We flew out of Pearson terminal 1 on Friday evening. It struck me even more than usual how Pearson fails to achieve the romantic promise of airports: it tries at once to awe you with its scale and to seduce and entertain you by drawing you into yourself – almost every available place to sit in the central area is equipped with a busy ipad-sized screen – but of course the screen means you to order food or beer from it, and then to play a game, or to do the online stuff you always do, and it’s all about a hollow filling of the experience of being here, unrelated to and uninterested in the there that you’re going to. But at least Pearson is almost always efficient now: we left on time and then flew for six and a half hours or so (sleeping fitfully) to Porto. The plane itself had no screens except in business class (Air Canada now has an app allowing you to download its movies and shows onto your own devices), which was otherwise the least impressive business class I’ve seen on an international flight for a long time, so I believe it tells us that only tourists fly between Toronto and Porto, and there’s no big corporate money to be squeezed out of the route. Especially as a fair number of the tourists appeared quite elderly.
Our hotel sent an email last week to ask if we wanted an airport pick-up – we said sure, but then it never showed up. No matter, as the taxi was a little cheaper than the price they quoted. The cab driver told us some selected highlights of his life (he started out installing air conditioning; now he works in a place that makes local packaging for iPhones and tablets and suchlike, and drives a cab once in a while for variety). Initial rides from the airport are all underwhelming in the same generically industrialized way, but Porto sheds that a little quicker than many do, and we were rapidly in what people would say is the good bit, that is the postcard section. It was a busy, pristine Saturday afternoon. The hotel presented us with a nice welcome letter, made out to “Mr. Barclay and Mrs. Hughes” (later, they sent up custard tarts and port to the same addressees – I pointed out the error, but they allowed us to keep them regardless, so that was nice of them).
We couldn’t immediately get access to our room, so we wandered round for a while, which is always the best way to start a trip. Our hotel, the Pestana Vintage Porto, is the yellow building in the middle of many iconic waterfront shots – we’re on the second floor overlooking the Douro river. We walked along the Cais da Ribeira – just teeming with people happy to contribute to the teeming, or to sit and watch it. Early on we stopped at a street vendor and remarked on the cool-looking cork-based bags and watch straps and the like – then we saw the same stuff on sale in ten other places within half an hour, and at regular intervals for the rest of the trip (isn’t that always the way). We crossed the Dom Luis bridge by the lower of its two decks and walked along the other side of the Douro, eventually leaving the masses behind and climbing into a quiet neighborhood area, where everything is hidden behind shutters and heavy metal gates, as if anticipating a pending uprising. We hardly passed anyone at all except an old woman and a dog.
We circled back down and luckily found an indoor market which included a very good vegetarian buffet place (it was always clear that the search for vegetarian food that isn’t pasta or pizza would be an ongoing theme of the trip). Then we returned to our hotel, gained access to the room, and rapidly fell asleep for a few hours. Later on, after the usual set-up activities (which are pretty much all electronic – we never actually “unpack” in any formal sense) - we went out again. The light was fading by then, and the temperature had dropped off quite sharply, but the Riberia was no less lively. We walked in the other direction, quite soon leaving the activity behind – the buildings soon become less carefully maintained, often obscured by clothes and sheets hanging out to dry (one could make a nice exhibit from photographing this alone). Ally had seen a reference somewhere to Porto as a city of “fading grandeur,” but if applied to this inner section, the “fading” isn’t quite right – it’s more like crumbling. Everywhere you look, there’s a façade of what was plainly a once-imposing building, now with nothing behind it except rubble. Even at the very heart of the city, there’s a lot of (perhaps) prime real estate lying derelict – often, a well-maintained property sits adjacent to one in total disrepair, often decorated in spreading blue foliage (morning glory, I think) (the Internet suggests that failed rent control policies of the past may explain some of this). It’s as if Dorian Gray carried his decaying portrait around with him. During the trip we also saw a few more recent construction projects that seemed to have been abandoned – perhaps remnants of the last financial crisis?
We returned to the centre and wandered the streets – the muted lighting (by North American standards at least) giving everything a rather furtive feeling. Restaurant followed restaurant, but the menus seldom had the difficult likes of us in mind. However, I’d spotted a vegetarian place on the way in from the airport and we ended up there – as it happens, it belonged to the same family, Daterra, as the place we had lunch (so the challenge at this point was revised to search for vegetarian food in any place that isn’t called Daterra). After that we had more wine in the hotel bar, with a live DJ who by the end had basically no audience except us. I went up and complimented her on one choice she’d made, but she seemed only to know it in its sampled form and not to recognize my reference to the original; I tried to tip her, but she wouldn’t accept it.
