21 October 2016

Adventuras em Lisboa

By train, it takes a few short hours to get down to Lisbon (Lisboa, in Portuguese).  While the friendly atmosphere and sunny weather were the same between the two cities, Lisbon definitely has a distinct international "capital city" feel.  Its urban area is rather large with an extensive metro system, and the center of town includes several unique neighborhoods which each take time to explore thoroughly.  It is said that Lisbon was built on seven hills.  One of the most charming parts of exploring is getting lost in the winding streets and finding endless surprise views of the city, covered in signature red rooftops.  One of the least charming parts is slipping and falling on the too-smooth traditional mosaic-like sidewalk stone, so good walking shoes are a must (I snapped my only pair of sandals and had to hobble into the nearest shoe store on one foot).  Lisbon is situated at the mouth of the Tagus River, over which the 25 de Abril bridge is built, which was made by an American company and bears uncanny resemblance to the Golden Gate in San Francisco.

Tagus River and 25 de Abril bridge

Still-standing house
in Alfama
Not having much prior knowledge about Lisbon, I decided to go on a free walking tour given by a native; it only covered about four neighborhoods but lasted more than four hours.  Lisbon is one of the oldest capitals in Western Europe, predating Paris and even Rome.  Over the course of history, it picked up influences from pre-Roman era tribes, Romans, Muslims, Africans, Indians, and others; it was one of the most important port cities of the Silk Road.  In 1755, Lisbon was hit with a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami several minutes later and finally fires that almost completely destroyed everything within a matter of five days.  A handful of buildings in the Alfama district dating back to the Middle Ages survived the disaster, and their facades still show the Muslim influence of that time.  Some appear to be painted as a porcelain piece.

Another of my favorite bits of history was Napoleon's attempted takeover of Lisbon in the early 1800s.  While his troops physically did take the city, the royal family fled to its South American colony of Brazil beforehand, essentially transferring the Portuguese crown across the ocean so that Napoleon had no political dominance over Portugal and its empire.  For thirteen years, Rio de Janeiro functioned as the head of the Portuguese empire instead of Lisbon, and Brazil gained more power and independence out of the deal.

One classic tour stop (and the ultimate tourist center in Lisbon) is the Praça do Comércio, or Commerce Square.  It is a giant square situated on the river, complete with signature giant statue, signature colorful buildings, and giant fancy arch.  Several tram and bus lines pass through, and across the street, stone steps lead straight into the water.  You can sit on them and admire the view, but watch for rising water levels and waves made by passing boats.

A must-visit is the district of Belém, located a bit down the river near the Atlantic.  You can get there the easy way by tram, or the difficult way by metro and train, which is what I did.  There are several popular attractions in the area and it's worth spending perhaps 3/4 of a day there, depending on what season it is and the length of lines.  I was most attracted by a free modern art museum, Museu Coleção Berardo.  While it again had some art that was way too far out for my taste, I enjoyed seeing works by some major artists like Kline, Picasso, Dali, and Warhol.

Beyond the museum lies the Belém Tower, a fortified tower sitting at the mouth of the Tagus which originally had defense and ceremonial purposes.  It's a UNESCO world heritage site and a beautiful piece of architecture, enhanced by the color of the water, sky, and hills in the background.  However, when I passed by, I was met with the line you can see in the photo on the left...and decided to simply admire the outside.  I was glad I did, as I later was told that there isn't really anything inside; you wait in line for a long time and ultimately pay for a view of the Atlantic.

Walking back to the train stop, I came across another UNESCO site, St. Jerome's Monastery.  The next time I find myself in Lisbon, I will definitely brave the line to see the inside, but this time it was too hot and I was still a little under the weather from being ill in Porto.  I did admire the outside of the place, which is already stunning and made up of intricately-carved white stone.

