Friday, 22 January 2010

Over the hills and far away (all seven of them, by tram)

written 18th January 2010

Built on seven hills and sprawling down to the north banks of the Tejo river, Lisbon is not a pretty city (mind you, neither is Porto), nor is it picturesque (which somehow Porto managed), but it is a very vibrant place and actually quite lovely after dark when it is all lit up.  We are not massive city fans - we go to them because you can't not, but they can be stressful (especially one way systems and looking for suitable parking) and expensive (coffee intake goes up dramatically and where there's coffee, there are usually sticky buns...) and you always feel that you should be doing something - still, as I say, you can't not and although we had had mixed reviews of Lisbon, we were looking forward to seeing what there was.

The weather was not much better in Sintra on Saturday morning so we headed straight down to the sea at Estoril and found the sun and a great coast road, all the way in to Lisbon on the banks of the river through Belem.  The people we met in Figueira da Foz had said we could definitely park the van in Belem, near the Monument to the Discoveries but we decided to keep gong into town an see what was what.

With two maps for a change - LP and a city map in our atlas - it only took 30 minutes of random driving around before we found a suitable place to stop and after stocking up on tourist leaflet fodder at the tourist office by the river, some more driving in search of a riverside carpark (carparking generally seeming to be free all weekend after 2pm on saturday so paying for a couple of hours could net us a good spot for the whole visit and river view seemed a nice goal)

lead us to a spot which was surprisingly completely free at Cais do Sodre, a central spot, right by the metro, western railway station, ferry terminal and bus station - perfect!  There were men fishing off the car park walls, old trams trundling past like and it all seemed jolly lovely.

First on the list was a quest for an electronics shop as Will has either fried or otherwise rendered inoperable both the PICs he bought to replace the "project" which doesn't really like being in the engine bay - for those keeping track, we are now on the new throttle with the "project" controlling the stepper motor which controls the idle but back on the old airflow sensor and fuel map and not currently doing anything with the lamda sensor due to the aforementioned unhappiness of the project... - we found an electrical shop (lightbulbs and stuff) who was able to point us to an electronics shop, which was closed but at least we knew where it was for Monday.  A detour into the other tourist office by the main station found a very helpful chap (the lady in the first tourist office seemed to find answering basic questions like "do you have a map" and "what is the best way to go on the trams" just too much like hard work and why should I be asking her...) who tried very hard to look up what we wanted on the internet before coming to the conclusion that we had already found the only place  - fair enough.  He was also very helpful on the subject of museums and other attractions - mostly closed on Mondays - and tram fun - get a 24 hour metro card for a bargain price of €3.70 and you can have all the public transport you like - excellent.

After a coffee, the next port of call was the GoCars office - remember I told you about them at Christmas? little three-wheel go kart, GPS self guided tours we went on in San Francisco - I quite fancied a bit of that again and duly found the office but were sadly shocked by the price - either it was cheaper in SF or we felt richer! - anyway at €25 per hour for the hour and a half or so the guy reckoned the town centre tour would take, we just couldn't justify it.  He did offer us a €60 4h deal for the following morning so we could get out to Belem as well but after going away and thinking about it, we figured we probably had better things to spend our money on and with Monday's plan being all day tram fun for less than €10 it was a fairly easy call. I would still recommend GoCars to anyone who hasn't been in one (and has money!) as a lot of fun but SF is probably a better city for it!.

He did however recommend a good and not too expensive fado restaurant not far away in the Alfama district (which we later found was also top of the list in the LP) and impart the knowledge that no fado is particularly cheap and it wasn't so good in Barrio Alto and Baixa, where it was more like karrioke so of very dubious quality but that those were the place to go for bars, so we wandered off through the narrow streets in what we though was the right general direction.  Alfama is the famous old town and with maps not being great for tiny windy cobbled streets, we completely failed to find the restaurant on our first foray (although we subsequently found it was so small and shut during the day that we had walked right past it without realising) but we did find the Cathedral which was as described, very square and fortress like and nothing special inside (we didn't pay to go in the cloister or treasury - please don't tell us if we missed something fabulous, we have decided we would rather not know these things and can't change it now!).  Another coffee and cake stop then back into Alfama in searc of the Fado museum - well we figured we ought to find out a bit more about the music we were on a quest to listen to and at least if we didn't find any we would know what we were missing :) 

Finding the Fado museum was almost as hard as finding the restaurant - this at least was marked on maps but in different places on each map we had! - but we persevered and were eventually rewarded by it being open, not very expensive and very interesting.

