In this journal:
a steel-plated rhino;
a 12-string guitar;
a Portuguese family I will remember.
Bom dia Portugal!
I arrived with no hassle, and was quickly bused to the immigration area of Lisbon airport. However, my Portuguese welcome was not so warm. For unknown reasons, there were only 1 immigration officer for the entire airport. A few large flights had just arrived from Brazil, and a few other smaller ones from Morroco, Algeria and mine from London all piled up into an insane line. I had never seen a line this long and moves this slowly.
It took so long that people started rioting, as there was nothing the volunteers managing the line could do: the people started yelling and pushing as the line spewed out of the barriers, and the other officers supposedly on a break just stared at the exhausted passengers with condescending eyes while chitchatting with each other. It took so ridiculously long that kids were put onto the ground and promptly fell asleep. People took out food and passed around so the ones starving would be able to get a bit of energy, and generally folks were nice when one had to desperately run through the crowds for bathroom breaks. It took so long that I made friends with the British guy in the front, the Brazilian one to my back, the Ghana lady on the opposite side of the same position in the snaking line, and more…
It took a gruesome 165 minutes to go through the immigration, and the line kept growing due to newer arrivals. I had never wished having EU citizenship this badly, but after I was through there was definitely no time for me to worry: I was starving.
I settled into my hostel in the beautiful downtown, and followed the locals’ recommendations to a tiny restaurant nearby. The moment I walked in, the half-dozen older local men fervently chatting with the owner, as well as the owner himself, turned around and stared at me in awe: guess this place is not a common destination for visitors, unlike the others on the main street with 12 languages on the menu. I sensed a bit of unease but also a great deal of excitement for finding a true local spot in the midst of tourist traps.
I had no clue what was on that menu, and despite the bunch of locals’ help, I still could not understand what the owner said, so I just randomly pointed to one and let fate decide dinner today. It turned out to be freshly grilled cuttlefish with absolutely magnificently zesty olive oil. Oh boy this was so good that I was wiping the oil down with bread after dessert had come up.
I walked through downtown at night, which was in full-on celebration mode. The large numbers of decorative lights was just staggering. Because it was warmer and more humid than most other places in Europe at the time, people seemed to be especially keen on coming out for a stroll at this time of the year, making it an incentive for the shops to one-up each other in their illumination game.
I kept walking up, and up, and up, completely forgetting that I was not supposed to exert myself too much right after a large meal. However, the lights were just too mesmerizing, and my eyes were fixated upwards toward the blinking decorations. Before too long, I was standing on one of the sharp ridges overlooking the city center.
This is the famous landmark of Elevator Santa Justa, a steel lift that has carried millions since its completion in 1901. Lisbon’s center is an area much lower than its surrounding hills, which had always been a logistical nightmare, so this is one of the many elevators constructed to mitigate the problem, like in Bogota with escalators and Valparaiso with funiculars. But this is the only one in the city that is vertical as all others are slanted to fit the slopes.
Sitting at over 45 meters tall, this elevator is a very expensive tourist site, but the view from the top certainly trumps anything in the old city. I slowly winded my way down, while enjoying the myriad of performances by excellent musicians that seemed to grow out from the cracks of the cobbled streets here.
The street scene here is simply fantastic. Let’s not mind the ancient stones and monuments that practically made up this city, but the people and trams and traffic weaved a repeated pattern of organized beauty on top of the fabric of melody and art. It is hard to believe that this was just a simple Tuesday afternoon and not a night of an important festival.
I was too exhausted to enjoy any night life on offer for the day, so it was time to turn to the comfort of my bed, where I could find warmth and happiness, because I hid a pack of snacks under the pillow!
I woke up to a gloomy day in this city dominated by ocean-generated cloud layers. Right in front of the glistening waters, is the large plaza of Praça do Comércio. Used to be named as the Palace Yards, the palace was completely levelled by the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake (we will come back to this city-altering earthquake). Now it houses the statue of King Jose I which stood tall above the featureless gravel ground, as well as a bunch of cafes.
Right at the edge that leads into the Baixa downtown, a gigantic arch led the way. This is Augusta Street Arch, originally designed along with the plaza during the reconstruction phase of the city after the devastating earthquake, but was not finished until nearly two centuries later. Now it also marks the beginning of a historical tram route that I took for the little annex town of Belem just 20 minutes to the west, where the sea quietly sat waiting for Tagus River to join him.
The tram slowly winded through the historical port district and dropped me off at the little public park in Belém, where I took to my steps to explore the most ancient parts of the kingdom.
