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Loving Lisbon, Portugal

Words/images: Heidi Swift | From Issue 18

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“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”

— Anthony Bourdain

I wake up at dawn and bolt.

The lights are yellow, the streets are white and the sky is backlit midnight blue. Everyone is sleeping. Every single person in Lisbon. At least that’s how it feels.

I run. I run in a darting motion that is inefficient and unpredictable and joyfully fitful. Narrow streets lead to nowhere and are flanked by pink, yellow, blue and sea-foamcolored walls. Buildings covered with intricate ceramic tiles make the whole place visually captivating—patterns and texture somehow bold and muted all at once. Everything is new and old at the same time: vibrant aesthetic gestures crumble at the edges like this city is a treasure map and somewhere near a big black “X” I’m going to find my heart.

I’m in love with Lisbon.

It didn’t take long, and some might say that I fall too hard, too easily and too often, but I do my best to be discerning. There’s nothing overtly handsome about this place—it’s subtly charming and surprisingly unassuming. This city is made of seven hills and an endless maze of Calçada Portuguesa (Portuguese pavement made of hand-laid squares of basalt and limestone arranged to make intricate patterns or mosaicstyle images). Pockets of the old town appear not to have changed for hundreds of years and then a few miles away there are big strips of super-modern everything all stacked up together in a crush of convenience.

I make my way down to the waterfront, disrupting mobs of pigeons on my way. With the arrival of the sun, the sky is hosting a purple-versus-orange boxing match and everyone is winning. Just past the terminal I find a running path adorned with PAC-MAN art and long strips of a Portuguese poem that goes on for kilometer after kilometer after kilometer.

The buildings alongside the docks are covered in the kind of street art that no one ever covers up, because why the hell would you? The effect is like running through a contemporary art gallery except it’s free and it’s Lisbon and it’s sunrise and you’re about to buy the best coffee you’ve had in weeks and then walk home up the long staircases while singing Bom dia to every black-clad, shuffle-stepping widow that you pass along the way.

They smile and nod and I mentally add Portuguese to the long list of languages that I still have to learn—right after I become an accordion master or learn the banjo.

NÃO DEIXES AS LUZES APAGAREM-SE

My friend Miguel Andrade is refilling wine glasses. I have been quick to pick up on this habit. We have a saying, he explains: “Não deixes as luzes apagarem-se”—which means “Don’t let the lights go out” (or keep the glasses full!)

Over the course of six days Miguel teaches me a whole host of useful and not-so-useful Portuguese customs and superstitions. When drinking beer, always leave a little bit in the bottom of your glass. The beer at the bottom is called “dead beer.” Bad luck to drink the dead beer. But wait, don’t finish a glass of spirits? It took me a while to wrap my head around this one. Also, never toast with water. Very bad luck!

And then there’s this: “Se cai azeite na toalha da mesa, é sinal de azar; se vinho alegria; se açúcar, riqueza”—which roughly translates as: “If we spill olive oil on the tablecloth it means bad luck, if wine joy and if sugar wealth.” While I am thinking about this and trying to remember what to spill and what not to spill, amazing things arrive in front of me and then find their way into my belly. At a tiny restaurant named Taberna we eat clams Bulhão Pato style (“named by the famous Portuguese poet who also liked to eat,” Miguel explains). Then there are gizzards and traditional codfish cakes, rye bread and Broa, a traditional corn bread cake. Dessert of chestnut pudding (chestnut pudding!).

Taberna is the start of a string of delightful fitness-destroying meals— debaucherous and educational at once. All in the name of research, right? Along the way I pick up my first Michelin star (Belcanto—don’t miss it), eat a cuttlefish whole (the black ink inside is the best part) and ingest barnacles for the first time in my life (they look like dinosaur fingers but taste like saltwater heaven).

loving lisbon
wake up and run

Days go like this: Wake up and run, walk the city, eat an orange for lunch, climb to a castle (St. George—a “must do”), find a chocolate shop, find a park on the top of a hill with a view (they’re everywhere, it’s not hard), visit a bicyclethemed café (Velocité—worth the trip!), find a church, admire the tiles on the sides of the buildings, obsessively photograph said tiles, obsessively photograph the Calçada Portuguesa, drink Ginginja (traditional liqueur), receive a text from Miguel with a meeting spot.

Then all hell breaks loose.

Gastronomic adventures. Shameless food worship. Rampant tasting. At night I lie in bed and hold my stomach with one hand while I write notes with the other:

  • Paté de Aves (wild poultry paté)
  • Presunto (ham aged 36 months)
  • Empadas de Perdiz (partridge patties)
  • Lebre com Feijão (hare with beans)
  • Requeijão com Doce de Abóbora (Portuguese cottage cheese with pumpkin jam)
  • Sericaia com Ameixa de Elvas (traditional type of egg sweet served with plums from Elvas)
  • Hamburgueres de Vaca e de Choco (cuttlefish and cow hamburgers served on a checkerboard plate with cuttlefish ink)
  • Gelado de manjericão com Ananás (basil ice cream with pineapple)
  • Mousse de Chocolate com sal e azeite (chocolate mousse with olive oil and salt)

BOURDAIN WAS RIGHT

Sleepy Saturday, low sun. We wander into the Mouraria District and take a quick right turn off the main drag into an impossibly small alley. Another quick right and Miguel announces, “Ah, here it is.” I see nothing until he pulls back a curtain covering an entryway on the right side of the street. Zé da Mouraria! Inside this little gem (which I will call “the secret restaurant” for the remainder of the trip) is a whirlwind of eating and ordering and gesturing and drinking and laughing. Local Portuguese are packed in so tight I have to turn sideways to squeeze between tables en route to ours, which we share with two gray-haired gentleman who insist on several occasions that I try their food. The place smells like cilantro and olive oil and garlic.

