Memories of Sintra

Memories of Sintra

There are many day trips that one can take from Lisbon, but one stands out both in popularity and importance: Sintra. This small city contains multitudes. Populated since prehistoric times, occupied by the Moors, used as a summer retreat by the royal family, and then beautified during the Romantic age of architecture—the city is bursting with monuments. And, most importantly, Sintra is easily accessible from Lisbon, merely a 45-minute ride on a cheap commuter train from Lisbon’s central Rossio station. 

A penalty of this accessibility and attractiveness is, of course, popularity. The city is crawling with tourists and all of the concomitant junk: overpriced restaurants, tacky gift shops, crowded streets, and so on. But, of course, if Sintra is popular, it is popular for a reason. This is apparent as soon as you step off the train. The surrounding countryside is picturesque in the extreme, with rolling green hills dotted with tile-roofed houses. The old center of the city is just as lovely, filled with imposing mansions (Sintra has long been the wealthiest spot in Portugal) ranged along medieval streets.

The whole place has the aura of a fairytale, so it is fitting that Hans Christian Anderson visited in 1866. A plaque marks the house where he stayed. Lord Byron was another famous visitor, relishing the dark forests and the craggy peaks that loom above the city. When he first visited the city, he wrote “Oh Christ! it is a goodly sight to see / What heaven hath done for this delicious land! / What fruits of fragrance blush on every tree! / What goodly prospects o’er the hills expand!” Years later, in a famous line from Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimmage, Byron dubbed the place a “glorious Eden”—words that the Sintra tourist office are grateful for, I’m sure.

The most notable landmark within the old center is the Sintra National Palace. Compared with many other European palaces, this one has a rather modest aspect, striking the visitor as a large manor house rather than an imposing royal residence. Its most notable aspect are the two white cylindrical smokestacks that rise up from one side, like the two ears of a rabbit (used for the kitchen). The interior decoration, too, is quaint rather than majestic. Wood-paneled ceilings are decorated with the images of swans, magpies, and sailboats. The only room that is unmistakably regal is the Sala dos Brasões, or the Blazons Hall, with features a Moorish-influenced wooden ceiling bearing over seventy coats of arms of noble families, with azulejos running across the lower half. One is also reminded of Portugal’s Age of Exploration, since a delicately-carved model of a Chinese temple is also on display. 

The Hall of Blazons, with some distortion from the panoramic

Most of Sintra’s notable monuments are, however, not to be found in the city center; rather, one must ascend the hill overlooking the old town. It is possible to walk up this hill, though it is not for the faint of heart. I think it would take at least an hour of trekking from the base to the top. Most people opt for the bus, specifically the 434 bus, which leaves from Sintra’s train station. Now, I have taken this bus up twice and it has been highly unpleasant both times. The road leading up is steep, winding, and narrow; it is easy to get stuck behind a slow driver. In any case, the bus is normally packed to bursting, so that one may have to stand up during the ride, gripping the railings for dear life as the bus chugs its way up.

The bus stops near two major monuments: the Castle of the Moors, and the National Palace of Pena. I opted for the former during my first visit, for the very silly and superficial reason that it was cheaper.

The Moors were no fools: when they built fortifications, they chose locations wisely. This is just such an example: the old castle sits atop a hill, providing great visibility of the surrounding area and making attack up the steep hill difficult. Nevertheless the castle fell, in the 12th century, to the invading Christians (though it was not taken by force). Henceforth it became a Christian castle, and was periodically rebuilt and reinforced down the years. The walls that stand today probably owe little to the Moors, the castle’s name notwithstanding.

It is an extremely romantic spot. Grey granite walls rise out of the trees, snaking around the hillside. The visitor can walk along these walls, enjoying the unsurpassable view of the surrounding countryside. Below one can see the town of Sintra itself, ensconced in the forest and centered around the palace, with the green countryside beyond speckled with habitations as the land spreads out until the blue sea in the far distance. Though the hill is not very high, standing atop the walls and looking down gives one an amazing sense of height. Aside from the view, the castle itself spurs the imagination. Its crumbling form, wrapping around little but empty forest, evokes a faraway time. Like all ruins, the fortification’s very incompleteness invites fantasy.

The Castle of the Moors, with the countryside beyond

Standing on the walls, back in 2016, I could see across to the colorful, even disneylandish form of the National Palace of Pena. I was both intrigued and repulsed by what I took to by a terrific display of gaudiness. Yet despite this garish impression, enough curiosity formed deep within my psyche to prompt me to revisit Sintra, two years later, with the purpose of seeing this memorable building up close.

Pena Palace, as seen from the Castle of the Moors

The Pena Palace was built in the 1800s, during the high point of architectural romanticism: and it remains a monument to this movement. Romanticism, as a movement, was characterized by a fascination for everything exotic and ancient. The Romantic imagination, no stickler for details, freely mixed elements of medieval France, Renaissance Europe, Golden-Age Portugal, and Moorish Spain, resulting in an eclectic jumble of styles held together by sheer exuberance. The castle today is dominated by its bright pallet of red, blue, and yellow—its flamboyant form visible for miles around.

A model of the Pena Palace

When I spied the castle from the Castle of the Moors, it did not look very big to me—even smaller than the Sintra Palace below. Yet when I finally approached the building, years later, I found it to be gigantic, dwarfing all of the visitors that climbed up to visit. The palace has a roughly tripartite structure, with a red right, a blue center, and a yellow left. The visitor first passes through an elaborate stone gate, reminiscent of the Torre Belém, in order to reach the front entrance. There another gate—the walls covered in blue tiles, with elaborate and gruesome decorative sculptures surrounding the windows—leads inside the palace. From here I entered a sort of cloister, with every surface covered in tiles of blue, orange, and green, rather like those in the Alhambra.

Many of the rooms we passed were similarly decorated. The roofs, however, swelled into elaborate, web-like vaulting: a parody of gothic cathedrals. From within the cloister we could look up to see the bright red tower, whose form is also reminiscent of the Torre Belém. As is typical of palaces, there were rooms full of ornate furniture and other expensive decoration. In one room a beautiful candelabra with glass blown to look like leafy vines hung from the ceiling; in another, the Noble Room, nearly life-sized statues of bearded men held up the candles. Royalty has its rewards. Yet one of the more memorable rooms was the kitchen, whose elegant simplicity contrasted sharply with the pageantry above.

This strange architectural conglomeration owes its form to many hands. The primary architect was the German Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege, who is also remembered for his geological research. The King and Queen themselves also lent a hand in the decoration. As it stands today, the palace is somewhat reminiscent of the modernist works of the Catalan architects Gaudí and Domènech i Montaner, though it lacks the controlling intelligence that vivifies the works of those two men. The final impression not one of beauty, but of a kind of whimsical playfulness, strangely contrasting with the normally austere ideal of monarchy.

Eschwege also lent a hand in planning the gardens surrounding the palace, and in this he was highly successful. Both times I visited this hill, I decided that I could not endure another bus ride, and elected to walk down the hill. Luckily, gravity aids greatly in this direction. I recommend this strategy, since the forest is lovely. Here you can see the other layers of walls that form the Castle of the Moors, which slither down the mountain like a ridgeback snake. While lost in this forest, it is easy to see why this spot attracted the attention of romantics: the decaying ruins amid the tangle of trees perfectly evokes that sense of distant grandeur that so beguiled the romantic imagination.

I reached the end of the hill, continued further down through the old streets, once again admiring the many small, nameless corners of beauty in the city. As I got on the train back to Lisbon, I thought complacently that, finally, I had seen what Sintra had to offer. But I was mistaken—which I would have known if, for once, I had done some research before visiting. In fact, I had not even come close to exhausting the treasures of Sintra, so it seems that I must still go back.

The most famous thing I missed is the Quinta da Regaleira. This is yet another monument of the eclectic imagination of the romantic mind. A “quinta” is a large manor house, typically owned by an aristocrat of some sort. This one was eventually purchased by António Cavalho Monteiro, an eccentric who was lucky enough to inherit a large fortune. He used this fortune to create a landscape of mysteries. The dominant architectural style of this property is neo-gothic, which can be seen in the palace and the chapel. The gardens, however, reveal the previous owner’s love of the enigmatic: they feature several tunnels and even two inverted towers that Cavalho Monteiro dubbed “initiation wells.” They were apparently used in rituals related to Tarot cards. Nowadays they are used in the modern ritual of Instagram.

