Rain and Fado, a perfect combo

10
Feb
2015

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…?

Convento de Cristo

10
Feb
2015

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.

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Alfama goodbyes

8
Feb
2015

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:

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Sintra, sea monsters and such

8
Feb
2015

Yesterday we decided to take a little trip outside Lisbon, to visit a beautiful little town called Sintra. But first, we took a little walk along the water, over to the Mercado da Ribeira for breakfast at a super cute and new collection of little restaurants in a kind of market food court (definitely recommended). After that we made our way through the city towards the train station to catch a train to Sintra. We had also planned to go to Cascais after Sintra, and were asking the ticket agent about our options when she recommended the 15 Euro day pass which would work on all trains and busses in the region, so we took that.  I have to say that catching all the transport in Portugal has been a breeze so far, whether tram, train or bus.

Sintra is really a collection of several things to see, from the old town itself to the palace and castle in the nearby hills. I suppose the lesser fit usually decide to take the tourist bus up the mountain to get to those sites, but we decided that was for whiners and babies, so off we went. Let’s just say we probably worked off a lot of the pastry we have been eating on that walk, it was quite a climb up to the Castelo dos Mouros and on to the Palácio da Pena. Stijn and Xavier were giving me angry looks as we huffed and puffed our way up and up and up, expecting to reach our destination at every turn in the road and being cruelly disappointed that there was still some distance to go. But it was worth it (at least I thought it was), the path up was so beautiful, the views stunning, and the palace…well, the palace was one of the places that inspired Disneyland, apparently. It was beautiful in its way, but kinda over the top kitschy design, even for the era. Still, definitely worth a visit.

After that, we meandered down the hill, taking in the views and talking more and more about various body aches and how fun it is to get older. At the bottom of the hill near the train station, we arrived just in time to catch the 417 bus that was leaving for Cascais. We pretty much zoned out on the bus during the 45 minutes or so it took to get there, then had a relaxing beer in a local pub, and then went looking for (and found) an amazing seafood restaurant recommended to us by the owner of the apartment we are staying in. The place is called Marisco na Praça, and we ordered a number of sea creatures I had never seen before, one of which turned out to be goose barnacles, and the other some sort of gigantic deep red prawn from waters around Morocco. In addition to that we had an octopus salad and regular tiger prawns, and everything was cooked to perfection. If you go to Cascais, you must go to this place.

We had planned on going out dancing last night, but by the time we got back to the apartment we were beat, and called it a night and fell fast asleep.

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Eating, Drinking, Walking, Grooming, Raining

7
Feb
2015

We hit Lisboa in earnest yesterday, criss-crossing the city with a few small errands in mind that framed our direction and day. I needed to replace my shoes that had a hole in them, and Xavier wanted to go back to this hipster barbershop (filled with cute guys) where he had gotten a good cut last time he was in Lisboa. We hopped on the storied 28 tram and took it to its terminus, at which point we thought we would stay on as it started its route again, but the very surly driver yelled at everyone to “Get. Out.”. From there, we meandered down through a park, and through the neighborhoods of Principe Real, Biarro Alto, and Chiado. Then we attempted to find Xavier’s barbershop and finally did after a fair amount of wandering around, but it was not open yet, so we went to find my shoe store to replace my shoes before returning to the barbershop. We all decided to get beard trims or shaves, and took a seat to await our turn. We figured it would be quick because there were two guys working there, no one in line, and the guys in the chairs seemed very close to being done. But no, these haircut guys are like monks performing a slow motion ritual, and we waited perhaps an hour before the first of us got into the chair, and I think we sat in that shop for an insane total of about 3 hours. That said, my beard trim and neck shave was heavenly, and we all felt duly pampered by the time we left. We then made our way to a local churrasqueira for a late and meaty lunch, at which point it began raining and we hopped from coffee shop to store to awning before finally making it back to the apartment a bit soaked.

We took a nap and then headed out to dinner at around 10 pm, because this is a very late culture and nothing gets started until quite late. And after that we made a tour of the entire length of the Rua da Barraca and its many small bars before finding a taxi and heading back to Alfama where we are staying.

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Landing in Lisbon

6
Feb
2015

I landed at the airport in Lisbon yesterday, where I was greeting by Stijn and Xavier who had arrived from Amsterdam. We got checked into our AiBnB apartment, which…leaves a lot to be desired, especially for the price. They advertised it as “quirky”, but what I think they meant was “shitty”. I am looking into alternatives, but may just deal with it so I don’t have to move and attempt to get my money back.