We slept for something like nine hours, long enough to miss the window for the hotel breakfast. We crossed the bridge again, this time by the upper deck. It embodied one of those emblematic tourist mysteries we always encounter – you hardly see anyone walking to or from the location, and yet the place itself is crammed with people (it’s not really a mystery – it’s mostly thanks to tour buses). We had a snack at the same market (not at Daterra’s though, so that’s something) and then we walked along the Douro for a couple of hours, through the Vila Nova de Gaia area. Eventually this brought us to a series of 17 beaches, although we didn’t make it to the last of them. I expect there are times when the beaches are crammed – certainly the volume of beachfront restaurants seems prepared for that – but today it was foggy and surprisingly chilly and they were largely deserted. We stopped for ice cream. I swear that every TV screen we’d seen to this point, in whatever establishment, whatever the time of day, was showing a soccer game (this held mostly true to the end of the trip).
As our route from the hotel had certainly been a “scenic” and inefficient one, we decided to try finding a more direct one back. This took us through what I take to be normal middle-class neighborhoods, which is always a useful reality check on the fakery of the tourist areas (and by the way, it seems the middle-class people all own driers). We hardly saw anyone outside, until at around five the streets started filling up as if responding to a bell. A while later, we saw and heard fireworks, so maybe they were gathering for that. Fireworks don’t work too well in bright sunlight though, to be honest. After getting about a third of the way back just on instinct, the streets became too complicated and we called on Google Maps for help, and ultimately we just used Uber for the last stretch (so there you go, saved by technology). There was a procession taking place on the Ribeira – a very solemn-looking affair which seemed to constitute some kind of religious commemoration, although for all I know it could have been the Freemasons. Anyway, it attracted a lot of attention.
We returned to our hotel for a while. As always, we checked in on Ozu on the webcam – even at this early point, his strategy seemed to be to occupy the same blue canvas bed in the corner of the room being allowed to come home, poor dog. It already appeared likely to us that this wouldn’t be an immersively stimulating trip in the way of traveling to Africa or to Asia, that the engagement and the pleasures would be more scenic and fleeting. That’s largely what we expected though: we just wanted to see Portugal (it’s been in the annual vacation conversation for years, but it’s always come in second or third, the Glenn Close of destinations).
I was trying to think of a Portuguese song but I kept coming back to Hugh Masakela singing “Vasco da Gama was no friend of mine,” which didn’t seem like the right note of celebration. Anyway, we ate at a restaurant close to the hotel, actually attached to (and in the basement of) another cool-looking hotel, just because they had two types of risotto. The food wasn’t so memorable but it was an interesting space. We ended the day with some drinks outside the hotel, and it’s certainly among the more beautiful places we’ve ever sat in – to the left a view of the old town with a church and its cobbled narrow streets, and straight ahead the bridge, and to the right the river and the stores on the other side, and the varied happy people wandering around, all in one (slightly drunk and sleepy) turn of the head! By the time we finished, things were rapidly dying down and it seemed unlikely there would be much happening in the early hours, but of course you never know…
At home when we sit on our balcony and read out the super-lit signs, they all belong to banks and accounting firms and suchlike. Our view across the Porto river held almost as many brand names, but they all belonged to port wineries and retailers: Sanderman’s, Cockburn’s, Burros, many others. Port is everywhere in Porto – sometimes it seems rather crass, like the idea of a really lame branding consultant. There are endless opportunities to sample or observe the process, but we never ended up trying it (we did buy some at the duty-free on the way home, but it may sit unopened for many months).
On Monday morning we had breakfast in the hotel for the first time (there would only be one more, on our last day in Lisbon). No doubt it was a fine buffet, but I don’t much like hotel breakfasts – it always feels like observing a mass of lurching desperation. We made the extra effort though because we were being picked up at 9 am for our visit to the Douro valley. There are many ways to do this from Porto – we thought a private tour most likely to maximize the value (or put another way, to minimize annoyances). This was likely correct – our guide Miguel (at least we think it was Miguel) was exceptionally articulate and apparently limitlessly informed about every aspect of the subject matter: history, geography, culture, botany, etc. etc. – if I’d transcribed it all I’d be halfway to a guide book (I believe I also impressed him with my knowledge of Portuguese cinema, which although appallingly shallow is probably still better than any other random visitor is likely to demonstrate). Apparently most of those who take the private tour spend at least some time in one of the wineries, but we left that out in favour of maximizing our exposure to the landscapes. The hills and the banks of the valley rise in layers, created by the laying of the vines or the other crops, by the density of the growth, often looking like complete stories laid out in some lush private language. Among them, we stopped in several immaculate towns, sometimes reminiscent of immaculate tropical outposts like Bermuda, at other times providing imposing direct links to the 18th century, or the 15th, or the 12th.
We spent an hour on a boat tour, and stopped in the towns of Amarante, Pinhao and Lamego, getting dropped off in each location for a walk, and in the second instance for lunch. Along the way we saw such sights as a park named after B B King (apparently a frequent visitor to the region), bakeries selling penis-shaped bread (part of the fertility myths of Amarante) and the house where Magellan was born. The wine and port brand names are everywhere, often bearing down on the boat as you travel through an otherwise unspoiled stretch of water. In contrast, our journey back was along a super-fast highway: we were out for just under nine hours in all. As we did the previous day, we stopped in at a nearby bakery near the hotel – it’s good stuff, but it takes forever to get served, because loudness seems to win out over any notion of who was there first.
