was! Lisbon is OH so much better now, thank you very much, and that's even if only starting with the Metro system that didn't exist then. Indeed, I quite happily - indeed joyfully - spend my first few days of this incipient trip waltzing about its labyrinth-like streets, soon reconnoitring a good deal of the core business and historical neighborhoods. I'm taking in old architecture that I'm quite familiar with from Latin America, sure, but here it's often with facades that are entirely tiled over. I quickly surmise that these decorative tile exteriors (called "Azulejos", of Moorish extraction and history), comprised of roughly hand-sized pieces, are a very Portuguese thing (even as I'm meanwhile guessing that the architecture here isn't properly referred to as "colonial", but I frankly can't care enough to check) - kinda like there's a particularly Lisbon thing that I'll also shortly become accustomed to: being constantly stopped and offered marijuana and hashish. Same guys, near the same places, nearly every day. This is only kinda annoying since it's roughly the same ones who pester me each time, I come to question if my face truly has no remarkable feature whatsoever, but, okay, fine, maybe - just maybe - these guys are stoned automatons... who will soon be bent in taking over the world! Or maybe that's the caffeine from the latest shot of espresso talking.
Whichever might be the case, my lengthy strolls unto this spiderwebbed street network of urban jungle also finds me running into numerous plazas. These are just as likely to be both broad affairs or dollhouse-like, but they're also where - of utmost importance - I'll enter into the invariable cafes which are in or alongside them. Yeah, no shocker there. How could I possibly *not* be about all these repeated dosings of espressos for all of 60 cents? Especially when there's always the traditional accompaniment of the custard pastry called pasteis de Belém (pastel de nata is the general term) for not much more! Hallelujah! And so my sugar-and-caffeine infused wanderings go, with it also being worth noting that these same core historical areas have a street flavor of bustle that is tweaked on high. *That* comes from so many folks being literally fresh off the boat from the likes of areas in Africa and South Asia, the mere thought of which sets my mouth to watering at the prospects of spiced and exotic cuisines I already know to be up my alley. (Side note: Is it just me, or does it seem like the first thing that immigrants the world over open is a restaurant? Yeah, I thought so, too, and to that I thank Buddha, the Lord, Allah, or whomever else quite fervently.)
Nearer to the apartment, meanwhile, I'm joined a number of times by Teresa or Ivo for coffee or beers. We walk over to spots which I'm told they frequently habit, places that typically enjoy views over downtown and the harbor area, and of which there are many. It's only with a small amount of disappointment, however, that in these otherwise joyful outings I *also* find - in contrast to the generally lovely coffee and wines - that there are effectively only two "local" beers of note to sample: Super Bock or Sagres. Although neither is even mildly interesting (think Budweiser), the sunshiny days fortunately still manage to wipe such concerns away. Whew. So it's "Outra, por favor" in the increasingly rare case where I don't stick to coffees, usually demanded as "cafe cheio/abatanado" (the closest thing to an americano). The company I keep overwhelms any such pesky details of beverage and, besides, the views like the one at Miradouro de Virgin de Monte are superb. Each and any of these hillsides to left and right suffice to command our attention from on high, and there's always the bonus that the nearest hill to us sports the preeminent castle for the area, Sao Jorge. Like kings on high we can only wonder what the peasants are doing below, only made mildly real in the form of a general aural ambience - a random, gentle horn honk; a few chattering voices below. They're distant, quiet, and me like this. Me like very much.
So no, the simple word "pleasant" doesn't seem to quite fully cover these wanderings. Not when I've almost instantly fallen in love with this place, even with the cars which each seem to zip by me at the closest of quarters - namely the centimeter of distance from my elbow to their side mirror. Talk about... grazing. But even these brushes with death and maiming on such narrow streets is somehow to my liking, just another jostling amidst this hodgepodge of buildings and humanity. It fits, too, that the very buildings are jumbled onto hillsides of stone, where clumps of greenery appear and disappear, with building and open space alike falling to the dictates of road twists that are seemingly construed only of whimsy.
