Friday, June 11, 2010

A Tour of Lisbon

May 29, Day 11

Ah, this may be my last blog post for this trip, though I may go back and edit a bit. Such as spell Taylor’s name correctly, credit Suzy as my flower identifier, figure out how to pull the text up next to the pictures on some posts. Those things.


In the morning of our one full day here, we had a guided tour, which ended about lunchtime, with some headed back to the hotel on the bus, some headed to the beach, and the rest of us dumped out in the center of Lisbon to go our various ways.

But first our lunch tales--

A group of us, 7 or 8, wandered away from the center, looking around, checking out menus. We passed quite a few places, but everyone seemed to shy away, for one reason or another. At one place we passed, Dennis looked in the window and said "ptomaine there!" We finally arrived at another plaza, a block behind the other. The group gravitated to the umbrellas and open chairs. No waiter appeared, really for quite a while, but we found menus—sandwiches, burgers, some fish, salads, all with a Spanish twist, and not cheap.

I waited a while, but then defected, with David following. We back-tracked from the umbrellas over to the "ptomaine palace," a side-street restaurant not much entered by tourists. I had seen a 2 foot wide skillet of some sort of burbling meat—pork, it turned out—to which a cook would now and then toss in more raw slices along one side, no doubt with his own system of what was cooked or not. I found a clear spot at the counter, indicated we would stand there, and the owner put out two paper placemats. I pointed at the stuff in the window, again gestured “two,” and soon we had our own sandwiches and a couple beers. There was a bottle of spicy mustard, which put out oddly shining yellow streaks, just right. One of my best meals in Spain, and for both of us, all for 6.30 euros.

We rejoined the others, who still hadn’t ordered, then went off to look for the Metro station we would need for the bullfight. Lots of wrong turns, then back to the group, still eating. We joined them for ice cream, strolled, met others for the subway, bullfight, etc. A pleasant afternoon on our own.


That morning, we had all piled on the bus for our official tour of Lisbon—with a local guide, who was a bit too enthusiastic (and loud on the speakers) for a morning without enough coffee. She meant well, but... So we heard about the black and rose marble that many buildings are made of, the 7 hills, “like Rome,” that Lisbon is built on, the damages from earthquake and tsunami back in the mid- 18th C., saw street and neighborhood names that are echoed in Brazil.

From the bus we saw a cathedral, a pink palace, various other official important sights, but all of these we couldn’t get to because of an unannounced military parade. I snapped some pictures of the military folk, not because they were so interesting, but because I suspected I wasn’t supposed to.

Meanwhile, our bus contorted through open streets, but just couldn’t get us walkable access. Not very secretly, most of us were tired of cathedrals and magnificence, so bouncing along in the bus snapping pictures wasn’t a disaster. And we got more time at a souvenir/coffee area down near the ports and monuments, which turned out to be my only shot at buying a Portugal t-shirt, in our ongoing rush. (And what a tragedy that would have been, having already been rushed out of Morocco without the requisite t-shirt, not to mention, they didn’t feel like stamping our passports! How would I even know I’d been to these places? Memory? Not sufficient without a cotton product.)

So, shots of expresso, shopping, a couple nice monuments of Portuguese explorers setting out to chart, dominate and pillage the world. Then back on the bus, headed for a castle. Never did catch the name, as I was trying to protect my ears by putting my hands on the blaring bus speaker over my head.

But the walk up the hill to the castle was a highlight of Lisbon for me.

At the bottom of the hill, one of those ordinary cramped neighborhood roads. But that’s where we entered the narrow street? Alley? The Arco de Jesus—steps and cobblestones, twisting up and right, and left, and steep up again. There was quite a bit of graffiti, often about the Pope, and strange pictures we couldn’t quite connect with. Doors and small windows were decorated, often with vines and flowers and pictures. The outer walls in many places were covered in tile that gave the illusion of being 3-D, even without our Avatar glasses. Balconies spilled over with bright geraniums, an occasional pigeon, a woman who shouted down sort of in English that we should be careful of pickpockets.

