in which your author hears timeless music and learns to ski with sneakers in the windy streets of intoxicating old Lisbon
01.08.2016 - 02.08.2016 84 °F
Day 10 begins just like Day 9 – it’s déjà vu all over again, said Yogi – waking up early to catch the taxi Mar has called so I can head to the train station to meet my BlaBlaCar driver Miguel who will drive me to Lisbon. (I love that I only knew about this service from nice fellow Leo who I only spoke with for about 20 minutes on my first night in Madrid. Where would I be without serendipity?) All goes according to plan this morning, and Miguel pulls up with a friend Hector and one other guest passenger, a young woman from Poland named Justyna. Miguel and Hector manage to squeeze all our bags into the trunk and we head off. The drive is long but doesn’t feel long, as the conversation is buzzing. It’s so very convenient everyone speaks English here! Miguel guns it and what was supposed to take 5 hours and 40 minutes is cut to 5 hours. Along the way we pass loads of dry greenery, small distant Spanish towns, and a few ancient-looking castles. At a rest stop I buy (and consume) an entire bag of potato crisps – the workout regime picks up hardcore when I return home! It’s neat to pass into Portugal, which, along with Belgium is one of two new countries for me on this trip.
We arrive in Lisbon by way of a massive bridge, and as we pass over one can see the river below, a large statues of Jesus looking over the city, and hundreds of dark orange rooftops. (My companions announce to me I’m simultaneously in San Francisco with the bridge and Brazil with the Jesus statue.) So far, this city looks exactly as I had imagined it. We whizz through the streets and end up by a central-looking plaza right by the water, where we depart – hope to see these folks in the US someday! The BlaBlaCar ended up being a great situation, but the way – for 41 Euro, about half of what it would have cost for a train ticket (which wasn’t even available online), I got from Madrid to Lisbon, and had great company the whole way.
I head off to my Airbnb in the Alfama section, where I’m meeting an acquaintance. (NOTE: I’m not going to get into the details of this publicly, but suffice to say the situation was not a positive one, and thanks to the recommendations of some very good friends I ended up leaving the flat the following day to explore Lisbon on my own. Though inconvenient, this ended up being a wise choice. Don't travel with people you don't know well, friends!)
Alfama is the oldest neighborhood in Lisbon, and the rather treacherous walk there up many stairs and hills (lugging my bags all the while) makes me question my decision to not get a cab. I push forward, making some mental notes of cute little cafés and taverns along the way. Lisbon appears to be a city of much laundry, as colorful sheets and clothing hang from at least half the windows.
After settling in, we grab dinner in an outdoor café and are the first to sit. An ever-so-slightly slightly pushy waiter (this place definitely caters to tourists, but that seems unavoidable) offers food typical of Portugal, where fish dishes are in abundance. I order fried shrimp (I’m ordinarily not much of a fan – especially when you can still see the eyes of the little buggers! – but the first few bites are tasty) and a traditional dish made from cod and potatoes. And olives, which are quickly – after many years of trying to acquire a taste for them – becoming something I get. And to drink: the delicious and refreshing vinho verde (“green wine”), a slightly effervescent Portuguese wine I’d had in the US but hadn’t enjoyed nearly as much as this local variety.
One of the major attractions of Lisbon for me is the chance to hear fado, the traditional singing style originating from only two places: Lisbon, and the town of Coimbra, about an hour to the north. (Rick Steves says to look for the cafés with signs that say “Fado tonight” in Portuguese, but I only spot signs in English!) The performance style of fado is an alluring mix of simple and dramatic: as we’re eating, a young female singer draped in the traditional costume of black and red (my high school colors!) walks from her conversations in the alleyway into the interior of the restaurant (where there are maybe only two people seated because it's so nice out), and with a simple accompanying guitar, begins to intone these gorgeous, timeless melodies. Since she’s singing indoors and we’re all outdoors, the sound is almost ambient; a few people at the tables pay attention – by this point there are maybe sixteen people seated – but most continue their conversations and the total sound is a mélange of music with conversations in a number of different languages. I love this description of the style on Wikipedia:
“In popular belief, fado is a form of music characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a sentiment of resignation, fatefulness and melancholia. This is loosely captured by the Portuguese word saudade, or "longing", symbolizing a feeling of loss (a permanent, irreparable loss and its consequent lifelong damage).”
Next to me sit a young couple on holiday from Paris, and on the other side, an older couple visiting from Sweden. The Swedish gentleman Mats, and his wife Gudrun, are interested in US politics, and adds to the many Europeans I’ve met who are frightened about the rise of Trump. He’s interesting in someday traveling to Maine, and loves Bruce Springsteen (who appears to be quite popular in Europe) and the Foo Fighters. I show him my photo with Dave Grohl from the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors, which is the first of two chances I have to show this to someone on this trip who will appreciate it – apparently in Europe, Dave Grohl is the new David Hasselhoff?
I approach the singer, whose name is Susana Martins, and chat about how she got into the style of singing, and ask for a few recommendations for other singers to check out. (She gives the names Mariza Ana Moura and Ricardo Ribeiro.) She’s very gracious, telling of her desire to sing in the US, and I buy a CD from her. (Here's a clip of her singing in a public square.) It’s astonishing to hear she’s only been singing for two and a half years! At one point I sit in one of the adjacent restaurants and hear another performer up close. There's an awful lot of musical theatre (the good kind) in these performances. I know I say things like this all the time, but this may be the most enchanting music I’ve ever heard.
After a bit of red sangria (which I believe is Spanish in origin?) we navigate the hilly streets to find another place to sit and have drinks. Somehow, everything in Lisbon seems to be uphill; I’ve never been in a city that felt so much like the experience of skiing. I try a refreshing, sweet local cocktail made from white port (a favorite intoxicant of Portugal, which appears as an ingredient in many local drinks), fresh mint, and club soda, and after a not very satisfying dinner (I just don’t get full on seafood), engorge myself on a delicious local grilled cheese with goat cheese, honey, and almonds.
So far Lisbon is stunning and packed with character. Can’t wait to see all the things tomorrow!