It has been a nice run, hasn’t it? At 4.5 months, this has been the second longest trip of my life (the first being the 2+ years’ travel adventure that started this blog back in 2006). This trip was never destined to be the mid-life crisis shakeup that earlier trip turned out to be. This trip was about taking an opportunity that presented itself, rather than letting it slip by. That said, it is impossible (I hope, anyway) to travel so much without it changing you, without it leaving a mark. The whole reason for travel is to be exposed to new cultures, new climates, new experiences, new ways of thinking, and of course new foods. To learn from what is beyond the border of your experience, and then integrate those lessons into your world view. Travel pushes you to live in the present moment like no other experience I know, because you can’t rely on routine and habit to navigate it, you need to really pay attention.
The past months have taken me to a wonderfully diverse set of places away from my home in New York. Colombia, California, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, India, Turkey, and finally Portugal. I have seen amazing places, met wonderful people, tasted amazing food. I have figured out logistics in a variety of foreign places and languages, some very easy and some maddening difficult. I have spent time with friends old and new. And although I knew this trip would make my finances take a hit, it was totally worth it. Some people might feel exhausted after such a long journey, but I feel invigorated. While I am definitely looking forward to getting home, it is less about a particular place and set of familiar things than it is about the people I know and love there, people I have missed.
I was expecting to miss most of the winter in New York, and I suppose I have, but it is bone-chillingly cold there at the moment and I guess I will still have about a month or so of winter to experience. Just as well, I will be snug in my apartment, chipping away at the large amount of work I have let pile up over the past few months. I am currently at the Lisbon airport, awaiting my flight to New York. See you all on the other side of the Atlantic.
I have to admit to liking Porto better today, for a few reasons, but mostly having to do with much better weather. This morning Arnaud and I crossed the river for a wine tour and tasting, then walked around, took the teleférico up the hill for some stunning views, and then made our way back across the totally insane Luís I bridge and back to our flat. I say the bridge was insane because there is a very low guard rail for a very high crossing. I can’t believe there aren’t a huge number of suicides off this bridge, it is crazy vertigo-inducing, but also affords truly spectacular views. We had a lunch of Bacalhau (what else) and then I bid a fond farewell to Arnaud who left to catch his flight back to London. Finally this evening, on the advice of a local, I sampled a local culinary horror called the Francesinha, sort of a distant inbred cousin of the already classy Monte Cristo. I am feeling a bit ill but proud for having taken up the challenge.
I will go to bed early tonight because I have to be up to catch my taxi to the airport at the ungodly hour of 4:15am. I am finally heading home after 4 and a half months on the road.
Arnaud and I have been walking around Porto all day, most of which it wasn’t raining too bad, but right now it is kinda pouring out. Arnaud still wanted to walk around, so I said have fun, see you back at the apartment. While we have yet to do a tour of wine shops here (that is tomorrow), we have walked all over town, have seen a lot of buildings inside and out, and even went to the very interesting modern art museum designed by Alvaro Siza. So far here are my impressions of Porto:
– It is a beautiful city, but has nothing on Lisbon.
– It is quite run down in the center, historic city. Many buildings are crumbling or abandoned.
– Unlike most cities in Europe, the wealthy seem to live more in the suburbs, which seem to be in better physical shape than the old city, but lacking much of the charm.
– The food here has been quite a bit more expensive than in Lisbon, but perhaps because we are going to more touristy or better places. Come to think of it, maybe the cost also explains why the quality has been better than Lisbon for most meals.
I will reserve judgement until after tomorrow’s wine tasting and other-side-of-the-river viewing, but so far I think if you came to Portugal and could only choose one city to visit, Lisbon would win hands down over Porto.
Since I was in Portugal, I couldn’t really leave the country without seeing Oporto, so here I am. The trip is made all the nicer by my old friend Arnaud agreeing to meet me here for a few days. I arrived about an hour before him at the airport and awaited him, then we hopped in a cab which took us through the rain to our stunningly beautiful apartment overlooking the Jardim do Infante Dom Henrique in the very center of the city. Even though it was raining almost the entire day, we walked all over the place, had a really yummy lunch and got a feel for the city. So far, I can tell you that (despite the rain) Oporto is a charming little city. Similar to Lisbon but a bit more run down, and there are wine shops all over the city, which we plan to avail ourselves of in earnest starting tomorrow.
My last day in Lisbon was spent walking around, enjoying the beautiful weather. In particular, I took in the Castle of Sao Jorge at the top of Alfama. This multi layered, historic site really has the best views over the city, and is a fascinating tour through successive centuries (millennia, really) of occupation, culture, and developments in the life of Lisbon.
Tomorrow morning I head to Porto (Oporto), where I will meet up with my old friend Arnaud who is flying down from London. The forecast calls for rain, but so did the forecast for my time in Lisbon, and it turned out to be mostly sunshine, so fingers crossed.
