Thursday, December 17, 2015

Bela Iberia Part I

Here’s an excellent travel tip:  If your flight to Lisbon is scheduled to leave at 6.45AM, it is generally a good idea to wake up before 6.50AM.
I stared at my alarm clock, confused, wondering how I could possibly have slept through 4 alarms. In fact, I had no recollection of any alarms going off at all, even though I must have gotten up at some point to turn off the alarm clock that is strategically positioned in my window sill.
I decided to have a shower and then decide on the course of action.

When you are a regular in a bar, it is good etiquette to go and say goodbye before you leave the country for a prolongued period of time. This way, the staff will know not to expect you and they won’t worry that you may have walked under a bus, ended up in hospital or finally managed to drink yourself to death. You will probably get a goodbye drink out of it too and everybody has peace of mind during your holidays. The thing is though, if you’re a regular at several bars, like me, this will result in an extended tour of the city, a mini pub crawl to say goodbye to the bars you hold dear. And so it was that, by way of The Living Room, the Woolshed, The Brew Dock and Fibber Magees, I finally arrived home at around midnight, in a euphoric, if slightly inebriated, state of mind. I went to bed with a great holiday ahead of me.

After my shower, I checked my backpack one more time to make sure that was not going to be an issue, pulled the door shut behind me and set off for the airport. I had come up with 3 possible scenarios to correct the false start to my trip:

- Get the flight to Lisbon the next day. This would obviously be the least interesting option, as it meant surrendering a day of my holiday and staying put in Dublin.

- Check the Skyscanner website for flights going in the same direction at an acceptable price. This was better than option one, but still didn’t result in a satisfying solution as it soon emerged that the only flight to the Iberian peninsula at a reasonable price would land me in Barcelona at 10 in the evening. Barcelona being about as far from Lisbon as you can get without actually ending up in France, this wasn’t really an viable option either.
So that left me with option 3:

- Go to the airport, head for the airline’s service desk and beg them to let you on another flight to Portugal on the same day.
As it turned out, option 3 worked.  I presented myself at the Ryanair customer desk, explained my predicament, came up with a sob story about power outage and alarm clock failure and convinced them to let me on the 13.00 flight to Faro instead. Result.

With a new boarding pass and 4 hours to spare, I went in search of my favorite bar at Dublin Airport; The Gate Clock. I soon realised that, like many other airports, Dublin was going through one of those phases of redesign and total upheaval, but eventually managed to locate the bar by way of some half finished corridors, empty building sites and half a dozen currency exchange facilities. I sat down, ordered a Guinness and took a deep breath. The trip had gotten off to a chaotic start, but I had managed to do some great damage limitation. My new flight would now have me on the ground in Portugal around 5PM local time which meant that, if all went to plan, I could be on a bus to Lisbon around 6PM. This would still get me to Lisbon somewhere around 9PM, well in time for a Friday night of partying, so all was well.


I walked out of the terminal at Faro Airport and into the main reason I like visiting this part of the world: the balmy Mediterranean air. It is such a different feeling from Ireland, Scotland or Germany. Walking out of an airconditioned airport into the warmth of Southern Europe is one of the best things in life.

After taking a bus to Faro’s central bus station and then one to Lisbon, I jumped on the Lisbon subway and found myself at my hostel at around 9.30.
The entrance to the hostel was something out of the ordinary. To get to the hostel, you had to go into a souvenir shop, make your way to the back, negotiate your way past racks of postcards and shelves full of fridge magnets, shot glasses and other trinkets, find a door at the back, walk up 4 flights of stairs and present yourself at reception. You often find hostels in unexpected or weird locations, but this was new even to me.

After going through the usual tedious paperwork at check in, I dropped my backpack on my bed and made for the living room. A party was already in progress with about 2 dozen people having a good time. The girl behind reception asked if I wanted a glass of wine and ofcourse I did so with my drink in hand I started to contemplate what to do with my evening. Even though I had lost 12 hours of Lisbon time because of the issues described above, I still had the whole night ahead of me. A member of staff then informed me it was free sangria night and asked me if I had any plans for the night.

Well, I did now.

