Thursday, 2 August 2012

Solar return in Lisboa

Photo taken by Gai in Oliver's
Have you ever wondered why people say "many happy returns'  on your birthday?

Astrologically, it means that "on your birthday each year the sun returns to its natal position. This is known as the solar return and thus, marks the beginning of a new year... Where you are at the time of the solar return can affect the house positions of the planets ... changing your location, even just for that day can move the planets into different house and thereby influence other areas of life instead."

So for my solar return this year, I opted to spend it outside my country of birth, in other words - - abroad to shake up my planetary configuration!

BFF Gai helped in choosing and planning. Since I wouldn't be able to enter our first choice Beirut (Lebanon) because of an Israeli-stamp on my passport, we narrowed down the destinations to PIGS which is the acronym for Portugal-Italy-Greece-Spain or countries that are currently experiencing debt crisis and therefore, to some place reasonable.

May I add that it helped that the peso was strong at P50 to 1 compared to last year's P70. By process of elimination, we settled with Portugal where neither of us have been to. Well, I was there when I was 17 backpacking but I don't remember much.

Vasco de Gama monument on Tagus River
Before finalizing, I took a last minute poll just to be sure, between Prague and Lisbon. Prague won hands down. I guess like everyone else, I must admit that  Portugal is not one of my top-of-mind destinations and still think it's part of  Spain because of its proximity! Actually it was until 1494 when both countries signed the treaty of Tordesillas which divided the world - yes, the world, between two hemispheres. Portugal at the time led the age of discovery with its explorers Vasco da Gama who was the first to sail eastward to India around Africa in 1498 and Ferdinand Magellan who was the first to circumnavigate the globe and  discovered the Philippines in 1521.

Anyway, Gai made all the arrangements including finding the best located funky apartment in Sta. Catarina on the fringe of Chiado and getting acquainted with the warm, friendly folk. We looked to Anthony Bourdian as our guide to glorious food. We're both familiar with Portuguese food having visited Macau and Goa but nothing beats eating in the country itself.

Tram No. 28
For first timers in Lisbon, I strongly advise to do a walking tour with the We hate Tourism company to get your bearings and have a good feel of the districts. The tram No 28 was plying through our neighborhood but with all the pickpocket warnings, we ended up cabbing everywhere. Warning: ditch stilettos! The place has seven hills and thus hilly [duh!] plus it will be extremely difficult to negotiate the cobblestones without the heels getting stuck.

Barrio Chiado, one of the eight districts 
The best way to explore Lisbon is to map out the sights per district as Gai had planned.  For instance, spend half a day in Belem and check out Vasco de Gama's monument and Tower, have cocktails by the river, visit Berardo museum and the Monastery, eat the local food in the area and of course Pasteis de Belem for the best egg tarts in town.  Another is to spend a full day in the old district in Alfama on a Tuesday or Saturday starting with the Feira de Ladra flea market which opens at 8am, the Fado museum, Castelo de Sao Paolo (castle), Se cathedral, etc. Or go out of town to visit the beaches - not to miss is Sintra! Or soak up the view in any of the districts' park with a glass of vinho verde (green wine) or hangout in Fernando Pessoa's favorite cafe Brasileira in Chiado to watch the various acts - it may be a mime, a flame thrower and believe it or not, even an alpine horn blower.

Five must do in Lisbon:
Clams served in Ramiro with garlic and cilantro, a staple
1. Restos - Portuguese food is basically seafood - the famous bacalau (cod), sardines, and my favorite octopus!  Try Ramiro for its fresh seafood (warning: check menu prices becaue it's by kg) and make sure to order a Prego for dessert and end with a Pedrini which is ice cream, orange juice and vodka; Cantinho da Avillez for lunch, Oliver's Restaurant (of the three, I like the Restaurant where I spent my birthday), 100 Maneiras, Pasteis de Belem or Nata for the best egg tarts, Pareirinha de Alfama for some original Fado music and arroz de marisco which is much better than paella, or if you want some fresh organic veggies try Flower Power on Calzada do Combro and of course, anywhere in Barrio Alto for a good meal. Also Santini for ice cream, breakfast in a Padaria Portuguesa.

Gai with designer/owner in Feira de Lard
2. Shopping - Feira de Ladra flea market (Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8am to 2pm), designer shops at Barrio Alto and Chiado, El Corte Ingles.

3. Bars- Pensao Amor,  Silk, BBC, Instituto do Vinho for the best Porto wine,  anywhere in Barrio Alto - where, mind you,  the nightlife starts at midnight!

4. Museums - the ancient and modern art collection of Armenian billionaire Calouste Gulbenkian and the contemporary art collection of Portuguese millionaire Jose Manuel Rodrigues Berardo, theManueline-style architecture Jeronimos Monastery in Belem which is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mude Design and a must-see is Sao Domingos Church in Chiado which has been left untouched since the 1755 earthquake.

breathtaking view in Cascais
5. Sights outside Lisbon -  the mystical Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which has masonry alchemy symbols (do skip Cascais if you have only one day), visit  Fatima to join the hopefuls and kneel all the way to the shrine, Estoril where we spent our first night in Tamariz and if you have more time,  go visit the much talked about Porto!

After shaking my stars so to speak, let's see how my year pans out and maybe.. I may spend my solar return again elsewhere.  Read Gai's Guide to Lisbon part 1 and part 2.

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