It’s a strange feeling stepping off a plane into a place you have no knowledge of and even less of an idea of where to go. I had not planned for Lisbon, though I knew I would be having an eight hour layover in the Portuguese capitol, I was woefully under-researched on where to go or what to see. I often prefer this method of wandering, walking into a new place and figuring it out as I go, but Lisbon presented an entirely new challenge for me, in that I didn’t even know the language or understand anything beyond the fact that it was a city and that I had time.
So, armed only with google maps and a day pass to the Metro, which I somehow managed to procure from an automated ticket machine at the airport, I hopped onto a train and rode a few stops south toward what I gathered was the old part of town, toward the waterfront that I hoped would bring me some good architecture and cultural experiences.
I was immediately confronted by the most significant language barrier I had ever run into, this being my first real overseas trip. I had hoped, and maybe overconfidently assumed, that my high school Spanish would aid me in my wanderings through Portugal, and frankly, didn’t anticipate spending enough time in the city for it to matter either way. In truth, the differences between Spanish and Portuguese were just significant enough that I found myself quickly overwhelmed, the signs, sounds, and sights of the city throwing me completely out of whack as I stepped out of the metro into the Parque Alameda. The normal disorientation I inevitably get when stepping out of a metro station was magnified ten-fold here, and it took me a few moments to gather my bearings. I began to seek out something comfortable, something grounded, something I could use as a landmark to move out deeper into this strange bustling city.
I spotted a fountain at the end of the park, and, pulling my camera around, tried to stabilize my experience by doing what comes most natural to me when I’m in a new place, taking photos. I focused on finding the beauty amongst the chaos and disorientation, tried isolating the things I could understand, in this case, the statuary of the Fonte Luminosa.
Immediately, as is often the case when I start shooting, I began to calm down and appreciate things around me more. I started watching the people, here a street musician setting up his guitar case, there a couple walking with eyes only for each other. I started noticing the buildings, the bright colored paints and worn textures of their facades, the old wood, the exposed brick, the flaking plaster. I began to orient myself, and set out south, toward the harbor.
I walked past old churches, along streets both modern and older, paved and cobbled. I avoided what seemed to be the main roads as much as I could, drifting through side streets and small squares. In one square, as I walked, an argument broke out between two men at a cafe, over a woman, as far as I could gather, and a fight ensued, fists flying and people yelling and screaming everywhere. Tables were upended and the instigating party, a young man in a track suit, ran off down a side street. A pair of police soon ran down the street after the man, and I kept walking, unable to comprehend what exactly had just happened.
I moved a bit quicker after the fight, pushing deeper into what I could only assume was the historic part of town. Here the roads became steeper, rougher, more narrow and maze-like. As I walked I began to notice the street art covering the walls, the details of the buildings, here a random mannequin on a balcony, there a peeling movie poster, texture everywhere.
I passed along the outer walls of the Castelo de San Jorge, getting lost as I picked my way through the meandering streets of the Bairro del Castelo, and played with the countless cats wandering the streets, looking for food from unwitting tourists.
The aromas of local cuisine filtered out of restaurants and cafes, mingling with the briny smell of the harbor, just visible over the tops of buildings. It was just on the edge of overwhelming, but I soaked it all up, relishing the experience with each turn.
I moved down the hill, running into several dead ends, backtracking more than once, but steadily moving closer to the water that I knew lay just a mile away. After several twists and turns, the narrow streets opened up and I stepped out to an amazing view over the orange rooftops of the city, sloping steadily down toward the blue waters of the bay.
I soaked up the sounds and the feel of the breeze coming off the bay, letting the feel of the place wash over me. I listened to street musicians playing for tips, and watched a group of Somali immigrants barter Nikes to tourist and local alike. There was so much energy and life out there at the Miradouro, it was an assault on all senses at the same time, but a welcome one, like being submerged in warm water and letting it carry you along.
I found a stairway that led down to the waterfront, and followed it down, past some fascinating street art until I reached a road that led me toward the Praça do Comércio, with its high arched colonnade running along three sides and an expansive view of the harbor to the south.
I felt the pull of hunger as I stepped out onto the Plaza, and only barely resisted the urge to go exploring the Museum of Beer. Instead I took a few photos in the square and started walking back north, along the Rua Augusta, which seemed to be a major street for shopping.
Everywhere I looked, I saw posters and signs for something called a Pastel de Bacalao, a fried something or other that I felt I just had to try. I stepped into the shop that had advertised them so extensively, and watched two ladies make the small hand-rolled balls of potato and fish, then dunk them into a fryer to brown. The Pastel was like a Portuguese croquette, potatoes mixed with salt cod deep fried and served hot, made two ways, straight or filled with a melty, gooey sheep’s cheese.
PASTÉIS DE BACALHAU RECIPE
- 10 ounces salted cod, preferably thick pieces
14 ounces russet potatoes, unpeeled
1 small onion, very finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 large eggs
Vegetable or canola oil, for frying
1. Rinse the cod well to wash away some of the surface salt. Place it in a roomy bowl, cover it with cold water, and set aside, changing the water 4 to 5 times for a total of 12 hours (for very thin cuts) to 24 hours (for thicker cuts). Before cooking, taste a few strands to make sure it’s not overly salty, although it should retain some saltiness or the resulting cod cakes will be bland.
2. Boil the potatoes (preferably in their skins, so the potatoes don’t absorb water). Peel the potatoes and mash or sieve them. Set aside.
3. Meantime, simmer the cod in enough boiling water to cover until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain the cod, discard the skin and bones, and flake the fish as much as you can with your fingers or a fork to reduce it to threads. (The proper way of doing this is to place the flaked cod inside a clean cloth, fold it and squeeze and pound the contents of the cloth with your fists. In this way you will have mashed cod.)
4. Mix the cod with the mashed potatoes and add the eggs, 1 by 1, and then the onion and parsley. Taste and, if desired, season with salt. You may not need to add any, as the cod itself retains quite a lot of saltiness, in spite of being soaked and boiled. The mixture should be quite stiff, enabling a spoon to stand up in it. If you find it excessively dry, add one or two tablespoons of milk. Allow this to cool completely before deep frying.
5. With two tablespoons, shape the fishcakes like large eggs and place in the hot oil (370°F/190°C), turning them three or four times to get nicely browned all over. When cooked, lift them with a big fork or slotted spoon and place them on kitchen paper, to absorb excess fat. Go on molding and frying until you use up the mixture.
They were astonishingly quick with the whole process, and after leaving briefly to procure some cash, not having any Euros on me, I purchased two and walked down the street, shoving the tasty morsels into my face and grinning like a fool the whole way.
I kept wandering, now full of fish and potato, and moved further north, in the direction I hoped would take me back to a train station so I could make my return trip to the airport before time ran out on me.
Eventually, after taking photos of the fountain at the Praça Rossio and the gardens at the Parque Eduardo VII de Inglaterra, I found a train that would take me back to the airport and hopped aboard. On the way back, I became engrossed in looking at the photos I had taken that day and missed the stop for the airport, only realizing my mistake when the train stopped at the end of the line and the conductor came back and yelled at me in Portuguese, with what I could only imagine were a significant number of insults and swear-words, though everything he said was completely lost in translation. He finally pointed at me and then at the seat, telling me to sit down and wait, and eventually the train started moving again. I got off at the next stop and made my way back into the airport, tired and more than a little embarrassed, but feeling warmed up and ready for the next step.
Before long I had boarded my plane to Rome, the first step in my long pilgrimage across southern Europe, and said goodbye to Lisbon, knowing I would have to return and see the city, and the rest of Portugal, properly some day.