Lisbon Tourism

I visited Lisbon, Portugal last week for the W3C annual meeting, and scheduled a couple days after the meeting to look around. Marc and Erin arranged to come down from Glasgow to meet me, though Erin was unable to in the end so it was me and Marc having a good catch-up and sending Erin cruel messages about the fun we were having. The work week had been intense with a couple really late nights, so I was really ready to hit the town.

After getting oriented, Marc and I found dinner at a local restaurant that just kind of occupies the path and works around people walking through, then we went to drink wine at a place that has Fado. It's an endemic Portuguese music style sung with backup from 12-string guitars in little bars all over the place. To my ears the songs sounded similar, all in a minor key, with the singers using an impassioned operatic style to project their message to the audience. Marc and I sat outside and chatted to avoid the stuffy heat indoors, but a lot of people seem to listen intently to the performances, something you wouldn't see at a bar where I'm from. Although it's a bit outside my musical experience it was really neat to hear something so truly local.

Saturday was our big day to tromp around and explore the place, guided by Marc's industrious use of the tourism guidebooks and travel sites that I hadn't managed to do well. As a port city Lisbon is shockingly hilly; at one point we measured a 15° grade, and walking up those hills on a hot late summer day is sweaty work. On the other hand if you walk along the river (which looks like a lake front or bay because it's so wide there), it's completely flat, and that's where all the tourists are. In fact at one point we saw two massive cruise ships go by within a few minutes of each other, and we were constantly trying to get around people who were gumming up the works on the narrow slippery streets. Santa Justa Elevator (base)Marc had found the Santa Justa Elevator, which figured in one of my book club's books so I had to snap a selfie to make those guys jealous, but the queue was way too long for us to bother with a ride ourselves.

We did more than our share of walking around but also braved the public transit system a few times. It gets the job done but is terribly crowded and slow. As comprehensive as it is, it was hard to see why that should be the case. I had seen at other times through the week, though, that there is a "mediterranean relaxedness" to the place, with no particular rush to get things done with undue speed. As a North American that was constantly frustrating, though on the other hand it was a lot less lackadaisical than some other places I've been. Still, a tram or bus that runs on an uncertain schedule and can arrive full so you have to wait for the next one whenever that might be can be quite frustrating.

The longest transit journey was to Belém Tower, an old fortress guarding the mouth of the river. In the end it wasn't worth the headache and lost opportunities caused by the slow transit system to see, but still was neat. It's pretty small, several hundred years old, and looks deadly according to the technologies of the day for invaders. It was possible to go up to the top and get great views of the city. We also entered Lisbon Cathedral, built on a steep hillside and about a thousand years old. There was a mix of plain and ornate architecture, and a strange small pipe organ with two very different-looking sets of pipes on opposite sides of the nave.

A vacation report isn't complete without a description of the food. Much of the week I had conference or hotel food, and sometimes tourist food, but did notice that a lot of things are served in garlicy olive oil, and that vegetables aren't much prioritized. I didn't really get a sense of "portuguese" style beyond that, much of the things that seemed local were very familar to me from my experience with Mexican styles. I've thought culinary styles adapted to the local environment, for instance the way Cajun cuisine adapted from French and became distinct, but in this case one could really see historical influences on styles I know from other sources. Of course we all were interested to try the local chouriço, which one could live on alone if we didn't need veg. The very best meal we had was a place where we had wandered randomly off the tourist track, then I sniffed the air and said "let's try that one". Restaurant Isco serves its food tapas-style though in slightly larger portion, and everything was well-conceived and well-made. The crispy and creamy cod croquettes came with a coriander leaf sauce I wish I could figure out how to replicate, and the ceviche was a model of restrained balance.

A vacation report also isn't complete without a description of alcohol exploration, for a proto alcohol snob like me. I had a chance to try green wine which Janina had been interested in, though in Portugal that turns out to be just a young wine, fairly tart in the example I had. One expects to drink port in Portugal, but it was almost never on the menu. I ended up concluding that it's really intended for export (which history would suggest, it was fortified and put in barrels to survive long sea voyages), and is more of a "cash crop" as it were than a local item. Instead we drank a lot of the local wine that port is made from; powerfully tannic to the point it was nearly an acquired taste (though we acquired it quickly enough). It was still important for me to come home with a couple bottles of port, so we stopped by a good liqour store. I made a quick decision on some stuff I definitely wouldn't find in Canada, but even though they had already made the sale they brought out a couple samples to try. The first was a non barrel-aged fortified wine (not technically a port) which brought the whole tannic wine story together for me, because the sweetness and alcohol balanced the tannins in a very different way from the wines themselves. Then they showed us a tawny port that built on that story by bringing flavour complexity from the wood and a notable softening of the tannins compared to the earlier example. It's always fascinating to take a journey through the production and aging of a food ingredient like that, even in such a high-level way.

In the end, I enjoyed Lisbon. Although it's never been at the top of my bucket list, I'm glad I got a chance to see it and would happily go back.