Lisboa’s outskirts are peppered with suburbs of different shapes, sizes and styles. They range from forest parks to densely packed residential districts, from slums to industrial areas, from bourgeois waterfront mansions to medieval towns that have been absorbed by the city’s ever expanding grid. Queluz is one of those suburbs. It is home to Queluz National Palace, built in the 18th century as a summer home for the royal family. It is but a dwarf variation of the great Rococo palaces of Europe like Versailles. Right next to it rests a tiny urban settlement of old houses and narrow streets. I’ve always admired how in Lisboa great buildings of power are offset by projections of the humbleness of common people. Another example of this is the National Parliament of São Bento and the vernacular buildings that face it. It is in that space between that most political oriented demonstrations of Lisboa have their final checkpoint.
Then, there’s Magoito, a village by the beach in Sintra. Still close enough to be a candidate for the title of suburb of Lisboa, but far enough for people to feel as if they are spending holidays away from the city, if they happen to sleep over. The farthest people in it were engulfed in a thick sfumato of dust and iodine, and the smell of the salty water was instantly invigorating. The sun was hidden behind clouds, so we had to be extra careful not to get burned without noticing. The layers of blue and grey almost melded on the horizon and the body-boarders peppered the waves. The sand was not yellow nor white but in shades of brown and shadowy brown – contrasts lowered by the wind and the clouds. I always get drowsy in the first days of going to the beach.
During the match between Holland and Costa Rica, there was, of course, time for more snails and bifanas and beer.
If snails had headlines, today’s would have sounded like this. Their deaths were not our direct responsibility, mind you, but were indeed warranted by our craving!
Portuguese have the knack of snacking hundreds of tiny delicious beings such as snails and fish eggs. Snails are rendered edible by being boiled in different herbs and vegetables, such as onion, garlic, mint or chili, and of course, their own goo! They should be washed down with beer. Fish eggs are boiled, cooled and turned into a yummy salad with onion, garlic [glitch in the matrix], parsley and olive oil. Octopus can also be turned into salad in the very same way, but the octopus must be frozen before being boiled, lest it turns into rubbery unchewiness.
Our waiter was telegraphic in his requests from the kitchen, seasoned by many years of the same orders being asked for. Few words, few letters even, were used to convey the message to his colleagues: “um caracol, uma manga, fino, café” (one snail – meaning a tray of them – one mango – meaning a mango flavoured ice-tea – fino, a shorter word for a small beer – coffee).
In our first and second days in Lisboa, we ended up being invited to birthday parties that we didn’t know were going to happen in the first place. We just happened to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. Diana had her birthday celebration at home with a few friends. Simple and delicious salmon pasta went around, garnished by guacamole. Books were passed around and shared and taken note of. Germany won its match against Algeria
The next day found us snacking snails, bifanas and beers, then crashing another birthday dinner party and following after the small crowd to a house for drinks. I for one was delighted that the Márcia, the birthday girl (plus a few of the guests) was from Portimão – the town right next to my home town. This way I got to hear that heavy accent they have over there and enjoy regional booze from Monchique: the notorious medronho and the less known (unknown even to me) melosa. The former is strawberry tree moonshine, bitter and warm, which Márcia explained that it is expensive to acquire, but almost every household has a bottle and that it is customary to be offered a drink of it as a guest in the standard Algarve home. The latter is liquor, sweet and mellow, distilled out of honey.
A good night’s sleep had us forget about the full day in tin cans on rails and up in the air. After that, the first thing on the ‘to do’ list was to have a proper Portuguese breakfast. Down at ‘Talismã’, a corner snack bar in Benfica, we ordered a couple of long due galões (sing. galão) – coffee with milk in tall glasses – with torrada – dry bread toasted with butter – and pão de deus misto (lit. mixed god’s bread)- a sweet bun topped with coconut custard with cheese and ham.
Screw lattes and muffins! This is the stuff!
Later, I munched on one more pão de deus at Areeiro, overlooking some modernist/fascist buildings. Can’t get enough o’ them! The sweet buns, that is.
The easter holidays gave us a few days off to visit old friends and family in Lisboa. Dinner parties become so much cheaper in the local joints, and you can wash the food down with abundant wine without the need for declaring bankruptcy. Of course then you have to dissolve the thin film of oil that coats your oesophagus with aguardente, but by then, your senses have been numbed enough that you tolerate it quite well.
Lisboa has a knack of surprising us with semi-secret places such as Park, a lounge bar sitting on the terrace atop a multi-story parking lot, right in the middle of the night action. The elevator was broken, so a 5-story climb up the emergency stairs was just the thing we needed to digest all the greasiness from the dinner.
The price of the booze was above average, still, it was a privileged view over Lisboa by night coupled with some fine music. I was beat after 15 minutes, but the girls they just kept going for what seemed to be hours.
Taxi rides home in Lisboa are a lottery. You get all sorts of taxi drivers: grumpy, happy, drowsy, political, racist, eloquent, nonsensical, you name it. Very few are women, and this was one of them. She regaled us with stories and anecdotes of her years as a taxi driver and as a Lisboeta. The most impressive memory was of the fire in Chiado in the 80s, where she was working back then. Something I was not around to witness, but was indeed one of those dramatic events that determine a turning point in a place.