Rua Augusta, Saturday noon, the sunny, wind-scattered heat in mid-November feels like a mid-August elsewhere.
Purple jacaranda florets are in bloom.
We are sweating and drinking ginjinha, a sticky, sweet liqueur-like digestive made of sour cherries. I love the soaked cherries, not the syrupy brandy itself, but I’m drinking it all for solidarity with my two sidemen – true Lisbonites – my friends and hosts, Pedro and Luis.
Europe’s westernmost capital, once an imposing colonial and maritime power, feels relaxed and easygoing that I feel oddly comfortable already upon arrival. I love when new places do that, it’s rare.
it will inadvertently tempt you to unveil the hidden truths
I receive a text message from a friend elsewhere, asking if I am at the end of the world.
I reply: almost – in Lisbon!
In that case, he says, you better go to Praia de Guincho, rent a board and do some surfing!
I show the message to the guys and they agree that it’s an excellent idea but, after checking with a few sources (or meteorologists on dial?), we are notified that, unfortunately, there are no waves today.
I am certain it is warm enough for a swim, or at least a tan. It is November, but the weather is great – like a perfect Indian summer.
As we descend through the winding maze-like streets of Alfama neighbourhood, we get entangled in an impromptu football match near the grandiose Sao Vicente de Fora Monastery with the kids from the neighbourhood.
Their game, as much as their smiles, is fun and warm, a symbol of an agreeable attitude of this city.
Soon enough their mothers jointly call out for them, as in a choir, to come home for lunch, and we wave goodbye to the smiling faces.
We head to a cafe-bakery for the esteemed Pasteis de Belem dessert where, what looks like, hundreds of sweet connoisseurs are crowded at the bar waiting for a fresh batch of pastries constantly being churned out on giant sheet pans.
Pasteis are pastries filled with the smoothest egg-based cream.
We wait a mouth-watering half-hour to get one each, and they are piping hot when they arrive, but so very delicious. Yes, definitely worth the drive and the wait.
The cafe-bakery itself is huge, with many ruggedly lavish rooms leading into different tea halls.
That evening we have a table booked at one of the tapas bars to watch a game: a local football team Benefica is playing, and it’s “a really important game”.
They say, as if apologizing, that Benefica is not that great and that it will be a hard game to win, but as die-hard fans we all must watch and cheer on.
We start lightly with some tapas and white wine, but as Benefica is winning 4:0, a bottle of champagne to celebrate is in order!
Buoyant and invincible, we head through Baixa and Chiado to the queen of the city’s nightlife – Bairro Alto, a district with attitude.
Hidden squares, winding streets and even sidewalks seem to hold all of city’s inhabitants.
There in those narrow ascending alleys, where the decor on the buildings are all hand-painted blue mosaic tiles, known as azulejo, on the facades and pavements, are holes-in-the-wall, tiny and narrow bars, clubs and restaurants, and a sea of people – drinks in hand, tapas on skewers – mingling up front.
My guess is that there is an assortment of Lisbonites, expats, the international travelling brigades, and surfers – their languages and appearances betraying them.
This vibrant and varying symbiosis somehow works, as everyone is friendly, laid-back and approachable. Attitude, what attitude?
And, just like their neighbouring Iberians, they love the nightlife, known to go way past a madrugada (the wee hours of dawn).
We happily meander through the crowd, sneaking glimpses at quaint little venues which are all too inviting, no wonder the parties continue until the next day.
I tell my accomplices that they have to take me to listen to Fado.
Fado, the beautifully tragic, soul-wrenching folk music. Fado, music so illustrative of the collective Portuguese mentality, their hope, their fate and their vigilance. Fado, a word of which I don’t understand, yet its intricate meaning, regardless, is always touching. Fado that conveys a riot of emotions and principles solely through a piercing voice accompanied by one or two classical guitars. The mysteriously intense Fado that I grew up listening to when my parents returned from their travels around Portugal and brought back cassettes of ‘Rinha do Fado’, Amalia Rodriguez.