Every so often we would come to a level place with a view out into the harbor and the cacophony of roofs below us. People moved around, intent with their own lives, which I often didn’t feel comfortable photographing. Many were preparing for that night’s Festival of St. Antony--street booths were under construction for the oncoming party that would later fill the neighborhood with revelers, music, lots of wine, and what Liz recommended, the grilled anchovies.

At the top of the hill, our local guide told us some history, showed us the harbor panorama, then gave us twenty minutes to relax. A small cafeteria provided me with a late morning cheese pastry, a small bottle of red wine and a table in the shade. A brilliant blue peacock strutted in front of us, one who seemed just fine with dozens of camera stalkers.

But let me explore a tangent here, triggered by the presence of so many jacaranda trees, with their purple blooms, almost a signature of Lisbon, and Seville. These trees explode with their blooms, well before any leaves or greenery appear, so they look like enormous twiggy bouquets rather than healthy trees. And these trees are not native to the Iberian Peninsula, nor the Old World at all.

Like Seville seated on the Guadalquivir River, making it an Atlantic port, Lisbon has been one of two places here of intense exchange in that explosive meeting of worlds. There are acacias, honeysuckle, oranges, azaleas, magnolias, dandelions, poppies, familiar weeds, sycamores, geraniums—where might these have come from? We are witnessing an aggressively changed biosphere, beautiful, pleasant, but not necessarily healthy or balanced. Most of us will simply not know how to see this.

I’ve been to Yemen, where despite the fact that they won’t, just won’t, serve anything except tepid Nescafe, they all are very proud of the (perhaps borrowed) story of a Yemeni goat who chewed those strange beans and induced his owner to do the same, thus discovering coffee. Certainly worth a trip to learn that! (though that page-size Yemen visa in my passport has caused me a bit of travel-trouble...)

One book that could help us begin to see is Songbirds, Truffles, Wolves,
which I would have used to teach a St. Francis class on the Italy trip, but alas, the class wasn’t approved. No St. Francis for those folks. In any case, the author Gary Nabhan is an ethnobotanist who is also a lay member of a Franciscan group. For that book, he was making a walking pilgrimage through Italy, to Assisi, assessing the mix of world plants as he went. He had no luck convincing Italian locals that tomatoes were not part of their ancient Roman heritage, nor had they ever been simmered down in any Old World sauce before the 1500s. Nor would corn nor potatoes have been on any plate, not even in Ireland.

Would that I had his knowledge, and could with a glance tag everything I see, with the ease a 14-year-old can tag photos on Facebook. Someday, I need to do some sort of Environmental lit class on food, but even that won’t let me see as fully as I need to.

So much of the world remains invisible to us.

later, bob

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


We now have a picture slide show of different sights in Spain!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The North Atlantic, Newark and Beyond

May 30, Day 12

That last day—Brittany and Robert leaving on a 4:30 am flight, the rest of us headed to the airport a few hours later, the last-night-party crowd in sad shape, but all packed and present. Of course, the usual glitches, such as Chrissy misplacing her passport and needing to search her luggage in the terminal.

Then the easier daytime flight across the Atlantic and arriving in Newark--the seeming endless passport lines, waiting for luggage, Amy’s luggage disappearing, a train to terminal A, security lines, Fred and Dawn having a wild adventure working on getting a bottle of port bought in Lisbon duty-free onto the next plane, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, a Bud Lite with John, then me paranoid double-checking the gate, finding that the posted info didn’t match our tickets, more checking, then suddenly the whole group having to jump up and get a different bus back to terminal C.

But we boarded our flight and took off. I noticed another plane just off a runway surrounded by security vehicles, lights flashing, but haven’t heard of anything on the news. And by the window in this smaller plane, I actually glimpsed the copper-green sliver of the Statue of Liberty, the first time for me. I’ve spent time in Kuala Lumpur, but never NYC, which in my head is still the realm of The Out of Towners street gangs, garbage strikes, and Kitty Genovese. Friends have suggested I update this mental map. Of course, I was concerned for the Statue of Liberty, for I had just seen Wolverine slice through one of her rays at the end of X-Men on the previous flight...

Yet another bit of dissonance sprang up.

