Tuesday 29 October 2013

Lisboa Surprise

Lisbon surprised me. I rented an apartment in the city for a three week holiday, in the neighbourood of Mouraria, which it turns out, is a ‘seedier” part of Lisbon.  Had I been privy to this nugget of information, I might not have leased this particular space.  I am happy I did not know, as I would have missed out on much.

Mouraria is an ancient neighbourhood with stone-paved alleys and staircases, leading up hills which eventually land you at what was once the Moorish royal palace, known today as St. George’s Castle. The castle, with its turrets and wind-blown flags is my beacon and my constant marker in this city of seven hills.  All roads lead back to Mouraria, a multi-cultural area, filled with Chinese bric-à-brac shops, Indian tandoori restaurants, Portuguese cafés, and the constant beats of Brazilian and African music.

As colourful as the neighbourhood

There are Sikh men in bright orange turbans and women in colourful saris, peddling Portuguese paraphernalia.  Muslim men wearing traditional salwar kameez and cotton kufis

I love the SAGRES shirt in the mix!

Women in black tunics and hijab.  I spotted a woman rounding a corner wearing a long black skirt, black headwear and a black shawl.  I concluded she was a Muslim woman.  I was wrong.  She was in fact, a Portuguese gypsy woman wearing her traditional attire.

Portuguese gypsy woman

I fully see the connection now. The Moors ruled Portugal for centuries. The Moors were Muslim, and their influence remains to this day.   There are trains stops in the area with names like Alcantara, Alverca and Alhandra to name a few, with clear traces to the Moors and the Arabic language.  

This is a neighbourhood of lively colourful characters. Each morning, a woman dressed in a coat tattered by years of wear, arrives at the square across from my apartment.  She begins shouting things I cannot make out. In her right hand she hold a cup for donations. Local grocers give her food to move her along.

Shelter from the street cleaning around her
Then, there is the well-dressed much older woman, inhaling long puffs of smoke from the cigarette she holds between yellow stained fingers. She carries an umbrella in one hand and a purse in the other. With her brightly painted ruby coloured cheeks, she too arrives in the early morning. She rests her body against a wrought iron pole for hours. Occasionally, she will speak to someone, but not often. She just stands. Watching. Lingering. Inhaling.

Well dressed lady hanging around for hours

And what is a city without its hookers, pimps and drug dealers? All happily going about their business at 3 am.  There is no traffic at that hour, so they wonder the streets, singing no less, which is how I know about this business, as their singing wakes me up. Who knew hookers, johns, and pimps could sing harmony together?

The world in all its colours, languages and faiths is truly outside my door in Mouraria. All living side by side in peace, in their new adopted country.  This is a side of Portugal I did not know existed, and one I am happy to have discovered. 

Every night this is the scene around my apartment building

Gypsy woman feeding her baby

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Women of Nazaré

Two hours north of Lisbon, on the vast expanse of the Atlantic coast, is the city of Nazaré (Nazareth).

My stay here has been short.  Two nights to be exact, but I have fallen in love with this small coastal community.  I have specifically fallen in love with women of Nazaré.  They are mighty. They are fierce. So much so, that there is a monument in the city celebrating the hardiness of these women. 

Monument to the Women of Nazaré
Many still dress in traditional wear, consisting of a short skirt with several petticoats.  Overlaying the skirt is an embroidered apron tied with a large bow in the back.  A blouse and slippers finishes the outfit. The older women can be seen wearing a scarf wrapped around their head, not unlike a turban.  

Large striking gold earrings are worn, which seems absurd to the tourist in me.  But there they are.  Nazaré women, married to fishermen, barefoot in the sand, with bloodied hands from gutting fish, wearing beautiful chunky gold earrings that glisten and sparkle in the bright daylight.


It’s not an easy life for the fisherman’s wife.  Each day she waits for her man to come in from the sea.  When he does, she is thankful, then begins the arduous task of processing the catch.  She is fearless with an octopus.  She guts countless sardines and mackerel. With surgical precision, she slices each fish down the backbone, unwrapping it open, revealing its meaty, pink flesh. She lays each silver headed fish in wooden framed nets and lets nature take over. Then, there is the art of selling. She brashly hawks her bounty and cuts the deal.

Nazaré women, man (ha!) kiosks on the seafront, selling pickled lupini beans from large clear plastic bags, dried figs dusted in powdered sugar and a variety of sweet local treats.  Holding signs in various languages, they greet tourists at bus stops and major intersections.  Quartos, Rooms, Zimmer, reads her sign.  If you need a room for the night, she offers, “Bom preço,” (good price) and, “Casa de banho privativa,” (private bathroom). Follow her as she briskly leads you through her familiar maze of streets, to your room in the family’s home. She walks quickly. Be sure to keep up.

For the tourist, it’s colourful and charming. It’s a place where photo opportunities abound. But this is not a tourist attraction. This is the way of life for the women of Nazaré. This in turn, makes this city one of the most authentic and delightful places in Portugal.

