jc travels

Lisboa, Lisboa!

Our last morning in Porto was a warm one. Of course the rainy weather started to lift the day we were leaving, coaxing us to stay a little longer. We spent a lazy morning strolling around the city, getting our last bifana fix, and squeezing in visits to the bookstore and cafe where the J.K. Rowling sat and wrote the Harry Potter series. I would be remiss if I didn’t pay these gems a visit – as I do claim to be quite the Harry Potter fan. A little overrun and desensitized by tourists though, but I can only imagine how they once were – a rather enchanting and otherworldly space for creative energy.

We were so caught up in trying to see as much of Porto as we could in our last few hours there, we almost missed our train to Lisbon. With a suitcase and a bag of wine bottles in hand, we ran down a seemingly endless number of platforms at the train station and somehow was able to catch our train a brief few seconds before the doors closed. Sweaty and out of breath, one leg of our trip had already come to a close as we moved onto to the next. Lisbon.

A short 3-hour journey (or nap) later, we arrived to Lisbon’s main train station, Santa Apólonia. An aged station standing in layers of brick and faded, powdery blue paint. Thankfully, our apartment was only a few minutes of a walk away. I dragged my luggage across narrow streets of puddly cobblestone to Bairro Alto, a hip and trendy neighborhood in Lisbon that boasts of the best restaurants and nightlife. And by some stroke of luck, this was also the neighborhood we were staying in.

santapolonia

orientestation

Neighborhooring our home for the week were fashionable boutique stores, a hair salon that was almost too cool for my untamed hair to step into, and plenty of cozy restaurants and wine bars.

Just around the corner within a 5 minute walk seemed like a completely different city – wide, spacious roads with a sea of eager shoppers walking in and out of well-known brand name stores. (But this commercial-esque shopping district turns into a lively gathering at night, the streets echoing with music as people gather round and dance.)

That evening, we headed up to a rooftop bar at the top floor of a hotel just across the street. What a spectacular place to spend an evening – a terrace arranged with woven wicker lounge seats, piled high with soft pillows and cushions. A delicate white fabric overhang that gently draped above our heads. And a warm breeze drawn from an unbeatable view of the sun descending behind Lisbon’s silhouette. A bottle of wine, a tastefully selected meat and cheese plate, and I guess – a pretty cool boyfriend. Easily my favorite evening of the entire trip.

bairroalto_meatplate

bairroalto_cityscape

Not wanting the night to end, we headed to a wine bar just a stone’s throw away from our place. Grapes & Bites, filled to the brim with people deep in Port wines and chatter – we were lucky to have found a seat here. We had a couple more glasses of local wines and a plate of paio do cachaço de porco preto alentejano (alentejos neck black pork sausage). It came with a delicious sauce that tasted subtly of hoison and honey.

grapesandbites_meat

grapesandbites_wine

A wonderful (and rather tipsy) first night in Lisbon, I’d say.

So I’ve been told that you can’t go to Portugal and not eat a nata. A nata is a round, custard-filled pastry of flaky, flaky goodness. (Fun fact: the “dan tat” was inspired by these, the influence brought over by the Portugese colony of Macau.) Though having tried both, I’d say they are completely different things despite how similar they look. Natas are far sweeter and creamier, and the crust is flakier and less buttery. Both are delicious, though – that remains true.

The place to get the best natas is in Belèm, at Pasteis de Belèm, which we wouldn’t visit until a couple days later. But, right down our street is Manteigaria – a small cafe that we found ourselves in almost every morning. The natas here are no Pasteis de Belèm, but it is almost just as good. It hits the spot and just based on how it takes under a minute for us to walk there is enough reason for me to feed my newfound nata addiction.

manteigaria_2

manteigaria_3

manteigaria_nata

Right outside Manteigaria, you can catch the Tram 28 – famous for its scenic route, chugging up and down the steep hills of Lisbon, taking you past all the sites and most importantly – Lisbon’s old town, Alfama. I’ll admit, the tram ride itself is nothing special and is actually rather uncomfortable – packed in like a sardine among shovy tourists, holding onto my possessions for dear life as the route is known to be a common one worked by pick-pocketers. I can see why.

