Lisbon-More charm than grit. Part 2

Three posts to cover seven days in Lisbon, a city that attracts the description of gritty charm. Sometimes the charm wins and at other times It’s the grit. This post is Part 2 of instances where the charm bubbled to the surface. Specifically, these are examples of food focussed charm eclipsing the grit:

1. Eating with the Nuns:

We took a tour the first day we arrived, EatDrinkWalk Tapas Tour. It was brilliant. For four hours we were taken to different restaurants and bars and given things to eat and drink. One of the places the guide would have liked to take us was closed. We came back two days later when it was open. There is an anonymous door. On the door is an anonymous yellow sign. Behind the door are three sets of anonymous stairs. At the top is a canteen and a deck with views over Lisbon!!!!!!! It is the Nuns canteen. They prepare the food and you go stand with a tray and they give you what you ask for. The menu of the day is AUD 4.5 for three courses (drinks extra). We went berserk and ordered a la carte and spent AUD 9 each (including drinks). Fabulously quirky and great views.

2. The Palacio Chiado:

The building is incredible. Restored and repurposed by being filled with six restaurants that run from a common credit card that you receive when you walk in the door. The idea is that you eat and drink where you want and pay as you leave the building. We dined at the Sushi/Sashimi place at the top which is very stylish and has no truck with the common payment system of the others. The walk up the stairs and the restaurant ceiling are impressive affairs (so too the food).

3. The Pasteis de Nata:

Each shop that makes Pasteis or Pastel de Nata in Lisbon claims that its pastries are the best/oldest/most traditional. We travelled twenty minutes west of Lisbon to Belem where legend states that custard pastries were first made. We purchased four of them from the bakery that a Lisbon expert told us was her favourite place. We went across to the park and ate them sat on the grass.

The shop was not actually such a secret. The first time we visited Belem around 200 people were queuing outside for Pasteis. The second time maybe only 50, so we waited. They were very good and only Euro 1.10 each.

4. Good coffee:

We enjoy good coffee and TripAdvisor focussed us quickly on the three best. Fabrica, Copenhagen Lab and Bettina & Niccolo Corallo. All had flat whites on the board and roasted their own beans. Copenhagen Lab delivered coffee that was consistently the best but it was such a boring place and service was soooo slow. I declared Fabrica my favourite and we visited it most often. Bettina etc has the great advantage that they also create a range of artisan chocolates and you get one example free (as you choose) with each cup of coffee. They also had the lovely bright lime Marzocco.

5. Our local:image

We walked past this cafe every day at least twice. It is on Calcada do Combro street near Elevador da Bica. Every time we passed it was busy. Eventually we decided we had to give it a try. We ordered two local favourites, a steak sandwich for Alex and a pork sandwich for me, with two sparkling waters. There was lots of meat, lovely and moist and filling. When we got to the counter we understood the popularity, AUD 10 for us both. Great value, and there are many of their like all over the city.

6. Mercado da Ribeira:

Time Out magazine assisted the failing Mercado da Ribeira by reinventing half of it as a location for restaurants anchored around five high profile chefs. The high profile chefs arrived. The customers followed, they keep coming, and it’s a great success.

7. Choose a tin, any tin:image

In this restaurant the protein they serve is fish and that fish comes from a tin!!!! Only in Lisbon, where canning has a fine tradition.

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Lisbon-Alma Restaurant

Five courses, five wine matches at Alma restaurant. There are a number of degustation choices offered here and we chose the one named coast to coast. That is, seafood from start to finish, including dessert!

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An old building with large stone supporting arches and stone flag floors. A very impressive location.

In Spain restaurants don’t really open before 8:30pm and often later. A 7:00pm Portuguese timeslot was welcomed by our stomach clock. The downside being that Lisbon is more expensive, certainly more expensive than the South of Spain.

 

 

The degustation has five courses. The above four arrived before counting began.

 

 

Appetisers were braised sardines and the squid with chickpeas in broth. Next came two mains, one of which was a sensational parrot fish on basil rice.

 

 

Another amuse bouche and then dessert of a seafood and citrus combination that had chrystallised algae and squid ink meringue. Strange but successful.

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The wine matches were all from Portugal. I cannot recall previously sampling Portuguese wines. I cannot recall seeing Portuguese wines advertised in Australia (ignoring the fortifieds). The advertised five wines turned into six and were each full glass pours. The starter was a sparkling Baga, it was crisp and dry and I have never heard of the grape but after tasting it I would certainly buy a bottle. The best wine I thought was the Albarino. The dessert was paired with Vermouth. I don’t like Vermouth, but I did like this, it worked very well with the strange seafood and citrus dessert. A Sauvignon Blanc didn’t work for me, not on its own, nor with the food.