Belém has two important things that helped its ascension to fame, and the first one is a ridiculously beautiful monastery called Jeronimos. The current building was started in 1501 and took a full century to complete, with unbelievably intricate carvings covering every single exposed surface of the church as well as the cloisters.
In the main church, the monks used to pray for the king’s soul salvation since the king was the one who funded the whole operation using a 5% tax on all far east imports. Portugal was the first European power to discover a trade route to India thanks to the navigator Vasco da Gama, who is prominently buried in the church, so the tax got ridiculously profitable.
While the church itself is a gothic style, the monastery is undoubtedly renaissance, with the curly window sills and little cute towers. On this quiet morning, the marvellous view was all for my taking. I simply could not believe how much energy was put into each of these columns and gargoyles. One could still see that they were perfectly functional by looking at the traces of water underneath each one.
The monastery was in use until 1833, when the order finally collapsed and the place abandoned by the monks. It did not take too long for the situations to deteriorate. Though not heavily damaged by the earthquake, the monastery was grossly neglected by the local parish church and it was not until 3 decades after abandonment that people started repairing the damage.
Finally, in 1983, NESCO gave the monastery its deserving status as a world heritage site, and it is rightfully under the jurisdiction of a non-profit organization dedicated for the protection of the many beautiful points of interests in Belém. Millions of tourists flood the arched walkways every year, but my day there seemed to be particularly slow. I walked past the elaborately carved stone walls, brushing my fingers against the spirals of emblems, feeling the shivering cold delivered through my finger tips. This is how a beautiful place should be: sending shivers down my spine.
Upon exiting the first must-do of Belem, it is time for the second. Have you heard of nata? Oh, no? Then you are about to be blessed by God himself. Growing up in China, I was bombarded by the strange temptation called Portuguese egg tarts. It turned out to be a tradition brought over by the colonizers to Macau. The origin? Well, this very monastery! The little pastry shop right next to it is the exact place that this world-famous dessert/snack originated, so it must be an affront to the divine forces that I do not try it.
The exact recipe is a closely-guarded secret, as only 6 top chefs have it, and every day they lock themselves after a set of large bank vault doors in the above picture before mixing the day’s batch. The small establishment now has a ridiculously large dining room, enough to house hundreds of tables, and each pastry is still kept with the low price of about 1 euro a piece. I joined the long line of locals and found a table, and simply followed them beat by beat: 1 cup of espresso, and 3 natas please!
However, these petit nuggets of gold could not even remotely satiate my inhuman appetite for food, so it was time for an official lunch. While most restaurants would gladly sell a tourist large pizzas topped with pepperoni, I found a local restaurant with a menu full of real Portuguese food, and specifically, I got this:
There is simply nothing more quintessentially Portuguese than bacalau, salted cod fish fried in oil. This is what this marine superpower powers its people, until the very day of the advent of Chinese take out. The crispy outside and the chalky inside formed a chaotic unison, but I do also acknowledge it is unreasonably heavy in tastes. No wonder people got tired of them when sashimi became a thing!
I continued to walk west along the Tagus River after my meal, where I saw the large monument commemorating the 500-year anniversary of Henry the Navigator, the founding father of Portuguese maritime exploration. Just a bit further west, around a small harbour filled with jellyfish (maybe Portuguese Man-o-war?!), I found myself right in front of the magnificent Tower of Belém.
The tower, finished in 1519, like the monastery, is in a distinctive Portuguese Manueline style, typical during the rule of King Manuel I. It used to be a proper garrison defending the city along the mouth of Tagus River, but later it was rendered into mostly an attractive symbol of the city and the ceremonial gateway into Lisbon.
One hilarious detail one can find on the fortification is a strange beast head on one of the battlements. India gifted Portuguese king a rhino in 1515, and the ship landed not too far from here. The Europeans, fascinated, tried to force it to fight an elephant, to no avail, and the king grew bored of the grass-eating machine before shipping it off to Pope Leo X as an ass-kissing gift, but the ship sank near Italy. But due to incorrect memories or purposeful exaggerations, the rhino quickly became portrayed in splendid armour, and grew in popularity in urban legends. The builders finishing up the this tower decided to include it on one of the corners, thus immortalizing the Portuguese armoured rhinoceros as a part of human history.
After taking the tram back, it was time to explore the Instagram famous Alfama district to the east of Baixa downtown. The winding streets, narrow driveways, colourful houses and the glistening sea together form a dynamic triple-punch to the senses, no wonder why so many people get lost in the area!
What made this place exceptional, however, was the locals. The kids ran down the dangerously steep hills chasing marbles they let loose on the top; old fishwives hang up the clothes along with nets on the wires dangling loose from one house to another; a bunch of local men gathered in pubs on afternoons talking about random issues around the neighbourhood… Life had not changed, ever, here in the little hills.