Nearby is the Quinta do Relógio, a Neo-Mudéjar manor house that is currently on sale for over $7,000,000. Tempting, I know. Also close is the Seteais Palace, a large manor house originally constructed for the Dutch consul in the 18th century, and now run as a luxury hotel. Probably outside my budget. Somewhat further off is yet another palace: the Montserrate Palace, which used to serve as a summer getaway for the court. This somewhat strange-looking edifice is yet another example of the romantic style of Sintra’s architecture: colorful, exotic, miscellaneous. 

This short list only scratches the surface. Probably the best way to see everything is with a car and a few days to spare, not just a day-trip from Lisbon. I am sure that such a trip would be amply rewarding. The area is enchanting, and has enchanted so many people throughout the years that it is filled with monuments to its own charm. I can see what Lord Byron was talking about.

Memories of Lisbon

Memories of Lisbon

Lisbon was the very first place outside of Spain that I visited in Europe. It was in April of 2016, during Holy Week, as the end-point of a trip through Extremadura. We took a Blablacar, and I was amazed that there was no border, natural or artificial, between Spain and Portugal.

As we approached the city, the driver turned on the radio to let us hear Portuguese. I had hoped that my experience with Spanish would allow me to understand a little of this sister tongue. But it was absolutely foreign to my ears. Far from sounding like a closely-related language, Portuguese was as familiar as Russian. (I have since learned that this reaction is quite common. Peninsular Portuguese is strikingly different in pronunciation and speech rhythm from Spanish, even though on paper the two languages are quite similar.)

We entered the city on the majestic 25 de Abril Bridge—a suspension bridge conspicuously reminiscent of the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco. (The 25th of April, 1974,  is the date of the famous Carnation Revolution, when the dictatorship was overthrown.) Two massive towers hold up a double-decker span over the river Tagus, the whole thing painted a rusty red color. Next to the bridge is another monument that recalls a foreign city: Christ the King, a tall statue of Jesus inspired by the famous Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Through the cables of the bridge we could see the city of Lisbon huddled on the riverbank, its colorful tiles shining in the sunlight. This was my first glimpse of the city.

(The Tagus, by the way, is the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, also passing through Toledo and Aranjuez.)

Despite this grand entrance, however, my mood quickly turned sour. I had been spending the previous six months exploring Spain like a madman, slowly getting the lay of the land, coming to understand the ancient country’s geography, culture, and language. Now I was, once again, a complete novice. I did not have the slightest grasp of Portuguese, so I had to rely on English, which made me feel like any other tourist. (This wasn’t a problem for communication, since the Portuguese are excellent linguists.) And I had not even the slightest notion of the history of anything we saw. 

But maybe this is all just an excuse. Maybe I was just sick of being on the road. After all, I had hardly spent a single weekend in Madrid the whole year. Whatever the cause, I managed to sabotage my own trip to Lisbon. I spent the better part of my time in that beautiful city wishing I were back in Spain. As anyone who has been to Lisbon knows, this is a shame, since Lisbon is one of the jewels of the Iberian peninsula—indeed, of all Europe.

Residual guilt and regret prompted me to revisit the city two years later, in September of 2018. TAP Portugal, the budget airline, lets you have a layover in Lisbon for no additional charge. So, before returning to Spain for the new school year, I had a little vacation in the Portuguese Capital, determined to see the city with fresh eyes. It was worth it.


Lisbon has one of the most distinctive profiles of any European city. The streets are paved with the famous Portuguese pavement—smooth bits of stone, black and white, that are sometimes arranged into mosaics. The buildings, meanwhile, are marked by that other distinctly Portuguese art: azulejos, or colored tiles. Even very ordinary apartment buildings are coated in shining porcelain. The city is generally quite hilly; and the smooth pavement does not make walking any easier. But the hills are what make Lisbon so dramatic, for streets will open up into magnificent views of the city and the ocean beyond.

On my first trip to Lisbon I learned something of the history and layout of the city by taking a “free” walking tour. The tour lasted four hours, and it was one of the most memorable experiences from my travels. We were led around by a man with long, flowing, black hair, whose passion for the city was intoxicating. He was a true Portuguese patriot, and an enthusiastic son of Lisbon. As he reminded us, Lisbon is one of the oldest cities on the Iberian Peninsula and indeed in the world, founded by the Phonecians and later occupied by the Carthaginians and the Romans. The city is far, far older than the country for which it serves as capital.

In our guide’s memorable phraseology, Lisbon is a woman—with “black, flowing hair” (like his) “studded with seashells, who wears a dress that flaps in the wind like a sail.” Her husband, he continued, was the sea; and their child is the neighborhood of Alfama. This is the oldest neighborhood in the city; and if you have an ear attuned to languages, you will know that its name derives from Arabic. Though popular with tourists, the neighborhood has preserved much of its original charm. When we arrived, neighbors were chatting through their windows, and an old woman was washing something in a fountain. The area preserves the chaotic jumble of narrow streets typical of ancient cities; and this arrangement muffles out much of the extraneous urban noise, giving the Alfama a peaceful atmosphere.

Our guide also took us to the Bairro Alto, the “upper district.” Indeed, the neighborhood stands on one of the city’s hills. It was built considerably after the Alfama, and its streets lack the labyrinthine intricacy of that lower zone. Nevertheless, the streets are intimate and at times reveal lovely views of the city. More importantly, the Bairro Alto is the center of Lisbon’s youth culture nightlife, comparable to Brooklyn or Madrid’s Malasaña. At night the streets are packed with crowds of drinkers freely mingling. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to partake.

I did, however, go to see a fado concert in a café in this neighborhood. Fado is the flamenco or the blues of Portugal: a folk music sung to the accompaniment of a guitar (in this case, a Portuguese guitar). Though I did not understand the words, the music’s mournful quality is palpable. As the guide of our free walking tour informed us, the music expresses saudade, a Portuguese word that means “longing”—a deep state of spiritual disquiet for something missing. Our guide, incidentally, thought that this feeling was at the heart of the Portuguese character: the yearning of a widow for her fisherman husband, lost at sea; or the urge that drove the Portuguese to push off into the unknown during the Age of Exploration; or nowadays the longing of some Portuguese (our guide among them) for the country’s Golden Age, when it was briefly one of the most powerful states on earth.

In the heart of the city is the Baixa area, and at the heart of Baixa is the Plaça do Comécio. This is a grand, monumental square that opens up right to the River Tagus. An equestrian statue of Joseph I of Portugal stands at the center of the yellow buildings, looking warlike and formidable despite being mainly dedicated to opera during his reign. In this area are to be found high-end shopping and touristy restaurants, which I like to avoid. Right next to Baixa is Chiado, a similar zone of shopping and restaurants, containing some of the city’s central plazas. 

One of Lisbon’s most characteristic sights are the trolleys. As in San Francisco, the trolleys help pedestrians to traverse the steep hills of the city; and they have become a tourist attraction in their own right. The trams preserve a retro look, since the cars in use are still of the same rather diminutive size as when the system was built, in the 1870s. The most famous tram line is 28, which often ridden just for providing a good tour of the city. Our guide, however, warned us that it was wise to keep a sharp eye on one’s belongings, since the trolley is patrolled by pickpockets. I took a ride on the tram on my first trip—waiting nearly an hour on line to do so—and was, sadly, quite disappointed in the experience. I think walking provides a much better view of the city.

Lisbon has more recently taken on a strangely south Asian appearance, due to the spread of rickshaws catering to tourists. Again, I preferred to walk.

As befitting a seaside city of steep streets, Lisbon has many excellent lookout points. One is the Miradouro de Santa Luzia, near the Alfama, which offers an excellent view of the deep orange tiles of the rooftops and the pastel blues and pinks of the buildings. Lisbon has none of the brooding majesty of some Spanish cities; it is all light and air. The lookout point itself is a nice place to have a rest, with its tile benches and flowering trees. Right next door is the Miradour das Puertas do Sol—offering another superb view of the Alfama and the river beyond. The last time I went an enormous cruise ship was docked right in front of the old neighborhood. This cannot be good for maintaining its local atmosphere.

By continuing up the hill you will reach what is simultaneously one of the best views and the most impressive monuments of Lisbon: the Castelo de São Jorge. This medieval fortification is built upon the ancestral core of the city, where everybody from the Phoenicians to the Moors had their own forts. This is no surprise, of course, since the castle stands upon an easily defensible spot, controlling all the surrounding ground and providing an excellent view of the river as well. It is a superb spot.

The castle is up above.

What remains today is hardly more than a husk—the proud walls encircling little but trees and a few decaying ruins. But it is worth visiting for the commanding view alone, which becomes especially dramatic once you climb up to the top of the walls. The castle gardens are home to a handful of peacocks, which surprised me by appearing high up above my head, in the branches of a tree. I had no idea that peacocks were so agile. The castle also contains a small museum, showcasing some of the archaeological objects unearthed there—many examples of ceramics, as well as some ornamental Moorish tiles.

