Portugal postcard #2

The Portugal slideshow continued from the previous post

Porto’s Monument Church of St. Francis, a breathtaking Gothic cathedral, one of the gaudiest in Europe, slathered in gold leaf. You could melt the church and make five billion wedding rings. Or five gold chains in Miami.
The River Tagus, view from the mazy, crazy Alfama neighborhood in Lisbon
Porto on the Douro River
Sé Cathedral, Porto
A spotlight of sun on cherub tile
Iberian ham and queso toast at the impressive Time Out Market in Lisbon’s Mercado da Ribeira, a dizzying smorgasbord of the best food from around the city, and I can’t argue with that. My food, from sushi to gelato, was exceptional. I went twice.
Porto. In both this city and Lisbon, stylish graffiti is king.

Portugal postcard #1

I about had a stroke scaling the steep medieval alleyways of my ‘hood in Porto, Portugal, last week, fuming at yet another of life’s inconveniences — precipitous hills! The humanity! — while clutching my chest and wiping my brow.

It was the same in Lisbon’s Alfama area, the capital city’s coolest, oldest, most mazy residential neighborhood, cut through with endless perpendicular hills and narrow passages. I am either desperately out of shape or the Portuguese are sadomasochists. (The former, decidedly.) 

These are not complaints. These — crippling strokes, premature heart attacks — are symptoms of the kind of euphoria travel so uniquely delivers, and what I experienced during a week split between Portugal’s two largest cities, Porto and Lisbon. Considering strokes and such, you could say the trip was to die for. I was smitten the entire time. 

I’ve been to much of the continent and Portugal reverberates with a different European tang that’s refreshingly, truly Old World. The people are amazing. And, except among many hacking, shriveled taxi drivers, English magically appears whenever you need it. It’s a country of nuance and contrast, urbanity and tradition. And with crazy luck, gorgeous January weather of cobalt skies and 60-degree days, everyday.

Both cities exude singular flavors. Sight-wise, there’s much to see but not an excess. That’s why walking tours are outstanding, taking you deep to reveal the nooks, the crannies, the crooks, the grannies (seriously: old women pop their heads out of two-story windows and chirp, “Bon dia!”). These are pleasant places, vibrant and laidback, and, with their fabled trams/trolleys, rolling hills and postcard waterfronts, redolent of classic San Francisco, my old stomping ground.

My brother asked if I missed a museum-centric city, à la Paris, but I did not. I do weary of so many museums in other cities that can, occasionally, feel like obligations. These cities are all street, with street art, graffiti, cathedrals, tavern after tavern (wifi — what’s that?), earthy food, multitudinous alcohol (Port, wine, Ginjinha!), ankle-twisting cobblestone, claustrophobic side streets, vertiginous hills and slopes, all of it intoxicating.

The streets are brilliantly bad for driving — lots of cobblestone in rattletrap cars with Model T shock absorbers. Sometimes I thought we’d been in an accident, but it was just a thump in the road. Rides are a steal: Uber lifts ran me $3 on average, with taxis still a bargain at twice the price.

Four days in Lisbon, then a three-hour train north to Porto, which resides languidly in pastel colors on the picturesque Douro River. My boutique hotel, a little alleyway charmer, was smack near the water, where it’s clotted with touristy action, even in January, but not too much. Like the guy with the explosive man bun juggling for tips. I got, but did not finish, a fish bowl of sangria, on the water, in the sun and breeze, while a hippie juggled in the distance.

In both cities the women are dark and lovely and the old men are raisin-faced, unshaven, bent over, sweater-clad, with baggy pants and newsboy caps — exactly how I hope to turn out. One day I had two female servers who possessed hairier arms than mine. As a man of Portuguese heritage, I almost cried with respect and admiration. They put my Aunt Silvia to shame, never mind my Uncle Johnny.

The Portuguese language is enchanting, musical, soft around the edges, like cookie dough. It has notes of Spanish, Italian and Russian, dappled with flower petals. It’s fragrant, easy on the ears and I know all of four words of it.

