The Gulbenkian Museum

One of the museums in Lisbon which I’d read a lot about is the Calouste Gulbenkian museum. Gulbenkian was a British oil magnate of Armenian origin who died in the middle of the last century. During his lifetime he kept his enormous art collection in his house in Paris. Although he donated many pieces to the British Museum and the British National Gallery, a significant part of it belongs to the museum in Lisbon.

The garden seen from inside the Gulbenkian museum
The Calouste Gulbenkian museum stands inside a wonderful garden. This view is from inside the museum
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The museum is housed in a stunning building which blends superbly with the surrounding gardens. The details of the design of the complex are described well in Wikipedia. What is difficult to convey is the aesthetics of the building. When you walk through the park and arrive at the entrance to the museum, it seems completely natural to skirt a duck which has settled near the door.

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One circuit of the museum takes you past Islamic art as well as antiquity from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Persia and Rome. The Egyptian section is small but has a few stunning pieces. The Greek collection is remarkable: see the three examples above. The Islamic arts section gives possibly the best overview of this period among all the museums I’ve seen.

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The second circuit contains European art. After you see a Franz Hals, a wonderful van Dyck, a couple of Rubens and a Rembrandt in close proximity, you can wander in a daze through the rest of the museum. I woke up only when I reached the gallery of French furniture, mainly gilded Louis XIV and XV. I remembered my camera only when I saw the plates above. The collection ends with Art Nouveau and Deco. The Family and I left the museum talking about this alternate modernism which now only appears in a certain kind of science fiction movie.

No entry

noentryWalking around Lisbon one has a distinct feeling that people do not like one-way streets and the crazy traffic routing. No entry signs are constantly vandalized all over the central part of the town. Every time we took a taxi we found that it would first go in a completely crazy direction. The friendliest of drivers would drop us at some street corner and say things like "Walk down that road and take the first left." Going to the doorstep presumably was just too round about.

On the other hand, if you do not have no entry signs, you may just ride a bike up to a point of no return.

Pao Deus

Every day at tea time we learn a little more about Portugal. It started with queque, little muffins which are lovely to have with tea. I’m sure Proust would have approved. Then we discovered the Pasteis de Nata. These little custard tarts were so good that it took us a couple of days to move on. Even after that, we got a little hung up on various queijadas, which are filled tarts. The Pasteis de Nata are just one example. We had one filled with passion fruit, another with apricots and topped with roasted almonds.

But yesterday at tea time we discovered a wonderful bread with a sweet coconut topping which is called, very poetically, Pao Deus. The web is full of recipe after recipe for this wonderful tea-time delicacy.

It seems to me that if I were to be in Portugal for another two weeks I would be able to walk into a pastelaria and order a snack without having to point at things.

Alfama

View of Alfama from near Terreiro de Paco metro stationAlfama is a highly atmospheric part of Lisbon. The city rises very sharply from the Tagus river. Our first view of Alfama came as we strolled along the riverside and reached the Terreiro de Paço metro station. The Family recognized the towers of the cathedral from the pictures she had seen. The building to the right in front turned out to be the Jose Saramago Foundation. If we had more time in Lisbon we would definitely have gone for some of their events.

Graffiti in LisbonWe turned into this district, passed the Jose Saramago Foundation, and climbed up a little. There’s a warren of little streets, passages, and stairs leading up. We quickly lost our way, but decided to keep going upwards. I began to notice the abundance of graffiti. Later we came to love Portuguese graffiti; it will be the subject of a future post. Going up eventually brought us to the cathedral.

As we climbed we stopped to admire some beautiful tiles embedded into buildings.Azulejos  in Alfama We found that Alfama is slowly being renovated. The picturesque crumbling buildings are interspersed with fully renovated buildings like this one. We had begun to notice tiles: azulejos in Portuguese. We would see much more of this soon. It turns out that Alfama is full of restaurants and Fado clubs.

Fado in progress at a bar in AlfamaLater we came back to Alfama for the singular experience of listening to Fado. This musical form apparently has two different styles: the Lisbon style is said to begin with sailors, but now it is common for women to sing Fado of Lisbon. We heard a beautiful performance of this style in Alfama (photo here). Later we would encounter the Coimbra style too.

We explored other parts of the city in the evenings, but Alfama with its very distinct identity was always the most predictably interesting. If you don’t know the secret ways of Lisbon just follow us and gravitate towards Alfama.

The face of Lisbon

A building being renovated in LisbonLisbon seems to be in the middle of a slow renewal. Every cab driver we talked to told us the story of how Marquez de Pombal rebuilt Lisbon after the disastrous earthquake of 1755. He has a huge Praça named after him, with a statue atop a gigantic pillar. I wonder who will be deemed responsible for the ongoing renovations.

