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Lovely Lisbon August 13, 2008

Posted by Emily in Andalucía, blog, photography, rants, teaching, Travel.
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This post has been long in coming, both for the typical blogger excuses as well as the fact that I have thought a lot, one might even say struggled a bit, to try and explain (even to myself) just why I enjoyed Portugal, especially Lisbon, as I did.

Part of it was timing. After a month of partying in Córdoba but not going anywhere, I was ready to break out. It had started to get hot, most of the other foreigners there had returned home while all of my Spanish friends were still working. There was also foot fetish weirdo in my elevator, but he can be considered little more than a footnote.

Arriving in Lisbon, I was pleasantly shocked by the hostel, a renovated mansion with hardwood floors and IKEA styling. (read my Everywhere magazine “place” blurb here). My room was on the top floor, with skylights, high ceilings, and small patios overlooking the river. For 20 euros, I felt like I was staying in some sort of resort (although I guess sleeping in a bunk bed and sharing a room with 9 strangers could pull the plug on that fantasy..I just went with it).

I walked all of two minutes up the hill to Noobai Café, where I experienced the first of many international menus, a real treat after living in the very Spanish south for so long. Although everyone told me Portugal isn’t as cheap as it used to be, it remains Western Europe’s bargain spot, cheap even as compared to Andalucía. If I wanted to, I could have eaten really cheaply (and well) throughout my stay, but instead chose the “more bang for my buck” approach, paying what I might normally but feeling like I was eating the best thing on the menu, over and over again. Back to the resort mentality.

For some contrast to the trendy Santa Catalina-Bairro Alto area, I spent the afternoon and evening wandering around the Alfama district, the only part of Lisbon spared from the 1755 earthquake that rocked the city. (get it?) Everyone was gearing up for the Festa do Santo António, hanging papier-mâché fish and colorful paper streamers as part of the celebration honoring Lisbon’s patron saint. It occurred the day I left Portugal, sadly, but I did catch a bit of the Festas de Lisboa while I was there. I capped off the night at A Tasco do Chico, a fado bar close to the hostel. After seeing Carlos Saura’s amazing film “Fados” at Córdoba’s Filmoteca, I had been really curious to hear the traditional Portugese music sung in person…and not at an overpriced, strictly for tourists place in the Alfama, either. Amateur night at A Tasco do Chico was perfect–one of many examples of old fashioned Lisbon mixing comfortably with Lisbon as Europe’s new hot spot. The people at the next table were eating traditional sausage, which is lit on fire at the table, while the singers were wearing sweatshirts and Members Only jackets. The young Portugese guy across the table from me was a fado fan, a genre so rooted in the past, but then spoke perfect English, was there with a friend from one of Portugal’s former colonies, and offered to translate for me as the songs were just beginning. (For a Spanish speaker, written Portugese is easy to understand, but seeing as how it has nine vowels and everything seems to have a strong “shhh” sound, it’s really difficult to understand spoken, and even worse sung.)

See the scene from the movie here:

The next couple of days were spent wandering, eating, and taking pictures at my own pace, enjoying the people watching and the perfect weather. I made the trek to Belém, as much for the famous pastéis de Belém pastries as for the Torre de Belém, a center of Portugese nautical pride that just happened to be all dolled up in what appeared to be a huge necklace, I assume for Santo António. I rode the Elevador de Santa Justa for the chance to see Lisbon’s terracotta colored roofs from a good vantage point. I whizzed through all of the ancient art at the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian museum in favor of some of the rugs and Arabic art on loan. I skipped the Convento do Carmo at the last minute, instead rooting through second hand book stores in a fruitless search to find English or Spanish books.

The next morning, the French giant FNAC offered a huge selection of English books, more than I had seen at one time in eight months or so, and then I made a pit stop at Swedish H&M without having to feel guilty for missing any key Lisbon spot in the meantime. One of the greatest parts about Lisbon is that it somehow all felt like it fit–from trendy boutiques and international menus to dusty old bookshops, tile front houses with laundry out to dry, and streetside stands selling bifana sandwiches. It managed to be one of the cities most stuck in time one minute and most up to date the next. How all of these people peacefully share Lisbon’s seven hills is really beyond me.

On my last night in town, I experienced the cool community feel of Bica, a pedestrian-only hill where students gather at night to chat and drink the 1 euro beers on offer from state fair-like stands along the way. One of the random Aussies I was with bought a veggie burger from a guy toting an Eliza Doolittle looking basket on his arm. After a little while in Bairro Alto, we took a taxi to the waterfront and hit some discos there, managing to get in despite inadequate footwear on my part.