Monday 14 October 2013

Me? A Pilgrim?

I was a pilgrim on October 13, 2013. I did not set out to be a pilgrim, but found myself, along with the many thousands around me greeted with, “Bem vindos piregrinos” (welcome pilgrims).  And just like that, I was a pilgrim.

My journey to Fatima, Portugal, began as a child. You cannot grow up in a Portuguese family without knowing of Nossa Senhora de Fatima (Our Lady of Fatima).  As a child, my overnight companion was a glow-in-the dark plastic statue of Nossa Senhora.   To the Portuguese and the her faithful around the globe, a pilgrimage to Fatima, located two hours north of Lisbon, is a must in your lifetime.  And so I make my journey as a Portuguese woman.  One with strong roots in the faith. One who still believes in the power of prayer.  One who questions.

The story of Our Lady of Fatima began on May 13, 1917, when the Virgin Mary appeared to three small peasant children.  For six straight months, beginning in May and ending in October, the Virgin Mary showed herself to these same children on the 13th of each month.  The children told their story, but they were taunted and not believed.  On October 13, 1917, a large crowd gathered at the site of the apparitions.  A miracle was witnessed.  The doubters were converted, and the pilgrimages began.  To this day, on the 13th of each month, between May and October, thousands flock to Fatima.  The largest celebrations occur during the month of May and October.

As I arrive on a cool October 13th morning, I am taken aback by the sheer magnitude of the space.  The square is at least three times the size of St. Peter’s in Rome.  Maybe more.  The original church is small, so in 2004 a church accommodating 8000 people was built.  The new church is sleek, chic and massive and does not have the warmth of the old (small) church.  That’s modernization for you. 
Out in the public square is where all the activity is anyway, as thousands upon thousands of people make their way onto the open area.  They arrive in waves, from all corners.  Watching the many faces around me, most unlike me—devout and faithful, I am overwhelmed. 

Original church 

There are people clutching candles five feet tall, purchased as offerings.  A candle burning ‘pit’ designed specifically for candle offerings, shoots large flames into the air.  I see people sitting alone, silently reciting the rosary.  

Fire pit for candle offerings

Then there are the peope on their knees—‘walking’ on their knees down a long marble stoned path.  I see mothers carrying their infant children. Others are holding their young child’s hand.  There are young men, teenage girls, husbands, holding the hand of the woman making the journey on bended knees.  There are fathers with his entire family walking silently behind him as he struggles to maintain balance. What has life thrown at these people to drive them to make such a commitment? It is heartbreaking.  It is overwhelming.  I sit on the concrete pavement along this path of kneeling sorrows, and give in to what I have been fighting for a while—I cry and then cry some more. I am not alone.  All around me there are people praying as silent tears flow down their cheeks. 

Children holding a parent's hand. 

5 foot tall candles

As I stand among thousands of strangers united in prayer and faith, I cannot help but reflect on the name, Fatima.  Not the religious association with the name, but the origin of the name itself. 

The Portuguese claim Fatima as their own, and many a Portuguese woman is named Fatima.  But the name is far from being Portuguese.  The name Fatima, after which the city in Portugal was named, is in fact Arabic (Fatimah) and derived from the Moors who ruled the Iberian Peninsula for years.  The Moors were Muslim.  Fatimah, was a Moorish princess, the daughter of Muhammad, prophet of Islam.

As I think about this, I wonder if it is a mere co-incidence that a Christian religious figure, so deeply loved by her faithful followers, randomly chose FATIMA to show her miracles and ask for prayer? Or was she, by showing herself in FATIMA, trying to tell us that regardless of faith, we are one race, and that somehow, for the love of all religious beliefs, we should just simply all try to get along?

I choose to believe it is not at all a co-incidence.

Other images from the day

My personal space where I sat and had a good sob

Image of Nossa Senhora de Fatima

Several picnics popped up afterwards

Wednesday 9 October 2013

Not so Local

I rented an apartment for my stay in Lisbon because I want to live like a local.  Do as the locals do. Blend in. Be one of them.  

The apartment is a wonderful space on the 4th floor of a building shaped like a triangle.  My bedroom IS triangular.  I’ve never had a triangular shaped bedroom before (who has?), so this is very interesting.  There are 3 French balconies in my triangular bedroom, which is absolutely as European you can get (the balconies, not the triangle).  

“Ah, oui oui. J’aime my French bal-ko-NIE.” (For effect, say that with a French accent.)

French balconies are not balconies at all, but rather doors that open to the inside, with wrought iron, decorative railings to prevent you from falling to your demise. A good idea I say.

My French bal-ko-NIE

My apartment is in a very multi-cultural neighbourood. Much more so (way way more so) than my neighbourhood in multi-cultural Canada. Let me put it this way: My neighbourhood in Lisbon is the United Colours of Benetton. My neighbourhood in Canada is beige.  See the contrast?  

