Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Doce de Santo Amora

A trip to Lisbon cannot be complete without a night out at the docks...the dock area under the 25th July bridge has been converted into a hip, happening strip , very reminiscent of Boat Quay / Clarke Quay in Singapore..We decided to step out at 10 o'clock at night, were not sure if it would be open that late on a Monday night, but we were in for a surprise! The place was chock-a-block full, and, we could see the cars still coming in..
As you walk down the strip, you realise that Doce de Santo Amora, unlike a Boat Quay, had remained true to its dock origns..the restaurants, while well appointed, are clearly warehouses along the dock, converted into some snazy and rocking spots.. definately more authentic for a dock front!

On the left side are rows and rows of sail boats , motor boats moored for the night...the restaurants are on the right, tables on the left by the waterfront and a walkway separating the two...

As for restaurants, there is a wide variety, though essentially continental to choose from..There is an English style pub, a karaoke bar, and, hold your breath, a salsa bar playing foot tapping music and people were dancing and drinking the night away...

We opted for an Italian place so that I could finally get something to eat! As a vegetarian, I was begining to get tired of bread, bread and some more bread!

The food was nice, the ambience was awesome, the weather gorgeous and the feel to the place was "throbbing with life"..When we finally left at around 12.30 p.m., people were still coming in and the place looked as full as when we had come in. I beleive the place is open into the wee hours of the night...If you are in Lisbon, there is no way that you can miss a trip to Doce de Santo Amora...If you do, the loss will entirely be yours!

Oceanarium & Vasco da Gama bridge

The Oceanarium in Lisbon is supposed to be Europe’s largest aquarium, and is a must do especially if you have children.. they will just love it!

Designed by American architect Peter Chermeyeff, the Oceanarium is a glass & steel modern structure that almost looks like that its rising from the river.

There is a central tank which is reputed to be the size of 4 Olympic size swimming pools! The space in the central tank is divided by transparent acrylic partitions with different sea life forms from diff environments inhabiting each partition. Since the partitions are transparent, it appears almost like different sea creatures from different sea environments are all sharing the same single space!

The penguins are just adorable! They are nice and fat and my son spent his entire roll of film clicking away!

Interesting titbit: The Osaka Oceanarium in Japan was built by the same architect who designed the Lisbon Oceanarium – Peter Chermayeff. Work speaks for itself!
There are a couple of restaurants / cafes downstairs where you can grab a snack and coffee...where we ordered a chicken sandwich which no one would eat, but that's another story!

There is a delightful red toy train running around the complex which is a great attraction for younger kids.

Also close by is another marvel of steel & glass - the Vasco da Gama Tower & bridge.

Vasco da Gama Bridge is 17km long (10km of which pass over water), making it the longest bridge in Europe when it opened in 1998 and still today one of the longest in the world. (It has the same length as the road-rail tunnel-bridge linking Denmark and Sweden).

Interesting titbits: The bridge's length forced engineers to factor in the curvature of the Earth during its construction. That makes it a superb feat of engineering, made up of several sections supported by pillars, built at a cost of one billion US dollars.
When you look back at Lisbon from the bridge, you realise that the bridge kind of divides the old Lisbon from the new! On one side are modern day structures of steel, glass and straight lines and the other side the quaint quarters of Alfama, the old city.

Pasteis de Nata

Pasteis de Nata – Portuguese Egg Custard tart. Delicious!! We devoured tens of these small, to die for tarts!

The tart has an interesting history! Yup, most iconic / famous foods do!

The original recipe for Pasteis de Nata was invented by two Catholic sisters in the convent at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos & called Pasteis de Belem, and has been heavily guarded since.

Around 1837, clerics from the monetary, set up Casa Pastéis de Belém, the first shop to sell the pasteis, in order to raise money for the monastery. Today, these are generally known as Pasteis de Nata, and only the original Pasteis de Belem carry the name. The original shop also remains standing today and the Pasteis de Belem are still said to be the best.