Fado - pronounced faa-do, meaning fate and described as "a poem which can be seen and heard"- is the traditional folk music of Portugal and was born in the Alfama district of Lisbon in the 18th century. Fado can be sung by either men or women and the singer is usally accompanied by a a spanish guitar (like the basic acoustic guitars we have in england) and a portuguese guitar (pear shaped with a shorter neck and 12 strings), the spanish guitar tends to play the bass, the portuguese guitar the melody and accompanying twiddly bits and both are plucked not strummed.  In its beginnings it was music of the people, for the working classes, sung by sailors, labourers, housewives and prostitutes in bars, brothels and anywhere else the disadvantaged, downtrodden and disaffected gather and, although largely soul searching and melancholic, it had a strong political sub-text.   In the 1930's the government decided that fado was too much a rallying call for the underbelly of society and tried to regulate it by setting strict rules about the musical structure of the songs (10 lines per stanza and other things), censoring any new songs and requiring the singers to hold licenses and only sing in authorised bars.  Songs had to be written down, where previously they were passed down verbally, and conform so by the 1950's, song writing had become the perogative of poets and the songs themselves were more stylistic and erudite.  Also at this time though, Fado started finding a place on records, radio, television and cinema so was once again becoming music for the people, although a different class of people and those beyond Lisbon and even outside Portugal.  After the revolution in the 1970's, Fado was once again banned for a short while but it is now, once more, the iconic sound of Portugal.  The museum was really good, with various exhibits, pictures and artifacts from the history of fado and a good audio guide with enough optional extras that you could probably spend all day in there, listening to different songs and different singers, should you so desire.

A wander back to the van at dusk took us past two miradouros (view points),

one of which was fully equipped with bar and patio sofas - sadly occupied -

with trams rocketing past us like so many dodgem cars

and past a wine shop offering free tastings of port - couldn't not but sadly inferior to that which we already have in the van - and back home for a pre-dinner tipple whilst watching the men who were still fishing off the edge of the carpark.  Being determined to find this restaurant, and having been told to get there before 8pm, we set out once more and this time did find it, just as they opened, only to find that they were fully booked that night nut had space tomorrow.  As it was so recommended, we decided to go with that, and headed to Barrio Alto in search of bars.

After walking too far along the front before heading up into town and through deserted streets wondering if we would be the only tourists incapable of finding the supposed all night street party district, we did eventually get to where we wanted to be and spent a while wandering round, looking for somewhere cheapish with a good menu (and finding one only to find we needed a cash point first - obvously no cashpoints in historic streets where the restaurants are - that would be too easy...) and being offered hash (wouldn't know the street price so would probably get ripped off).  Turns out we chose well and had a lovely and reasonably priced meal at Taberna de Barroca (in Barroca Street), where the speciality starter is local sausage cooked in flaming alcohol in a pottery pig (we didn't work out what was going on until after it was too late to try some) and they encourage their patrons to write comments on the walls in permanent marker - duck rice follwed by rice pudding with cinnamon, washed down with a litre of wine (shared!) - delicious!

Back at the van we discovered the downside of our free, riverside carpark home - it is the noisiest place we have so far been!  When parking by the side of the road, there is obviously a risk of chatting passersby occasionally, but here what with fishermen, drunk people and people waiting for ferries and buses, it was continuous, all night - particularly thoughful were the people who decided to read out the daisy route at the top of their voices - not fun or restful :(

Still, in the morning Will was able to build us up some more Busma by lending some jump leads to the fishing people who were trying to push start their car in the car park and the plan for the day was to head out to Belem.   This we duly did and managed to find a parking place right outside the Monastery where we found that we had arrived in a 20 minute church-visiting window between masses and even better, that the monastery itself is free until 2pm on a Sunday - brilliant!

St Jeronimous Monastery was ordered built by King Manuel in the early 1500's although some room were never finished.  Dedicated to watching over the sailors coming in from the sea to the docks in front, no buildings could be built in front of it and therefore obstruct the view of it from the sea so that the sailors knew they were home.

The church is huge - more the scale we expected Santiago to be -

and the cloisters are stunning covered with intricate carvings of ropes and other natural and plant life symbols (called manueline design).

There are various rooms you can wander in to including a new exhibition they have put together which shows the history of the monastery in the context of Portuguese and world history - basically three illustrated timelines wrapped about the room - and it is brilliant - especially the world bit as it shows what key events were happening at around the same time in different places.  I also learnt some things about Portugal which I didn't know before or had forgotten I knew including:

America the continent is named after a sailor employed by the Portuguese crown, Americo Vespucio, who was reconnoitering what is now the Brazilian Coast in 1501.

The first circumnavigator of the world, Ferdinand Magellan was Portuguese.

Portugal spent many years under Spanish occupation, during which time, the Armada was launched against England from Lisbon

There were lots of other things too but I can't remember them now - all important stuff anyway from a little country I don't think I've ever though much about before! I like Portugal!

