To say that my Portugal trip started with a very grumpy me would be an exaggeration, albeit not a very gross one. On my flight to Portugal, I was an automaton who hardly had anything to eat for the last five meals, and was desperately looking for a bed as well. Lack of sleep had played tricks on my mind and I had even refused meal in the Delhi-Frankfurt trip and was now hoping that there would be a decent vegetarian breakfast on the flight to Portugal. It is an altogether different matter that I may have eaten anything that was offered to me on that flight, but since I was served a vegetarian breakfast, I was saved from facing the dilemma.
Holiday Inn Lisbon Continental may not exactly have the worst location and view that you would find from a hotel, but you would be hard-pressed to find a 4* star hotel in a city that is not really known to be expensive, and is situated in a more cramped setting. To add to the disappointment of finding another building staring right in my face once I removed the blinds, I found that the room had no free internet. I took that as a sign to explore the city and minimize my stay at the room. However, there was the small matter of preparing my slides to take care of, which, in turn, required me make up for the lack of electrical socket converters by using naked wires. That I managed to blow the fuse of the power connection completed that day for me in a fitting manner.
I realized that I was facing a situation where I might have to present a rudimentary skeleton of my slides in the worst case, hoping that my battery would last for the 30 minutes of the talk at least.
‘Good morning. I am going to talk more and show less today and the reason for that is not that I am a very good speaker. Rather, my laziness in preparing slides beforehand coupled with my lack of foresight in getting, begging or borrowing an adapter that works in Portugal means that I have no more than some skeletal slides’, I could hear my opening line in my mind.
I suddenly felt a strange chill; not because of the impending scenario but because I found myself completely indifferent to the scenario. Nothing, it seems, mattered. That the chain of my TP bag broke on the way to the conference venue and I had to literally tie it up was another one of the unwelcome developments of the day. Of course, I had no directions other than a fuzzy idea from a map I had seen a month back meant that the next thirty minutes were spent asking for directions from folks who do not share a language with me.
The tide turned. I got the wire-thingy to work at the conference venue, checked my mails, realized that I could not get on the office network as I did not remember the password, marked that as a good thing as well, prepared my slides while surfing for information on metro and bus service in Lisbon, decided that I could cover the Castelo Sao Gorge and Tower of Belem today, asked around for any folks interested in sight-seeing, realized that I was among a bunch of serious folks, and trudged my solitary figure towards the metro.
Castelo Sao Gorge is an old castle with a winding path connected by a bus. My penchant for walking led me to skip the bus and take the path. My penchant for short-cuts had led me off the way to the backside of the castle, as a person would be soon be my benefactor, informed me. Losing you way is not always a bad idea, as one could witness the view on the other side, both literally and figuratively. My benefactor realizing that I was lost, and looked quite lost, offered me a lift to the front side of the castle. The walk to the castle is an interesting uphill walk, through narrow lanes reminding one of the walks in manali et al. However, the best part is the viewpoints that are en route and one of the reasons to skip a bus, though I would recommend doing that on the downhill journey. The view of the Tagus from the elevated porches one finds on the way is quite nice, to say the least.
My next destination is the tower-of-belem and as I step down from the bus, I see a building that I feel I have seen before. I hate to admit it but I have always been quite fascinated by the reincarnation concept. My dreams about an earlier life are suddenly brought down by the realization that this is a museum arcade, and I had seen it in NP’s Portugal album. So much for the karz hangover. I pause for a minute, wondering if I should capture the arcade, but choose not to duplicate a photograph that already exists in NP’s album, especially since the direction of the sun would ensure that my shot would resemble a poor cousin of the original shot I had seen.
I cross the road to the Tagus side and take the walk to the tower with a gentle breeze blowing right across my face as the sunlight plays hide-and-seek with the clouds. I walk in to a roadside eatery, which as it turns out, has nothing vegetarian in the burger/pizza category. I make do with a large chocolate muffin and a packet of chips and continue my walk. With the gentle breeze on my face, with the Mediterranean weather, with a view of the blue Tagus opening into the sea on my left and the villa-styled buildings on my right, and with the peaceful seclusion of the walk, I proclaim that Lisbon is not a bad place for a few days, an observation that would stand corrected the very next day.
The next day would bring me to Cascais. But the story of this day is not yet over. There is the blackout, and the walk to Campo Pequino, and the realization that a drowsy mind is capable of playing tricks, many of which could turn out to be unpleasant. I browse the map and discover that instead of changing metro lines at two places, I can take a short-cut from Arreiro Metro to my hotel, and the walk would be no more than 20 minutes. The walk actually was 20 minutes, only that it required quite a few turns and I had not seen a bed for about 72 hours now. I took three turns. And then maybe another one and came to a cross-road. It was then that I blanked out completely on how many turns I had taken. The fact that it was close to 10 p.m., I was walking on the side-lanes, and the world-cup had led to deserted streets meant did not help matters. Of course, after wandering around a bit I came across an imposing structure, looked at my map, and found the name ‘Campo Pequino’ staring right across my face. I was adjacent to the hotel. The fact that it still took me another 15 minutes and a back-track to ‘Campo Pequino’ underlines how much of a problem a tired mind is, as compared to a tired body.
