Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Last Supper of Disquiet

For a southern port city, it’s early. The heavy mist rolls off the Atlantic and rambles through the cobbled streets so that, though you can smell the early morning fish market, you can’t quite make out the ocean just beyond the wine warehouses. A handful of older men and women yawn open the grates of their storefronts, and, save for a few gulls orchestrating the dawn’s symphony, all is calm. Porto, much like Lisbon, is an undulating expanse of colorfully tiled buildings and graffitied tramcars wheezing their way up steep alleyways. Tram 4 passes me by as I make my way up one of these winding passages towards Livraria Lello & Irmao, a famed bookstore in the Romantic styled quarter of town. Finally, after stairs nearly as endless as those leading to Dravo, I reach my destination.  

Livraria Lello’s white façade is a masterpiece of Gothic Art Nouveau, with bold block lettering, flat figures, and airy spires jutting out above its neighbor’s roofs. In a neighborhood left with boarded-up windows and peeling paint from the recession, this peculiar fusion of a medieval fortress and the belle époque is a bright light amongst abandoned shadows.  

It’s still too early to open its doors to the public, but that doesn’t stop the bookkeeper, who is already there emptying boxes of fresh novels to fill his tables. Spotting me peer shyly through the window, the man gestures me inside the normally tourist congested space. Stepping through the threshold, the interior is so beautifully kept it almost looks like a prop off MGM’s Backlot Tour. The walls are lined with stacks upon stacks of every type of book, some piles spilling onto counters and occasionally the floor beneath. In the center of the gallery a grandiose staircase stretches a tongue of red carpet over twisting mahogany inlays of blues and golds. Canopied above is a stunning stained glass, bathing the books in deep hues of whimsical geometric patterns. Silently smirking at my awed expression, the keeper gives me an espresso with one hand and a book with the other. Settling into an overstuffed leather chair, I take a sip of the rich drink and consume the richer diction of Jose Saramago. By the time the crowds of tourist pour in (and my friends have surely awoken back in our apartment), I’m too lost in his world of Blindness to see any of it. 

Though last Monday was a morning I’ll never forget, it’s important to note from the start that Portugal is a country woven from these familiarities: having a cup of espresso and drinking in culture while sitting at some forgotten Art Nouveau café. 

Lisbon and Porto are both cities of layered temporal landscapes that make it easy to slip between different decades of reality.  Graffiti artists cite cultural quotations of medieval monks; authors sit at tables of ornate floral metalwork in search of a turn of the century spark of inspiration; chefs tucked away in seven-tabled restaurants heat up contemporary tapas dishes with age of discovery spices. And, in fact, my first day there we experienced all three. 

Awaking early after a late flight in, my two friends and I hopped the streetcar inches from the Rio Tejo towards Belem, a civil parish to the southwest of Lisbon. To start the day off, we escaped from the rain to Pasteis de Belem, Lisbon’s most famous pastry shop. The buttery aroma hugs your nose as soon as you enter, soon followed by fruity notes and the high-pitched vibratos of the espresso machine. Taking a seat in one the many Moorish tiled rooms, we ordered three Pasteis de nata (and too many custard donuts). The still-warm pastries arrived with flaky crust, slightly burnt custard top, and an incredible taste that will keep you coming back for more (which, in Portugal, is easy as you can find them everywhere - from high-end restaurants all the way down to train station fast food stands).

Pasteis de Belem opened its doors in 1837, and the original owners’ descendants still serve up the country’s best Pasteis de nata. But the sweet itself was invented next store by monks, who were in need of a higher monetary return on their sugar cane harvests. Bracing for the rain again, we made our way to the pastry’s birthplace. 

The Jeronimos Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (there will be plenty of those this post), is a huge complex with an
imposing white marble front. The Late Gothic Manueline styled decoration of its portals and niches are filled with both biblical figures and Portuguese navigators, so that the pedestal of Magellan standing next to Michael the Archangel serves as a testament to the twin importance of Catholicism and exploration in the nation’s history. Once inside, the monastery’s interior is just as breathtaking as its façade. The two-storey cloisters is embellished with airy arabesques of plateressque- styled ornamentations and high-flying vaulting. The gargoyles above spit out rain so there’s a constant veil of water between the arches and gardens beyond. The choir, refractory, and library are all solemn stone rooms that seem still ready for contemplative monks to take up residence once again. The connecting chapel is quite the opposite, though no less beautiful. Massive stained glass windows line the street side of the church, with bold Renaissance designs lighting up the interior with gold from Brazil and multi-colored enameled terracotta. Though many churches in Europe are breathtakingly decorated with soaring architectural feats, few have motifs and decorations of elephants, rhinoceroses, and hippopotamus – yet another nod to Portugal’s circumnavigations.