As for the streets themselves, the older ones - of which there are still many - are generally made of traditional-sized cobblestone. Many often sport miniature sidewalks alongside them, not a given when considering the dimensions, supposed paths offering safe haven that are similarly built - if but of a smaller variety. To construct or redo them - and I see evidence of such repairs everywhere - each stone is placed by hand into a sand base to form the tight pattern, before more sand is ultimately poured on top to "seal" the deal. Could there be a more ancient practice of road building? No idea, but this works - although it DOES seem like an awful lot of effort. Nevertheless, such timeworn and plodding details add to the low-key shuffle that is street life here.
Naturally it's the food which opens my eyes the most widely, food almost always being the most notable aspect of travel bar none. Seafood rather unsurprisingly dominates here, and my new (if temporary) flatmate Teresa in particular can't imagine a day - if not a meal - without fish. Granted, she also convincingly insists that the fish and fruit of her city, Algarve, is vastly superior to what I'm finding here in the big city, but to that I can only gravely nod in clueless assent. (She'll later say the same about some products of the north coast and countryside, no fan of the big city, Teresa.)
Nevertheless, and perhaps as expected in a European country of longstanding tradition, I have no trouble discovering meat and cheeses of good quality here in the big, bad city. They abound to accompany the wine and port I'm similarly sampling here and there, although it's worth mentioning that there's a general belief that the only reason I haven't previously heard of any specific label on any of any of these products before is that no one really properly markets *anything* in Portugal (to which I should amend the fact that that's only possibly true if ignoring their longstanding success in promoting their fortified wines (port) along with their necessary compliment of cork stoppers that conveniently come from an indigent tree - which is kind of like having having a peanut butter bush next to a jelly lake by a mountain of bread. I digress.) In any event, I solemnly vow to do my part in pushing the quality of the local artisanal grub and drink I'm enjoying here, especially if it can be done while shoving another morsel in my mouth, or tilting my head back just a little further to get that last drop out of my glass.
As for the seafood which I'll increasingly sample, bacalhao (cod) is the famous fish of these parts - especially when it's minced up, mixed with cornmeal or flour, then deep-fried. Oh, yeah! (For the record, no one needs to clue in the heart on why it's starting to block up, either.) Yes, these little nuggets of goodness are as traditional as it gets 'round these parts, and fortunately they're found all over the place. Usually this deep-fried version is seen resting behind the typical glass counter found in many a cafe or restaurant, smiling at prospective customers in their comely and demure way, typically alongside counterparts made of other meats and seafood that have received the same spa treatment of being bathed in oil properly heated up. The teases! Still, it's all about the bacalhao, baby.
Thus it is that my aimless strolling only suffices to properly begin my trip in a very agreeable way. Or, rather, it does until a bonus comes my way, further sweetening this stew pot of joy: I'm invited along for an adventure. The idea is to head up with a group to the lesser known part of Portugal, the Northeast, with a hazy plan of exploring a bit of an area that's long been sparsely populated (ever-increasingly moreso as of this writing). Mechanization of agriculture and no jobs, the all-too-typical culprits, sum up the reason why this area's in even further decline than ever before. Indeed, it's now gotten to the point where practically only the elderly are remaining, steadfastly staying in the region for the duration even as their young move away. This is a sad recipe cooked up around the world, of course, it's just that it's here in this particular region that Portugal's taking its hardest hit.
So off we'll go to rummage about the Northeast for a few days, I'm told, although we actually WILL have something of a mission beyond preening at decay in and of itself: We're first going to hike along a closed rail line. The deal is that a narrow valley might soon be submerged, victim of a planned dam for electricity that's nearing completion. The dam is controversial, if likely beyond a done deal as of our visit, but one never knows. Meanwhile, as an enticing detail, and perhaps to make the scene complete, I'm told that we'll begin our trek by camping overnight at an abandoned village, San Lourenzho, where we'll pick up the rail line. Sounds good!