On the long flight, I had watched the post-apocalyptic Book of Eli, which suggested the tragedy of blaming Christianity and religion for the violence in our world. And I began re-reading Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, An Indian History of the American West, in prep for an Evening class:

It began with Christopher Columbus, who gave the people the name Indios. Those Europeans, the white men, spoke in different dialects, and some pronounced the word Indien, or Indianer, or Indian. Peaux-rouges, or redskins, came later. As was the custom of the people receiving strangers, the Tainos on the island of San Salvador generously presented Columbus and his men with gifts and treated them with honor.

“So tractable, so peaceable, are these people,” Columbus wrote to the King and Queen of Spain, “that I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better nation. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decourous and praiseworthy.”

All this, of course, was taken as a sign of weakness, if not heathenism, and Columbus being a righteous European was convinced the people should be “made to work, sow and do all that is necessary and to adopt our ways.” Over the next four centuries (1492-1890) several million Europeans and their descendants undertook to enforce their ways upon the people of the New World.

Columbus kidnapped ten of his friendly Taino hosts and carried them off to Spain, where they could be introduced to the white man’s ways. One of them died soon after arriving there, but not before he was baptized a Christian. The Spaniards were so pleased that they had made it possible for the first Indian to enter heaven that they hastened to spread the good news throughout the West Indies.

Columbus and his Spanish sponsors have been much in view for us lately, in tombs and monuments, in the wealth of the great cathedrals, in the importation of species from the New World, as well as evidence of the great Portuguese empire, and it’s hard not to look back and wonder. It’s hard not to look ahead, and equally wonder, for we are the inheritors of all this.

But we arrived in St. Louis, everything except Amy’s luggage. We met our CC bus, and though on the trip I had forestalled Chrissy from rushing to American fast food in Costa del Sol and Seville, by saying that there they fried everything in fish oil and made the burgers with shrimp scraps, leaving Lambert Airport we almost immediately stopped at McDonald’s.


First Evening in Lisbon

Day 10, May 28

We left Evora and traveled the last few hours to Lisbon. We had long ago crossed the Spanish border, and the prospect of actually writing any postcards and using that stack of .78 euro cent stamps was vanishing. Alas, a downside of this blog-thing.

I managed to finish our play, going through my laptop battery twice on bus rides today and the day before, and exhausting Ann’s laptop 3 minutes after transferring the file to Liz’s jumpdrive. Check in, then me, David and Ann followed a hotel map to the Apolo 70 copy store, David sure of the way, Ann conferring, me just tagging along snapping pictures. Easy, efficient—much easier than Athens, which required 45 minutes of talking to one shopkeeper who referred us to his cousin through that alley, to another corner where there was a rumor of... and so on, and even easier that Fiji, where the sweet Indian lady looked at us strangely, like we might soil her sari, but got our copies made.

Then dinner, where we had a popular cod-hash, rice, bread. I sampled the vino verde, a champagne-like wine that I’m guessing is made with green grapes. And we got to sample port, in tiny thumb-size glasses. I never did get to try the recommended cherry port. Maybe another trip.

Then back at the hotel, there was the chaos of trying to get the whole group all together before showers, unpacking or nightlife, gathering props, finding a space—the hotel was quite certain this should not take place in their lobby-bar, though they were generous with scotch tape, so we performed in the street, just before twilight. The whole thing wasn’t quite perfectly organized, but it went well. A play, you ask? You know, the usual mixture of the Wizard of Oz, Don Quixote, Rocky and Bullwinkle and The Odyssey/Percy Jackson, with Moroccan rug salesmen, academic art wizards, street mimes, Interpol, the theme song to the Dukes of Hazard, and a chorus line. That sort of thing.

After that, a bit drained, I went with John across the street to a Chinese restaurant, where he got rice and jasmine tea for a queasy stomach, and I had my first Portuguese beer.

Later, I headed off with a group I thought on the way to have one quick beer at the end of this exhausting day, but after we had walked 15 minutes and then started heading down in the subway, I wished them well and turned around, by myself. All fine, except that I hadn’t paid too much attention to the one turn we had made, I had rushed around with the play and didn’t have the hotel’s card with me, nor as it turned out did I quite know the hotel’s name nor address nor phone number. Ah, you can see where this is going. I got lost.