If you give me free booze, any other plans are off for the forseeable future.  
I have seen many “Free wine” nights in hostels over the years, but these usually consist of 2 or 3 bottles of wine and a plate of cheese and after that you’re on your own again. This was different though. A baby paddling pool about the dimensions of a bus wheel had been placed o
n a table in reception. It was filled to the brim with sangria. There must have been 12 gallons of it. At first, the staff put out small carafes of wine, but after a while they just put a big ladle in the tub of sangria and invited everyone to help themselves.  Meanwhile, people had started doing karaoke in the living room and trays of snacks had appeared from the kitchen. The night was off to a good start.

When you follow the world of hostel life and backpacker travel closely, like I do, you will often come across award ceremonies for the best hostels, the ones with the best activities or the places with the nicest staff. What always stands out in reports on these matters is that, in the average top 10, 5  or 6 spots are taken up by hostels from Portugal, regardless of what the awards are about.  I could never fathom why a relatively small nation would grab such a disproportionate share of the medals, but I started to see where this comes from. After only an hour in Lisbon, and without having done anything other than checking in and holding out my hand for free drinks, this hostel was already a Top5 contender for the “Best hostel in the world” competition I have been privately conducting over the past 20 years. Free drinks aside, there was a great vibe in this place and over the next 2 days it would only get better.

With all plans I may have had for the night shelved because of the free wine at the hostel, I decided to get to know some people and soon found myself talking to a mixed crowd of Canadians, Americans, Australians and a couple of Polish girls. The initial conversation in any hostel anywhere in the world is always the same: Where are you from-where did you come from now- where are you going after this. These days, I always tell people that I’m from Ireland, because that’s where I’ve been living for the past 9 years. And today I came from Dublin via Faro. This is always followed by everyone in the conversation providing this information as well, until you get to a point where someone mentions they are going to a place next where someone else has already been, which is when the conversation veers off in the direction of bars you must drink at, places you must eat and hostels with the best atmosphere.

And so the night became.. interesting. Despite the constant coming and going of people that is always part of the fabric of a hostel day, there was a core group of us that stayed. When you put a group of enthousiastic drinkers near an endless supply of free wine, you know it’s going to be late. As the night wore on and the ladle was abandoned for simply scooping the wine out of the pool with your glass, my memories turned vague and then faded out into sunrise the next morning. I had somehow managed to make my way to my dorm and under the sheets so I had had some decent sleep. Just not much of it. Whether it was 2 or 5 hours I couldn’t tell you, but the beds were comfortable and I felt pretty decent considering that we had, literally, drank a  bathtub of wine the previous night. Or a couple of hours earlier, depending on your point of view.
                           Free refill with your refill!

I walked down to the living room and found a number of people already having breakfast. I did not see any of my drinking buddies from Friday night so I stood at the window in the early morning sunshine. The hostel’s living room looked out over a majestic square with a large cenotaph at its centre. Traffic was zooming around it and people were making their way to shops and markets. 
looked at it from my elevated position and considered that I already liked Portugal. I liked it a lot, despite having no reason at all for this. I had landed at the wrong airport, spent 3 ½ hours backtracking my steps to Lisbon, where I should have been in the first place, and then had travelled less than 15 minutes on the subway to get to the hostel, where I spent the entire night indoors. My whole exposure to life in Portugal had been the 60 yard walk from the subway station across the square to the door of the hostel.
Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Portugal and me were going to be good friends.

Having stared at the goings-on below me for 10 minutes or so, I decided to go out into the real world and see it for myself. Would Portugal really be as good as my gut feeling told me, or was it just a rosy view of the unknown, caused by unexpected adventure and free wine?

                                 Free wine, baby!

I went back to the dorm, had a quick shower and returned to the kitchen to see if there was any breakfast left. Ofcourse there was, because in this part of the world people don’t stick to things like set meal times and other nonsense that will hurry your day along unnecessarily.  I had some toast and was just about to go outside when one of my drinking buddies from the previous night emerged. He looked a bit worse for wear and still smelled of wine.
Ofcourse, he was probably thinking the same thing about me.
Rather than having some breakfast, or 5 pints of water, like a normal person, he dramatically upped the stakes by going straight for the fridge, pulling out a sixpack, flipping open 2 bottles of Superbock and handing me one. “Hair of the dog!” he said and took a big gulp. 
Okay, site seeing could wait.
We sat down in the living room and talked about the night before and the plans for the day. When the sixpack was finished, he excused himself and went back to bed. My day could begin.
It was 10.45.

