This wasn’t my first visit to Portugal, but the first one I had planned a bit ahead. The little I knew about Portuguese history came from high school history lessons as a brief mention of Carnation revolution, and the 1995 Italian film “Sostiene Pereira” / “According to Pereira”, starring Marcello Mastroianni, from which I mostly remember the beautiful soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. Apart from that, my only other closer encounter with Portuguese culture goes back to the uni years when I used to hang around the Erasmus students, many of which were Portuguese, and they used to listen to Madredeus and similar all the time. University students are supposed to be happy. They are supposed to be careless, drunk, high, promiscuous, politically committed, outraged at the worldly injustices, but substantially happy. Why the hell would anyone think that listening to fado when you’re 20 was a good idea? I mean, fado! Something structured as betrayal – break up – suicide. I was not in a good place mentally when I was 20-21 (while as now I’m living the dream), but still bright enough to instantly dislike fado at the first encounter. There was, however, one song on the Portuguese playlist from that period that struck me (and has stayed in my iPod ever since). It was a rock ballad by a Brazilian singer-songwriter Adriana Calcanhotto called “Vambora”, and I liked it enough to go look up and translate the lyrics. The song goes: “Entre por essa porta agora, e diga que me adora. Você tem meia hora pra mudar a minha vida. Vem, vambora! Que o que você demora, É o que o tempo leva”, which more or less means: “Come in through that door now and tell me how you adore me. You only have half an hour to change my life. Come on, hurry up! The more you linger, the less time we’ve got left”. Ten years ago I thought such statement was flirtatious and sexy. But then again, ten years ago I thought that men were easy to handle. When I listen to the same song now, what I hear is a grown woman who’s heard and seen it all. Who’s been subjected to any possible inexplicable male behaviour, and very little can surprise her at this point, but yet somewhere a little hope is left. “I give you half an hour to impress me, I’m taking no bullshit, so go on and give it your best shot. Otherwise off you go”. The deliberate choice of the verb adore, as opposed to love. As if love wasn’t even an option. I sometimes wish I could do that. Restrain myself from feeling too much, keep on the safe side. But I am mostly not capable of that, and keep telling myself that it’s better this way, because either way, good or bad, my emotions are more intense, truer. Ah shit, this is all heading in the “Sorrows of young Werther” direction again, and that was not my intention at all. Because, point is, I’ve had a smashing long weekend in Portugal.
So, Lisbon. Arrived late on the Wednesday evening pleased to discover a little bar just downstairs from the rented flat, and readily sneaked in there for a welcome drink with my friend who had already arrived (and who wishes to stay incognito, therefore I will refer to her as Beatrice, my guide through paradise – mainly because it was her who did most of the driving). As both of us had already been to Lisbon, we only planned to stay there one day this time. First thing in the morning, off to Belem to have a proper brekkie: the original pastel de nata (pasteis de nata, even, plural), then visit to the monastery, and walk along Tejo back towards the 25 de Abril bridge, just in time for a fish-and-bubbles lunch in the marina. After lunch the plan was to walk back to the centre and just wander around, but we took a wrong bus, ended up having no idea where, and then just walked up and down (literally) through the town’s narrow streets, discovering random little squares and terraces with breath-taking views, a cathedral destroyed by an earthquake some 300 years ago turned open air museum (just like Coventry, kind of, minus the surroundings), and eventually ended up on the top of the castle hill long after sunset, only to finish the day in Bairro Alto for a quick supper and a couple of drinks. Few notes about Lisbon: the city is beautiful. Dark, not properly maintained, a bit dirty, but it’s all part of the magic. I think it’s probably dirtier and shabbier than it was 2 years ago, but not less beautiful. However, inexplicably, the Christmas decorations were unbelievable, opulent, very kitsch, and must have cost a fortune. The city centre looks like Las Vegas. I thought London was bad enough when it comes to tacky Xmas decorations (but at least can afford them), Lisbon wins though. Or loses. I am not sure which way the race works. One other thing: I have never been approached by so many pushers in such a short perion of time. I don’t know if I look like a junkie, but random people kept offering me drugs. Oh well.