Monet at the Gulbenkian
A few metro stops outside of Lisbon in the opposite direction of Belém is the Calouste Gulbenkian art museum.  It's a private collection that is not overwhelmingly large, but it does cover many eras and styles of art, starting with Ancient Egypt.  There are tapestries, intricate Chinese vases and pottery, and paintings, including some impressionist works.  The highlight of the experience happened in the Chinese vase room; I overheard two French women near me speaking rather quietly, describing the colors and patterns on the vases in an overly romantic, flowerly, delicate, poetic way.  Cue the American tourist who appeared at the doorway, map in hand and camera around his neck, who loudly announced to the room, "Look at all this STUFF!"

Back in the center of Lisbon, the São Roque church is worth a quick visit.  Inside, it is one of the most insanely decorated and intricate churches you can visit; there are many small chapels on both sides, each covered in statues and gold carvings.

São Roque was right next to my hostel, also near to a lookout point on one of Lisbon's seven hills.  The lookout point, called the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, was also home to food stands, artists, music, and dancing at all hours of the day.  Another of my favorite lookout points was on the opposite side of town, the São Jorge castle.  While you do have to pay to enter, and while the castle itself isn't much to marvel at, the view at sunset is not to be missed.

View from Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara
View from São Jorge castle

As far as eating your way through Lisbon and Portuguese coastal cities, I found that fish and especially cod dishes are the main specialties.  In Lisbon, there is a block of restaurants on the way to the train station and not far from the center of town that all have outdoor seating and specialize in the fresh fish catches of the day.  The servers are also very animated and fun.  I had one of the best meals of the trip there, and went back a couple of evenings later for the best steak I've ever had in my life.

Another specialty I particularly enjoyed was the bifana, a simple but mildly spicy beef sandwich.  The best I found was actually at a fast food place near a train station on the outskirts of Porto, but pictured at the left is a sandwich from a stand at the lookout point in Lisbon.

Two other not-to-be-missed food items are the heated breakfast ham and cheese croissants at cafés, which are much doughier than their French counterparts, and the pasteis de nata, a small custard pastry.

Lisbon is also known for a cherry liqueur called ginjinha, which we were able to sample on our walking tour.  Our guide brought us to the home of a woman who makes it herself; she opened up the top half of her front door and started pouring from a plastic pitcher.  Ginjinha is good but very sweet.

Any visit to Lisbon is incomplete without at least a day trip to nearby Sintra, which can be accessed cheaply by train.  Sintra is a small but charming town surrounded by coastal foothills and castles.  It's one of the most picturesque places I've ever been to; I only devoted a half-day to it but would certainly return for more.  Sintra has its own castle, but you can also hop on one of several bus circuits through the hills to visit other castles and views.  It's efficient, but the lines of people during tourist season can get very long.  With the time that I had, I chose to visit the Palace of Pena.  It's a fascinating multi-colored castle nestled in the hills; you can go on a short tour of the inside, but the main plug is the breathtaking view and interesting architecture.  It began as a monastery built around the year 1500.  Various kings and queens later inhabited it until the early 1900s, and it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

Portugal certainly merited a place on my list of places to return to.  Everyone I met was kind and welcoming, and the country has a unique beauty that can't be found elsewhere.

At the end of August, I boarded a flight from Lisbon to Lyon, and the next day took a high-speed direct train to Lille to begin a new life chapter.

11 September 2016

Oporto, você roubou meu coração

« Exister, c'est oser se jeter dans le monde. »  Simone de Beavoir

To exist is to dare to throw yourself into the world.

Near Porto, by plane
Mid-August, it was time to break away from my comfortable life in La Roche-sur-Yon and throw myself into some new adventures.  After quick train and shuttle trips to the Nantes airport, I was on an evening flight en route to Porto (Oporto in Portuguese), Portugal.  I was already enchanted by the country as we landed near the Atlantic at sunset, toggling between views of the ocean and inland valleys as we circled Porto.

Unfortunately, travel doesn't always go as planned; if you're me, it seems it never goes as planned.  Just before leaving for Portugal, I had come down with a throat infection which was misdiagnosed in France; my second stop in Porto after my hostel was the San António hospital, and I was lucky to get there at all.  My hostel was very nice but small, and the owner spoke no English or French; somehow we communicated through Google translate on my phone (Portuguese lesson #1: doctor = médico) and wild hand gestures, and he called me a taxi to the hospital in the early hours of the morning.  Thankfully, even at urgent care, there was a doctor on duty who spoke perfect English.  I felt very lucky to have English as my first language in that moment.