From the front of the castle, overlooking the city, the visitor can spot one of the other great lookout points of Lisbon: the Miradouro da Graça. Further up that same hill is the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, a place frequented by sunset lovers and aspiring instagrammers. The city is nothing if not photogenic.

During my first visit to Lisbon I was very surprised by its cathedral, often called the Sé. I was used to seeing the massive gothic, barroque, and neoclassical constructions of Spanish cities. Lisbon’s cathedral seems downright humble by comparison. It was built during the Romanesque period, which necessarily limits its size (since the barrel vaults of Romanesque architecture require a narrow space). What is more, the church has been repeatedly buffeted by earthquakes, most notoriously the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.

An engraving of the earthquake, fire, and tsunami

This earthquake was one of the deadliest and most destructive in history. It was a catastrophe. The earthquake struck in the morning of All Saints Day, when most people were in church—heavy stone buildings that were probably the worst place to be. A massive tsunami followed in the wake of the earthquake, and in the chaos a fire raged out of control. In the end, tens of thousands of people were killed and over three-fourths of the city’s buildings were in ruins. During the walking tour our guide pointed out the Carmo Convent, a convent that has been maintained in its ruined state as a memorial.

An old photograph of the ruined Carmo Convent

This disaster caused ripples in Europe’s culture as well as its surface. Many took it as a punishment from God, since it fell on a holy day. Voltaire, meanwhile, was dissuaded of the Leibnizian idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds. This led, among other things, to the writing of his most famous book: Candide. But before that philosophical tale, Voltaire published a poem on the event, condemning the idea that humans had somehow deserved it: “And can you then impute a sinful deed, / To babes who in their mothers’ bosoms bleed?” Rousseau responded vigorously against this poem, asserting that humanity deserved it by being corrupted by civilization. After all, if the people of Lisbon had been living in little hamlets, spread out thinly across the landscape, the casualties would have been small. But it did not take a Voltaire to see through this casuistical argument.

My second trip to Lisbon was vastly enhanced by visiting two of the city’s museums. The first was the very popular Museo Nacional do Azulejo, which celebrates the great Portuguese art of colored tiles. The museum is somewhat out of the way, located in what was previously a convent: Madre de Deus. But it is well worth the effort to get there.

The collection offers a bit of history on the tradition of azulejos. As you may have intuited, the word is a loanword from Arabic, specifically the word for “small polished stone.” Any visitor to the Alhambra will know that decorative tile had a strong tradition in the Moorish world, the art of geometric design driven by the prohibition on depicting human forms. Even today, many if not most azulejos contain either geometric or plant motifs. However, this is certainly not always the case. Azulejo altarpieces depicting Jesus, Mary, and the saints were on display. Other tiles portrayed scenes of history or of daily life, like the tapestries that hung in many royal dwellings. 

The former church of the convent that now houses the museum

The variety was astounding. From restrained blues and white to vibrant colors of every kind; from quaint flowers to designs created from mathematical algorithms; from plain squares to tiles with three dimensions—the museum showcased the scope of the artform. Just as impressive as the collection, however, was the building itself. The convent has many richly decorated rooms, with golden altars, coffered ceilings, and walls covered with paintings. In one of the more celebrated rooms, the choir, the entire space is ornamented with gilded woodwork encasing high-quality oil paintings.

Yet the most stunning work on display was the Panoramic View of Lisbon before the 1755 Earthquake. This sequence of tiles encircles the walls of a large room, providing a detailed sketch of the riverside of Lisbon as it existed before that calamity. The work was originally commissioned to decorate a palace, presumably to help a monarch keep track of his own domain. Even a superficial inspection of this work will impress the viewer with how much the city has changed since the earthquake. The old city is covered with religious architecture: churches, convents, monasteries—and now only a hint of this monumental majesty remains. This azulejo is likely the closest thing we have to a snapshot of the ruined Lisbon.

The next museum I visited was the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, which is somewhat misleadingly translated as the National Museum of Ancient Art (though the word “antiga” just means old, not “ancient,” and indeed hardly anything in the collection comes from ancient times). This is the largest museum in Lisbon and indeed Portugal; in fact it boasts one of the largest collections in Europe—or so they like to boast. 

Judging from my visit, I am willing to believe the claim, for the museum seemed to constantly expand. Luckily, the museum is quite a pleasant space, since it is in an erstwhile palace. I first visited the painting gallery. It was far more impressive than I had anticipated. There were works by Dutch, German, Italian, and Spanish masters. I was particularly pleased to find a wry work by Albrecht Dürer, St. Jerome in His Study, with the old bearded saint pointing rather impishly to a skull as a memento mori. The airy, triumphant style of Giambattista Tiepolo (who decorated Madrid’s palace) was in attendance, as well as the dark, brooding style of José Ribera.

Dürer’s depicting of St. Jerome

But my favorite work by a long shot was the Triptych of the Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymous Bosch. Anthony was one of the early Christian ascetics, who isolated themselves in the desert in order to purify themselves. Bosch’s work represents the physical and spiritual temptations that the saint had to endure during his long years of fasting and prayer. As usual with Bosch, this gives rise to bizarre and fantastic imagery. The central panel is the main focus: showing the kneeling saint surrounded by the whole population of Bosch’s superfecund imagination: human-animal hybrids, men lacking limbs and even whole bodies, fish wearing armor, ruined buildings and burning cities—each of these images visually fantastic and symbolic of sin. It seems that Bosch had a both a horror and a fascination of sin, since he was so adept at portraying it.

Paintings constitute only a small part of the museum’s collection. There are all of the items of royal living: elegant furniture, finely-woven tapestries, delicately crafted silver and ceramic tableware—the list goes on. And the collection is not merely from Europe. Pioneering explorers and colonists as they were, the Portuguese collected many fine works from far off places, most notably China and (if memory serves) Japan. The museum’s sculpture collection is especially impressive, if only because of the way that the statues are arranged in the wide halls of the former palace, like silent servants waiting to be called upon.

Inevitably with a museum of this size, some version of fatigue sets in during the visit. Fortunately, the museum has a fine café which leads out to a garden in the back, where you can enjoy yet another sweeping view of the city. I would have lingered there longer, but the museum was closing and the guard kicked me out.

I have spent this long describing the enchanting city, but I have yet left out one of the most splendid corners of the city: Belém. 

The name “Belém” is Portuguese for Bethlehem. The neighborhood stands rather far from the city center, near the mouth of the Tagus river. To get there it is best to take a tram or a train. I took the latter, passing under the 25 de Abril Bridge on the way.

I am afraid that my first trip to Belém, in 2016, only added to my bitterness at Lisbon. This is because the line to visit the Jerónimos Monastery—one of the famous monuments of the are—was very long; and after waiting for an hour and paying to get inside, I found out that the most impressive section of the monastery, the church, is free to visit and has no line at all. Let my experience serve as a warning to any visitors in a hurry.

All carping aside, the Jerónimos Monastery is by far the most impressive work of religious architecture in the city. Its size is immediately striking. Like so many grand monasteries, Jerónimos spreads out with the girth of a palace. While waiting in line, under the hot Portuguese sun, I did get a chance to admire the building’s beautiful façade: ornamented with fabulously intricate friezes designed by João de Castilho (or, as he is known in his native Spain, Juan de Castillo). The cloisters of the monastery are some of the finest I have ever seen, so delicately carved that it makes the stone seem lighter than air. Within this monastery are buried several Portuguese luminaries, such as the novelist Alexandre Herculano and the poet Fernando Pessoa.

The monastery church maintains this exquisite decoration. In the vast and gloomy space, culminating in web-like vaulting, the columns rise up like legs. Each of them has been carved almost from top to bottom. As in the Escorial Monastery in Spain, Jerónimos serves as the royal resting ground. Large pyramidal tombs sit upon sculpted elephants, containings kings and queens. Yet the most famous people buried in the church had not a drop of blue blood. In matching tombs near the entrance are buried Luís de Camões, Portugal’s greatest poet, and the famous explorer Vasco da Gama. These tombs were constructed long after those two eminent men died; but their remains were transported here in the 19th century.

