Lisbon is a magical place. Some may even say that with it’s hills, trolly cars, and golden gate bridge replica, it is a European San Francisco. However, as part one of our long anticipated trip to Portugal to explore Greg’s heritage, it was so much more. The city is old, almost rundown in areas, which could have easily translated to ugly. However, mixed into the grunge are beautiful tiled walls, red terracotta roofs, and mosaic lined plazas which helps the city blossom like a flower through the weeds. Much like Barcelona, there are not necessarily main landmarks or traditional tourist-like attractions to see. Getting to know the city is best done by getting lost in it. And so we did, each day exploring a different neighborhood, from the hip to the historic. The key, was to move slowly and stop often, whether it was to take pictures, have a coffee, or just to sit and people watch. The latter was the city’s best story teller. We observed as young boys played fútbol in concrete alley ways, old shop owners chatted between store fonts, and locals embraced before before entering into a café. If our days had just consisted of sitting and watching, we would have been content. But of course, curiosity kept us moving, and our stomachs, well… they helped us explore the city in a whole different way.
The city is scattered with tabernas and marisquerias all serving the freshest local seafood. We did not discriminate — we wanted to try them all. One night we’d visit a local hole-in-the-wall, mom and pop shop, serving a limited menu of different fishes cooked in similar fashion: whole, skin on, bone in, with boiled potatoes and greens on the side. The next night we were sitting down in the dining room of a Michelin recognized chef where the ingredients were creatively concocted into unique dishes like seafood risotto or shellfish tajine. However different the restaurants were, there seemed to be a few consistencies: Portuguese chefs love the use of salt and olive oil (perhaps too much), octopus was on every menu and should be ordered every time, and lastly, why buy a glass of wine when you can buy a bottle? Ultimately, though, the thread linking each restaurant together was that they all left a lasting impression of memorable meals.
Just like their seafood, so too do the Portuguese love their sweets. Though there are many different confections, one stands above the rest. The Pastel De Nata is a creamy, flaky, custard tart properly served warm, with cinnamon and powdered sugar. You can find these pastries all over Portugal at every corner bakery, coffee shop, and park snack kiosk. However, typically, the Pastéis De Nata (plural) that are sold within these places do a disservice to the tart’s reputation. There, they are baked in the morning and left to sit behind a glass case until ordered throughout the day. They are not served warm or with the proper accoutrements which we didn’t understand the importance of until we tasted the real deal. We visited the world famous pastry shop, Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, known for their masterful perfection of this delicacy. In fact, the name Pastéis de Nata is often mistakenly interchanged with Pastéis de Belém. People come from all over to try their version of the pastry and, at times, the line can be out the door. On a good day, the shop can serve up to 50,000 pastéis a day. Therefore, this means there is always a fresh batch coming out of the oven. Though they do bake other things, when we sat down at a table, we were never asked what we wanted, just how many. We ordered two each and after each finishing our first, we ordered 6 more to go. They were delectable. Like the soft, battery, inside of french toast cradled in a flaky pastry nest. The only unfortunate part of the Pastel De Nata is its size. In only a few small bites, it is gone and the only remnant of it existing is the cinnamon and sugar left behind on the plate. We will all dream about those little custard delights and hope to taste them again.
To add to the excitement of the city, the UEFA Champions League fútbol final was taking place in Lisbon during our stay. Though we tried to get tickets, we were not so lucky. However, we didn’t need to be there. The streets were alive all the same. Team colors were everywhere and crowds were chanting and cheering across streets, in restaurants, and from car windows. Trying to plan ahead, I researched sports bars for us to watch the game and, after an exhaustive search of the best fútbol bars in Lisbon, everyone said the Irish pub was the place to be. Irish Pub? Call it what you will but we wanted to be amongst the locals in a happening Portuguese bar, not some Irish Pub. However, as we went in search of big screens and bigger crowds, there was one place that was second to none in our neighborhood. So, we there we were, watching the match in an Irish Pub with visitors and locals alike, and loving every crazy, loud, sweaty, minute of it.
While in Lisbon, we lived like the locals as best we could. We woke late, ate later, drank wine with lunch, and coffee with dinner. We had only allotted three days to visit the city and it was hardly enough time to scratch the surface. There is so much to see here in Europe, and our time is so limited, that even if we like a city when we first visit, a return trip is highly unlikely. However, as our time in Lisbon came to an end, we began thinking of ways we could see her again because goodbye just didn’t feel right.