|September 20, 2000
Good breakfast! American-style coffee, hot milk, orange drink (feh!), cold milk, several kinds of pastry, rolls, blackberry jam, orange marmalade, scrambled eggs (!), bacon, ham, cheese, corn flakes, a very nice fresh fruit salad, and bread pudding (heavy on the flan-like custard).
The group meets for a last tour. We walk over to the Bairro Alto funicular, where I sit in the driver's seat. Okay, so it was the descending control seat, and we are ascending. The photo still looks convincing (if you don't notice the absence of the clutch control lever, that is).
From here, we get a nice view of the Baixa, the central portion of Lisboa that was destroyed by the 1755 earthquake and rebuilt with a modern street grid. Beyond it is the Alfama district, topped by the Castle of St. George (originally an old Moorish castle). Somehow, Lisboa is not a particularly pretty city. There are cranes, scaffolding, and construction walls everywhere. In the background are smokestacks and silos for loading/unloading/storing granular ships' cargoes.
In the Sao Rocque church, we visit one of the most expensive chapels ever constructed. It was built at the Vatican out of extroadinarily expensive marble and lapis lazuli, with "paintings" executed in mosaics to avoid the typical damage from devotional candles. This chapel, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, was the site of one papal mass in the Vatican, and then was dismantled and shipped to Lisbon. No, I didn't bother to take photos. They wouldn't look like much, anyway. I just like to consider the number of hungry minds and mouths that went unfed in order to prepare this little bauble.
We take a break in the Plaça Chiado area at A Brazileira do Chiado, a famous coffee house of Portugese poets and artists. Their espresso is pretty good.
Next, we catch an ancient electric trolley to the Alfama district. From a plaza within the castle park, you get a fabulous view of the Tejo River, 25th of April Bridge, the Baixa, and Bairro Alto. Somehow, Lisboa is a lot prettier from this side. Perhaps it's because much of your view is of the Tejo.
We walk back to the hotel, freshen up, and head over to Pasteleria Suiça, for a light lunch. We sit outside to people-watch. I have a "salad #2" (lettuce, tomato, onion, egg, tuna); Brig has a ham and cheese sandwich (served on whole-grain bread! yay!). We drink fizzy water. And then I go in and select some pastries - portugese egg tart for Brig, chocolate cake for me. And an espresso for me. Satisfying, but not exceptional. 3,500 esc. ($18), and no plastic accepted!
Next, we take some time to shop a little bit (after stopping at a Banco Espiritu Santo ATM -- was that a holy withdrawal?). We criss-cross the Baixa, looking for our goodies, which includes a flask of ginjinha. I'll have to give it a try served icy cold. While shopping, we stop in at the Almarzen At Chiado. This is essentially an enclosed mall. The shops are a little too corporate, too high class for our taste. But the toilets are convenient, and we both avail ourselves of them. Brigid's visit is uneventful, but mine is slightly odd. As I finish my primary business, a youngish, cigarette smoker appears at my side, asking me a question in Portugese. He motions at the leftmost of 2 washbasins (the infrared-triggered kind), indicating that it doesn't work for him. He steps behind me as I approach the basin to wash my hands. Ever-wary since Barcelona, I quickly swivel to put my day pack out of reach. I notice a brief smile, as he demonstrates his plight at the left basin. I demonstrate the "technique" at the right basin. Before I leave, he tells me he is a Braziliero. I say "California", and quickly exit, waiting for Brig. Perhaps I'm too cynical - or perhaps not. While I wait, I see this guy exit, loiter around briefly, and then follow another guy into the toilet. This kid is probably either a pickpocket or a prostitute. Or both. Very sad.
We drop off our booty at the hotel, and visit the Mercado Municipal at the nearby Plaça Figuera. Some interesting items: Nabisco markets an "Oreo Cake" mix, consisting of chocolate cookie crumbs for the bottom and top of the cake, and a gelatine-based filling for the "creme" -- cute idea, I wonder why it never flew in the U.S.); perhaps 80 shelf-feet of pasta and beans of all kinds; a tubular cake called "salame", consisting of a dark cake with chunks of white cake embedded in it -- slice it and it looks like, well... salami!; a sweet potato-based cookie (which I buy, to share with folks at the happy hour); the usual skinned rabbits; produce includes some beautiful fat string beans, brussels sprouts, pomegranates, mediocre (but inexpensive) green figs, cherimoya (relatively cheap at around $1 apiece), huge quince (I think), but no grapefruit at all.
At the Chinese mercado across from the hotel, most of the stuff is identical to what you can get in the U.S., but there were a couple of unusual items: wine bottles containing a couple of whole horned lizards each, and a jamaican ginger beer (I buy a can -- it turns out to be quite good).
At 1830, the group assembles, for the last time, in the hotel lobby. Whereupon, we learn that the happy hour will be held elsewhere, and folks will need their funicular tickets to get there. Fifteen minutes later, folks reassemble with tickets and gear to go out, and Susan leads us back to the funicular station (after Tooraj's porto performance in Obidos, I offer to carry the vinho bottles for him.) We go back to the Bairro Alto overlook for a happy hour at the picnic tables. The timing and weather are perfect: the setting sun is turning Lisbon golden. It looks much nicer this evening than it did this morning!