The other three wines I also think didn’t stand on their own. However, the other three wines were wonderful with the accompanying food. I thought the match was a triumph. I came away thinking that the reason I have seen little Portuguese wine in Australia is because it isn’t very good. Alma took not very good wine and  successfully matched it with the food to create an effective complement, which I guess is what the pairing is all about. I congratulate them, I thought the wine matching was a triumph.

Price Euros 290 for two plus tip. Stand out parrot fish and wine matching. The service is very good and friendly and the location is impressive. Good value? I think a price of 290 euros is a little ahead of the offering. Nevertheless a recommend.

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Lisbon-More grit than charm

Lisbon, a city that attracts the term gritty charm. Sometimes the charm shines more brightly than the grit and at other times the grit shines through the grit. There are three posts in this series. Two focus upon the charm and this one covers the, less frequent, times when grit wins:

1. Queuing:

I had not realised how popular Lisbon is with tourists. In early July there were many people, speaking in many languages, in a city with narrow pavements and organisational ineptitude. These combine to create queues. Good natured queues I would say, but queues nevertheless. Today was 31 degrees and many queues occur in full sun. This is a blemish and I advise persons contemplating a visit to visit, but to try and organise that visit outside the very popular months.

2. Transport systems part I. Ticketing:

One of these tickets is for the trains and one of these tickets is for the trams/metro. Can you tell which is which? Neither could we, because it doesn’t say!!!

We found the ticketing confusing. There is an all day pass for the trains. The metro is not a train, it is something else. There is an all day pass for the trams and metro (but not the trains). Both passes are sold in the main train station. The first type of ticket is sold upstairs. The second type of ticket is sold downstairs. There is also a daily ticket for the tram and the train and the metro, I’m not sure where that is sold.

The one on the left is for trains, the one on the right is for trams/metro. We bought the one on the left and rode all day on the trams, confident we had done the right thing. We hadn’t.

The physical card, presumably containing a chip, is purchased for 50 cents and then recharged at a machine. Once we had realised our previous error, we recharged the White card with Euro 6.15 for the next day. The credit card says we paid Euro 6.15, the receipt says we paid 1.45 for a single trip. We were not sure what might happen the next day. The next day came and the receipt was misleading, in fact wrong, everything worked fine.

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On the trams this device validates your ticket. Around half the times it works and the other times it doesn’t. Lisbon’s automated system makes Melbourne’s Myki look very sophisticated.

 

3. Transport Systems part II. Ticketing again:image

Upstairs in the train station is where the train ticket machines live. It is a centre of excellence for queueing. The first time we visited was Friday evening at 6:30pm. We thought the day and time was the reason for the queue. It wasn’t. Every time of every day we visited there were queues. This is because there are many customers and only four machines. A customer focussed solution would be to increase the number of automated ticketing machines and keep adding machines until the customers are happy. Happy because they have purchased a ticket and spent less than two minutes in a queue. Just a thought.

4. Transport systems part III. Timetabling:

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We had a lovely seat at the front and could watch where we were going in the dark. We were so excited.

We went on an adventure on the toy tram. It was dark so we thought this would be a fabulous adventure and we took torches in case it was scarey. At ten pm we got on a tram to go to the end of the line. We did this successfully and walked across the road to allow the tram to turn around and take us home. We crossed the road at 10:30pm, the tram was hidden behind the bushes in the park. We never saw our tram again! We read the timetable which said trams run every twenty minutes with the last tram at 11:10pm. Between 10:30pm and 11:10pm at Praca Martim Moniz I can assure you no trams arrived or left. We finally caught a taxi and it took us home.

The next day we decided we would not be daunted as daunting is something that happens to lesser folks. We would take a toy tram in another unknown direction. We would sit on the tram and enjoy the sights until the tram stopped. Then we would cross the road, catch another tram and come home. Trams every eleven minutes during the daylight  hours. We waited 30 minutes and a very kind lady told us that the line is blocked by a toy tram that is broken. No more trams for a few hours. We abandoned our idea for an excellent adventure this day and went for a coffee.

Three days later we were ready to try the adventure again.  We bought an all day ticket, we got on the tram, we travelled a kilometre and then………

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Our toy tram was number four in the line. The passengers in numbers one and two had left their tram to do something better with their lives. We got off our tram , visited the church behind me and came home. I realised we were never ever going to have the toy tram adventure of my dreams.

