Saturday, July 26, 2014

Nurse the Hate: Lisbon

It was probably the discovery of the word “saudade”, meaning roughly “doomed melancholy and limitless longing” in Portuguese that first put Lisbon on the map for me.  The soul of fado music, a Portuguese gypsy folk blues, is all about saudade.  American blues may have some really sad songs, but there’s a lot more “jelly roll” then “saudade” in blues.  A place that comes up with an idea like that is worth a look.  On little more than a whim, the trip was booked to Lisbon Portugal.

Lisbon has a slow beautiful decay sagging down on it, much like an Old World New Orleans.  While the city has been the launch point of near unbeatable glories, things have been on a bit of a downslope since the 1700s.  Some cities beat their chests about winning a World Series or Super Bowl.  Lisbon is the home of the first people that sailed around Africa, established the spice trade routes, and maintained Portugal as a naval and world power for hundreds of years.  For example, here in Cleveland we have LeBron, a guy really good at putting a ball in a hoop.  Lisbon had Magellan, the first dude to sail into the total unknown and circumnavigate the globe.  Push comes to shove; I’m taking Magellan and his crew over LeBron/Maverick Carter and posse.  Sorry.  Sailing into the horizon where scholars are certain dragons await to devour you is a bit heavier than trying to drop a three over Tim Duncan and land a soda contract.

There is a certain dignity to Lisbon, like that of a fading hotel.  The bones are strong.  In 1755 an earthquake and ensuing tidal wave destroyed most of the old Lisbon.  What remained and what was rebuilt soon after reflects the style of 1750-1825.  To those unsure of what that means, think if Elvis and Liberace handled all interior decorating for major buildings.  It always seems like someone from the cast of Amadeus or Tom Jones is about to walk into a room in the older state buildings.  On top of that, years of Moor conquest give a Casablanca vibe to certain spaces.  It’s a cultural mish mosh that is always interesting.  It would be a good place to be in a white linen suit smoking hand rolled cigarettes and speaking in hushed tones about “the troubles”.

The people of Portugal are really friendly.  This is relatively surprising as they have the worst economy in Western Europe and seem to be overrun by Spanish and British tourists focused on paying as little as possible for meals while enjoying the San Diego like climate.  I’d be a little cranky if I were them.  On top of that, plenty of Northern African immigrants don’t appear to do anything but hang out in public squares and try to sell guys like me hash.  “Hey… Hash!  Mairihuana!” as they lean in with cupped hands held to their hips displaying eraser sized bricks of hash.  “Hey… It’s legal here.  No worries.”  Um, then why are you whispering this to me out of the side of your mouth while looking for cops?  Each one of these dealers looks like a young Muammar Gaddafi.  The guys that look like Idi Amin sit in robes on benches and stare at you with heavy eyelids and no expression. 

Let me make this clear.  I really like the Portuguese.  They were all very nice to me despite the fact that I have no idea what most of them were saying.  Portuguese is not an easy language to pick up.  It sounds like if someone was speaking Spanish to you with a speech impediment.  The result of that was I would often have a grab bag of special surprises arrive at my restaurant table.  I’ll eat most anything, but please be warned that they stick the super salty bacalao fish in almost everything.  It’s like if Slim Jim got involved in seafood.  At one point I had so much salt in my system I wasn’t worried about having a stroke so much as wilting under the water retention.  As I am on the topic, the restaurants of Lisbon appear to serve exclusively the following dishes; bacalao, steak, chicken, shrimp, and really fucking small clams.  These are only prepared with a butter garlic sauce.  These all come with fries.  Then again, I don’t understand Portuguese, so maybe there were some killer dishes I wasn’t privy to… 

For breakfast, plan on eating really rich pastries.  How these people remain slim, I have no idea.  Nobody jogs, but they all eat these custard rich pastries at every opportunity.  These are all washed down by super thick black coffees that have more in common with crystal meth than Starbucks.  If I were drinking these kinds of coffees on a regular basis in the 1500s, I would have been jacked up enough to say “Hey!  Let’s go!  Let’s just sail into the horizon!  Fuck it!  We’ll fuck up any dragon we find!  Let’s do this thing!  Let’s do it!”  I had one of them after the overnight flight (a mere 6 hours from Newark), and I was up for two days.  Bikers should sell these in the desert. 