It is said that the recipe for the egg custard for Pasteis de Belem is a heavily guarded secret known only to the Master Pastercook. The custard is prepared in a secret room by the Master Pastercook and then given to the other works to fill in the pastry shells!

Alfama - the soul of Lisbon

Alfama is Lisbon's most emblematic and one of the most interesting quarters. The most intersting way to get to know it is to walk around and get lost in the medivial alleys - it is impossible not to get lost in that labyrinth!

Portugal suffered a massive earthquake in 1755 which destroyed almost the whole city, as a result of which none of the older monuments remain. However, since Alfama's fiundation was dense bedrock, it survived the 1755 earthquake. No wonder, a walk through Alfama, is like a walk through history....

Alfama is like a village within a city and is made up of narrow streets, squares, churches, and white & pink houses with wrought-iron balconies with pots of colourful flowers...while you drive through the streets, you will suddenly come upon a square with a small bistro where locals and tourists alike are sitting and sipping coffee enjoying the summer sun... thats when you hop offthe car, get down, and join them for a lazy afternoon cuppa in the lovely summer sun!

I understand that Alfama was settled by the Romans and Visigoths but it was the Moors who gave the district its atmosphere and name (alfama means springs or bath, a reference to the hot springs found in the area). They were also responsible for the labyrinth of streets, which I believe were created as a defense system, and, at the same time served the dual purpose of keeping their homes to remain cool in the summer.

According to our car driver, most of the older residents in Alfama are people who have lived here all their lives. Unfortunately because the places are all rent controlled, many of them have become dilapidated.

Alfama is also home to St George's castle who is the patron saint of Lisbon. Other renovated buildings directly below the castle have been converted into some quaint and unique hotels. Alfama has influenced poets and novelists, and although Bairro Alto is the city's traditional Fado (typical Portugese melancholy music) quarter, it is Alfama that has always been the inspiration for Fado songs, and is becoming just as popular with Fado Houses.

Nothing in my writings nor in the photographs can capture the experience that is Alfama.... You need to spend time wandering in its higgedly piggedly streets, climb up and down undulating quarters, admire quaint little houses with people lounging in their wrought iron balconies, quiant houses that looked like they just walked out of my son's story book, narrow lanes where you squeeze against the walls to let the cars pass, tracks where brightly coloured trams chug along with people handing out from all sides, locals smiling and yelling out a friendly "ola" as you walk by, and, a sense of a tryst with history as you take in your surroundings...

...and while you romanticise about the place, you also realise that it is the poorer quarter of town...Alfama became inhabited by the fishermen and the poor, and its condition as the neighbourhood of the poor continues to this day....

I cant remember where I found this, but enclosed is a poem written about Alfama which captures the ethos of the place....

Monday, August 11, 2008

Lisbon - a city of 7 hills!

While Madrid was fun, it is like any other European city, a little cold & business like, lots of parks, arches & gateways, over ornate buildings with thick facades to keep the cold out & a hurried pace of life.

But Lisbon is different. The capital of Portugal, built over 7 hills, its home to warmer friendlier people. Its a place where people have time to enjoy themselves, where the old and new jostle for attention side by side, and you can feel the joie de vivre in the air!

A city where winding roads make for a pictureseque trip no matter where you go, where the city and its denizens enjoy themselves into the wee hours of the night, where everyone enjoys a cuppa, sitting in the central square enjoying the evening breeze, listening to street performers, where every shopkeeper / vendor will smile & greet you with a heartfelt "ola" when you pass them by, where the evenings are breezy & chilly even in the middle of summer & where there is an appreciation of simple everyday things....

Rossio Station - Looking more like a lavish theatre or a nobleman's palace, this is the station for local trains departing from Lisbon to Sintra.

The interesting thing about the station is that the railway platforms are not at the entrance level but about 30 meteres above the entrance!

One of the most attractive features are the horseshoe shaped archways which serve as the entrances to the station. The station was closed for 3 years for renovation, and, has only re-opened in Feb 2008.