5. Transport systems part IV. Modern trams, the services they offer and the scheduling of maintenance:

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The unreliability of the toy trams convinced us to catch one of the modern trams. Surely, reliability and comfort would be the hallmarks of these freshly minted beauties.

We decided to take one of the modern trams to Belem. Not cute, not interesting, but functional. We went to the main station. A tram arrived. We got on it and so did many, many others. It was packed. There was no air conditioning and the temperature of 30 degrees outside was higher inside. Smelly people are allowed to travel in these trams and sadly one of the smelliest stood near to us. To make matters worse there were works underway immediately next to the track, on a Tuesday at noon ish. I watched as the workmen moved their rubble off the track so the tram could pass. Presumably they would do the same thing again in another eleven minutes to allow the next tram to pass. And then again, and again, until the work concluded or the working day ended. I now understand why track repairs are scheduled overnight in Melbourne, it is because it is sensible. The trip to Belem wasn’t far, but it was long, and unpleasant.

6. Taxis from the airport:

The little scamp of a taxi driver who took us from airport to town switched off the meter and inflated the fare by 5 euros. Welcome to Lisbon. I’m supporting Uber.

7. Tuk tuks:

 

They are functional, but we didn’t find them attractive or authentic. We didn’t use them although there are lots of tuk tuks. There are also lots of tuk tuk drivers who hiss offers to you as you walk down the street.

8. Recycling:

 

Our street had six poorly labelled bins. We read each one and that wasn’t entirely helpful. We looked inside and tried to follow the precedent of others. One evening a council truck came down our street. Its enthusiastic bin men and bin women emptied the contents of all six bins into the truck. To be clear, they emptied all bins into precisely the same scoop bucket at the rear of that one truck. Following the truck came a man on foot with a large bin on wheels and a picking stick and a brush. He moved rubbish in our street, but he did not remove rubbish from our street.

This helps explain why the gritty bits stay gritty. At least, why they stay gritty in Travessa do Alcaide.

 

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Lisbon-More charm than grit. Part 1

Lisbon is a city to which the description gritty charm might be applied. Mostly the charm outshines, although sometimes the grit shines through the grit. This post is Part 1, of two parts, where charm is to the fore:

1. The little trams:

 

 

They chug up the steep streets and down the steep streets. They carry happy tourists packed tightly as sardines are packed tightly inside a tin can.

2. The steep streets:

I had known that Lisbon was built on seven hills. I hadn’t realised the hills would be so steep. When they are not steep going up the way, they are steep going down the way without a few welcoming metres of level transition. In the instance above the numbers of the houses are picked out in black pebbles on the street. In the other photo we have a tired little soldier fighting for breath as she ascends a slope. Bless her.

3. The tiled Buildings:image

 

 

4. Belem, contemporary art:

Mr Berardo left Portugal as a young man. He returned as an older man with his pockets full of money from successful business ventures in South Africa. He decided he would collect contemporary art. He then decided to build a rather lovely looking building in Belem equipped with excellent air conditioning and he housed his art there. He then decided that members of the public could come inside for free. After that he decided they could pay Euros 5 each. So that is what we did. A very large collection and a very varied set of known artists. We enjoyed and thank you Mr Berardo.

5. The Archaeological site, Rua dos Correeiros:

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Millennium BCP are a bank and they have their headquarters in Lisbon. They wanted to build a car park under their bank. As they dug down they discovered examples of wells and sewage tunnels from when Lisbon was rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake. Then they found a corpse, a roman house with bath, then a Roman fish factory and then remnants of Stone Age buildings. The bank has preserved the many centuries of historical building 5 metres below their headquarters. They provide free guided tours in a variety of languages every day. That was fabulous. Everything is in quite a small area as new generations simply built on top of the previous occupants constructions. The guide was very knowledgeable but lacked a sense of humour. I tried to brighten the mood with one of my comedic questions. That effort fell on ground stonier than the perfectly preserved Roman mosaic flooring.

6. LX Factory:image

The LX factory sits on what was wasteland in an altogether undesirable spot about 15 minutes from the city. It is located under the enormous rail/road bridge that spans the river. It was reinvented and repurposed to be filled with arty little shops selling clothes and second hand records and tattoos and haircuts and food and bars. Hey presto the people came and injected life back into the decaying factories. We found it a lovely spot to wander for jewellery gifts and argentinian empanadas.

7. Style:

Alex said that Lisbon is stylish, meaning more stylish than the south of Spain that we visited immediately before here. I said is it? And took some photos of “stylish” shop windows:

Actually I didn’t. I wanted to be able to say this is a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker. Because it’s true. Nothing very stylish about the butcher, but I think the other two count.

