Saturday, July 1, 2017

Day 15: Last day in Lisbon; saying goodbye to Portugal

This morning, we woke later than we intended, yet nevertheless managed to pack our suitcases, shower, check-out, and eat breakfast, all before the free walking tour was scheduled to start.

Of course, everything is on Portugal time and we ended up waiting for half an hour, only to be told by the hostel staff that while we were waiting, the walking tour guide must have missed us and left without us just five minutes prior.  We were told that if we hurried we could still catch up with the group at a nearby subway station, so we dashed out of the hostel and quickly made our way to the meeting point.

Thankfully, we saw the tell-tale guides with their yellow shirts and ran up to the group, relieved we had not missed it after all.  Our guide was a young and energetic history and art major who has a clear passion for Lisbon and all of its intricate cultural and historical influences.  She took us on a tour of the Mouraria neighbourhood.

The streets of Mouraria neighbourhood
This is another of Lisbon's oldest neighbourhoods.  Historically, even before the earthquake, it was where all the "non-Christians" lived - the Jews, the heretics, the prostitutes.  To this day, it remains a vibrant multi-cultural hub for people from all over the world - India, Pakistan, China, Africa - and our guide excitedly described to us her favourite markets to go to, spots to hang out with friends and grab drinks, as well as pointed out all the interesting architecture, the unique and quirky features of the very small and narrow homes that have been standing for hundreds of years, showing us a hidden palace, and taking us to some of the area's most interesting street art along the way.

Something in her passion and excitement for this vibrant mosaic of cultures, peoples, and histories all layered over each other in beautiful and unpredictable ways gave me a fresh perspective on what it means to be a young person from Portugal today.  Like the woman in the bookstore in Porto who passionately took me around and showed me all her favourite writers, I felt another sort of connection to this girl who was our tour guide.  A reflection of myself, in a way, for I am just as passionate about all the neighbourhoods and layers of culture and history in Toronto as she clearly is about Lisbon.

For there are two Portugals for me - the one of my parents' youth, which they carry with them always and remains alive in their hearts, unchanged, despite the impossibility of them ever finding it again; and the current, modern Portugal, which neither my parents nor I really know.

This trip was a taste of it - I saw so many parts of the country I had never seen; that my parents, or even our passionate tourguide had never seen.  I flowed among the different places and peoples, never quite belonging as either a local or a foreigner.  One foot in each world, I still feel the internal struggle to understand myself as part of some larger whole of this culture, and figure out what it really means to me.

It's an on-going journey, and I know I'll be back many times still.  As our tour ends at one of our guide's favourite viewpoints over the whole city, with the castle clearly visible in front of us, I feel a deep sense of calm.  Usually when I leave a country it feels very bittersweet, for I never know if or when I'll return.  In the case of Portugal, it will forever belong to me in some way, and I know the ties I have will inevitably keep pulling me back over my lifetime.  It's a temporary farewell.

street art painted on ceiling of old archway
Portugal surprised me.  The variety of landscapes and expressions of humanity and the natural world packed into such a small country was fascinating - mountain ranges, wild horses, bustling cities, multi cultural neighbourhoods, people living in ancient stone houses, endless flat fields of olive and cork trees, ruins left by peoples who have spanned centuries, monuments, breathtaking limestone caves and beaches, wild waves, rugged coastlines, boulder-strewn hills, lush waterfalls, gut-wrenching performances of fado, decadent wines and cheeses and fruits, ancient libraries and universities, street festivals; old and new, wild and human, living side-by-side in an intricate balance... it was if I visited a thousand countries, a thousand peoples.

I'll end this final post with a poem I wrote three years ago, after the last time I went.  Even though I learned and saw and felt and experienced more about this country than I ever knew, the words still vividly capture the emotions I feel when I am here.

Adeus, Portugal.  Até a próxima.


Souvenirs from Portugal

You say you want to travel the world
but there are some places you cannot go even if you travel there.