I found myself inside the National Pantheon as I explored the twisted roads. The large dome houses the tombs of many celebrities in 17th century-style halls. I climbed all the way to the top, where the sweeping views brought about strong gusts that could have easily swept me to a fall of death.
I got so lost at the end that I had to ask locals to point me to the way out. An old grandma laughed, while petting her cat:”Why do you want to leave?” I felt stunned: even the locals feel an intrinsic sense of pride for their neighbourhood. They live in a gorgeous place, and they fucking knew it. I, however, had little time to spend in the city as Portugal was not on my original itinerary so I had barely 3 days in the capital itself. I walked myself to the main road winding down to the city center, and started my walk competing against the slow-moving tram.
On my way down, I saw a symbol very familiar to my memories: the eight-pointed cross. This is the headquarters of the Knights Hospitalliar in Portugal, and that reminded me the good days I got to spend on the islands of Malta, where the knights reigned supreme for many centuries with irrefutable success.
For dinner, it was only fitting for me to continue the local food spree by consuming more than enough sardines drenched in olive oil. This kind of fish used to be very popular as sardine is easily caught and widely available. However, recently it has become less and less common due to overfishing in the last century as well as competing fish from other lands such as salmon and flounder.
November 1st, 1755, a quiet Saturday morning here in the capital of one of the greatest empires, and everything seemed to be going normal for another All Saint’s Day. Suddenly, at 9:30 a.m., a magnitude 9 earthquake tossed the city into a salad of rubbles, pain, death and blood. 80% of the city was leveled, and buildings like the above Carmo Convent were the only ones left standing, mostly roofless. Then came numerous tsunamis, and a couple more days of fire. All precious documents of the great explorers were lost, and anyone rich enough to survive fled to the tent city outside centre, including the king.
The entire city fell into the hands of looters, and the king himself developed a lifetime of claustrophobia so he lived in the tent city until his death. The large amount of international debate put the blame onto the citizens of Lisbon, who were so sinful that it attracted the wrath of god. That prompted Voltaire to write his classic satirical book Candide. About 60000 lives were lost, and the empire never stood tall as before ever again. The tragedy can still be felt everywhere in the city nowadays, as even the buildings rebuilt during those times were the first earthquake-resistant structures in the world.
Nowadays, the Convent serves as a grim reminder of that tragic day in European history, and as a small archaeological museum. The ceiling is left intentionally roofless so one could see the destructive forces even echoing amongst the walls this day. The city life has moved on, but Lisbon had never forgotten.
For the late night action, it would be criminal to not visit a little fado joint. This is the national symbol and city pride here in Lisbon, Portugal. Fado means fate, and the songs sung by the fadista is characterized by a sense of saudade, the very feeling of something is missing, the longing of something gone, and the permanent damage it had done to someone. Originally sung by sailors and other workers of Alfama, this art form has evolved into a particular style with no restraint on topic, just to a tone of nostalgia and melancholy. It has been placed onto the UNESCO non-tangible heritage list.
I found a tiny establishment that was about to open at 10pm in a little corner of Alfama district, and sat down with a beer. The instruments were very specific for this kind of performance: a Portuguese guitar with 12 steel strings and a modified guitar bass that has 4 strings. Both are notoriously hard to play and there were no visual or sound aid so the performers needed to react to each other’s play immediately to compensate. Anyone could sing in this kind of open bar, but due to the lack of Portuguese skills I gladly declined to volunteer.
Each shop also features a few professionals who get paid for their singing, and they truly brought out a sense of loss in their voices. Any sound was strictly prohibited during the performance, so one had to order any food or drinks before the performance started. If you even dare to talk while the performers were singing, everyone else will violently shush you for the lack of respect. There is simply no way for me to describe to you how beautiful the artform is, as it put me in a trance and just could not stop feeling the sense of melancholy, even though I could not understand one single word of the songs! I fell asleep upon my return, with two lines of tears down my cheek.
For another glorious day in Portugal, I was picked up by the energetic and unnaturally optimistic Beatriz and her mother. We met fatefully in Korea during Voyager series, and one of the reasons for me taking such a detour to Portugal is to see her again. The big family of hers live in a tiny fishing town one hour out of Lisbon by the Atlantic Ocean, so I sheepishly asked if I could spend some time with her family, and unsurprisingly that was met with many big hugs.
One hour of car ride brought me into this quaint fishing town, where even the waves are so lazy that they fall asleep along with the seagulls floating on top of them. The winters here mean no tourists at the beaches, no fishing in the boats and no students in the bars. Tranquility also seemed to bring a lack of everything else: food, jobs, as well as economic future. Beatriz herself is an outstanding medical student, yet she has few opportunities to look towards to. Unemployment runs as rampant as weeds here, yet at the same time nobody seems to mind. Life in this ancient fishing village continues, without a single bother.
