8 Things I Loved in Portugal

It’s been a more than two weeks since we left Lisbon and I’ve been thinking about the things I will remember most:

1. Pastéis
Every time I go for dim sum, I’m most excited by the little custard cups you can get for dessert. I’ve even found great little bakeries in the San Francisco Richmond district where I can buy them. In reading about Portugal before we left for the trip, I was stunned to learn that the Chinese custard evolved from a Portuguese pastry: Pastéis de nata.

These were at the top of my “must try” list and I was not disappointed. I had made a list of a number of cafés that reportedly made good ones. I tried as many as I could and was never disappointed. Then, on our last day, we made it to Pastéis de Belém — supposedly the originator of this lovely little treat.

Now, had I gone there first, every other version of the pastéis would have disappointed me. The crust at Pastéis de Belém was unlike any of the others: light, flakey layers almost like phyllo dough. The custard also was different, richer perhaps. And, since they were made on site, they arrived at our table still warm and fresh. Not sure any other pastéis will do now. I wonder if they ship?

2. Cascais
When we were preparing for the trip, Jeff only had one item on his “must see” list: Estoril and the Cascais region. For those of you who are James Bond/Ian Fleming fans, you may know that the Estoril casino was the original inspiration for Casino Royale. Additionally, in his reading, Jeff learned that this coastal region was a hotbed of spy activity during WWII. Neither of those facts really made me excited to explore the area, but this was my new husband’s one wish for our honeymoon and I was pretty sure I couldn’t refuse.

I’m grateful that I didn’t.

After arriving in Lisbon, we dropped our luggage at Traveller’s House (great hostel, BTW), grabbed our swimsuits and hopped on a train that would take us up the coast. Even once we were there, the spy intrigue didn’t pull me in, but I must say that the beaches were beautiful and inviting. After our very long flight from SFO, it was nice to spend a couple of hours relaxing on the beach and wandering the streets of a very charming town. I could imagine returning there for a beach vacation.

3. Fado
Jeff and I were both interested in hearing Fado when we were in Lisbon. Fortunately, Jeff did his research and found a great spot. We ended up in Atasca do Chico, arriving as an older man was singing. The bar was standing room only and all we could do was hover close to an open window and peer in. Fortunately, once he was done, lights came up and the crowd shuffled. We squeezed our way in and found some open seats.

As the night progressed, different singers performed. I could hear various people talk about one young woman who would slip behind the bar and then walk out into the alley. One man noted that she was an amazing fado singer. Eventually, she was up and the man was right. Her name was Inés Pereira and as soon as we had a wi-fi connection, we downloaded her music from iTunes.

I had been standing at the bar as she began singing and when she was done, I was was touched by the fact that the older man who had been singing when we arrived stood up from where he was sitting and ushered me to take his chair — not realizing that I had a chair on the other side of the room. That sweet gesture is one of my favorite memories of the trip.

4. Hole-in-the-Wall Restaurants
Our first night in Lisbon, we took so long deciding where to go to dinner that by the time we reached the place we were looking for, the kitchen had closed. Without a plan, we started wandering the streets of Bairro Alto at 11pm in search of someone who would feed us. We stumbled upon a bar called Zapata that happened to have a window full of fish. We poked our heads in and asked if they were still serving. The bartender gruffly pointed to the next room and we wandered in and found a table. A waiter (who thankfully spoke English) brought us a menu and a plate full of breads and cheeses. We decided to try Alentejana pork and clams and a shrimp dish — shrimp cooked with olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes. Both were great.

The next night we went in search of Caldo Verde, a Portuguese soup that Jeff makes at home. We checked out the menus of about a dozen restaurants before finally finding one that had it. I’ll admit, I didn’t take notice of the name of the place, but loved that there were less than 20 seats in the place. We took it as a good sign when a little old woman came out from the kitchen, left the restaurant and came back about five minutes later with a bag full of vegetables.

Now, as for the Caldo Verde, I must say that I like Jeff’s version better, but we also tried Alentejana soup and I may have a new favorite. It was very basic: a very light, garlicky broth with toast and a poached egg. We also had what maybe the best lamb I’ve ever had. Very simply roasted with herbs and some potatoes. I do love simple food.