Here I am, nestled in the small village of Tojal,

wondering what I can bring you, a piece of somewhere you’ve not yet been; a placeholder; a rain cheque;
something to keep the longing at bay.

If I could, I’d bring you the taste
of one of my late-grandfather’s sun-warmed oranges just picked,
or the subtle scent of pine and eucalyptus that permeates the hot air, or a bite of fresh bread from the baker down the road that appears as if by magic on our door handle every morning, or the sound of roosters singing not just in the morning but whenever they so please. 

I’d bring you the juice of my uncle’s sweet peaches dripping down your fingers.

I’d give you the feeling of rough bark under your feet to reach the ripest figs in the tree behind the house as you look down at stalls that used to hold chickens but now hold only memories of clucking

I’d give you thirst from the hot sun on your head as you walk dusty paths through vineyards until you finally reach the spring and cup your hands under the small stream and sip the water cool and clear as the day my grandfather first discovered it.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

Then I’d take you down the roads and hills to Batalha and give you the sounds of gypsies shouting prices in the market, the taste of fresh goat cheese cool and soft, vibrant colours of scarves thimbles wooden spoons fish beach towels baby chicks plums lettuce more fish leather shoes cheese walnuts rabbits pears...

and the sight of the Mosteiro
full of history
ancient memories of kings    and queens      and battles

I’d give you the sound of your footsteps against smooth stone from centuries of footsteps I’d give you
the eerie feeling of walking amidst the past and the present at the same time

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

And then, Nazaré

Would that I could bring you the feeling of wildness
frigid waves crashing against your entire body

I’d lend you
my stirred soul
for just a minute
if there was a way to give you         memories of myself as a child being tumbled
          a small bundle of limbs salt water rough sand

but no fear.

I’d give you salt-coated fingers from thick pumpkin seeds eaten while seated on grainy sand
I’d give you salt-sprayed hair I’d give you salt-coated fish I’d give you salt-covered skin from white foam

I’d bring you
the crash of ocean echoing against cliffs

I’d give you
for a second,
the beating of my heart in perfect rhythm with these waves
and the ache of leaving them.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

There’s no novelty mug
that could capture the feeling of watching my mother sift through
old boxes stuffed with letters in her own handwriting
addressed to people no longer here

no postcard I could send that would give you
the sense of saudade
that seeps from the unused tractor still sitting quietly in the shed
       the little windmill that no longer spins
       the fields of corn and grapes and olive trees now covered in weeds
       the attic full of broken furniture with locked drawers of old black and white photos
       the missing love letters from my grandfather that my grandmother burned after he died                    
no keychain I could bring you
that would tell you what it’s like to be a child of people that left this all behind but still search for a place that no longer exists and hold it in their hearts and tell stories of the way it used to be, freedom and poverty and hard work and forever roaming and stealing fruit and and drinking homemade wine and friends and family long passed away and hunger and meeting companions in the fields and making their fun out of sticks and grass and imagination and then growing up and longing for escape and a bigger world and taking a plane across an ocean to make a life somewhere else and have children in another land who would never really

belong here

and yet somehow still
belong here.

Saudade is a birthright. Inherited.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

There’s no souvenir I could bring you
of a decades-lost Portugal
for there are some places you cannot go even if you travel there.

view of Lisbon and S. Jorge castle

Days 14: Lisboa de mil amores (Lisbon of a thousand loves)

Last night, we arrived in Lisbon and safely returned our car to the rental place in order to spend two days in Lisbon without it. 

My uncle welcomed us to "The country of roundabouts" when we first arrived, and he couldn't have been more right.  Despite his very detailed instructions when we first arrived in the village, we still had more than one time where we exited at the wrong place and had to circle back around or take highly detailed and unnecessary tours through neighbouring towns.