The style that characterizes the Jerónimos Monastery is called Manueline—a blend of gothic, Italian, Spanish, and Moorish influences—and it is typical of the Portuguese Golden Age. Nearby is another excellent example of this style, as embodied in the Belém Tower. Indeed, this tower was composed of the same rock as was used to make the monastery. It was built as a defensive structure; but this pragmatic function did not lead to a dull edifice. Rather, the fortification displays the same exuberant decoration as the monastery. The fortress was originally constructed on a small island near the bank; but the shoreline has gradually expanded, so that nowadays the tower can be visited on foot. Both times I saw the tower, the line to enter was quite long, so I decided against it.

Just down the river from the tower is the Monument to the Discoveries. This is a far more recent construction, having been built in 1939 for the Portuguese World Exhibition. It is a worthy addition to the area. The massive concrete fin is shaped like the prow of a ship; and riding on top, in a heroic procession, are great figures from Portugal’s Age of Discovery. In the space in front of the monument, a large mosaic compass has been inserted into the pavement. In the center is a map of the world, with the names of notable explorers and the dates of their voyages marked. Most of the figures aboard the ship are, I am afraid, unknown to me. But at the tip is Henry the Navigator, the Prince who helped to inaugurate and coordinate the first Portuguese explorations.

No account of Belém would be complete without mention of the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, a bakery famous for making Lisbon’s most iconic food: pastel de nata. This is made with egg custard inside a small, crispy pie crust. They are omnipresent in Lisbon and make for an excellent breakfast or dessert. The recipe was originally developed in the Jerónimos Monastery itself, by monks who wanted to make some extra money. But when the monastery was secularized in the 19th century, the recipe was sold. While I am on the subject, I should also say that, in general, the food in Lisbon is quite good: fresh, flavorful, and reasonably priced. I especially enjoy the cod.

To sum up this long overdue account, Lisbon is a city of delights. The city itself is beautiful; and it is full of history and culture. Indeed, the only problem with Lisbon is that it is so nice that it attracts a great many tourists. But this is the curse of all great destinations.

Don Bigote: Chapter 4

Don Bigote: Chapter 4

(Continued from Chapter 3.)

Don and Dan Do Drugs

“Dan, will you do me a favor, please? I think those brutes knocked out a few of my teeth.”

Don Bigote sticks two of his boney fingers inside his mouth and pulls his cheek, showing me his bloody gums. We’re sitting in a lifeboat—me rowing, him sitting opposite me—floating in the Atlantic somewhere off the coast of Europe. We left yesterday, very early in the morning, and have been floating since then without spotting land.

“Listen, Mr. Bigote, this is the third time you asked me this. Are you feeling alright?”

“To tell you the truth, Dan, I feel rather unwell. Those monstrous animals knocked me over the head rather hard.”

“Yeah, I can see that.”

“But are some teeth missing?”

“How many did you have to begin with?” I ask.

“Seven.”

“Yeah, you’re down to four.”

“Those beasts!” he says, punching the air with his fist. “Those brute beasts!”

“I’m not feeling too hot, either, sir,” I say. “I don’t know how much longer I can row.”

“You’re doing admirably, my boy,” Don says. “Say, where are we?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. One of sailors told me to keep going southeast and we’d hit Spain within 24 hours. But I’m pretty sure it’s been longer than that.”

“May I see the compass?”

“Sure.”

“Hmmm,” he says, holding the little compass that was stored in the boat’s cabinets. “According to this, we’re going northeast, not southeast”

“Sir, this is no time for joking around.”

“My dear Chopin,” he says, “I have never told a joke in all my life. See here.” He hands me back the compass.

“Isn’t this southeast?”

“Have you ever studied the art of navigation, my esteemed assistant? The evidence is indubitable.”

“Are you kidding me? What direction does the needle point?”

“North.”

“It points north?!”

“Oh!” he says, throwing up his hands. “How low our education has fallen, in the hands of the Muslim-Mexican conspiracy!”

“But I was sure it points south!”

“Have they taught you this lie, too, Chopin?”

“No, I just figured it would point towards Antarctica, since it’s so much bigger than Greenland—like, more gravity.”

“I see that the noble science of physics is also in a sorry state.”

“Should I turn around?”

“Hmmm,” Don Bigote says, stroking his mustache. “Judging from what I presume was our position, I believe you can just continue east and we will reach land somewhere on the Iberian coast.”

“Oh God, I hope we’re close. My hands and my back are killing me. And I’m already super sunburned.”

“I have faith in your youthful strength, Chopin. I would offer to help, but the injuries I received at the hands of those subhuman conspiratorial henchmen render such a course of action inadvisable for the sake of my future health.”

“I really wish you hadn’t pulled that stunt, sir.”

“Are you referring to my courageous action against the global conspiracy as a ‘stunt’, Chopin?”

“I’m just saying that we could have had a nice, easy trip to Spain and gotten off with all our stuff, and now we’re lost in the ocean.”

“Do not take this the wrong way, Chopin, but sometimes I pity your naiveté. They could never have allowed us to land. If not for me, we would be sitting in some dungeon in Saudi Arabia being forced to speak using gender-neutral pronouns and being fed a steady diet of vegan cooking.”

I decide it’s useless to try to talk sense into the man, so I lazily row some more. Bored, I observe my boss. He’s sitting straight upright, his eyes constantly scanning his surroundings in a weird twitching motion, his tongue exploring the gaps in his mouth, his left hand twirling his mustache. What a freaky dude.

Maybe I’m just dizzy from the rowing, but I don’t feel very angry at Bigote, despite the fact that he created this stupid mess. I’m actually starting to like him. Somehow all his conspiracy talk is starting to get under my skin. Not that I believe that Muslims and Mexicans are responsible. Not the gays either—though I guess feminists might be up to something. But anyway, is it so crazy to think the world is gonna end soon? I mean, lots of people think so. My dad says stuff like that all the time. And if that’s true, then Don Bigote isn’t the worst guy to hang around. I bet he’d be pretty useful in the apocalypse. I just need to survive till then. And when it’s all over, I’m sure he’ll give me a country or something to be king of, and then I can fulfill my lifelong dream of owning a harem with all the hotties that survive. Isn’t this a good idea? Or maybe the sun is getting to me.

§

I wake up feeling like I’d just passed through the intestines of a giant worm. If it were a hangover, this would definitely be in my top five worst ones. I guess I passed out at some point yesterday as it began to get dark.

“Egad, Chopin! I think we’ve hit land!”

I open my eyes, get up, and look around. We’re on a beach.

“Thank God!” I say, scrambling out of the boat. “I thought we were done for.”

“Oh ye of little faith,” he says. “But now we are faced with yet another difficulty. We must find some human settlement and ascertain our precise location.”

“Can’t be too far.”

“You may be right, Chopin. But in my weakened condition I do not think I can walk even a short distance.”

“I’m not feeling too hot either.”

Bigote sticks one of his big spider legs out of the boat on the sand, and tries to climb out. But he falls flat on his face and begins floundering around in the water.

“Sir!” I say, and rush to help him. I pull him up and out of the water. He sits slumped over on the sand like a washed-up jellyfish.

“Oh, Chopin, I’m ashamed to be seen like this. Will you help me get to those trees over there?”

I drag him to some palm trees nearby and set him down.

“Chopin, I think those malicious conspirators poisoned me while I was being held in captivity. I am faint and weak. I fear this may be my final hour.”

“Oh, don’t complain so much, sir. You’ll be alright.”

“I am no malingerer nor am I prone to fits of hypochondria, Chopin. I need medicinal aid.”

“I think there’s some tylenol in the rowboat.”

“Don’t be flippant, Chopin. I need something far more powerful. Luckily my many hours on survival blogs have given me a deep knowledge of medicinal herbs. Perhaps I can find something around here.”

“What kind of blogs are we talking about here, exactly?”

“Will you pass me a couple leafs of that bush over there?” he says, pointing.

“This one?”

“Yes. Oh, and also those little berries on that one. And a few of those needles. This is very good. Now, will you fetch a bottle of water, a dish, and some cutlery from the boat?”

All this done, Bigote begins to crush the plants together with a knife and a little water until he gets a muddy greenish paste that looks like the primordial ooze from which all life emerged.

“The potion is prepared,” he says, holding up the vomity dish.

“I’m not sure I’d eat that, sir…”

“I admire your caution, Chopin, but I’m afraid my options are quite limited. Either succumb to the poison of my captors, or trust in my botanical knowledge.”

“I think you should take a bet on your captors not knowing anything about poison.”

But as I say this, he takes a spoonful of the slimy green paste and pops it into his mouth. I observe him closely. His face tenses up with disgust. He gags a little. He swallows it down. I’ve seen it all before, like one of my lightweight friends taking a shot. I expect instant vomitation. But, instead…

“It worked!” he cries in triumph, and jumps to his feet. “I feel wonderful, Chopin!”

