The Tower at Cascais

It’s been a while since my last post, and that’s mainly because I’ve spent the summer in England where, incidentally, there isn’t really a summer. But just before I went away, I had a friend visiting me from Poland, and we went on some adventures. Some were further afield, while others were closer to home.

One such closer to home day out was in Cascais. Anyone who lives in and around Lisbon will know Cascais pretty well. It’s the little seaside resort at the end of the train line. A haven for expats and holiday makers from all over, it’s picturesque, the birthplace of the famous Santini ice cream parlours, and has a lovely, relaxed vibe to it.

However, one of my favourite parts of the city is the old citadel. Originally built in the 15th century, it was occupied by the Spanish during the reign of Phillip I, by the Napoleonic French in 1807 and it suffered signifcant damage in between, in the colossal 1755 earthquake. Finally, between 1870 and 1908, the citadel became the offical summer seat of the royal family and a grand restoration project saw it renovated to its former glory. Indeed, it became the first building in all of Portugal to feature electric lighting in 1878.

This was not my first trip to the citadel – probably about my fifteenth, in fact – but it was the first time I noticed that the tower was open to visitors. I’ve been trying to establish whether I somehow managed to simply miss it or whether, as I think, it had not been open before. Either way, as I reached the heart of the citadel and the wall overlooking the marina below, I noticed that the tower was open and was delighted to find that it was also free to enter. So we decided to take a look.

There were some staff from the tourist authority inside the tower, who gave us some leaflets with information and showed us the way to go, in a typically friendly way. So, we clambered up to the top and were met by some really incredible views of the whole area.

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180 degree panorama of the marina from the tower

Cascais lighthouse

Also one of the best views of the lighthouse that I’ve seen

So, whether you’re familiar with Cascais or not, I strongly recommend climbing the four flights of stairs to the top of the tower and taking in the view – while the summer sun still lasts!

Here be Cats

I love cats. I mean what’s not to love. The animal that is the coolest and knows it’s the coolest. The animal that receives our love and affection only on its own time and gets away with it. Mankind, master of the natural world, but still asking nicely if you can stroke the kitty under its chin. But, as many of you will know, I’m a travelling English teacher. It’s basically like being a gypsy with coursebooks. It doesn’t lend itself well to cat owning (or belonging to a cat, I suppose).

As it happens, my love of Lisbon, life in Portugal, my job, and meeting the love of my life here means I suspect I will indeed have my own cat before too long. But until now, it’s been almost unfathomable. So how then, does one get over this ‘cat saudade,’ save for hassling your only 2 sets of friends who actually have cats in the city? Aqui há gato! might just be the answer.

Situated on the monstrous hill leading up from Santos into Estrela, on Calcada de Estrela, Aqui Há Gato is a cat café. Not too dissimilar to the ones you might have seen on TV from Japan, the concept is frightfully simple. There’s a café where you can go in and do café things, like drink coffee or tea, read a book, buy and eat a sandwich or a cake, but with one crucial difference: half of the café, sectioned off behind doors, is inhabited by a small colony of cats.

When you go in, you’re asked if you’d like to go in and see the cats. If you would, you pay a 3 euro entry fee, which grants you one hour of cat loving time and a free beverage, be it coffee, tea, water, ice tea or whatever. On coming out of the little cat sanctuary, should you decide to stay and have a bit of cake, or lunch, if you spend over 5 euros on food and drinks, your cat visit is free. With my not having too much time, I just took a bottle of water and headed in to the cat zone. The first thing I saw did nothing to deter me from exploring as I encountered this dozing ginger beauty:

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After giving the sleeping kitty a little fuss, which generated not so much as a flinch from its sleeping form, I decided to have a good look around. You can see immediately that they invest in the place. The cats wants for nothing, with toys, water fountains maintaining a cat friendly level of humidity in the room, as well as drinking water, tunnels, platforms, hiding holes and a little private area, off-limits to human visitors, in case of the cats taking a disliking to an individual or kids getting a bit too grabby. The cats are in luxury cat heaven. The space is also set up as a library. There are a number of books in there, but I found myself too distracted to pay much attention to it.

Perchnig on the sofa opposite the cat scratching/sleeping posts, I met up with this little guy and basically fell in love, so much so that I hardly noticed when my friend arrived to join me, a bit later.

We spent close to our full hour in there, stroking and playing with the cats with some of their toys when they became more energetic. It was a lovely experience. The best thing of all though was, on the way out, discovering that all the cats in the cat café are rescue cats from the shelter and, as well as those there in the café, you can also browse the catalogue of cats which are currently up for adoption. I think I’ve found where I’ll be picking up my cat from!