One of the highlights among a number of highlight days: Quinta da Regaleira. Once again ditching the mainstays for something a little different, I passed up the most famous sites in Sintra, a charming, albeit touristy, city outside Lisbon in favor of the Quinta da Regaleira. As I wrote here, it was like something out of a fairy tale. Since I already wrote about the treasure hunt feel of tracking down sites A through X, I’ll just plan to post some photos in the next week or so. I’ve gone on long enough. Next up: Porto.


Ya verás/You’ll see May 16, 2008

Posted by Emily in Andalucía, blog, fiesta, photography, Spain.
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Since about Christmas, maybe before, there’s been one phrase the cordobeses have repeated to me over and over: ya verás (you’ll see). They were speaking of two things: just how hot it gets here and what Córdoba is like in May, the month of non-stop fiesta.

Lucky for me, I haven’t yet gotten a real sense of the heat here. It got up into the low 90s about a week ago, with the southern Spanish sunshine that shines with a strength that tells you the equator’s not too far away. (Hello, alliteration!) But Córdoba supposedly has the highest average temperature in Europe. When I was wearing a skirt and tank top, seeking out the shade and sweating all the same, people were walking the streets in jeans, long sleeved shirts and sweaters. I saw TWO women wearing (hideous) fuzzy mukluk Eskimo boots. It’s been raining this week and it’s been OK. Ya veré…I’ll see what it’s like soon enough.

Córdoba is a city that basically peaked in about 1250, when it was a thriving religious and trade hub, the center of Moorish culture outside of Baghdad, by some accounts Western Europe’s biggest city. The Mezquita and the ruins of the Medina Azahara give some sense of what it might have been like.

In a February book review in the New Yorker, Joan Acocella quotes the author David Levering Lewis on ancient Córdoba, “‘The capital’s streets, following no particular pattern from the long wall beside the gray Guadalquivir River, linked neighborhoods where Jews, Berbers, Catholics and Orthodox, Arabs and muwalladun‘–non-Arab converts to Islam–‘lived as though in their own separate worlds. Sephardic apothecaries, Visigoth blacksmiths, and Greek surgeons offered services in these long, narrow arteries.’ Orange and lemon trees perfumed the air. Outside the city, ‘the long Guadalquivir plain, abundantly irrigated by waterwheels, was carpeted with cereal plantations of wheat, rye, and barley, and olive trees forever.'” She goes on to write, “You want to move there.”

Córdoba has been trying to recapture that spirit for some time now (some might say the last 750 years or so), but the city’s fall from grace doesn’t affect the pride of the cordobeses. Oh no. At the same time that they hate on the sevillanos for thinking they’re the ombligo del mundo (center..but literally belly button..of the world), the cordobeses are not lacking in pride for their city, and never more than in May.

The month kicked off with Las Cruces, a festival in which crosses of flowers are mounted in all of the main squares of the city, as well as bars that blast flamenco and sevillanas all afternoon and into the night. Kind of strange mix of religion and debauchery (for more on this phenomenon, see: El Rocío). My Swedish friend Anna came down to visit from Pamplona, where she’s studying, and we had a blast floating from bar to bar, er cross to cross. We also went to a party in which a group of guys mounted their own cross on their massive terrace, along with a cardboard waterwell with a bucket/plant holder that moved up and down.

After Las Cruces, we had Las Catas del Vino (wine tasting festival, featuring ONLY wine from Córdoba and nothing from those other silly provinces) and the start of Los Patios. 70,000 people turned out to Las Catas over the course of four days. In an outburst of cordobés pride and I’m guessing somewhat full of cordobés wine, a gray haired man burst into a raucous version of the Córdoba F.C. fight song (quite unlike this rather stoic version) while waiting to cross the street at the end of Friday night’s festivities. It also served as yet another opportunity to tout Córdoba as a candidate for the European Capital of Culture in 2016.

These days, if there’s one thing Córdoba is famous for other than the Mezquita, it’s probably the patios. The interior of houses in the older part of the city face into a central patio, one of many Moorish steps to combat the heat, and every May the patios, usually closed off to the public, are open and in full bloom for the annual competition. There are two categories: Modern or Renovated Architecture and Original/Traditional Architecture. The first prize winner in the Traditional Architecture category receives 3,607€, but all participating patios seem to receive around 2,000€ just for being a part of the competition. I need to get myself a patio…

(Anna is six feet tall)

When the patios finish up next week, it will be time for the mother of all Córdoban parties, the 10 days we’ve all been waiting for: la fería. Remember how I wrote about the (more famous) Fería de Abril in Sevilla? The Córdoba/Sevilla rivalry is out in full force already in the form of the portada, the absolutely massive entrance to the Córdoban fair. I’ll look forward to taking some pictures that weren’t possible with the rain in Sevilla. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we’ll have nice weather, not much rain but also not completely roasting at the sandy fairgrounds. Supongo que ya veré. I guess I’ll see.