My eyes pop out in disbelief. Does this nutcase really know how to make medicine from plants? Now that I think about it, I guess it’s the kind of shit he would know. Here’s a guy who can’t go five minutes in society without making the evening news, but put him in a forest and he’s good to go.

“Chopin, honestly this mixture is a wonder drug! You must try some.” He holds up the plate to me.

I look at it warily. It looks like crushed up caterpillars. But I look at Bigote, and I can’t deny he seems a lot better. Screw it.

I take a spoon of the mushy mess and slowly hold it up to my face. Then, without giving myself time to taste or smell it, I jam it down my throat. First I taste the acid bitterness, but at least it’s better than most of the light beer I drink. But then I feel the slow descent of the thick, burning mass down my throat and into my stomach. My limbs come alive with a tingly, fiery feeling. Suddenly I feel wide awake and my heart starts pumping with adrenaline.

“This is like ritalin!” I say.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” Bigote says. But I notice a strange note in his voice. I look and see that he’s red in the face and covered with bullets of sweat.

“Hey, you alright sir?”

But as I say this, suddenly I’m sweating and burning up, too, and I feel an ominous descending motion in my insides like a lead weight hitting my bowels.

“Excuse me!” I yell, knowing there isn’t much time. And I run into the forest, unbuckling my belt, unzipping my fly, so that my pants begin falling down my waist as I scramble to some hidden spot. I see a nice little clearing in the bushes up ahead, but as I stumble forward my foot catches on something hard and heavy, and I fall straight on my face. I try to get back up, but I feel it coming and I know there is no time. So I bend into the fetal position and await the onslaught.

It is more horrible than even the worst combination of beer and burritos can wreak. I don’t even want to talk about it. I am in so much pain that I begin to hallucinate colors and shapes. My eyes are streaming with hot tears. I cry for my mom and weep. It’s all over in five minutes—which pass like eons—and I’m so weak afterwards that I can only crawl away and lay, pants down, covered in scratches, sweat, and tears, curled up on the forest floor. And I solemnly swear that this is the last, ultimate, and final time that I trust Don Bigote.

I lie here for a long time, slowly recovering my consciousness, waiting for the pain to go away. My stomach is still on fire. I probably lost all the water in my body, through multiple channels. My vision is still blurry and I’m seeing spots. But the mosquitoes are biting me and it smells like a locker room, so I slowly get to my feet, perform the necessary cleaning—don’t ask—and start making my way back.

But after just a few steps I notice something weird in the grass, dangerously near the disaster zone. It must be what I tripped on. I go forward, holding my nose, to investigate. It’s… a metal suitcase. What the hell? I take it to a safe distance and open it up, hoping to find a million dollars or some gold or something like that.

I’m not far off. The suitcase is full to the brim with little baggies of white powder. What a find! I had a friend who dealt coke in high school and he said a gram cost at least 60 bucks. And there must be, like, a lot of grams in this suitcase. I mean, I don’t remember the metric system very well, but we’re talking dozens of grams at minimum. Heck, it might be one of those kilogram things. Get this stuff to the right people and we’ll have enough to rent out a club, with enough coke left over for everyone there.

At this point I remember that I had an English professor in high school who used to give us these moral dilemma things, and one of them was finding a big wad of money in the street. The right thing to do is to turn it into the police, of course (not that I’d do it). But what’s the right thing to do when you find a buttload of cocaine in the middle of a forest? Leave it? I mean, some teenagers might find it when they’re off drinking, and then I’d be the one responsible for their cocaine addiction. Do the coke myself? That’s just impractical. Call the police? They’ll arrest me! The only responsible choice is to take it and sell it.

I gingerly close the suitcase and start back towards Bigote. I find him sitting against a tree, his shirt torn off and wrapped around his head, his eyes wide and blank, his thin, pale, bony chest exposed to the mosquitoes.

“Chopin!” he says as I get close, though he doesn’t turn his head towards me, but looks blankly upward.

“Hey boss.”

“The potion I made seems to be having a strange effect on me.”

“You’re telling me man.”

“I appear to have gone blind, Chopin. And I think I have developed a severe fever.”

“Are you serious?”

“But fear not, Chopin. Just as was true of the blind Homer, by losing my earthly sight I have gained a higher sensibility. I see now that my course of action has been in error. What a fool I have been!”

“So you’re done with the conspiracy?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Chopin. The conspiracy is all there is. But I was in error in deciding to explore the decaying Western civilization. You see that our current civilization, however noble, nurtured a viper in its bosom. Western society must have developed a weakness, an essential flaw, which made it vulnerable to this heinous conspiracy.”

“I think you should drink some water, sir.”

“Do not interrupt, Chopin. This is important.”

“Sorry, I…”

“As I was saying, Western society, though the most glorious civilization known to history, must have had some essential flaw which has led to the conspiracy. So instead of preserving it, Chopin, we must begin anew. We must emulate Robinson Crusoe, stranded in the wilderness, learning from scratch how to survive: how to tame the rough boughs of nature, how to harness the power of the winds and the water, how to reap the land and sow the soil. And from this noble simplicity a civilization will naturally emerge, like a plant from the soil, infused with the goodness of simplicity and free from the corruption of decadence.”

“So, like, those people on Survivor?”

“At first, yes, that is what we must do.”

“Here?”

“This is as good a spot as any, Chopin.”

“I don’t think that’s a great idea, sir. One time in school we had to read a book about something like that, though I only read the SparkNotes so I could copy answers on the inside of my arm for the test (which worked by the way), and I think the book was about these kids who get stranded on an island and do something like that, and it doesn’t end well.”

“I am afraid your speech, Chopin, is sometimes so full of vagaries and redundancies and asides, that I have trouble catching your meaning.”

“Like, I think we’re just gonna go crazy and eat each other.”

“Nonsense, Chopin. We are in the bosom of nature and have plentiful resources to draw upon.”

I open my mouth to answer, but just then I feel an aftershock of the potion somewhere in my lower intestine, and instead say “One second, sir!” and run off to suffer my fate. But I don’t want to leave the suitcase for even a second, so I take it with me and drop it off nearby.

The business done—much less painful this time, thank God—I pick the suitcase up again to head back to Bigote. But of course life is never so simple and easy, not even during summer vacation, and the next thing I know some strong arm is wrapped around my mouth and something that feels an awful lot like a gun barrel is jammed into my back.

“Who you?” I hear a voice say, gruffy and Russiany.

“Mmmm, mmmm, mmmm,” I say.

“Move your hand, Hugo,” I hear another voice say, squeeky and nasal. “And if he yells, shoot ‘im.”

The strong arm moves down from my mouth to my neck.

“Who you?!” the gruff voice repeats.

“Hey, guys,” I say. “I assume this is about the drugs?”

“Oh, well here we got a really smart guy,” says the nasal voice. “Don’t we, Hugo? Real fucking smart. I can’t believe how smart he is, figured it all out by himself.”

“Tell who you,” the gruff voice says, and jams the gun harder into my back.

“Hey, hey, guys take it easy. I’m here to make the handoff to you. The boss didn’t want anyone stumbling on the shipment,” I say, trying my best to sound like I’m from a movie.

“Oh, the boss doesn’t trust us, now?” says the nasal voice, now appearing in front of me. He’s a small, skinny guy with a thin mustache, wearing a fluffy beanie and a leather jacket. “Doesn’t trust old Hugo and Ed to get the job done? Thinks we need some supervision? Thinks we’re babies, does he?”

“No, no, he’s just had a few shipments go missing in the past few weeks, that’s all,” I say.

“Oh shipments missing, like it’s our fault,” he continues. “Let ‘im go, Hugo.”

The arm withdraws and I fall to the ground, panting. I look up to see a big bald man with small squinting eyes, dressed in a tank-top.

“Hugo, check if it’s all there,” Ed says, as he paces angrily back and forth. Hugo bends down and opens the suitcase.

“Here all,” he says.

“Good, let’s get the hell out of here. I hate this place.”

They stumble off through the bush, and I automatically follow them.

“What do?” Hugo says to me.

“I was, er, wondering if you guys could give me a ride. You see our boat ran out of fuel and we had to take a lifeboat to get here.”

“You didn’t check your fuel beforehand?” Ed says, waving his finger around. “You didn’t think it was a good idea to just take a moment, a few seconds, to look at the fuel gage? It didn’t occur to you? Slipped your mind?”

“I…”

“Just come on,” he says.

We only go a few more paces when another voice breaks through the brush.

“Chopin, is that you? Chopin?” It’s Bigote.

“Who the fuck is that?” Ed says, whipping out his gun.