Russio Station

Rossio Station - Looking more like a lavish theatre or a nobleman's palace, this is the station for local trains departing from Lisbon to Sintra.

The interesting thing about the station is that the railway platforms are not at the entrance level but about 30 meteres above the entrance!

One of the most attractive features are the horseshoe shaped archways which serve as the entrances to the station. The station was closed for 3 years for renovation, and, has only re-opened in Feb 2008

Campo Pequeno

Campo Pequeno bullring is built in the style of old Arab architecture from Iberia. In the Portugese bullfight, the bull is not killed in the ring and the fight is accordingly referred to as a "bloodless bullfight".

A Portuguese corrida de touros has three main events:

CAVALEIRO - A horseman (rider), dressed in traditional 18th century costumes fights the bull from horseback.

BANDARILHEIROS - Like the Spanish matadores, but without the sword. These men simply play the bull with a red coat.

FORCADOS - A group of eight men who challenge the bull directly, without any protection or weapon of defense! Given the "bloodless" nature, were tempted to watch but it still seemed too gruesome to expose my son to!

El Rastro

Be it Europe, or Asia, the one thing that all big cities have in common is a flea market. Market on wheels, markets in squares, bric-a-brac sales, junk sales, weekend markets - all big cities seem to have one if not more...and they are a must for the tourist. Not just becuase of what you might find there, but mainly because they have an atmosphere that distinguishes them from every other market / historical monument that you may see.

Be it the stall selling old used junk, or the lady playing the organ, old music LPs that you have not heard in a long while, old military paraphernalia, ethnic jewellery, local art or carts selling local food, there is a quirkiness to these markets that nothing else can replicate. They are windows into the lives of the local people, an opportunity to mingle with them, haggle over every single piece that you definately do not need, flop on the benches as you savour that local delicacy, observe the little girl plead with her father to buy yet another rag doll that she just must have, smile at the joke shared between the two stall owners watching the intrepid tourist bargain! Its an experience that one must go through.

Madrid is no different. In fact, if anything, it boasts of multiple flea markets. It can pride itself on being a city with the highest number of street markets, amongst them being the stamp and coin market in Plaza Mayor, the craft market in Plaz de las Comendadoras, and, the pottery market in Plaza del Conde Barajas. But the most famous of all of these is the El Rastro, held every Sunday, on Ribera de Curtidores.

This, I was told, was perhaps one of the oldest parts of Madrid and the market is spread out all over random streets, and, as you walk from the main road into the thick of the market, it would appear that half of Madrid had the same idea as you! The one phrase that you need to learn and will constantly use is Cuanto cuesta? - kwan-to kwes-tah - How much is it?

The main street has clothing, music, pottery, leather goods, swords & knives, fans etc but its the side lanes where you can hunt out bargains on handicrafts and antiques. The market starts early in the morning around 7 and continues till around 2 o;clock in the afternoon. When tired, flop down, have a cold beer / soft drink from one of the shops, and then resume your quest.

I picked up a lovely poster of a bull fight where they printed my son's name as the chief bull fighter, and, another one for a flamenco performance by my husband and me! They are now my prized possesions!

I also bought a lovely knight's helmet for my son, complete with a curtain of links. There were also a huge range of swords with beautiful sheaths which I was very tempted to buy, but the edges were too sharp, so I had to forego them - couldn't risk my son cutting himself on these!

All that walking had tired us, so we dropped into a roadside eatery to buy some water and a bite to munch. There was an array of mouthwatering snacks on display, all wasted on a vegetarian like me! Hubby and son devoured some food, and, when we were looking to throw the wrapper, we realised that everyone was throwing them on the floor. Then we realised that its the done thing, you eat whatever, and throw the wrappers / shells / packets / corks on the floor. Every 10 mins, the cleaner would come, and, sweep it away! It reminded me of the Camel bar in Sharm, where the USP is that you eat peanuts and throw the shells on the floor!

