Finding our hotel was no easy task in the hectic traffic of the Portugese capital. Maria has been taking Portugese lessons, but anyway the language is sufficiently similar to Spanish that the two nationalities can understand each other to some extent. We stopped to ask directions a number of times, and finally there we were. We parked in four hour metred parking just a block from the hotel, and carried our luggage (including an esky laden with beer and cava- it was somebody's birthday, remember!) up to our room. Of all the budget hotels we've stayed in, this one was -we both agreed- the best. Just over forty Euros for a double room, with floor-to-ceiling windows opening up to our small fourth floor balcony. A buffet breakfast was included, and you can be sure I ate almost forty Euros worth of pastries each morning!


We went for a stroll down to the city centre and the waterfront, but couldn't stray too far because we had to return to feed the parking meter before our four hours was up. After living in Madrid, we were both surprised by the general state of decay of the city. Very few of the old buildings had received any apparent upkeep over the decades, and on a number of occasions I remarked to Maria that it felt like we were in a post-colonial African city, rather than a European capital.

Something that I found rather quaint (although I wouldn't copy the style for my own home!) were the tiled buildings. In Australia, wall tiles are for the bathroom and maybe the kitchen. In some Arabic countries, they use tiles more widely- on the walls of the lounge and dining rooms. But it isn't often that I've seen wall tiles used to cover the entire external fascade of a four storey building... or for that matter almost every building in a street!

Maria had read about the 'legendary nightlife' of the Bairro Alto precinct, so come night time (about 6:00pm since Portugal is an hour behind Spain) that was where we were headed. Well, we were either a few hours early or else it was a very, very quiet night in Bairro Alto. We were the only two patrons in Tom's Bar, where Maria asked if they had diet coke. Previous attempts to order diet coke during the day had been unsuccessful, evidence that the Portugese are not concerned with their weight, perhaps? Yes, the barman nodded, tengo coca-cola light. Cool, we'll have one cerveja and one coca-cola light. He poured my beer and immediately upon placing it on the bar in front of me, informed us with a grin that they only had Coca-Cola normal, not Coca-Cola light. So Maria drank her glass of water while I finished my beer n the ghostly empty bar. Our next stop was the only bar we could find that actually had customers. I paid three Euros for a red wine, and Maria finally found a diet coke. But Bairro Alto left us a little disappointed, so we wandered back towards our hotel, keeping an eye out for a cheap restaurant. All that walking had left us rather hungry.

As you can see, we succeeded. A handwritten menu, sticky taped to the front window enticed us down a few steps into a nondescript little streetside restaurant. Maria ordered the fish, myself an omelette with cheese and ham. The servings were huge- the piece of fish in the photo above was one of two generous slices that were on Maria's plate- and my omelette, served with chips and salad, was all I could eat. House wine was 1.50 Euros for half a litre, and our total bill came to about eleven Euros. But the tasty food and the great value weren't the most memorable thing about that little backstreet eatery. When we had entered, I had noticed an old blind man at a table just inside the door- white came, dark glasses, you know the signs. Nothing too strange about that, excpet he seemed to be watching television. Across the small room a family occupied the corner table; Mum, Dad and daughter I figured. During the meal, the mother got up to go to the bathroom, and the daughter automatically rose and let her take her arm. Hmm... she was blind too. Then just as we were about to ask for the bill, the two guys at the end table started gathering their coats to leave, and wouldn't you know it... one of them unfolded his white cane and duly tapped his way to the front door. What was this, some sort of blind restaurant? Another unanswered question to go down in the annals of The Savage Files.