 

Books, Prints and Cards

In the country of my birth, greeting cards are big business. Walk into any specialist card shop (of which there are A LOT), stationers, or supermarket and you will find funny cards, “cute” cards, kid-friendly cards and all the rest. Not just for birthdays, either. Get well soon, congratulations on your baby/new job/engagement/release from prison, happy anniversary, and so on. So, when in Portugal the people closest to me have birthdays, for example, I find the abysmally short supply of totally unimaginative and, frankly, a bit rubbish cards available in Fnac, to be a bit of a disappointment.But what can one do?

Well, as it happens, quite a lot. Some friends of mine visited Lisbon to see me and experience the city for the first time, during the middle of May. Of course they fell in love with the place – who wouldn’t? But anyway, one of my friends had been talking to an art photographer friend of hers, prior to coming out here. He’d told her, as she has an interest in alternative, quirky art and street art, to check out a small print shop/book shop in São Bento, just along from Estrela. He knew the owners and artists who run the place personally and told us to go and have a chat with them.

We arrived in the early afternoon to find one of the couple who run the place, Inês, working on some prints. We introduced ourselves and, as she’d been told we would come in during the course of the week, she took some time out to how us around the place. Inside, there was a wall with a library of books, some regular books from a variety of publishers that they stock but others were made in the shop, written by the artists themselves, with interesting, quirky topics such as the extremely cute little mini book, written by Inês herself, ‘There are cockroaches in the house,‘ which featured a host of lovely artwork and funny lines about the insects’ lives.

There are also a variety of prints and cards available, of all different sizes from large scale framable pieces down to tiny bookmarks. And this is where the place gets really interesting. They print on vintage printing machines (as well as using freehand paints and drawing pens, where appropriate). Some of the machines are a century old and more and, again Inês took the time out to show us how they worked, which was really fascinating.

It’s a wonderful, curious little shop and the owner are really friendly people who clearly have a huge passion for what they do, so I’d certainly recommend popping in for a look around and definitely to take a look the next time you need a greeting card!

You can find them on Facebook here.

 

A Meeting with Jesus

Before you start worrying, I haven’t found god. Or at least, I’ve only found a gigantic stone effigy of one.

I had visitors here from Poland, my former home, a couple weeks ago. The really great thing about visitors, is that it makes me get off my comfy chair (from which I’m writing this very post) and go out and see some of the amazing stuff that I take for granted, having been here more than a year and a half already. One thing they were very keen to see – and something I’ve never seen myself – was Cristo Rei, the statue of Christ the King.

The first of these statues, I was informed on my visit, was in fact built in Madeira. Not far outside the main city of Funchal, a small statue of Jesus stands, arms open, looking down at the citizens below. The statue there stands at the height of just a few metres above the mountain. On a visit to Madeira, a clergyman from the new-money (at the time) city of Rio do Janeiro decided he would get in on the act and had the enormous, imposing Christ the Redeemer statue built. I’ve never been to Brazil, but just from my experience of photos, TV & video games featuring the statue that it’s one of the world’s most iconic. Someone who was absolutely in agreement with that was the bishop of Lisbon and he decided that he would build an equally impressive statue here in Lisboa. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough money for a statue quite on the scale of that from Rio but, nevertheless, with its dramatic setting on the south bank of the river, atop the hillside and nestling alongside the 25th April bridge, Cristo Rei remains one of the most iconic sights of the city. It remains one of my favourite things on flights home to Lisbon, to look out of the window of the plane and see Jesus, arms open, before cruising over the bridge, the city’s palaces, and more. The chance to see the statue up close – and that view – was one I jumped at!

The easiest way to arrive at the statue from the north bank is to take the boat to Cacilhas, the closest ferry port to old Almada, where the statue is located. From here it’s a bit of a walk along the gently inclined roads up through Almada itself until you come to the edge of the Park of Peace itself, where the statue stands. It’s worth mentioning here that the park itself is completely free of charge to enter. There is a restaurant to one side (which we didn’t visit) and the stations of the cross are situated around the park’s perimeter. But the main reason people go is for the view. Even without making the ascent to the foot of the Cristo Rei statue, here you can find one of the best views of Lisbon, and especially the bridge, possible.

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But we weren’t here to stop in the garden. So up we went in the elevator to the feet of Cristo Rei. The cost of the elevator is an extremely reasonable 4 euros per person. I think it may be less if you’re a student or a pensioner. To say it’s worth it is a huge understatement. The elevator goes up about 80% of the way to the top and then you have to walk, single file, up a spiral staircase of narrow steps. Finally you come out into one of the tackiest souvenir shops in the world, with figurines of Cristo Rei in all manner of semi precious stones, in the most bizarrely unnatural colours, which I’m sure is fine if you like that sort of thing. We ignored the tat and went straight out to the viewing platform and were pretty much dumbstruck for the first couple of minutes. The distances you can see – we were lucky as it was a very clear day – in all directions are immense. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

Sightseeing From Above

Anyone who knows anything about me will know quite well that I LOVE adventures. Luckily for me, my girlfriend also loves them. So, when it came to choosing a gift for her birthday (candle quota confidential), as there was positively no need whatsoever for her to have any items of clothing or jewellery and with me being fairly useless at coming up with anything more imaginative, I decided that the best bet might just be to go for an ‘experience.’ However, as she is studying for some very important professional exams at this moment, I couldn’t take her away on a weekend trip or anything like that. So what to do?