I then added in another couple of windows. I recognise it doesn’t work terrifically well because of the reflections in glass. I have a camera setting for “through glass”, but it isn’t very effective. It’s particularly not effective here, as I didn’t use that setting.

You’ll have to take Alex’s word that Lisbon is stylish without any supporting photographic evidence from me. Lisbon is not only stylish, but it has many attributes that are charming. But wait, there will be more. Part 2 of Lisbon more charm than grit will be available in good bookstores near you, very soon.

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Sevilla-Day trip to Cordoba

Córdoba is about 120 kilometres from Sevilla. We decided that it was in striking distance of a charabanc trip. A lovely day out with sandwiches, crisps of two flavours and a beer for Pa. So off we went. What joys there were when we arrived at Córdoba. Skinny streets, water and ponds and a thematic blue, backgrounded by whitewashed walls.

Córdoba is a walled city and most famous for its Mezquita. Michael Portillo came here on a great European train journey and his programme had whetted our appetite to visit. The mosque is an incredible building and covers a large area.

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The area it covers is so large that this is the third largest mosque in the World. When the Christians drove the Moors out of Córdoba they decided it would be a good idea to build a cathedral to show that a new God was running things. They didn’t raze the mosque, which was a positive. They did remove parts of it and built a church right in the middle of the mosque. Most of the mosque remains; surrounding the newer church and abutted hard against it. This creates a juxtaposition of architectural styles that don’t so much merge, as collide.

The man below is holding our lunch. Actually the lunch he is holding is 50 years old. Ours was created on the day of our visit (I hope).image

It’s a tortilla that looks like a big cheese. The man behind the counter will cut you a slice for a small price and hand it to you on a small plastic plate with small plastic fork. Casa Santos is a small restaurant with one table and two chairs, which I think defines a small restaurant. People rested food and drinks on the bar and ate there, standing. Others stood at the one high table (that was us), others just stood and the overflow sat outside on the footsteps of the mosque. It was the best tortilla we had in Spain. We also each ordered Salmorejo, which we subsequently both agreed we didn’t like. I don’t like Gazpacho, so it was likely I wouldn’t like Salmorejo. Salmorejo is also a cold soup made from tomatoes and bread and invented in Córdoba, which is why it was necessary to try it here.

Michael Portillo arrived in Córdoba by train, he was obliged to do so as his programme was called Great European Train Journeys. I said that our trip was to be by charabanc. We selected a very modern version of the sharra in honour of Michael Portillo. It was a sharra that was an integral part of the adventure and called the Alta Velocidad train (AVE) which is able to travel at over 300k’s per hour. The 121 kilometres from Sevilla to Córdoba was accomplished in 42 minutes. The journey is so smooth. No diddly dum, diddly dum, diddly dum noises that accompanied old style track joins. It was an exceedingly pleasant train trip at Euros 50 return. This is our train, not a similar train, it is the train we travelled on. We enjoyed it so much we could not represent its likeness with a better washed stablemate.

The walk from Córdoba train station to walled city is mostly through gardens like the ones below. At this time of year they have a tripping/ slipping hazard we had not previously encountered. The oranges are ripe and tumbling. Where they have been stomped there is a lovely citrus smell that makes the walk a more positive experience.

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Sevilla-Cathedral versus Alcazar

Sevilla is 2000 years old with the usual group of defining influences Romans, Moors and Christians. The city sits on the Guadalquivir river, which is very difficult to pronounce, but which provided navigatable access to the sea so that vessels could dock in the port of Sevilla.

Sevilla has a Cathedral and an Alcazar which are its two major attractions. But which is the best?  Here they go head to head.

The Cathedral took eighty or a hundred years of construction effort, depending on your source (say 1434- to say 1511), it is enormous and it’s very gothic. It has the thickest supporting stone pillars I think I’ve ever seen and is decorated with extreme wooden carvings inside.

The Alcazar is a palace which was first built in 913 as a fort. The Moors worked on it for a couple of hundred years from sometime in the 1000’s. The Christians arrived in 1248 and used it as their main palace and continued with the building works.

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The cathedral has the biggest altarpiece in the world. Created between 1482 and 1564 it contains over a thousand carved figures !

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Seville gained great wealth from having sole Castillian rights to trade with the American colonies. Fitting, therefore, that Christopher Columbus ashes are held in this large box in the cathedral.