No, there’s no more of that, they say, no one but tourists listen to Fado any more.
Oh no, I am returning from Portugal with shocking news: the Portuguese don’t listen to Fado!
At some uncertain point of the night, after many hours mingling about, and my guess is that we’re close to the notorious madrugada, I am taken to O Saloio for a bowl of caldo verde, a warm vegetable soup, which the locals like to sip as an ‘early breakfast’. What an odd preference, but ‘when in Rome…’.
The following sunny day – and does this city ever see any bad weather? – we drive out of town for an excursion and a lunch elsewhere, along the coast to Estoril and Cascais.
A sequence of cafes in Estoril, between the coast and the colonial mansions, line the fine-sand beaches.
After a light lunch in Cascais we carry on to Boca do Inferno, mouth of hell, where the wild waves of the Atlantic crash beneath.
Next up, as per recommendation: Praia de Guincho, a wild beach and surfers’ paradise.
It’s windy and cloudy and the beach itself is quite deserted, though plenty of surfers are floating between the ripples. I vow that I will learn to surf. Soon.
We proceed to the westernmost point of Europe – Cabo de Roca, where we get carried away by a strong lashing wind to the cliffs, giving Pedro and Luis appreciation anew for Portuguese world-renowned sailing mastery.
Our final point on the itinerary is the curious Sintra, a hilly reserve of lush gardens and forests peppered with numerous mansions, a mismatched collection of all the major architectural styles and periods.
The surreal designs and rainbow hues of the castles and palaces, once residential dwellings of former royalties that now operate as museums and tourist sites, stand in contrast to the surrounding greenery. The atmosphere is almost dreamlike. Perhaps this is what Alice felt like in Wonderland..
It is raining sparingly and the sun is piercing through the clouds, revealing a rainbow arching over the loony monuments. A whole day can be devoted to their exploration but we are not in a disposition of it this time.
I am told to return for the Sao Antonio festa on June 13th, when the whole city spills out on the streets, celebrating life. Or for the February Carnival.
And now I see that Lisbon and the rest of Portugal live festa to feira, as the cultural calendar is always filled with a multitude of events.
Not to mention the football tournaments.
And I have to take a trip to Algarve, the popular southern coast stretching between Africa and Europe.
As well as Madeira, an attractive hilly island of summits, valleys and deep therapeutic waters, in the Atlantic, off coast of Morocco.
And not to forget the glorious Oporto in the north…
Oh, you thought Portugal was small?
I ask them how to say ‘I will miss Lisbon’ in Portuguese.
Interrupting one another and talking simultaneously, they start explaining from the root of it, that the whole heart of that phrase comes from Fado itself – and I can’t just say ‘to miss’, I have to be able to truly express it from the heart.
If you want to get a Portuguese talking, ask them to explain the meaning of this world, it’s a topic all its own, and yet an integral part of everything else.
And so, how do you say it?
Ah, right – Saudade, they reply, that’s the proper way. Though not literally translated as ‘longing’, it signifies a nostalgia that indicates an emotional craving.
Obrigada…. So, we won’t be hearing Fado at all then?
Well, maybe next time…. Maybe fado is just a legend of Portugal..
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Points of interest:
A Ginjinha @ Largo de Sao Domingos, 8
Cafe de Belem @ Rua de Belem, 84
O Cantingo do Bem Estar @ Rua do Norte, 46
Pavilhao Chines @ Rua dom Pedro V, 89
A Merendeira @ Ave. 24 de Julho, 54
O Saloio @ Ave. 24 de Julho, 78B
Feira da Ladra @ Campo de Santa Clara
Cinco Lounge @ Rua Ruben A, Leitao 17A
Discoteca Amalia @ Rua Aurea, 274
Napoleao @ Rua dos Fanqueiros, 70