Fortunately, I had paid attention to various billboards, like the hand painted like a bright tropical bird and a sign for an indigenous peoples exhibit. After quite a few side-streets, the evening ended not with the police, but a hot shower, cheap Spanish wine, and British TV.

I think I neglected to tell Ann or Liz about this...

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Lisbon Images

General view of Lisbon

Balcony and tile exterior

One of those sidewalks they're proud of

Just a good idea

Modern Lisbon

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Flamenco Evening

May 27, Day 9

Well, I probably didn’t give this a fair shot, but I’ve hated these dance/song nights in Ireland, Greece, and New Zealand. I put on one of my two long-sleeve nicer shirts, went along, got seated in the knee-to-knee cramped chairs, draped with sheets for some odd notion of elegance. The show started, the dancers stomped, the guitars twanged. I waited, far too long, for my complementary sangria, downed that, and got out of there.

I walked across the street to a local park. I liked the purple blossoms fallen across the sand--I think some of them are still withering/molding in that shirt pocket in my suitcase. Got homesick watching a guy bounce a ball against a wall so his dog could chase it. Indifferently watched children play. Walked the other direction to a hardware—clothes—soft-drink store, where the 10 year old son very imperiously helped out in the Vietnamese? Chinese? family business.

I bought a canned soda, a Kas Limon, and went back to the theater to wait for the group. Sat on the marble steps inside, watched the waitresses go out front for a smoke break before the next show. Listened to the stomp inside, which sounded like a football game with the crowd on wooden bleachers. And had the sour taste of the soda to remember the evening.

And so I have no pictures of strange stiff dancers. Probably others should say a bit more about the delights of flamenco...

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Bullfight in Lisbon

Day 11, May 29

We jumped off the Metro, and immediately heard the crowd at the big bullfight ring. But not, as we expected, the happy crowd. No, the shrill whistles and yelling all were from the group of animal rights protestors, carefully contained (protected?) by quite a few police.

We found everyone, got in line, the 8 of us (me, David, Fred and Shelley B., Taylor, Hyun-Ji, Chrissy and John). The ticket lady made sure to warn us that this wasn’t a traditional Spanish bullfight, but undeterred, we got our tickets. For this event, there was no assigned seating—which would have been a challenge, given the intricacies of sun or shade or part sun, the distance from the ring, the relation to the bull entrance, and so on, with tickets up to 100 euros apiece. But today, just 15 euros, find a seat.

And after rather lengthy opening parades and speeches by local politicians, and presentations and flags and marching bands, after all that—how to describe this. There was no matador, no horses, no swords, no blood. Instead, about 18 (if I counted right) guys assembled inside the ring, in and around this large wooden contraption, a vaguely triangular set of posts, perhaps meant to be an oversized bull. They lifted it, moved in unison, and then the bull was let out. After a few stares at the crowd, the bull charged this wooden contraption full of men, locking horn to wood, sometimes flinging it up, almost exposing the guys on the front row, more often spinning the whole contraption around at odd angles, so that the solitary “steering” man at the back was lifted off his feet.

The bull would back off, circle, charge again. Sometimes, the men would scoot forward, in a knee-bent shuffle and deep grunting chant, that echoed some of the Greek shield columns we would have heard on the film 300. People in the crowd cheered good clashes, murmured at feeble ones. Lots of guys on the stand-on-the-ground inside the barricade area had t-shirts with that same wooden device sketched on the back, celebrating the 2009 season, or other bullfight events.

Well, the wooden contraption part lasted a while, then they backed off, rested the contraption against the barricade, then dozens of young men just jumped in the ring, and began taunting the bull to charge. The point seemed to be personal bravado, being able to slap the bull’s backside, or touch his horns, or tap his nose. The bull would spin, sometimes kick, often make fast, fast charges that would send whole arcs of the players jumping over the wall, just shy of a horn. A few seemed crowd-pleaser show-offs. One guy in a green t-shirt apparently lives for his moments in the ring, making lightning dashes in front of the bull, making a good move, kneeling on the ground to await applause. A red-haired guy mocked the bull, pawing his feet at the ground, daring a charge.

