Friday 22 November 2013

Joronimo's Monastery

When there’s money to spend, and you want to show off your riches to the world, erect a building that will last centuries. Joronimo's Monastery in Belém (Lisbon), one of the finest Manueline architecture structures in existence, and today, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is just that structure. Built in 1502 for the Hieronymite monks, whose sole role was to pray for the king's soul, Joronimo's Monastery celebrates Portugal's Discoveries Era, a time when pride was high and money flowed easily.

I board the tram at Cais de Sodre Metro station and clickity clack my way eastwards towards 
Belém, the Tagus River never far from sight. My unfamiliarity with the area causes me to exit the tram one stop too soon. I walk along the busy Rua Belém, which connects to Praça do Império. As I round the corner between the two streets, I see the Monastery’s dome high in the sky. It's my beacon. Ornate spiky pinnacles begin to appear, and each step brings me closer to the structure that took 100 years to build.

It's just after 1 p.m. in early October and the sun is high in the sky. The colour of the building is almost white, or so it appears under such bright sunlight. The combination of colour and light makes it difficult to stand and gaze at this structure. I’m gob smacked by its magnitude. It takes my breath away. I feel small.  

The side entrance is so highly adorned with carvings and figures, gables and pinnacles. It resembles of a tall wedding cake with sugared icing decorations. Solid, yet delicate, and stunningly beautiful.

Side entrance 

The church of Santa Maria with its many stained glass windows, intricate pillars and columns and gold dusted altar, forms part of the complex and is a must see. 

There is so much to take in, with confessionals, and cloisters, gargoyles and carved angels revealing themselves at every turn. Yet for all its grandeur, there is a peacefulness here. Perhaps because it is so large, one can find a quiet spot to sit, think of the past and appreciate.

The cloisters

Kings, writers and explorers are buried here. None more famous than Vasco da Gama, undoubtedly Portugal’s most famous explorer. He is the man for whom Portugal’s one-time riches are attributed to, thanks to his forging the route to the elusive east, bringing home the spice trade, and with it, the money.

Cloister arches
As I wander through this magnificent structure, one that began as a testament to faith, knowledge, wealth and power, I think of all the stories that must lie within its walls. The king who ordered the monastery built in praise of God's good graces. The workers who made their way in and out of this building for the many years it took to erect it. The confessions that were made through crisscross wooden frames separating sinner from confessor. I am in awe of the intricate craftsmanship on display and the masters behind it. Who were these people? Did they have any idea that what they were building would last and be appreciated centuries onward?

The confessionals--there are 12 just like this one--short doorways

At a time when Portugal ruled the waves, brought home gold, spices, silks and precious stones, charted the east and reshaped the world, did the architects, builders and craftsmen have any idea of the legacy they were creating? I’m thinking they did. Why else would such a structure be built, but not to remind us of what once was.

This is to show the height of the doors--I'm 5-5''.  People were certainly shorter back then.

Monday 11 November 2013

What NOT to do in Lisbon

I learned much during my time in Lisbon.  

Things like, the subways are awesome and you should totally ride them. The roasted chestnuts taste as good as they smell. FADO will make you cry, even if you do not understand the language. The wine is cheap and flows freely. The pastries are...well, don't even get me going on that subject!

There were some very basic "touristy" lessons as well. Things you should be aware of should you visit Lisbon (and you really should). For the benefit of anyone planning a trip to Lisboa, I have compiled a handy list of things that you should not do. So, without further ado,

                              When in Lisbon DO NOT:

--Ask for "coffee" unless you want an espresso. Sounds easy enough, but it took me three days to figure this out.  Of course, the moment you start asking for café com leite, (coffee with milk) or for a cappuccino, you might as well slap a sticker across your forehead reading, I AM A TOURIST, as the locals do not consume either of these beverage choices after 10 a.m.  So, pick you battles--wear the tourist label or be crazed on caffeine.