We mentioned to Miguel that on our walk to Gaia the day before, we’d seen what appeared to be abandoned domestic dogs living in a designated nature reserve. He said that some old-time Portuguese will simply drop off their dogs for the day in a field or suchlike and then pick them up at night. Needless to say, this wouldn’t work for Ozu (who as I wrote this bit was curled up on that same platform I mentioned). But the trip so far had been punctuated by dogs and cats happily wandering around without an owner in sight. Anyway, at this point we were living fully inside the alternative reality of vacation time – already feeling well acquainted with certain parts of Porto, and with enough memories and new impressions that it felt we must have been away for ages. But as we left for dinner on Monday evening, we hadn’t yet even missed a full day of work (given the time change). We ate in the Cantinho Avillez, which we’d reserved after noticing a better than average vegetarian selection on the menu (i.e. three starters and three appetizers). It’s a busy, happy place with a young staff: I had a view of the kitchen and got to watch one woman assemble the scallop and avocado appetizer thirty or forty times. After that we sat by the water for a drink; one of the servers – another happy guy – told us of his plans to move to Calgary next year (and assured us that he’s ready for the cold, because he once lived in Boston).
We got going much later on Tuesday, too late for the hotel breakfast, if we’d had an interest in returning to it. So far most of our exploring in Porto had been around the river, so we went in the opposite direction, spending the day wandering around the streets, moving very generally westwards, but with no great plan or hurry. It was a very laidback kind of summer experience, often of the kind where you could forget where you are, as the wide boulevards and marble facades and pretty cobble-stoned side streets evoke any number of European cities (well, maybe Europeanness itself). Among other things, we went into a train station famous for its blue and white tiled panoramas in the entrance hall (the blue and white tiles are everywhere in Porto, both inside and outside, often evoking old English china, which I believe is something to do with the relative ease of preserving that colour scheme in the kiln compared to others); we searched for an old historical market (which unfortunately is currently occupying antiseptic alternative premises while the original site is being repaired); we had cheese omelettes for lunch; we happened on an open air book fair (not very well attended unfortunately); we walked to the “Crystal Palace” (also closed for repair) and to the immaculately descending tiered gardens below, which eventually started to seem like a trap as we tried one path after another to get down to the river, finally giving up and climbing back to the start; finally we made it down to the Douro by another route and walked back to the hotel. It was another good day, certainly filling out our sense of the city, particularly in emphasizing the extreme unrepresentative nature of the main riverside sections (not that this hadn’t always been self-evident).
We passed any number of small bakeries, all pretty much with similar displays of custard tarts and semi-chocolate covered cookies and croissants and so forth, but all hard to pass by nevertheless; we saw the high end retailers you always see, but somehow missed seeing much in the way of electronics or cellphones, and hardly saw any of the American chains in Porto except a couple of Starbucks and a Pizza hut. However, we did see Jesus everywhere we went – for sale in countless poses and representations (riding a bike, in the one that most caught my eye) , or else just up on the wall inside otherwise secularly-oriented stores. Porto has a university which apparently imposes a dress code on its students, so that on Monday and Tuesday we passed all these young people dressed in severe black suits and (not very temperature-friendly) woolen capes: you might think you were moving among a city of austere magicians. And on that topic, we wandered into the front section of a bookstore which apparently inspired J K Rowling in writing Harry Potter – this now requires that you line up to purchase a voucher before entering the shrine itself. We didn’t do that, but plenty did!
As you see here, we passed a sign commenting obliquely on the mixed blessing of tourism. I don’t know what kind of consensus exists in Porto, but the economic inflow to the city must be so huge that I assume any concerns about erosion of infrastructure, destruction of local culture and so on will remain largely theoretical for the foreseeable future (on the other hand, we were here in mid-September and the tourist volumes seemed very high – perhaps in July or August they would be outright oppressive). Our guide on the previous day told us there’s high demand for vacation properties in Porto, and indeed we passed several real estate agents in which the window narratives were entirely in English, suggesting this is their main market (prices seem competitive but by no means bargain basement).
We returned to the room for a while – Ally was fighting off a bit of a cold by now. We found a different restaurant which sort of worked, but it fell into a frequent trip of vegetarian food, that no matter how it may be described on the menu, it often ends up as the same starchy, cheese-laden eating experience. We wound up earlier than usual because of Ally’s cold, and so mostly sacrificed our last night in Porto, but never mind. She was somewhat better the next day and therefore we didn’t need to call off the rest of the trip (I’m joking – this was never under consideration). We checked out, reflecting for the last time on the loveliness of the hotel – the concrete floor of the lobby perfectly matches the street outside, and as the entrance is all clear glass, you can sometimes hardly tell the difference between being inside and outside. Outside, some of the black-caped students had assembled a large bunch of (presumably) freshmen in rows facing the river; it was impossible not to think they’d shortly issue a command for all the minions to rush forward and jump in like lemmings, and perhaps with no better a survival rate.