The cathedral is certainly very large, it is still the largest cathedral in the World, the two churches that are larger don’t have an Archbishop so they aren’t cathedrals. The big churches are St Peter’s at the Vatican and a church with a long name in Brazil that can hold 70,000 worshippers. In particular, the Sevilla cathedral is tall. I can imagine the effort that it took to move all those enormous stones and place them one on top of another until they finished up 42 metres high in the main churchy drag, called the central nave. The tower is an even more impressive 105 metres tall that has been built with ramp access so horses can be ridden up there, which we did not attempt. An incredible feat for the age. Perhaps more impressive if it had been engineered sufficiently to prevent the roof falling in. Firstly, in 1511, shortly after version 1.0 had been completed and secondly after an earthquake in 1888.

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Great big stone pillars holding up a great big stone roof over a great big stone floor.

The Alcazar is light and bright and adorned with carved arches, stucco and many courtyards that reflect a different Moorish mindset. It is joyous to walk around and at 17,000 square metres it has also been built on quite a scale. I say this to compare with the the cathedral which was deliberately done large, but which is, by my calculations, 1,500 square metres smaller in footprint.

 

The visit to the Alcazar is made all the more delightful by the sounds of running water and the various ponds stocked with fish and the extraordinary underground baths.

 

Just when you have decided that this is a most fabulous experience, there’s more:imageimage

Seven hectares of gardens by the side of the Alcazar. They are well maintained and again feature many pools, plus shaded walkways and elevated viewing corridors.

Judgement:

I found the cathedral to be dark and oppressive. During the last sixty years of the cathedrals construction the Catholics were ramping up the Inquisition. Torturing people (Jews and Arabs and others) and burning them to death with both Papal and Royal support. This suggests to me the Catholics of the time liked their religion to be served with a lot of suffering (mostly of non Catholics but not exclusively so). With this context, for me the Cathedral’s architecture reflects and captures the brutal misery of those times.

During the last twenty years of the cathedral’s build “trade” was starting with the new lands of the Americas and bringing great wealth to Sevilla. I place the word trade between rabbits ears as I understood that much of the bounty from the new lands was extracted forcibly, an activity similar to theft. Upshot was, Sevilla and the royal family had increasingly large amounts of cash to splash. Behind every great fortune there is a great crime. In this instance a slice of the great fortune was spent on, what I think is, an ugly cathedral, with a funding model that was also ugly.

The Alacazar and its gardens were light and bright, joyous expressions of the people who designed them, the Moors. Altogether a happier, more uplifting place to be.

As a cheapskate I occasionally stand next to tour guides without subscribing. The tour leader I stood next to for five minutes at the Alcazar was pointing out the Star of David incorporated into a window design. She explained how the Moors thought that everyone should get along famously for mutual benefit. As a result the Moors didn’t persecute Jews or Christians. As a result I have awarded contextual moral high ground points to the Alcazar.

At the Alhambra, and from my free audience at the Alcazar, I learnt the Moors were highly advanced in architecture and engineering, they were navigating using the stars and were great educators. I chose to see this advancement reflected in a more aesthetically designed edifice than the cathedral, more points.

The Spanish royal family have rooms at the Alcazar which they use. I decided Felipe VI and his family would like me to allocate liveability points to the Alcazar on their behalf. Finally, at Euros 9, the Alcazar has an entrance fee that is 50 cents cheaper than the Cathedral. That Cathedral just cannot take a trick.

Final score: Alcazar awarded bags full of points from many perspectives. The Cathedral many points also, but many negative ones which nets it out under water. The Alcazar is a must visit while in Sevilla.

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Sevilla-Albantal Restaurant

There is one starred restaurant in Sevilla. It is Albantal. We enjoyed lunch here on a Tuesday in early July and had the degustation with wine match. Two appetisers, five mains and two desserts was the advertised package.

The meal opened with a complimentary set of four appetisers. The meal ended with a complimentary plate of four small desserts. I thought that this provided a lovely balance to the offering. In between were the advertised nine courses.

The wine marriage reflected a similar balance. A sherry to start and a sherry to conclude. A Manzanilla was the first to accompany the appetisers and a Pedro Ximinez accompanied the desserts. There were with five glasses of wine in between, all Spanish, all splendidly matched with the food and all generous pours.

The two mains were sea bass and steak. The sea bass was moist and the steak a perfect rare red.

The food was fabulous. My wife enjoyed the foie gras best which was the one served in a glass. For me I preferred, and equally enjoyed, both the sea bass and the steak.

The degustation was Euro 65 each, the wine match Euro 25 each. Total bill Euro 180 plus tip. This represents incredibly strong value for money. Service was delightful as staff assisted us to expand our Spanish vocabulary. The premises were lovely and I can’t fault the place, except I thought the bill was too small for the quality of what we enjoyed.

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