|September 19, 2000
|Obidos to Lisboa (Lisbon)
Well, waddaya know? No rooster! Perhaps the hotel convinced its neighbor that they don't need one? Or perhaps the room air conditioner, which we turned to "fan", masked the sound? Nah.
Oh, by the way, on the outside of the hotel, and on the room key, there are FOUR stars under the hotel's name. Either they are just part of the hotel's name (Albergaria Rainha Santa Isabel), or Portugal has a very different standard than the rest of the world. All our other hotels have been rated 2 stars. I'd rate this place 10 flies!
Breakfast starts with lukewarm "coffee" and dilute orange drink. Well, the rolls are good, and there are small fuji-like apples and bosc pears, which I slice and peel and share with Brig.
The (entirely unnecessary) shuttle van eventually arrives, and we load her up, using our usual fire brigade technique. Then the bus takes us to Sintra. This is a rather touristy town, whose primary attraction is a 19th century "castle" ala Neushwanstein. It's very fanciful, supposedly containing an example from every western architectural style in existence at the time (1830). It's worth seeing. I brought my camera inside, but managed to miss the warnings against photography (having little to do with conservation, since ALL photography, flash or not, is forbidden). Well, I didn't know. I got a shot of a fabulous tromp l'oeil paint job. Don't look. Buy the souvenir book!
Maneuvering a bus in a modern city is not a feat for the faint of heart. Imagine the work needed to move a bus through narrow European streets. Santos is incredibly skilled. Back in Tarifa, he pulled a k-turn-into-parallel-park maneuver that astounded everyone involved, drawing a handful of drop-jawed locals.
Well, today we witnessed several other bus tricks by Sintra's drivers:
1. This is not so much a driver trick as a noteable experience. Getting from downtown Sintra up to the castle requires either a 40 minute hike or a 10 minute bus ride. Time restrictions dictated the latter. We all manage to cram ourselves into this relatively small bus. Nearly all of us are standing, hanging on to whatever we can find, as the bus rocks and rolls around the switchbacks in the hill. Two English couples had preceded us onto the bus, and managed to secure seats. As Brigid describes this ride to be an "E ticket" (consult your Disneyana for the meaning), they remark to each other, good-naturedly, how this ride ought to be in the "fun park". We later meet them in the shuttle tram from the castle park enrance to the castle, and in the castle itself. It turns out that one of the couples has a son who was stationed at NAS North Island, on an exchange program, 5 years back. They have fond memories of San Diego and Coronado.
2. On our way back from the castle to the park entrance, we eschew the tram and decide to walk the 1/4 mile downhill. Before we go, we watch the poor tram driver attempting to turn his vehicle around. Not easy, when there are so many cars parked on both sides of the road. He manages to clip the bumper of a car, in the process. As he gets out to assess the damage, we stroll on down. We got there 5 minutes ahead of the tram.
3. On the bus from the park entrance back to Sintra, our driver has to negotiate turns that are complicated, again, by inconsiderate (and, perhaps, idiotic) drivers who clog up both sides of the road. A bigger tourist bus has preceded us, and can't get past one such parked car. Our driver jumps out and helps him negotiate the turn. When he returns, he gets an ovation from his passengers. He explains to us that this whole thing gets much worse when it rains. The limestone cobbles may look nice, but are slick as heck in the rain -- and they're even worse when there's a tiny bit of oil film on them. Cars slide everywhere.
4. Arriving in Lisbon, we try to unload in front of the hotel. Unfortunately, there are cars blocking our parking area. Some of us help push one car a few feet (this is a common practice in Spain), but we still can't manage to fit the bus because of a workman's truck. Just as the workman drives off making room for us, a Lisbon police car drives up, and starts haranguing Santos. Poor Santos has to take his undeserved insults about "Spanish drivers". We manage to finish unloading "deep storage" about a block away...
Before Lisbon, though, we poke around the monastery, and the Age of Discovery monument in Belem. Nice views of the 25th of April bridge. (This name commemorates the "carnation revolution" that marked the end of dictatorship in Portugal, in 1974. Fascist sentimentalists still call it by its original name, the "Salazar Bridge".)
Once in our room (almost palatial, but twin beds -- no complaints, though -- there are NO flies!) Brig turns on the Olympics (in Portugese) and takes a siesta.
We meet the group for our orientation walk and "last dinner". Lisboa clearly has a much more homogeneous population than any other city we've visited in Spain (or, perhaps, anyplace else we've visited in Europe). We walk past several of the main squares (plaças) to learn to recognize the location of the hotel and its relationship to various landmarks and transportation options. Susan points out one of her favorite pastry shops in Plaça Rossio, called Pastelleria Suiça.
Then we walk over to the Bairro Alto area to our fado club destination, Canto do Camões. We've got most of the restaurant to ourselves, say 28 of the 36 seats.
The meal begins with bread, toasted slices, a tuna salad (nice, but nothing special), and my favorite, pulpo (octopus) vinegrette. I could easily wolf down the whole plate (and another one, for good measure), but I hold back, to let everyone get their fair share. It was delicious, but I'll have to track down some more. You just don't see this stuff in the U.S. Then there's water, vinho branco e vinho tinto. Neither wine is outstanding, but they serve their purpose. Next up, an undistinguished soup with a potato base and some tasteless shreds of green leaves. Brig gets her pork and clams, served with (what else?) fries. I get my piri-piri chicken, served with..., well, you get the picture. Only the salmon came with green veggies (broccoli and tiny brussels sprouts), but from the look of them, they were cooked too long by half. Brig's pork is nice enough. My chicken is extra dry, and with little to show for its encounter with piri-piri or any other spice. Hey, the food is not the main reason for coming here, anyway. Dessert was a pretty good chocolate cake for me, and a freshly made, very good fruit cocktail for the lady. We both took the proffered coffee (espresso, of course!). I drank mine solo, but Brig was much relieved to hear that milk was available (Santos -- good man! -- asked for it first, and several others chimed in with "me, too"). When the waiter came through with the hot milk, he poured a small dollop into each cup. This couldn't have been just milk. It must have been white gold! We made it clear that more milk was desired, and he did eventually come back with enough for all.
This being the last we would see of Santos (he left early the next morning, to return home to Madrid), presentations were made. Susan gave him the card signed by our group. Steve made a brief speech to him (likening him to Sancho Panza -- does that make Susan or Tooraj our Don Quixote??), and presented him with a compass on a plastic ribbon.
Following dinner, the entertainment begins. We have two instrumentalists, and three singers. One of the two instrumentalists was apparently new to the club, and one of these guys was butchering many of the songs, misfingering, failing to synchronize with his partner, and simply missing notes. It drove me nuts! (Perhaps I was mis-hearing him? Nobody else complained.) The first two of three vocalists each sang a set of three pieces. Our first singer, Idália Maria, was good, singing classical Fado songs (we bought a cassette from her). The second singer, a gentleman, was okay, but somehow did not make a big impression with us. The last performance was by Alzira Canede. She took some requests from Tooraj, and did a great job with both the "happy" songs ("Casa Portuguesa") and the Fado songs. She captured her audience very well. (Okay, including us. We bought her CD.) She appears to be the "star" performer, with the other two playing "warm-up". She did 4 or 5 songs. I get the impression that a significant chunk of the performers' income is derived from CD sales, which are solicited by the performer from each of the club guests after each set.
We slowly walked back to the hotel, after the performance. A few of the group were softly singing along the way. No, not Fado songs -- more like "Oh-bla-dee", "America", "Na Na, Na na na na, hey hey...". Well, it sure beats "Eidelweiss".