A few observations

When we were sitting at JFK before take-off to Lisbon, I was surprised to hear so many people speaking Russian. Must be a popular destination for them, I thought. And then when the pilot started speaking Russian before the English announcements, I thought he was being very considerate of a large tourist group.

Somewhere over the Atlantic, it dawned on me that the language I was hearing was actually my introduction to Portuguese. (I was very tired…) Somehow I thought it would sound like Spanish but just use different words. But no, it has a much harsher sound, hence my screwy interpretation. 

Go know, as we say. At any rate, we are also hearing French, Italian, German and Spanish, though most locals are very comfortable in English.

And there are a lot of tourists here, with Americans in the minority and Brits very present. In fact, tourists appear to quite outnumber the natives, which has seemed to cause some tensions. The summer must have been brutally crowded.

Lisbon is quite accessible, but very hilly, with a high and a low town. To get around, there is a 150-year-old funicular, which we took this morning. There is also an large elevator in the Eiffel Tower mode that provides great views and a break from the cobblestones. (The walkways and streets are cobbled with decorative patterns, originally courtesy of a talented prison population in the 19th century and continued to this day. Lovely, but evidently quite slippery when wet.)

We saw an amazing site just outside the old town walls. On the square facing the church of São Domingos, thousands of Jews were slaughtered in 1506, having been blamed for a drought by the Portuguese. The Inquisition was quite busy here. In the same century, the same square was the center of the very active slave market.

Ironically – or maybe that’s the wrong sentiment – the area is now a meeting point for the city’s African community, immigrants from former Portuguese colonies such as Angola, Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea.

The church itself, which fronts this square, is a remarkable remnant of the 1755 earthquake, evident from the damaged columns that show what forces shook the city on a Sunday when most people were in church.

Nearby is one of many little taverns serving Ginjinha, a traditional berry brandy which is a popular Portuguese pick-me-up. One shared was enough for us!

There are so many picturesque street scenes that much of the city seems to have been curated. But it’s not so perfect that you expect the movie cameras to start rolling. We did try to get inside the city’s tiniest shop, which sells wonderful leather women’s gloves. But alas, the stock had been totally depleted of my size at Luvaria Ulisses.

We finished our afternoon with a museum visit. We reached the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian via the very handsome Lisbon subway system. (The more we travel, the more depressed we are by the current state of New York City transit.)

The museum has several parts, the most modern building of which is almost more impressive than the collection. But there were lots of lovely things to see, ranging from Egyptian to Art Nouveau, along with the Portuguese versions of early 20th century modernist movements. Small but nice samples of every era.

Don’s Food Corner

We opted for one of Lisbon’s famed cafes for lunch — Cafe Nicola. The Art Deco design was striking.  The food and service, not so much.

I had a whole grilled sea bream. It was perfectly prepared and had a wonderfully sweet and fresh taste to it. (There were no sardines on the menu, although there was octopus and squid, but the sea bream looked like a better deal.) Unfortunately, the grilling process seemed to have filled the restaurant with smoke.  We were waiting for the alarm to go off. The wait staff was unperturbed by all the smoke, so we pretended to ignore it as well The fish was accompanied by plain boiled vegetables. Where’s the butter?

Jo has decided to swear off of veal. Today’s order featured a Madeira sauce.  While Madeira is Portuguese and the preparation promised to be “tipica” Portuguese, the meat was more like shoe leather than, well, veal. But unlike our trip in the spring, it is not veal season. That might have something to do with it.

Curiously, we see turkey featured on every menu. That might have to become the new veal.

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