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Selling flowers in Rossio SquareDec. 28-Jan. 2, 1998 & 1999 Lisbon, Portugal

It didn't take long for us to feel completely comfortable in, and even totally taken by, Portugal's capital city. Lisbon just seems to radiate an unassuming friendliness and inviting warmth. Cherished characteristics which the majority of the other European capitals we've visited have more or less outgrown. Good or bad, Lisbon, and Portugal as a whole, has lagged behind her European neighbors in a number of ways. What some might find distressed and dilapidated, we consider charming and colorful, for hidden within the crumbling plaster are hints of the city's glory days.

Torre de Belem on the River TagusThe days of the 15th and 16th centuries when her explorers colonized distant lands, opened new trade routes throughout around the globe, and made Lisbon, by most accounts, the queen of all of Europe. She enjoyed (and often defended) her prestigious status until 1755, when an earthquake practically leveled the entire city, killing over 20% of her people. Sadly, she has never been the same since. As we wander the streets and begin to get a true feel for this once proud city, we discover however that it is all that Lisbon isn't, that really makes her all she is.

The streets of Bairro AltoFor instance, the townspeople of Lisbon still observe 'siesta time'. As it happens, everyone is taking their daily break and things are relatively quiet, as we wander around the streets of Bairro Alto, part of the city's old town. We stroll about, peeking in shop windows, perusing dinner menus, checking the bills of the Fado venues, and noting the hours of the late night clubs for our return later that evening.

The narrow alleyways of the Alfama districtA passerby catches us walking from one such menu posting and, with a broad smile, stops us to introduce himself as the head waiter. He first invites, then simply insists that we come inside to have a look around. We get a complete tour - small bar, dinning room, and most importantly, the kitchen. He pulls out various dishes in their pre-cooked state. Pears soaking in Port wine, clams still squirting (sometimes out of the pan) as they await their fate, and trays upon trays full of fresh fish - some cleaned and some still with all their trimmings - ready for cooking.

Intricate stonework of Portugal's sidewalksTo show us how fresh the fish is, he lifts one of the whole ones up in the air by the tail, and slaps both sides of it making it wiggle as if it were still swimming. After his show, he all but makes us promise to come back for dinner, and then lets us leave. A few hours pass, and upon our return we are immediately recognized and treated to a greeting that I'm sure is reserved for only the most regular of regulars. Our new friend convinces us to give him back his menus and let him serve us HIS version of a delicious meal. Cheese, ham, bread, fresh clams and fish, and of course, a bottle of the house's wine. Very pleasing!

A worn, but graceful fountain statuette in Rossio SquareAfter indulging our taste buds during dinner, it's time to treat our ears to a little desert - of the musical variety. We go in search of the local delicacy, Fado. Translated as destiny or fate, Fado is literally a song about the many events that effect our daily lives and the emotions that they stir. It is, for the most part, a of melody of sorrow, although sometimes a song of happiness, but always a form of intimate expression by the performer. We find a small, dimly lit venue with friendly staff, take our seats, order some wine, and wait for the show.

Some of the ornate tile work that ordains Lisbon's buildingsA middle-aged woman, dressed all in black (down to her shawl), saunters up to the stage and begins to sing. Accompanied by two guitarists who pluck the strings more so than strum them (one on a Portuguese guitar, and one with a standard six string), the vocalist lifts her head to the heavens, closes her eyes, and laments a continuous, roller-coaster pitched hymn of truly heart-felt verses. A mix between crooning and moaning, it is solemnly haunting and very moving.

Tools of music illuminating Rua AugustaThe next night is New Year's Eve. One of my favorite holidays, it has always been a time for outrageous celebration, personal reflection, and planful resolution. For our New Year's Eve dinner, Laura and I opt to walk right past all the fancy restaurants - the ones displaying their menus (sides of beef, baby pigs, pheasants, live crabs still kicking, etc.) by hanging them up in their windows - in search of a less formal, more colorful venue. We decide on a small place, whose name is translated as 'Chicken King', for our laid back celebration. We walk in the front door and just beside the giant floor to ceiling rotisserie, loaded with spits of whole chickens, hissing and popping as they turn.

Ever feel like you're talking to a stone wall?The place is packed. Everyone is in a festive mood and seems to be celebrating as loudly as they can between bites. We weave our way through the boisterous crowd to be seated just in front of the service isle. We are so close to the couple next to us, that I have no doubt that my elbow will eventually end up in their soup. And to boot, I am bumped or brushed each time a waiter comes by to pick up new food, or drop off empty plates. Apparently, the waiters have started their celebration early, for each time they pass me, they take a little sip from a shot glass of some sort of clear liquor. They seem none the worse for wear until one of them drops an entire plate of fresh, hot food mere inches from my back. CRASH!! All over the floor, but missing me. Oh well, no harm, no foul.

The sounds of Silence 4 in Praca do ComercioWe pay our bill, head back to our hotel to grab our bottle of champagne, and make our way towards the big celebration in Praca do Comercio. We join the waves of people rambling down Rua Augusta. It seems that the better part of the city is also on their way to the waterfront. No doubt to take in the concert, wait for the big 30 second countdown, and finally enjoy the fireworks at midnight. We arrive to join an already festive, and rapidly growing, crowd of revelers. In the distance, the band in is in full swing. Their rhythm pounds from the half dozen or so tower-high speakers. Multi-colored lights flash to the beat, through the clouds of smoke being pumped in from back stage. Just beside us, two young girls jump up and down, sort of dancing in place, as they sing aloud with the band. Their long brown curls hanging momentarily in midair, then quickly bouncing down upon their shoulders, only to fly up again.

Scott, Laura, and a tattered noisemaker at the stroke of midnightSuddenly, the music stops and the band and the crowd begin chanting together. A quick glance at my watch tells me they must be counting backwards to midnight. As Laura digs the noisemakers out of my pocket, I ready our champagne with a few quick shakes. We don't know our numbers in Portuguese, so we have to wait till quattro (four) to join in. "Quattro! Tres! Dos! Uno! Yeahh!" Bottles pop and corks fly. Everyone's yelling and screaming, whooping and hollering. Everywhere there are whistles blowing and horns tooting. Fireworks shoot to the heavens and explode with sharp BANGS!, thunderous POWS!, and cracking POPS!, as they light up the sky. A big toast and lingering midnight kiss then do well to cap our New Year's celebration the square. We watch the last of the fireworks before heading for the hotel. I puff on a Cuban cigar I'd been saving, and take each step to reflect on the year that had passed so quickly. For it was just about this time last year that Laura and I really started thinking seriously about this crazy 'round the world' idea. An idea that was born in my thoughts and dreams, I'm certain, on a New Years Eve much like this one, only years and years ago. Now here we are, celebrating our fourth month on the road, on New Year's Eve, in Lisbon Portugal. What they say must be true, "be careful what you wish for". For it seems, if you really want it, "you might just get it".

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Last modified: June 01, 1999    Photographs and text 1998 Scott and Laura Kruglewicz. All Rights Reserved.

 

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