tram28_1

tram28_3

The destination is worth it though. Alfama is a captivating place – exit at Largos das Portas do Sol and prepare yourself for a panoramic view of the Tagus River and old, red-roofed buildings spilling downwards to meet the river bank. Following the hill down and through the winding streets of the residential neighborhoods, it’s not hard to want to get lost among these white, sun-kissed walls – each home characterized by small potted plants and colorful laundry hanging outside of it.

alfama3

alfama4

alfama5

alfama2

alfama1

alfama6

Further uphill is Castelo de San Jõrge. A steep climb that’ll take you to a sprawling view of Lisbon from above. There’s something about those red-brick rooftops.

castelo_view

castelo_view2

The hike really works up an appetite. We headed back towards our home to A Taberna da Rua Das Flores, a very quaint restaurant hidden away from the busier streets of the Chiado neighborhood. Something about the dim lighting and the crowded tables in such a small space makes you feel like you’re at the right place. The menu here is scribbled onto a chalkboard and changes daily (or even hourly, as we witnessed in our case) depending on the availability of ingredients. We had the mackerel tartare, flash-seared swordfish belly, and pork back. All of this, with a basket of bread, a glass of wine, and a pint of beer – talk about the perfect way to unwind after a long afternoon!

taberna2

taberna3

Just outside the restaurant, you see the Tagus River not too far in the distance. We finished the meal right at sunset, so we decided to take advantage of the timing, taking a leisurely stroll down the streets of Chiado and Cais do Sodré to meet the water. I’m so glad we did. As the minutes passed, rich sunbursts of gold slowly transitioned into shades of coral, cotton candy pink, and soft hues of lavender, flooding the sky and reflecting off the glassy surface of the river. In the distance, a silhouetted Ponte 25 de Abril (the bridge that looks like the Golden Gate). We walked up to the edge of the quay and took in the view in silence – no sounds but the gentle waves rhythmically brushing up against the stony dock.

dock_phil

dock4

dockview1

dockview2

We had reservations at Cantinho de Avillez that evening. José Avillez is a renowned Portuguese chef, more commonly known for his two Michelin-starred restaurant, Belcanto. Cantinho de Avillez is also his restaurant, but the more budget-friendly option that is said to be a very pleasant alternative. Unfortunately, we were disappointed and underwhelmed. Service was practically nonexistent and the food had a very singular flavor profile across the board. I think I was expecting more of a Rick-Bayless-Xoco experience, but it just didn’t hit it. Boo.

cantinhodeavillez_outside

cantinho1

cantinho4

cantinho5

cantinho6

cantinho7

cantinho8

The next morning, we made our way to Sintra – a town, at the foot of the Sintra mountains, that looks like something straight out of a fairy tale. Pastel-colored, vibrant Moorish-style buildings sprawl across the forested landscape. Perched high on the hills is the Pena Palace and the Castelo dos Mouros – it’s quite a hike to get to both of these, but once at the top, you’re rewarded with gorgeous, sweeping panoramic views of Sintra – textured by the dense forestry and the many cascading hills of the Sintra mountain. And everywhere in between you’ll find old sculptures, winding staircases, abandoned wells, whimsical trees twisting above you, small creeks, eccentric fountains, secret tunnels and caves, seemingly enchanted gardens, and all other things wonderfully mysterious. The whole vibe of this place is otherworldly, to say the least – you feel like you’re living out of a fictional children’s book.

horses

sintra1

sintra2

sintra3

sintra4

sintra5

sintra6

sintra7

sintra8

sintra9

sintra13

sintra11

sintra14

sintra15

On one of our last mornings in Lisbon, we went hunting for some Ginja. Ginja, a liquor made from infusing sour cherries in high-alcohol-content alcohols, is pretty popular in Portugal. It’s taken like a shot, and you can ask for it with or without cherries. Personally, I preferred it without – the cherries tasted like Maraschino cherries (which I already find disgusting), but soaked in alcohol – so even worse. My first glass reminded me of Jägermeister, which was gross, but the more I drank, the more it started to taste like a very concentrated, intense shot of Port wine. It’s easy to drink because it’s so sweet – but man, one too many of these is a recipe for disaster (AKA killer hangover).