Pont Luís I
Even with antibiotics, my first three days in Porto were rather miserable, but I did manage to see quite a bit.  I walked up and down the Douro river several times, taking in the views of Porto, notably Pont Luís I, a double-decker bridge constructed by a partner of Gustave Eiffel, Théophile Seyrig.  The bridge connects Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia, which is known for its port wine cellars.

Porto feels like a very "lived-in" city where not everything is arranged perfectly for tourists (though in August, the place is crawling with them).  I don't know why, but I was charmed by all of the laundry hanging outside on porches, terraces, and balconies all over town.

It was also rather hot besides being sick, so I had to stop often to ask for:

água, por favor: water, please

A couple of other useful phrases:

olà: hello

sim: yes

Fala inglês?:  Do you speak English?
Não?  Fala francês?:  No?  Do you speak French?

obrigado/a: thank you
(Men say "obrigado" and women say "obrigada".)

I looped through the cathedral and center of town before attempting one of Portugal's specialties for dinner:   the Francesinha.  No one warned me that it was a dish to be shared between maybe two or probably three people.  It's an extreme variation on the French croque madame, a huge sandwich including ham and sausage and maybe other meat on bread, completely covered by cheese and egg and served with fries.  It was delicious; however, it took me about two hours (with several breaks) to get down about two-thirds of the dish.  (The literal translation is completely misleading: in French, "petite française", or "little French woman", in English.)  So, go and order it, but split it between friends!

Main concert hall, complete with a
non-functioning Mexican organ
One side chamber, decorated in optical illusion style
The following morning, my project turned out to be a tour of the Casa da Música, Porto's main concert hall.  It's a modern monstrosity designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, completed in 2005 (though it was supposed to be finished in 2001 when Porto was the European Culture Capital).  It's located in a city square; the main building itself is an asymmetrical block that is supposed to represent a meteor landing on earth, creating a crater.  The inside is made up of quite a bit of aluminum, and the concert hall itself is, again, not necessarily visually attractive, but impressively thought-out and versatile in terms of acoustics.  The main hall is surrounded by six smaller multi-purpose chambers, which can be modified for small concerts or VIP cocktail hours, for example.  One chamber even serves as a childcare while concerts are in progress so that parents can attend without needing a babysitter at home.

I paired my Casa da Música tour ticket with a ticket to the Museu Serralves, a modern art museum a little ways out of the center of town accessible by bus.  The museum itself housed three temporary exhibits, two of which made no sense whatsoever to me.  I'm not sure I understood the third, either, but I really liked it:  AC /DC Joy Division House by British artist Liam Gillick.  It was a piano programmed to play a simple melody; I found it relaxing.  Afterward, I spent some time walking through the museum's gardens, which are not particularly floral, but the tree cover was a nice break from the hot weather.

Back in the center of Porto, I was obligated to make the touristy Harry Potter fan stop to Livraria Lello, arguably "the most beautiful bookshop in the world".  The tiny place has become so popular that you have to buy a ticket across the street for 3€, then wait in the line that wraps around the block.  Why is it so popular?  Apparently, J.K. Rowling was inspired by the place while writing Harry Potter and teaching English in Portugal, and when you walk in, you can see why.  The staircase between the ground and first floors screams Hogwarts.  If you manage to shove through the crowds and find a book you want to buy, your ticket price goes toward the book...but I don't know how you'd be able to peruse books inside.  I was afraid of getting accidentally pushed over the balcony with the sheer number of uncoordinated selfie-stick-wielding people trying to take pictures on the staircase.  Maybe Lello is a place to return on the tourist off-season.