Apparently there was to be a taxi strike in Porto that day but we’d already booked our ride to the airport (it’s often said that Portugal is a cheap place to visit, but our bill from the Pestana proves that there are also dramatically non-cheap ways to do it). As usual with us, the whole process was smooth and uneventful. We took a one hour flight to Lisbon, in which the most notable event was that we slept through the distribution of the complimentary custard tarts, and then immediately joined the line for the connecting flight to Madeira (at the very next gate). This was an hour and a half, a bit behind schedule but nothing worth writing about (and yet, here I am…). On the trip so far I’d solely been reading New Yorker back issues; Ally was reading Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. I started watching a movie on my laptop but didn’t finish it. Even some fairly hardcore movie fans would not likely be aware that Italian art movie goddess Monica Vitti spent a day or two in the sixties filming in industrial Sheffield (Girl with a Pistol)…
Contrary to my earlier comment about arriving from airports, the route to Funchal is entirely along the coast, and all breathtaking. At every stage, white-walled, red-roofed houses rise away – it looks like every home in Funchal must have a view, and also like they were all freshly painted last week. Also, in our limited experience, the main highways also all look new, as do all the cars on them, which is just as well given the demands made on their accelerator and braking capacities. Many of the Funchal hotels appear to be resort-type, and located somewhat away from the centre, but we wanted to be close to things – the one we chose, the Vine, isn’t the most prepossessing from the outside (the entrance is inside a shopping mall) but it’s very modern (maybe a bit too much so, in that we had all kinds of trouble figuring out how to work the lights) and comfortable (although a bit plagued by hard-to-place banging sounds) and we did have a view of the ocean.
We walked about twenty minutes along the water to the “old city” district, now mostly occupied by restaurants with mostly indistinguishable menus (although contrary to our expectations, the search for modest vegetarian variety turned out to be a little easier than in Porto). Street art is everywhere in that district – on the doors, on the windows, certainly enlivening an area that might otherwise appear a bit dilapidated. We circled down to the waterfront and walked along, taking in a departing cruise ship (that’s an experience we’ll certainly never have, being on board one of those numbing creations) and the Cristiano Ronaldo museum (he’s from Funchal and we’d been told his image is everywhere, but based on our experience this is an overstated myth) and the usual mix of happy activity. It certainly felt more island-like here – more humid, more concentrated, more distanced from the rest of the world, but maybe that’s largely the palm trees.
We returned to the hotel for a while, and it got dark outside. We never once turned on the TV during our trip; however, I did remember after a few days that I had Spotify on my laptop, and started to use that with almost the same relentlessness I do at home. It seemed later that the activity in tourist-central Funchal dies off much faster than in Porto – foot traffic was sparse and long lines of taxis hardly moved. We wandered through some elegant-looking streets before settling for a spot on the waterfront where we shared a pizza and a dish of stuffed peppers (which, in another manifestation of the trap, ended up tasting almost exactly the same as the topping on the pizza). A singer performed lame cover versions of songs like Hey Jude and Mamma Mia – the atmosphere much improved once she stopped. We walked back to the hotel. On the top floor of the Vine there’s an open air swimming pool and a bar with a sweeping view of the surrounding hills – after dark all decorated in strings of lights. There was no one else there. We stayed until midnight, when it shut down (we briefly returned the following afternoon – at that time there were maybe ten people in all, distributed as far from each other as the space allowed).
The following morning we walked to the cable car station, and up to the suburb of Monte. According to Wikipedia “the length of the cable car line is 3,718 m and the height difference 560 m; the journey takes approx. 15 minutes.” It felt like less. As we all know, people love cable cars, and it was pretty busy at the top. There’s an impressive church up there – built in the 19th century to replace a previous one – and several formal gardens, numerous eating places and several trails. There are numerous ways back down, including (for some of the way) by toboggan – two or three riders to each toboggan, each with two white-suited operators (the elevation is quite steep so their main task must be to prevent the vehicle from acquiring runaway momentum). According to the signs, CNN once called this one of the world’s seven most striking commutes, although I doubt anyone uses it for that specific purpose (given the line-ups, you couldn’t often count on getting to work on time). We decided to walk back, without knowing how easily that would be – as it happens, there’s a road from the top that goes pretty much straight down (you’d never find it from the bottom though, if you didn’t know where to look). We wandered around a bit more, entering the market building and exploring some surrounding streets, and then returned to the hotel for a break.
Later we walked into the resort district. Not unlike Toronto, but in a very different way, much of the waterfront is generally inaccessible because it’s been parceled off to various hotels. But there’s still a very scenic path through all this, and it’s rather remarkable how one huge location follows another. We stubbornly walked until there were no more resorts, and then for some distance beyond, taking a taxi back. We’d never seen anywhere with so many long lines of taxis – and all immaculate (mostly Mercedes). By the time we were finished, between our morning north-to-south walk and our later long trek to the west, we’d largely conquered the tourist map of Funchal. In the evening we walked just a few blocks, to a place called the Ritz. The name conjures hotels, but actually it’s just a restaurant (before that, according to the waiter, it was a car showroom) with a large open air area along one of the more elegant Funchal boulevards. We ordered a vegetarian curry and a salad and for once the pairing worked perfectly, without any of the excess starchiness that had been plaguing us. We stayed until no one else was staying, and gave some money to an old man and his dog who at some point showed up and hung around in the hope of earning a few Euros.