Across an expanse of manicured gardens stands the Monument to the Discoveries, a beacon for the 1940 Portuguese World Fair. It depicts a ramp towards the sea crowded with monarchs, explorers, cartographers, artists, scientists, and missionaries, reaching towards the unknown sea beyond with Henry the Navigator on its edge. After a few snapshots, we trekked down the riverfront, rain gear in tow, towards the Belem Tower, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tower was built in the early 16th century as part of a defense system, but also a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon during the Age of Discoveries. Similar to Mont Saint Michael in France, a monastery I visited earlier this year, the tower is built on an island that is only naturally accessible during low tide. Taking the recently constructed wooden bridge over the raging river (and getting a bit wet in the process) we explored the prisons, artillery rooms, and small chapel inside. 

In need of a break from the storm, we took refuge in the near-by National Coach Museum, which wonderfully shows the development of carriages from the late 16th Century through the 19th Century in Italy, Portugal, France, Spain, Austria, and England. If you thought today’s car were built for luxury, you have never seen an 18th Century Portuguese carriage. Gilded in gold, painted with detailed royal scenes, and hand crafted with wooden sculpture and leather inlays, these vehicles go beyond any modern car I’ve seen. With a short pit stop next store to see the President’s collection of gifts from heads of state (both the Coach Museum and the Presidential Museum lay on the outskirts of the Presidential Palace property), we ended our touring of the day at a tiny tapas restaurant with delicious fish, cheese, and chocolate dishes. 

Rising on Friday to much nicer weather, we headed out of Lisbon to Sintra – an entire town designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Stepping off the train platform, we looked up the mountains to our three destinations: the Moorish Castle, the Pena National Palace, and the Quinta da Regaleria, all perched about 1600 feet above the town in a rugged national park. We slowly began the hike up the mountain, first through cobblestone streets and hidden stairways that progressed into rocky paths of overgrown vegetation. After a half hour of zigzagging up the mount, we reached our first stop. The Moorish Castle, originally built in the 8th or 9th Century. It stands salient over the tree line as an imposing walled fortress that can be seen for miles below. It shows the traces of its past inhabitants, first the Muslim Kingdom in Iberia and later the Christian forces loyal to Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal. Taking some time to walk the outer walls and to take in the views of the city below, we continued our hike onto the Pena National Palace at the top of the elevation. The Palace is a quirky eclectic combination of yellows, reds, and stone facades. It includes Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic, and Neo-Renaissance styles, all combined into an eccentric Romanticism labyrinth of rooms that once served as the backdrop to many royal celebrations. Our final visit of the day was the one I awaited the most: The Quinta da Regaleria, a stately estate that has passed through many owners since its inception. The Romantic styled property consists of manmade lakes, grottoes, wells, fountains, and a Gothic manor house complete with grimacing gargoyles and overrun ivy. Exploring the grounds feels like walking through a hybrid of a Sherlock Holmes set and a fantastical land of magic and mystery. My favorite feature of Quinta da Regaleria is the Initiation Wells, two wells that better resemble underground towers lined with stairs. Entering a dark grotto at the bottom of the property, visitors must feel their way through the underground tunnel towards the bottom of the well, where they then must make their way up the spiral stairway as water whispers down the steps. Leaving Sintra’s fantasy land for the reality of Portugal’s urban scape, we headed back to Lisbon and then north to Porto. 

Our first morning in Porto was a relaxing one, having breakfast at the Majestic Café, an incredible Belle Époque cafe that opened on December 17th 1921 and has changed little since. Flemish mirrors, leather upholstery, and ornately decorated ceiling kept us in awe as we enjoyed our pastries and coffees. We then began a four-hour walking tour of the city, where we swept through the medieval quarter’s narrow passages that have become home to the fishing community today; the Romantic quarter that was once overflowing with poets and artists but is now lined with boutique shops and hipster bars; and occasional stops at churches, overlooks, and several bridges, one of which was built by Gustave Eiffel before he went onto to his famed tower. Beyond the amazing graffiti art across the city, what struck me most on our tour was the emptiness of the built infrastructure. Storefront after storefront, apartment building after apartment building were empty – glass broken and dilapidated fronts that shimmered with the ghosts of a livelier past. Most of these are the casualties of the 2008 recession, and though some buildings have been restored for other purposes (including the world’s most beautiful McDonalds), most stand as somber reminders of what once was, and the potential of what could be. We rounded out our first day in Porto with a visit to the Church of Sao Francisco and catacombs, a chapel completely covered in gold from Brazil, and a port wine tour and tasting at Graham’s Port warehouse, where we learned the process of storing port, gazed into the dimly lit vintage chambers that held bottles dating back as early as 1862, and finally tasted an array of different aged and colored ports – all unique in their flavors and aromas. 