Day 2 – Sintra. We left the capital early on the following morning, and arrived to Sintra in time to be able to find a parking space (which was the first achievement of the day). The idea was to spend half a day walking among the palaces and gardens and then continue the journey north towards Porto, stopping at the sanctuary at Fatima. Half a day in Sintra is nonsense. There are enough things to see to fill three days (you could maybe get away with two in summer with more hours of sunshine). We rented a small electric car in a local agency, that provided us with an itinerary to follow, maps, all the information, wifi and navigation and we set off for a tour of the park. We decided to visit only Quinta da Regaleira palace and gardens, because seeing all 4 would mean a mad race against time and sun, and we’d risk to cause ourselves a Stendhal syndrome. Instead we opted for spending more time on the coast and enjoy a nice lunch on the beach (who in the depths of grey, damp London would imagine dining al fresco on the 8th of December). If nothing else, we have a reason to return – still too much left to see.
Intermezzo – So, the gastronomic plan was to exterminate half of the fish and seafood population of the Atlantic ocean, but in truth, Atlantic ocean almost got me. I have no clue what on earth have I eaten. The drive from Sintra to Porto took about three hours and I was feeling perfectly normal, as soon as we parked the car, I started feeling nauseous and spent the evening pretty much throwing up all over the place. It was Beatrice’s turn the next day, so between the two of us we made a fairly healthy couple.
Day 3 – Porto. Total panic – by camera battery was down, so I spent the morning running around Porto looking for a photography shop that might have a spare battery or a charger compatible with my camera, which proved to be rather difficult. Eventually I found a shop that sold Olympus accessories, and the nice shopkeeper informed me that according to his computer, there should be 3 spare batteries in stock, but he had no clue where. Then upon seeing my sheer desperation he offered to keep my battery in the charger for a couple of hours, which kept my camera alive for the rest of the trip, so the crisis was surpressed. Lesson learned: buy a spare battery (and bloody keep it charged) and don’t leave the charger at home. Maybe also, start to pack the luggage earlier than 5 minutes before the taxi arrives. Right, so Porto. Smaller, filthier, more decadent and more charming than Lisbon. The net of winding streets around Douro makes you feel like you time travelled to a different era. At night the skyline of the opposite shore of the river is lit by luminous signs of tens of port wine cellars. Graham, Taylor, Offley, Sandeman, Campbell, Dow, Osborne…all of them English names. Of course, because only the English would drink their wine fortified and sweet. Especially in a region where normal wine is good. The French approach in certain regions is understandable, admirable even: we grow grapes, but the wine it awful, let’s distil it (cognac/armagnac) or let’s add some sugar to it and re-ferment it in the bottle (champagne). Or even better: No Frenchman likes young wine, so let’s call it beaujolais and sell it to the world! Yay! But why on earth would you throw brandy into a perfectly good wine? Unless you’re English, that is. (No offence, guys. None whatsoever.) Well anyway, we managed to see most attractions in half a day: a few churches, the market, the Lello & Irmao bookshop (for Harry Potter fans), a boat trip along Douro, and then after not having eaten anything in 24 hours, I was too exhausted to do anything, so I headed home for a nap, while Beatrice went for “wine” (port) tasting (as above, I couldn’t be arsed). We attempted a dinner in a tapas place called Tasco that was recommended to us by our landlord, but couldn’t really face the food, however delicious it looked. (The Portuguese don’t really do tapas, but the concept of this place was to serve small portions of traditional cuisine, as if it was tapas). I confess that we concluded the day on the sofa of our rented flat watching Sex and the City on my laptop. Shameless!
The last day: Cloudless skies, no wind, 25 degrees. Tipical December weather. When in Rome, they say. So we did what the locals were doing: went to the beach, of course. Walked along the shore, watched the surfers (yes, well, the human capital of the Portuguese malekind is rather interesting, I felt like a child in a candyshop), and tried to come up with a valid reason for turning up in the office on the following morning. They say work makes you a better person. Well, certainly not me. After four days my skin was bright and clear, the freckles came out, the black marks under my eyer were gone. I feel a much better person when I do f*all from dawn till dusk. Unfotunately after sunset it was time to make our way to the airport. At least I came back to Albion with a very undecemberly tan.