Enter Lisbon Helicopters. I happened upon them when looking for a new place to go for dinner (great job Google) and was immediately intrigued and, knowing my missus is infinitely more of an adrenaline junkie than I could ever even aspire to be, this seemed right up her street. She’s also grown up in Lisbon, is deeply proud of the city and, I hoped, would appreciate seeing it from a new perspective.

I picked up two vouchers for flights at the Fnac store in Colombo’s shopping centre, but you can contact them by telephone, email or a direct contact box on their website. The Fnac vouchers provided good value for money, and ensured that I knew what I was going to get, in spite of my less than accomplished Portuguese language skills. The long and short of it is that she absolutely loved the experience and I would highly recommend it as an experience. The pilot was as cool as ice throughout, too, in spite of some pretty gusty winds over the water. The pictures, below, speak for themselves.

Supermarket Sweep – Portuguese Edition

Sadly, I have not been asked to step in to the Dale Winton role on Portuguese television. Rather, this is a post about the supermarket life of Portugal. I’ve been meaning to write this for a while as, first of all, a similar post was a hit over at my old blog in Poland and also because I really think the way people buy and interact with their food can give you quite a lot of insight into the culture.

So, supermarkets in Portugal, here we go!

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MiniPreço 

Recently undergoing a rebranding to this “healthy” green, no-one is fooled by Mini Preço. Called “Mini price” in translation, they offer the cheap end of everything. The result of this is that their meat always looks a little bit suspect, in a “might be from a dog” kind of way and flies often outnumber customers in the fruit and veg section by a factor several hundred to one. I’ve yet to find an onion there which hasn’t started being liquidised by nature before I bought it.

They do have some good homeware and a pretty good bakery selection though, so it’s not without its merits. I see Mini Preço as a place to pick up my pastries and anything homogenous, like milk, on my way home. I’d feel pretty foolish if I tried to do a weekly or monthly shop there, mind you.

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Lidl

Lidl are up next, and follow their tried and trusted method of providing a pretty good range of fresh stuff, an excellent bakery and reasonable meat and fish selection at fairly low prices. Their downfall, as always, is that they pretty well only stock their own brands, and so much of the domestic cleaning and hygiene goods, along with frozen foods, condiments, etc are a bit sub par.

That said, service is pretty good, and queuing never takes too long, while they also offer a decent range of locally adapted products, meaning fairly faithfully reproduced Portuguese pastries are in abundance and cheap and, especially during holiday periods, bacalhau is everywhere. Lidl are probably my second choice of market, and I might shop with them a lot more were there one nearer to my home, as opposed to near my workplace.

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Pingo Doce

Pingo Doce, with their patronising “sweet drops” name immediately got off on the wrong foot with me. Despite this, throughout my time in Portugal to date, students and friends alike of a Portuguese persuasion have tried to convince me that it’s the place to shop. So far, I’m absolutely bewildered as to why this is. To begin with their stores are typically quite small, so their range is limited and, much like Mini Preço, though on a lesser scale, it has to be said, their fresh vegetables and so on are not always that fresh and perish pretty quickly. Add to that that their product rotation is completely unintelligible and it makes for a fairly frustrating shopping experience. Perfectly ordinary goods will be for sale perhaps once every ten days and then disappear until the next time. I don’t know if this is in line with specific milestones on the lunar calendar, but there we are.

Then there’s the service. This is perhaps the most remarkable thing about Pingo Doce. After leaving Poland, I thought I’d seen the back of aggressive customer service for good. Sadly, Pingo Doce have ensured this is not the case. The cashiers tend, in the main, to bark at you, openly tutting if you ask to pay with card, and almost never using a full sentence, making eye contact and – god forbid – NEVER smiling! Add to this the utterly bewildering policy they have whereby they never open new tills for large customer queues, which is combined with their other till policy to devastating effect. After serving one customer, it appears to be company policy that the cashier stands up, without even speaking to the next customer and then either: A) speaks to a different cashier about something, B) makes an announcement over the tannoy C) does a set of twenty 5 metre shuttle runs in the personal hygiene aisle or D) has a little sleep. On Sunday I “popped in” to Pingo Doce to buy some chocolate. It took me 28 minutes to be served. There were about ten customers in the shop. Maybe it’s my Britishness that allows this to wind me up? Who knows. They do sometimes have good cheese, but frankly, I hate the place!

