To the Edge of Europe

The flight to Lisbon left me somewhat irked. It seemed as if Luxembourg Airlines hosted a screaming baby convention that lasted from Luxembourg City to Lisbon punctuated only by the occasional fight between children. While a short flight by my standards, only about 3.5 hours, it felt nearly as long as a decent trans-Pacific journey. Other than that, there is little disparaging I can say about Portugal.

The Lisbon Metro Red Line starts at airport so travelling virtually anywhere in the city is simple. As a card with full-day validity costs €6.00 there are more expensive ways to travel. Compared to most other major world cities, it was almost a present. Simply to, say, travel into Tokyo from Narita Airport costs £20.00. Osaka is not much cheaper. Even Seoul, far more affordable than any major Japanese city, costs £5.00 for a one-way ticket. The limited impact was blunted even more by a good-natured backpacker who, heading out of Portugal, kindly gave me his pass.

My hotel in Lisbon was unremarkable in most respects. It was convenient – across the street from the Saldanha Metro Station. It was clean and inexpensive. Other than one man who seemed to wish vengeance on humanity for the misfortune of his birth, the staff were all pleasant and helpful. Would I stay there again? Probably. It was inexpensive and adequate.

As for the city itself… Lisbon is beautiful. After Athens, Lisbon is the oldest city in Europe. Lisbon has that aura. Not a worn out aura or the aura of a city exhausted, but the stately atmosphere of a city that has survived for thousands and thousands of years. Even if parts of it show that Portugal’s Golden Age is far behind it, it somehow lends more depth to the atmosphere. The cobble stone streets, among the most beautiful anywhere, are worn smooth by the feet of the countless millions who have walked across them. At the same time, that smoothness can be treacherous. This point I will return to in a way that I suspect will amuse CO terribly. You have been warned; do not chide me if tea comes out your nose.

The food in Lisbon was fantastic. On my first night I ate a dinner of pork and clams in a wine and butter sauce with bread and aged Portuguese cheese. For the drink, a bica – the superior Portuguese version of the espresso. Sitting outside I was able to watch the sun set over the Rio Tejo, the Tegus River. There is something about the light quality of a Portuguese sunset… After a long walk, I returned to my hotel after sitting down to drink another bica and eat pasteis de nata.

The following morning I set out to see more of the city. Lisbon, at least in August, is best enjoyed early in the morning – before the maddening crowds of holidaymakers descend like flocks of geese. I walked through the Alfama, through Baixa, along the Tegus and to the Se Cathedral. It is a remarkable building – a remarkable experience even among the remarkable experiences that can be had in European cathedrals. Much like Lisbon itself, there is a stately grace to the compound. Even if a bit worn down by age its glorious past is still evident. It has most of its stained glass windows still. Its mediaeval sculptures are still as remarkable now as they were then. A nice touch was the viewing platform in the cloister. When the cloister behind the cathedral was built the king ordered that the neighbourhood be levelled. Archaeologists dug underneath what was once the garden and uncovered layers of history: mediaeval structures, an Islamic house and dump, a Roman sewage system… The treasury was remarkable in its rite. The treasury is a well-curated collection of often very old religious artefacts. The 17th century silk chasubles were almost a religious experience for me. Silk at that time had to be imported from China through Macau. Having travelled twice to Macau, this in a small way symbolised the first regular maritime trade between China and the West. Artefacts belonging to Saint Francis Xavier were the second most inspiring. If nothing else but because they belonged to a man whose haughtiness and zeal brought me no shortage of mirth as an undergraduate reading the history of the Portuguese in Asia. For its faults, the Roman Church provided a social stability that Europe sorely lacked and supported the arts at times when no one else could do so in a meaningful way.

As the day drew to a close I walked near the Baixa region again. This is where the treacherously smooth cobblestones come up again. Lisbon is, as you will all likely know, a very hilly city. The pavements and streets are often extremely steep. As such, it is best to walk very, very carefully on the cobblestones. Never, no matter how confident, think that you can rely on your balance to prevent a fall. A rather loud Parisienne with more Dutch courage than was perhaps advisable did not heed this. Having had to endure her braggadocio for the past ten minutes from several blocks away it caused me no great anguish to watch her walk confidently down the pavement only to slip, lose her balance and fall on her back with a thud nearly as loud as her voice a few seconds before. Were it not for my own need to keep balance, I would have collapsed in a fit of laughter.

I finished the evening with an ill-advised stroll to o Castelo de São Jorge. A steep climb, it never-the-less takes one past some beautiful old buildings. Although I did not enter the castle, it was still worth the experience – as well as the chance to visit the birthplace of Saint Anthony of Padua. Despite his name having Italian connotations, he was born in Portugal. I also saw the ornately dressed skeleton of the martyred Saint Justina.