Still back in Lisbon, however, it's Alphonse who first joins me on the clean and efficient train out to his hometown of Santorem (an hour away, where we're to meet some others). Rather haphazardly arriving at the train station, he's soon instructing me on how to feign tourist surprise when we don't pay before getting onboard. You do what ya gotta do, he tells me, even as, about halfway to Santorem, the conductor is soon admonishing us onboard if nevertheless agreeing to sell us the necessary tickets without a fine. Yep, ya do what ya gotta do, and thus we beat the hour or more wait we would've endured if we hadn't run to catch the thing. (As for playing up my ignorant foreignness for the conductor's approval, I handily self-award myself an Oscar. Bravo! Golf claps erupt in the background...)
In Santorem, I meet Alphonse's sister Teresa, immediately abandoning Alphonse to run off and commence heavy drinking with his buddies as Teresa instead takes me over to an artificial lake for our own beers. Then we're walking along cork trees to the tune of Teresa's wisecracking, a kind of lowdown on Portugal that usually has "Fuck it!" as an exclamation points that are followed by flicking a cigarette and starting to roll another one. Libations and history lesson complete, we're next checking out some goats she's raising at her grandparent's practically-abandoned house/estate - as I pass yet again on getting stoned in this fine land for the 77th of 245 times to come over the course of a month or so. Now with all necessary intoxications and our brief survey of Santorem complete, we return to her parents' house as fellow flatmate Lara eventually catches up with us in her two-seater Smart car. She's bringing along the lone Brazilian member of our growing party, William, who naturally speaks a Portuguese that sounds like it's from another planet entirely - but one where I actually understand things. *That's* the Portuguese I remember as being accessible from Spanish, not this Russian-sounding stuff!
In the interim of our waiting for Lara, then waiting to go, I'm made to suffer Teresa's mother putting out dish after dish of traditional Portuguese food and drink. Hardly! I slowly - yet quite happily - begin to succumb to this extended and drunken heart attack in the making, receiving further alcoholic lubrication at a constant rate to blunt any possible resistance. There's absolutely none. How can there be, with an egg-bread sporting chunks of sausage and ham (folar) to sample? Good god, crack never had it this easy! Indeed, I've long thought that dying with a smile on your face isn't a bad way to go, and this savory cake seems a particularly reasonable way to accomplish the feat. With mother pointing my nose to plate after plate, for his part father keeps my liquor glass full, all the while standing off to the side with his cigarette and nodding approvingly as he sticks to only liquid refreshments himself. Yes, these people plainly UNDERSTAND, and to this unexpected aura of discovery and enlightenment I necessarily find myself asking the question: "Do we *really* have to hit the road into the deep night?" ("Especially when all of this awesome grub is available? There's still sooooo much more!") Sigh.
"Yes!" is the answer, of course, and when we finally usher ourselves out the door I learn that we're to do so only at breakneck speed, something I'll discover is apparently Teresa's wont at all times. Yikes. But it's actually worse: She's also texting nonstop, simultaneously rolling cigarettes and joints as we hurl down the Portuguese version of the autobahn. Good god. (Actually, to at least defend the road, *it's* probably even *better* than the autobahn - a fact which I'll be told a number of times over the next few weeks. Portugal, I'm apprised, has the best highway system in Europe. Granted, it surely helps that it's all relatively new, and that the EU has been exceedingly generous following Portugal's membership in 1986, plus that it's a small country to boot where impacts are both quicker and larger to achieve. But these roads are butter, nonetheless.)
Back in the immediate moment, however, I'm vastly more concerned with trying to keep my heart out of my throat, a situation rendered difficult as Teresa continues with her eyeball-and-hand-distracting antics at 160kph. That this is furthermore done under a heavy rain, including numerous lane closures that arrive practically unannounced, is just... a bonus. I think. But whatcha gonna do? I take a deep breath or three hundred to calm my nerves, unconvincingly consoling myself that at least I'm definitely getting a bit of a scouting trip. As to even THINKING of biking through this hilly, wet area? Uh, no, no I won't be doing so.
