Friday, September 12, 2014

Encantada, Lisboa!

Day 4 is essentially a travel day. I only had enough time to enjoy a liesurely breakfast. So, I leave you with some thoughts about Lisbon.

Indeed, three days is too short a time to enjoy this place.  But, I think that even a month is still not long enough to enjoy it. In spite of my short trip, I made the most of it, sleeping at 4 am and getting up at 8 am to really experience the culture as best as I can. - something I would not recommend doing for long periods of time.  Hence, I felt that I got to see enough to know that this city has heart at its center.  I've been to many beautiful places, which I leave with a promise of coming back.  But, there's something different about Lisbon. 

Front of Jose Saramago's house (top)
Lisbon Cathedral's entrance door (bottom)
On the way to Sintra, an acquaintance from Oxford, UK asked how I liked Lisbon. I casually replied, "I want to live here." She looked at me in surprise, and said "Are you serious?". As it turned out, she didn't care for the graffitti-covered walls (art, to me), and the loudness (festive conversations, to me).  I guess our coversation spoke volume.  Depending on your background and interests, you will like it here or you won't.  Some may see the old buildings as poor, and some will see it as preserved history.  Remember that crazy driver that I spoke about on Day 1? Who am I kidding? They all drive crazy! Anyway, he was lamenting the construction of tall glass buildings. And I completely agree with him. In streets lined with intricate period architecture next to glass and steel buildings, those glass buildings just look blah. Unmemorable.  In the city center, Praca Rossio, you will find a few of these, but in the intimate alleyways, you will see nothing but charm.

Streets and alleys
The atmosphere is friendly but not suffocating, and as you walk Alfama, you're bound to hear someone breaking into a song. If you need more art in your life, you don't even need to go to museums. All you need to do is take a walk.  Walk in Alfama, and see the Fundacao Jose Saramago's structure, or walk up to the Lisbon cathedral.  As you take these walks, look at the tiles defining Calcada Portuguese, a point of pride for the locals, and the Azulejo-covered walls of houses. On Tuesday, prior to my Tuk-Tuk tour, I just wandered the hilly cobblestone-covered streets. Some alleys are lined with the equivalent of banderitas even. Combined with locals gathering to play cards at the park, tourists milling around with maps on their hands, and Fado at night, the festivity seems to run day and night.

I was told that Lisbon is experiencing a renaissance of sort.  I just hope that it preserves its culture and history.  But judging from how it's done so far since the 8th century, I have no doubt that it will.  This city is laid-back, but buzzing in activity, historic, real, and beautiful. It was a privilege to visit. Encantada, Lisbon!

Now, to go home and convince my husband to move here.  Dum-dee-dum. And this picture is for my kids, who again sent me traveling with a trustworthy and adorable companion, "Up Above", to keep me company. You can say that he's the star of this show!


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lisbon Diary, Day 3 - Sintra and port

"Deus quer; o Homem sonha; a obra nasce"
God wants; Men dream; the work of art is born
- Fernando Pessoa, Portuguese writer

I love my job. There, I said it. No, it's not because of the travel aspect, but that certainly adds to it. I love it because I meet people who are passionate in what they do, and believe in a greater cause, and see their contribution to that bigger picture. Today, I'm again humbled by the tenacity of these scientists. Really, they speak about the journey of one compound from bench to clinic as if it was an Opera. First, born from an idea, a compound is synthesized, where the plot twists and turns, and surprise! a new compound is born, totally unpredicted, enthalpy driven, and completely potent in vitro and in vivo. Now, its journey in clinical trial begins... If we're lucky, it could be a cure.  Otherwise, it has taught us something.

I had a handful of meeting requests during lunch, so I couldn’t go sightseeing. Thankfully, the afternoon schedule was short to allow time for the planned group excursions. There were 4 tours to choose from, which may also give you an agenda for your visit to Portugal… because you are visiting, right?  Anyway, there’s 1) walking tour of Belem (I’ve done) 2) Lisboa vineyards 3) Azulejo musem (pronounced A-shu-le-jhu; the Portuguese tiles) 3) the village of Sintra.  I really wanted to go to Sintra and to try some ports at the Lisboa vineyards; this is Portugal after all.  Alas, I had to choose just 1. Sintra it was.

The village of Sintra is about 30 km (~19 mi) from Lisbon, and located on the slopes of a hill or mountain, depending on who you ask.   It’s considered to be one of the most beautiful villages in Portugal, and was suggested to me by many friends and by my sister-in-law.  The tour included a visit to the Royal Palace and some free time in the village. 

After exiting Lisbon, we were  treated to a grand sight to behold.  We passed Portugal’s famous aqueduct, which is in the Guiness book of world record for being the tallest arch in the world. When we arrived in Sintra, another sight was the walls of the Castle of the Moors up on the hills, constructed during the 8th or 9th century. 

Our guide tells us that 'Sintra' derives from "Cynthia", the Celtic Goddess of the Moon. The Celts who settled here, worshipped the moon god on the mountain where the Moors built the castle. The village itsef was quite charming, and we were again presented with 2 difficult options – we can either explore the village, gardens, and parks, or go inside the palace.  *sigh* The village must wait for another time. And there will be one.

From the outside, the Sintra National Palace may not look impressive, with plain white walls, and the ornate designs limited to windows and walls.
But as soon as I walked in, I was transported to another time.  It has been preserved really well, perhaps because it has been inhabited throughout since the 15th century.  Even today, the President of Portugal uses a private wing in the Palace when he wishes to entertain.  The decors show off the moorish influence from the guilded and ornate cabinets, the arches, decorated doorways, bedposts... and ceilings!

picture courtesy of Palacio Nacional de Sintra

Why is it that we no longer paint our ceilings these days?  It seems to me that it would be a great focal point in a house. In the Palace, the room Sala dos Cisnes' ceiling featured 27 swans wearing inverted crowns on their necks in honor of the princess' (I forget which) 27th birthday and her 2 pet swans.
In another room, Salas das Pegas, the ceiling features 136 magpies, each holding a rose in their beak, with the words "Por Bem" meaning For Good/Honor.  The story goes that the King Afonso Henriques was caught kissing a lady in waiting, and this king commissioned the painting with the 136 magpies representing the 136 gossippers. The rose is his wife, Philippa's insignia.  In essence, he is asking the gossips to stop for the good of the queen.

The Galley room ceiling features... galleys! It features the three key players during the time of exploratoin: Holland, Turkey and Portugal, but you have to look closely at the ships' old flags to identify them.
 The most magnificent ceiling in the Palace is in the Stag Room or Heraldic Room. The room features a domed ceiling embellished with coat of arms of the 72 prominent and nobel Portuguese families, with King Manuel's arm in the center, and his 8 children around his. The entire walls of the room are covered with Azulejo hunting murals. It's really beyond words, the work that went into this room.

Inside the chimney cone, looking up
There are too many noteworthy and historic parts to the Palace; it's impossible to mention it all. But perhaps my favorite part is the kitchen.  The 2 big chimney cones are the most prominent in postcards and pictures of Sintra, and I was in one of those chimneys!

My grandparents used to cook this way in Tiaong, with burners to heat the pots (see back wall)  
Spits to cook cows, pigs, etc. (front)

The palace was really too big to visit in only a few hours, so we only saw parts. Still it was very educational especiallly for someone like me who is not too familiar with Europe's rich history, outside of what I learned in books.

After we exited the palace, our guide suggested the best pastry in Sintra. Eh. I've had enough of being herded like a cattle, so I separated from the group for my free time.  Besides, I've had way too many Portuguese pastels already, and all that history made me thirsty. And there I saw it, Bar do Binho, which just happen to have port tasting. So... you mean to say that I can do my wine tasting in Sintra instead of the vineyard?  I chose wisely then. Before you get the wrong impression, let me say that I'm neither a sot nor a wino. I just happen to have a taste for port, and sherry, and other sweet liquors.  They just make me happy.

I told the bartender (is that what they're called too?) that I was operating on limited time and wanted to taste the really special ones. He pulled a 10 year old vintage white port from the back of the fridge and said that it was unique because only a few bottles were made of this vintage. And, I happily own this one now, along with a few other Portugal wines.  I've never actually heard of Portuguese green wine before this trip, but they served it on multiple occasions at the conference, and I liked it.
On the way back to Lisbon, we rode mostly along the Atlantic ocean, and saw forts, mansions, fishermen boats, and a rainbow.
A rainbow over Tagus river; as if the day was not beautiful enough.
After a quick stop at the hotel to refresh and change, I took a cab to the banquest at Convento do Beato.  This historic building was constructed in the 16th century.  The story goes that with just 7 coins received from alms, friar Antonio got the monastery built, so they refered to him as Beato Antonio (Antonio the beatified). During dinner, we were treated to Fado music, which was even better than the one I listened to last night at A Severa, which was suggested by my hotel concierge. (Side note: tourist trap, mediocre food, high price; good Fado was the only saving grace for this restaurant.)
At past 11, still early for some, I bid my peers good night.  I had to get up early and pack.  It's time to go home.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lisbon Diary, Day 2 A day of "Almosts" and ashes

Perhaps something was lost in translation when I ordered that decaf coffee last night.  That would explain why I was up until 4 am.  To my credit, I was still able to get up at 8 am, having only to give up the planned run in exchange for sleep. I grabbed a pastel de nata from the hotel breakfast buffet to go with my cup of science this morning. Still feeling a bit overcaffeinated (boy their beans are potent!), I chugged the latest news in drug discovery and disease targets instead. By lunch, I was raring to do something more active, and more pleasing to the eyes, which did not involve cyclic and aromatic chemical structures. 

I'll take History for $100, Alex.

After (very) briefly listening to the screeching X factor auditions on the other side of the congress center, I walked westward on Avenida India to Mosteiro dos Jer├│nimos, conveniently located ~1.5 miles from the congress center - an easy, peasy walk. Here's a picture of the entire building. Built in the 1500s, the monastery's ornate design draws crowd by the thousands each day. But it wasn't the structure that lured me to visit... I was trying to visit a person.


My memory of Philippine history did not begin with tribe Chieftains or the negritos, though in reality, it did.   Perhaps they taught us Philippine history in grade school, but I just didn't pay attention. No. My memory of studying Philippine history began with Vasco de Gama.  In high school, Ms. Arlene Canivel told the story of our country's history, beginning with the adventures of the Portuguese and Spanish explorers. Now, who can resist a good adventure hi-story?  Not I. Possibly the most famous of all Portuguese explorers is Vasco da Gama, who led the 1497 expedition to India, in search of the Spice Island. Magellan, though born Portuguese, represented the Spanish side, and eventually landed in the Philippines in 1521. We even have a song about it! 350 years after his death in India, Vasco de Gama's remains were brought home to Portugal, to rest at the Jeronimos monastery in Lisbon. I would have wanted to see his tomb, but queue and time were against me, so I walked on. So close... but no dice. Not this time.

I crossed the street to walk along the Tagus river, pronounced "Ta-ju".and to look at the Padrao dos Descobrimentos or Discoveries Monument, celebrating the worlds' explorers in stone. It features Vasco da Gama, Magellan, Cabral, among others, in a ship.

I continued walking along the river to the famous Torre de Belem, a fortress built to protect Lisbon. I was starting to get hungry, and wanted to get something to grab-and-go, but this is not quite a food truck kind of town. There's no philly cheese steak cart, or NY knishes. Instead I see this:

Tempting, but not on an empty stomach at noon.
I was hoping to climb up the tower, which supposedly offers a fantastic view of surrounding towns along the river, and to see the cannon niches, and dungeons. But again, I was out of luck.  Check the line on that picture.  I was still grateful that I got to see the fort though. 

I'll take Recess for $1200, Alex.

Finally, I had to eat and go back to the conference.  Dare I venture to Pasteis de Belem? A friend suggested that I try one of these pastels, but I was also warned by another that the line to get these is long. Since it was only going to take a few minutes detour, I decided to check the line. It was long, indeed. BUT, there's also a sign that they have table seating. As luck would have it, I had to wait only for 1 minute for a free table. I ordered pizza and "Kok Ze-ru", and the pastel de belem.  When my server brought it, my reaction was "Oh."  Why? Because it looks exactly like pastel de nata, which I just had for breakfast.

Scratching my head, I asked my server the difference between the two. He replied, "How do I explain this?... It's like Coke vs. Pepsi. It is the same, but not exactly. Pastel de Belem is a secret recipe, and is made only in this restaurant." He goes on, "We make 21,000 of these in 1 day."

Hmmm... after a bite, I knew what he meant, and appreciated the takeout line outside. I'm just glad that this did not fall in my "Almost" category.

I'll take Science for $2000, then move to Museums for $500.

Fado!  My calendar beeps me that it's 4:45 pm, and the session has wrapped up. I discreetly walked out the building and hopped a cab to Museo do Fado in Alfama.  But what is Fado? It is music, music about fate. Fado = Fate.

Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. For centuries her ships sailed around the globe and brought to the European shores the first news of many unknown cultures in Africa, Asia and the Americas. In each returning ship there also came songs that spoke of the dangers of the voyage and of the fascination for the new worlds explored, full of exotic tunes and rhythms, but songs that also told of loneliness, homesickness and the fragility of mankind against the fury of the elements and the unpredictable nature of human faith. In the 1820s and 30s a new song was thus born in Lisbon, which was to become the very mirror of the multicultural identity of the city and of its people. It was called Fado, the same word that means fate in the Portuguese language.”

- from the application of Fado to UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. 


The museum was small enough that I was able to browse and appreciate the history behind this distinctly Portuguese music. Distinct just like bluegrass is distinctly southern US, and Kundiman are Philippine period serenade songs. With 15 minutes before museum hour closing, I decided to push my luck and walked to Fundacao Jose Saramago, the house where Blindness' author and Nobel prize winner, Jose Saramago lived until his death in 2010. And it's less than 5 minute walk from Museo do Fado. If they let me in, they couldn't possibly throw me out, right?
But wait, gelato!

I ventured in just to see if they happen to have lavender ice cream, which I fell in love with in Nice.  They didn't. But they did have basil ice cream.  I skeptically tried it, and have to say that it's... quite good. Not lavender good, but exotic and flavorful kind of good.  I started to think about food you can pair it with. Coconut-based dishes? Strong-flavored fish dishes, for sure. Clearly, I was sidetracked and won't make the extra 10 meters to Fundacao Jose Saramago.  It's probably closed anyway. My good friend "Almost" struck again.

I'll take Geography for $2000, Alex.
Portas do Sol, doors of the sun. You always see the sun
as it rise in the East until it sets in the West.

I started walking around and exploring, but this city is known for its 7 hills, and tiled street paths. My feet were no match, and I've already walked 22,000 steps today. Then, I saw a Tuk-Tuk parked and waiting. My coach has arrived.

Riding the Tuk-Tuk is not for the weak-hearted. It's like riding a thrilling amusement ride, which was fun for me. For those who plan to do this, I encourage you to wear the seatbelts.  You will bounce. I am really glad that I took the Tuk-Tuk tour. (Yeah, that sounded funny.) My driver talked about history plus some from a local's point of view. She also took me to areas that are too narrow to navigate by cab, and too steep to enjoy on foot, and simply not known or highlighted in tour books. Much recommended. 

cal├žada portuguesa

Miradouro da Senhora do Monte,
highest point in Lisbon. View of the castle, Castelo Sao Jorge.

Azulejo, glazed ceramic tiles that cover walls
 of buildings initially to cover imperfection,
and separate one house from another.
Apparently, it helps in keeping tempearture in homes too.

National Pantheon, where Presidents, poets, and
famous Fado artist, Amalia Rodriguez is buried. 

Final Jeopardy: This is the last sentence from the book "Memorial do Convento" by Jose Saramago. 
I spoke to my driver about how I just "almost" made it in to Fundacao Jose Saramago. She smiled, and drove me there, and explained that I didn't have to go in to pay respect to Jose Saramago. Upon his request, his ashes were scattered under an olive tree which was brought from his village, and replanted in front of his home by the river.

What is "but (it) did not ascend to the stars, for it belonged to the earth"?


Lisbon Diary, Day 1: My introduction to Portuguese Art, Science, Music

...and great food! What more can I ask for?

I arrived in Lisbon with no expectations, no research, and no Portuguese. This only meant, of course, that I'm off to a greeeaaat adventure! Flying from Minnesota --> Philadelphia --> Lisbon was uneventful. The flight was long, and the vegetarian dinner bland. But, who cares?  I knew I'd make up for it as soon I join the seafaring Lisboetas later on. Fresh unknown FISH! <--- was on my mind the entire time I was waiting in the long immigration line.

In contrast to my plane ride, the cab ride to the hotel was quite frightful - but in a very familiar way.  I swear these city drivers are required to take speed-driving, car-bending lessons! But I forgave him instantly.  He was trying so hard to converse with me in English, complete with hand gestures, to tell me about beautiful Lisbon, that I chalked up the bad driving to his language barrier frustration.
After checking in to my hotel, I decided to stretch my legs and take a walk to the Praca Rossio to eat brunch since the airline didn't provide breakfast. While walking, I immediately noticed the beautiful tile designs on the walking path, the art sculptures seemingly randomly appearing, and the delicate architecture of old buildings transformed to new. And I knew immediately that this trip will be special.

The breeze from the ocean directed my feet to a small low-key cafe. I was so hungry that I didn't even bother checking the menu. If you've read my travel blogs before, you'd remember that I have a sweet spot for places whose menus I cannot understand. Sure enough, this one fits the bill. I put all my trust in my server who had a hard time understanding my Coke Zero order (apparently it's pronounced Kok Ze-ru here). He pointed to the fish on the menu, and I went with it. It came stewed, and buried in salad, tomotato and potatoes. And it was heavenly. My daydreaming, satisfied.
Then off to listen to an afternoon of Science, and mingling with the brightest stars in Europe. It really is a privilege to listen to the fantastic research they are doing in this part of the world.  
On the Evening Programme was a concert at Teatro Thalia at 8:30 pm. Before bussing the attendees to the concert venue, we were given a 2 hour leisure break.  Too American or not, 6:30-ish dinner seemed like an ok idea. Being a mom of 2 kids, 1 of which goes to bed at 7 pm, eating dinner on the early side is the norm for our family. I walked along the river to browse the restaurants at the dock and their offerings, and was treated to a great view of Golden Gate bridge's twin sister, Ponte 25 de Abril, renamed afer the revolution on that day in 1974. It is quite spectacular, and is longer than the Golden Gate in San Francisco. On the other side of the bridge and quite visible in its solitude, is the Christ the King statue, apparently inspired by a similar-looking statue, the popular Christ the Redeemer statue, in Rio de Janeiro.   
The dock was almost empty, as expected. Dinner was a human-size portion of black spaghetti.  I was trying to think of why it's black. Licorice?  Nope, no licorice taste. A special kind of wheat blend, like black rice? Finally giving up, I asked the server, and he said that it's the "ink from squid butt". Yeah... there went my appetite! I hastily moved on to dessert - panna cotta with seasonal berries.  Since I've made panna cotta only with soy milk at home, this full cream version was unexpected.  It was rather light, even lighter than soy panna cotta. I may have to whip this up sometime.  By the way, if you are in Portugal, you have to call your server for the bill. Unlike in the US where you should patiently wait, here, they patiently wait until you are ready.  You don't get rushed out of the table, and your reverie.

The Teatro Thalia was AWE-inspiring. As I walked to the front of the room and sat at the front row, I could not take my eyes of the structure before me. This theater originally opened in 1843, built by the Earl of Farrobo around 1820. However, a fire in 1862 left the building in ruins, and the roof and other attachments were removed in the 20th century. In July 2009, the Minister of Science and Higher Education decided to reclaim the space, and resotred for concerts, theater performances, etc. What a genius decision it turned out to be!
But how does a group of musician compete for audience attention? You don't.  You accompany it, and lift it to another dimension... by telling a story... through music. Out walked the maestro, who stood in front of a harpsichord (!), and his group of soprano, alto, recorders, baroque violins, viola, viola de gamba, guitar... 

... and a theorbo.  That one was a show stealer. From the late 16th century, the theorbo is a type of lute with one long neck, but with two parts. 
Aptly titled, "The Triumph of Portuguese Baroque Music",  the program gave a glance of the extrordinary vocal and instrumental repertoires of Portuguese music during the baroque period.
Before the concert started, I was afraid that I'd fall asleep having only slept for 3 hours on the plane. But the music did not lull, it woke me up. The group played with passion, and the soloists sang with emotion; I wanted to cry, dance, sing, and celebrate all at once.
When the soprano and alto sang Salve Regina, I was deep in emotions. While, by choice, I'm no longer a Catholic, I still appreciate the story of Mary. Perhaps it is lost to most of my international peers in the audience but not to the Portuguese in that room, I note that September 8 is considered Mary's birthday.
Alas, the night had to end somehow.

But not yet! After all, it's only 10 pm.  I had a late night dinner invitation during social hour;  I had to accept. Per the Maestro's recommendation, I went with my colleague to Gambrinus. If you're ever in Lisbon, forget checking Fodor's or whatever travel book of choice. Go here, stat. You may have a hard time looking for it yourself as it is tucked in the back alley in the center city. But a cab would know where it is. The staff work with efficiency and expertise, and the decor reflects Lisbon's rich history. The food - devine! It was much too late for me to enjoy a second dinner, but I cannot describe the way that they prepared Crepe Suzet in front of our table. Made with 4 or 5 kinds of liquors (I lost track), the crepe basked in reduction. The preparation was dramatic, with fire and magic. Paired with coffee prepared by vacuum filtration, it was a perfect way to end a day of art, science and music.