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updated: Nov 28, 2009, 8:30 AM
By John McCafferty (aka McSeas)
Lisbon is . . . I'm tempted to use a current cliché and say, "It is what it is", but I'd change that to, "It's old, it's possibly the oldest-looking city I've seen, and I'm pretty old".
But oldsters have their faded charm. They're cracked, slow, amusing, easy-going, and in need of cosmetic work. Some of their parts don't work very well. What I liked about Lisbon besides its seafood, which I always like, was that look of its having been around for centuries. Plaster chipped, paint peeling off, colors mostly faded to pleasant pastels. All this lying like a bumpy blanket on a bunch of hills that lead down to the Sea.
Lisbon's got a grand castle, the Castelo de Sao Jorge, with a magnificent view of the city. It also has tram and bus lines that go every which way when you get tired of strolling the peaceful streets (it's even pleasant in what would be a threatening ghetto in many cities).
A view of Lisbon from the Sao Jorge caste on the hill
But it doesn't seem like a major destination, as I thought it might be, and there doesn't seem to be much of anything in the countryside around it that we shot through. The Algarve portion, to the sunny south, seems to be popular - but like the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia - you'll likely find it filled with Germans bent on sunning themselves. German hordes on vacation can try one's patience.
I think our guideline on this journey was the correct one: Hit and run. Check it out and move on.
The food was fine through our lunches and dinners. And a neighborhood market offered the biggest and most delicious strawberries I've ever eaten, and for a modest price.
There's one small caveat about dining out, if you're a euro-pincher like me: the cost can add up and surprise you. We enjoyed one more bacalao (cod) dinner in a restaurant considered one of the city's best, but we were shocked that the bill was something like $80 U.S. instead of the $60 that we had reckoned on, according to the menu. Sharon handed the bill to a passing waiter and said pleasantly, "I think you've given us someone else's check".
He replied, also pleasantly, "No, this is yours." He handed it back to her.
I, remaining pleasant as always, said "But all we had was the entree, two glasses of water and a glass of wine."
"No", he replied, again being patient with these ignorant foreigners, "you also had some bread, butter," he pointed around the table, "cheese, olives, another appetizer . . . (pointing to the remains of a few sardines), bottled water . . .", and something else that I've forgotten. In short, you pay for everything you touch on the table but the salt and pepper. If you don't want something that's offered, don't say 'OK.' If it's already on the table, don't touch it. Lesson learned. Good meal, almost worth the price.
Courtyard housing in suburban Lisbon.
We had a fine dinner the next night in our rather upscale hotel -- but we said hold the appetizers, and the check was merely a bit high.
It was fun - Lisbon's fun. I even got a kick out of the oldest outdoor pissoir I've seen, and one more interesting even than the new ones in Paris that have one-way, see-through mirrors in the doors. This one consisted of a weathered stone kiosk near the corner of the castle wall, prominently labeled "Urinol" (Portuguese spelling). At my insistence, Sharon took a photo and all you can see above the wall (it's open air) is my head facing down, logically enough, and my feet and about a foot of trouser below the wall.
I asked Sharon if she supposed one would occasionally see small feet pointed the other way, surrounded by cloth, and she said firmly, "Never. Not a chance. This is for men only".
On the subject of lavatories, have some change on you when your train arrives early or late at the station. It looked deserted about 6 in the morning when we arrived. I was badly in need of a bathroom at exactly this time, and all toilet stalls were locked and coins were needed to enter.
There was a bad moment while I pondered this, and I explained my predicament to a pleasant old gent from Ireland. He liked my Irish name and said not to worry, and produced several dollars in change. Chatting about his import business on the way out, he refused repayment. Comrades in arms - or stalls. The camaraderie of the trail, I call it.
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