We eventually got the hang of roundabouts in small towns (the ones in major cities were still quite terrifying - double lanes and traffic lights!), and figured out the other idiosyncrasies of driving in rural Portugal.  (For example, their yellow lights repetitively flash at you rather than hold steady.  Sometimes, that means "slow down, prepare to stop," but other times it can change from red back to flashing yellow,  meaning "there's a pedestrian crossing here or some other unknown reason you should be cautious".  And other times, according to my uncle, it means "the traffic light is in a controlled speed zone that will immediately change to red if you go too fast, but if it's malfunctioning it will just flash yellow indefinitely so you can go through it anyway."
Tower of Belém

Windy mountain roads, roundabouts, flashing lights, rural road construction zones, tight parking spaces, and 2100km later, we nevertheless made it safely from top of the country to bottom and back again.

Free of our vehicle, we set out to explore as many of Lisbon's hidden nooks and charms as we could, while also hitting some of the most famous historic spots.  Our first stop was the neighbourhood of Belém.  It is here that Portuguese navigators set off in their ships during the age of discoveries, following the river Tagus (Tejo) out to the sea and to unknown lands.  The tower of Belém was built in 1515 as an important fortress to guard Lisbon's harbours.  We waited in the line to go inside, and while we were waiting admired the twisted, intricate stonework detail and the arched windows, balconies, and domes that dominate the Portuguese-unique "Manueline" style of architecture.  The top (after climbing 93 stairs) gave us great views over the city and the river Tagus, and I sat in some of the smaller turrets, trying to imagine what it must have been like to look out these windows long ago and keep watch over the harbour.

A few minutes walk away, also along the river, is the Monument to the Discoveries.  This beautiful monument was put up in 1960 to commemorate 500 years of Portuguese discoveries.  The tall ship is lined with important Portuguese navigators and other figures who were involved in the age of discoveries (cartographers, poets).    The ground in front of it is a huge mosaic that depicts a beautiful compass rose and a map of the world in the middle, highlighting all the places that the Portuguese went to.  I know history is complicated and often romanticized, but looking at all the places Portuguese ships touched - Newfoundland, Brazil, Japan, India - after harrowing voyages and many failed attempts, it is no wonder to me why the people of this tiny country have such fierce pride in

Mosaic mural on the ground in front of the Monument
to the Discoveries
their past.
Close-up detail of some of the mural on the ground

The other major monument in the area is across the street - Monastery of Jeronimos.  It was built in 1502, again in the Portuguese-exclusive "Manueline style".  Vasco da Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer, came here to pray on the evening before what ended up being the first successful sea voyage to India.  This impressive feat of discovering the maritime route to India gave Portugal a monopoly over the very lucrative spice trade for the next 100 years.  His tomb is located at the front of this monastery, and so is that of Luis de Camões, one of Portugal's most famous poets from that same time period.

Walking amidst all this history related to the age of discoveries made me feel even more connected to the country that anything else we had yet seen.  As I saw with my own eyes the tomb of Vasco da Gama, ran my hands along the intricate stonework of the tower of Belém, and contemplated each of the historical figures on the Monument to the Discoveries, something stirred in me.  For lack of a better word, it was saudade, again.  Perhaps I feel so connected to the history and mythology surrounding the Age of Discoveries because there is something powerful in the spirit of a people who get on a ship and sail to unknown lands, and in some small way, this is what my parents did as well.  They got on a plane and flew across the ocean, in their early 20's and 30's, looking for something.  What that something is (besides the usual reasons for immigration), I cannot really say.  You have to be brave enough, or
Vasco da Gama

crazy enough (or both) to leave everything you know behind and set off into the unknown.

