Portugal 2007 Part 2: Coimbra and Lisbon

Originally posted September 14 2009 on em411.com


I was staying in Coimbra with Vic, whom I met at the first Stfu Porto. The city is home to Portugal’s first university, which is also one of Europe’s oldest. Luck would have it that I was in town for the annual week-long “Queima das Fitas” AKA the “Burning of the Ribbons” festival, so called because of the symbolic burning of the ribbons that represented the particular faculty that the student was tied to. It goes back for centuries and is a bit more stylish than your average student graduation ceremony.

My introduction to Coimbra however was anything but stylish and involved waiting for a long period in the train station’s taxi queue on the busiest night of the year while drunken top-hat and cape wearing graduates sang, shouted, threw things and generally annoyed the hell out of all the non-students in the queue…I take back what I said about luck as well, because although I arrived on the first day of festivities I was too late for the street parade and free beer, kindly provided by some beer companies. Some 30,000 bottles or so were handed out according to Vic and allegedly more beer is drunk during one week of the Burning of the Ribbons than one week in Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany! When we finally arrived at Vic’s I realised that a few student friends and relatives were also staying over, and when I say a few I mean there were about 15 people squeezed into a small 3 bedroom flat!

I had brought Vic a lovely present from Scotland, a Tam O’Shanter hat, you know the tartan type with the ginger hair poking out from underneath? In exchange he showed me his kilt. Yes, he really did have one, but it was in need of repair and regrettably I had left my kilt repair kit at home. After dinner I was invited out to experience the Coimbra nightlife but declined being on the sleepy side, oh yeah, I had been to an all night rock club just that morning so had been awake for over 24 hours without any sleep…

I was in Coimbra for 2 days and did what I usually do when I’m on holiday on my own in a strange city; I wandered about, mostly aimlessly but with a slight goal in mind – to meet up with Vic and Filipe after they finished work. I had stupidly only packed one pair of shoes for the trip but was doing a lot of walking and remember what I said about smelly feet in part 1? So I bought some 5€ flip flops in town and went walking. I was conscious that there was a strong smell of urine on many corners of the old town and was beginning to think that this was a trait of Portuguese towns but then I remembered the previous night’s festivities. Lots of students, lots of booze but a distinct lack of all-night public amenities because the shopping centres and record stores were shut (see part 3!)

And then drama! my girlfriend’s new Sony Alpha DSLR camera that I had borrowed started malfunctioning, and all I did to it was switch it off! Contrast this to my own non-SLR camera that had been dropped from various heights, numerous times and has had allsorts spilled over it and yet still worked fine. For the remainder of the trip the camera would work but would make a horrible motor noise every time it was switched on and off and it would struggle to focus correctly. Urgh.

At some point on the way to Vic and Filipe’s workplace I realised that my crudely hand-drawn map didn’t really make sense and that I was running out of time to meet them on time. I managed to nip into the tourist info just before it closed and got a proper map. I had to head south to meet them and estimated that it would take 40 minutes on foot to get there, meaning I would be a little late so I decided that taxi was the best option. According to the map the Parque train station was a 10 minute walk south, surely that would have a taxi rank right? No, it didn’t and the little old woman whom I accosted didn’t speak a word of English. She had veered away from me the minute I approached her and she didn’t want to be any help whatsoever, refusing to point out anything on the map. I didn’t see any taxis on the way here nor did I see any on the 10 minute walk back to the tourist info office, which had now closed. I looked at a few bus timetables but really had no idea where they were going so walked a further 10 minutes north to the central train station where I eventually got a taxi, which then got stuck in traffic and arrived 10 minutes later, at about the same time it would have taken me to walk the whole way. D’oh! I was quickly introduced to another of Vic’s friends before she went home, leaving myself, Vic and Filipe to go for a few beers, a tuna sandwich and lupini beans, which since my first trip to Portugal I had been trying to track down in Britain without luck (EDIT: but I have now found them in Super Asia on Pollokshaws Rd). I taught Vic some Scottish slang for when his kilt is repaired and then we went to the train station. While waiting for the train I bought a carton of Um Bongo from the shop, which brought back happy memories of childhood as they stopped selling it in Britain a number of years ago, though there is a campaign to bring it back. The train pulled in, I said goodbye to Vic and I hoped on, in 2 hours time I would be in Lisbon…

