Friday, November 21, 2014

-- Portugal Express --

It starts with yet another early morning departure from Dublin Airport, a tall americano at Starbucks and an air traffic control situation, which forces us to sit on the tarmac for an extra fifty minutes prior to finally receive clearance to roll out Southbound to warmer lands.
I am travelling with a work colleague, both of us Portuguese-language proficient and ready for a rapid visit to Lusitania.

The sight of colorful and soft hills break through the thick layer of white clouds only minutes before landing into windy Lisbon Portela Airport and being driven between terminals to the ample arrivals lounge.
It feels like we have crossed the Atlantic and have landed in Rio de Janeiro, resemblance which is rapidly noticed and impresses our senses as we are driven through the busy and wide avenues of Lisbon to my friend's apartment in the neighborhood of Amoreiras.

In the city centre, narrow streets lined with low-rise houses in a pure Pombaline style dominate the landscape and reflect an architectural style which resulted as a consequence of the virtually total reconstruction of the city following the deadly 1755 earthquake and tsunami in which almost half the population of Lisbon was swept away.
Colourful tiles which have now become a symbol of the country adorn the facades of these houses creating a powerful sense-defying optical effect when combined with the hilly terrain.

The hostess of this trip is a dear friend of mine who I met when she lived in Ireland for almost a year.
As an adventurer, she then took a job in daunting Luanda (Angola) where she worked for almost two years, meeting her Portuguese significant other and moving back to Lisbon, where they have been residing for a few months.

We rush to grasp a quick breakfast with her whilst meeting her new (to be) inlaws and change into lighter clothing before being driven to the banks of the River Tejo, crowned by the dominant 25 de Abril suspension bridge, an important North-South link in the Portuguese territory and the perfect frame for the city's nautical lifestyle.

Next stop is Praca do Comercio, where the overseas trading traditions of this country find their roots. For a moment, I could picture the Portuguese mercantile sailors unloading spices from Goa or pau-Brasil from Bahia before being weighed and sold in the nearby Augusta Street, overlooked by the Portuguese emperor sailing away to Rio de Janeiro.

As the weather becomes rather unsettled, we stop to have a sip of authentic Ginginha, a sweet reddish alcoholic aperitif mixed with some sort of cherry and served in a small glass, moments before skipping between outlook points (both in Chiado and Santa Catarina) for amazing views of an endless horizon of ceramic tile roofs.

Down the hills, the refurbished Mercado da Ribeira becomes the stop for a late lunch in which, live prawns, crabs, mussels and shellfish become a magnificent delicacy in a matter of minutes, with the help of boiling water and sea salt.
A treat to the palate and a very expressive introduction to the Portuguese cuisine in which seafood plays an extremely important part of the daily diet.

Our sightseeing tour continues through the river banks towards the fortified Belem Tower, which served as an outlook point for the Portuguese military as well as a ceremonial gateway to the Tejo estuary and the Monument to the Discoveries, built in white granite and surrounded by a giant mosaic outlining major Portuguese conquers through the world around a gigantic nautical rose.

The light fresh breeze blows from the North Atlantic and invite for sheltering whilst enjoying a delicious 'pastel de Belem', which is basically a sweet custard tart in a bed of light pastry.
The Jeronimo's Monastery is right next door, dominating the Belem neighborhood with its decorated architecture, Gothic-style arches and yellow lights.

As the night settles in, we wander around Alfama. Once known as Lisbon's red light district, redeveloped around the San Jorge Castle, the Se Cathedral and the numerous old-fashioned yellow trams which cruise through the cobblestones streets.

Last but not least, we enter a sea of neon lights, modern high-rise buildings and extravagant architecture at Parque das Nacoes, Lisbon's redeveloped area and setting for the 1998 World Expo.
I devise a cable car and Dubai-like buildings. It is the place to be for young lisboetas.

A dinner party is next, set in the hipster-style Cantina LX, featuring a three-course meal which included traditional bacalhau (fish) , chocolate fondant and copious (read: unlimited) amounts of Portuguese wine.

The rest of the evening turns into a blur memory thanks to a combination of alcohol and lack of rest: Portuguese accents, a rather hipster club, revolving neon lights, gin & tonic glasses and extravagant people dancing.

Hungover, the morning is spent resting before paying a quick visit to the massive warehouse of Decathlon in the suburb of Amadora (backpacks and shoes required, purchasable in Portugal for a considerably lower price than in Ireland), and perfectly lined up for a visit to the wealthy region of Cascais.
Mansions dominate the landscape of this small town, bordered by gold sandy beaches and frequented by surfers lured by the quality of steady cold waves.

Only a few kilometers away, the roads take a steep hike and we reach Sintra, which is an UNESCO World Heritage site due to its predominant Romantic architecture.

The Castle of the Moors, dated back from the Neolithic period, guards the village from the top of a rocky hill, whilst monumental palaces (such as the Palace of Sintra with its peculiar chimneys) and houses slide down the rugged landscape almost as they were hanging off the cliffs.

Time to try some toasted castanhas (sweet chestnut, a popular Portuguese delicacy) and enjoy a octopus-based dish for lunch, washed away with a Brazilian 'guarana' soft drink.

The body ask for rest as the last night in the city sets in, grasping another aspect of the Portuguese daily life by rapidly visiting the late-opening shopping centres.
A time to say good-bye to a newly-made friend traveling to Angola, a time for a last walk around enjoying the solitude of a Sunday evening in the neighborhood of Principe Real and finally, a time for some fresh sushi whilst the mind process the events and places surrounding the fleeting visit to this charming European capital.

We leave for Portela Airport early in the morning, with the premise of returning and turn Lisbon into a destination for relaxation,  good food, (surf) and a very rich culture.

As we take off, we fly right above the busy streets of the city center and the panorama of the Tejo estuary along with the omnipresent suspension bridge fade through the thick clouds.

In the spirit of an express weekend getaway, once landed in Dublin some three hours later, my colleague and I head straight to the office.