Perhaps I inherited my wanderlust, passed down through generations of ancient explorers. 
Lisbon is alive with history, and I am immersed in it.  I look out at the river, and imagine tall ships with unfurled sails, slowly sailing away.  Somehow, in my mind's eye, part of me is with them, off in search of unknown shores.

close-up detail of Vasco da Gama's tomb


After our history-filled morning, we walk over to the oldest pastel de nata shop in Lisbon - Pasteis de Belém.  Using a secret recipe that dates back to 1837, they make the tarts by hand, using traditional methods, and sell thousands of them each day.  J is a pastel connoisseur at this point, and we of course must try these, so we join the line (which thankfully isn't too long) and get 8 of them to go.  We head across the street to a park and sit in the sun, eating the deliciously flaky and nutty crusts filled with creamy sweet custard.  It's hard to decide which of all the pasteis we've eaten is the best, but this one is definitely up near the top.

Next stop is a ride on the historic 1930's electric tram.  These vintage vehicles are still in use along one of Lisbon's main routes through the city, as they are the only ones that can navigate the steep and narrow roads of Lisbon's old quarters.  The wood paneling and seats inside are very 1930's indeed, as is the rickety, jerky feeling of climbing those steep hills in a vehicle that's almost 90 years old, as you watch the driver turn a metal crank and perform almost a dance of coordination with his different cranks, wheels, and dials.
Tram 28

Large parts of Lisbon were destroyed in a massive disaster that occurred in 1775 - an earthquake who's epicenter reigistered at 8.7.  Because it happened on a holiday, the Day of All Saints, everyone was in churches that morning, and every space in every building was covered in lit candles.  This caused the second disaster of the day - as people were trying to recover from the massive earthquake, Lisbon was now on fire from all the candles which had fallen over.  Then came the aftershocks of the earthquake in the form of huge tsunami waves that covered the city. 

This massive tragedy destroyed much of Lisbon's old monuments, neighbourhoods, and historic documents.  Much of Portugal's history, poetry, and music was lost.  Thankfully, a few neighbourhoods were spared, like Alfama, and that is the area we rode the tram through.  The narrow streets, very old buildings with unique doors, windows, railings, and colours were quite fascinating to look at as we rode up and down the streets.

After this, we decided to go back to our hostel and rest for a short while before heading out to experience Fado.

Fado is a unique musical style that was born in Lisbon.  This passionate, often melancholy, heart-wrenching music is said to be the soul of the Portuguese people, and we were eager to hear it performed live in its natural element. 

We found a small bar called A Tasca do Chico, and hesitantly made our way in to the very crowded space.  There was no more sitting room, so we ordered a pair of sangrias and stood against a wall, waiting for something to happen.  Soon enough, the lights were dimmed, the doors to the outside were closed, and a young man went to the middle of the small space.  The sounds of the Portuguese 12-stringed guitar filled the air from his masterful accompanist, and the voice that came out of him immediately grabbed our full attention.
Fado singer at Tasca do Chico

Fado is not something that can be described; it can only be experienced.  There was a quote on the wall saying that you are a 'fadista' not only if you sing fado, but also if you know how to listen to fado.  And listen we did, hearts attentive to every quiet phrase that suddenly swelled into passionate melancholic longing. Poetry spilled from his skillful story-telling, and he sang mostly head down or turned away, and eyes closed, clearly lost in his own turmoil of emotions, channeling them for us through song so that we could all somehow have a joint experience of longing, saudade, grief, hope, secrets, joy.  Fado is not just 'sad music'.  It is the soul, given voice.

We stayed there for a little over an hour, as three other singers took turns going up and giving us their own versions of fado.  Old and young, men and women - it was a beautiful evening in the heart of Lisbon's culture, and we soaked up every moment of it.


Around midnight we left the Fado bar and wandered the streets of Lisbon's Bairro Alto neighbourhood - where the famed night-life happens.  Things don't really get started in Lisbon until at least midnight, and we were surprised at how the streets had filled up with people drinking, eating, and laughing.  Drinking in the streets is legal in Portugal, and alcohol is cheap (think 1 Euro beers), and clearly the night life crowd knows how to party.  2 am is when things really start happening, though, but our travel-weary selves only made it until about 1:30 before we decided to call it a night.

Lisboa de mil amores... thank you for showing me at least some of your secrets.