A year ago, HK and I plunged in, and briefly lost ourselves, in the melancholic, gastronomic, amber-rinsed night cobbled backstreets of Lisbon. For a week, our stomachs bulged to eruption point with seafood, pastries, and vino, our buns sculpted by steep strands and staircases, spirits lit by ubiquitous 60 cent espressos. We marvelled at plaza-top views of the quixotic Rio Tejo, and the terracotta waterline sprawl.
Memories worth reliving.
A fortnight ago, HK and I returned to Europe via Bangkok after separating at last from our bucolic transience in the velvet rut of Australia. Our ‘home’ remained ambiguous, liminal as ever, and Berlin commanded another stint.
A grand Northern Hemispheric reunion would mark the return: a weeklong indulgence with a cadre of Berlin’s finest in the cherished Portuguese capital that once so captured our appetites.
Joining the fold: Archaeologista, Snoozan ‘Nachos’ Le Grouche; walkin’. forkin’, and talkin’ gastro fiend, Solo-man Isadore; Grecian literary powerhouse, ‘Moose’ Pittara; Fat Tire matriarch and ‘Heads Up’ roustabout, Gomez McLean; bottomless pit and ‘Berlin Crocodile’ spearhead, Christouffe ‘Woodsy’ Woods; my partner in all things: aesthete, eagle eye, private spy, HK; and I, landing in Portugal under special pseudonym: ‘Ron.’
Bangkok was a sweaty affair, and I was chuffed to see the back end of it. A quick layover in chilly Berlin, and another morning of transit: Solo-man, HK and I rendezvousing with Nachos at Schoenefeld for celebratory 10am shandies. We smuggled champagne aboard and settled in for the three and half hour glide to the Iberian Peninsula.
“It’sagunna be a fiiiine day,” drawled the pilot.
And he was good for his word: a smooth ride the whole way, with glorious rays bearing over the sweet capital upon arrival, at stark odds with official predictions. This trend persisted the entire week, clouds forming only inside the collective psyche of local meteorologists, who come month’s end would be found prostrate in sweating heaps over bar benches in pools of Medronho and Aguardiente.
A meat-palmed, Chesterfield smoking cabbie named Geronimo hurled us in his beige Merc off to Rue Rodigues Sampaio 50, an ugly building just off the Avenue De Republique that belied an impressive fifth story digs, replete with grand dining room, parquet floors, roof access and a hell of a sunroom view. Stomachs gurgling, the four of us marched along the high-end Avenue to Bairro Alto to initiate Solo-man and Nachos in ‘O Trevo’, a no-frills diner and home of the greasiest, most satisfying bifanas in the city. Bifana is a sandwich rammed with pork fillets that have spent a good amount of time bubbling in garlic oil and their own fat, served with low-end mustard and chilli oil, digested with joy at 1.90 Euro a pop. Bourdain is a big fan of them. Dessert lurked three doors down at Manteigaria, slingers of some of the freshest, warmest and crispiest Pasteis De Natas this side of Belem, a custardly-orgasmic gastronomic meltdown. Word of warning: don’t confuse their icing sugar sachets for moist towelettes, or Christmas may explode on your pants.
We washed down the pork and pastries a few blocks over by Praca Dom Pedro, at A Ginjinha, a historic open fronted bar where stag-do stragglers and jet-set throngs down shots of stiff cherry liquor, spit pips, and let the sugary good times roll.
Returning to the lodge, we retired in the sunroom, imbibed Alentejo red, christening the digs, and the grand reunion, in style.
Moose, Gomez and Woodsy’s arrival the following morning kicked the hijinx up a notch. Daytime brews and crisp vino branca in the sunroom melded seamlessly into a convivial session at Josephine’s by the Largo do Intendente, where we imbibed mint-tinged sangrias, crisp beers and tasty tostas in the sun. The waning orb flared over old Lisboa from our immaculate vantage on the green outcrops of Graça, where narrowing inclines and winding staircases gave floppy buns a run for their money, and the smell of local families’ fresh laundry, hung on lines, filtered through the twilight air. We smashed cans on the great leafy hill, and the day was ours.
