Portugal

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I took a little trip to Portugal with my dear friends John and Claire, who had an unexpected opportunity to come to Europe. I arrived in Lisbon in the evening, and after a dinner of sardines, a walk around the hip and cool Principe Real neighbourhood, lots of chatting and a good night’s sleep, we headed south to the Algarve region, aiming for Tavira and our delightful accommodations at Pedras d’el Rei.

Needing to stock the kitchen, we stopped at Loulé, a village along the way. It was Sunday, so no restaurants were open, but we took a quick look around the empty, fabric-draped (against the blazing sun) streets 2. Arriving at the Pedras d’el Rei in the afternoon, we headed straight for the beautiful Praia do Barril (Barrel beach) 8. Maybe in the old days barrels of salt cod 4, salt and wine shipped out from here. The sand was fine, white and super soft; the water turquoise, clear and warm, with gentle waves. To get to the beach one can (and we did) take a little train, which you wait for on the wetlands-side of the sand bar 5. Tavira is situated at the mouth of the Gilão River. Here’s a photo of Low tide on the river at Tavira 3. Along with the Gilão, several streams empty into the sea, forming an enormous wetlands, protected as the Parque Natural de Ria Formosa.

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We explored Tavira, which has a long history. The Moors occupied the town between the 8th and 13th centuries, and we can see their influence on the architecture—castle, mosque-like church 1 and bridge.

The next day, we visited Faro, a bigger town a half an hour west of Tavira. As it had been since our arrival in the South, it was super hot. No storks populated the huge nests that decorated many buildings 6. My friends Anne & Jean-Charles had visited in May, and they were regaled with views of live birds and their nestlings. Not eager to wander in the sun, we made a perfunctory inspection of the town, with a visit to the remarkable Capela dos Ossos 7 in the back of the Igreja Rea de São Francisco, entirely made of human bones. Gotta love that wacky upbeat Christian spirit!

We escaped the heat by ferrying out to Isla Deserta, one of the ocean-facing beaches on the outside of the wetlands there. Again, a terrific beach with perfect swimming conditions.

Interested in wine and the local economy, we managed to take a fascinating tour of a cork processing factory: Novacortica 11. We learned that cork trees take 9 or 12 (much thicker) years to form a layer of viable bark. To protect the trees, that can live for 300 years, no machines touch them! The cork removal is done by hand, with hatchets that look medieval. The factory we visited prepared raw bark 14—trimming 9, boiling (to kill the bacteria) and flattening it 13. They sell these prepared pieces to other factories, which process corks for wine. This particular factory specialises in creating the discs that one sees at the bottom of champagne corks. The highest quality (finest grain) discs are sold to the best French champagne makers; 2nd best goes to the Italian Proseco companies, and the coarsest to the Spanish Cava manufacturers. There were many curious machines that sliced and sorted the cork 10; one had a laser scanner that assessed the different quality of disc, with tubes running off the center, each vacuuming up its respective grade  (still, a woman at the end of the line visually reviewed the machine-made decisions). Later, whilst driving up to Lisbon, we crossed the heart of Portugal and saw field after field of healthy cork trees, some bright sienna from having been stripped, some grey with age awaiting the harvest years later. In order to differentiate the trees, the woodsmen mark the naked tree with the last digit of the year. For 2016, they are marked with a big white “6” 12.

Leaving the Algarve, we look a long way up, making a diversion for Evora, a town famous for its granite cathedral 15, commenced in celebration of the town’s shaking off Moorish rule in 1116. In the 16th and 17th century, this cathedral became the center for the School of Évora Polyphony. We marveled at the beautiful high choir above the Nave, and the ancient (some say the oldest in Europe) 1544 organ 16.

Wandering around Évora’s hilly streets, we came upon a gumball machine which dispensed Poems 18. I couldn’t resist, but was a bit disappointed at my 50- centime verse. Perhaps it was the translation that was lacking (it was in English, from the Portuguese). We also paid homage to the Temple of Diana, quite a big structure left over from the Romans, on the top of the hill.

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We got to Lisbon in the evening and had dinner at another very good restaurant. My friends were leaving for Porto in the morning and I planned to stay for a day in Lisbon before heading back to Marseille on Friday. We had breakfast together and we all managed to resist the appeal of the ubiquitous Pastel de Nata, a puff pastry/custard tart. Somehow I just couldn’t make myself taste this delicacy.