“Hugo kill,” Hugo says.

“No, no, wait guys. He’s my partner.”

“Your partner?”

“He’s cool, you guys. It’s just… He took something while we were on the boat and he’s still coming down from the high. He’ll probably say some crazy stuff, but just ignore him.”

“You know,” Ed went on, “when I got into this business I thought, I really thought, that I would be working with professionals. Serious people. People who wanted to do a good job. People who wouldn’t do drugs when they’re transporting drugs. Is that too much to ask? Is that an unreasonable expectation?”

“Chopin?” Bigote calls. “I hear other voices. Who are you with?”

“Sir!” I call out. “I have some excellent news. I have found some allies in our fight against the conspiracy!”

“Allies, Chopin? How do you know?”

“They gave me the sign, sir.”

“The sign?”

“Yes, the universal sign of the counter-conspiracy. I read it in one of the blogs you’re always talking about.”

“Well, if you say so, my good assistant,” Bigote says.

“What the fuck are you guys talking about?” Ed says. “Is this some kind of funny joke? Some kind of hoo hoo, hee hee, laughing haha joke?”

“It’s the only way I know how to keep him calm,” I whisper. “Otherwise he has a bad trip.”

“This is priceless, priceless.”

“Hugo hungry.”

“I know, Hugo. We’re going now. Hey kid, get your friend and we’re getting out of here.”

But just then a roar whooshes over head. It’s a helicopter flying low. Hugo and Ed jump to the ground, and I follow their lead.

“Oh, Jesus it’s the fucking cops,” Ed says. “Bastards are stepping up their patrols.”

“Chopin!” Bigote calls again. “I think that’s the conspiracy! They’ve followed us here!”

“What do we do?” I say.

“Hugo kill.”

“Chill out, Hugo,” Ed says. “We gotta wait out here for a while to be safe. Now it’s too dangerous to make a move.”

We move into the clearing where I left Bigote. He’s still leaned up against a tree, his eyes wide and white.

“Still blind sir?” I ask.

“As a bat, Chopin. Thus I must apologize to my new allies for not getting to my feet to formally greet you, for my weakened physical condition and lack of sight would make such a procedure very burdensome. But I give you my warmest welcome and heartiest gratitude.”

“Man, he’s totally gone,” Ed says to me.

“Hugo hungry.”

“God damn it, Hugo, can’t you wait?”

“Pancakes.”

“Who do I have the pleasure of addressing?” Bigote says.

“We’re the knights of the fucking round table,” Ed says. “Who do you think we are?”

“Ah, is that what your organization is called? What a noble name for a noble cause!”

“Are we gonna have to put up with this? Will we be forced to put up with this the whole time?” Ed says to me.

“Chopin!” Bigote says. “I must say that my potion is having a strange effect upon my nerves. I am afraid that I was over-excited before when I was talking of beginning a new civilization. Though the idea may have some merit, the thought has occured to me that we ought to recruit more people before we make the attempt. Though perhaps our two new friends would be interested?”

“Interested? In what?” Ed says.

“Well, instead of fruitlessly fighting the evils of the current world and striving against difficulties to preserve what we have against the coming darkness, perhaps it would be better to let the world go its own bad way and to start anew, inventing a new way of life for the world to come.”

“Boy, if I could start the world over,” Ed says. “Boy, what would I do? Boy, oh boy, oh buddy boy. Lemme tell you, if I could start the world over.”

“Exactly!” Bigote says. “Think of the possibilities!”

“First thing I’d do is I’d get all these big tough guys who think they know what’s what and who’s who and are breathing down into their chest, and I’d teach them hows it feel to iron your shirt like the rest of us, hows it feel to button your trousers like an ordinary fella.”

“You are quite right,” Bigote says. “The world is full of power-hungry demagogues who must be humbled if the world is to be set right.”

“And another thing,” Ed goes on. “I’d show ‘em what it means to be a real workin’ fella. You know? A real professional guy. A guy who knows his business, who sits down without crossing his legs, you know what I mean?”

“A work ethic is no doubt the cornerstone of any good society,” Bigote affirms.

“One thing that really grinds my gears into a knot is all the hullabaloo on the news. I mean, what kind of a world are we living in? All these shaved faces in suit ties and one says this, another says that, and what happens in the end? I’ll tell you what happens. The same thing that always happens.”

“Dishonesty in politics is one of the constant plagues of civilization.”

“Hugo hungry,” Hugo grunts.

“All right, all right,” Ed says. “We’ll go to the car. Happy now Hugo? Did I make you happy? Am I being a good partner?”

“Hugo no want talk.”

“You hear that?” Ed says. “Hugo no want talk. And Hugo never want talk. Know what it’s like working with a guy who no want talk? Oh, it’s barrels of fun. Whole barrels.”

“Hugo no want talk. Want pancakes.”

“Let’s just go.”

I put Bigote’s arm over my shoulder and help him walk. We go on for about half an hour until we reach a little dirt road. There, covered with a camouflage tarp, we find a grey sudan. Ed gets in the driver’s seat, Hugo the passenger’s, and Bigote and I crawl into the back.

“Where we headed?” I say.

“Oh, we got a backseat driver now do we? Someone who wants to drive from the back?”

“Sorry, I….”

“Just let me worry about it, will you?”

“Hugo want eat.”

“Hugo, will you just cool it? I mean, just pack a snack next time, okay? Can you plan ahead? Is that so hard?”

Hugo grunts grumpily.

We start driving, turning from the dirt road, to a local road, to a small highway. It’s a rural area and it’s still the early morning and there aren’t so many people around. The weather is quite misty, so we can’t see very far, and there isn’t much to see anyway except trees and fields. Some time passes without anyone speaking. Then Ed says:

“Anybody gonna talk? Or are we going to sit here in silence, like I do every day with this big guy over hear? Real great company you two in the back are. Regular social butterflies.”

Bigote has meanwhile passed out. He’s slumped in his seat, his face pressed against the window, drool dripping from beneath his mustache. I don’t feel so hot either. I haven’t eaten or drunk anything since that damn potion, and I feel dizzy in the head. But I don’t want to be taking any chances with these people, so I decide to give it a go. I open my mouth:

“What…”

But I’m immediately cut off by the sound of a siren behind us. It’s a cop car.

“Oh Jesus,” Ed says. “Can this day get any worse? I mean, can it? Please, God, make it worse than it is. Please, I beg you.”

“Hugo kill.”

“Will you just let me handle this, Hugo? Hugo no kill, okay?”

“Hugo hungry.”

We pull over by the side of a country road. The cop walks up from behind and up to the driver side window. Ed rolls it down.

“Yes, officer? Is there a problem?”

Bom Dia. Posso ver sua licença?”

“Hey, buddy, I’m sorry but I don’t speak Portuguese.”

“Ah, pardon me. May I see your license?” he says in perfect English.

“Why’d you stop us?” Ed says, as he squirms to take his wallet from his pocket.

“Your lights weren’t on. In the fog, you must have the lights on.”

“My lights weren’t on? You stopped me because my lights weren’t on?”

“It’s the law, sir,” the officer says, as he grabs Ed’s license.

“Well, can I just turn ‘em on now and you let us off with a warning?”

“I’m afraid not, sir. I’ll have to give you a ticket.”

“Well, isn’t this wonderful? Isn’t this just great?”

“Sir, please sit here while I search your information.”

“Does this make you feel powerful, huh?” Eds voice keeps rising in pitch. “Make you feel like a big tough guy? Is this how you get off, buddy?”

“Sir, please be quiet.”

“Oh, now I have to be quiet? You’re so high and mighty you can tell me to shut up?”

“Sir, I will not ask you another time. I’m going to search your information and I will be back in 3 minutes.”

“Hey, listen buddy,” Ed says, changing his tone. “I know this may seem a little unusual, but how about we just take care of this between the two of us? How’s, say, fifty euros sound? Will that take care of the problem?”

“Get out of the car, sir,” the officer says. “This is not acceptable behavior.”

“Me? Get out?”

“You heard me,” the officer says, tapping his hand on the car.

Just then, with a roar, Hugo’s arm shoots across the space, grabs the officer’s hand, and drags him into the car.

“Argghhhh!” the officer screams, until Hugo’s huge arms wrap around his neck and squeeze until there’s a loud crack. I heave but there’s nothing to vomit. Bigote keeps sleeping.

“Did you just kill him, Hugo? Did you really just kill this guy right on my lap?”

“Hugo kill.”

“Jesus, Hugo, another one?”

The two men open the doors and get out. Hugo pulls out the dead officer and throws him into a ditch by the side of the road. I get out, too, from pure shock.

