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Portugal

PostPosted: Thu Oct 21, 2010 2:22 pm
by garth cartwright
PORTUGAL

I wanted a break from London before the winter weather set in. Essentially, I wanted somewhere peaceful, warm, nice coast, great food/drink and inexpensive. Obviously, I was destined for Portugal.

I’ve been to Portugal many times since I first arrived in Europe in 91 and my affection for this laidback land is never tested. Oddly, I’d never been to the south – always arriving in Lisbon and heading north. I always feared the south was ruined ala the Costa del Sol. Having read that there were a few places still not suffering severe development I decided to see what the Algarve consisted of. But I booked my flight out via Lisbon. Just in case I needed to flee north early . . .

I arrived in Faro at night and found almost nothing open beyond a bar that charged London prices for beer and played house music. Not a great start. Arising the next morning I headed straight for Olhao, a fishing town just east of Faro. Olhao has a lovely relaxed air to it, narrow streets and tightly packed houses reflecting a Moorish influence from a thousand years ago. No beaches around here so I got a little ferry to Farol, a low lying island not far off shore (tho the ancient ferry takes 45 minutes to reach it). Farol is a gorgeous sand spit of sorts with a few dozen holiday homes and empty, sun-kissed beaches. Water is so clean that you can see schools of fish swimming in it. I jumped into the sea but, oh, it’s chilly! Obviously, my desire for mid-October sun and sea had not taken into account how the Med may well have chilled since the summer ended. Still, it is life affirming to swim in such fresh sea waters.

Next stop Lagos. Lagos is a historic small city once home to Europe’s first African slave market, now a tourist destination with endless cafes/restaurants. The majority of the October tourists appeared to be ageing Germans but at night I would hear drunken British males singing and shouting as they wandered the streets. Accommodation is cheap – 30 euros a night for a sizeable room with balcony – and one can eat like a king for less than 20 euros. I hired a bike and cycled around the cliffs. Gorgeous beaches here but the water even chillier than when I was at Farol.

Much as I love beaches if I can’t swim all day in them then I want out – endless sunbathing holding no appeal. A bus to Lisbon, one of my favourite cities, then. Lisbon mixes a faded grandeur with contemporary energies. Love it. More expensive than the Algarve as tourists turn up all year around for weekend breaks but still great value – surely one of the few European capitals where low earners like me can afford a room, meals, transport, museums etc (I recently had to find my folks accommodation in London – the prices of even the most basic places were obscene).

Lisbon on Saturday night is like Shoreditch – countless bars and clubs open late. Being by myself I didn’t really fancy barhopping so I just wandered the city absorbing its magnificent architecture and narrow streets. Everywhere dodgy looking blokes walk up and whisper “hashish?”. I avoid them not only cos I don’t fancy getting stoned but when I did once buy some in the early 90s it turned out to be brown coloured wax so completely useless. You have been warned!

I next met up with Gustavo, a Portuguese friend who used to live in the UK but came home as Portugal is cheaper and more relaxed place to raise children. He took me to the city’s modern art gallery and its most famous historic café – where u get those lovely custard tarts hot out of the ovens (Portuguese pastries are the best!) – and then out to the coast where beaches as beautiful as those in New Zealand shimmered in the late afternoon sun. We drove down the coast to Setubal for a magnificent seafood restaurant. As Gustavo notes, you have to be wealthy to eat out at really good restaurants in the UK while in Portugal they serve great food at very ordinary prices. I’m amazed the locals aren’t obese as the food is so good! The next day was spent exploring Alejanto – cork farms, more beaches, lovely little towns. Portugal missed out on the industrial revolution to a large degree and in its laidback charm and gorgeous landscape it is very fortunate it did.

Back in Lisbon I wandered this wonderful city – to be able to look at the ocean and then get lost in a labyrinth of back streets is a pleasure for someone like me who enjoys exploring a city by foot. Lisbon’s castle contains fantastic views across the city and harbour. I also found Magic Bus, a tiny, magnificent record shop (everything from new Portuguese releases to Silver Apples reissues and lots of stuff inbetween that forumistas appreciate – I bought a CD of Lula Pena, Magic Bus’s owner recommended it as the best “alternative fado” in town). Just up from Magic Bus is a second hand vinyl shop with lots of mouth watering records at decent prices and a new book on Portuguese Beatles 45 and 33 issues which would surely appeal to the more obsessive Beatles fans of this parish.