Taking a chance the next day, we visited the “theme park” of the World of Discoveries, an interactive museum that tells the history of Portuguese exploration to the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Although moving globes and boat ride (a strange combination of the Jungle Cruise and It’s a Small World) were amusing, the museum left much to be desired – must like the rest of Portugal’s glorification of colonialism – when it came to accurately presenting the true costs of their explorations to human life, culture, and economy. Leaving the beaches of Timor behind, we went around the corner to the Stock Exchange Palace, an unbelievably beautiful building commissioned in 1842 to show the wealth and expanse of Portuguese power. Though all the rooms were opulent, the highlight was the Arabian Hall, a room inspired by the Alhambra Palace in Granada (which I hope to return to during the next three years) overflowing with lush arabesques, magnificent woodwork, and splendid stained-glass doors and lightings. In need of some energy, we ducked into an unassuming family restaurant for
dinner, where I had my best meal – a savory rabbit stew with seasonal vegetables (my companions also raved about the stoved octopus and cod).    

While in Porto, our group met up with some other friends in the city to travel out to Guimaraes, a town that played a key role in the birth of both Portugal as a nation and Portuguese identity, and, like Porto (you guessed it) is declared a World Heritage Site. We spent most of the day slipping through streets and down sidewalks, sipping coffee along the way, but we also stopped in the original Royal Palace for a tour and the ruins of the city’s fortress. We returned to the city to have our last meal of the trip with all 10 of us in an eccentric restaurant. The walls were covered with shelves of odd collections – dolls, trombones, even a full car on the wall. The food was lacklucker, but several electrical blackouts and a piano man that would jump up at the darkness and play frantic cabaret music kept us laughing late into the night.       

Later the next morning, an elbow piercing my back abruptly ended my Livraria literary trance where I started this post. Realizing just how crowded the bookstore had gotten, I slowly snaked my way through the waves of shoppers towards the exit. Noticing my empty hands as I battled for the door, the bookkeeper slyly slipped me a parting gift – one for which I would be eternally grateful a few hours (and flight cancellations) later.     

Feeling the weight of my eyelids sitting on the terminal floor later that night, Saramago’s tantalizing prose kept them propped open. Close to the end of his character’s life, he utters a line that has stuck with me. “The day before is what we bring to the day we’re actually living through, life is a matter of carrying along all those days-before just as someone might carry stones…” – or books. 

For the second year now I’ll be missing from our family’s Thanksgiving table, and for a second year I look towards the last week of November with regret of leaving an empty seat. When jumping from country to country, it’s easy to feel like you’ve left a part of your life behind. Sometimes you’ll wake up with a cold sweat in an unknown city to a fabricated memory that a suitcase packed with neatly folded past selves is still circling the baggage claim at your last departure point. 

But, perhaps the stories of who we are and what we’ve done are less like lost suitcases and more like portable libraries, filled with books that tell the tales of days-before. 

There’s a book of my sister and I painting clothespin pilgrims and debating seating arrangements, and there’s another of too many tables spilling out into the entrance hall. There’s even a book of my mom and I laughing in the kitchen at yet another failed attempt at making parve mashed potatoes. And though I may be an ocean away writing a new volume in the Thanksgiving series, I still carry those days-before with me. I reread them differently now, discovering details that went unnoticed just like we rediscover new meaning in our favorite novels years later. And with each newly noticed detail, and each remembered plotline and dialogue exchange, the sorrow of that empty chair in Paramus gives way to what this holiday is named for – a sincere and eternal gratitude to the characters of our family that have filled my library of days-before with such warmth and love. 

Though I may miss this Thursday’s jokes and might have to be replaced by someone holding up my graduation photo in the family picture yet again, please know that across the Atlantic I am grateful this Thanksgiving to all of you for filling my day’s before library with stories that make Livraria Lello’s beauty pale in comparison.