w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
My first impression was not good. I knew the apartment in Lisbon was going to be small, but not this small, and certainly not this rustic. The pictures made it look cleaner, more modern, less crappy. But I was so distracted by the gorgeous tiled architecture, the bustling plaza and Raquel’s gregarious, chatty disposition that I hadn’t really understood the apartment until she and Ana had shut the door behind them and fled down the 3 flights of stairs.
By now Chris and the kids know that the best thing to do is get out of the way. He hustles them out so I can commence my obsessive cleaning ritual. As a Korean person who goes barefoot, I don’t just need the floors to be clean, but sanitized in case evil poop germs have come in on the bottom of strangers shoes. And how on earth do you expect to get the floors clean using a broom covered in dusty bunnies and enough human hair to make a voodoo doll? Or a mop so grey it makes the clean water dirty even before touching it to the floor? This is what I do: Take a gallon jug of water, cut out the top 1/4, fill it with water and vinegar and get on my hands and knees with a fresh cloth. Don’t forget the light switches, dish holder, knife rack. The inside of the fridge, the cupboard with the glasses that sit lip side down. Bookshelves, tables, the fan blades. I work backwards, careful not to track debris back into my freshly detoxed room. And the bathroom gets the royal treatment. Head to toe bleach. Now who’s the sparkly, shiny baby? And there’s more: A bowl for Chris’ pocket change and keys, another for Oona’s pony tails, a cup for the toothbrushes. Clothes on hangers. Isoo’s magazines on his nightstand, a Kindle on each of ours. A place for everything; everything in its place.
When it’s finished, I breathe a sigh of relief and look around. And there it is, the stained couch, the table with its peeling plywood veneer, the cheap stereo, a plastic push button phone hung on the wall as “art”. Still crummy and yet strangely familiar.
We take refuge in the city. Our tiny apartment sits on the border of the upper class shopping district of Chiado, and the Barrio Alto with its buzzing nightlife. From our windows we can see Praça de Luís de Camões, named after 16th century epic poet Luis de Camões, and beyond it, a slice of the the Tagus River.
The charming and historical 28 Tram ambles down the corner. The narrow, winding cobblestoned streets climb up and down the 7 hills, the ground floor doorways open to an endless string of tiny 16-seat restaurants and cafes, each one serving grilled sardines, steak sandwiches, and sweet prawns washed down with Sagres beer. Our first night, we do nothing but walk the streets until we end up at Pharmacia, a hip petiscos (tapas) restaurant located in the Pharmacy Museum and overlooking the Miradouro de Santa Catarina. The place is just achingly cool and the food is delicious. I’m surprised to discover that the handsome, young staff (like everyone else in Lisbon) speaks fluent English so my “obrigadas” and “holas” sound comical and pathetic in comparison. At 9pm the shutters rise and we glimpse bartenders polishing glasses, DJs setting up equipment. Shopkeepers linger in the doorway, taking a pause to smoke a cigarette before the onslaught of tourists and locals. After a month in the country, the hum of nightlife is infectious. The kids, energized by the lights and noise, take to the mostly pedestrian side streets and race up and down the hills. They are like puppies, chasing after the occasional car, trying to out race it to the top. We come home to find a long queue outside our door. The restaurant below us has opened and Oona stays up way past her bedtime hanging out the window shouting “hola” and waving to the people below.
The next day we head straight for the Mercado da Ribeira, the city’s largest marketplace and open for business since 1892. If you don’t mind your produce covered in fruit flies, this is the place to go. There are also rows and rows of fresh fish and meat stalls and flower vendors. But the real reason to go is the newly opened food court. Developed and curated by Time Out, the food court showcases stalls from 35 of the most respected restauranteurs in Lisbon. Not only are you guaranteed a great meal, it’s an easy, albeit pricey way to sample the trends of the Lisbon food scene.
After lunch we walked along the Tagus River where Isoo got in a little urban birding and then we hit our first sight, the grossly ornate Igreja de Sao Roque. Built in Rome in the 17th century, disassembled, shipped to Lisbon and then reassembled, it features a series of eight gilded chapels in the Baroque style. Walking through the small, adjacent museum, I was mortified to discover that the kids are completely ignorant of all things religious. (I see a mass in their future.)
Dinner that night was at teeny Taberna da Rua das Flores. Chris and I loved the seafood heavy Portuguese menu, but the kids, Isoo, especially, eyed it suspiciously. If there is promise of dessert, Oona can usually be counted on to find something to eat. Isoo on the other hand, will dig in his heels and go to bed miserable and hungry. That night they grumbled of the heat, the food, the size of the apartment. They longed for the familiarity and space of Ireland.
The next morning we awoke to 86 degree temperatures so Chris and I ditched our sightseeing and home school plans and packed the kids for the beach. We rode the Metro to Cascais and then took a cab from the station to the famed Guincho Beach for a surf lesson. While I had taken a swim class in preparation for this trip, I worried the rough waves might be too challenging for a novice swimmer, much less a first time surfer. My suspicions were confirmed when we arrived to find that the Women’s International Pro Surf Competition was taking place on the beach. It was nothing like what you see in the movie, Blue Crush. Rather, it’s a very quiet, serious affair, with more press than spectators. We got to see 21 year-old, Aussie, Laura Enever take first place for the day.
This is Enever before hitting the water.
Despite her fear of sharks, Oona rocked her first day on the surf. Her instructor, Mariana, said she was a natural. Isoo did great as well, but Chris threw out his back and as a consolation prize, ended up lounging on the beach with me. We spent the rest of the afternoon jumping the huge waves and searching the beach for jellyfish. No surprise that it remains the kids' favorite day in Portugal thus far.