I was lucky to have the whole family welcoming me with warm hugs. The two brothers Bea has seemed to come from different worlds, one as energetic as a deer in a field of strawberries, and the other as reserved as a hermit concocting his secret potions. Her mother embraced me with so much hospitality that I might just forget about home, and her grandparents were just typical grandparents: grandpa feeling a bit awkward as grandma continuously trying to stuff me with unbelievably copious amount of food.
Beatriz’s grandfather is a life-long fisherman, and so it is not the wildest theory to say I had so much fish during my stay the ocean itself might had been dumping truck loads of it into my window. However, the family seemed to be keen to let me try fresh sardines, which is like the signature dish among the signature dishes. Unfortunately, the season was not right, as there was a complete embargo on sardine fishing for the winter. However, as I was about to breathe out a sigh of disappointment, Beatriz’s grandpa magically whipped out a dozen freshly caught sardines out of thin air:”they just appeared out of nowhere”, he said, “I totally did not ask an old pal of mine to go out and catch some illegally.”
Needless to say, I had an awesome time exploring this small town too. It is the type of place so out of the normal trail of any traveller that only I, as someone who can get really attached to human beings I met on the road, can ended up at. I went for a visit to the cape sticking into the ocean that is famous amongst locals of the area called Cape Espichel.
The vehement waves, the azure sky, the deep horizon, the howling wind, all came together for a sweeping view of the most impressive cape I have seen. There was not a single soul nearby, and the sheer cliffs seemed to be our only companion. A ruin of a large religious compound stood nearby, where, according to Beatriz, a special event is held every year around summer and the many rooms would be occupied before they were promptly sealed off for no reason one year.
And during the other times, this cape is simply abandoned, like almost everything in the region. According to Beatriz, a few people drive their cars to the cliffs, bid their last farewell to this cruel world, before accelerating off the rocks to their certain deaths. The number of suicide was so alarming that it finally prompted the local authorities to act. They put up a tiny fence along the edge so the cars would not easily reach the end. Seriously, instead of tackling the cause of massive unemployment and widespread depression in the area, they went for a fence on a rock.
I spent as much time as I could with the family. The big family may have relatively limited space to work with, but that only meant the hugs were easier, and the laughter could transmit further. There was no better quality of time than one with my lost family in middle of a small coastal town, right?
Isn’t it funny? I found peace in a little fishing village in Portugal, thousands of miles from where I was born, and half a globe away from my biological parents. I simply found myself a part of a large family blasting Portuguese without even actively knowing how in the holy name of Jesus did I end up in this situation. I was surrounded by laughter and love, and this short 2 days spent in Sesimbra turned out to be my happiest yet. It is not about crazy food or breathtaking scenery, but it is about the feeling of being wanted. I am truly welcomed in my Portuguese home. I felt, welcomed, not like a burden that I always thought I am, but as a part of something that I should have been a part of a long, long time ago. I weep every time I think about this: I have been abandoned more times than I can count, but I was never abandoned here in a family I met for 1 day.
Thank you, Beatriz, for giving me a family I shall always be a part with. I have been surrounded by the warmth of love, and it is impossible to forget. Thank you.
Onwards, to Nordics!
After unwillingly bidding Beatriz and her family farewell, I hopped onto a bus bound for Lisbon airport, where my ride to Copenhagen was waiting for me. The 4 hour ride cost me less than 30 dollars, which is a shockingly good deal, especially so given the fact that Norwegian proudly offers free wifi the entire ride, hell yeah!
As I slowly lifted off from the perfectly-lit fields around Lisbon, I could not help but feel a sense of something amiss, something, that was ripped apart from me. Ah now I have a perfect word to describe it: saudade. I never expected to see this much in Portugal, as it was only a cheap waypoint on my way from UK to the Nordics. I ended up with a baggage on my mind much heavier than I would have ever imagined. The beautiful capital of Lisbon, the astonishing town of Belem, and not to mention, a state of belonging in Sesimbra. Now that I am leaving, it made my heart fill with saudade. I would love to stay here forever, and maybe one day, I will…
4 hours flew by, and the blue ocean turned into dark mists. That is a sign: northern Europe was close. My plane slowly glided across Øresund, and started its final approach to Copenhagen. I am not a stranger to the Danish capital, but I am here to meet more people important to my life. I was anxious, and my mind was shrouded in a layer of thick mist just like the bays below me. What should I do? What, should I do?