I headed out in sturdy shoes for a day ambling about town. There was a enormous amount of road and tramway construction, which hampered my access to the main drag along the shore of the river Tajo (Tagus, in English). I took a taxi to the Belem district, which I later learned was the site from which Vasco da Gama, and so many of the Portuguese ships set out in the days of empire. The 16th-century tower 24 sits mostly off shore, protecting the mouth of the river, and access to Lisbon. Alas, like the famous and similarly- aged Jéronimos monastery next door, it was impossible for me to visit, having only one day to see Lisbon, and waiting lines clearly over an hour long for each site.

One place where tourist pressure was lower was the Museu de Marinha, where I satisfied my curiosity about the “age of Discovery” inaugurated by the far from diplomatic Vasco da Gama’s rounding of the African Cape to short circuit the overland Arab trade route. Portugal’s geography determined that the population would be sea-faring; its religion that the far-flung forays would be filled with violent encounters. You may wonder where this little country got the capital to fund these dangerous and extravagant explorations? I learned that part of the deal clinching the 1496 marriage agreement securing an Aragon Princess was that Portugal, like the Spanish in 1492, expulse their Jewish population. Guess who got to keep the wealth of those folks?

A beautiful map 23 illustrating the commercial exploits of these brave/crazy sailors adorns a huge wall of the museum. A big hangar in back houses royal yachts 22 that gave the opportunity for the Houses of Avis, Hapsburg and Braganza to parade along the Tagus and impress the hoi-polloi along the banks.

Because I had so little time, I paid for the touristy “Lisboa Story” experience, which gave an animated overview of the history of the town. It was here that I learned the history of the Lisboa coat of arms, which depicts a ship (naturally) guarded by 2 crows. For some reason, these crows pledged to protect the body of the martyr Vincent, bishop in Valencia, killed in 304 c.e. The non-Christian governor of the district ordered the body to be eaten by animals, but the crows chose to guard it. Since the body made its way (by ship) to the Portuguese Cape Vincent (where there’re lots of crows, and any crow on a ship will instinctively point the way to land), and the relics eventually found their way to Lisbon, the city chose this emblem 25.

Of course, the “Lisboa Story” experience included a dramatic reenacting of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. The center of town was demolished, as were most towns in Portugal by this devastating 9 on the Richter-scale temblor. Lisbon was the first European city to apply a grid-based street arrangement in the spirit of the Age of Reason, by the urban architect, the Marqués de Pombal. In a thoroughly rational manner, the streets were organised and named according to the trades that were plied there. A massive plaza, the Praço do Commércio, on the river-side of the Baixa District, was erected, with an imposing arch 17 leading to the commercial zone.

Lisbon is like San Francisco—very steep! Unlike SF, though, they have a few elevators and funiculars easing the climbs. I’ve drawn the most famous one, the Santa Justa lift, in the Baixa district. I made it up the long hill to the Castel de São Jorge. This citadel was built at the recapture of Lisbon from the Moors, 1147. Of course this structure was pretty well destroyed with the earthquake, but it was renovated by the dictator Salazar, in 1938. I liked that the city installed a camera obscura in one of the towers, from which we could peer at the city as it eerily went about its business under our observation. We could see the mini Golden Gate Bridge, the Pont 25 de Abril (the end of the dictatorship), which connects the two sides of the river. 21 And the ruins of the Igreja do Carmo are as they were left in 1755. You can see them to the right of the photo.

It may be hard on the feet, but the patterned cobblestones I saw everywhere are sure easy on the eyes. They use white (limestone?) and dark grey smallish (compared to French ones) stones both on the streets and sidewalks. The spirit of busy decoration contrasts with the stark white structures that are characteristic of the region. A distinctive aspect of Portuguese towns and villages is the use of glazed, decorated tiles on the façades. The Moors introduced the fashion to Spain, and the Portuguese happily adopted the azulejo style for themselves. The word azulejo comes from Arabic for “polished stone”; I suppose the painted tiles were a cheaper way to achieve the decorative Roman mosaics. I visited the Tile Museum 20, which is housed in a grand church structure, but was disappointed that the history and techniques of ceramics were mostly written in Portuguese, so it remains a mystery to me. Also a mystery to me is why the ancient ones had such a hard time drawing a cat. how many times have I seen this version—19 of the feline in myriad renderings?

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I returned to the Eden Hotel in the evening for a last rooftop 26 drink and snack (try adding oregano and olive oil on your next grilled cheese sandwich!). The hotel was ideally placed, especially as it was only a 5-minute walk to a tango soirée, which made a perfect finish to my Portuguese trip.

  • Excellent recap. It was so amazing having you be able to spend the week with us exploring all these new places and experiences. I do think we need to visit Porto together next time. Claire got to see quite a bit of the town, and I was in my wine conference and the Douro valley, so I didn’t get to see much. The Douro is the most beautiful wine country I have ever seen –spectacular! Can’t wait for the next time we can see you.

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