5. Alfama
The Alfama district is the oldest in Lisbon. Buildings with beautiful tiled facades cover the hills of this district. My one regret from our trip to Lisbon is that we didn’t find an antique tile to bring home with us. We saw some while wandering through the Alfama district, but didn’t have the foresight to get one there. Next time.

Though we were warned it would be very crowded with tourists and pickpockets, we wanted to check out the 28 Tram. Once one finally stopped at our tram stop, we climbed on board. It was packed and not very pleasant. However, we did get the opportunity to watch two trams do battle with one track. As we worked our way up the hill, we came around a corner to find a tram coming our way.

The two drivers stopped (we were never in danger), then gestured at one another a bit (apparently trying to decide who was at fault), and then us tram driver got out and backed us up to the switch. Three trams passed us going down hill, then our tram and one that came into the switch as we arrived, were able to make our way up hill.

Once we’d made it a bit further up hill, I’d decided I’d had enough of being crammed into a box with way too many people and we got off. We spent the next hour or so exploring. Wandering up and down streets, particularly enamored by the tile facades. Eventually, our legs wore out and we needed to find our way back. Jeff spotted a 28 Tram stop and fortunately, it wasn’t nearly as crowded as the first — I even got a window seat from which I got to snap lots and lots of pictures.

6. Cafe Culture
We like coffee. Before leaving, I’d compiled a list of a number of cafés that I wanted to try. We made it to a couple, but most of all at the ones we went to, we got our first dose of cafe culture. Sitting down to have a coffee at any hour and just relaxing. By the time we’d got to Spain, we’d defined it as getting our cafe lizard on — hanging out in a cafe like a lizard hangs out on a hot rock.

We, of course, went to A Braisliera, which was cited in every guidebook. But we found lots of little ones too. Our favorite was a place called Pois Cafe. It was on my list due to a comment by a WSJ reader an alternative to A Braisliera and, by chance, was a recommendation of the manager at our hostel. I ordered a cappuccino (or two) there and it may be the best I’ve ever had.

7. Stairs at Sao Jorge Castle
Before finding the 28 Tram in the Alfama district, we climbed the hill to Sao Jorge Castle. The ruins of the castles were fascinating to walk through and he views of the city were stunning.

At every turn as we explored the grounds, there was another set of stairs. Some up and some down. I’ve never wanted so much to be wearing a FitBit. What I wouldn’t give to know just how many flights of stairs we climbed that day.

8. Belém
I’ve already written about Pateis de Belém, which is reason enough to go to Belém, but there is more.

In particular, the Jeronimos Monastery was remarkable. It is an amazing example of Manueline design, which apparently is uniquely Portuguese. The intricacy of the carvings and the beatyty of the archways resulted in us taking a lot of pictures. Additionally, both Vasco de Gama (the famous explorer) and Fernando Pessoa (the revered poet) are buried there.

We also walked to Belém Tower. This tower also is an example of Manueline design. Like the monastery, the intricate carvings on the facade were beautiful. Inside, we were able to climb the narrow spiral staircase that led to the top of the tower and get a sense of the defensive value of the tower itself.

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A Rainy Day in the French Alps

Yesterday, we flew into Geneva and were met by my parents to kick off a full week with them in the lovely French town of Chamonix. After a nice lunch overlooking Lac Léman, we started up the mountain. About halfway up, it started raining and it’s been raining ever since.

Truth be told, the rain is just what the doctor ordered. I’ve been struggling with a cold the last couple of days and it was nice to slow down and spend the day resting. We went into town for lunch and got to explore the town a bit. And every once in awhile, we’d be able to see bits of the mountains around us.

I’m told that when it does clear, we’ll have a perfect view of Mont Blanc from the little chalet we’re calling home this week. For now, the most I’ve seen is Glacier des Bossons, which I think is pretty impressive, but my dad tells me is nothing to write about in comparison to what I’ll see when the sun comes out.

Until then, I just plan to enjoy the time with my parents and take advantage of the time to read.

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Traveling without the Extra Pounds

Nearly two years ago, I began to pay attention to my weight. The scale (and my doctors) told me I was definitely overweight and my BMI told me I was bordering on obese. On Christmas Day 2011, I started a food journal. I recorded everything I ate and did my best to estimate the calories. It worked. Over the course of about 9 months, I lost 45 pounds — reaching my target weight. Happily, I’ve kept them off.