The following morning I knew that I had over-exerted myself the day before. Feeling queasy and nauseous I never-the-less set out to make the most of my final day in Lisbon. Getting up early, I travelled to the Jeronimos at Belem. One of the finest examples of Manueline  architecture and built by the profits from pepper as well as being the final resting place of Vasco de Gama it seemed the perfect place for the historian to visit. It was disappointing. No, not the building itself – that was as spectacular as I could have hoped. Rather, it was the queue of tourists and coaches that ruined it. Most did not understand how significant that building is and treated it as little more than a Disney attraction. Feeling ill, I did not feel up to standing in the sun for an hour. Trying to make the most of it, I walked around and found the Maritime Museum located in the outer fringes of the compound. That was worth the €6 fee. Covering the evolution of Portuguese naval history it was relatively free of crowds. If not the greatest monument to Portuguese ambitions it was at least an adequate introduction to what went into building that world. That evening, after buying a box of pasteis de Belem, I went to Lisbon Oriente Station and travelled by train to Oz’s Algarve Cave.

The train journey cost €16, a discounted rate because the tickets were purchased in advance online. Oz’s advice to travel first class was well heeded. Revolting peasant class was precisely that – filled with revolting peasants. With luck, I was given a seat with no risk of neighbours. Being the last seat in the car there simply wasn’t enough place to accommodate a second seat. In relative peace I could observe the changes in the landscape travelling from Lisbon to the Algarve.

As promised, our noble and fearless (in most instances) wolf was waiting for me at train station. Following a quick tour of the town, he drove me to the cave. For a lupine he was an extremely able driver despite his tail occasionally getting in the way of the gear box. I can attest that Oz’s cave is well appointed indeed. Not only is there a general lack of blood, fur and bones he even has comfortable beds and a well-stocked library. “Well stocked” because we have similar tastes and a number of the same books. Best of all, from my part of the cave I could see the Atlantic Ocean.

Oz was a brilliant host. He drove me to Tavira, São Brás, Loulé and other cities in the region along with taking me to various Portuguese bars and museums. While very different from Lisbon, the Algarve is no worse for it. Life is slower there. The people are different. In Lisbon I had to hold onto my handbag securely at all times. There was the ever-present threat of pick-pockets. In the Algarve I never had to face this.

The Moorish influence in the Algarve is far clearer. The buildings are often a stark white, on occasion onion-dome-shaped entrance ways can be found. The iron work is different. The buildings are simpler but retain the brilliant azulejos, painted tiles. There are still cobblestone streets and pavements, but not as slick or deadly as those of Lisbon.

One day, Oz took me out on a drive through the hills. While the sentiment was much appreciated, it was clear at moments that he struggled to resist the urge to quickly drive to the side of the road and hunt rabbits. At times I was truly afraid that he would drive down a hill side chasing down a snack. Stopping by a bar and having another bica and a plate of family-made olives, ham and cheese sorted both of us out right away.

Oz is also an excellent chef, albeit a bit sloppy in the occasional frenzied moment. One day he hunted down a pig at a neighbouring farm to grill. After cleaning the blood from the walls of the cave and pulling the hooves from the ceiling, he made one of the better selections of grilled meats I have had in some time. This fearlessness, however, should not be assumed to be universal. Always lurking in the shadows of the cave is the true furry mistress of the house – the dread Fumada, also known as Lucrezia.

Lucrezia truly is the most impatient of felines. Our poor wolf could get no rest unless she deemed it acceptable. Despite my efforts on several occasions to persuade her to be kinder in Italian, something which rightly made Oz question my sanity, she continued her torrents of abuse. One afternoon when Oz did not furnish her with her mandated snack as quickly as expected, she proved why the cat o’ nine is named after our cherished feline friends. After giving him a thorough lashing, our beloved Lucrezia most graciously permitted him to rectify the error of his ways.

Yet all things must come to an end. Early Wednesday morning Oz drove me to Faro Airport to return to Luxembourg. It felt strange going back to Germany. Portugal is one of those destinations that can change how a person sees the world, sees life, if one is open to it.

Author: Christopher-Dorset

A Bloody Kangaroo

9 thoughts on “To the Edge of Europe”

  1. Nice travelogue indeed! But, but……”After Athens, Lisbon is the oldest city in Europe”! The insiders dispute its Phoenician origins – and many will doubt whether Athens is the oldest too. 🙂

  2. You are too kind Christopher, yet I’m pleased you enjoyed your sojourn on the edge of Europe. Sadly your entreaties to Lucrezia fell mostly on deaf ears but she is now fluent and even more voluble in sweary Italian to add to her previous acquired dockside German, French and Portuguese, if you can call that progress. 😦

    Even Ethel is shocked by these developments and has locked herself in Der Bunker under to pool from where the nighttime glow of the cauldron is most disconcerting. Silvie remains sanguine and the NSW enjoyed the pasteis de nata, so all is not lost. I hope equilibrium will be restored in short order.


  3. Morgen, Janus. Ethel admitted to me that she was expelled from St. Trinian’s – for conduct unbecoming!


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