Lisbon: Of Sardines and Saints

IMG_7547It’s an ice cream kind of afternoon in Lisbon. At the wide, roomy miradouro (lookout point) of São Pedro de Alcãntara in the hip Principe Real district, two 20-something musicians have positioned themselves strategically, with the cinematic cityscape behind them, a mighty backdrop, as they strum and croon the soothing wide-open syllables of Brazilian bossa nova out onto the white-tiled plaza. Like a subtle accompaniment, a lithe Tejo River breeze enters and weaves through glittering green trees, through the plaza’s well-worn but grandiose water fountain centerpiece and drops of water sprinkle onto my shoulders. To me, Lisbon isn’t behind the times, as some have said–it’s simply found the best moments in which to pause.

But for a true leap back in time, there is the tourist magnet of Alfama, the Moorish-built part of town near the Sao Jorge castle—because every European city needs at least one towering fortress.

As every good local knows, Alfama is the cherry on top of Lisbon’s summer festa (party); it’s where the magic happens, due to the entire population, plus tourists, shoving through its labyrinthine alleys each night for a couple of weeks in June to sip on beer (Sagres and Super Bock) or very sweet sangria, chew on bifanas (simple bread around a floppy cut of pork deliciously marinated in clove or other autumnal spices), arroz doce (rice pudding–made with egg! but which country in the world doesn’t have their own version of this dessert?), and what seems like the mascot of Lisbon–grilled sardines, served with eyeballs and guts intact, and a piece of bread, or pao. Just a pleasant warning: if you stay in one of the many holiday flats or baroque B&Bs in Alfama, you’d better enjoy smelling like a grilled sardine.

IMG_4771By 10 p.m. on the night of my outing, Alfama is swamped with young and old alike, clustered in giddy and alcohol-fueled herds, because there is no other way to move ahead of the crowd. On my first night of joining the party mob in Alfama, I felt like I’d stumbled into a movie set for a live action version of Aladdin. Too bad you can’t magic carpet yourself up and away when you’re ready to go home.

A little after midnight, I find out that I might have a case of claustrophobia and decide to make my escape, but it seems to take an hour to move forward even a few sticky, crushed plastic cup steps.

But sangria-stained sandals aside, the beauty of this festa is that it’s a community effort, and since the beginning of April, Alfama residents have been hard at work in preparation, hammering together their mostly wooden sardine and beer stands, like everyone’s decided to build their own clubhouse at the same time. It’s not at all a competition–the stands fill up every tiny space of every tiny street in Alfama, even when there is no space. The stands cozy up to one another, and no one seems to notice that they are all selling more or less the same food, drinks and traditional baby basil plants (to give to your lover).

And who is responsible for all of this? The saints, of course. Alfama has its Santo Antonio (Saint Anthony) to blame for this massive fish and beer-fueled crowd that sways and sweats to the melancholy fado wailing and rousing pimba folk songs blasting out over half blown-out speakers.

If you happen stay in Alfama to catch the celebrations, you can hear live fado from your one-person balcony each night, courtesy of the nearby touristy restaurants, where the same waiters who serve you a bacalhau (codfish) dinner pause between orders to sing you a mournful ditty. It’s actually nice to be in earshot of these live performances, since you can’t go in just for a drink and see the concert–oh no, you’ll need to have dinner as well. Which isn’t a big deal, but locals know that the same dinner will cost you half the price in a non-fado restaurant.

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This past June, my second summer in Lisbon, I thought that staying in Alcantara, a neighborhood about 10 tram minutes away from the center, and seemingly distant from touristy Alfama, I would be safe from the saints and sardines, but alas, this is Lisbon, and each part of town needs its own saint. Here in this particular part of the Alcantara district (which has a magnificent view of the brick red April 25 Bridge), there is Santo Amaro, who I’d like to point out, is older and wiser than Alfama’s Santo Antonio. But that didn’t stop his week-long street festival from bringing in a bumper car ride and carousel ride complete with techno soundtrack (what 8-year-old doesn´t love a good techno beat), as well as stands loaded with cotton candy and rainbow-colored popcorn. Santo Amaro might be old and wise, but he must be a kid at heart.

And did I mention that this 9-day-long festival was right outside my front door? You can’t escape the saints of Lisbon; they will find you and force-feed you grilled sardines (on the steps of Santo Amaro’s 500-year-old, stunning mosaic-laden basilica, nonetheless) and churros stuffed with dulce de leche or fake Nutella–an excellent choice by the way after you’ve been kicked by a strong caipirinha from the Brazilian stand–the one with the loudest music and the smiley-est people.

So yes, the one short block of the street that I happened to choose played host to this localized festa, complete with a proper concert stage at the end of the block, where each night (except when the band’s equipment killed the electricity on the whole block) delivered a loud medley of middle-aged men warbling beautiful fado or costumed ladies yelping Portuguese folk songs or 12-year-olds jumping around to electronic tango (not sure about the Portuguese connection there) or a cool, local band playing random classic rock covers. These are a few of Alcantara’s favorite things.

But now that it’s all over, I miss it. The cars squat along the empty streets, parked right where the sweaty guy with his shy daughter used to sell hot dogs sprinkled with tiny potato sticks, where a flour-dusted, apron-clad couple had parked their portable wood-oven to bake rustic bread for sandwiches oozing with cheese, mushroom or chorizo (Santo Amaro likes to break from tradition), where the kids (and myself) lined up at the blinding white lights of the churro stand, where the bumper cars bumped to hyperactive circus music, where the families and couples of Alcantara strolled each night after work or sat on plastic blue chairs to chat over caracois (small snails), sardines and beers.

Alfama’s block party might be wildly popular, but if you want your sardines off the beaten path, I suggest seeking out the grills of Alcantara.

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