“Another one, Hugo? Another police officer? I can’t believe this. You know this makes my life difficult? Do you understand it hurts our business? Not to mention it’s honestly a little cruel, Hugo, a little cold-hearted, if you don’t mind me being frank.”

Ed is waving his little arms around like a madman, pacing back and forth, jumping up and down, doing his best to intimidate the giant.

“Hugo hungry.”

“Oh, and now Hugo is hungry. Hugo kill and Hugo hungry. What Hugo want eat, eh?”

“Pancakes.”

“Oh, the fucking pancakes!” Ed says, his voice ascending into a shriek, waving a pointed finger in Hugo’s face. “Pancakes, pancakes, pancakes! Hugo want pancakes today! Hugo want pancakes yesterday! Hugo want pancakes to—!”

His voice is cut off as the giant man grabs him by the throat and lifts him off the ground.

“Hugo, Hugo!” Ed says, his voice rasping, his legs kicking in the air. “Hugo, please! I’m sorry…”

“Hugo not like Ed.”

“Hu—!” Ed spits out, before Hugo’s massive paw tightens and produces the same spine-chilling crack as with the police officer. Ed’s body goes limp.

“Hugo kill,” Hugo says with satisfaction.

I watch the whole thing and I’m paralyzed with fear. I’ve never seen a man killed before, except in movies and video games and stuff, you know, and it’s really not pretty in real life. Like, honestly it’s pretty horrible to watch. My legs feel like jelly and my mind is a total blank, sort of like the time I got caught cheating by Sharona, but that’s a different story.

Hugo holds Ed’s body for a few seconds, grinning with pleasure. I mean, it must have been the first few seconds of peace and quiet the guy had had in years, no offense to Ed. But then Hugo throws the body aside and turns his big bald head towards me.

“Hey, man,” I say.

“Hugo kill,” he says.

“Don’t say that, dude. That’s just mean.”

“Hugo kill and then eat pancakes.”

He begins walking towards me. I want to run but I’m like a deer in headlights. I’m attached to the spot. He gets closer and I try with all my energy to walk backwards, but instead I just fall on my ass. He’s right above me now. This is it. I love you, mom. You’re alright, dad.

His hands reach out towards me. I close my eyes. The next moment I hear a soft thud and a huge weight lands on me. I open my eyes to find Hugo sprawled out on top of me. He’s a heavy bastard.

“Beware the force of my valiant arms!” Bigote cries. He is standing over Hugo, holding the metal suitcase.

I squirm from under the big guy, who’s bleeding a lot from the back of his head, and I get up.

“You saved me!” I say, in disbelief, to Bigote, and I hug the idiot with all my might.

“A gentleman never abandons his assistant,” Bigote says, proudly. “Especially not one as resourceful as yourself.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“Nay, do not be so effusive with your gratitude, Chopin. Indeed, it is I that should be thanking you.”

“Me sir?”

“Why yes, Chopin. That was a brilliant maneuver you pulled back there. Fooling those agents of the conspiracy into thinking that we were their allies! It was brilliant. I would truly be lost without you, Chopin.”

“Oh, yeah… of course…”

“Now, quickly Chopin. We must steal their arms and their vehicle, and evacuate the scene. Surely the conspiracy will be hot on our trail here.”

“Right!”

We strip the two drugrunners and the poor officer of their guns, get in the sedan, and drive off as fast as we can without attracting unwanted attention. And I make sure to turn on the lights.

Northern Portugal: Oporto & Aveiro

Northern Portugal: Oporto & Aveiro

The train from Vigo left the station, traveled around the bay’s edge, and then turned south on its voyage to Oporto. I was vainly trying to read Hegel. Through the window I could see the Galician landscape, green and woody; then the tracks took us along the ocean shore, showing us the waves lapping the sand. It was not a high speed train and so the relatively short voyage took three hours.

The border between Portugal and Spain is almost imperceptible. In the north it follows the path of the River Miño, a relatively small waterway that could never have been a serious impediment to travel. In the south, there isn’t even a river. It makes me wonder how such a notable contrast in culture and language arose in the first place.

Immediately across the border is the Portuguese town of Valença, which is known for its baroque fortress overlooking the river, bulwarked by polygonal walls and trenches. Further on we passed by the town of Barcelos, which has a well-preserved medieval center and bridge. Finally the train creaked to a halt in its final destination:


Oporto

With around 300,000 inhabitants, Oporto is the second-largest city in Portugal and the urban center of the country’s northern half. Its real name in Portuguese is Porto. “O” is the Portuguese word for “the,” and “porto” means “port,” so that the name “Oporto” is just “the port” mistakenly transcribed. In any case, the name is appropriate, considering the city’s maritime orientation. Situated along the banks of the River Douro, the fishing and shipping industry have been important to the city since Roman times.

oporto_bridge

The most beautiful views of the city are to be found along this river, as the banks slope steeply down to the water, and the city follows like tumbling dice. Across this divide the two halves of the city are connected with a series of towering bridges. Among the newer bridges is the Arrábida Bridge, which had the biggest concrete arch in the world when it opened in 1963 (I don’t know what has surpassed it); and there is the sleekly modern São João railroad bridge, which eschews the arch for a wavy line suspended on two pillars.

But the most beautiful bridge in Oporto is the Ponte Dom Luis I. This bridge is sometimes confused with the nearby Maria Pia Bridge—a railroad bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel—and for good reason, since the two look very similar. This is not accidental, of course, since the Ponte Dom Luis I was designed by the engineer Théophile Seyrig, one of Eiffel’s disciples. The main difference between Seyrig’s bridge and Eiffel’s is the former’s lower deck; and this feature is extremely convenient, since it means that pedestrians and drivers near the river don’t have to ascend the banks to use the bridge. This was the second innovative bridge I have seen by one of Eiffel’s disciples, the first being the Vizcaya Bridge near Bilbao. Both of these, as well as Eiffel’s own bridge, are models of elegant design, combining function and style.

Oporto_pontedomluis

At the time the bridge was completed, it was the largest of its type in the world; and still today it is an impressive structure, standing 85 meters (279 feet) tall. Nowadays cars (and people) can cross the Ponte Dom Luis I on the lower deck, while the upper deck is reserved for pedestrians and the tram. The top of the bridge offers, without a doubt, the best view of the city, showing the antique city center crowded along the riverbanks, their orange roofs glowing in the sunlight, while ships cruise by in the sparkling water below. On one side of the river, a medieval wall still clings to hillside; and beyond one can see the tower of Oporto’s cathedral, and the still more impressive Clérigos Tower in the distance. The courtyard of Serra do Pilar monastery presides over the bridge’s other end, creating a satisfying symmetry.

oporto_bridgeview1

Torre_de_los_Clérigos,_Oporto,_Portugal,_2012-05-09,_DD_01
Photo by Diego Delso; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

Oporto has much to offer in the way of churches. The city’s cathedral is a sparse but elegant Romanesque structure, with a narrow nave supported by a barrel vault. Not far from here is the Church of Santo Ildefonso, with a façade of the blue tiles that are such a pleasing aspect of Portuguese architecture. The aforementioned Clérigos Church sits on a narrow block; and though its ornate Baroque decoration is impressive, it is hard to pay attention to anything but its massive bell tower on its back end, so tall as to be visible from many points of the city. But any list of churches is bound to come up short; every time I walked to a new part of town, I was surprised to find stately and grand church buildings.

One church does stick out in my memory, however, and that is the Church of São Francisco. From the outside it does not look like much: a sliver of gothic windows can be seen from the back, while the entrances of the building complex are all crowded around a little square. Nevertheless, this modest structure is the best-preserved gothic building in the city, which is one of the reasons it was designated as UNESCO World Heritage.

The church’s somewhat unassuming exterior gives way to a detonation of art once the pilgrim passes through the door. Here Baroque is triumphant, covering every surface with intricate designs and elaborate sculptures, flowering forth like spring trees. Every altar showcases a cacophony of forms, overwhelming the viewer with fine details; my favorite is the magnificent altar showing the Tree of Jesse, the family tree extending from the father of King David down to the Virgin. I can understand why some may be put off by the richness of the decoration; but I am always impressed by such excess. The eye struggles in vain to take it all in; and finally I turn away, defeated.

Oporto_Chapel

Another unforgettable section of the church are its crypts. Wealthy patrons of the Franciscan Order (to whom this church belonged) chose to be buried here, in catacombs accessible through an adjacent building. It is an eerie space, shadowy and cold, illuminated by fiery yellow lights. Most hair-raising are the piles of human bones visible through openings in the floor. These are the common graves of the Franciscan brothers, I believe, accumulated over hundreds of years.