I found these twin cities fresh, novel, relaxed, uncrowded, winsome. Really, from the fine hotels to the affable people, authentic atmosphere to gushing hospitality, legendary history to rapturous food, Portugal is in my travel pantheon. It’s real Old World material. Humble but proud, and never pushy or arrogant. And always something beautiful.

Onto the slideshow, continued in the next blog post … 

Lisbon
The riverfront plaza three steps from my Porto hotel (try and spot the moon)
Alfama neighborhood in Lisbon, modern graffiti clashing with ancient tiles
Alfama
The infamous must-have Porto meal, the Francesinha, a heart-arresting cholesterol orgy of steak, ham, sausage, cheese and bread stacked and drowned in beer and spiced tomato sauce. Staggering decadence that could fell a mastodon. 
At Povo in Lisbon, where you eat and drink while witnessing fetching fado by up-and-comers in the Portuguese musical form, which is founded on soaring sentimental vocals. This singer cracked a roomful of hearts and we didn’t even know what she was saying. 
The Douro River in Porto
Street art is rampant, and almost always striking

 

Pleasures of Portugal, rediscovered

For all my previously stated apprehensions about the upcoming trip to Portugal — I leave in four days, with unease about how wonderful it will be — I’ve found some solace reading journals from my last Portugal journey, more than 15 years ago. Poring over the pages, it comes back to me: the rolling, vibrant cityscapes, the bonhomous people, the embracing Old World charm, the generously poured Port. What am I worrying about?

Here I am on my arrival in Lisbon those many years ago:

“Beautiful, entrancing, even at night. Quickly lost in the dense street maze searching for food. I’m in the Bairro Alto warren of eats and bars — bony alleyways, pastel walls, quintessential old country. Chanced upon a small, dark, red-lit Parisian-style bar filled with young, mellow boho types. Incense burning, jazz playing, modern art, movie lobby cards. Very hip but stripped of pretense. The basso hum of lively conversation. I am jet-lagged, spaced, zonked, enraptured. I am deranged with travel. It is sublime.”

Fueled by jogged memories — just in time — my enthusiasm for this trip gladly spirals. The journal, scribbled in blue ink and dappled with doodles, proves an encouraging record of a good trip, leavening heavy thoughts of the future voyage with hope and anticipation.

The Portugal journal, discreetly blurred to conceal my innermost thoughts.

I adored Portugal, though I must admit I wasn’t totally taken with its high-altitude fairy-tale town Sintra, with its cupcake castles and princely palaces and perilously steep hills that about sent me into cardiac arrest. My visit, I wrote, felt “mechanical,” the buildings “precious,” the whole joint a tourist trap of ersatz charms. The sylvan setting was nice, however, so green and lush and tall.

We must be reasonable. Travel inevitably presents the occasional hiccup, and you can do far worse than pretty Sintra. It’s all part of the adventure. Like this meal in Lisbon I noted:

“Dinner was ‘Typical Portuguese Sausage.’ But only a third of it was the kind I know and love; the rest was wretched: red, and mushy like squash, and black with bubbles of tough fat. Didn’t eat the pasty ones and tucked the others in a paper napkin so the lovely owner lady — ‘Is it good?’ she asks; ‘Delicious,’ I lie — wouldn’t know. I threw them outside. I hope a dog found them.”

Note to self: try the blood sausage again. You might like it. Older, wiser, and all. 

And that’s how I’m taking this whole trip, equipped with wider eyes and hard-earned wisdom. The last Portugal visit also included a few cities in Spain and Morocco. This time it’s two places in Portugal — Lisbon and Porto — and that’s it. Seven days of focused voyaging, all of it, I think, I hope, divine.  

In the byzantine backstreets of Lisbon

Tripping out over the next trip

As I’ve mentioned about 32 times, I’m going to Portugal in January, another far-flung journey, a big bite of exoticism and edification, of soul nourishment and reckless indulgence in the name of peripatetic pleasure. I’m absolutely thrilled about it. It’s going to be terrible.

I’m riding the old seesaw of doubt and delight I always teeter on once I’ve bought my ticket and committed to swanning to someplace faraway, a jaunt that could be brilliant or a bust. I’m giddy. I’m aghast. 

