The Reluctant Writer: Something Else to do When I Should Be Writing

February 18, 2009

Writing about Lisbon

Filed under: writing — cynthiaboiter @ 03:27
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Below is another excerpt from Bob, Beer and Me — complete with footnotes.  It’s about the very first place we visited when we began our quest for the world’s greatest beers – an unlikely place to seek out great beer. 


            The quest began in Lisbon, oddly enough.  And that’s only because we’re cheap – or we would like to be.  Annie, our oldest daughter, herself well-traveled but only at the heels of her parents, was anxious to try out her solo wings for a journey and knew that her dad and I were looking for a travel bargain to the continent as well.  So in the process of scanning the web she found what sounded like an amazing deal on a flight to Lisbon.  Lisbon?  We had never actually considered going to Lisbon.  In fact, the entire Iberian Peninsula had somehow escaped us as travel destinations over the years, despite a great love for European travel and several years of college level Spanish.  The deal sounded too good to be true when Annie rang me on my cell, catching Bob and myself on our second beer at a local Columbia pub.  Lisbon?  Surely, they have beer in Lisbon, we thought, given that beer is the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage and, other than water and tea, the most consumed as well. There could be a trove of beer knowledge to be gleaned from a gambit in Portugal – and we might be among the first to tap it.  Right?

            Not so much.  Actually, the reality of the “deal” to reach the continent via Lisbon was a bit tenuous as well.  While Bob and I had purchased more than a dozen flights to Europe over the past two decades – sometimes with a particular city or country destination in mind, and sometimes just looking for that amazing bargain on a flight that would get us to the continent, saving us money better spent on the ground than in the air, we had always looked more toward central Europe – France, Italy, or maybe the UK with the plan of taking the Chunnel[1] to Calais and then make use of Europe’s vast railway system to get us where we needed to go.  In reality, we hadn’t in recent history actually looked at Portugal on the map.

            Fact is that not only is Portugal in Western Europe, it is the most western of Western Europe.  And Lisbon?   Lisbon is the most western of Portuguese destinations.[2]  Having succumbed to Annie’s campaign for this flight and opted in on the purchase of three more round trip tickets to fly from Charlotte, North Carolina into Portugal, to accompany the two that she and boyfriend Kyle would be purchasing – always with the mindset that you can get to anywhere in Europe once you get into Europe itself, we consulted the large glossy world map that we keep posted below our kitchen counter.  Spreading our fingers from our thumbs to connect Lisbon with one of the primary beer countries where we knew we wanted to go – Germany, Belgium or the Czech Republic, for example – we noticed that the delicate tissue between our digits were stretched quite thin.  We dug out our travel books and rail guides.  As it turned out, it would take no less than 12 hours just to reach Madrid from Lisbon – and Madrid was still further west than we had imagined going on this venture.[3]  But the refund-free tickets were purchased and there was no turning back.  Lisbon here we come!

            Research told us not to expect a lot in the way of beer in Portugal, despite a beer festival scheduled to take place in Lisbon during one of the weekends we would be in town that was subsequently canceled.  But we took heart as we were exiting the Aeroporto de Lisboa after our flight over the Atlantic and met with a number of large advertisement murals displaying colossal murals of a surprisingly light colored cerveja called Super Bock.  It was just the kind of greeting we needed to assure us we were on the right path.

            Lisbon is a beautiful old berg with great potential.  As it was the starting and the ending point for our wanderings, we scheduled a weekend both coming and going in this city of less than 600,000 people.[4]  Lisbon also served as one of the few gathering points for this trip during which our party of five would meet, separate into groups of two and three as Annie, boyfriend Kyle, and youngest daughter Bonnie backpacked across the continent and Bob and I flew over their trails below; meet again in Prague where we would share an apartment with Bonnie, who was scheduled to dance there for a week, while Annie would show novice traveler Kyle some of her favorite spots in Italy and France.  The five of us would meet up once again in the picturesque and kitschy Rothenburg ob der Tauber, from where we would see a bit more of Germany together, then split up one more time into groups of young and old before we reassembled back in Lisbon for one last weekend and then our flight home.