The metro nearest my hotel in Lisbon was named after Marquez de Pombal. pasteleriaBefore rushing off to work in the morning, I would sometimes have a quick breakfast at a pastelaria (bakery) on the way. I liked the busy atmosphere of the bakery. The coffee was good, and I liked the array of cakes to choose from. I was fascinated by the fact that the pavement in front of the bakery had its name done in mosaic tiles (see the photo alongside). Clearly the city had torn up the pavement to install these tiles, or allowed the bakery to do it. I thought this was pretty cool.

As I had my breakfast, I watched the empty facade of the building opposite me being worked on. The rest of the building was gone,Facade of another bullding in Lisbon and one wall was held up by an ingenious scaffolding. I suppose that eventually a whole new building will come up behind this facade. Later, as I walked along the street, I wondered how many of these beautiful facades hide completely modern houses behind them.

Facade of a building in LisbonProbably it is only the shapes of the windows and doors which are old. The beautiful tiles and plaster mouldings must have been added after the rebuilding, if one believes that the building under reconstruction is typical. I wonder how little authenticity this leaves to the very beautiful looking buildings.

First impressions of Lisbon

Wall near Baiza-Chiado metro station in LisbonThere wasn’t much time to prepare for the trip to Portugal. I read during my layover in Munich. The historical entry point to Lisbon was the Praça do Comércio. We arrived on a brilliant Sunday afternoon and decided to go off to this square after a quick shower at the hotel. The Metro in Lisbon covers downtown pretty well. We got off at the station called Baixa-Chiado and walked.

Cfe near Cais de Sodre in LisbonPast Praça Luis de Camoes we turned into the steep Rua Alecim, and walked down its length. The interesting building whose photo you can see above is just opposite a cafe. We were a little tired, and thought that some caffeine would do us good. The cafe was such a beautiful hodge-podge of couches, tables, and odd decorations that it could well have featured in a movie (see photo alongside).

Approaching Placa de Commerce in LisbonWe walked out fortified, and found ourselves in Cais do Sodré after a short walk. This was interesting, but not where we wanted to go. So we backtracked, and found ourselves walking along Rua do Arsenal. The evening sunlight made even blank walls look beautiful. The long street eventually brought us to the Praça do Comércio.

Placa de Comerce in LisbonThere was a violent pillow-fight going on in front of the statue of King José crushing stone snakes. We sneaked past the skirmish and crossed the road to the Tagus river. The crowd here was a mixture of locals and tourists.

Washing in Alfama in LisbonAfter a brief halt at the river-front, and admiring the far-away Bridge of 8 May (named after the day of the revolt against the dictator Salazar), we walked to Terreiro do Paço. A little further on we could see the old cathedral, so we moved in towards the district of Alfama. We passed the Jose Saramago Foundation, and climbed up along a series of very picturesque streets. There was washing hanging from windows every now and then.

Lisbon's cathedralWe climbed up a steep road and found ourselves right outside the Igreja Santo Antonio de Lisboa. We stopped for a quick look at the church, and then went on to the cathedral a few steps away. A picturesque tram thundered past us. We could walk past the church on a downward sloping road to reach the local Fado bars. We were too tired for this, so we took the other road at the fork. A few steps up and we saw a nice fish restaurant: one could see that it was nice by the number of people inside. We joined them and ended the first of our epic walks across the town.

Arriving in Lisbon

Arriving in Lisbon airport I was immediately struck by the laid-back atmosphere. I’d passed through Mumbai and Munich in the sixteen hours before arriving. Although Lisbon was much smaller than either, there was a cafe near the belt where you could wait until your baggage arrived. Mine came very soon.

The Family was to catapult in within an hour. Why we’d taken different flights is a tale full of sound and fury which I might post about later. I wheeled my bag over to the airport station and got two Viva Viagem cards out of a machine. These rechargeable cards cost you a non-refundable 50 cents, and you can use it on all transport in the city, including the train to Sintra.

It was still forty minutes till The Family’s flight touched down. There was a cafe right outside the customs exit. Lisbon in full of these convenient laid-back options. I got myself an espresso and a queque, billed as a Portuguese muffin, found a comfortable chair, and settled in for a wait. The photo of the cafe in the foreground, and the exit gate in the back ground, which you see above, was the view from my table.

My host had warned me to take a taxi from the departure level since there’s a good chance that the arrival level taxis will try to cheat you. When the family arrived we asked the tourism office about taxis. They said that it might take about 12 Euros to our hotel and a prepaid taxi costs about 24 Euros! we took the bags up to the departure level and got into the first taxi which we saw. It is a short ride to town: about 15 minutes on Sunday afternoon. It cost us less than 10 Euros.

Frustrated already?

Getting a visa is always tedious: you have to get together a mess of documents which you cannot use again. Only the paperwork for flights, hotels and insurance make sense. The one thing which you do not expect is a form which cannot be filled.

This is what happens when you try to get to the >visa form for Portugal. What they call an online form turns out to be a pdf file which cannot be edited. It seems that you would need to print it out and fill it by hand. This is forbidden.