All this, of course, was mere preparation for the night’s seafood feast at Cervejeria Ramiro, celebrated local institution and well-garlic-oiled machine. Boss man, Ramiro is a smooth unit, vibing smug like the head of a Peruvian drug cartel, greeting us and the snaking line to his door in a blue pullover, riffing jovial and deploying wit. Finally admitted, we settled in for the works: crab bigger than your head, sizzling fat shrimp in garlic butter, clams and king prawns, oysters that’d out-perform Viagra. ‘Green’ wine flowed, and we soaked the whole affair up with the requisite Portuguese dessert: ‘Prego’, a melt-in-your-mouth beef sandwich – dream sweet for Woodsy, who detests sugary culmination to all meals.
The night air was cool and the city calm afterwards. We hobbled crosstown to Bairro Alto, ordered mojitos in a chilled out bar, settled for a session at Sol E Pesca, a hip dive in the sizzling blockhole of Cais do Sodré: the former red light district, and old HQ for Lisbon’s sailors, thieves, sex workers and degenerates. Sol e Pesca displayed impressive range of canned fish, its rods, nets and fish alluding to a former identity as a fishing-tackle store. As crowds descended around on the Rue Do Carvalho, the wine and beers flowed, and we became acquainted with, and enjoyed thoroughly, the unexpected pleasures of ‘Horse Face’.
Feverishly liquored, we boogied next door at Pensao D’Amor, a come one, come all dive club, in which a woman of fair vintage owned the decks with fat selections from Abba and Tina Turner, and interior walls shone with lurid projections of 1960s softcore glam. Our fine session on the dancefloor was marred only by an incredibly arduous wait for a final drink, as our pedant barman fawned a half hour over an attractive patron’s gin and tonic, mimicking the pace of Rowan Atkinson in ‘Love Actually’, while I stood, Rickman-style, in exasperated wait.
We night-capped a bottle of fine red back at the lodge, as nighttime Lisbon simmered in its amber soup below and beyond.
Up early in the morning, Woodsy and Gomez ransacked the remains of Castelo de Jorge, while Snooze, Solo-man, Moose, HK and I lumbered out at the crack of noon for bifanas, only to be crushed by the sight of O Trevo’s ‘Fechado’ sign. In varying degrees of hanger/gastro-apathy, we snacked instead at Sunday food markets, lazed by the foot of a great cathedral as incoming jets soared over us, and regrouped with W and Gomez on the historic 28 tram for a jiggly ride back to yesterday’s local at Josephine’s. A recovery session morphed fast into a second full blown deal, with glasses of Ricard, carafes of sangria, and a sturdy stream of Sagres returning collective spirits to more convivial levels. As the rains pelted down, we coddled inside by the Neil Diamond and Francoise Hardy LPs, and kitsch portraits of pugs in pearls, while ‘Murderer’ replaced Horse Face the drinking game du jour.
Nachos, craving squid, insisted we seek out an octopus-heavy dinner. Armed with local advice, we cabbed in tandem through dreary Lisbon downpour back to Bairro Alto, landing in the front bar of a stark Portuguese bistro, replete with 7-11-calibre fluorescent downlights. Forget dimmed halogen or mood candles – people round these parts demand to see their seafood. Octopi arrived in profusion, if not finesse. It was a motley clientele in the front bar, noisy, with glasses smashing and the shjzz shjzz of Portuguese inflections. One woman in particular had her eye set on Solo-man, hungrily staring at him as he nervously chowed his squids.
We traipsed the nighttime amber spill of the serpentine backstreets of Lisbon once more, on track back to the Avenue of the Republique, and the lodge at Rodrigues Sampaio. In the tiled moon-room, we consummated of another hefty day’s session, culminating with, and ending due to, the opening of a bottle of local port.
After three nights on the trot, some were feeling it. Pork bifanas, ordered from an inferior haunt around the corner, sat poorly in my gut after the final bite and, with gastro tremors threatening ruin, I somehow mustered the mirth to squeeze into Gomez and Woodsy’s Fiat Panda so as to meet Solo-man, Nachos and Moose in their equally diminutive, freshly rented, Fiat ‘Punto’ at the main station. Like most of Lisbon, the Panda was not built for folks of girth; it would leave my left ass cheek completely numb after a two hour ride south to Vila Nova de Milfontes – our next destination.