Just a word of caution! Where there are crowds, there will be pickpockets, so keep your wallets securely strapped, and avoid carrying large floppy bags where you won't even register a quick hand in and out!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Casa Patas

The one thing that we were very keen on doing was watching a flamenco performance. Coming to Spain and not watching the flamenco is like commiting blasphemy...Surfing the net, asking the concierge, reading local recommnedations, we zeroed in on 3 possibilities:

Café de Chinitas
Calle Torija, 7, Madrid, Spain 28013 · 91-559-51-35

Corral de la Morería
Calle de Morería, 17, Madrid, Spain 28005 · 91-365-8446
Over the years some of the most famous performers from the flamenco world have performed here including Pastora Imperio, La Chunga, María Albaicín, Fosforito, Serranito, El Güito, Lucero Tena, Isabel Pantoja and Blanca Del Rey. The place has attracted visitors from all over the world including such celebrities as Frank Sinatra, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Muhammed Ali and U2, to name just a few.

Casa Patas
Calle de Cañizares, 10, Madrid, Spain · 91-369-04-96
Casa Patas offers some of the finest flamenco performances in Madrid with artists of the stature of Chaquetón, Remedios Amaya, Chano Lobato, La Niña Pastori and many more. Its famous guests include Johnny Depp, Naomi Campbell, Antonio Canales and William Dafoe.

After going through all of these, we decided on Casa Patas. As our concierge told us, this club is now one of the best places to see "true" flamenco as opposed to the more tourist-oriented version presented at Corral de la Morería .

Listening to them sing, the Moorish / Islamic influence on the Spannish music is rather obvious...however, the difference being that Arabic music tends to be uni- beat while the flamenco music has huge variations in pitch, tone and beat...and you need to have a strong, powerful voice with a good throw...

It is also a bar and restaurant, with space reserved in the rear for flamenco. Shows are presented midnight on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and during Madrid's major fiesta month of May. Additionally, flamenco singers and dancers often hang out here after hours, and, mix around and chat with the guests if you want to spend some time. Tickets are priced at Euro 30 per head for an adult and Euro 13 for a child less than 12 years old. This price includes one free drink on the house.

You can also order tapas while watching the performance. As a general rule, food at flamenco clubs is not phenomenal but hubby ordered some tapas which he said were quite nice. Of course, there was nothing vegetarian available, not even the ubiquitous spannish omlette! Plus food at flamenco shows is almost always expensive. Two plates of tapas were almost the same price of all 3 tickets! So, if you're on a budget, its a good idea to go have a meal outside, and then go for a late night performnace and enjoy your drinks at the tablaos. And in case you are a vegetarian, its anyways a good idea! lol!

What we saw was a wonderful Flamenco Tablaos, and, I was so glad that we chose Casa Patas! The club has an intimate, personal feel to it and the singers and the dancers (one male & one female) were excellent! Two guys played the guitar effortlessly while the two singers had very powerful yet melodious voices....

Hearing the singers sing, I thought the music had many similarities to Arabic music which may well be explained by the Islamic influence in Spain. However, unlike Arabic music, there are a lot of changes in tempo and rythm in this music, which is what makes it fascinating. The male and the female dancers were brilliant, matching their steps to the rising crescendo of the songs. We were so caught up in the performace, that did not realise when the show ended and it was time to go home!

Sunday, August 3, 2008


If you are an European art aficionado, you're spoilt for choice in Madrid between the famous triangle formed by Reina Sofia, The Pardo and the Thyssein...

But if you are pressed for time, and, have to pick one, my choice would be the Renia Sofia, only for the Guernica.

Guernica is a painting by Pablo Picasso, depicting the Nazi German bombing of Guernica Spain, by twenty-eight bombers, on April 26, 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The attack killed between 250 and 1,600 people, and many more were injured.

The Spanish government commissioned Pablo Picasso to paint a large mural for the Spanish display at the Paris International Exposition in 1937.