The most popular ginja spot in Lisbon is A Ginjinha – but there’s another one not too far away called Ginginha do Carmo. Here, there’s no line of tourists and the ginja just tastes better. A few of these later – we decided it was a good idea for some seafood. Berlin has a serious case of seafood deprivation, so I was determined to satisfy my void here in Portugal.

aginjinha2

aginjinha

A little buzzed, we walked to Cervejaria Ramiro in the Anjos neighborhood of Lisbon. What can I say about this place – no frills, definitely no bibs, just good seafood. Leave your dining etiquette at the door and prepare to satisfy all your shellfish dreams. We ordered crab, giant tiger prawns, clams, and shrimp. Every table is served a generous plate of toasted bread lathered in a cheap (but ludicrously good) butter and a plastic mallet for cracking shells. It’s an entertaining experience to eat to the background noises of constant hammering, but that’s part of the vibe of this place – and I’m probably busy hammering away with my mallet, too. I felt like a barbarian, as the crab shells were just flying all over the place (which horrified the elderly couple seated next to us). A very happy barbarian, though.

The seafood is so fresh and so good. We came back right before our flight out of Lisbon just to eat the crab and giant tiger prawns again. The crab is served whole – with the tomalley (crab fat) mixed with some sort of cream sauce. I’m usually disgusted by this but with the buttered bread, it’s a definite yes. We rarely go to a restaurant twice in one trip, but Cervejaria Ramiro – you won us over.

crab

shrimp

tigerprawns

Back in the hustle and bustle of Bairro Alto nightlife, a couple streets uphill from most of the commotion is BA Wine Bar. A hidden gem that knows for its classy local selections of wines and cheeses. Usually you have to make a reservation weeks to months in advance, but it must have been our lucky day as we were able to be seated at walk-in. How it works is you tell the sommelier what wine profiles you’re usually into, and you’ll get 5 tastings before you choose which one you’d like a glass (or bottle) of. Our sommelier went through each of the wines, what region of Portugal they’re from, and the history of the wine – down to the type of grapes used and the climate / altitude they were grown in. Not that I know what difference that makes, but hey – doesn’t hurt to feel like a wine snob for an hour and a half.

They also serve a tasteful selection of Portuguese cheeses here. We ordered a platter – generous in portions and served with a red pepper jelly to cut through the fattiness. All were sheep cheese, goat cheese, or a combination of the two. Usually I’m not too big on sheep and goat cheese, but these were surprisingly light and palatable. They also have sardines, which seem to be a thing, and they were surprisingly tasty and not as fishy as expected.

bawinebar_sardines

Though I have to say, the highlight of the meal (besides the complimentary glass of crazy good late-bottled vintage Port served at the end) was the bread. I’m a sucker for a good slab of bread. Dense, moist, and aromatic bread served with a local, premium-grade olive oil and fleur de sel. Dude.

But by far the most memorable experience of the day was at a Tascha do Chiado, where I had my first fado experience. Fado is very traditional music genre (and culture) tracing back to the 1800’s. It’s generally a very sad type of song, mournful and sorrowful in sound with a raw, unfiltered lyric about the desolation and melancholia endured by the Portuguese as a people.

It was a tiny, intimate room, only allowing in handfuls of people at a time in between songs if the room allowed. We snagged a couple of seats on a small bench as we watched those not as lucky get rejected from the bar due to lack of space. The interior is very snuggly jammed with dark wooden tables, walls covered from floor to ceiling of photos and trinkets of Portuguese culture (best photo – Anthony Bourdain!). It was humid and warm, everyone sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and settling in for a cozy evening. It was a place saturated with a collective passion of art and history.