On into the middle of the night we speed away, then, the rain finally stopping, even if the pitch of black under a fog hasn't relented at all. We repeatedly discuss among ourselves the rough directions we're trying to follow, hoping to find this ghost town called San Lourenzho that none of us have ever been to. Now in the Northeast region, we go forward, circle back, go around, and then do it all again in a winnowing sequence... before, all of a sudden, we spot a couple of cars in an area where none have been seen for a while. A lick of flames from a small fire confirms our suspicion. Bingo! Signs of life! We flop out of the car, immediately setting to rouse the others of our now-fully-formed group that we've finally rather belatedly caught up with.
Fortunately, these others have just taken to their tents now with their fire mostly dying down, each surely with enough wine properly emptied into his or (mostly) her gullet. Actually, no: it looks like some more wine needs to get a move on. In any event I meet what is mostly a group of women, all former classmates and friends from Lara's university days, plus their token ringleader, Alberto. This latter one we only find some minutes later, semi-passed out in a thermal bath he's refilled that's a tomb of sorts ensconced in stone a convenient mere stone's-throw away. Yeah, he's up for a bit more vino, too.
Morning comes not that much later, however, and it's a bit of a rough and necessarily lazy start for our motley crew, no complete shocker all things considered, but we put the tents and empty wine bottles away to commence walking the rail lines. Yep, booze be damned: we're one and all ready to jump into the mission at hand... well, not until first completing a survey of the abandoned village in which we find ourselves. Most of the houses are caving in, likely dangerous places to enter, but a handful seem like someone left them yesterday. Weird, eerie, spooky - it's all that. I listen to some discussion among the group, about how some of these villages are being taken over by hipsters, gypsies, or even Brits looking to make their own retirement hideaway. Alberto in particular is quite knowledgeable of the area's history, a good brain to pick, and he figures that San Lourenzhou will have its turn at such "gentrification" someday. Hmm. Well, that's not the case here right now, or not yet, that's for sure. We're the only game in town. What an odd and lonely place, I continue to muse, finding this locale utterly appealing in its ruin of grapevines and tumbling hillsides.
Eventually making our way down to the rail line that's to be our path, I soon learn that we actually have someone who's *officially* of a historical mien among us. That'd be Marta, a flesh-n-blood archaeologist, not coincidentally working on identifying sites here that are going to be buried in the great flood to come. Thus it's to her that we turn to as we next spend a good chunk of the day walking the dozen kilometers of rail line or so. She points out petroglyph sites and former settlement uses (we have to use our imaginations a good deal) as we stroll along under an increasingly beating sun.
At least we can't complain about the going not being easy, what with our "trail" being exceeding flat - although it does require a type of not-quite-right pace to maintain a regular pace with the unfortunate spacing of the rail ties. Helping that effort, there are a number of drop-offs to doom (cliffs over the river) off to our right that keep the mind from wandering too much. As for highlights, those'd be the sketchy bridge crossings - with their holes between ties dropping to nowhere below - and a few tunnels, where bats roam and I play music on the trumpet to usher them about. Other items which pique our interest include an old abandoned station to consider along the way, gutted if still sporting a number of artifacts, plus there's a surviving village that we spy across the small valley/ravine. It's seemingly devoid of life from our distance, but apparently there's some question of how close they'll be to the flood line. I imagine they might want that in writing...
All in all, we feel that we accomplish a good day's work if indeed without much work. At the end of the line, we finally come upon the new, odious dam being constructed - and here we take in some evidence of the protests I've heard about during our "trek". From the near-completed state of the dam, though, it sure looks like it's a-gonna happen - even if I'm nevertheless told that it's still not necessarily so. Double hmm on that. Collectively as one we're only able to shrug our shoulders wistfully, soon exiting with a steep hike that leads us up and out to arrive in a tiny village above. There we subsequently negotiate for some locals to shuttle at least our drivers back to the vehicles left waiting back in San Lorenzhou.
