10 January 2009

Lisbon - or what people did before the internet and telly

We just got back from a week in Lisbon. You want the good news first? Or the bad?

Well, since you ask, the bad news first - it's shorter. It was my first holiday where I couldn't wait to get home. To be fair, it wasn't entirely Lisbon's fault. It was a bad confluence of events that conspired against us: 1) we went for too long; 2) it was cold; 3) there is a limit to the number of meals you can eat which are mainly made up of chips and rice; and 4) we actually didn't need a (non-beach) holiday. Had the weather been better, or had we gone for a few days less, or if we could have found a green vegetable, or had we been working incredibly hard for the two weeks before we left, it would no doubt have been a different story.

That said, we still had some lovely moments, even some awe-inspiring ones. And we missed most of the cold snap in London.

The first day we were there, Lisbon just seemed like a bit of a fairy-tale old european city. You know the kind.

But it only took about 24 hours for its seedy underbelly to begin to show. This was a good thing. It made Lisbon less of a postcard and more of a real place. One day, walking down the Avenida da Liberdade, for example, we saw a large American with a slightly crazed look in his exthalmic eyes asking an elderly Portuguese couple for "anything they could do to help." He towered over them, explaining that he had left his credit cards, money and passport down south in the Algarve. The sheer improbability of this would have had me brushing him off without a word (how did he manage to get to Lisbon from the Algarve without money or credit cards?), but the woman was digging in her bag for some euros. As we kept walking, I happened to look off to the side, where a bag had been stowed behind a column; I couldn't help but think it was the American's.

Another night we were walking home after another dinner, when a homeless man approached us, saying - from what I could gather, as he spoke Portuguese - that he was Angolan, and had fought in the war. I said, in Spanish, that we couldn't help. He kept walking closer to me and muttering away, not in an entirely unthreatening way, but also not entirely in an unfriendly way. I don't like it when people impose themselves on me and I started to get irritated. Finally, after repeatedly saying no, I finally stopped short, stamped my foot, arms crossed and said forcefully and a bit loudly (I surprised myself), again in Spanish, "I said no!" He stopped short too, and then backed off.

We started out for Belém, in west Lisbon, on a bright, crisp sunny morning. We did the touristy thing, and headed straight for the antigua pasteleria, where we had pasteis do (or da, I can't remember now) Belém. Belém is pronounced something like "Blain" as if that were being said in French. I was reading somewhere, though I don't know if it's true, that Portuguese is such an old language that the Roman alphabet can't spell the sounds, unlike French, Spanish and Italian. This is why it looks so different to how it sounds. The little I learned before we went was from a website, which did it's best to explain how things ought to sound, but ultimately, I had no idea. And so even though I knew the words, I couldn't pronounce them, and ended up speaking Spanish most of the time, or sadly on a few occasions, I just added that "sh" sound to spanish. Yes, I said "grashyash." The only thing that made it better was the guy to whom I said it said it back as if it were normal.

Anyway, in Belém is the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.

While the cloisters, pictured above, are beautiful, there was some strange stuff going on. Clearly, when people aren't distracted by the internet, their minds homogenized by access to everyone else's minds, they come up with some amazing images. No doubt, these are also fed by the Catholic fear of hell. But the shape these demons take! Interestingly, amongst the unsurprising gargoyles, there were also lambs and a grasshopper. Each of the columns were carved completely differently. And, in fact, as I walked around the top level of the cloisters, I noticed that the sculptures on the pieces of stone that connected the arches to the walled balconies started out florid and abstract but became more and more animalistic and detailed.

This one, I think is a lamb. It's face is so close up against the stone statue in front of it that it's hard to tell.

This one, which is right behind the lamb, had this strange almost Aztec face, which faced upwards.

Another strange face in the cloisters (and homage to Brancusi):

Off along the sides of the cloisters, there were various rooms to go into. And so, it was an utter shock to walk through one doorway, expecting just another room, but instead to find this:

This is the Igreja de Santa Maria church, and it is awe-inspiring, especially when you consider that my vantage point is from the second floor: I'm shooting from a little balcony halfway up the height of the church.

Some other strange beings on the columns in the church:

One rainy day, we climbed one of the steep hills up through Alfama, and to Castelo, where there is a castle, that was once Moorish around 700ad (I think), but was then taken back four or five centuries later. It was raining so hard, that sitting in the little cafe in the castle, we saw this:

When we went outside, once the downpour had lightened to a drizzle, we saw them again:

In fact, they were all over, draped like cats. Do you see the little black smudge in this photo?

Here is a close-up:

There were cats draped about, as well, all over the place. During the heavy showers, they took shelter where they could:

Some other pictures from within the castle:

Overall, I am really glad we went to Lisbon - if nothing else, the mosteiro made it 100% worth it. Oh, I forgot to mention, I drank endless amounts of delicious espressos.


Larissa said...

Thanks so much for helping me live vicariously through all your photos! Um, is it a bit odd to be coming back to London for better food though???

Anonymous said...

you and rog look very sexy. Happy New Year!

amanda said...

That's some pretty impressive architecture isn't it! And look at you two in that last shot - your're a slick pair aren't you! :D

Siga said...

Your trip does sound like fun. I usually get this "what people did before the internet and telly"-idea when going abroad. A foreign language, no internet connection - and one starts wondering what to do with all the time. ;-)

Hoxton said...

Fantastic photos. They say the best thing about traveling is the coming home...!

Lien said...

I kind of agree with you about the food. And we had gone with a Portuguese native to show us around and translate!

Having said that, however, I did have some friends (whose taste in food I generally agree with) say that they had found great food in Portugal. So I don't know what to think.

The Big Burbs said...

Good lord what an amazing vacation that was!
And good for you for holding your own with the man who approached you. I was once accosted similarly; and as I began to dig through my purse, Mike firmly escorted me away and reminded me that I had just been profiled and targeted and how vulnerable that made me. Suppose he's right.
Hope you don't mind finding me here in the back annals of your blog--- such wonderful content, through and through. ;)