Photos from Coimbra here


Arriving in any city late at night when you have never been there before and have only a vague notion of where you are going is not recommended. I arrived at Lisbon’s Santa Apolonia at 23:30 and had picked a hotel 2 metro lines away. Unfortunately I only had a single map from a guidebook that was slightly inaccurate, suggesting that the street where my hotel lay began at the intersection and did not cross the intersection, and so when I walked out of the metro at around midnight at a crossroads and looked across the road and saw the name of the street I was looking for, I crossed over and walked off….in the wrong direction.
Perhaps the police standing at the beginning of the street was a warning and when I noticed that the street numbers were going down instead of up my brain really should have kicked into gear (I blame it on a lack of sleep), instead I kept walking and ended up in a poorly lit neighbourhood which I can best describe as highly intimidating. A large group of African immigrants eyed me suspiciously as I walked past, there were groups of people milling about, some laughing, some shouting, some arguing, but most just standing about watching…waiting…in a street that had virtually no lighting at 00:30 on a Wednesday morning! I was surprised no one approached me as I was clearly lost. I walked out onto the main road, backtracked to the metro station and found my way to the hotel. I was late but the owner was not bothered – he was friendly and agreeable. I asked him about the area I had just walked in and he advised me to steer clear of it as it was where the drug dealing went down. Mind you, in the following 4 days I spent in Lisbon I was actually offered drugs 3 times, each time in broad daylight and in the main shopping streets.

I settled down into my room and then the owner knocked, he told me to come with him and I followed him into a darkened room…a light came on. “This is the fridge” he said proudly. “You can keep your things cool here, but shhh, not tell everyone. Just for you.”
I had gained his trust and had VIP access to the secret fridge! I returned to the bedroom. My room had no TV or en-suite shower but had a double bed, washbasin and a bidet so I could wash my arse to my heart’s content.

The following morning I awoke to strange noises outside my door, sounding to me as if someone was continually hoisting a sail, not that I’ve ever sailed a ship! Eventually I stuck my head out the door. “Good morning” said the hotel owner, who was ironing a million and one bed sheets right outside my room.

I nipped into the shower next door and showered in the cold (no, it never got hot) water. When dressed I asked the owner for advice on how to spend my time. “Go to Belém and have a Pastel de Nata” he said and so I did. But not before I asked for suggestions for breakfast, which wasn’t included. He led me out the door and down the street to the local pastelaria. “This is where I take all my good guests” he boasted proudly. He spoke with the owner of the pastelaria, first of all in Portuguese, probably saying “here is the victim for tonight’s human sacrifice” then in English “He will take good care of you. See you later” The pastelaria owner proffered me to sit down. After croissant and coffee I got the metro down to the river and then the tram along to Belém, or at least I tried to. I missed my stop.

As I found out – press the stop button if you want off a tram in Lisbon. If you don’t and no one else wants on or off it will whizz past your destination, and the next stop, and the next…
I walked back to Belém and visited the Torre de Belem, which is a little castle like building on the beach. A former prison and Customs House, today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is popular with tourists though there isn’t really that much to see. I did get a few good photos, though getting up and down the stairs was a pain as it is very narrow and clearly not designed with the foresight that one day fat Germans and Americans would be clambering up and down. After that I walked along the riverside, took a few photos of the Henry the Navigator monument and headed back into Lisbon.

When I was in Porto a number of Portuguese delicacies were recommended to me, some of which I had tried but some still eluded me. I asked the hotel owner about them, all of which contained meat. “I am vegetarian” he told me, “and my wife is vegetarian also” Thwarted. He suggested that any decent restaurant in downtime would have these dishes on the menu. “Isn’t downtown expensive?” I asked. “Not if you stick to the pastelarias he told me, you will get lunch for 5 euro”
And so I headed to downtown. I looked in a few of the pastelarias and noticed something that probably should have dawned on me during the earlier conversation. Pastelarias sell cakes and pastries. If I wanted a filling meal I’d need to find a restaurant. And so I found a place that did “Alheiras De Mirandela” for a mere 6€. This was the “garlicky chicken sausage” that I had been told about in Porto. It was created by the Jews living in Mirandela, being kosher and fearing persecution from the inquisition, they created a sausage that looked like pork, tasted like pork but was made from any meat other than pork. Whether it fooled anyone or not I can’t say. I walked inside and made it clear that I was a dumb foreigner and was given an English menu. On the badly laminated menu dishes lost their exotic names, and beef specialities simply became “beef steak”. “Crème Caramel” and “Crème Brulee” had all the life sucked out of them becoming simply “custard desert” and “caramel desert” respectively. But worst of all, average prices were now 12€ and there was no 6€ non-pork pork-meat tasting sausage listed! I requested to pick from the local menu and paid the local price for my sausage. My 2 orange juices, main course, desert and coffee were all delivered promptly. However, when it came time to pay for the bill, suddenly no one wanted to know I was there, and so I waited and was avoided, repeatedly. What had I done to offend them? I watched as the woman opposite me had her main replaced by coffee and a bill. She paid and left but still the waiters walked past me with not a single one making eye contact. I had to stand up and walk to the till before a bill appeared. I didn’t leave a tip and I’m sure they were talking about me as I left “The Brit who refused to order from the English menu and had the audacity to order a coffee after his pastry and then didn’t leave a tip!”