Unfortunately we didn't have time to read everything as we also wanted to see if the tower was free so we had to move on but it was very good - when we are back and have money, I might even buy a copy.

Onwards, and past the Monument to the Discoveries, a great stone structure showing the explorers of Portugal pushing out over the sea, with a fine view of the bridge.  You can go up it and there is a 25min audiovisual presentation (just say video!) about the history of Lisbon but it wasn't free on Sundays (or indeed ever) hence why I know no history of Lisbon to impart to you :)

The old tower was free though and with 2 battlements and 5 flights of particularly narrow spiral stairs between floors with a few interesting information panels and good views it was a very fine tower.

There is also a buttress shaped like a rhinoceros head which apparently commemorates the rhinoceros ordered from india by King Manuel to give as a gift to the pope.  The boat sank but they were able to recover the rhinocerous and stuff it with straw and give it anyway - I suppose it is debatable whether the pope would have preferred a live rhino rampaging the vatican or a salt-smelling straw stuffed onw rotting in a corner but what do you politely do with gifts like that???

Back to the van for lunch and to move it to the other side of the road and railway, by the river to where there were lots of other vans (not as easy as it sounds due to the railway and lack of signed crossing over points) then our plan was to start our 24h of tram fun with a trip back into town for the Fado restaurant but, having a bit of time to kill, we decided to go to the Contemporary and Modern Art Museum which is always free - I should know better to do this to myself...

There were only 2 exhibitions open.  One was mostly harmless, lots of pictures and exhibits about Amalia Rodriguez, the most famour Fado singer in the 1950s and 60s who died 10 years ago.  only one  piece of contemporary-ness in the form of a silent video screening showing 2 separate dancers doing spontaneous interpretive dance to one of her famous songs whilst a third screen showed someone mouthing the word "Amalia" with theimages of her lips being superimposed on each other - supposedly to demonstrate crescendo - to enable us to think beyond the usual aspect of Amalia's singing which you can hear and understand that fado is a living and demonstrable embodiment of the feelings with in us all... or something,  and some other wierd, Amalia-inspired stuff, as I say, mostly harmless.  deciding we had had enough Amalia anyway from the Fado museum, we tried the "She is Femme fatale" exhibition and this just made me cross.

It is billed as a collection of works by female artists representing the 20th century and especially the transformations during the 60's and 70's and how female artists tackle subjects like identity, gender, sexuality and politics and it was mostly rubbish with the pretentiousness which encourages artists to call their works "untitled" because that somehow gives them more meaning on a higher plane than us mere mortals can ever hope to attain - although this was somewhat spoilt by then subtitling them such that a picture of a woman outside a door was called "Untitled" (Woman outside door) or "Untitled" (Launderette) etc -  but what really made me cross was the strident "I am oppressed" feminist overtones to the whole thing.

<  rant  >
I will probably offend someone but I have a captive audience - in my head anyway, the rest of you can go and make a cup of tea and come back in 5 minutes if you like when I have calmed down again - and this makes me cross.  As a former HR professional - or some such thing ;) - I can spout on about equality and diversity (treating people all exactly the same whilst at the same time valuing and appreciating all their differences...) as much as the next person and I do believe that everyone should be treated fairly and according to their merits and I do appreciate that this often doesn't happen in a lot of areas and walks of life and that traditionally women did suffer inequality and that many bras were burnt in order to get me the right to vote (which I don't do enough of anyway), but to produce crap art, the subject of which is "how downtrodden and oppressed I am as a female artist and no one understands or appreciates me and male artists get it all so much easier anyway look at how I have to struggle" or worse, produce crap art the subject of which is "this is brilliant art but as a man you won't be able to understand it because I am far superior to you"  just makes me really  really cross.  One of the worst was a go at the Oscars saying how they are only ever won by white men - well they are awards for the best, and if there are more men in the business, there is a higher chance that a man will be judged to be the best - don't sit around whinging about it, if you really are any good, go out and become a brilliant female director and win the award!

<  / rant  >

sorry, rant over, just really makes me cross, I shouldn't go to these places, I won't in future.

We headed into town on the tram instead and went to the Museum of Contemporary Design - at least these are things with a purpose! - which was brilliant.  Housed in an old bank building in the centre of town, the current exhibition is a precursor to the museum they are going to house there so there are only two floors and they have been deliberately left derelict, all concrete and wires dangling etc etc so people can appreciate the underlying fabric of the building.