The Church of São Francisco was originally part of a convent, complete with an adjoining cloisters; but during Portugal’s Liberal Wars (1828-34), a fire destroyed most of the convent. This unfortunate destruction at least allowed space for the city’s Commercial Association to build their lovely Palácio da Bolsa, or Stock Exchange Palace, in its place.

The neoclassical building that now stands is a veritable church of finance. To visit one must join a guided tour, which is no bad thing; my guide did an excellent job explaining the history and art of the structure. We began in the Patio das Nações, or the Courtyard of Nations, so-called because of the paintings of the coats-of-arms of various countries with which Portugal does business. On one wall I even spotted the eagle of the United States. As in a real palace, every room, even the stairwell, is lavishly decorated; yet unlike a palace, the iconography is calculated to glorify commercial exploits. Here we can see, manifested in stucco and stone, the wealthy bourgeois usurping royalty as the dominant force in the country.

I particularly remember the Sala das Assembleias, the merchant equivalent of the throne room, all of it decorated in fake lacquered wood (actually the “wood” is painted on) and filled with elegant furniture. Yet the most marvelous room in the building is without doubt the Arab Room, an enormous space whose walls are decorated in a Neo-Mudéjar style, imitating the stucco patterns of the Alhambra, yet adding ostentatious colors to the mix. If the Commercial Association wanted to impress visitors with their splendor, they did an excellent job.

Arab Room
Photo by Josep Renalias; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

If you have even a passing taste for wine, it is criminal to visit Oporto without going to at least one winery. The city is, of course, the home and namesake of Port wine; and there are several well-known wineries located across the river. In case you are not familiar with Port, this is a dark, red, and sweet fortified wine—about 20% alcohol by volume—that is normally drunk with dessert.

This wine has historically been very popular in England, largely thanks to the Methuen Treaty of 1703, which lowered import tariffs on Portuguese products while war with France made French vintages an impossibility across the channel. For this reason, too, some of the most prominent Port companies are owned by British families, such as the one I visited, Taylor’s. The visit consisted of a self-guided tour, with a tasting at the end. What most sticks out in my memory were the photographs of the terraced banks of the River Douro, the mighty river whose misty climate provides the home for the grapes.

oporto_bodega

The most famous dish of Oporto is the francesihna, which must be seen to be believed. Though its name means “little Frenchie” in Portuguese, it is neither little nor French. It is a double-decker sandwich, whose bread struggles to contain ham, sausages, and roast pork. Smothered with melted cheese, and perhaps a fried egg for good measure, the sandwich is then bathed in a tomato-beer sauce and placed in a bed of French fries, where it awaits its fate. By happenstance I stumbled upon a small restaurant called Bufeta Fase, which has great reviews and correspondingly great francesihnas. When I went the place was full of Portuguese people, which is a good sign.

francesihna

My belly full of port and francesihna, I felt that I had better take a long walk. I decided that I would try to go all the way from the city center to the ocean port, following the course of the river. This course led me through the most attractive neighborhood in the city, the Ribeira, full of colorful houses arranged in a jumble along the river. On the other side of the river you can see some of the old boats that were used to transport the wine in the days before technology made our lives easier and less romantic. Nowadays the main cargo transported on the River Douro are tourists on ferries.

The walk to the port is long and passes through some nondescript areas, until gradually the city simmers down into town, and the ocean begins to take shape before you. Eventually I was walking past small houses and docks full of personal fishing boats. The other side of the port is dominated by an attractive sandy bay, now a natural park. I arrived at the Carneiro beach just as the sun was dipping below the horizon, lighting up the ocean a fiery red. I walked to the lighthouse, which sits on a boardwalk that extends like a concrete arm into the water, and then turned wearily back home. Now I had to do it all in reverse.

Oporto_sunset

This concluded my time in Oporto. As an afterthought, I would also like to include a note on the Portuguese language. Etymologically and grammatically, it is the closest Romance language to Spanish. For this reason any Spaniard can read basic Portuguese with little trouble. But spoken Portuguese—at least in Portugal—could hardly be more distinct. Indeed, to an untrained ear it hardly sounds like a Romance language at all, but rather Slavic, not only in its consonants and vowels, but even its spoken rhythm.

Apparently one reason for this perceived difference is because the Portuguese spoken in Portugal (as opposed to that spoken in Brazil) is stress-timed, which means that unstressed syllables are deemphasized to preserve a fairly constant gap between stressed syllables; whereas Spanish is a syllable-timed language, so every syllable, stressed or unstressed, takes up roughly the same amount of time. English is a stress-timed language, too, which perhaps helps to explain why Portuguese people are notably better than the Spanish at speaking English. I have had no trouble getting by in Portugal using English; even in small shops outside the city center people have spoken remarkably well. I have also been told that, unlike the Spanish, who often dub movies and shows, the Portuguese watch everything with the original audio—which would help explain the performance gap.

I also must note that, as soon as the you get out of the tourist center, you can still see signs of Portugal’s economic crisis. Buildings are in poor repair or entirely in ruins, and the streets are seldom buzzing with life. The recovery has been slow indeed. And when you see that, behind the numbers and charts, there are ordinary people who have suffered from the downturn, you can get a sense of the anger and despair that the institutional status quo can engender.


Aveiro

Having some extra time in Oporto I decided that I would venture out and explore a smaller town. This led me to Oporto’s central train station, São Bento, which is itself worth visiting for the tile-work in the main lobby depicting scenes from Portuguese history. My destination was Aveiro, recommended to me by a Spanish teacher.

Aveiro

The city of Aveiro is largely famous for its canals, which is why it has been nicknamed the “Venice of Portugal.” These waterways are a pretty sight, with colorful gondolas cruising by, each of them filled with tourists covered in baseball caps and sunglasses, snapping photo after photo. Even without the canals, the town would be attractive for its many colorful tiled building—a style called “azulejo,” which combined form and function, since the tiles decorate while helping to keep the building cool.

Aveiro_azulejo
The Aveiro train station, an example of azulejo decoration

With a busy and beautiful port, and a thriving tourist industry, Aveiro is one of the most affluent areas in the country. The economy is quite diversified, as many locals work in salt extraction plants; and the city also contains one of Portugal’s more important universities. In many ways the city is an oasis.

Nevertheless I managed to get into a sour mood shortly after I arrived. Though I love to travel, the sight of shops selling tourist knickknacks, the sound of American families bickering as they walk by, the overpriced and inauthentic restaurants with gaudy décor, the attractions that entertain but do not instruct—in short, travel conceived of alternately as a resort or as an amusement park—makes me feel bitter and out of place. Unless I am learning something, then it is hard for me to justify going to another country; if I want fun, I might as well stay at home and have a beer.

I cannot say that this sour mood is either fair or rational; nor is it pleasant. To escape from the crowds and clear my head, I walked out towards the port. This has been divided with a series of narrow land-bridges, making the area into a kind of marsh, with pockets of water divided like fields of wheat. Frankly I don’t know the purpose of this arrangement; but the result is fascinating and beautiful.

I kept walking and walking, until I lost myself in the labyrinths of land and water. There were little buildings out in these marshes, and a few old boats floating in the water; yet nobody seemed to be around. Soon I was so far out that I could forget about Aveiro. A peaceful silence hung in the atmosphere. The air was clear, except for swarms of tiny, harmless gnats that buzzed in circles to no apparent purpose. As I rounded a bend I was surprised to find a flock of flamingos lounging in the water. They were no less surprised to find me, and soon took off, flapping their enormous wings with impressive alacrity, disappearing from sight in a matter of seconds. They are magnificent beasts.

aveiro_flamencos

The further out I went, the more elated I felt, savoring the joy of being alone with nature. Yet my joy turned to anxiety as I began to worry that I couldn’t find my way back. A few wrong turns led me to dead ends, where the land bridges terminated in water, forcing me to retrace my steps through the tall grass. A couple times I missed my footing and almost slipped into the water. I imagined what the news would say if I drowned in the marshes of Aveiro: “Dumb American Tourist Gets Lost in Portuguese Bay.”

After three or four moments of fear, despair, and self-reproach, I successfully retraced my own steps and found my way back to solid land. Refreshed, rejuvenated, and greatly relieved, I walked back to the train station to get back to Oporto. Do not let my sour mood dissuade you. Aveiro is a beautiful place, both the town itself and the surrounding area.

This was my final day of Holy Week vacation. The next day I flew back to Madrid, and to work, feeling more at peace than I have ever felt before or since.