The rest of us will have to be content with idling away a surprisingly long time in this ancient village on the edge of nowhere, sampling fruit, eyeballing birds and insects, but mostly getting looks from the locals who seem startled that anyone would possibly be out this way. Finally, though, our heroic trio of cars arrive with dusk falling. So off we go to make our way to Stop #2 on our "tour", although only first after obtaining a meal in yet another village that's not quite a village. We choose a restaurant rather oddly chosen, almost completely on account of Marta not properly dressed as she would normally be when representing officialdom. This is something that from an ensuing discussion I can't quite fully understand, or not much so outside of learning that the area is exceedingly traditional and her appearance is a big deal somehow. I dunno, but the meat-n-'tatoes Portuguese style is hearty, tasty, yet somehow different as well.
"Stop #2" is the ancestral home of Alberto's, naturally situated in another teeny village, a handsome mansion/manor near the top of the hill with a commanding view. It turns out that Alberto's ancestors not only previously owned most of the land within sight, but probably could have been said to own the people as well. Ah, feudal days, when it was good to be king, noble, or another petty lord - and it would've sucked to hump sacks of grapes up and down these hills made of sharp reliefs. Fortunately, Alberto is an outgoing and friendly guy, hardly the stuffy heir to former glory, so we next experience locals greeting him and thus us as a bit of family. At the house, we eventually end up repeating the proscribed necessary ritual of cheese, sausage, wine, and port into the wee hours. The focus for the evening ultimately turns into something of a drunken dance party to tunes I've never heard of before, all in Portuguese, so it looks like I'll have to check out all the extensive woodwork and fine detail of this ancient place in the morning.
Morning means more of our same show of grub and chitchat, with coffee replacing booze. Then we finally opt for a very lazy start out of the village, if only after first heading to the local cafe to say hi to locals slumped over their early glasses of wine (and where I'm required to play Happy Birthday in someone's house behind it). We're soon lazing about a nearby reservoir for a good while, a stop I imagine is seen as a necessary retreat to gain the necessary strength and sobriety to return to civilization such as it is hereabouts.
Eyes sufficiently reopened, we're next zigging and then zagging our way for an hour or few (it's hazy!) to reach Vila Real, one of the bigger cities of the north. It turns out that Vila Real is the very university town where a number of my new friends originally met, full of memories and familiarities. Thus it's a place where we'll resume our now-established ritual of eating everything in sight, this time in the form of the traditional fare of a pork sandwich accompanied by drinking more red wine, all done in "the" students' restaurant haunt. It's a large place, with picnic-styled tables and the look of a beer hall, so it's not hard to imagine sloshing down booze late into the night at such a spot with live music and stumbling trips to the john.
As day turns to night, we stop at a couple of friends' homes to share some cheese and wine. Eventually, too, we're back in the center of town to look over the assembled land and gentry from the local castle's viewpoint. There are some beautiful old buildings to encounter all along these tos and fros, requisite old churches and charming plazas to walk into, then visits to some of our group's homes for more glasses of wine. I could get used to weekends like this, I believe. Somehow we end up one the girl's home and crash as the wine finally takes its toll. I'm utterly beat.
But good things must come to an end, and come morning this road trip must as well. We do some final moseying about town, meandering on foot by the river and in the older section, followed by a string of goodbyes. All too soon, Teresa is once again resuming the wheel of our destiny - and our crew once again learns how a Honda can be pushed beyond its intended limitations, and this done under the influence of constant texting, rolling of cigarettes, plus now even some knee-driving in the bargain. Am I just getting older, or is this just pushing it beyond reason? The correct answer is that I'm a Spring flower.
I'm SO happy to arrive alive back in Santorem, needless to say, not bothered in the least to find that I'll need to stay here an extra night the last train to Lisbon's already left. This is good news, however, and that goes beyond the repeating of platters of traditional Portuguese food that are likely again dragged out only for my benefit. That's because Teresa knows where I can get a bike at a bargain price, at the "Sports Walmart of Europe": Decathlon. Thus I'm soon the owner of a new bike for all of 130 Euros. What a steal for a piece of steel on wheels, 27 shiny gears willing and waiting to do my bidding! When I catch the train the next day, then, I'm already planning on getting it rigged up to roam.