They say it's Paris that's made for lovers, but at night Funchal too is almost entirely a town of couples, of all ages, of all sizes. It’s not a place to come if the lack of a tan makes you self-conscious though. The Vine Hotel has some pretentious narrative about how the whole place is inspired by the wine-growing cycle and how each floor represents a season. I assume our floor must have been “winter” given its empty, unproductive feeling, but I may be wrong. The place felt massively under-occupied and figuratively cold, but it’s comfortable enough and a convenient location so it didn’t matter. On Friday morning, a mini-bus picked us up at around 8.35 – after stopping at a few hotels to pick up others, we were on our way to Rabacal, about an hour away. Our guide Sara switched effortlessly between languages – for the purposes of today’s group, between English, German and Spanish (she also speaks French and Italian). Rabacal is one of the many walking areas built around levadas – irrigation channels dating in some cases back to the 16th century. There are some 1,300km of walking trails, and many tour companies built around them – as we drove around in the morning, the roads seemed dense with similar vehicles, scooping up tourists for the day.
Rabacal is one of the more popular locations – because portions of the trail involve doubling back, there were often long waits and/or tight squeezes. The walk takes you first to the imposing Rabacal waterfall, and then to “25 fontes” where there are 25 waterfalls (indeed I counted exactly that number, although many of them are very thin) distributed around a high rocky semi-circle. This latter site was especially busy when we got there, with people clambering over the rocks to get as close as possible to the water and the photo opportunities. In some of the photos, the crowd seems obsessed by religious mania, as though surging forward for a cure. We ate our lunch near there and then started the journey back (a bit less crammed than we’d anticipated - most people come in the morning it seems) – the last 800km or so was through a very dark tunnel, from which we emerged into a chilly mist, as if we’d passed from one world into another (Ally thought a bat brushed past her in the cave, but we were told that couldn’t be the case).
The walk was rated “easy/moderate” in the company’s brochure and took around five hours I think. Some sections are steep, but it’s essentially easy – the main challenge is in the concentration required by the narrowness and occasional slipperiness. We also stopped in a café/grocery on the way there and back so overall it was about an eight-hour outing. After that, naturally, we needed a break. We didn’t interact that much with the other people, several of whom seemed to be using their phones with the same intensity that they presumably bring to the task in their living rooms. But I think everyone had a good time. You wouldn’t come to Madeira for the bird- and animal-watching though – there’s very little of the former and virtually none of the latter. Even the lizards are really dull-looking. At least you’re never far away from seeing a dog having fun (I couldn’t say the same for Ozu, who as I wrote this section was looking put-upon and just tired of the whole thing).
Ally had noticed a tapas place in the resort district, so we walked back there for the evening. They had plenty of vegetarian options (not a given – we’ve seen plenty of tapas menus that had few or none) and a lively atmosphere, although with all the screens across the street showing sports (mostly soccer but with a smattering of golf), the preponderance of English language signs and the like, it would be easy to forget your location. I overheard a woman at another table, obviously underwhelmed by their desert choice, look over at ours and say to her husband: “They have ice cream.” We got a cab back. It was perpetually strange to enter the hotel from the elevator in the shopping mall, and from there to go directly up to the room without ever needing to enter reception. We never saw anyone on our floor either, so we started to wonder after a while whether we were in a real hotel at all. I suppose it’s the best explanation though. For example, people did come by and clean occasionally, albeit not super-thoroughly.
On Saturday we got picked up by another mini bus in the same spot at much the same time. Our guide was called something like Hobina (we didn’t catch it exactly) and there were five others in the group – this time all using English as a common (not first) language, overall an older and more reserved bunch. We walked the “Camino Real da Encumeada” – an old paved Royal Path which goes through some of the island’s higher elevations, with amazing views in all directions. The walk is some 13km and rated as “hard” in the company’s brochure, but if you’re the kind of person who would want to do a 13km walk in the first place, then it’s not so tough. We were descending more often than we were ascending (I think she said the walk starts at an elevation of about 1400km and ends up at around 950km) and as the path was far less busy than Rabacal (during five hours we met maybe twenty people coming the other way, and were overtaken by only a few people, and one dog) our progress was pretty smooth (although we only noted later how our legs got scratched around by gorse and other protruding plant hazards). We ate lunch at a spot I imagine the old Royals might have chosen. Another fine day, and as with every drive in Madeira it seems, with hardly a plain-looking stretch on the drive there or back (excluding the frequent tunnels). On the way out we stopped in a dark little store/café that was populated solely by women, largely looking like refugees from 1920’s Sicily. A little dog wandered in alone and sniffed around before being chased out. Perhaps in the darkest heart of Portugal, where the tourists never go, it’s all like that.
