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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Portugal: Wedding Bells

Judith and I just returned from a week in Portugal, September 21 through 28, the visit prompted by the wedding of a friend. 

On our trip from the Lisbon airport, I made a quick detour north to the Cabo da Roca, the westernmost rocky outcrop of continental Europe; a rather odd geographical place on Earth, but somehow meaningful to me nonetheless – I wanted to see it. We then continued on to the hotel, which was about a 40 minute drive west of Lisbon. The Fortaleza do Guincho is a converted 17th Century fortress; solid, low slung with muted yellow walls, perched upon the Atlantic coast in the town of Guincho. Its setting is lovely yet desolate; a windswept sandy bay directly on the ocean.
Our friends Regine and François were also attending the nuptials and arrived to the hotel, although a bit later than us; we had a nice dinner together at the hotel’s one-star Michelin restaurant. All eventually fell to sleep to the ceaseless pounding of the Atlantic’s thunderous waves.

The following day, Thursday, the four of us drove north; up the coast to Sintra, a pleasant town nestled in the wooded hilltops of the Serra. We toured the 14th Century Palácio Nacional de Sintra; and the Palácio da Pena, a schizophrenic collection of architecture, built in the 19th Century for the young husband of Queen Maria II. Most of this area was first developed as a summer getaway and hunting ground for the monarchs of the day. It was and remains good to be a king.
We had a nice luncheon interlude at the outdoor Café Paris in the main square. But we needed to cut sightseeing short; there was a pre-wedding party in Cascais, at the home of the soon to be married Lilla and Stan. The couple was very gracious to have their out-of-town guests for an evening of fun. It was a lovely time, our first time meeting Stan; the food was excellent and the conversation lively. The finale was the launching of seven candle-fueled paper lanterns, the glowing shapes slowing rising and disappearing into the night sky; their symbolism meant to bestow luck onto the couple for all time, each day of every week.

On Friday, after a lazy morning; we drove to Sintra for lunch at the beautiful Tivoli Palácio de Seteais. This hotel was breathtaking; however, the food just barely passable. We arrived back to the Fortaleza just in time to clean up for the five o’clock wedding at Quinta do da Serra in Colares. The wonderful weather complimented the understated ceremony and delightful reception. Lilla is Hungarian, Stan from Luxembourg; and its current ambassador to Portugal. The approximately one hundred guests comprised a mini United Nations; seventeen different nationalities represented. Stan and Lilla made each of us feel at home, perfect hosts. We left for our hotel around eleven; Regine and François had an early flight back to Paris on Saturday, the 24th; Judith and me off to Lisbon.

An easy drive had us to the Ritz Four Seasons – Lisbon, close to the Parque Eduardo VII; we were upgraded to a nice suite on the ninth floor. Unpacking with our usual military precession, we were out to explore.
Lisbon is a city of hills, anchored to the northern bank of the Tagus River. With what was left of the day, we walked from the nearby Praça Marqués de Pombal and down the wide boulevard of Liberdade to the Elevador de Santa Justa, built in the early 20th Century by a student of Eiffel. It was a small, unimpressive cousin of the Paris landmark, but afforded some wonderful views. It was then down to the river and the large Praça do Comércio. Retracing our route, we arrived back to the hotel tired after a three hour trek.

Sunday was a beautiful day. We took the modern metro from Pombal to Baxia-Chiado station, and walked to the tram station at Praça do Comércio. The #15 was jammed with tourists, all heading west along the Tagus to Belém, to visit the Torre de Belém and Manuel I’s 16th Century Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. The famous Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gamma, is entombed here in the adjoining Church of Santa Maria. Lunch was at a nondescript place, but late afternoon drinks were wonderful at the very modern boutique Altis Belém Hotel’s terrace overlooking the river – highly recommended.

Monday, sunny and warm again, had us off by car to nearby Palácio de Queluz, originally a 17th Century hunting lodge, then transformed into a Rococo summer palace; the rooms and gardens were a delight to the eye. We were back to the hotel by 12:30, and took the metro to the Bario Alto and Chiado and had a quick lunch; then traversed east to the old Moorish district of Alfama, to visit the Cathedral and the expansive Castelo de São Jorge. Exhausted, we took the rickety #28 tram, it’s ancient gearing groaning against the steep grades, winding down the circuit of narrow cobbled streets. The metro took us to the Praça Marqués de Pombal, but we still had to climb the tortourous hill to the Ritz Four Seasons; our calfs at this point were threatening munity.

Our last full day was perhaps the nicest in Lisbon. We took a short walk past the Parque Eduardo VII to the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian. This was a purpose built structure constructed in 1969 to house the collection of its namesake, Mr. Gulbenkian, a wealthy Turkish businessman who had made his home in Portugal during WW II. The works are eclectic and exquisite; a personal artistic statement spanning decades of acquisition from around the world. It reminded me in many ways of Henry Clay Frick’s wonderful collection in New York City. It is similarly an intimate and personal statement of one man’s ideal of art, housed in Frick’s former home, which was designed from its start to eventually house his collection.
We returned to the Chiado district for a wonderful lunch at Tavares, on Rua da Misericórdia; faithfully serving its clientele since 1784. Afterward, it was to the 16th Century Church of São Roque; a Baroque masterpiece. We stumbled back to the metro and dragged ourselves up the hill once again.

On Wednesday, the 28th, we left in the early afternoon to London; arriving at Heathrow, Masood whisked us back to our flat through light traffic.

My feelings are mixed about Portugal. Its history spans a millennium; in the 16th Century this country and Spain were the world’s superpowers, dividing the New World between them with the blessing of the pope. Although some were brilliant, its monarchs were mostly self consumed. In ways the massive wealth that poured in from trade with the New World seems somehow analogous to what sociologists now refer to as the “oil curse” when talking about Venezuela and the Near East. Oft times the fortune of natural resources, or in Portugal’s case, naval supremacy, can hollow out the rest of an economy, its leaders and its people. After all, Salazar’s dictatorship continued here until 1968, and only then did the Carnation Revolution bring true democracy. Nature also played its villainous part, the massive earthquake that flattened most of Lisbon in 1755, and the 1988 inferno that engulfed much of Chiado.
 In spite of its rich history, Portugal is in actuality a young democracy, with young institutions. Few realize this.

The guide books point to Portugal’s ten million people as gregarious folk, I sensed a much more stoic presence. Mine was a portrait contained in their language, “saudade,” a type of ethereal melancholy; this mood is even part of the national music, the Fado. I suppose this could be more than just this country’s rhythm, perhaps the world’s serial financial crises have flattened all our spirits of late. I suppose “gregarious” doesn’t come to mind looking at faces while I walk the streets of London.

Still, Lilla and Stan’s wedding was a metaphor for hope. They are smart and caring individuals committed to a brighter future, for themselves, their family and friends, for all in fact. My wish is that the seven lanterns looking down upon them will bestow many years of good fortune.

This trip was a wonderful experience, adding to my life and understanding of the world. The natural beauty and deep history of Portugal are extraordinary. I fondly remember being fascinated about “The Age of Discovery” in my grammar school classes; and Vasco da Gamma remains a hero, an explorer extraordinaire. I can imagine his curiosity and trepidation as he rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, off to discover India for the West.