I arrived in Lisbon on the evening of Saturday #101 and was surprisingly well rested after a ‘grueling’ nine hour bus ride from Spain. The next morning my friends Patrick and Raymond flew in from Toronto and we met at the charming Bairro Alto (Bohemian neighbourhood) apartment that Patrick had secured for the week.
There was a time when I believed that Patrick and Raymond had flown in to see me. Now that we’ve actually had a week together, I’m pretty sure my presence in Lisbon was just a convenient excuse for them to visit. After all, it provided them with the perfect excuse to order a third starter, a third plate of seafood, a third desert, wine by the bottle rather than the glass, etc. I’m kidding, of course, but man can those two eat – and find World Class places to eat. We certainly didn’t go hungry at any point during the week and Saturday #102 proved to be the pièce de résistance.
We started the day as we had each of the previous six days – by eschewing the funicular and walking down the very steep Calcada da Gloria to the intersection of Avenida da Liberdade where each day Patrick would magically find us an open table at a great little cafe overlooking Praca do Rossio.
This cafe had indoor seating for 40 with an extra eight or 10 seats at several outdoor tables. As you can imagine, the outdoor seats were in high demand on sunny June mornings. After six days in Lisbon, including twice-daily visits to this cafe, I have yet to see an empty seat on the patio. Except when Patrick rounded the corner, that is. People who were said to have inherited their tables in wills would get up and leave as soon as we arrived. We’d be seated immediately and within a few minutes there would be 10, 20, sometimes 30 people milling about, all waiting for us to leave.
For years his friends have joked that Patrick must have horseshoes up his butt as he can find a parking spot beside the front door at Yorkdale on December 24, front-row tickets to any concert he’s ever tried to book (generally at the last minute) and even a prime table at the hottest Toronto restaurant during TIFF – while George Clooney and Meryl Streep’s parties were paraded past him and plunked down at cramped tables between the bathroom and the busboy station. You’d think the horseshoes would be rusty by now – they’ve been up there since I first met him in 1990 – but if his table procurement work in Lisbon is any indication, they’re functioning better than ever.
I’ve had pastel de nata (custard tarts) in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighbourhood but the pastry wasn’t as flakey as the tarts sold all over Lisbon. The best tarts were to be had at “our” little cafe, of course.
We had a late start to the day on Saturday so it was almost noon before we finished our coffees and tarts and began to think about lunch. We decided to make our way to Time Out Mercado da Ribeira even though we had been there just two days earlier. It was a 2km hike from cafe to market so naturally there were a few pit-stops along the way.
Most cities have one or two iconic souvenirs and Lisbon is no different. Only here you had better buy a few of each as two of Lisbon’s best souvenirs could be consumed before you even get to the airport. There are shops in Lisbon that sell nothing but sardines or port and we stopped at several on our way to the market.
At less than €2 apiece, the colourful tins of sardines were definitely affordable. The port was another story. I found a 1962 Porto Colheita for €645 or C$964. There were older vintages at lower prices and a 1963 that was even more expensive. When I asked about the pricing, the shopkeeper insisted that 1962 was one of the best years in the last 50. I reminded him that 1962 was a little more than 50 years ago – I should know – but he didn’t seem to get my point. Someday I will buy a bottle of 1962 port but not today.
No trip to Lisbon would be complete without a shot of Ginjinha. We came across the city’s most famous Ginjinha joint at #26 Praça Dom Pedro IV so we popped in for a shot of Portugal’s famous cherry liqueur just to say we did. I found it a little too sweet for my liking which was in stark contrast to the sour bartender / mortician who served us. He wasn’t into conversation and when the woman in front of me asked for a second cherry “because she lost hers,” he shot her a look that said, “Lady, I’ve heard that one a million times.”
Lisbon has many tourist friendly attractions but perhaps the most inviting is Time Out Mercado da Ribeira. The indoor public market can trace its roots back to the 13th century when it was the largest fish market in Europe. Today the fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood is sold out of an adjacent building with the main hall recently transformed into foodie heaven.
Many of Lisbon’s best restaurants operate satellite operations at the market, selling only their most iconic dishes. Tourists and locals alike flock to the market by the thousands each day and it’s not hard to see why. Here’s a sample of what we had on two separate visits to the market.
The walk back to the apartment seemed a lot longer than the walk to the market so we decided to play it safe and stop for a drink and a little fortification. The wine at one blue collar lunch counter was 60 cents a glass or €3 for a one litre jug. I kid you not. You cannot drink wine like that without some food so we ordered a light snack of conch, barnacles and snails. I’d take the conch over Loblaws lobster any day and in Lisbon it’s practically free! The barnacles were relatively expensive but that’s because men risk their lives to scrape them off rocks during low tide. I’ve seen a video on the process and it really is a risky job. Not as risky as coming between me and a plate of snails cooked in wine and garlic, but risky just the same.
I suspect that most people in Lisbon eat pretty well, and who wouldn’t with prices like these? Even the members of the National Guard (?) were a little on the portly side… And wearing Charo wigs. What’s up with that?
For some reason we weren’t that hungry at dinner time so we waited until much later before heading out for drinks and eventually burgers at two different spots in our Bairro Alto neighbourhood. A few days earlier Patrick and Raymond had stumbled upon a little bar called Pavilhão Chinez (Chinese Pavillion) so we decided to check it out.
The front room is pretty amazing but only after we had downed a round of drinks and went looking for the restroom did we realize there are four more rooms and each is chock full of political memorabilia, vintage action figures, war-themed toys from WWI and WWII and countless oddities. Torontonians could be excused for thinking they’ve come across a combination of George Bigliardi’s Church Street Steakhouse and Ed Mirvish’s Ed’s Warehouse restaurant, circa 1975.
The place has an interesting history, too. In 1986 a man named Luis Pinto Coelho opened an antique store in an old Chinese grocery store. Sales didn’t exactly take off but many of his friends would stop by to chat. Luis would pour them a drink and they’d pass the day waiting for real customers who were as rare as his eclectic merchandise. After a year Luis started charging for the booze and he took the price tags off his massive collection. Today he entertains customers from around the world who stop by for a look at the collection – and to spend a steep €6 on a Caipirinha. I had two. Okay, three.
Luis wasn’t at the bar on Saturday but I did have a chat with one of his bartenders. I asked if many of the items were reproductions. “Absolutely not,” he said. In fact, only a handful of the more than one million items have been purchased since the 1970s and most items are WWII vintage. I asked what he meant by “a handful” and he replied, “Five to 10 items at most.” He explained that several celebrities have visited the bar and later sent gifts that Luis felt obliged to put on display. I spent half an hour trying to pick out the items that were newer than the 1960s. It wasn’t until I had made my way to the back room that I spotted two familiar faces high up on a dusty shelf.