Before all that, we had to get our behinds out of Lisbon, which, as HK and I learned a year earlier, can be a rather perilous experience for the uninitiated. After missing our turn onto the Vasco Da Gama bridge, not far from a roundabout where a ‘Bombeiros’ Ambulance had tipped itself sideways off the roadside, we regrouped to let Solo-man lead the charge, only to watch with schadenfreude as he missed the exact same turn on the second chance, while our Panda, under Woodsy’s helm, correctly defied command to shoot across the Vasco without a hitch.
Fifteen minutes later, en route to the south, Solo-man’s Punto whizzed past with casual superciliousness; we could only shake our heads with wonder at the speed with which he must have cruised to gain such ground.
Meanwhile, Vila Nova de Milfontes awaited: a slightly beat, fairly odd, though charming in its own way beachside town in the Alentejo region, a much poorer and less developed part of the country, where rugged coastline meets rustic inland. This was not peak season. We’d arrived at a time where bulldozers were undoing the town’s lanes and streets; slate and stone lay all over the shop; roads, inaccessible. Accommodation was a three story mansion in a collection of eerie blocks by the raging coast, a wealthy estate only half done, right on the cliff edge where the Atlantic belted the rocky shore, swelling and pummelling with the sound of jet-roar. A doomed vessel sat at the base of a nearby cove, destined to be thrashed by the endless whitewash, each set punishing its eroding carcass with great thunderous snaps. Boardshorts and bikini bottoms were slung on in vain; we could only stand back and behold the raw power of this sea.
“This is my Church!” screamed Nachos at the milky, deathly whitewash.
With the consumption of seafood still a priority this early in the trip, we prepared for another feast on Solo-Man’s recommendation at ‘O Pescador’, another fluoro-drenched diner with a decently priced array of local fare, including a crab-laden rice pot and Portuguese fish stew.
The next day we befriended an aged, malting dog with a wonky side-underbite named ‘Earl,’ who soon became our resident mascot, and guarded the mansions in the day as we beached, accepting quid pro ro in the form of snacks and veal steak.
Though idyllic visually, swimming in the Milfontes beaches proved a manhood-invertingly glacial affair. Afterward, we settled in to the coastal life, working our way efficiently through another requisite artillery of reds, whites and Super Bocks, with a feast of home shucked oysters, fresh fish and garlic fried calamari. Solo-man’s 100% vinegar dressing proved an eye-watering salad experience. Replacing Horse Face and Murderer, Gomez’s ‘Heads up’ became the new official holiday game. While some of us lost steam ‘round midnight, Nachos and I headed out to the cliff edge and riffed conspiratorial under the waxing moon, and considered the plight of the Titanic, which sank exactly 102 years ago somewhere in the brutal cold waters far ahead before us.
By morning #5,the hangovers were beginning to punish, and my grasp of events from here is hazy. We drove to a beach or two. I kipped on the sand under my leather jacket. It was a rough return to form, and I came to life again only after an intense late lunch of fava beans, red wine and espresso – a transformation I can only liken to the sensation that Marty McFly would have felt at the Under the Sea dance after George and Lorraine finally got it on.
Coaxed by a misguided perception of ‘full power returned,’ I joined the fold for afternoon aperitifs on the back deck, and heralded another sizeable evening of wine and food. HK and I roasted two ‘frango’s over hot coals, and we ate them in style at the round table, bringing the night home with another raucous, lurid and hilarious round of ‘Heads Up.’
Category 5 hangover come morning. Mild poisoning of some sort. The food? Perhaps. Moose, a second casualty. The others, mysteriously fine – or brave faces put on. Appetite gone. Dinner again at O Pescador. I ate rice and one prawn. World of pain. The holiday is over, baby.
Solo-man, Nachos and a wounded Moose hightailed it back to Lisbon in the wee hours for 6am Berlin return, while Woodsy, Gomez, HK and I slept in ’til a respectable hour, loaded the Panda, and ventured north in lazy time.
In Cascais, thick, wafting blankets of grey and downpour greeted us. The meteorologists had finally got one on the board. Woodsy and Gomez barelled on to Ericeira, while we checked in to a cosy Air b’n’b, flicked internal switches to recovery mode, avoided seafood and wine. As Crowley’s Boca De inferno raged around the corner, we slept for the better part of a week, as the Estoril shoreline boomed and spat, Ron’s crew awaiting, not too quickly or eagerly, the next indulgent round back in the devil’s nest of Berlin.