On Friday we didn’t think to tip the guide and didn’t notice anyone else doing so. On Saturday though we did notice the guide being tipped by the first or second person to get off the bus – it appears everyone else noticed too, so she got tipped by us and by all the others. Such arbitrariness aside, Portugal never seemed like a big tipping nation – it’s not pushed as an option when restaurants process the credit card, and as I mentioned earlier, the hotel DJ in Porto actually rejected one. On the whole, we likely spent less than we do on the average vacation – food and wine bills are pretty cheap. However, as I indicated, we did not choose very economical hotels (particularly in Porto and Lisbon). Despite the relative low spending, we went through cash more quickly because electronic payment often isn’t available in smaller places. I recall that in Helsinki a few years ago we only encountered a single place where cash was required (a small ice cream vendor), so Portugal is far behind that (mind you, so is Germany).
On our last night in Madeira we spent over half an hour trying to find a restaurant Ally had been reading about online – we eventually concluded it must have closed. Still, not a bad way of exploring some new streets. We ended up at one of the many tourist-facing places, Café Funchal, where we again made out pretty well by splitting a risotto (the fourth or fifth risotto on the trip to this point) and a salad. We made one last visit to the hotel roof bar – it had a smattering of people when we arrived, but when we left, just a bit after midnight, it was down to just one British guy and his beer. Well, and his really ugly shirt. The next day we had time to walk for an hour or so before heading to the airport, so we got to see Funchal in sleepy Sunday morning mode – streets that would later be crammed with tables just sitting empty. On the drive to the airport we could see a couple of pages of a little notebook in which the driver lists all his fares – all 5, 7, 8 Euro rides. The airport ride is 40 Euros. They must love those, but there probably aren’t enough of them to go round.
We had the slowest check-in we’ve gone through in a while – no electronic check-in – but after that everything was smooth (we bought a sandwich in a concession place called Cockpit – and I’d just started rereading Jerzy Kosinski’s Cockpit – and the plane in which we were about to fly had a cockpit – what are the odds?!). The airport has a little outdoor area from which you can watch planes taking off. There’s only one runway, and it was extended at some point after a plane didn’t have enough of it to take off and ended up in the water. We watched a British Airways flight which was never in danger of such a mishap; neither, later on, were we. Lisbon certainly has a bigger and busier airport than we expected. We couldn’t get a taxi because of a strike over Uber – the strike started while we were in Porto but we didn’t realize it was still going on (Madeira wasn’t affected because Uber doesn’t operate there). It’s a little annoying that the hotel hadn’t warned us. Anyway, we found our way by metro easily enough, although it’s never very desirable to be on public transit with all your stuff (usually for instance we only have one credit card with us, leaving the others in the safe).
Anyway, those logistics were forgotten soon enough. Our final stopping point was the Hotel do Chiado, right in the heart of Lisbon, “in the historical building of ‘Armazens do Chiado’ as result of a project of reconstruction elaborated by Alvaro Siza Vieira, the famous Portuguese architect winner of the Pritzker Prize in 1992.” There are only sixteen rooms – ours had a French balcony overlooking the street below, with a view of the Castle of St George. The hotel also has a roof top bar which was pretty crowded when we checked it out – the hotel in general seemed instantly busier than the Vine ever did, although with only sixteen rooms, this presumably can’t really have been true. Anyway, it’s very pleasant, and we had custard tarts and cherry liqueur waiting for us in our room (and unlike in Porto, there was no indication they might actually be intended for someone else).
It was hotter here than in the previous locations by a few degrees – we immediately registered this, along with a greater concentration of visitors (of the kind that again sometimes leads to frustrated locals, which I believe has occasionally been an issue in Lisbon) and a slightly rougher big-city edge. We walked directly south to the waterfront, which is wider and calmer than Porto’s – a large section was occupied by the razzamatazz surrounding a six a side soccer tournament (within a few hours of arrival, we’d seen players from England, Wales, Russia, Bulgaria – apparently it’s stipulated that they wear their identifying shirts at all times), obscuring historical monuments in a way the architects surely never foresaw. We walked up to the historical district of the Alfama – a warren of narrow, winding streets (lots of those on this trip!), dense with fado restaurants – and to several look-out points crammed with people looking out. We found our way back to the hotel pretty easily – the surrounding streets are full of restaurants, and we noted at least a few plausible choices in passing. We walked back to one of those places, which turned out to be so-so in terms of the food and the ambiance, but never mind. We ended the night on the roof top bar, which died off fast - when it closed at midnight it was (once again) just us and one other guy. Although it’s only seven floors up, it shields you almost entirely from any sense of what might be happening below, for better or for worse, I’m not sure.