Double trouble: Oona on the left. Isoo on the right.
The kids did great, but some of the others weren't so lucky. We saw many surfers return to the shore with broken boards.
By the time we got back into Lisbon, it was time for dinner and we were all exhausted from a long day in the sun. The night before I had double locked the door and left the key in the lock. That morning, in our hurry to catch the train to Cascais, Chris forgot to take the key out of the lock, and instead, grabbed the spare set before shutting the door which locked automatically behind us. The kids, hungry, hot and sandy, sat on the stairs while Chris and I used knives and screwdrivers borrowed from the downstairs restaurant to try to push the key out of the keyhole from the outside. Suddenly, our crappy little apartment didn't seem so miserable anymore.
We finally called the not so happy landlord, who called in an emergency locksmith. Chris waited on the steps while I took the kids down the street to dinner. I don't think Oona even tasted her grilled chicken, lamenting again and again that she would not be able to sleep without her Snuffy. The locksmith arrived, donned his little flashlight hat, took one poke at the keyhole and voila, Oona and Snuffy were reunited. We won't even talk about the expense.
That night, whatever gratitude we felt dissipated. Think 1990's East Village, sandwiched between a subway and a night club. And it's summer and you have no air conditioning. And you have two kids who must share a tiny room, with an even tinier bed. Lying in my little tomb, sweating my ass off, listening to the throb of the music at 2:30 a.m., it dawned on me why this crappy little apartment was so familiar. It was reminiscent of every NYC apartment I ever had in my 20s. No closets? Check. Windowless bedroom? Check. A second bedroom with a view of an airshaft? An oven without a temperature dial? Rooms so small you can't even open the doors all the way? Cheap lighting? Stuccoed walls? Check! Check! Check! My favorite architectural touch is the placement of the bathroom in the kitchen. Lest you get bored while sitting on the toilet, you can look out the glass paneled door and watch Chris make the morning eggs.
In my sleepless stupor, I decided it would be a great idea to spend the entirety of the next day sightseeing. On the docket? The UNESCO appointed Jerónimos Monastery, two museums, the Belem Tower, a palace, and several monuments. I mean, what sleep deprived child doesn't want to stand in the heat looking at a monastery, right?
The saving grace was that Isoo saw a real live Rose-Ring Parakeet and Oona ate her weight in cinnamon sprinkled Belem pastries. Thank god for birds and pastries or this whole trip would be fucked. (We may have to put that on a T-shirt.)
That night was a Saturday. Oh my god. Ok, Lisbon. I get it. I will sleep when I am dead.
WHAT WE DID:
Praça de Luís de Camões
This square, right on our doorstep, separates Lisbon's two liveliest districts, Chiado and Bairro Alto. It's known as "the meeting place" and is deafening at night.
Igreja de São Roque
By the looks of the modest exterior, you'd never suspect the orgy of gold embossed splendor inside. Eight chapels, each more ornate than the next, and if that's not enough, check out the painted wood ceiling. We also visited the small museum attached. Not really my thing, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Moana Surf School
We took the Metro 40 minutes to the town of Cascais and then cabbed it another 10 minutes to Praia do Guincho. Ask your driver to drop you on the north end of the beach or just walk the 10 minutes across the sand to Moana Surf School. After some light stretching and a short introduction, everyone hit the waves. Isoo and Oona got their own teachers, but Chris was left to fend for himself. He claims they had better instructors in Maui, but the waves at Guincho were bigger, better and a sure thing. Price includes all equipment, including the wet suit.
WHERE WE ATE:
Located in the Pharmacy Museum, this restaurant serves petiscos (sort of like tapas, but more generously proportioned). The bread comes with vials of olive oil and salt, the drinks (like my LSD) are very therapeutic, the staff dress in lab coats, and the decor is inspired by retro medical equipment. All very kitschy fun. The food is great and I had my first taste of ginja, the traditional Portuguese cherry liquor. Mixed with whisky it tasted very much like a Manhattan. It was the perfect first dinner in Lisbon - ideal weather, kids happily running on the front turf, and the Miradouro de Santa Catarina.
Mercado da Ribeira
Clams in a rich cream sauce, black pig potstickers, tempura herbs and vegetables, prego (steak sandwich), seaweed and raw seabass. Forget Sbarros. I'd rather eat at this food court.
Taberna da Rua das Flores
We got there early and was charmed by what we thought was a tiny hole in the wall, until a half hour later when the place was packed with guide book carrying tourists. Nonetheless, the food was inexpensive and outstanding. And by outstanding, I mean Oona wouldn't even sit down to eat her clams. I had two orders of the scarlet prawns and went to bed with my hands smelling of shellfish. Delicious.
Bar do Guincho
Right next door to the Moana Surf School, this casual surf shack serves fresh salads and decent burgers. Wash it down with an ice cold draft or some fruit juice. Friendly service and of course, a fantastic view of the beach.
Oona contemplating her surf career over lunch on the patio of Bar do Guincho.
Casa da India
One of the few places in the touristy Barrio Alto that’s filled with more locals than tourists. The old guy in the window is the hardest working chicken grill master in town. The prices are great and the food is straightforward and hearty. We’ve been twice: The first time for the sardines, grilled simply with a little salt and served with salad and boiled potatoes (very Portuguese). The next night we did take out of grilled chicken with rice and fries. Hands down the kids’ favorite restaurant in Lisbon.