After a two-week flurry of excited planning for Portugal — I booked neat boutique hotels, cheap tours, acclaimed restaurants and compiled a list of things to do and see — here’s what I wrote in my journal the other day: 

“I don’t think Portugal is going to be that great. The giant swell of energy I had for the trip has fizzled. And yet I’m still all about it and I kind of can’t wait.”

Three sentences oscillating with exquisite ambivalence.

The initial bloom of enthusiasm wilts into a kind of premature burnout. I’m two months away from the actual trip and already I’ve invested too much time, energy and money on a mirage. Waiting, I stew.

It’s not about this particular destination. It’s about all destinations, be it Japan, New Orleans or my recent trip to Paris. I get loopy, worried that all my anticipatory energies are for naught. What if it’s disappointing? What if I get in an accident? What if, god forbid, it rains? What am I doing? Refund!

This worry-wart-ism, this privileged angst mixed with delirium, has me up at all hours researching and reserving and sometimes, in fits of bleary-eyed buyer’s remorse, canceling flights only to rebook them the next morning when I’m a mite more sane.

Portugal ain’t Paris, and its comparatively modest offerings — a smattering of churches, a few museums, breath-stealing views, spicy sausage and smoky sardines — distress me. I’m going to the two largest cities, Lisbon and Porto, and both seem a little sleepy, more scenic than interactive, more walk-y than do-y.

Still, I look forward to a long tour of labyrinthine Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest, most atmospheric neighborhood, and hopping classic Tram 28, rattling up city slopes the color of Easter candies (see below).

In Porto I’m doing a fancy port tasting and taking a celebrated food tour. I’ll hear fado in a cavern-esque club. (How much fado singing I can take is a whole other matter.) And Portugal’s famed chocolate chain Chocolataria Equador — I’m there. (I’ll have the Dark Chocolate with Gin, por favor.)

Then there’s the people, always the people. I’m sure I’ll be saying obrigado (thank you) profusely.

The juices flow again just typing those words. I’ll always feel a churn of emotions about each journey — I’m a stubborn realist — so it’s about harnessing the positive and running with it. I have a good feeling about this. I think.  

No matter. It’s happening. I’ve done my homework and charted the trip in almost granular detail. Everything’s in place. (I think.)

Now I stand back, sit down, and wait patiently, with or without a hearty supply of Xanax.

Books, bookings, and Bourdain

A few things banging around my head this week …  

David Sedaris has a new book out. Whoop-dee-do.

Expectedly, knee-jerkingly, reviewers have stumbled over themselves to praise the foppish funnyman’s latest collection of personal tales (often tall), diary entries, cultural observations and social sniping. 

Snicker-worthy at his very best, Sedaris, a humor essayist for The New Yorker, has made a cottage industry out of wan, admittedly embellished autobiography, droll stories about his family, his husband and his privileged moves to the French and English countrysides. 

Turning life into literature, he is frank, irreverent, sassy, yet sensitive, as any good writer should be. And he is a good writer, even if his language is baldly prosaic, stylistically flat-footed, determinedly unadorned, dare I say drab. (I said it.)

Overrated, with thousands flocking to theater-sized readings to hear his nasally, high-pitched deadpan — I’ve been there — he’s not exceptionally funny or insightful, though he taps a reservoir of honest empathy. He’s a queer, urban Erma Bombeck, flattering a particular strain of hipster and sophisticate with teeny tee-hees. 

***

I’m pumped about Portugal. Barely back from Paris and already I’m poring over books and sites about Lisbon and Porto, legwork for a weeklong stay in mid-January, when I’ll probably get soaked by merciless rain (while temps hover at a balmy 58 degrees). Paris must feel like a betrayed mistress.

The flight, which cost less than a good winter coat thanks to an airline credit, is booked. Hotels, at seductive off-season prices, are booked. Two walking tours, including a Porto food tour, are booked. 

I got back from Paris exactly one week ago. I am shameless, a monster. 

