I know, I know, friends, we have been in Europe for seven–SEVEN!–weeks and we are really just now starting to post about it. Sometimes I just want to cry as there is not enough time in the day for my genetically slow moving self to work out a nice balance between experiencing, relaxing, connecting and being productive. Finding this balance is my constant life’s work. And really, isn’t it what we are all looking for?
Well, here’s to hoping my performance in this area will improve. Until then, here is a post about our favorite place (I know, it’s like choosing between children, but yes, FAVORITE place) on the Europe portion of our trip up to this point: Lisbon, Portugal.
Okay, maybe our love for Lisbon has something to do with the fact that for the five weeks prior we spent our days living an amazing, but extremely simple camp life in iMfoloze-Hluhluwe Park, South Africa (read: river water showers and scorpions in our room on the first night); working on a farm in Little Karoo, South Africa (a beautiful, but semi-arid dessert like climate in the height of Africa’s summer); and then learning what simplicity truly is by working on a farm in rural Kenya. However, being here in Lisbon was like getting handed a new lease on life. Our adorable airbnb apartment was fantastically clean, comfy and bright (a soft bed and pillows!!??!!), food was suddenly an experience to be savored again, and we were right in the heart of this charming, historical, walkable, authentic Portuguese city. SIMPLY THE BEST.
So, in no particular order, we thought we’d give a run down of our most memorable findings in this “favorite child” of a European city during our ten days there.
1) Alfalma (the old town)
When we first drove through the city on our way in from the airport, looking at the buildings I couldn’t help but think that maybe the entire city needed a really good power washing. As we stayed longer though, the peeling paint and gritty exterior of some of the buildings grew on me. This, mixed with the decorative tile mosaics that added color and pattern to many facades and the mix of architectural influences (Romanesque, baroque, gothic, neoclassical, “plain” style) gave this city it’s own unique charm.
Nowhere in the city was this charm as apparent as in the hilly neighborhood of Alfalma. This is the oldest portion of the city and is full of narrow, winding cobblestoned alleyways, clothes drying out on lines hung high above the street and tiny informal fado bars where patrons could wander in, grab a dinner of small plates and listen to the most heartbreakingly beautiful Portuguese soul music. The cheerfully yellow, old fashioned cable car ran through this part of town too, adding to the nostalgic feel. Since we were staying very close to this neighborhood, we walked here every night we could.
2) Fado Music
Born in the old town, from a time in Portuguese history filled with hardship, war and pain, this style of music is unlike anything anywhere else. Over the years there have been many famous Portuguese Fado singers and you can buy CDs and even visit a Fado Museum in Lisbon (we did and it was a short, enjoyable trip). To begin to understand it though, we were told you must see it live in Alfalma.
In Alfalma, performers sing to small crowds in bars or restaurants. You can literally walk into any one in this neighborhood and the artists will all be top rate. Coming to one of these bars there is a sense of true local immersion– fado is not a cultural antiquity dressed up and put on for tourists. The performers don’t sing as background music either, they are the reason people are there. They sing with minimal instrumentals (some with just a Portuguese 12-stringed guitar accompanying) and they sing without amplification. Their voices ebb and flow and fill the entire small, dark rooms with tangible emotion. Because of this, and because of the simplicity of the delivery, these performances feel intimate, raw and full of truth. We went to three different fado bar performances and every time I fell in love again and again.
A local cherry liquore sold at many area bars. This liquore is taken as a shot and sometimes served in chocolate shot glasses! Mmmmm, a chocolate and cherry buzz….. You don’t feel the alcohol effects until a bit later so be careful not to do too many at once (like we did:)).
4) Pasteis de Belem
Another sugary local specialty, these are little tarts filled with a delicious egg custard.
We found them sold all over Lisbon (sometimes called Pasteis de Nata), but decided to take the tram a bit out of the city to an area called Belem in search of a bakery by the same name that supposedly sells the best Pasteis de Belem in all of Portugal.
After intense taste testing (and subsequent comparison with many competitors) we came to the conclusion that the tarts from Pasteis de Belem were indeed the absolute best and, in fact, it was not even worth eating any other tarts.
Fun fact: these tarts were originally created by local Catholic monks as a way to utilize left-over egg yolks after the nuns had used the whites to starch their habits! When times got tough, the monks began to sell these tarts for funds and eventually sold the recipe to what is now the above mentioned bakery. Why is it that monks are experts at creating such sinfully tasty things like pastries and beer???
5) Cheap museums
Lisbon has a number of cool museums, some mainstream and some a little off-beat, including the Ancient Art museum, Design Museum, Fado Museum, Tile Museum, Maritime Museum, Archeological Museum, and even the Museu da Cerveja (museum of beer), just to name a few. The best thing though, is that even at full price most only cost 3 to 4 euros to get in! This means even if you are just curious or want to check a place out quickly, you can, and don’t have to feel bad about spending a ton of money. For an even cheaper museum experience you can purchase a Lisboa card which gives further discounted or free admission AND many museums are free Sunday mornings. If only most museums in the US were this inexpensive!
Lisbon has the most unique decorating sense! All around the city the insides and outsides of buildings are decorated in colorfully designed and patterned tiles. These tiles, called azulejos, were introduced by the Moores in the 15th century. They can be seen in other places around Portugal but are beautifully prominent in Lisbon. There is a long history behind how and when they began being used on the outsides of buildings vs. just on the insides, and their progression from simple geometric patterns to scenes depicting history and religion. Although we didn’t get to visit, we heard great things about the Tile Museum, which goes into this history in detail.
7) The Seafood
Portugal is known for its canned fish, but this is not the canned fish of your American supermarket filled imagination. Here, fresh mackerel, tuna, and sardines, just to name a few, are packed in varying oils and spices then taken out of their cans to creat surprisingly delicious small plates, salads and apps. There is even a bar in an old fishing bait store, Sol E Pesca, that allows you to choose your can (type of fish or molluscs and type of marinade) and then turns it into a snack brought out to your table!
Being near the sea there is also tons of fresh seafood. Raw octopus salad was served as a mini app at many restaurants and shrimp sautéed in garlic and lemon was everywhere as well.
Our favorite seafood place though was a very well-known and established restaurant in downtown Lisbon: Cervejaria Ramiro. This place was CROWDED but the seafood was fresh as fresh could be. No frills, simply good from the sea. We had peel-and-eat shrimp, crab (with roe included for Mo!), oysters and clams, all served with a hearty buttered bread. At the end of the meal we had had enough shellfish to last us a year, but decided to order one last thing. Not on the menu (thanks for the tip, Anthony Bourdain!), we asked for “the beef sandwich”, and that was exactly what we got: a delicious piece of rare beef seared with garlic and topped with mustard in-between some crunchy and soft bread. After eating all that seafood it was the perfect dessert!!
8) Staying Local
I must mention again our love for our airbnb apartment. Having a perfectly situated little living space near Alfalma made us feel comfortable and much more like locals. Being able to walk a block from our door and not only see the cable car drive by, but have this stunning ocean view decorated with terra cotta roof tops was the icing on the cake of this fantastic city. :-)
What’s your favorite European City??
To see more pics from our time in Lisbon, check out our next post HERE.