Lots of restaurants in Barrio Alto – Lisboa’s bar/club area – feature live fado. Obviously, you have to eat and drink in one of the spots to experience the music and you can’t just sit on one drink (minimum 10 or 20 euro charges apply). My friend Cathi Unsworth, who set part of her fine novel The Singer here, had suggested I seek out a fadista called Luis Braga and after Gustavo had done some enquiring it appeared that he performed nightly at Adega do Ribatejo. This turned out to be a compact restaurant with a middle aged man and two ladies of advanced years getting up and singing in front of a duo consisting of lute and classical guitar. No amplification was used or needed – these singers had voices designed to carry across crowded rooms. Luis was a rather somber presence compared to Miralinda do Carmo and Henriqueta Baptista. Both these ladies loved to perform – even if on a Tuesday night the restaurant was less than full – booming out songs, letting the vibrato rip, encouraging crowd singalongs (difficult seeing most of the diners only had a passing knowledge of Portuguese) and generally having a high old time. At one point, when all the singers were needing a rest, one of the locals got up and he was pretty damn good too! All the singers wandered the tables trying to sell their CDs. The food and drink was not expensive – considering this restaurant relies on passing tourists – if rather average. As happened several times to me in Portugal, trying to leave was difficult – not because I wanted to stay but upon asking for the bill the waiter nods and then forgets to bring it. And again. And again. Maybe this is some kind of subtle Portuguese hospitality where they want you to stay and stay. Anyway, it can be frustrating. Especially when you have had enough fado for the night. Oh, when the musicians’ took a break the huge TV in the corner – that had been showing football – played a Maritza DVD just to keep us deep in fado worship. Better than the pop radio that many a cheap restaurant I frequented tended to blast – the Portuguese obviously like to hear hits from the 70s and early 80s (Leo Sayer, Eagles, Queen…) along with the occasional dose of Black Eyed Peas.

Being on holiday I like to do stuff I don’t have time to in London – laze about in bed all day reading a variety of books and watching trashy TV. I often find on my first day of holiday that I’m exhausted – the grind of London wearing me out! I always find time to catch up on current pop videos via staring at VH1 for 90 minutes or so (after which I can’t stand it any longer). I can state that at present only the divine Rihanna with Rude Boy has a video/song worth catching. Her video, which is more a collision of Caribbean colour schemes, works well with the songs. Unlike Gaga’s Alejandro – pleasant enough tune but the video with all its near naked male models humourlessly undulating is awful, death by MTV. That Gaga makes such conventional cliché videos makes me like her a lot less than I did. Having done a couple of hours of video watching this trip I believe I can report that Cheryl Cole gets more airtime than anyone else right now and that pop and video are both in a very poor state. Brazilian soap operas remain divine trash – every actor in them is just so great looking!

Book wise these are the following I attempted to consume:

DREAMS FROM MY FATHER – yes, Obama’s 1993 autobiography. It got such raves when issued here while he was running for Prez I picked up a discount copy one day but had to wait until now to secure the enthusiasm to open the first page. Well, he does write well of growing up mixed race and of his extended family and how he tried to find his own identity in the US. And he is definitely no fool. His sojourn in Kenya, which fills up the last third of the book, goes on way too long- family reunions not being what fill me with enthusiasm. Reading this I became even more disappointed that he has turned out to be such a mediocre President as here he definitely appears attuned to grass level political struggle.

ROADS – Larry McMurty: long celebrated for his many novels (I’ve read a handful – they range between good and dull) and more recently picking up an Academy Award for his Brokeback Mountain script, this book follows him traversing some of the US highways he knows best while reminiscing on authors, book collecting, Hollywood, life etc. A very pleasant if not particularly illuminating road book read that really comes alive when he writes of growing up on a small Texan ranch in the 1940s.

