If last week I was exercising my “me-ness” via the beach and its windy sea air and sandy shores, this week saw me exercising my “me-ness” through the city and its vibrant noises and cobblestone streets. I am two sides of the same coin: heads up and I’m looking around at bright lights, a big metropolis; and tail’s up I’ve got my, uh, tail in the sand, reading a book or on a bike pedaling to somewhere. I am invigorated by both sensations, but finding the “in between”—the calm amid the chaos of a city and the adventure amid the serenity of a grungy beach town, is really what I’m after. It ain’t so easy, of course. I try. Or try not to try. You know how it is.
When I started this post I was embracing the “in between” at a co-working space aptly named “Blog Chiado” in what’s known as the cool, fashion-y artsy district of Lisbon. It only just opened in March, and its purpose is to unite creative professionals in an atmosphere that blends work and fun. It’s $140 a month for membership, which includes usage of the rooms and café, but if you want to come and use the internet for a few hours it’s free. (At least, that was my hope when I parked myself on a window-facing table for several hours.)
As I did some work, a 7-piece band played in the courtyard outside and a cool breeze wooshed in sending my papers flying. I scrambled to pick them up and place them more strategically on the small “desk” I settled into, just as I do at home in NYC as a cafe-hopping freelancer. While on this day I intended to have an as-if-I-lived-here type day, the two prior were filled with my attempting to see the city through new, but wannabe-local eyes by hitting the ground running in a very nonchalant way.
When I arrived on Friday, I got a tip from a local that there was a tribute concert to Nelson Mandela at a square on the other side of town. As luck would have it, while dining on Indian food on a deserted side street in Barrio Alto, I met a sweet couple from Glasgow who were also going and so plans were made to meet up with them later on. There were tons of young-ish, mostly local people there celebrating The Legend on what would’ve been his 96th birthday, and it ended just after midnight right before the rain came.
Then, on Saturday and Sunday I unintentionally did what could be considered a 4-day itinerary in 48-hours. I let my feet lead me from Barrio Alto, way up high where I was staying, to the twisty streets of the Alfama down by the Tagus river. I think I looked at a map once. While I’m not quite sure whether the viewpoints I landed at were “the lookouts” many say to go to, they were still pretty spectacular and I appreciated having found them without trying to.
I also found things I probably wouldn’t have even if I were navigating Portugal’s capital like Mr. Magellan himself, from a two-day only beer and food festival to massive walls of azulejos and a pop-up exhibit behind the Palacio Belmonte where wild faux flowers adorned old abandoned buildings and graffiti colored the crumbling walls high above the city.
Then there was the Mercado da Ribeira, which I had heard about from a publicist as it’s just opened and I’m considering doing a story on it. Essentially, it’s a more buttoned-up Smorgusburg. Instead of new, up and coming chefs trying to make it; most of the stands at this chic indoor food market feature established chefs and existing Lisbon restaurants serving cheaper dishes of their renown cuisines. Of course, since I wasn’t looking for it when I found it, I wasn’t hungry. (This being one of the many detriments of not planning. But hey, balance, yeah?)
I also wandered into two mini museums: MUDE, which focuses on design and fashion (check out all the surfboards on the building’s facade!)
…and this gallery showcasing sardines! See, here in Portugal sardines are EVERYTHING and EVERYWHERE—on dishes in restaurants straight from the BBQ, yes, but thanks to a campaign called “Which Sardine Are You?” there’s also sardine “artwork” adorning homes and shops around town, each displaying a different sardine “personality.” I liked the surfer sardine, but check out the celebrity sardines!
On Sunday, I participated in EatWith, a global food sharing initiative that allows you to dine with locals at their home. My mom and I had wanted to try it in Tel Aviv, which is where the program actually began, but it’s all dependent on openings and one’s schedule. I looked into it in Sevilla, too, but the couple offering a traditional Portuguese BBQ on their terraza (featuring sardines, of course) seemed to be my best option. During the midday meal, I met four other travelers, all of whom were visiting from the UK. One of the girls even knew some of the journos I know in London! Small, hungry and thirsty—we drank white sangria, rose and an almond-tasting appertivo all in under four hours!—world. I love it.