English – Unlike many other countries in Europe (France, Spain, and Germany to name but three), People in Lisbon seem to have a very good grasp of English and don’t mind speaking it. At first I was trying to speak Spanish, because I figured that way everyone (including me) would be having to speak a non-native language and it would be closer to Portuguese and so easier for them. But my new friend Rui told me last night that despite my good intentions it is actually considered condescending and rude (as if not knowing that Portuguese and not Spanish is the native tongue), so I have stopped. One interesting possibility for why they speak so well is that their TV programs (if they are originally in English) are not dubbed (as they are in many countries), but subtitled. So this helps them have quite a better command of English.
French Tourists – And speaking of language groups, I can’t get over how many damn French tourists there are here, far outstripping any other group. They are everywhere.
Drugs – I can’t get over how many times I have been stopped on the street here by people trying to sell me drugs, and not just the soft stuff either.
Cobble stones of death – While they are beautiful to look at and add a lot of charm to the place, the cobblestones that cover every surface can be a little hard on the feet. And heaven help you if it rains in Lisbon, the whole place becomes a slippery mess.
Cheap – I can’t get over how inexpensive everything is compared to every other place in Europe I have been. Breakfast usually runs about 2 dollars, for example.
Land of canes – Much like in neighboring Spain, there are a surprising number of people using canes and crutches to get around.
Pubs – Likewise, there are a surprising number of pubs around (the English and Irish kind).
Shouting in the streets – Perhaps it is just my neighborhood of Alfama, but there are an inordinate amount of people just hanging out in the streets and yelling a lot. A LOT.
In a strange coincidence, one of my clients from LA (Jason) and his partner (Steve), just happened to be in Lisbon at the same time as me. So last night we went to a Fado club to listen to some great music, and today we all went to Belem to see the tower and the monastery. Then we had a brief walkaround and coffee in Alfama before parting ways.
I love it when you run into people you know in unexpected places.
Since it was raining this morning, I decided to check out the Fado Museum, which is helpfully located just a few minutes from my apartment. I knew almost nothing of Fado music before coming to Lisbon, but now having spent some time at the museum and listening to a fair sampling, I have come to the conclusion that this is my kind of thing. I have always been drawn to melancholic music, I find it the most beautiful type, and Fado does not disappoint. It is dripping with it. But Fado is not just about melancholy and sadness, it is about adjacent feelings of longing and acceptance. “Saudade” has always been one of my favorite Portuguese words, and here is a perfect representation of it in musical form. How could this not appeal to a gay man, really? Fado has a fascinating history of marginalization and censorship, and later even being seen as hopelessly tainted by associations with facism and dictatorship. You can read up on its history here, it is pretty interesting (if badly written). I even bought a couple of collections of Fado music, which I am listening to at this very moment.
And how perfectly timed this all was, since I am to meet friends tonight at a Fado restaurant…now, where did I put those razor blades…?
Yesterday I got up early (I just can’t help it, I am a morning person despite being in a night culture) and took an early morning walk through the empty streets of Lisboa, over to a breakfast place that was recommended on some internet site but turned out to be truly horrible. Still, it was a lovely walk into town and back. On my way around, I saw a little memorial marking a horrible massacre of Jews in 1506, and it got me wondering if there were any really old synagogues around to see. But after reading up on the history, you realize they were pretty well wiped out here, much as it was in Spain.
I got back to my apartment and started thinking about what to do with my day, when I came across a mention of the Convento de Cristo. It seemed kinda far away, but when I Google mapped the route there, it showed that if I left in a few minutes, there was a train leaving from a nearby station that I could catch, so on a whim I bolted out the door and to the train station. Catching the train was a breeze, and it was a direct (if longish at two hours) train ride there. While I was on the train I thought perhaps it was a bit silly of me to be spending more time traveling (at over four hours counting both ways) than I would actually be at my destination (about 3 hours), and wondered if I hadn’t been a bit rash.
Perish the thought. The convent was amazing, so fascinating and beautiful to walk around in. And there were hardly any people there, I felt I had the place to myself. The layers of architecture and history here are not to be missed, I absolutely loved it. Mere words can’t express how great this place is, check out the pics below. And don’t miss the town of Tomar down the hill from the place. I still had some time to kill before my train back to Lisbon, so I took a walk through the town, which is historic and beautiful in its own right. And right near the end of my trip, I stumbled by chance on something that neatly tied together my early day walk and questions about the Jewish presence here in Lisbon. There is an old synagogue building in Tomar. It is nothing much to look at architecturally, but has a fascinating history and the two women inside were very helpful and so happy to have someone to show it to. One of them, a quite old woman, told me that her family were marranos, crypto jews that had kept themselves hidden for centuries in the region of Belmonte.
This morning was all about the neighborhood we are staying in, Alfama. We walked all over it, through its maze of streets and beautiful old buildings, and enjoyed the sunny weather and wonderful views. Stijn and Xavier then had to catch their flight back to Amsterdam, and I was very sad to see them go, we have had such fun the past few days. I will stay on until the 13th, then head to Porto. Check out the pics below: