Tuesday, September 9, 2014

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.


No comments:

Post a Comment