Renting an apartment in the heart of a bustling neighbourhood seems to be the best option to ‘blend in’.  Right? That’s what I thought…except, I don’t.  I thought I looked like a local. I don’t. I thought I spoke like a local. I don’t.  I scream tourist at every turn.

It’s October and 26 Celsius. The locals are wearing long pants. I’m wearing shorts (Tourist!) The locals are wearing long sleeve jackets. I’m wearing t-shirts (Tourist!)
Locals don’t wear caps. I do. (UV ray protection and all, plus it looks really cool. Tourist!)  The locals order coffee (espresso) in the afternoon. I order cappuccino (SO embarrassingly tourist!) The locals eat pastries like there is no such thing as diabetes. Okay, I am too.  It's a local custom. How can I not?

Pastel de nata

Bole de rei (king care)

Locals speak differently than I do.  For thank you, I say, “ObrigadA”  (feminine).
They say, “ObrigadO” (masculine).  Portuguese is my first language. I thought I had this whole ‘feminine/masculine’ thing figured out.  Apparently I don’t.  Is it feminine? Is it masculine? Who knows? Does it matter? Yes, darn it. It does! 

Boarding tram 28, I had a complete lost in translation moment with the driver.  Tram 28 by the way, screams I am a tourist taking this tram to who knows where just because the guide book tells me to, louder than a fog horn off the coast of  Newfoundland. Tram 28 has also been listed as one of the top ten trolley rides in the world by National Geographic.  So when is Lisbon, ride the tram.

Anyway, boarding tram 28, I ask the driver, “Quanto?” (How much)

“2.85” he says.
“I have 3” I say.
“That’s 8.55.”
“What? I am one.”
“You said three.”
“Yes. Three Euros.” I show him the coins in the palm of my hand.
“We’re back to 2.85 then,” he says.

Clearly, I’m not being clear.

Tram 28

At my local pasteleria (the UK has pubs; Portugal has pastelerias), I overhear the following exchange between a customer and the pasteleria owner.

“This coffee (espresso) is burnt,” said the customer handing her tiny cup and saucer to the pasteleria owner.
“Phaw! You don’t know how to appreciate it,” he says as he takes hold of the cup and saucer.
“It’s burnt and I want a new one,” she says.
“Fine. I’ll just use less coffee.”
“I don’t care what you do. I don’t want a burnt coffee.”
He goes off, returning a short while later with another cup.
“Here,” he says. He places the coffee in front of the customer. She sips it.
“That’s much better,” she says.
“Good. I’ll use less coffee when I make yours. It’ll cost me less. But I’m not charging you less.”

See. That’s a local. Me, I would have had the coffee and tipped on the way out.

Living like a local involves more than simply renting an apartment.  It requires, getting out, walking the ‘hood, talking to the people, ordering coffee instead of cappuccino in the afternoon.  So with that in mind, guess what? Coffee time. Oh ya, and a pastry.

Sunday 6 October 2013

Lisbon's Seven Hills

Lisbon is the city of seven hills, or as the Portuguese say, "Cidade das sete colinas".  And I think I have climbed most.  Or pretty close to it.

My apartment is at the bottom of the hill leading up to Alfama, the oldest part of Lisbon.  There are trams that can easily whisk me up the hill.  In fact they are right outside my front door. 

When I ask my landlady about Alfama however, she points and says, "Just walk straight up this street." 
"How far up is it?" I ask.
"Not that far. You can do it. Just follow the road to the top," she says. 

So I do. Twice. The first time, I make it one third of the way.  And give up. No excuses.  I give up after seeing no end in sight to the steep incline. 

The second time, I am very determined. And I make it. I do stop a couple of times. Okay, four times, but who's counting?  Each time, I make like I am taking in the surroundings, enjoying the architecture, reading menus in tiny restaurant windows.  I do anything and everything, to stop anyone whizzing by me, from thinking I am anything but fit to take on that hill. 

What I am doing though, is talking to God. Dear God! Is there no end to this?  

I see a restaurant on the first truly flat piece of land I come to and immediately head in. I need water, and it is my oasis in this desert of steep inclines. I stay for lunch, because, who is in a rush to climb yet another hill?  Not me.

Then there are staircases. Lots of them. Everywhere.  I am embarrassed to say that again today, I abandon my climb, and I make no apologies for it.

The plus side to all of this huffing and puffing, is that it is great exercise. My calves are toning even as I type this.  And the calories I'm taking in from all the pastry eating I'm doing, are just melting away.  All in all, not a bad way to tone muscle and lose the calories. Which, given my diet today, is a good thing.

First I ate this 

Then this

Half way up the abandoned stairs

Could have been the stairway to heaven, but I did not find out

Drank GINJINHA (cherry liquor) on the sidewalk

Took a break

Prayed for strength

Another climb

View of River Tagus from Alfama

Still standing!

Soup for dinner--made it myself