Eventually, one of the specialists (I assume) at tail-grabbing would make a dash and grab the bull’s tail. If he could hold on, he would spin round and round, his feet surfing in the dirt, his taut arms just out of reach of the circling horns. This tail-grabbing usually had to take place several times, but when the bull tired just enough, the crowd in the ring would literally pile on the bull like some rugby match and the 20 or so of them hold the animal still. As far as I could tell, this was “winning.” The men would turn loose, scatter, steers would be let out to lure the bull out of the ring, and the next round would feature a new bull.

No blood, and each round would go about the same. Such an odd event, it’s hard to frame it well. Obviously, there were many culture-codes at work which I couldn't see. And this was an event that whole families attended. One father near us kept trying to slip his 6 and 7 year old sons down to the just-inside-the-barricade seats, but a stadium cop came over and had them return to the less-cool seats (though he let one boy sit there for a few minutes while they talked. No doubt he'll be charging bulls too in 10 years.) Certainly a high-testosterone challenge (no women ventured to jump in the ring, or even seemed ready to challenge this domain—and I was glad Chrissy had on sandals and didn’t have to be dissuaded). And it seems disorganized, at first, the men in the ring just running at or past the bull, with no preset order.

But then, in another way there was an elegance to this. Remember those Jack London stories, the ones set with pre-historic tribes in the far north? I recall one where the tribe set about hunting down a wooly mammoth, there at the end of the last big ice age. They had no grand weapons beyond a few stone spears, and were tiny and slow compared to that great beast. But working in harmony, in a group that just wouldn’t stop, they exhausted the beast and fed themselves. I felt some of this in the loose fraternity of bull-runners there in Lisbon.


More Seville Images


Hyun-Ji on a coffee break

tapestry, with the dog

Columbus' tomb in the Cathedral

Seville at night


Toledo images

Couldn't seem to get blogger to put these in the other post. Huh.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Evora, Portugal

May 28, Day 10

Evora officially has three attractions—the remaining columns of a Roman Temple of Diana, a church where Vasco de Gama came to have his flag blessed before he planted it in India, and, it is the world center for cork production. If you have ever opened a bottle of wine, likely you have touched these bits of tree bark from Evora. I think I heard Liz say Evora produces 70% of the world’s cork. Not sure about that.

But Evora loves cork! In our walk down the hill from the Temple, cork products are the main features. Fred bought a cork hat, which looked and felt like tan leather. There were cork purses, wallets, bracelets, postcards, shot glasses (2 of which I need to be shipping to friends in Norway), key chains (a cork rooster for Michael Polley, who collects key chains—I’d suggest the whole world start shipping him quirky key chains...he may someday retire and open a key chain museum), cork umbrellas, bookmarks...

Halfway down the hill, I had lunch with Fred and Dawn at an outdoor cafe, with a surly waiter who didn’t seem happy about this sudden rush of Americans. He dropped a few plates of the Portuguese equivalent of tapas on the table, grunted, “you pay for what you eat,” and disappeared for quite a while. There were little meat pastries, fried something meaty, a plate of “salad” relish, sweet coarse bread. Eventually, we got a bottle of white wine (Fred’s table, after all), and a large tureen of gaspacho—cold tangy soup, with tomatoes, cucumbers, bread chunks, and ice cubes. Great stuff.

Never got the olives I ordered with lunch, but an odd thing—our surly waiter brought out this list he asked us to sign. Triple columns, numbered lines, now on the back, with a list of names. But not just an “I was here list.” It was a list of Bills. Billy Carter, Bill Me Later, Buffalo Bills. I have no idea what this was about—bill fetish? pun-challenge? the only way our surly waiter had to engage his customers?—but he smiled when he retrieved his list, and we did tip him.

After lunch, we had a bit of free time to wander around. it’s a small place. I was about to be bored, but then I decided to take a little more responsibility in my experience. I sat on some marble steps at the edge of the town square, there at the bottom of the hill, and started taking notes.