The Guernica bombing inspired Picasso. Within 15 days of the attack, Pablo Picasso began painting this mural. On completion Guernica was displayed around the world in a brief tour, becoming famous and widely acclaimed. This tour brought the Spanish civil war to the world's attention. Guernica epitomizes the tragedies of war and the suffering war inflicts upon individuals.

At approx 25 ft x 11 ft, the Guernica occupies an entire wall and is fascinating, awe-inspiring and repulsive in its depiction of a scene of death, violence, brutality, suffering, and helplessness.

Done in black, white and shades of grey, its said that Picaaso chose the colour scheme to convey the chronological nearness of a newspaper photograph and the lifelessness war affords.

For a symbol of the destruction that a war can wreak, the good thing is that a lot of people recognize the painting. They may not know that it's a Picasso, but they recognize the image. In that sense, its an icon for the ravages that war can bring, and an absolute must see...

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Of Chocolate & Churros

For a quintessential Madrid experience, you must have hot chocolate with fried churros! And the best place to go for Chocolate con Churros is Chocolatería San Ginés, which is just off the Calle Arenal's pedestrian zone west of the Puerta del Sol. A place that has been around since 1894, it looks quite like what it must have looked in thse early years.

The place is open in the afternoon and at night. Ideal time to visit in the summer, is after you've been tapas bar hopping, and end the evening with a round of chocolate and churros! Its a must do Madrid experience, and, very typically Spannish. Though I found the chocolate slightly bitter, my son loved it..but if bitter chocolate is not your cup of tea, oops chocolate, ask your hotel to give you hot chocolate with churros which would perhaps be more suited to your palatte.

I, unfortunately, did not take a photograph of what churros look like, but managed to get one from the Wikipedia...

Believe me, they are delicious just by themselves! Yum!

Parque del Retiro

Another must do for Madrid, is a visit to the Parque del Retiro or "Retiro Park" which was created as a royal park. It belonged to the Real Sitio del Buen Retiro palace. In 1632, the palace was built by King Philips IV as a retreat for the Royal family. Retiro stands for retreat, hence the name of the park and palace. The park , originally, covered an area of 180 square meteres, and, had over 30 buildings.

The centre of the park is the large lake where you can go boating or simply laze around on its steps and listen to street entertainers perform. The park has a number of 'terrazas' (open air bars) where you can sip a beer or enjoy an 'horchata' (made from tiger nuts or almonds). As you sit in the bars and sip your drink, you see roller skaters whizz past, families with babies in their prams, artists making carricatures / potraits of people, vendors selling the most amazing things from a sketch of the human body to dancing plastic Coke bottles, a magic show, a puppet show for the little ones...the Retiro is a place where Madrileños come to relax and spend their afternoons on holidays...

Another key attraction within the park is the Crystal Palace or a palace made out of galss.

The park also has the only public statue of Lucifer.

Real Madrid - the soul of Madrid!

Undoubtedly, while Madrid has history to offer to the tourist who comes here, but I suspect its the fact that its home to the most successful club in the history of football, that is the key attraction....its the Mecca for football lovers...and worth a visit for even those who are not....

Real Madrid Club de Fútbol or Madrid Royal Football Club, popularly known as Real Madrid is a Spanish professional football club based in Madrid. Founded in 1902, the club has been voted the most successful football club of the 20th century, having won a record thirty-one La Liga (Spannish Professional Football League) titles, seventeen Copa del Rey (Annual Spannish Football) and a record nine European Cup titles (the most recent one being last month!)

As you stroll through Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, which is home to Real Madrid, and walk through the Real Madrid Museum, you get the sense of why Real Madrid is the most successful football club of the 20th century.

Walking past the various trophies and large pictures of greats who have played for the club at some point in time, you can get a sense of why Europe and Spain is so crazy about Real Madrid, and, there is a sense of awe as you view the trophies, stand in the middle of the stadium imagining the sounds of 80,000 fans as they watch their favourite team play to win, yet again!

I did not know that the Spanish singer Julio Iglesias was a keeper for Real Madrid's youth sides until he was in a car accident which stopped his football career!