I wandered out into the sunshine and 32 degree heat and was again hit by a wave of excitement. The weather was amazing, I was in a country I had never been to before, in a city I knew little or nothing about and I didn’t speak the language.  As I had not bought a guidebook for this trip, I just had the free map from the hostel so I just walked around to get a feel for the city.  The first thing I noticed was that, like in Spain, nobody seemed to be in a hurry. Lisbon is a big city with about 2.5 million people in it, but it has the unhurried feel of the Mediterranean. Everywhere, people stopped in their stride to say hello to the local baker, a waitress or the mailman. People stood along the sidewalk with bags of groceries, chatting to others  they vaguely seemed to know, and then moved on for a coffee or a mid morning pastry.  It had the atmosphere of a very large village market, rather than a national capital. Seeing all those people eat Portugal’s famous pastries made me hungry again. It had been 2 hours (plus half of the sixpack) since my modest breakfast. I chose a place for the sole reason that the waitress who was cleaning tables outside was cute, walked in and selected 2 pastries, one sweet and one savoury.  I looked around the place while I waited for the girl at the register to pack them for me. It was a bakery like any other in the world; a glass counter displaying the wares on offer, a register, a handful of tables inside and half a dozen out, a coffee machine and 2 beertaps.
And 2 beertaps?
This piqued my interest. I don’t recall ever seeing a beertap, nevermind two, in a bakery before. I upped my order with a beer and sat down outside. This was turning out to be some city, if even bakeries sold draft beer.  The cloudless sky, the sun and, perhaps, the early morning buzz put a smile on my face half a mile wide. Lisbon was knocking them out of the park at every possible opportunity.

One of the reasons I prefer to travel on my own, is that I can do whatever  I want, whenever I feel like it, without having to organise my day around someone else’s wishes.  I enjoy going away for the weekend with my dad and sister every now and then, or going somewhere with friends, don’t get me wrong, but for the big trips.. Lenny is happiest on his own.
I considered this now. If I so wished, I could simply spend the rest of the day sitting in the sun outside this bakery. All I had to do was summon a waitress every 20 minutes or so for a fresh beer and I would have a perfect day. As it was, I only had one more beer and then went on my way, but it is nice to know that if I had wanted to, I could have stayed.
Oh yeah, the pastries are as good as people say.

After a while, I happened upon one of Lisbon’s famous sights; the streetcars that run up the city’s steep hills.  I stood at the top of a side street, next to a corner bar, and saw the tram about a 100 yards below. The tram runs on a chain mechanism that drags it up the hill, lets the people out and then eases it back down again. I ordered a beer inside and stood amongst locals who must have seen the tram go up and down a thousand times before and consequently ignored the spectacle unfolding at the bottom of the street.  I looked on with interest as I saw people, mostly grey haired couples with expensive cameras around their necks, buy tickets and enter the carriage. When the carriage was full, the tram slowly puttered up the hill and arrived at its destination, a yard from where I was standing. The carriage emptied, people posed for photographs with the car and then went on their way. I took a step towards the tram and noticed a sign saying “Tickets: €3,60”.
Holy fuck. 3,60 for a ride that took less than 3 minutes? That’s good business! As a public transport nerd, I always want to take a ride on the public transport system of every place I go. I had considered riding the street car, but I wasn’t going to spend the equivalent of 2 pints on a 3 minute trek up a side street. There wasn’t even any scenery to enjoy. On both sides, the street was lined with white plastered houses, laundry hanging from balconies being the only real diversion.  “Screw your tram”, I thought and walked down the street. I beat the tram to the bottom by about half a minute.

                                                          No running with a glass in your hand!