There was an old man in the corner, sitting directly diagonal from me. He looked fragile, gripping his cane and expressing his disdain for those who tried to sit on a nearby stool which he was obviously saving for someone else. I would watch him shake his finger time and time again to hopeful but soon-to-be-rejected fado-goers. “What a grumpy old man”, I thought.

A few minutes later, the lights dimmed – a stocky man sporting an old gray suit and full mustache walked to the front of the room and introduced the fado singer. He put his hand on the grumpy old man I was observing earlier and introduced him. Weakly, the old man grasped onto his cane for support and pushed himself up. He shuffled to the middle of the room and started talking about something in Portuguese for a few minutes. The gentle strumming of a nearby guitar and mandolin slowly made its way into his speech, setting the backdrop before he burst into song.

This grumpy old man then became full of voice – his quiet, shaky voice was filled with so much pain, and so much strength despite the sound of fragility. I didn’t understand the lyrics, but I sort of liked it this way – I was listening to nothing but the sound of his voice and all the emotions that it harbored. As Portuguese is a naturally melodic language, the way the words were strung together were moving in such a powerful way. I could feel the mournfulness. This man, 92 years of age, has been through a lot.

In the darkness of the room, you can’t see much – but I guess that’s the point. Everyone stops eating and drinking, sitting in silence and just listening to fado. The only thing I could clearly see was a sliver light reflected off a corner of his thick-lensed glasses, backlit by the bar behind him. He told stories in between every song that he sang that night – all in Portuguese and I could only guess the sentiment behind his stories by the way people in the room reacted. Small chuckles and smiles here and there – it was a very communal and familial kind of feeling.

At the end of his set, he started to hand out small sheets of paper with his portrait and a small note printed on it. He walked around passing them out, slow and wobbly at the knees, working with the utmost concentration to get through the crowds of people squeezing their way into the room. He asked each of us to write our names at the top before he hand signed it himself. It served as a little memento that we were there during his performance. As he made his way out, he put on his messenger hat and a faded gray suit jacket that had a small mandolin pinned on the lapel. What a sweet old man.

For our final day in Portgual, we ventured out of Lisbon to nearby towns Belèm and Cascais. Coincidentally Belèm was on the way to Cascais, which worked out perfectly. We paid a mandatory visit to Pasteis de Belèm to eat their claim to fame – natas. Now I’m pretty skeptical about hyped pastry shops because I’m usually left disappointed (Looking at you Voodoo Doughnuts! You too, Glazed & Infused!). But this exceeded the hype and more – perfectly flaky, the custard was just the right hint of sweet – egg-y and creamy and perfectly browned at the top. It’s served with powdered sugar and cinnamon on the side, to be dusted lightly across the top before eating. Mmm. We bought a box of 10 and it was gone in the next couple of hours (not ashamed).

cascais1

cascais2

cascais3

belemnata

With happy bellies, we made the rest of the trip to Cascais. It was a typical beach town, nothing too out of the ordinary. What really made this special though is the Boca do Inferno (Hell’s Mouth). A chasm in the seaside cliffs, with a violent rush of sea water crashing in, through, and around it. Looking into this large mass of rock with a gaping hole at the top, hearing the sheer strength of the water crashing against it is a marvelous sight. A beautiful – and slightly intimidating – work of nature.

bocadoinferno2

bocadoinferno3

We left for London that evening – an overlapping layover stop before my boyfriend and I parted our separate ways – he back to California, and I to Berlin. A bittersweet ending to the sweetest of vacations.

lisboa

2 comments
  1. Jen says: March 30, 20169:40 pm

    GORGEOUS photos

    • Jacqueline says: March 30, 20169:43 pm

      Thanks Jen!! :o)

Write comment