Back in Lisboa, I've got the bike reasonably rigged in no time, albeit forced to make some compromises on what will or won't go on the upcoming big roll. Some decisions are easily made, however, like when a piece of gear refuses to attach properly to the bike. That'd be the handlebar bag, primarily, after an unsuccessful final ditch effort at a local bike shop to confirm the futility of my efforts and the rarity of some necessary screws. But a number of other things related to cooking and the like find themselves abandoned as well. Still, what a tanker!, I'm thinking, needling myself for my foolishness in assembling such a heavy load. And here I thought that I'd downsized from the previous cycle tours! I scratch my head but accept the reality, realizing that I'm at least lucky to be able to leave some things behind in Lisbon here at the apartment. That'll be minus my big suitcase with wheels on it, however, as I've summarily donated it to William for his upcoming return to Brazil. THAT'LL force some downsizing, I figure.
Of course, I'm not quite done with Lisbon just yet, happily resuming my walkabouts to viewpoints, praças (plazas - sometimes the Portuguese is SOOOO close to Spanish, yet in odd ways), and cafes. There are more gardens to survey, too, if always entailing ever more bacalhao e pasteis to consume. I'm just the guy to do it, I know, I know. In the nearby South Indian neighborhood (or, rather, that's what's supplanting what was formerly a seaman's haunt below the apartment I'm staying in), I try out curry dishes and such that I've not tasted before. Being evidently the only non-South Indian guy to dine inside these establishments, I befriend a number of staff and customers over meals as some warm to my presence and offer me a few extra things to try. Yes, this is the right side of traveling indeed! Then it's back to more walkabouts, sometimes necessarily dodging ancient tramlines still in use, sometimes turning down a sidestreet only to avoid an oncoming and quite irritating tuktuk. These latter, glorified motorcycle cabs imported from Southeast Asia are only very recently been brought in for tourism, but I'm told that they are already quickly turning into a hated plague. I'll vouch for that, and there's even some grafiti and signs already going up in the neighborhood which beg/order them to please go away and respect the sanity of the locals.
Speaking of which - going away - that's what I manage to find myself again invited to do - but it in a good way!, this time for an entirely different type of outing far from Lisbon. The theme for Go-Round #2 is to be a WOMAD festival, one from that concert series of world music and dance that abruptly died in its Seattle incarnation immediately following the events of 9/11. (The musicians from many parts of the world could no longer obtain visas to enter the U.S., kind of a show-stopper for a world music event.) But here it's close at hand, and what a potential treat!, I'm thinking. I'm definitely excited to participate/spectate again, remembering all of the new musics I was previously exposed to (and subsequently bought CDs of) back in the years surrounding 2000 back in Seattle. Here I'm apprised that there's an annual WOMAD that takes place nearby, over in Cáceres, Spain. Ah, Cáceres! THAT's a good thing in and of itself, too: Gema, a friend recently made in using Couchsurfing in Vancouver, B.C., has recently returned to the very same city, her hometown. Nice coincidence!
This time it'll be Ivo and his friends who'll play my host crew. We leave as merely three from Lisbon, however, first pit-stopping at a town (Montemor, an hour or two away) en route to become four. An abandoned monastery now revived as an artist colony is where we eat a rustic, locally-sourced lunch (this IS an artist colony) and then check out the local castle. It's located on a hillside, naturally, but it's now serving as something of a repurposed art service for shows/expositions. Good call. As my friends share some joints and memories, I play a few tunes and we while away the remainder of a few Montemor hours in this bucolic site. Finally, though, enough visiting has been done and it's time to hit the road. Onward to Cáceres!
