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 portugal

22 jul
In Lisbon, I toured the older neighborhoods. The Convento do Carmo, ruined by earthquake in the 1600s, is preserved as a museum, its broken arches still reaching to the sky. Pedestrians ride an outdoor elevator, designed by a student of Paris' Eiffel, to the shopping district of Chiado below. I walked across the valley instead and hiked up the facing hill to the castle ruin of Sao Jorge, sampling churches along the way. I got pleasantly lost in the ancient mazelike streets of the Alfama district where little restaurants were tucked away in tiny plazas serving grilled fish, olives, wine. In the evenings, the mournful ballads of fado singers poured out into the streets from restaurants and bars.

Nestled in what appeared to be a cloud forest, Sintra sits along the side of a steep hill with its winding streets, colorful shops, and quaint hotels. High above the town, the Palace da Pena, fanciful creation of King Ferdinand II, looks like the stuff of fantasy legends. Its small rooms are stuffed with furnishings and knick-knacks; the grand table set as if ready for dinner guests. In contrast, the Moorish Castle ruin, atop a rocky hill, is being reclaimed by forest; only partial stone walls remain. The National Palace in the main square holds heavy wooden furniture, colored tile and fun painted ceilings: the swan, magpie and stag rooms are named for their overhead art. I stayed the night in an elegant small hotel for about the same price as the Lisbon fleabag.

On the bus to the Sintra station I rode the long way through San Pedro. When the few other passengers got off, the driver turned tour guide, and then invited me for a stand-up coffee while he waited for his next departure time. I took the scenic route by way of Cabo da Roca, the windy westernmost point in contiguous Europe, to Cascais. In this pleasant resort, my hotel balcony faced a sheltered bay on the Atlantic shore. Boats bobbed, swimmers waded in the gentle waves, sunbathers lounged. I walked the boardwalk and beach, stopping at beachside cafes. There was an open air jazz festival in a restored fort on the sea front. I was just in time to get tickets to Branford Marsalis and his quartet.

I had planned to pick up a rental car in Cascais and drive up the coast. Usually more thorough, I was dismayed to discover that I neglected to pack my drivers license - it was still in my desk in Prague. After a few panicked emails, I made peace with the situation and rearranged my schedule, continuing north by train.

In a pension in inland Coimbra, right on the square, from my tiny balcony on the third floor, the church of Santa Cruz loomed; it looked as if I could just leap onto its towers. It felt a little like I'd stepped across the border into Italy. The narrow streets had that hustle-bustle. People were a little friendlier here, more talkative, less cool and indifferent to tourists as I had found in Portugal so far, especially after the openness of Moroccans.

At the Mercado (market), a man carrying a skinned pig over his shoulder stopped to talk to women vegetable vendors. Some fish displays were arranged in designs or schools, other looked as though they had just been dumped in the case from a basket or net. A man called a greeting as he hacked huge dried fish into manageable pieces.

Narrow zigzag streets led up to the old university. The university library is a museum of its own, with gold gilted shelves and artful ceilings. Students must petition to use one of these pre-1700 texts for research, and then it is brought to the general library temporarily. Working my way down through streets, I found the little Cathedral se Velha with its quiet courtyard garden.

At 10pm, I climbed a dark, deserted, narrow cobblestone hill (wondering if this was a good idea), to find a fado bar in a former chapel, gleaming white in a tiny plaza. In Coimbra, traditional fado is sung by men. The Portuguese guitar is a bit different, the handle fanned at one end, the body shaped like a teardrop. The singer wrapped himself in a black cape; black and white images were projected behind the musicians. The songs were nostalgic, romantic, melancholy, soulful. The very first song took me by surprise and brought unexpected tears to my eyes. I wished I could understand the poetry of the words, but perhaps it's even more touching when left to the imagination.
I left just in time to catch midnight fireworks from the Santa Clara bridge.

Back in Lisbon, I found a homey pension this time and set out on day trips. The whitewashed buildings of Obidos, delineated by painted lines in primary colors, huddled around little streets. I wandered up and down the hilly passages within the city walls; around every corner a perfect photo waited.

Once just a fishing village, Nazare now has a thriving tourist trade, but the charm of the old village remains. Women approached me with signs as I got off the bus: looking for a room? This was a town I could have spent more time in - simple, it still had an authentic feel. On the beach were rows of tents that could be rented, to change in or sit in. Old fashioned widows in black let their loss define their lives. Many sold souvenirs or nuts in stands, wearing knee length skirts puffed with petticoats, a sign propped up about their rooms for rent.

At a restaurant, down a street as wide as a hallway, with laundry hanging at the end of the next table, I had my best dinner in Portugal. Other restaurants offered seafood and rice (like the Spanish paella only more like a stew) for two only, but here they were willing to serve just one portion for me, with vinho verde, a light early wine. Ahhh… seafood, wine, sea air and laundry. I was served by an artist; the busboy was a high school student who was pleasantly surprised at his ability to hold a conversation in English; a woman in the kitchen wore black-rimmed earrings around tiny photos of her husband who died over 30 years ago.

I returned to Prague for a few days to pack up and say goodbye; tired of cities - the people, the noise, the constant commotion; ready for the solace and peace of the Colorado mountains.

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