I hadn’t been on the internet for a few days and was beginning to get withdrawal symptoms when I found a place called “CAFÉ INTERNET.” A girl stood outside the door holding a menu. I asked her about the internet, she asked me about “luncheon.” I told her that I was only interested in the internet; she told me that she was only interested in “luncheon.” I told her that I had just eaten. A minor point as far as she was concerned as she pointed to the menu on the sandwich board and smiled. I repeated that I had no desire to eat and as things were at the pointy stage, pointed to the sign above our heads that said “INTERNET” in big shiny capital letters. She shrugged her shoulders. She’d never heard of it. Seeing that she was getting nowhere, she then resorted to asking me in Spanish whether I wanted “luncheon!” I told her thanks but no thanks and walked off.

The search for the internet took me to near the cathedral, where I spotted a sign pointing to “Cyber Café” I followed a few of these signs towards the castle where they seemed to stop. I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to stick to the main road, or head towards the castle. I stupidly veered off the main road and found nothing so headed back to the main road and the signs re-appeared a bit further along, pointing off the main road eventually. After 20 minutes of walking and no Cyber Café and no more signs I gave up and headed to Castelo De São Jorge. You get an excellent view of the city from up here but by the time I got there I had missed the last visit to the camera obscura. Damn you Cyber café!

When I left the castle I continued in the same direction I was walking earlier and kept going until I did find an internet café. I checked my emails and had one from Dan with a contact number for his friend Hugo. I tried txting Hugo but got a strange message back. Dan explained that it was a landline that I was txting as Hugo did not have a mobile phone. So I phoned him but as he worked until 9pm each night he suggested meeting up for a few beers on Friday instead. His girlfriend Sara had a mobile and so it was decided that I would call or txt her to meet-up. I also had a reply from Pedro, who runs the Test Tube net label and monocromatica records. He was available to meet up for a beer or coffee that night in Belém. I let Pedro know I was coming and headed there. Upon leaving the internet cafe I noticed something curious. There were 3 internet cafes on this street and the very last one (i.e. the furthest one away from all the signs) was the fabled “Cyber café”.

On the way I stumbled into a place called “Megavega” for a cold drink but then so intrigued was I with their “all you can eat vegetarian buffet” that I decided to stay for food and had the whole place to myself. Not a single soul even bothered to look in while I sat there. It cost 15€ for the food and 2 drinks, which I thought was a bit steep given that there’s only so many ways that you can package falafel and couscous.

In Belém I met up with Pedro, he took me to a local bar for a few beers and then gave me a car tour of late night Lisbon, which was a welcome surprise but depressingly the most common sight on our trip were prostitutes. He even dropped me off near my hotel and warned me about the drug-dealing area and he gave me two free cds! Sadly I didn’t have anything to give him in return as although I had brought vinyl with me I had given it all away in Porto and Coimbra.

Dan had recommended that I visit the Gulbenkian museum (4€ entry to the permanent exhibits), so I paid it a visit on the morning of my last full day in Lisbon. It houses a large collection of artefacts from around the world amassed by an oil-made Armenian collector. Portugal was the only European country to offer him a passport, hence why the collection ended up here. It’s a bit similar to the Burrell collection in Glasgow, so if you’ve been there you know roughly what to expect. The Gulbenkian features Ottoman rugs, paintings, furniture, jewellery. If you go, look out for the dark humour in the tapestries with the cherubs. The best bit of the gallery for my money is the Rene Lalique collection. An assortment of mostly art nouveau jewellery. Incredibly intricate work with ivory, metal interspersed with gemstones. My personal favourite was a letter opener with ivory handle depicting an open book (most probably the bible) and souls falling to the demons below. Made circa 1900, his work reminded me of an old school H.R Geiger, art nouveau but dark and mysterious.

I edged past the school group who were visiting and made my way to the nearby Entrecampos train station. It was time to visit one last place…

Originally posted September 14 2009 on em411.com

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