A bottle of wine arrives followed by a gigantic pan full of meat in a cream sauce that makes me put my hand to my chest as if I might somehow check the condition and preparedness of my arteries. One bite confirms my suspicions: veal. Pillow-soft and excruciatingly moist. The old men next to us are jealous: the veal with cracked pepper is a secret, something you have to know about to order. Not written or documented anywhere.

It takes us three hours to finish everything and by the end the restaurant is empty save for the family who runs it. Their children have returned from school and are building Lego toys at the table next to us. In the kitchen, the entire family, including the grandmother, is arguing about the grades the children have brought home. Despite our lingering, they never bring a check until we request it. The meal costs 25 euros.

Out in the alleyway the world is new again: cobbles under my feet and laundry hanging from the bright-blue building. I recall that Anthony Bourdain once said, “The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself.” Now I finally know exactly what he meant.

loving lisbon portugal
loving lisbon portugal

The next day we drive up the coast and then sit oceanside at Grelhas Restaurante in Cascais, where I stick my knife into the middle of the gigantic cuttlefish and watch while the black ink oozes out. From the table we look out in the direction of the westernmost point of continental Europe toward beaches that are teeming with surfers during the summer months. Later we’ll go up a mountain road with curves so tight and narrow it feels like a crime not to be on a bicycle.

At the top in Sintra there are eighth-century castles and 15th-century palaces, but the sun is already gone and we’re here for a more important mission: pastries. The Travesseiros from Café Piriquita are stuffed with custard and almonds and dusted with sugar: molten filling oozing over the edges of a puff-pastry crust. “You can get this type of pastry in Lisbon,” Miguel’s mother explains, “but it’s never the same. Never.” The same is true of the wildly famous Pastéis de Belém, which must be acquired while still hot at the 175-year-old bakery that shares the same name.

DINOSAUR FINGERS AND VODKA

At a restaurant called Cervejaria Ramiro we wait outside for a table in a lingering cloud of second-hand smoke while some shifty-looking characters ask Miguel for money, which he distributes. “This is a problematic neighborhood,” he says by way of apology. “You’ll be broke by the time we get a table,” I say. He laughs.

There are lobsters in a tank in the window. The lobsters do not laugh. Behind the lobsters I can see people eating and laughing and yelling. There’s an important football game (isn’t every football game important!?) on the television. The owner brings us beer to enjoy on the sidewalk.

“Are you sure I can’t finish it?” I ask when I get to the end.

“Better not.”

The owner brings us another beer and then returns quickly to tell us he has a table. There is an onslaught of seafood: large shrimp with black eyes staring into my soul (delicious!) and Sapateira Recheada, which is crab prepared in a traditional way where the meat of the body is mixed with boiled egg, mustard, pickled onion and beer and then served in the shell. I take a hammer and start smashing things in my most polite smashing motion. When the Percebes (gooseneck barnacles) arrive, I can’t hide my enthusiasm. Underwater dinosaur fingers! Awesome.

The table is a battlefield. The carnage tells a story: I won dinner. Our gray-haired server whizzes by, delivers two lemon sorbets and then slams a bottle of vodka down, picking it up again to tilt it toward me in a manner that says, “You in?”

pours the vodka slowly

I nod (of course) and he pours the vodka slowly into my sorbet. I wager he is waiting for a signal to stop but I decide to remain still and see what kind of damage I can do. When he finally stops pouring, he winks at me and smiles. He likes me. You’d think the sorbet would be dessert, but you’d be wrong. The sorbet is a palate-cleanser. A freshen-up, because dessert is actually a steak sandwich with the meat cooked so rare and soft you wonder if you’ve ever had a cut so good.

You know what I can get behind? A country that serves steak sandwiches for dessert.

Yes, yes and yes.

MAGRA! MAGRA!

Rain like the end of the world: rain from the side and the top and the bottom. It’s my last day in Lisbon and I am leaping over puddles and ducking under awnings with the best of them. Umbrellas everywhere. The low streets by the waterfront are flooding. So moody this city—so dramatic. I can’t get enough.

Metro ride, short walk, stop for bread, stop for olive oil. A car passes too closely and drenches me in ice-cold rainwater. I arrive at Miguel’s house soaked from head to toe.

It’s worth it.

Mama Andrade makes traditional Portuguese food—Sopa de Coentros (cilantro soup), Morcela assada em barro com ananás (blood sausage cooked in clay and served with pineapple), Empadão de bacalhau com esparregado (a kind of codfish casserole with potato and spinach purée). Dessert is grandma’s famous Pudim de ovos (egg pudding).

I tell a story about my husband’s Sicilian aunt calling me skinny when I showed up in the old country after losing 10 pounds: “Magra! Magra!” she screamed. This is funny, both because magra means the same thing in Portuguese and Sicilian (overly skinny, sickly) and also because I’m as far from magra as I’ve been in a long time. Miguel’s father laughs good and hard and suddenly; more than before, Lisbon feels a little bit like home.

In the morning I fly south to Faro for a Specialized-lululemon team camp where test bikes and professional cyclists and quiet roads and coffee shop stops await. It would take two lifetimes to ride off all of the food I’ve eaten, but who’s counting?

Luckily, I don’t get paid to pedal a bike uphill quickly, I get paid to hang out the passenger window of the team car with the head mechanic holding onto my feet so I can take a photo of little miss five-and-a-half-ish-watts-per-kilogram.

She looks hungry.

Magra! Magra! Quick, somebody give her a pastry.