Anyway, we hit the town running, leaving the apartment almost immediately to start walking around the city. We grabbed an early dinner and then made our way through the neighborhoods, from Alfama to Bairro Alto, drinking our way around the city, and stopping in for various pastries and coffees. I have to admit to feeling a little queasy by the time we got back to our apartment, but am much better this morning. Today we will wander around exploring what seems to be a super charming city. Stay tuned for photos.

lis

Goodbye / IST

5
Feb
2015

Last night I had a yummy goodbye dinner with Emre and Karpat at a place near the Galata Tower called Kivahan. It has been so nice just hanging out with them the last few days, they are such great guys. With everything that is going on in Turkey politically, they are looking into their options for living elsewhere, and I have been pushing hard for New York of course. It would be great to have them close-by.

After bidding goodbye to Emre this morning, I made my way to the airport with very little hassle, catching a taxi and getting here in plenty of time. Which was good, because everything took longer than it should have at the airport. Not that I expect to be flying business class through IST on Turkish Airlines again, but every part of the experience is sub-standard. I can’t imagine the process is worse in economy, unless perhaps they are tortured or humiliated there for good measure. First, there are no signs to tell you that, unlike every other airport I have ever been in, the check-in for business class is not next to where the economy check in for your flight is, but about a football field away, and not marked on any departures / check-in sign. Once I found it and finally checked in, I was told to go to through the special passport control line for business class that is supposed to be much faster and smoother, but it was actually about 4 times slower than if I had simply gone to the normal passport control line. By the way, then one has to go through a second bag screening (in addition to the one entering the airport, WTF).  After that, I made my way to the Turkish Airlines business class lounge, which although nicely designed has rather crap food and service. If I had paid anything close to full price for this ticket, I would be bummed.

Anyway, I am off to Portugal (my first time) where I will spend the next 10 days before finally heading back to NYC. I have two friends from Amsterdam, Xavier and Stijn, who will meet me for a few days in Lisbon, and next weekend Arnaud will come from London to meet me in Porto.

Uska Dara

3
Feb
2015

Emre, Karpat and I were in the car yesterday (a very rainy day) on our way to breakfast, and when I pulled up the map, I noticed that we were near to an area called Üsküdar. I told my friend that it reminded me of a funny old Earth Kitt song called Uska Dara, that was ostensibly about a little town in Turkey, but that I was pretty sure it was all made up and that the language she was speaking was not a language at all, but just some foreign-sounding gibberish that was meant to stand in for one.

Well, it turns out that almost all of what she was saying in the spoken parts were actual Turkish words (even if some of the translations were made up). And the sung parts (both words and music) are from very well known folk songs. Emre and Karpat knew all the words and were singing along.  For some reason, this whole scenario tickled me to no end.

Quiet markets and friendly food

2
Feb
2015

Since Emre had to work again yesterday, Karpat and I went to Sultanahmet to hit the spice market and walk around a little. Since I spent about a month in Istanbul a couple of years ago, I don’t really feel pressure to see all the tourist stuff I did back then, and can now just sort of wander aimlessly in some of these areas and take pleasure in that.  The markets were surprisingly empty on a Sunday morning, I remember before they were so packed it was difficult to walk through at all. We meandered a bit, picked up some spices, had lunch at a lokanta, crossed the bridge, ate some sweets, took the tunel and metro back to Emre’s place, then drove from Şişli over to the Asian side where Karpat lives. Emre met us over at Karpat’s, and they made me a lovely dinner (which included some yummy new things I had not tried before, like Pastirma). Today (weather permitting) we will take a small road trip somewhere, but even if we don’t, I am really enjoying just hanging out with my friends.

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Karpat and The Black Sea

1
Feb
2015

Unfortunately Emre had to work most of the day yesterday, so Karpat and I took a little drive north to the edge of The Black Sea. We passed through a couple of run down old fishing villages, and I had to wonder: If these places are hundreds of years old, why is there so little obvious older architecture? Karpat told me that the Turks are not big on saving their history, and that the Ottoman empire built largely in wood rather than stone, so I suppose these are part of the story. One of the places we passed through, Garipçe, has a current and messy story all its own related to the nearby bridge construction. We also saw the ruins of the fort at Remeli Feneri, which were quite atmospheric.

It was incredibly windy yesterday, so much so that Karpat and I were almost blown into the sea from the cliffs a couple of times. But the Bosphorus and the edge of the Black Sea were nevertheless quite beautiful in this weather. Later Karpat showed me a glitzy new mall with an interesting design, and we finally met up with Emre later for a brief meal before heading to bed.

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