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Continente

I’m not going to dress this up, as Continente has been my choice of Supermarket since I arrived in Portugal. With a good range of fresh, frozen and other foods, that immediately ticks a lot of boxes for me. Prices are a little higher than at many of their competitors, but the whole shopping experience feels refined. Queues, even in their flagship store in Colombo, which is big enough to have multiple postcodes, has a sensible queuing system and I didn’t queue for more than about ten minutes on Christmas eve, during the usual apocalyptic rush. They have a load of other stuff as well, like homeware, car tyres (it’s never come up, as a non-driver, but thanks!) and electronics.

But the main reasons to shop here, besides food quality are that they are actually nice to you. If you’re lost, people are helpful. Cashiers don’t just growl. It feels like they’re trying to improve your customer experience. They also have a very good loyalty card proposition which, if you’re a cheap bastard frugal shopper like me, you can use to negate the price differences from other stores. All of the above means that Continente gets two thumbs up from me.

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SuperCOR By El Corte Ingles

A final little hat tip to these guys. If you know British supermarkets, think Waitrose and you won’t be far away. They have excellent customer service, terrific products – including a lot of imports, for foreigners – but, like Waitrose, pretty much no-one can afford to do their regular shop here. That said, my girlfriend’s family have fed me some truly outstanding patés, breads and other bits and pieces from them, on special occasions. So in that sense, it’s a store worth investigating.

Francesinha Festival – The North Comes South

When asked in my school last week to name the most influential, admirable people in history, I came up with the Earl of Sandwich. The one who invented the sandwich, I mean. I also often offer the Sandwich as one of the great cultural exports of the United Kingdom, when asked. Bearing all this in mind, the Francesinha is, without doubt, something I was very excited about when moving to Portugal. I live in Lisbon, of course, some 300 and more kilometres from the Francesinha’s spiritual home of Porto. But still, you can find a good Francesinha here, if you know where to look.

The ‘little French girl,’ if we are to use it’s name in translation, was invented by a Portuguese from Minho who, returning to his homeland from France, brought with him the idea of the croque monsieur, another of the world’s great sandwiches. Once back in Portugal, he made it a little more palatable for his Portuguese brethren, and created the Francesinha. The recipe varies, but is usually comprised of a beef steak, ham and/or sausage, cheese, more bread, more cheese, sometimes a fried egg and then a tomato, alcohol, piri piri and who knows what else based sauce. It’s a monster sandwich and is usually served with an additional plate of chips. It’s the thing I usually take my tougher guy friends to try, when they visit me. The name comes from the fact that the inventor felt French girls were the “spiciest” he’d ever encountered. No comment from me.

This week though, we Lisboetas have something of a treat. 4 Francesinha houses from Porto are here, at Lisbon’s FIL centre at Expo, Parque das Nações, showing us southerners how it’s done. And boy, are they doing it well. I went along today to see what the “real thing” was like.

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My girlfriend, perhaps folornly, remarked that she’d never seen me as happy as when we arrived. We walked in to the pavilion where the sandwich magic was happening and ordered our dishes. There is a fixed price menu, so whichever Francesinha you go for, you’ll pay 10 euros, plus an extra 2 for your chips. I also paid 2 euros for a can of coke. Had I not been working later today, I could have paid less for a beer. Sometimes life isn’t fair.

Once into the Francesinha making hall, there were 4 trucks, where they had various kitchens set up. One had an intriguing set up and were offering a large prawn on top of the sandwich, instead of the egg, another place was showing off about the quality of the ham, but my choice was made when I saw the real wood ovens that were being used by one particular group of chefs, to brown off the cheese at the end of the cooking process.

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It was made even better when the guy in charge of the wood oven called me over as my Franceisnha was finished, so I could see the difference from when it first started. The cheese was browned off perfectly and the whole thing had cooked together, like a lasagna, a mousakka,  or a shepherd’s pie, or something equally as glorious.

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When it was finally delivered to my table, it was beautifully put together, with two steaks and a slice of linguiça with peppercorns and garlic comprising most of the filling. There was also a generous portion of the Francesinha sauce, so that I could keep the sandwich moist throughout and dip my chips.

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I should mention that the Francesinha is something of a calorie bomb. During eating, I joked that I might be able to eat a second one, as I was enjoying it so much but, within about three minutes of finishing it, I felt like I’d eaten a car. Nonetheless, I strongly recommend going along and trying it out.

The festival continues until tomorrow and what better way to enjoy your day off than by absorbing a bit of northern culture and having a truly kingly feed? You’ll find the details of the festival here:

https://www.facebook.com/Festival-Francesinha-de-Lisboa-396890860441631/