The next day was my 37th birthday, and I celebrated by trying to eat 37 pastries for breakfast, and treating myself to a stylish lumberjack's coat. Rather than have to continually feed the parking meter every four hours, we enquired at a nearby tyre fitting workshop that advertised 'parking'. Sure thing, the young guy said, ten Euros and we could leave our rental car there for twenty-four hours. Well, after our first taste of the mayhem that is Lisbon traffic, we surely wouldn't be wanting to use the car until it was time to leave, so we tossed the helpful youngster the keys and strode out into the sunshine, feeling unburdened. We spent the day strolling the streets, and following the waterfront along towards the long, tall suspension bridge that is the city's artery to the east. We enquired at a number of grocery stores for ice, figuring that we could chill our supply of Cava and imported beers to enjoy later that evening on our balcony. But ice (jielo) isn't in ready supply in Lisbon, it seems.
Me: "Hola, porfavor tienes jielo?" (Hi. Please, do you have ice?)
Shopkeeper (with appropriate facial contortions, as if I had asked for Lapiz-Lazuli): "Jielo? Nooooo"
Me: "Porfavor, donde esta ju puedo comprar jielo" (Please, where can I buy ice?)
Shopkeeper (shaking head slowly and in mystified fashion): "Jielo? No lo se" (I don't know)

I thought back to when I asked for ice to have with our bottled soft drinks in a cafe earlier that day. The waitress removed from a chest freezer a small tupperware container holding about fifteen cubes of ice, popped it into the microwave for a few seconds to loosen the cubes from each other, and gently placed three ice cubes into my glass. Maria got none. Hello!!! It's just frozen water.....

Not as young as I used to be, a late afternoon siesta was in order. That night, we walked around and around our neighbourhood in search of a bar. Now, don't get me wrong... there were bars, kind of. On every block, there was at least one bar/cafeteria, inevitably a brightly lit place with plastic tables and plastic chairs, a cake and icecream counter and a beer tap. Decor was uniformally a selection of glossy photographs, depicting the different flavours and styles of icecream on offer. The perfect place for teenagers to hang, but not really what two thirty-somethings had in mind for a quiet drink. A short taxi ride down to the docks, and we were sipping a tasty pint of Kilkennys in an Irish pub, the kind of generic 'formula' Irish pub that you could pretend was atmospheric, but was actually identical to dozens -if not hundreds- of other 'manufactured' Irish pubs in cities around the world.

I won't say I was sad to be leaving Lisbon. The more time we spent there, the more I missed my beloved Madrid. With bellies full of pastries, we packed our bags and went to pick up our rental car. When we popped the hatch of the little Seat, both of us were surprised to see that the contents of two packets of breakfast cereal that had previously stood neatly at the side of the luggage compartment were now scatterd from one side of the car to the other. Strange.... Maria set about cleaning up the mess while I mused on just how the All Bran and Special K had managed to leap from their packets and spread themselves so thoroughly throughout the luggage compartment. On further inspection, I discovered that of the five CD's that had been in the passenger door pocket, two had migrated to the driver's side, now accompanied by an asthma puffer. Mysterious... Tentatively, I inserted the key into the ignition and the digital odometer indicated that we had travelled 821 kilometres. Now this was difficult to explain, since it had only shown 720 kilometres when we left it there. Any of you super slueths adding up all of these little clues? Well, after much careful deliberation, Maria and I deduced that the parking attendant had possibly, maybe, perhaps.... driven 100 kilometres in our bloody car!!!
No, no, no, he insisted. They had only shifted the car a couple of times to get other vehicles out from the tight parking. Well, you can imagine how that went down with us. Myself being limited to English, Maria had to do the yelling, and I have to say she did a marvellous job. Finally, the young guy hung his head and confessed. He had taken the car. He had needed to go to hospital. We asked how that explained the CD's being shifted. In a frantic rush to hospital, he had taken the time to sample our taste in music?? We relieved him of the ten Euros we had paid, and let him know he was lucky we didn't call the police.

So I have to say that Lisbon doesn't go down as one of our greatest adventures, and will not receive its own page in The Savage Files hall of fame!

I do love trams though...

... and the festive street lighting on Avenida da Liberdade was nice...

Avenida da Liberdade

Roasting chestnuts.

Europe's tallest Christmas tree, at 62 metres or twenty storeys high, almost completed.

Red Landrovers seemed to be an unusually popular choice of vehicle in Lisbon

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