Or sort of, eventually... Like Teresa, this latest driver unto my continuing adventure takes to texting and rolling cigarettes almost immediately as we drive into the night, yet again a rather high speed. Old seat belts, no air bags... Sigh. This time a reprieve is earned, however, as we almost run out of gas and have to stop shortly after crossing the border into Spain by Porto Alegre. We're still some 100km short of Cáceres, but a lone bar is open into the night and we logically down beers while waiting for Teresa to catch up in another vehicle with yet another friend - and a jerry can of gas. Teresa Our Holy Savior Of The Gas Can eventually arrives with a broad smile, more than ready and willing to make fun of us, and soon enough we're finally entering into Cáceres in the middle of the night. After a stop at a random roundabout seemingly only chosen to drink and tell tales - further proof that we're lost, but also that we don't care - we're ultimately parking at some lonely patch of green where we can down still some more beers and pitch tents. It looks like Cáceres has some new homeless folks. (Quick Cáceres facts: Cáceres's ancient area is also called the autonomous community of Extremadura, a UNESCO world heritage site that's a blend of Roman, Moorish, Northern Gothic and Italian Renaissance architecture. Thirty towers from the Islamic period still stand in Cáceres, of which the Torre del Bujaco is the most famous.)
Come morning, we find some local groundskeepers doing their rounds with lawnmowers and weedwhackers, blithely cutting their away around us as a construction crew simultaneously and with noisy aplomb resumes tearing up the street our chosen park home is apparently alongside of. Ow! Thus is a shiny new day of festival dawned. This isn't exactly a pleasant start, no, but fortunately we know that there's coffee and that delicious Spanish egg bomb called a tortilla to cure that. Thus conceding victory to the noisemakers, we head off to find one nearby that's open. We're soon joined by a couple more friends, evidently more than ready to help us transition to beers all too soon enough at a lonely cafe otherwise only inhabited by its couple of resident drunks. With some alcoholic greasing, it's not long before I play the horn some. Ivo and Bruno, too, pull out instruments, alternately squawking away on clarinets that one or both are learning to play. That effort evidently not going anywhere, however, former gymnast Ivo decides on cartwheel tricks over a stone bench at the ancient church across from the bar. Yep, it looks like we're getting back into the partying mood... which means that it'll eventually be time to head up to the show itself. Up to the old walled city of Cáceres!
There we head indeed, although only after by the most odd of coincidences prematurely running into Gema. As a slightly larger group now, together we wander through the massive street market assembled for the festival, simultaneously drinking, eating and catching up (Gema's brought homemade sausage, cheese, and wine, too). Then we're finally ready to leave the big crowds jumbled just below the walled city to head into the even larger ones congregating above. We're carting about bottles of wine, plus beers, and all the above keeps moving from vessel to body as we alternately check out the offerings between the few stages. The music is okay, if a bit more mainstream than I'd hoped, but the people-watching and party environment is top notch.
Helpful to at least me, meanwhile, is the fact that my friends have taken to wearing conical, palm tree sheath hats. These serve to help us stay together - even if no one's counted on everybody and their brother wanting to have their picture taken wearing the silly sombreros. So these odd bits of headgear (which I only remember being used as headgear in the Chocó region of Colombia) have their drawbacks, too. Over time the party scene on this night loses steam for some of us - a couple of hours of sleep the previous night doesn't help, although this fortunately is not supposed to be the "big" night, anyway - so a few of us split off to crash in the very uncomfortable confines of Bruno's van. To this retreat we get to enjoy a huge relief of sorts when we're re-awoken at 5 a.m., apparently the appropriate hour for scrambling for yet another patch of grass on which we can plop our tents and get some real sleep - like starting at right around dawn. Evidently I have no idea that I'm not 20.
Well, THAT bedding down makes for a late start the next day, but we've done much better this time around in choosing our ephemeral digs. That's because we're on an edge of town that lies next to an ancient fountain and a church almost in ruins. Some massive ciconia (cigüeña en español) storks make their inimical clattering sounds to here lend some appropriate ambiance, all of them nesting high up in the aeries of the church, as many locals arrive with jugs. We soon learn that it's still a local custom to fill 'em up with free water at ye olde fountaine. Hmm, we all seem to simultaneously seem to think, soon using the same blessed spigot for field baths of face splashes and the like. That helps to find us again soon chitchatting our way back into existence, now also with a number of other festival goers who also passed out on our little patch of green. These local jug-luggers of water, plus the wide-eyed joggers and dog-walkers who show up in equal number, don't quite know what to make of us, but I'm guessing they see this every year.