I was in the Pracade Giraldo, the plaza at the center of the town. In front of me is a marble fountain, the gargoyles mid-level trickling water from their mouths, a woman in a blue maintenance uniform cleaning. A local man came by and scattered bread crumbs for the pigeons. A couple strolled by, each one leashed to a very self-satisfied pug. A sleek black dog ran across the plaza, daring his human to whistle him back. The street and plaza itself are paved with regular 4-inch square stones, set at a diamond angle; the sidewalks set with irregular stones, which are delightful to look at, less so to walk on. Cars race along the narrow one-way streets. Local folks are unconcerned with the lethal possibilities of every blind corner.

At a downhill street, before the plaza, I had been fast-walking, unimpressed, when a sweets shop caught my eye. I went in, stood at the counter (usually the cheaper option), had a stainless steel cup of rice pudding thick-topped with cinnamon and a cafe (expresso)—for 1.80 euro. A sign on the wall, in Portuguese, French and English, said, not No Smoking, but No Smokers. The locals were polite, and didn’t quite stare at me. Walking uphill to the plaza, a trough with three of the same gargoyles tricking water—for hands? for the thirsty? And 4 stone basins with indifferent pink geraniums.

The plaza itself is enclosed—businesses on the ground level, apartments in the 2 or 3 stories above. Most have balconies, a few instead have ornate windows. On the building behind me—a church?—there is a weather vane with a rooster, as Pat pointed out. Later, we’ll find there is quite a story with these roosters in Portugal. But that’s later. In the center, there are tables with umbrellas, outdoor spots to several cafes.

But in front of me, in front of the fountain, there is the slightly greater than human size torso of a marble statue. The arms, legs and head are missing, and it lies on the ground, pink marble matching the fountain. I would guess it part of a statue of Diana, but there is no sign, and it is part of some story you can’t know without a human storyteller. So, Evora.

One must make a decision to see.


The Mezquita

May 26, Day 8
On our way from Costa del Sol, we stopped at Cordoba to tour the Mezquita. Our itinerary urges us to “walk through the forest of 850 red-and-white candy striped columns [should say arches] and view the brilliant Byzantine mosaics.” It adds, “the most fascinating part of the mosque may be the 16th century Christian Cathedral which sits in the middle, disturbing the architectural harmony.”

I didn’t get to hear a lot from our local guide, partly because of the crowd and acoustics. There was some long involved tale about the leader who fled here from Syria, recruited regional tribes, took power, and then built this mosque. Because of his own politics, he built the mosque not facing Mecca, but parallel to his home mosque in Syria.

Interesting architectural details here. The guide talked about the various marbles and granites that made up the columns, the subtle differences in sections of the mosque added later, and then the Christian revisions. There are two columns made of fluted alabaster. The guide demonstrated how this material is translucent, which she connected with some spiritual principle. She did the same with John’s fingers, showing how they also let light through. (I had intended to use this later in our play, with a flashlight behind John’s head, but alas, that detail didn’t get worked in.)

I liked the descriptions of the mosaic bits that formed the midrab, which google won't define for me, but seemed to be a specifically more holy place in the mosque. Our guide said that some pieces were layered glass-gold-glass; the blue sections were lapis lazuli; and so on, with precious materials coloring each section. And there is an interesting display of plaster casts of the signature marks of the many, many stone masons who worked on columns and arches.

And then the Christian parts, later additions sprung from the changes in empire. Our guide coyly told us how the 1745 earthquake only cracked the Christian sections, suggesting that these architectural barbarians got what they deserved. We saw a towering St. Peter holding the keys to heaven. We saw a huge painting of Frederick I, in his re-conquest of Spain, dressed in the armor that the much later painter knew and with the halo he wouldn’t be sainted with until five centuries after his death. (Perhaps there’s hope for me yet. Remember me in the year 2525...)

Our guide lamented how much had been stolen by Napoleon’s forces as he conquered his way across Europe (I heard the same thing in Malta, how much had been stripped from the cathedrals there, as Napoleon worked his way to Egypt).

And then in the center, that cathedral added in the 16th century. Our guide lamented how this destroyed the symmetry of the whole mosque, how it interrupted the view of the red-and-white stone arches receding in planned perspective. But perhaps by this point in mosque-cathedral saturation, I didn’t share her lament. I felt some relief from the so carefully planned symmetry. I liked the sudden sky-looming openness at the center.

Then back on the bus, when I started draining my laptop battery, working on the play--and on to Seville.
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