In those two days, I also managed to ride a funicular several times up and down some of the steep hills (technically there are 7 in Lisbon); visit Belem, a suburb of the city known for its tiny custard pastries that tourists wait hours for (full disclosure: I cut the line and had mine in 10 minutes); and also check out LX Factory, which is a creative hub for those working in fields like photography, art, fashion and more. There’s a ton of shops and galleries open to the public, but mostly it’s a compound of offices in old warehouses. It reminded me of Chelsea Market in NYC.
Did I go to the Castelo St. George? No. (You’ve seen one Moorish Castle, you’ve seen ’em all, no?) Did I hear Fado? Sorta. If you count listening to the sounds of the romantic music from the balcony of my lovely AirBnB bedroom, which overlooked a restaurant that charges per head.
I just couldn’t be fussed, as my London pals would say. When travelers come to New York and show me their insane itinerary—the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street, Times Square, Washington Square, FAO Schwartz, the Plaza, Central Park, Macy’s, Lombardi’s—it makes me dizzy. I know that’s easier for me to say because I live there and it’s what I’m lucky to know and experience as my “backyard.” But to me, the real city—any city—are the pockets of places and events that show how its residents live and grow: the Highline, Chelsea Market, Smorgusburg, Bryant Park’s summer movie series, Summerstage, etc. I’m not saying to completely avoid all of the notorious spots; I’m saying to take at least a day (or two!) to just explore head up, map (or tails!) down. It’s taken me a long time to be able to do that, but I’m finally trying (very hard) to embrace this “in between-ness.” And while it sounds like I did and saw a LOT these past few days, I had no real itinerary. Of course, that doesn’t come without some really frustrating repercussions, like the aforementioned arriving at the Mercado having just ate; or happening upon a stage set-up for what will be a free performance of the national contemporary ballet two days after I’m scheduled to leave; or going to a museum at 3p.m. when it was free until 2. But you take the bad with the good in this case. I refused to have the FOMO.
So, after a weekend of seeing and doing and seeing and doing—albeit fairly haphazardly—you can’t fault me for wanting to spend Monday doing “regular” stuff; stuff I’d do in New York. You’d be surprised at how much you can learn about a city by buying yogurt or getting your nails done.
After beginning my day as I would in New York—with coffee (but from a percolator; an interesting trial in its own right!) and my typical breakfast of yogurt and fruit, which I bought a local farmer’s market—I slid my computer into my bag with the intention of eventually finding the aforementioned work space. This was always meant to be a “working holiday,” and here in Lisbon I’m actually on assignment to find a fashionable person for the “Wear In” page of Hemispheres magazine. Luckily, doing so involved shopping! (Another very typical, at-home city activity!)
The Principe Real area has a ton of cool concept shops, one of which is housed in an old 1800’s Moorish palace. (See? I saw more Moorish palaces after all!) Each room holds a different designer—all Portuguese-based—and there are even some cafés and restaurants sprinkled within.
As I worked my way around town, I happened upon a mini spa with a sign advertising manicures for $8! I was desperate for one, not to mention that the hair above my lip was screaming Groucho Marx so I made an appointment to come back in a few hours.
I carried on shopping, ahem, researching, and while I was determined not to purchase anything myself, it was sort of inevitable. When I saw this top by Portuguese brand Meam I was smitten. I am a sucker for only buying items designed and sold in the country I’m in. To go in, say, H&M here in Lisbon or to splurge on a Marc Jacobs top in a boutique in Paris seems silly to me. Plus—get this!—it was on sale! And it really represented Portugal because the pattern features azulejos! In an ideal world, I’d bring home the tiles themselves. But the odds of them getting back in one piece with two more weeks of travel left are slim. Still, I didn’t make it easy on myself and wouldn’t commit to the top without proving its worth and doing the ‘ole, ‘Leave it and see if it follows you’ trick.