The first floor exhibit was entitled "It is forbidden to forbid" and is about the 60's - hence the massive Beatles out the front - and was mainly chairs and dresses - showing how the 60's was all about freedom of movement, form and purpose and lack of conformity to traditional shapes and designs - and was all shag pile lurid green and orange carpet on walls and accompanied by beatles and stones music.  Downstairs it was more house hold things and furniture from the 40s, 50s and 60s and it was just very nicely done and interesting - much calmer here ;)

Moving on and still with a couple of hours we found ourselves at the foot of the St Justa elavator, the most unlikely wrought iron piece of public transport I have ever seen.  It was built sometime around the turn of the 20th century and connects the Carmel church and the Chiado area at the top of the hill with the Baixa area at the bottom.

During the day it towers up between the little buildings

and at night the platform seems to hover above the downtown city - and the view is great.

There was a 10 minute wait to go down so we walked on to another of the city's miradouros and came down via the Gloria Funicular, another piece of turn of the century public transport brilliance which rattles down the steep hill back into Rossio.  The Lisbon equivalent of the Victorians did know how to make stylish public transport to deal wth hills!  and these two trips alone at €2.50 and €1.40 have already more than justified the cost of our tram tickets!

Onward back to Alfama where we were the first to arrive at the restaurant, A Baiuca at the very end of Sao Jaoa de Praca, so just the owner - who speaks perfect english and as far as we know, french, spanish, german and italian as well - and her parents.

It is a tiny place, no more than 36 people at shared tables and it started filling up over the next half hour and we started our €30 tourist menu with chese, olives and bread during which the two guitars struck up with one of them singing.

Over the next 4 hours, we had one of the best evenings of our trip so far.  The food was lovely and loads of it - I ordered octopus rice but I don't know what I actually got, but it was delicious - and lots of it.  The litre of house wine slipped down very nicely.  The company was good - we ended up on a table with Luis and Virginia, travelling to Portugal on holiday from China and who spoke brilliant english, have travelled to all sorted of interesting places and have a camera which takes much better pictures in the dark than ours! thanks for sending them guys! -  and the fado was amazing.

People just kept dropping in off the streets to sing a song or two or four,

then squeezing in to a space somehow for a drink whilst someone else had a go. 

The restaurant owner either joined in with the choruses or got up and had a go herself and it was just brilliant - we really felt part of the soul wrenching stuff - which was still much more lively and vibrant than the stuff we listened to in Coimbra - even if we couldn't understand the words or join in with the choruses as instructed.

Really, really good stuff.  Bill, give Lisbon another chance even if it's just to try this for one night!  We think it is usally booked out and is only open Thurs-Mon or something so I would suggest either calling ahead or going along there at 8pm on your first night and book for whenever you can - it really is that good

Finishing at midnight and with no idea of the last tram home, we ran down the hill and arrived at the stop just as the tram appeared rattling round the corner like the Knight Bus in Harry Potter - a proper classic one and not the last one as it turned out - and finished our night in fine style riding the tram back to Belem - excellent stuff!  And our new parking spot was much quieter too!

The next day we got full use of our travel cards by spending the day riding the trams.  After a quick electronics shop detour - expensive, had somethings will wanted by not others - we took the Lavra Funicular (the oldest one and the first street funicular in the world, built in 1884) up to the Sao Jose hospital, the No 12 tram round the Castelo de Sao Jorge and Alfama district,

the No 28 to Estrela (big church lots of pink, white and blue marble built by Queen Maria I in fulfillment of her promise to build a church if she got the heir she wanted),

the No25 to the bottom of the Bica Funicular (the apparently most picturesque and the only one covered in mirrored tiles), the No 28 back to the castle for a look round (reasonably expensive, the tower was closed and the view looked cloudy so we didn't go in),

the No. 28 onwards to the Graca Chruch and miradouro then back to the centre for our tram ride home to Belem - tram-tastic!

We were also offered drugs again on the streets - only the third time ever I have been offered drugs - although to be fair, unshaven as he currently is, Will does look a bit rough... ;) - the second being saturday night and the first being in on the main pedestrian street in Shanghai where you will be walking along minding your own business and suddenly a little voice in your ear will say "watchbag, watchbag, watchbagsexdrugs) - I suppose there aren't many problems in life which can't be solved with some combination of watch, bag, sex or drugs but it is a bit disconcerting... :)

In Belem, we stopped only to sample what are apparently the best pasteis de nata (portuguese custard tarts with what seem to be fried filo pastry cases and caramelised tops) in the world.

Haven't eaten any others so can't confirm this other than there were always queues in the bakery (and odd place which looks relatively small from the outside which inside is a warren of tiled rooms) and they were so yummy we had to have two!

So, at the end of this marathon post - sorry, well done for making it this far! - we have ticked off everything on our "must do in Lisbon" list and are ready for a nice rest and a couple of cheap days by the beach - all this city living is tiring and expensive!

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