This trip certainly illustrates the success of our division of labour – typically, after we decide on a destination, I book the flights and the hotels, and then hardly think about it again until we’re there. Ally usually takes the lead in suggesting day-to-day activities. It worked almost perfectly throughout this trip, and I only add in the “almost” to accommodate some glitches on our first full day in Lisbon. The first stage went as planned – we walked down to the waterfront (calling into the Bertrand bookstore, which has a Guinness book certificate as the oldest operating bookstore, since 1732) and headed west, eventually passing the port of Lisbon (from which I recall Bruno Ganz emerging at the start of the film In the White City). It’s not the most eye-catching walk – much of it is rather derelict and graffiti-laden, although the occasional block looks like home to a new media company or suchlike, or else lights up with some imposing art creation. We were heading for the LX Factory, an old industrial neighborhood now populated with cafes, designers, retailers and general funkiness – in Toronto terms it’s somewhat like the Distillery District, but not as stuffy. Like much of the surrounding neighborhood, it’s overshadowed by a massive and loud overpass which might as well have been specifically conceived as a symbol of capitalistic disregard for neighborhood integrity (and we continued to encounter denunciations of tourism and of Airbnb in particular at a fairly steady pace).
We had lunch there in an Argentinean themed place and wandered around. After that, Ally’s idea was to wander up to an 18th century aqueduct from which one can apparently enjoy great views of the city. In crow-flying terms it seemed pretty easy – just to head north – but we tried several routes and gave up on all of them. Eventually we committed to one route and walked up on the side of a busy highway for quite a while before quitting on that too (the question may arise of why we didn’t consult Google Maps but I think we were both too hot and tired to think of it). We retraced our steps for a while and then trudged back to the hotel through a new combination of streets. We were pretty wiped out by the end of it (if the iPhone can be trusted, we walked further that day than we did on our 13km Madeira hike, and in more oppressive heat) and much of the walk was through at best undistinguished (if not downright unsafe) areas, although we returned to gentility at the end. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, but it’s probably fair to conclude that if we wanted to see the aqueduct (which we never ended up doing) there would have been better ways of going about it.
If we were ever going to get a tan, today would have been the day (we didn’t). But it’s nice that Portugal provides sporadic evidence that not everyone conforms to the cliché – for instance, the porter at our hotel looks like Jesse Eisenberg (and just as white). The guide in the room says: “You are not allowed to bring your pet to the hotel, but we can advise comfortable places where your pet can stay. Please contact reception.” This evokes an unlikely scenario of someone who, having somehow smuggled their little dog into the country and through the lobby into the room, reads this prohibition and realizes it’s all over for them (by the way, by this point in the trip Ozu had been moved from the big dog room, probably due to being overwhelmed, and was living among the little dogs) We had dinner in a nearby place called Fabulas, which we’d noticed earlier for its vegetarian options. It shares a large terrace with three or four other restaurants: the atmosphere was very lively and happy, and it was one of the best meals of our trip.
It seems we’ve dropped one of our traditions – of always going to see one movie during each foreign trip when possible. Actually we hardly saw any movie posters on this trip, let alone the theaters themselves – they must all have been chased out to the suburbs, or else into total extinction. We did on Tuesday, our penultimate full day, come across a place showing Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, which might have been a possibility, but only at 9.15 pm, which was too late. Anyway, back in the hotel, I did start watching the somewhat obscure 70’s French film Le secret. Ally continued to read Philip Roth. We spent the day wandering around various portions of downtown Lisbon, from its grand squares (one of them occupied largely by taxi drivers, who continued to be on strike, although it didn’t seem that 100% of drivers are participating) to its narrow streets, from tourist throngs to almost unoccupied parks. We walked through the “Bairro Alto” area, which only comes alive at night, climbing up in the direction of the Castelo de Sao Jorge and then beyond that to the Graca district, which provides some long views over downtown. We had lunch at a vegetarian restaurant near there (it was very nice to eat quinoa and tofu again), then wandered around a bit more before returning. In all we were out for around five hours, so it was a somewhat lighter day, reflecting our end-of-trip-flagging state.
Lisbon may be starved for taxis (perhaps that’s why we seemed to have seen more people dragging their luggage around) but it has plenty of little tourist vehicles – some of them three-wheelers (a correspondent loftily informed me these are called tuk-tuks and originate from India), others looking like they might be designed for sand dunes more than cobbled streets. Between the inherent slipperiness and the elevations, I kept thinking how someone might slip into the street and perish under one of these odd contraptions. There are also yellow trams, clearly a big attraction to tourists – I doubt they are a big contributor to the efficiency of Lisbon transit as a whole. As usual, we spent very little time in stores during the trip, but Ally did buy a Lisbon-themed iPhone case, so that will be a frequent reminder. Oh, and some bookmarks from the oldest operating bookstore. I was somewhat taken by a Massimo Dutti coat in the window of a nearby store, but not enough to go shopping for it here. We overheard a (I think) Australian tourist lamenting that he should have bought a pair of pants he’d seen and liked in Venice. Honestly, in his case, I don’t think it’s going to affect anything.