A few things I would check out in Lisbon… The #28 line is a series of rickety old trolleys that would have been ripped out of any normal American city for being ineffective and probably a legal liability.  I dug the old rollercoaster feel and totally impenetrable route system.  It skims through the dodgy Bairro Alto area with old women staring through windows that were placed by Central Casting, hipsters attempting to gentrify, and tourists soaking it all in.  Be prepared for your driver to exit the trolley without warning in the middle of nowhere by saying “finished… finished” leaving you stranded.  As it’s only 2.85 euro, just hop back on going the other way and hope for the best.  

The Castelo de Sao Jorge is a castle built in 1147 perched on a hilltop overlooking the city.  A town sprung up outside the walls on the hill in the 1500s with impossibly small passages and meandering alleys.  While there are more than a few places selling $12 soaps and rooster magnets, there are also some real places of interest.  I would do whatever possible to stop in for a spell at Wine Bar do Castelo.  Portugal has producing wines of real quality, moving away from the rustic barnyard styles of old.  This small wine bar is run by two dudes (and I mean dudes) that are really enthusiastic about wine.  After they noted the interest and experience on the other side of the table, they really poured some exciting stuff.  Look for Quinta do Portal Grande Reserva 2003, Marques de Borba Reserva 2000, and Quinta do Perdigao Dao Touriga-Nacional with its impossible fresh lemon/grapefruit zest scent from a dark black wine.  Really eye opening stuff from a small business doing it the right way.

Portugal is of course known for port wine, the fortified wine that is probably most drunk now by British naval officers and old men named Clancy.  The Solar do Vinho do Porto is a trade association attempt to promote port wine in Capital City.  It is so laughably out of date it transcends “out” to become “real in”.  The lime green carpet, old servers, and terrible lighting make this a place right out of 1976.  With an astounding 200 port choices to drink (but sadly missing Taylor’s, Dow, and many of the top flight Quintas), it gives customers the chance to try vintage, late bottled vintage, tawny, white and any other variety I forgot.  I kept feeling like I should complain about the Jimmy Carter Administration and ask if guests had any idea how that Star Wars movie did those laser effects to get too involved with the list.  It’s like a set from “American Hustle” with a killer wine list.  Right outside is a park with maybe the best view of Lisbon to further solidify the trip to 1976.  Bring your own flares.

Right out of the city in Belem are many museums and the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, a monastery and cathedral built from 1500s spice taxes.  While the “sin tax” of beer and wine may have built Cleveland Browns stadium, that is a piece of shit next to this awe inspiring building.  When you realize this was begun only nine years after North America was “discovered”, and most homes from the 1980s are falling apart, it gives pause.  Dramatic to the Nth degree, the church takes it over the top.  While there, I was lucky enough to see a wedding from a local couple take place.  Cinderella would have looked at her wedding and said, “Shit, mine really sucked compared to that…”  The fact there was a VW Beetle done up in streamers as the bridal getaway car only made it better. 

A quick train trip away is the resort town of Sintra.  It’s laughably pretty.  If you were loaded in the 1500s, the move was to build a palace in Sintra and summer out there trying to keep up with the Jonses (or in this case The King of Portugal).  The palace out there is so over the top allegedly even Liberace said “It’s too much!  It’s too much!”.  I would have investigated the multiple other palaces out there but lost my battle with some food poisoning that left me like a filthy animal slinking back to the train with my tail between my legs.  As an aside, if you take an unmarked pill given to you from a hotel desk guy that asks in broken English if “you have problem… going to the bathroom” feel free to take it.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to be plugged up or if he had given me something to “help” me go to the bathroom.  I was in such a state I would have taken anything, and thank God this was to help me stop the flow instead of increasing it.  Had it been the other way, I may have actually turned to steam and disappeared.

I never actually got to hear any fado thanks to what I believe was some dodgy shellfish (cooked in butter and garlic of course) and the 36 hours of near death in the hotel.  I did hear a guy play “Born To Be Wild” busking in a plaza though.  Had I been able to go out and listen to some wailing and soulful fado style saudade I think it would have taken this trip over the top.  Or I would have been left a sobbing mess.  No matter.  With the quick flight, relatively cheap prices, and great affordable wines, I’ll be back.     


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