Since that time, people have often asked me if I felt different. In all honesty, most days I don’t notice. However, this week, I’ve noticed.

There have been multiple times over the last couple of days as we’ve trekked through Lisbon and Madrid when I’ve realized I would not have been able enjoy this as much if I was still carrying those 45 pounds.

There are some simple and basic things that have made me take notice of the advantage of being smaller, notably many European water closets are quite tiny. This trip I’ve realized exactly why they are called water closets, since I’ve been in many that clearly used to be closets! They are a tight squeeze the size I am now, it would have been downright uncomfortable to manage before.

And, don’t get me started on the shower stall in our train cabin! I remarked to Jeff this morning that our cabin would have been impossible to maneuver and truly miserable if we hadn’t both lost the weight we had.

But most notably, my ankle has not locked up.

My right ankle was reconstructed when I was 16 and I have fairly severe arthritis. Two years ago, had I been walking even half as much as we’ve walked the last three days, I would have required a day of down time to recuperate and I would have been searching for the nearest soaking tub in the hopes hot water would loosen it up.

No doubt, my legs are sore, tired and I desperately need to do some yoga hip openers, but my ankle has held up remarkably well.

I’m grateful to be at a healthy weight and able to squeeze in as much exploration as possible.

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Exploration and Invention in Portugal

On our final day in Lisbon, we set off to Belém to learn more about Portugal’s explorers. In particular, Vasco de Gama, whose explorations led to the creation of a spice route that led to Portugal’s economic dominance for many years.

We visited his tomb at Jerónimos Monestery, which is a beautiful example of Manueline architecture. But while in the neighborhood, we also learned more about an invention of the monks who lived in the monastery — the pastéis de nata. While in Lisbon, we had more than our fair share of these yummy little custards cups, but apparently we saved the best for last. Apparently the original and secret recipe of the monks of the Jerónimos Monastery is handed down now through Pastéis de Belém. I’d heard a lot of hype about this little pastry before we went and I was prepared to be disappointed. Boy was I proved wrong. Not only was the custard perfect, the crust was surprisingly crispy and flakey.

After enjoying that tasty treat, we learned more about Portugal’s leadership during, the Age of Discovery. Quite a lot to be said for this relatively small country.

We left Lisbon Wednesday night to take a train to Madrid. We crammed a lot in three short days, enjoyed every minute, but know there was so much more to experience.

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A Day of Music

This morning, I awoke to the sounds of Fado on the street beneath my window.

As I slowly came into consciousness, though I could not understand the words of the singer, I was moved by the passion and emotion behind each note. Once I figured out what was going on, it became clear that a street performer was piping pre-recorded Fado to draw an audience in. It didn’t matter, I was hooked.

That voice and emotion became a theme for our day.

As we finally ventured out, we landed at Pois Cafe and had what perhaps may have been the best cappuccino I have ever had. But while there, we meat Santos Cabral of the band Guents dy Rincon. He hit us up to listen to his CD (on an old school bright yellow Discman, of all things). With just a few notes, we were hooked and shelled out real cash to take the disk with us.

After a long day exploring Castelo de São Jorge and the hills of Alfama, we ultimately ventured back into Bairro Alto to hear some Fado live. Following a tip from Anthony Bourdain, we ventured into Tasca do Chico and got our first taste of live Fado.

Somewhere along the way I read something that said that you could judge the quality of Fado by whether or not it brought tears to your eyes. Though we heard some lovely artists this evening, only one made me sob. Within the the first notes she vocalized, Inés Pereira surprised me and showed me the power of Fado. Needless to say, given the power of the Internet, before we even left the bar, we’d found her in Google and iTunes.

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Restarting

It’s been a long time since I last posted. Time to get back in the habit!

Today, I’m fascinated by the decision by the American Medical Association to declare obesity a disease.

I’m honestly of two minds about this:

By declaring obesity a disease, I believe that it will receive increased attention and focus from doctors — a much needed change. But I worry that declaring obesity a disease will stigmatize and alienate those most in need of support from the medical community.

What do you think?

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