I’d made a dinner reservation for Tuesday at a place called Organi Chiado – funny to have done that in Canada having no idea of the restaurant’s location, and then to have it be right across the street from our hotel. The menu is mainly vegetarian – Ally had a chickpea curry and I had tofu again (yep, twice in one day!) so that was very much like being at home (a bit too filling though). Afterwards we wandered back to the Bairro Alto, much busier by then (although inevitably with a calculated tourist-facing vibe to much of it), and eventually went into a tiny hole-in-the-wall type place with only a few tables and just a handful of other customers over the couple of hours we spent there, and yet with a rather wonderful atmosphere (maybe it was the weird auto-tuned cover of Close to You). The woman said it’s the family business, owned by her mother. After that, we were most definitely done for the day, and for a fair chunk of the next morning.
On our last day we again walked west along the waterfront. Actually we did not realize first time round that the waterfront trail picks up again on the other side of the port – that stretch of it feels much more resort-like with its slow pace and frequent cafes. The trail is sometimes quite close to the water – if and when the oceans rise, it’s evident some sections of Lisbon will be challenged. Our initial plan was to walk to MAAT – the museum of art, architecture and technology – but we overshot it by unnecessarily walking north and away from the water. So we continued into the district of Belem, another tourist magnet for its 16th century lighthouse tower, its more modern “monument to the discoveries” and its imposing church and monastery, all of this offset by large, graceful parks and walkways. We had lunch there (a last piece of evidence of the challenges of vegetarianism here - we both took a buffet helping of what appeared to be a chickpea salad, but it turned out to contain tuna). Then we walked to the MAAT, which comprises a former power plant and a newer building in a modestly Gehry-like style, including a large curving roof you can walk on. The exhibitions featured a heavy emphasis on ecological and environmental issues and their portrayal in art and culture – it was all quite diverting and stimulating. We walked back, stopping for a snack on the way. In all, close to another 17km trek, in often blazing heat, but a fine way to fill our last day.
As far as can be ascertained online, Portugal isn’t among the top ten tourist destinations in Europe – in fact, it’s far behind Poland for one. Maybe that’s just a function of the Polish diaspora, I don’t know, but we both detected that our colleagues and acquaintances were more excited about the idea of Portugal than about most of our previous destinations. It certainly doesn’t feel, as of this September 26th writing, that the tourist season will be running out of steam anytime soon. It’s a wonderful, easy, sensuous place to be, insofar as you can ever draw such conclusions from twelve days of highly unrepresentative experience (that is, not very far at all). Anyway, our last night was one of the most entertaining. We wandered around some of the main tourist dining areas, somewhat amazed at the barrage of menu touts trying to get our attention (sometimes in most offputtingly aggressive manner…should that ever work?) and at the sheer density of people and tables in some locations. In the end we went back to Fabulas, because its spacious, serene terrace seemed even better by comparison, and we’d already noted they had enough vegetarian options to order a completely different meal compared to our first visit (wow!) The guy bringing the wine and water dropped the tray, sending broken glass everywhere (at least the wine bottle survived intact) – they never did manage to clear that up entirely. Later we were eavesdropping on the four Texan women at a nearby table, and their interactions with the wry young waiter, Tomas. After they left, we made a mildly disrespectful remark to him about Texas, and he really opened up in response, neglecting his other duties to chat to us on such matters as his romantic status (just out of a five-year relationship), other dating stories (a tale of picking up a woman on the late night bus), cultural differences of customers (at least Americans tip well; the Portuguese aren’t as pleasant to deal with as they seem) and Portuguese literature and cinema, on which he seems like an aspiring intellectual of the kind you seldom encounter outside French movies. We gave him a 20% tip and he was careful to note he’d keep half of it for himself and put the other half into the pool with his colleagues. And that was that. We returned to the hotel bar for one last beer, leaving at midnight when it closed.
During that day I had two odd instances of heartburn or something like it, and my left sandal was starting to dig into my heel for the first time on the trip, and then I woke up on Thursday with something of a cold, so it was very plainly time to go home. Not that we didn’t know that already. We had breakfast in the Lisbon hotel for the first time, noting that we’d never seen room 609 (we were in 610) without its “Do not Disturb” sign on the door. Maybe it was occupied by a honeymoon couple. We got a cab to the airport (not sure if the strike was officially over – if not, the volume of rebels seemed to be increasing). Two large cruise ships were docked for the day, with at least seven or eight double-decker buses and assorted other vehicles waiting to whisk their inhabitants around the city. Yet another glorious day – we didn’t see a drop of rain throughout the trip, and only a few situational instances of mist or relative chilliness. Lisbon airport was surprisingly busy, but we’d left sufficient time for it all. Our flight took off on time. Ally watched some downloaded episodes of Better Call Saul. I reviewed this journal, finished the most recent New Yorker, continued with Le secret, started another even more obscure movie. The flight touched down before 4 pm and we were home by 5.30 pm. It was hard not to compare the grey, overcast, concrete-enclosed journey downtown to our memories of Funchal and wonder if we’d made a wrong decision in life. But then Ozu came home, and there was no doubt we were exactly where we should be!