By that point, I was starved. I wanted to go back to Mercado de Riberia, but it also was a bit far from where I was and I only had an hour and a half before my appointment. Instead, I ducked into the courtyard restaurant of the hip hotel Independente where they were offering a 3-course lunch for $12! I started with a cold carrot and ginger soup (amaze!) followed by the classic dish of cod fish mixed with scrambled eggs and crispy potatoes—if I never have another piece of cod, or bacalhau as it’s known here, that’s AOK with me—and topped it all off with the unnecessary, but insanely decadent dessert of pudding-like condensed milk with crumbled vanilla wafer. Then I hung around a bit, doing as I do at home, texting with my sister and just procrastinating.
At 3p.m. I headed to my appointment, passing the store with the shirt along the way.
Wait, I said to myself. Just wait a bit more.
The “spa” itself (if you can call it that) was cute, but not fancy at all. There were hand-painted murals on the walls, though you can tell they were done years ago. The room was bright and cheery, though, and there were two other women getting their nails done at the same time, answering my question about whether women do this kind of thing here. Beyonce was playing on the speaker and they had Essie colors to choose from. I could’ve even done gel if I wanted, but I opted for a regular one-weeker. The lady who did my nails was a bit aggressive when it came to filing, and unfortunately she didn’t give much of a massage (my favorite part)—in fact, she put lotion on my hands after she painted my nails, which seemed a bit backwards to me—but overall I was really pleased with how they came out!
As for the lip wax, I haven’t had someone pay that much attention to my mustache since middle school, when the boys teased me about the “shadow” under my nose. The woman used the peel-off wax method, which I like much better as the pain is minimal.
Following all that beautification, I couldn’t hold off any longer, so I went back for the top. It had been a few hours since I saw it and I kept thinking about it. I don’t have anything like it and it ticks off all my requirements for a perfect trip purchase:
- Made/designed in destination
- Representative of said destination in some way
- BONUS: On sale!
So I handed over the plastic, and it’s now joined the ranks of all that I’ve got stuffed in a suitcase for a month:
Finally, it was time to sit down and put my pitch together, which brought me to the co-working space.
At around 7:30, my stomach began to grumble again and so I packed up my stuff to head home and change for dinner. (In Lisbon, they eat way earlier than in Spain, which has been completely messing with my body clock. I don’t know when to eat and sleep!)
Up until that point, I hadn’t really gone to any “highly-rated” restaurants that have made some list, despite having said lists and guides and recommendations from several people. That’s not to say I haven’t been eating well, I just haven’t been driving myself crazy by doing the thing I do at home where I look up the new openings and popular chefs, make ressies and tick it off a list once I’m done.
That said, with two more nights in a cosmopolitan city that could rival any of the biggies, I wanted to dine at one hotspot, so I Google-Mapped the address of a restaurant that my EatWith host suggested, screen-grabbed the directions (so I could follow without WiFi) and left the house dressed for a lovely dinner for one.
Until I got to the place and it was closed. Lights off, curtains shut, not open on Mondays. Right.
How very not local of me. Whereas up until this point I’d say I was a operating as a city slicker, now I was dangerously coming close to slacker territory.
Thankfully, because I’d been aimlessly wandering about for the last few days, I knew I was close-ish to the river, which was close-ish to the Mercado de Ribeira, and since I wanted to eat there anyway (ideally when I was hungry), I figured now was the time. Except now was also the time when I was too hungry to choose from all the options—and we all know how terrible I am at making a decisions. There were so many different options from Portuguese pizza to sushi to more bachalau that my mind was spinning. Not to mention most menus were in Portuguese, which made it even more difficult. Ultimately, I went with a steak sandwich slathered in pesto, sun dried tomatoes and Parmesan. It did not disappoint.
While it wasn’t the decadent dinner-for-one that I had intended to have that night, if I were trying/not trying to replicate my urban me-ness with a regular ‘ole day in a big city, then I succeeded. Who goes out to a fancy dinner every night anyway? Not locals.
But they might the next night, which is what I did. (Obviously.)
The slicker in me found the “in between” and it was delicious. Expensive, but delicious.