            Bob, Bonnie and I actually arrived in Portugal a day before the young sweethearts, giving us time to scout out the city, as we like to do first thing, be brutally overcharged for a taxi ride from the airport , discover that the Elevador da Bica,[5] the funicular connecting the Bairro Alta (upper quarter) of the city where we stayed with the streets far below, had been out of service for a good six months, and sleepily stumble into the touristy section of the city for a rip-off meal of the poorest quality.  Welcome to Lisbon!

            But the beauty of the city cannot be denied.    Built on seven ancient hills, we followed Lisbon’s slippery black and white tile walkways, made from basalt and limestone, like a yellow brick road across the great boulevards and into the different city districts, each one unique and drenched in history.  The medieval downtown district, called the Baixa, is home to the Praca do Comercio and Rossio Square, certainly the oldest and arguably the most important plazas in the city.  Much of the Baixawas destroyed in 1755 by an earthquake so large that the tsunami it generated was felt as far away as Galway, Ireland; so devastating that 85% of the city was destroyed and as many as 40,000 died.

            Our home, for the first of our Lisbon visits, was nestled high up on Lisbon’s seventh hill in the Bairro Alta, the center of city nightlife. The Portuguese version of New York City’s Flat Iron Building, Pensao Londres is wedged into the Rue Dom Pedro where it rises four floors even higher to afford travelers an unrivaled view of the city, from the Lisbon Cathedral and Castle Sao Jorge in the Alfama district to the Monument to Christ the King, built on the far side of the Tagus after World War II to celebrate and give thanks that the city was spared.

            On the following day when our group was complete, we only had to walk a few blocks into the Barrio to find the tangible essence of the Portuguese soul – fado music.  There is more than one theory on from whence this melancholic celebration of longing came, but most people attribute fado’s origins to the Moors who stayed in areas around Lisbon even after the crusading Christians took back control of the country in 1147.  Taverns and fado houses, where the fado contado is sung, are recognizable by prevalent black shawls and Portuguese guitars, with  fadistas singing of immutable destiny – fado, literally translating as “fate” – in four line stanzas of unrhymed verse, usually concentrating on miseries, lost loves and the dead.[6]  It was sitting within the stone walls of a fado house where we sampled an ample supply of Lisbon’s brews.


[1]The Channel Tunnel, or “Chunnel” as it is often referred, is the second longest underground rail tunnel in the world, connecting the United Kingdom at the Strait of Dover to Calais in Northern France, by burrowing under the English Channel for more than 31 miles.  It was opened in 1994 after six years of construction.  In 1996, the Chunnel was named as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.  And it makes your ears pop when you go through it.

[2] If Lisbon were a dead Hollywood celebrity, it would be John Wayne. 

[3] Our knowledge of Spanish beer, or cerveza, was limited to the occasional San Miguel; upon further inspection, the only others we could find to choose from were Cruzcampo, Damm and Mahou.

[4] The population of Lisbon proper is roughly 565,000 people with a total of 2.8 million living in the Lisbon Metropolitan area.

[5] There are several such funiculars, or elevators, in Lisbon: the Elevador da Santa Justa, a gothic revival elevator built more than a century ago that connects the medieval Baixa with the Chiado below, the Elevador da Gloria, and the Elevador da Lavra – all of which are dedicated to saving the knees and hearts of Lisbon’s citizens and visitors – that is, when they are working.

[6] In short, the Portuguese version of country-western music.

[7] Interestingly enough, while Super Bock leaves much to be desired as a beer, it has become something of a cult favorite among the British traveling football teams and their fans – particularly those from Manchester United who actually featured the beer in a song about their legendary player, Wayne Mark Rooney.


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