Steve has several humorous presentations to make, to Tooraj and to Susan. Most of the "necklaces" were constructed from the "sanitary" paper seals from hotel toilets.
Steve and Jack I. then lead the group in a recycled humorous song about 7 tourists who get lost, unnoticed, at bathroom stops. And we all laughingly sung the chorus. You had to be there. (And if you're still reading this stuff, there's a good chance you were.)
After many, many, many... hugs, goodbyes, handshakes, good wishes (do the arithmetic -- there were 27 of us!), our group breaks up.
This was a very good group, with amazingly few, if any, conflicts. In general, everyone maintained good humor and a sense of perspective. It truly was a pleasure traveling with them all.
Susan and Tooraj did a tremendous job. They made things easy for the group -- if anything, they made things TOO easy. They maintained good humor at all times, and were tremendously helpful, very often far beyond the call of duty. It is clear that both of them truly enjoy what they do, and love to help people. They both have some personality traits that I envy: the ability to maintain their humor under difficult circumstances; and to patiently and cheerfully repeat the same information or answer the same question as often as it takes to get the point across. Both of us are extremely impressed with both of them, and would be honored to be able to count them as our friends.
Afterwards, we start walking back toward the Baixa. I run ahead to see if I can convince Tooraj to join some of us for dinner. We're walking down beside the funicular tracks (a funicular car is loading as I catch up to Tooraj). It's now dark (remember about the arithmetic of goodbyes). About halfway down, I suddenly notice that Brigid is nowhere to be seen. She's not behind us. I don't see her ahead of us. Someone (Tooraj?) suggests that she might have boarded the funicular that passed us. I doubt it, but run down the hill to see. Jeanette tells me that Brigid was not on the funicular. I turn around and sprint back up the hill. At 45, I don't sprint all that well.
By the time I get to the vagrant around 2/3 up the hill, I'm flagging and out of breath. I'm down to a stiff walk (up a steep hill). The funicular car is now in sight at the top of the hill. I'm determined to get a good look into the descending car if it takes off before I get there. I manage to reach the top in time to see Brigid and several others comfortably seated in the car. I slip into the funicular just in time, and plop down across from her, without the breath to say a word. She simply decided to take the funicular down. What's the problem? We exit the funicular at the bottom station to much applause...
Tooraj, Jack H., Dick, Marie, Brigid, and I decide to try out Susan's dining recommendation from the previous day's orientation. In the middle of "restaurant row", there is a nondescript building containing the Alentejo cultural center. No signs advertise the fact, but this building contains, on the 1st floor (U.S. 2nd floor), a restaurant that is open to the public. Susan had indicated that the place is really good, but really small. We enter the building and find a beautiful atrium. (By the way, when in Iberia, pop into nearly any older office building to get a look at the atrium -- many/most of them have one. They are usually incredibly neat, with azulejo or other local tilework, beautiful skylights, landscaping, etc. It's a freebie slice of local lifestyle.)
On one side of the 1st floor appears to be a card room. On the other side is the restaurant, with two good-sized rooms, both of which are packed. One of the rooms has two small tables, each set for two customers. I ask whether we can push the tables together to accommodate 6. He flatly refuses. Tooraj gives it the old college try. He says he will accommodate us in 10 minutes. We agree.
10 minutes later, we are indeed seated in a beautiful room with fabulous tilework depicting Alentejo country life, and sporting a huge fireplace at the far end. It's 20 minutes before the waiter comes to deliver the cover (good bread, a mediocre cheese, and overly-salty olives -- 250 esc. = $1.10 per person) and take our order. It's then 30 minutes before the water arrives (the waiter misunderstood our order of sangria for four, instead bringing 4 bottles of Sangres beer). Our first course (a vegetable puree soup with potato base) arrives 20 minutes later. Then comes the second course. Brig tried the "squid in a pot", which turns out to be stewed squid in a salted-pork broth, with country fries (good enough, but too salty). I decided to have the Acordo bread soup with salt cod, and a salad. The salad was good, with crumbled oregano on top. The soup? The broth was very bland. Bread soup turns out to be just slices of bread awash in a bland broth, with chunks of salt cod. Hmmm. (NOT mmmmm) In the meantime, Tooraj is getting antsy. He's supposed to meet some of the more party-inclined members for a last pub crawl. He leaves some money for his cover, water, and melon, and bids us all farewell. (Prior to leaving, we had pumped him for info on Iberia under the Moors, their origin, some of the history of Islam, his personal background, and other subjects. Frankly, I would have loved to have had lots more of this sort of background during the tour.) After a very long meal (there appears to be only one waiter for a very large room), we decide to follow Tooraj's example with regard to dessert. We order 5 slices of melon. They arrive relatively quickly, we wolf them down, pay, and leave. The bill for 6 of us, with a generous tip, is 12,000 esc. ($55, of which our share is around $22).
To summarize, this place has some positive traits: it's cheap, and has great ambience. On the other hand, service is extraordinarily slow, and the food didn't impress any of us. My impression of the place is that it's designed as a hangout for folks homesick for Alentejo.
We say goodbye to Jack H., Dick, and Marie in the lobby, and drag our tired butts to the hotel room.