How can it be so hard to find the massive Ponte 25 de Abril bridge over the Tagus river??? We could see it, but it took us almost an hour of driving around Lisbon to find the entry to the bridge and A2 Sul. To add insult, it was a toll bridge.
It was May 30 and we were headed for Evora. The drive wasn’t anything to write home about–it was hot, silly sunny, and hazy. We enjoyed the fresh air, the breeze and seeing the cork oaks dotting the landscape. Strange to see truck beds full of large pieces of tree bark, which was the harvested cork.
Arriving into Evora was easy enough. Finding our hotel…not so easy. What’s with us today and this relentless hide-and-seek driving game?!? It took an hour driving around in Evora to find our hotel. We were in the right area the whole time…circling the place because it wasn’t labeled, nor were the streets. It was way too appropriate when U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” came on the radio.
But, it was simply a posh Hotel Solar de Monfalim Évora, little room #207…high stucco’d walls and a 3.5 x 7 ft “veranda”…and air conditioning! We spent the day wandering the narrow, cobblestoned lanes. Lots to see–rooster-themed pottery, friendly dogs, moorish influenced tiles, a church with mismatched bell towers/steeples. I especially liked the looks of one shop, where behind the counter there were hundreds of wrought iron key hole / door latch covers in Moorish, gothic styles and also all these arabic/syrian lamps with the beaded shades.
For two days, we walked lovely little Evora and ate the simple foods of Portugal–chicken pastries (we point, and ask “frango?”), strip steaks with onions/tomatoes and eggs, and wine. A favorite memory turned out to be this tiny little place we found when wandering by the aqueduct, called O’Portao. It only had four tables and an ice cream cooler in the front. We went back for dinner. One woman in a pink dress took our orders, cooked them and served them too. She brought wine in a rough hewn, brick red, terra-cotta pitcher. Our meals of strip steak and mushrooms and fries was plain and perfect. We sat and listened to the family behind us out for dinner. We watched the kids come and go, opening the ice cream cooler, leaning in, sorting around, and paying the lady for their selection before leaving again. We wandered the area afterwards, admiring the diamond shaped patterns on the Evora sidewalks.
Tomorrow, we were off to Sintra for two nights, a little place east of Lisbon.
Next we were on to Portugal. We flew through Casablanca again and got into Lisbon mid-day. The taxi to the hotel took less time than getting our luggage. Bom Dia! We were in Portugal!
Four flights of stairs up to the Pensao Aljubarrota Lisbon–room 8. I was delighted with the old house, the ambiance of the room and its tiny terrace overlooking a quiet street. Despite the room being only about 10 x 10 ft, there were THREE sets of french doors in the room, a massive old armoire and headboard, a tiny dressing table and a shower, bidet, and sink en suite. The toilets were down the hall. It was a satisfying little daydream to imagine living in this tiny studio space with just the minimum amount of “stuff”. I liked sitting out on the narrow sunny, balcony–just enough space for two chairs and a small table. Lights were strung along the railings, and candle stubs melted onto the balcony floors. Other balconies across the way and down the street had flowing pots of flowers, drying laundry, and brightly painted chairs and tables.
It turned into a favorite thing to do…to sit on that balcony. We washed clothes in our sink and hung them to dry on the balcony. I sat out there with it, sipping cold cokes and eating crackers. I wondered about the people living behind all the other balconies’ French doors with flowing white lace curtains opening into unseen living spaces. Sometimes you’d see someone–a matronly woman stepping out to pinch back the flowers, a shirtless man sitting out for a morning smoke, a young mother–with a kid on the hip–hanging out baby clothes with one hand.
Lisbon was HOT. The heat made us lazy, too languid to even be cranky. We spent time at cafes outdoors–sipping cold drinks and watching tourists, pigeons, hash dealers, and the locals.
The bad part of our pensao was the “curfew”–the outside doors locked from midnight to 9 a.m…no getting in or out. There was no air conditioning, no fans, and a limited breakfast. Nights could be loud as the neighborhood came to life. It was like Rear Window on that balcony. But with the heat, the noise, and knowing you’re locked in…nights could be very, very long.
One night we went to Fado at Canto Do Camoes…expensive, but a delicious meal of salmon with hollandaise sauce, thin green beans, potatoes, and white asparagus in butter. Bryan had steak with mushrooms and garlic and lobster bisque and we shared two bottles of red Portuguese wine. We listened to the singers…this melancholy saudade–a sort of ethereal, aching, yearning for something lost or unattainable…Portugal’s “country” music.
We spent one evening walking up along the Miradoura de Sao Pedro de Alcantara. From there you have beautiful views of the crowded, red-roofed Baixa area below. One day, we walked up, up, up and spent the better part of the day on Miradoura de Santa Luiza–gazing below and getting the breeze and the view while eating and drinking and postcard writing. Peaceful. We walked in Alfama–laundry hanging across the narrow streets, school kids walking in packs, ladies standing outside windows talking to ladies inside their half doors. Narrow alleys, steps up and down and tidy balconies filled with color.