Again we eventually turn to raiding a couple of nearby cafes to get the day started, here all of a couple of blocks walk away. The staff at the first one isn't terribly friendly, rather confusingly given our ravenous appetites, but maybe that's because we're the only ones not having our morning glass of wine like the rest of the (I assume quite religiously local) lot inside. (Which brings me to one thing I've already begun to notice in Spain: People here drink... a... lot.) We, however, are content to delay partakings of booze until perhaps 11 a.m. or noon, so we decide on setting up our extended shop at a different outdoor cafe's tables to eat, drink... and ultimately decide on the most crucial of decisions: when to actually head up into the walled city area for another round of WOMAD. Around us, meanwhile, it's evident that the city is positively overwhelmed with this annual concert scene/free-for-all, but for now the mayhem seems to be being kept at a low and happy boil.
Come Night #2 of WOMAD, I'm happy to note that there are much better performers - even if it still holds no candle to the WOMAD concerts I remember from Seattle, which had vastly more numerous smaller acts, workshops, and such. But this location can't be beat, that's for sure, certainly not with the ancient walls of various plazas serving as backdrops. Talk about ambiance, here with a medieval twist! As a consequence, sure, it's a struggle to move through the massive crowds in such confined passageways and limited open spaces, let alone doing so together, but when some acts show up with trumpets doing Balkan and gypsy musics, I'm quite content. I'll let it suffice to say that it's only somewhere in the wee hours that all this aural teasing ends. Somewhere along the way I've said goodbye to Gema; we again make it back to "camp" to call it a day (or a night?) on WOMAD quite late. Once more I'm completely beat. I'm not 30, either.
The next day is an extended recovery, which surprisingly finds us staying in town all the way while until almost dark. We again wander about the extensive merchandising areas, hit cafes; Gema even shows up again (with some family members this time). We happily while away the day with coffees, pastries, then beers, and only after this undertaking of a properly long, slow day are we ready to leave medieval Cáceres and get back to Lisbon.
At least this time we'll be motoring with enough remnant light to enjoy the scenery of the drive, quite a show for someone like me what with the "plains of Spain" being dotted with trees of a certain spacing unto infinity. It's an impressive landscape to behold, much like the one found in the hills of Portugal coming up in shrinking distance ahead. En route I'm given a history lesson of Portugal, in particular a primer on how those very hills proved quite useful in defending the Portuguese from invading Spaniards successfully over the course many years. There's no mistaking the reveling in how David here slew Goliath, numerically-speaking. Meanwhile, in fully reversing our steps, we return to Montemor. We reconnect with the artist Isabel and others from the artist "colony" for a few hours, hanging out in their properly dilapidated mansion home over cheese, wine, and horn, then us final four survivors head back to Lisbon to eventually reduce ourselves to two again in making our way back to that comfy apartment I've briefly been honored to call home.
My last days in Lisbon are not much more than a girding up for the cycle trip to come. I outfit any last things for the bike, meanwhile attempting to check out some remaining highlight spots of town I've missed over my now-extended visit. One such place is Belém, a former royal residence area complete with its palace and stunning fortress-on-the-sea (if there ever was one, this is it, believe me). Belém's also host to the iconic pastry shop known for having the "best pastéis in Portugal" (which, naturally enough, is nowadays right next to a McD's and Starbucks - sigh), plus there's a royal botanical garden and numerous military installations in olde-tyme nick, and then there are some museums to round out Belém's offerings. Now that's a proper day trip!
But that's to be about it for my Lisbon tour. Throughout my Lisbon stay I've admittedly been on a bit of a frenzy of picture taking in this area, trying to capture the look and feel of old Portugal, but I also probably largely fail in my effort. That'll likely continue. Undeniably more successful is the last supper that must eventually come along. I put together a meal centered on black beans-n-rice as all of the apartment with an extra visitor or two make a goodly dent into our supply of red wine. Okay, NOW it's time to ride.
EXTRA Lisbon(-Based) Pictures
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