Coffee (espresso)

--Wait for the light to turn green. That might be the rule of the land here, but there, phaw! Just dart the cars, buses, mopeds, trams, trucks, little old ladies, and anything else that might come zipping around a corner. If you can hop on one leg, while maneuvering a cane in the other, go for it. If you stand and wait for the light to change from red to green, you will find yourself alone on a curb, perhaps wondering, "Do.I.Go?" Don't waste the time. Go.
Walk like a local--right on the street

--Wear high heels. Sure, those four inch stilettos are guaranteed to make your legs go from dowdy to sexy and vixen-ish, but let me tell you friends, the danger lurking under those heels makes wearing them, just not worth it. The sidewalks are made up of tiny stones. Your thin heel can become trapped in-between the stones, or you can twist an ankle when the stones are suddenly uneven, or disappear altogether and your foot is down a hole. Yes, you will see local women wearing high heels, but don't be fooled.  You are not one of them. Consider how sexy you will look in a cast if you ignore this piece of advice.  
From this
To this

--Ask questions without first offering a proper, "Bom dia," (good morning) or "Boa tarde," (good afternoon) greeting.  Even if you start with the ever popular and polite Canadian, "Sorry to bother you....", it won't cut it. Use the, "Good day/afternoon/evening," greeting then go ahead and ask your question.

--Sit down in a restaurant and immediately proceed to tell the server what you would like. Even if you know exactly what you want. Even if it was the only reason for going to that specific restaurant.  No siree. Sit your butt down, pretend to look through the menu you are handed, wait for the server to re-appear, at which time you may tell him/her what it is you would like.  

To summarize the learnings

Wearing your most comfortable flat shoes proceed to your favourite café greeting the server with,”Bom dia,” and asking for a table outside from where you can watch the local ladies effortlessly stride over the multi-stoned sidewalk wearing their four inch heels while you wait for your server to return to ask you what you would like at which time you will request a cappuccino and one of those fabulous pastries from the window and by the way does he know where the nearest Metro stop is?

Disclosure: My making these recommendations does not in any way suggest I was personally involved in all of the situations that led to these handy tips. Really. Honest.

Monday 4 November 2013

Ginjinha--A National Liqueur

“With or without a cherry?” asked the server behind the counter.

“With a cherry,” I answered.

I heard a plop and before I could blink, my small, white, plastic shot glass was filled with ginjinha and two drunken cherries. 

Ginjinha, or ginja for short, began as an experiment by a 19th century friar named Francisco, who infused cherries with brandy and sugar. It became an instant success. Today, ginjinha is sold throughout Lisbon in various bars and cafes.  None though as famous as, A Ginjinha in Rossio (Largo de Sao Domingos).

Ginjiha bottles wall to wall

A Ginjinha is best described as “a whole in the wall”, because it is quite literally, A-Whole-In-The-Wall. It is smaller than most of today’s modern walk-in closets, and serves nothing but the famous liqueur. It has been in business, at the same location, since 1840. 

That's all there is to it.

Here you will find tourists from all over the world, university students ending their day and locals who just need their fix. A Ginjihna produces their own brand of the liqueur, and puts out over 150,000 liters of the product each year.

To get your shot of ginjinha,  get in line and patiently wait your turn, as you snake up to the front to answer that one important question (with or without a cherry).  Once your drink is poured, take it outside to enjoy in the square.  There is no seating in the café, so find a spot on a step in the square, or stand and chat with other ginjinha drinkers around you. There are plenty and it’s a great way to meet people.

Everyone enjoying ginjinha

If you take your drink com ginja (with cherry) as I did, the proper way to enjoy it (although there are no fixed rules about this), is to sip the liqueur first, then suck the cherry, leaving you with one dilemma. What to do with the pit? There are two options--spit it into the cup you are holding, then dispose of it. Or do as the locals do--spit it onto the floor. Mine went into the cup. I just couldn't do the alternative.