Another night near sunset, we strolled up in Barrio Alto to the Praco do Principe Real, a very scenic area. It was an old neighborhood–colorful but peeling-paint houses and big trees with purple flowers. In the park, there was this massive old tree–cedar, I believe–supported all around with an arbor. The arbor held the tree up and open like a giant umbrella. The trunk was large and muscular, the branches gnarled and twisted through the arbor supports. Kids played, couples snuggled, and a chess game went on beneath its branches. We took the yellow Gloria trolley down to the plaza below and got ice cream at twilight. SO HOT back in the Lisbon valley!
One morning, we woke Guissepe up at 8 a.m. to let us out for coffee and the flea market. That was a good day. I found lots of little trinkets–a tiny rosary, a single delicate little port glass, old chandelier beads, a glass absinthe bottle, a cafe tin canister, and an art nouveau lady made of silver. All the little bits and pieces that I love and collect like a magpie collects shiny things.
On our final night in Lisbon, we spent the evening on the Miradoura, feeding the birds and watching the sunset. We returned to pack up and sat with Guissepe in his small, breezy evening kitchen–enjoying wine and cheese. He’d been open for four years now, but had lost his partner to leukemia three years ago. It was not the way he’d intended “the pensao plan” to go. I looked around the crowded space taking in the stacks of books, the photos taped to the walls. We had noticed Guissepe many times during our stay, sitting alone on his balcony smoking, or strolling, hands-behind his back, down the streets near his home–the working pensao. It was humbling sitting there in his tiny kitchen listening the dream and the reality.
The next morning, we took the metro–boarded at the Linha Caravela “C”/green line’s Rossio stop, changed to the blue, “A” Linha Gaivota at Baixa-Chiado to the car rental place around the Parque stop. We rented a little car and loaded up–bound for Evora and up to the north of Portugal.
We left Heathrow on time, bound for Casablanca and a connecting quick flight to Marrakech. I was wide awake a couple of hours later when we dropped into Marrakech at twilight. I’d seen the red hills of Africa and the Mediterranean from the air.
Overnight travel seems to make your senses pop and crackle even though you’re exhausted. Stepping out of the airport into the hot, dry, night air was breathtaking. You could smell the heat, the desert, the jasmine, the mint in the air. Our taxi sped past bicyclists in white robes and in a quick few minutes we were in the Sheraton Hotel lobby being served hot mint tea in delicate glasses by a man dressed in a white, loose-fitting, pajama-like outfit, a red hat and brown leather shoes like house slippers. He looked so comfortable, elegant and exotic. The tea was steaming–and a fistful of mint leaves filled the tiny glass. We sat in the lobby–watching the people come and go as someone, somewhere checked us in. Later in our room, we sat on our balcony–sipping from the little wine bottles from the airplane and enjoying the sounds of the palm trees in the breeze. We inhaled the desert night air like dogs sniff the wind. We had been up for over 36 hours, traveling for 24 of it…and we were tired, but oddly awake. We sat there for awhile–watching and listening to the night.
The next morning, we “acquired” a guide, Noori. He took us to El Bahia Palace, the Menara Gardens, and the souks. The Palace had been built as a harem–quiet courtyards filled with fountains, cypress, and carved cedar woodwork and cool blue tiles with that repetitive pattern. All the colors mean something orange=saffron, white=jasmine, blue=cobalt/indigo, green=mint tea, and red=henna. It seemed that many things I’d read about Morocco were about seduction: “I understood the seduction there is in a life that reduces everything to the simplest kind of repetition…” And everything Moroccan seemed dizzying in its repetition…the trance-like music, the patterned tiles, the Arabic script, the cedar woodwork, and even the religious rituals. Something about the place was mysterious and charming and sensual–but like a secret annex-type life. Our guide told us that Morocco allowed four wives if all could be supported equally and if the first wife permitted it. He joked that two would certainly be too much for him.
We were anxious to see the souks. I’d read “in a society that conceals so much, that keeps the interior of its houses, the figures and faces of its women, and even its places of worship jealously hidden from foreigners, the great openness with what is manufactured and sold is doubly seductive.” It was an interesting experience–overwhelming–loads to see and smell. There were precious few moments alone to feast your eyes without someone approaching to tell you all about the exquisiteness of the piece you really only glanced at and to summon mint tea by the teapot from some unseen source. It was intimidating and thrilling. Of course, Noori led us to his favorite sellers in the souk. The shopkeeper calculated on a tiny handheld calculator and then wrote the tally on a tiny notebook that was handed over with humble care. I tried quickly to figure out the exchange rate math (20 dirhams = $2)–and scratched out the original tally in exchange for a number about 50% lower. The haggling was on. After about 5 glasses of mint tea and lots of back-and-forth, I walked away with a Moroccan teapot, a set of 6 tiny green glasses, a silver tray, silver barrettes, some saffron, jasmine oil perfume, and a hand of Fatima. It turned out that I paid more than I thought I did. Now, I can look back and see that the $ difference was worth the experience. But later that day, when I was sitting by the pool, going over the math again in my head–I realized I’d paid about $100 more than I thought I did, and I was mad–I felt I’d been taken advantage of. We would not use a guide the next day…
We spent early mornings pool side, venturing out mid-day. Our routine was to find a street level cafe on the square, order the great little cafe au lait coffees with sugar cubes and watch Marrakech meander by….a goat following a man like a leashless dog, a cigarette salesman–selling the goods one at a time and tossing his change to alert potential buyers to his presence. He did a brisk business. Everyone wore robes…we watched as every color passed by, stirring up red dusty clouds at their feet. There were bikes, carts, and cars. Horns and muezzin calls.