The next day, as it turned out, was the big day. I am not a big fan of beaches really, or so I thought. Cascais, a thirty-minute train ride, and the retirement haven for Europe, is where I was headed to. I expected to see the stylish-villas at Estoril, polished roads, and crowded beached. Nice but maybe not worth a trip. When I stepped out of Cascais station and wandered along the sloping lanes, listening to live music being played all around, and soaking the festive atmosphere all around, I knew that the trip is at least worth the 3 Euro train fare. I took a bus to the calm tranquility of boca da inferno, which set me back by 50 cents. Boca da inferno, or the mouth of hell, is all about listening to the waves in a solitary isolation, watching the sea change color from blue to green and then back to blue, and letting your mind wander. A good idea there would be to skip the actual mouth of hell, and boulder-hop to one of the desolate spots, as west as possible, and settle down to enjoy the view of the Estoril villas on one side and the neverending sea on the other.
Sufficiently invigorated, I decided to walk all of 8kms to Guincho. The walk initially was a lot of fun with the green and the blue of the sea on my left and the orange, yellow and red of the villas on my right. After about 5 kms or so, I made the following two observations: (a) it is never a good idea to hike with your laptop. Even if a trip to hotel would mean a loss of 15 mins, you can make up for it later on and (b) if a bus is available, it may not be a good idea to walk. Another 1km and I discarded the second observation, for I had reached Cabo Rosa. If Boca-da-inferno was enough justification for the train trip to Cascais, then Cabo Rosa was justification enough for both the walk and the train trip. If you look at postcards of Portugal, you may see a light-house featured often, though not often enough, in my opinion. What the postcards do not make explicit is the observation that light-houses are constructed at places where ships would be carried by the current of the sea, and light houses are the kind of places where you would expect strong waves. The sea at Cabo Rosa as you look far is still the blue and the green calm sea of Cascais, but as it approaches the jutting rocks of Cabo Rosa, the waves crash at the rocks in a deafening fury. If Boca-da-inferno showed the sea from a distance, Cabo Rosa gave you the front seat to the spectacle. Another 2kms of walk brought me to Guincho, with its many beaches, the most imposing of which are the sand-dunes of guincho where the sand actually hits you on your face, warning your camera of mortal injury if you try to capture its wild nature.
Finding a bus back to Cascais was an ordeal in itself, as everybody seems to drive there on their own. However, a bus is what I looked for, and a bus is what I found and 90 minutes later I was back to Lisbon via Cascais. This was the big night in Lisbon, the semi-final featuring Portugal and we (at last I found some company) decided to quickly finish off at the conference reception and move on to the giant screens at the Lisbon University grounds. The atmosphere was electric, and festive, and it was a surprise to see the festivity continue even after the match. You could see the pain of loss in the eyes of the spectators but they continued to sing their anthem, a long long time after the match was over. After another late night, it was back to the cramped surroundings of Holiday Inn.
The first thing that you notice when you enter the train to Sintra is that the windows do not have clear glass, in start contrast to the completely transparent glass of Cascais train. As the train leaves the Greater Lisbon area, you understand the logic behind it. Is Cascais shows the riches of Portugal, the road to Sintra is its grim underside belly with slums lining the track. The town of Sintra, though, is fairly well-to-do, being a popular tourist spot. We (I and a student from MIT) took the tourist bus round that takes us across Sintra and surrounding hills, stopping at Moorish Castle and Pena Palace.
Moorish castle is a lot of fun, especially the meandering walk and the winding roads that lead up to it. The walk along the narrow staircases is exciting and the birds eye view of the surroundings makes it worth the 4 Euro price tag.
The 7 Euro tag of Pena palace, and the fact that the walk in Moorish castle affords fine views of Pena Palace, made us skip the entry inside the Palace.
The evening brought with it a walk along the vasco da gama bridge, where my conference banquet was held. The bridge is a huge suspension bridge and a walkway along the coast is used as a jogging trail by the locals. To end matters for that day, we decided to go to the African music festival at bellem. The soccer defeat notwithstanding, the mood at the festival was jubiliant. Sitting perched on the tree, watching the Tower glowing with the Tagus in the background, and listening to the lively, vibrant African music was a fitting end to what was my last night in Portugal.
Of course, there was this small matter of using up the Euros I had got converted and the right place to spend them is the street-market at the imposing Praca de commerio. A few souvenirs were dutifully bought after driving a hard bargain, which I suppose is the way of this market, I made my exit from this laidback land of music, soccer, buildings and sparkling sea.