THE JONES MEN – I was recommended Vern Smith’s 1972 novel by a friend who calls it one of the great hardboiled books. Smith was a black Newsweek journalist who turned his research into Detroit’s heroin trade into a book. Akin to the Wire – very bleak and very believable – with lots of touches fans of Blaxploitation will note (mink coats, big American cars, the worship of money and the dopeman). If this had been filmed then Curtis Mayfield’s magnificent Superfly soundtrack would have worked better here than on the rather mediocre film it graced. A page turner and being a junkie has rarely appeared less appealing.

THE PASSPORT – Herta Muller won the Nobel prize for lit’ last year and being a Romanian writer I felt compelled to read one of her books. This one, set in a Romanian German village during Ceausecu’s reign, is about a miller who is desperate to get a passport so to get to Germany. It’s an absurdist novel, very slim, and quite an interesting read as far as peasant surrealism and cruelty goes.

REBEL LAND – Christopher de Bellaigue is the The Economist’s Turkey/Iran correspondent and frightfully intelligent (speaks Turkish and Persian). This finds him based in Varto, a formerly Armenian village in east Turkey, as he tries to uncover how the Turks and Kurds could so willingly massacre their Armenian neighbours in 1915. While he digs up lots on info on how the Ottoman Empire crumbled in the East and what happened to the brutalized Armenians, this tends to read like a PHD – dense and rather dull.

Oh, I found the statue of Fernando Pessoa – lots of interest in this pioneering Portuguese modernist writer at present with Serpents Tail having recently reprinted his Book Of Disquiet – but being an idiot I forgot to bring this with me.

Re: Portugal

PostPosted: Thu Oct 21, 2010 2:50 pm
by Rob Hall
Great to read Garth, thanks.

I've never been to Portugal, but I did go to school once - long enough for a geography teacher to impart to me the knowledge that it couldn't possibly have been the Med you were swimming in that was so cold.

Re: Portugal

PostPosted: Thu Oct 21, 2010 3:35 pm
by garth cartwright
Checking a map I see you are right, Rob - I always thought Southern Portugal was on the Med as is the Costa del Sol. These things we learn!

Re: Portugal

PostPosted: Thu Oct 21, 2010 4:00 pm
by Rob Hall
It's still a great read.

Re: Portugal

PostPosted: Fri Oct 22, 2010 6:52 pm
by Gustavo
Really liked it.

Funny, I am starting to find that my country is more interesting that I thought - I´ve been taking it for granted for too long, I guess.

Going up Calçada do Duque (where Magic Bus is), A Brasileira (Fernando Pessoa´s hang out), etc etc, was almost like new stuff to me. Good to get that fresh external perspective.

Btw, this is a venue I had liked to show you: http://travel.nytimes.com/2008/07/13/tr ... isbon.html

Next time maybe?

Re: Portugal

PostPosted: Fri Oct 22, 2010 7:42 pm
by David Flower
I like Portugal and the Portuguese too. And I'm beginning to think they in many ways have a more developed sense of culture than the Spanish even though, perhaps because I've spent a lot more time in Spain. If you've ever tried to organise live music in Spain you'll know what I mean. Their festivals are better programmed. Near Faro is the annual FestivalMed in Loule, an Arab town where the top of the hill, the old Arab part, is ringfenced and 5 or so stages set up in different squares. Everyone wanders the narrow streets, nothing being more than a few hundred yards away. Locals leave their doors open and peer out. 10,000 people over the weekend. The perfect size.

http://festivalmed.com.pt

(even though's it's near the Atlantic). Well worth a visit

FMM in Sines is another good one in summer, though it suffered major funding cuts this year and dwindled

This summer I needed a filler gig within reach of Lisbon and through my pals who live on the Guadiana river where we also have a little place, which is the border with Spain (we're all on the Spanish side in Sanlucar de Guadiana), ended up in touch with the Mertola Town Hall. Mertola is another old Arab town with a mosque, and the cultural department is run by a knowledgeable and very enthusastic guy who fixed something up 15 kms away in a copper mining town. Minas de Sao Domingo. The Portuguese like to build lovely Praias fluviales, river beaches, and in this case have filled in a large old quarry for boating and swimming with soft white sand beaches

http://www.panoramio.com/photo/64145

you can't see it here but they have built a perfect little amphitheatre by the water. As we set up there were just a few families around and we wondered who would ever turn up. After dinner we returned to a crowd of 800 people who'd appeared from nowhere! Great night. This same guy in Mertola also organises a Moorish festival in May where the town is decorated how it might have been 800 years ago with loads of art dance food and music . Here's a starter link

http://algharb-alandaluz.blogspot.com

Another cracking area is the wild west coast of the Algarve

and a corker of a clifftop fish resturant in Carcela Velha, east towards Spain on the Algarve coast, past Tavira.