And we went back into the Souks with a tough-as-nails haggling approach. And that day–I was proud. Walking through the souk, separated from Bryan by about 20 feet as we “window” shopped, a strange man walked alongside me, rubbing his forearms and then briskly zipping and unzipping his pants. I ignored him, and stopped to look at some beautiful hand-carved domino sets. The shopkeeper quickly came out, telling me they were made of cedar and orange and to please smell them! They were lovely. He, however, was a bit of a jerk. He told me a price, very high. I said “for two?” He made a face and said no with a flip of his hand. The men seemed to treat women rudely and it was damn frustrating. After the lewd little man with the zipper and this guy, I was steaming. So I turned to walk away to catch up with Bryan. But then he called out “Yes, ok!” So…two cedar and orange wood domino sets for the price he originally asked for just one. I felt a little better. It was all a game to be played.
All told that day: Bryan got two leather bags, and a pair of the cool Moroccan leather shoes–in orange, size 11+. Two men chased all over the souks for about an hour looking for big enough shoes in a red/brown or orange color for him. While we waited for the next pair to try on, we smiled and nodded a lot as we talked, sipped steaming tea, and haggled over the prices. In the end, everyone seemed satisfied…even if we did start at less than half the price they named. We also ended up with a solid block piece of perfume in sandalwood or amber. The very smell of Marrakech. We saw women haggling for bread, for every household supply. I can’t imagine doing that every day for every thing…it would be exhausting. I learned to let “la, la, la” roll off my tongue (no, no, no) without the least bit of remorse.
We spent the evenings in the square (Djemaa El Fna–“Meeting place at the end of the world” or “Place of the Dead”) or watching the mania from above in one of the many cafe terraces. Gas lights, orange juice sellers, fire breathers, snake charmers, belly dancers, henna ladies, lectures on pancreatic ailments (this guy sat on a short stool at a little table…he had a microphone taped to this chin, a spot light banded around his head, a 15 inch plastic torso model with removable insides and a school pointer…and a crowd of about 50 highly attentive men surrounding him. We picked out the word “pancreas” about 5 times.) There were acrobats, storytellers, tooth pullers, fortune tellers, water sellers…Add to that, the steam from street food vendors, gas light smells, and that sweet jasmine and sand smell. The crowd seemed to swirl in chaotic madness.
On our final night, we descended into the madness. Within moments, we’d seen a cobra rise up from a coil responding to a man with a turban and flute. A moment later, a fire ball spewed up from a man’s mouth about 10 feet away. Suddenly, a woman covered head-to-toe in a light blue gauzy veil–all but her heavy kohl-lined eyes–had my hand, was looking me in the eye asking me in 3, 4, 5 languages where I was from and henna painting my hand at the same time. The henna was cold–and itchy. But I was fascinated–she put the design on each finger joint, the top of my hand and up my wrist a bit. I let her finish so I could talk to her. Fatima–she knew of Chicago, “Michael Jordan!” When she’d disappeared into the crowd, after my paying her about $5, I found my way to a bathroom to get the itching stuff off. A kind Moroccan lady helped me wash it away…tut-tutting and smiling. She pointed at places where the henna was poorly applied and chattered away (in French? Arabic?) as we worked on my hands beneath the cold water in the small, dim bathroom.
Through London to Marrakech, Portugal and the Madeira Islands
This was to be a trip for all the senses… For the eyes–Moorish influences, crayon box of colors, repetitive artwork and script (trance or mania?), cork oak and olive trees. For the nose–spices, oranges, jasmine, mint, cedar. For the ears–Fado music and the calls to prayer. For the taste buds–Portuguese wine, Madeira port, and Moroccan mint tea. And for the skin–sun’s warmth, henna’d hands, stones, glass & tiles sanded smooth in the sea. But first…the three weeks begin with 6 hours in London…
Six hours in London
We arrived from Chicago on Thursday 5/24 into Heathrow around 10 a.m.
It was a longish layover, so we took the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station…then on the Hammersmith & City Line to Liverpool Street, and a ten minute walk down Bishopsgate Street to meet our friend, Robert for a pub lunch at Simpsons. We sat upstairs in a tight old wooden booth…a smoke filled room. After lunch, we three headed down to a sunny courtyard for beer and wine. As we sat around the keg table–we debated the age old travel question–“When are you really there? When does it count?” On the ground in the airport? Staying a night? Eating a meal? Exchanging $ for …?
We had to be back at Heathrow by 2:30 for our 4 p.m. flight to Marrakech…so did London “count”?