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

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