it's all good

Re: Portugal

PostPosted: Fri Oct 22, 2010 8:25 pm
by Des
I'm disappointed nobody's mentioned Azure-winged Magpies yet.

Re: Portugal

PostPosted: Fri Oct 22, 2010 8:46 pm
by David Flower
there are lots of bee eaters around (they must be getting hungry). And we once saw an ichneumon at night. That's what I was told it was

Re: Portugal

PostPosted: Fri Oct 22, 2010 11:19 pm
by Des
Ooh I'm a big ichneumon fan. There are lots of different species of course.

Re: Portugal

PostPosted: Sat Oct 23, 2010 12:09 am
by garth cartwright
Great posts, Gustavo and David. I've heard Portugal has good music festivals but never really looked into them - it sounds like something I should do next year. My recent trip to PG has just deepened my love affair with this lovely place! When I got off the plane on Wednesday I was still wearing shorts - boy, did I notice the difference quick!

Des, I promise to do some bird watching when next there, OK?

Re: Portugal

PostPosted: Sat Oct 23, 2010 12:51 am
by judith
Couldn't want a more comprehensive and enticing introduction to Portugal. I would go there just for those little custards (Pasteis de Nata).

Re: Portugal

PostPosted: Sat Oct 23, 2010 9:35 am
by David Flower
Des wrote:Ooh I'm a big ichneumon fan. There are lots of different species of course.


actually at the time we were rather disappointed as we were sure we'd spotted the rare Iberian lynx. Still, this mongoose thingy was unusual enough

Re: Portugal

PostPosted: Sat Oct 23, 2010 11:19 am
by NormanD
I've had a couple of week breaks in Lisbon, but not for a few years, so I don't know how it's changed. Last time, Mariza's photo had just been added to the list of worthies in the Fado Museum.

The city is relatively small, with transport fairly accessible (Deb's mobility was getting bad back then), frequent and cheap. Lisboa wasn't smashed by WWII, or postwar reconstruction, and rent restrictions imposed after the 1974 revolution meant that many of the multinational retail outlets hadn't yet been able to gain a foothold. In the centre (although there are probably several 'centres'), we found a shop selling gents' hats alongside an old fashioned hardware store - this in the equivalent of Trafalgar Square. We only spotted one or two McDonalds (that's certainly no complaint).

The architecture is fascinating, the old buildings well preserved - a combination of arts noveau and deco, lots of North African tiling on the pavements. The boulevards are very wide, typical of cities that have lived under the military thumb for decades.

We thought of going to a fado place, but they very much seemed the equivalent of those Turkish restaurants over here that put on a belly dance floor show (usually excruciating) with over-priced and poor food. The best fado singing we saw was around the centre, from a couple of male street singers. One, in particular, had a gorgeous voice. He was short, looked a bit like a tough stevedore with tattooed arms, who kept his upper body perfectly still as he sang. A crowd of onlookers stood in front, listening intently to that mournful sound. Occasionally, one would walk forward, put some money in the hat, and then resume listening. A drunken brawl broke out behind me (it was Saturday night) - the crowd turned on them to shut up! Wonderful.

We loved the little booths, hidden away between shop alleys, where you'd buy a shot of cherry brandy. Go in, put down your money on the wooden counter (dipped in the middle from decades of spilled alcohol), knock back the drink, spit out the cherry stone, and then move on. They'd initially serve it in a paper cup, and progressed you to an actual glass after a couple of days familiarity. You could get a good espresso from similar booths.

A custard tart (natas) and a coffee. Who needs more from life?

Re: Portugal

PostPosted: Mon Oct 25, 2010 5:46 am
by taiyo no otosan
Reading this makes me want to get on the next plane to Lisbon.