Unlike Paris, London or Spain, Portugal isn’t front-loaded with blindingly spectacular sights and museums. It instead thrums with an old-world vibe, cobbly neighborhoods spread over San Francisco-y hills, views and plazas and churches and food, including unparalleled bounties from the sea, and of course the people. (My people. As mentioned before, I’m of Portuguese descent, though my ties to the country are tenuous at best. I’m a terrible ambassador.)

It’s a walking world, Portugal. I plan to amble, stomp and stagger through the country’s two biggest cities, with the very occasional — and very cheap — taxi for longer hauls. A picture says so much, and makes the heart do a jig:

Porto

***

Smarter, funnier, better looking and a brilliantly better writer — not mention an infinitely superior cook, natch — Anthony Bourdain and I still had a lot in common. 

We’re both wanderers, seekers, a little profane and rough around the edges, smart-alecks, atheists, ironists and guiltless sensualists. We’re angry, fiery and melancholic. We’re easily bothered and bored, and don’t always know what to do about it, except, in many cases, hit the road.  

And like him, for all my searching, I’m still not sure what I’m looking for. And I’m pretty sure I will never find out. Bourdain, a suicide in 2018, probably never did either.

This hits me watching “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” a moving, multilayered documentary about the celebrity chef, author and influential television host by gifted filmmaker Morgan Neville (the Oscar-winning “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” another masterpiece). 

Sure we had things in common, but Bourdain, in his books, shows and this remarkable movie, cuts a troubled figure, the classic brooding, almost romantic enigma who toggles manically between wonder and woe.

With his streamers of verbiage, buoyantly prickly charm, zeppelin-sized attitude (and ego), lanky strut, tats and designer shades, Bourdain was hipster as tour guide, a foodie philosopher, man of the world who was always just a little itchy in the role. He was the reluctant rock star — cynical, self-effacing — who still craved the glory, glamor, privilege and, alas, the drugs, including heroin, that came with it.

At his best Bourdain was an influencer before the term gained the narcissistic kiddie cachet it flaunts today. Before any trip, be it Toronto or Tokyo, I watch a rerun of “No Reservations” or “The Layover” to get a voluptuary’s feel for a city and nail down must-do destinations of plate and place. I’ll be rewatching his “Parts Unknown” episode about the food and culture of Porto soon enough. I trust him to steer me to the coolest and most coveted spots. He hasn’t failed me yet.

The programs, of course, are as much about the man as the places he visits. They’re about getting an earful, and a mouthful, from a dark, dazzling host who found so much joy between grumbles. He made the dangerous seem divine, just how I like it.

***

When in Paris, I always duck into the fabled Shakespeare & Company bookstore, smack on the Seine on the historically literary Left Bank, where Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein and Sartre tippled and typed, spinning the blank page into eternal art. 

Cramped and crowded with tome-seeking tourists, the creaky-floored shop, honeycombed with nooks, alcoves and twisty aisles, specializes in French and English language literature — no junk, just the good stuff. It’s not snobby. It’s just smart. And the English-speaking staff are unfailingly cheerful and helpful, stamping your book with the store’s inky insignia. It’s a pulp paradise, the kind that makes a bibliophile go a little mad with delight and desire.

I went firmly middlebrow on my recent pilgrimage, grabbing a paperback (it’s only available in hardback in the States) of Sally Rooney’s new novel, the wincingly titled “Beautiful World, Where Are You.” I cracked it immediately, reading in bars and cafes with a Chardonnay or latte on hand. 

The Irish Rooney (“Normal People”) is a reliably breezy read, plainspoken, occasionally lyrical, but mostly succinct and pinched. Her control is impressive and her sturdy, confident voice makes you want to follow her wherever she’s going, which often includes naked people. 

I just finished the book on my return from Paris and enjoyed it. It covers Rooney’s preferred topics — love, sex and friendship, yearning and ambition among anguished millennials — with detour discussions about Marxism and life’s unfathomable purpose. (Rooney, a wunderkind at 30, is a professed Marxist.) 

Coming from the famous bookshop, it’s not only a winning read, it’s a fitting souvenir from that most bookish of cities.