View from the bus
On my third full day, as I was still miserably wondering if the antibiotics would ever kick in, I decided to splurge on what turned out to be my favorite day of the whole trip.  If you ever visit Porto, I would recommend a day-long cruise on the Douro river; offers start at 60€ for about a 10-hour day and you can book in any tourist shop.  It's a great lazy day to put between in-town days full of museums, sights, and walking.  I chose the downstream cruise, which involved meeting a tour guide at the train station around 8am and taking a bus inland through beautiful valleys up to Régua, a small town on the Douro.

Carrapatelo lock and dam
Three busloads of us boarded a cruise ship and found places to lounge on deck, where cheerful Portuguese music was piped in.  I found a spot where I could hang my feet over the side of the boat and let myself be mesmerized by the scenery.  Besides the gorgeous river valley, I'll never forget how happy and calm everyone was onboard.  In the morning, we got to pass through the Carrapatelo lock and dam, the highest of fifteen on the Douro (five of which are in Portugal) at 115 feet.  The best part by far was watching everyone else tripping over themselves to take photos and videos of the whole experience: from the viewpoint of the boat, a lock and dam just looks like an an ugly cement chamber...  It's impossible to capture the magnitude from that perspective.  But, oh, did everyone try.

Below deck, a delicious three-course lunch was served, and then it was back up top for a final few hours of scenery and another smaller lock and dam.  The temperature and breeze on the water felt wonderful after a few hot days in Porto, and even after seven hours on the boat, I was reluctant to get off when we returned to Porto around 6pm.  By that time, whether it was the antibiotics or the healing river, I was finally starting to feel better.

For my last full day in Porto, I decided to do a day trip to a coastal town called Aveiro, which was recommended to me by friends.  It is nicknamed the "Venice of Portugal", mostly because of the canals running through the town and the boat tours that run frequently.  While I enjoyed visiting, I felt I had exhausted it after about five hours and was glad that I had an open train ticket to return to Porto at any time.  Had my swimsuit not been packed up in a suitcase in an attic in Lille, I may have stayed longer and included an afternoon at the beach.

I did start with a boat cruise to get a sense of the layout of the town.  The tour guides speak several languages and toggle between them throughout the tour, which is quite relaxed.  I was the only non-Portuguese speaker on my boat; my guide began in English, but switched to French once he learned I could speak it.  That has happened to me several times in Portugal; while nearly everyone in customer service speaks some English, Portuguese speakers can often convey a lot more in French since its roots are closer to Portuguese than to English.

Museau Arte Nova
After lunch in an English tea shop, I went to the Museu Arte Nova, or Art Nouveau museum.  It had one exhibit inside at the time, and honestly, the outside facade is the most impressive part of the building.  But there is a café in the back courtyard, and the ticket is also good for the Museu da Cidade just a couple of doors down.  This museum is a quick twenty-minute cultural overview of the history of Aveiro as a fishing port and commune.

After wandering the winding streets for another hour, I felt it was time to head back to Porto for my last evening.

When (not if) I come back to Portugal, I'd like to tour a port wine cave in Vila Nova de Gaia to learn more about the fabrication and aging process, but on my last afternoon I just had time for a tasting at Casa Kopke, which is the oldest port wine house there.  Port is a typical dessert wine, but can also be paired with a main course; at Kopke, they give you plenty of chocolate to go with your tasting.  Believe it or not, certain ports go better with white, milk, or dark chocolate.  I tasted a tawny port, an LBV (late bottled vintage, which tastes similar to a red wine), and a less-common white port.  I couldn't pick a favorite between the three; I'd never tasted an LBV or white before, and each was unique.

For my last dinner in Porto, I went to a small restaurant on a hilly street near the river for cod, a fish commonly served in Portugal that may be prepared in thousands of ways.  This time, the fish was topped with a tomato sauce, onions, peppers, and herbs...and surrounded by way too many potato chips.  But the fish itself was excellent.  After dinner, the street music on the waterfront is not to be missed.

It was my sunset walks back and forth across the Pont Luís I and the Douro that made me fall in love with Porto.  The view is incredible; the city glows in the evening light; the people are happy and friendly; the river is calm; the street music is optimistic.  In the end, it ranks up with Budapest on my list of cities to revisit.