With no real plan for the day, and no Lonely Planet to give me any directions, I just walked around a bit more, stopped off at an ice cream shop that didn’t sell beer but did have a wine list, and made a lazy round back to the square where my hostel was situated.  It was then that I remembered, on the account of the huge neon sign above the door, that Lisbon’s Hardrock cafe was 3 doors down from my hostel, so I decided to tick it off my list.
Like many others, I usually poke fun at those people who go to exotic places and, without looking around, immediately make for the Hardrock for lunch, but I am not them and I don’t spend my entire week there. Like Hooters or Whetherspoons, you immediately know that you’re in a Hardrock cafe. The lay out and decorations are the same anywhere in the world and even if you took all the branding away, you would still recognise it as such within 10 seconds.

I ordered a Sagres from the bar, had a chat with the dreadlocked bar man and made the customary round of the premises to see if any of the framed memorabilia was interesting.  As a matter of fact, it was; they had a framed set of back stage passes from a Moonspell tour. Moonspell was extremely popular with the subcultural crowd in the mid to late 90s. Their music was dark and gloomy, yet uptempo; obscure and occult but not evil or satanic. It wasn’t really gothic, it wasn’t really doom, it wasn’t really pure metal as such.. it was something else. I have seen them live about half a dozen times in the second half of the 90s and their album Wolfheart is still a firm favorite among many metalheads, goths and other assorted followers of dark music. After the follow up to Wolfheart I sort of lost track of the band and never gave them much thought after that. I had expected they would have split long ago, but these touring passes were from 2009, so they must have kept going at least until then.  It doesn’t really matter anyway because this city is far too sunny to listen to music like that.

My ‘just the one’ plan was thwarted by the bar man, who gave my a pint on the house. 
Bloody Hell. Even the Hardrock gives out free beer in Lisbon! I have been to Hardrock cafes the world over and have never gotten so much as a free tooth pick. In Lisbon, I got a free pint after 20 minutes.  I finished it and then another one, because, as bar fly etiquette dictates, you can’t leave directly after  you received a free drink, and finally made my way into the sunshine again.

I decided to have a siesta to adjust to life in Southern Portugal so I picked up a bottle of wine and made my way back to the hostel. The same girl was at reception as the night before but other than that, the common area was empty.
I poured myself a glass of wine and sat down on the very comfortable couch. The sun was shining into the room, and left it bathing in sunshine. I stretched out on the couch and took a sip of wine. Within minutes, I was in limbo, in that state where you’re still concious of what is happening around you, but also completely zoned out. I don’t think I ever felt so relaxed.

When I was halfway through my bottle, a couple of people came back from their afternoon sojourns and, I was happy to see, some of my friends from the previous night were among them. They quickly dropped off their souvenirs and asked if I wanted to go for lunch. I had absolutely no idea what time it was, and I didn’t care either, so I was happy to join them. 
We walked around for a while, stopped for a beer somewhere and eventually sat down outside a restaurant. We were provided with cheese, crackers, bread, a large bowl of olives and a pitcher of red wine, all with compliments of the house. By now I started to consider naming my first born child Lisbon, but since I have no intention of ever taking on the responsibility of parenting, I decided to focus my attention on the menu instead.
After some quick consideration in the group, we decided to just order a dozen dishes and share them all between us. The food was amazing, there is no other way to phrase this. More pitchers of wine arrived and just when this was about to turn into one of those days that you will never forget for as long as you live (despite the fact that you can not remember most of it), it was decided that most people had other things to do, so the cheque was requested and we went back to the hostel.
We paid about 10 Euros each.

                  And there was much rejoicing!
Because of the way the day had been going, I was full of energy and in no way inclined to call an end to the party. Back in the hostel, some more food was provided, free of charge ofcourse, but I felt like I needed to get out of there. If I stayed indoors for too long, I might just stay in for another night and spending 2 whole nights inside the hostel in such a vibrant city was just not happening. I was offered a beer by someone, and a plate of small sausages. I happily consumed them and then decided to have one more beer and then hit the road. Halfway through that beer, the girl at reception announced that a pub crawl would be starting in about an hour and for 15 Euros or so, you could join and visit 4 bars and get a drink in each of them plus free entry to a nightclub after that.  That was my signal to make for the exit. With all due respect to the people who organise these things, pre-planned pub crawls nearly always suck. It’s always middle-of-the-road bars that don’t stand out in any way and are not super terrible but not great either. Thank you very much for your effort, but after 25 years of drinking, I am very capable of organising much better pub crawls myself.
And so I did.

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