We called the visa centre a few days back to report this. The person who took the phone was very sympathetic. She said that there were many complaints about this already, and their IT team was working on it. She expected that it should be done in a few hours. Three days have passed without any change.

Could this be part of a bigger problem? I googled "portuguese bureaucracy" and the first three results were Portuguese Bureaucracy is Unbelievable, Banking and Bureaucracy in Portugal and My Battle Against Portuguese Bureaucracy. I’m so relieved to find that the gods in the cabinet drawers have not singled us out for torture.

We are very excited about seeing Portugal, but getting a little bothered about completing our visa application.

Getting started on getting ready for Portugal

The easy part is over: we have tickets and hotel bookings for Portugal. The next step is harder: getting to know the little bit about a new country which makes your stay more interesting. There are many different directions to explore.

The sounds of a country are often hard to anticipate. I’d heard very little Portuguese a week ago, it has more or less disappeared from Goa. A few words: velha and novo, saudade and igreja are all that remain. Now, listening to Fado on youtube, my exposure to the language has exploded. Just shows how little I started with. The written language is a different ball game. If you have bluffed your way through a couple of Romance languages, then surely you can navigate written Portuguese.

The Family and I sat down and researched writers. Fernando Pessoa and Jose Saramago are names we already know and have some familiarity with. Brief searches quickly threw up many more names. But surprisingly, it was difficult to find books in English translation. On second thoughts, if translations had been available then we would have known more authors. I guess this is a part of what one of the articles calls "cultural marginalization".

Films? During the years when I was immersed in world cinema, Portugal had just emerged from the worst period of its recent history. Its cinema was not available in India. This lack of familiarity meant that Portugal was overlooked in most video libraries in the decade after that. If Portugal had a consulate in Mumbai perhaps one would have been more exposed to its culture. But the Portuguese consulate is in Goa, and it hosts no events in my city. So my exploration of Portuguese cinema has to start from zero. Given the number of major awards Portuguese film makers are winning today, this is bound to be a pleasure.

Maybe I have some familiarity, at second-hand, with the food of Portugal. Goa has sorpotel, just the right accompaniment for long relaxed evenings with a drink on the beach. The word xacuti sounds Portuguese to my untrained ear, but it could well be a local Goan dish. Vindaloo is definitely practised very differently in Goa and in England, so I wouldn’t be very surprised if a Portuguese version turns out to be different. I’m prepared to be completely surprised by the food in Portugal: I expect lots of fish.

But the real fun is to look for sources on travel to Portugal. One part of this is to choose a guide book. The first search on Amazon threw up half a dozen books. The Michelin Green guide is not my plate of cod. I’ve had a wonderful time walking around Rome with the Blue guide, and would not mind doing the same in Lisbon, except that it is currently unavailable. That left me with the usual suspects: the Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, AA and DK. After some thumbing through the books in the usual downtown bookstore I settled for the Rough Guide.

The other part of the fun is to browse blogs. A comment on my previous post led me to the very new Kat’s travel blog, and on. A great find was the addictive Salt of Portugal; I’m still dipping into it for tips on what to do. A food blog called (as nearly as I can make out) The Algarve Kitchen caught my attention with an explanation of the phrase "Cha com agua salgada". I’m sure there’s much more out there, just waiting to be read.

In this slow way I’ve just begun to figure out how to collect the material I need to go through in order to become an instant expert on Portugal.

The discovery of Portugal

PortugalMapI asked "Portugal?" She said "Yes." That’s how we decided to spend about 10 days in the country which Goa has a lingering relationship with. Portugal has an embassy in Delhi certainly, but its only other representation in India is a consulate in Goa. As a result, if you apply for a visa to Portugal from Mumbai, then your application is processed in Goa. As we discussed this, I checked up on my faint memory that Portugal’s current prime minister has a tenuous connection to Goa through his father. These relationships are only in the mind, as I found when looking for flights. There is no direct flight between Mumbai, Delhi or Goa and Lisbon.

There is so little I know of modern Portugal: only a handful of people, and a wonderful film on the Portuguese musical form called Fado. Even there, the movie was made by Carlos Saura, a Spaniard. I browsed a list of Portuguese film makers, and realized that I haven’t seen modern Portuguese movies. I score slightly better with Portuguese novelists. I recalled that a google search for the name of the bridge which joins Panaji and Vasco in Goa led me to a stunning photo of the Vasco da Gama bridge in Lisbon. We are looking forward to Portugal: it will be a journey of discovery.

We blocked out our basic travel plans. Although the country is not large, we have too little time to cover it thoroughly. We decided to skip the south entirely. The main stops then will be Lisbon, Coimbra in the center, and Porto in the north. Coimbra seems to be the historical center. Porto is the gateway to history: with access to paleolithic art, and Celtic and Roman remains. Lisbon also looks like a lovely town, as does Sintra nearby. Now the work begins: there is a lot of reading, viewing and listening to be done.