Click on the tabs below to read a different account of the same experience told from His and Her points of view.
EVERY YEAR on the night before the 13th of June, the streets in the old traditional districts of Lisbon receive a swarm of Lisbonites celebrating Santo António, the patron saint of the capital of Portugal. The smell of grilled sardines, chouriço and wine waft through cobbled streets decorated with colourful paper triangles. Street vendors sell scented manjerico (globe basil). There is music, old and new, in every corner. DJs perform live acts from balconies to crowds squashed between the old façades of residential buildings. Every street has its own little party going on, which together turn Lisbon itself into one massive party.
Natalie wasn’t feeling very well on the evening of the 12th so we didn’t go out. We’d also invited my parents to come with us and thought it better to avoid the massive crowds of that night and go to Lisbon on Saturday evening instead. We parked the car at Estrela. I can’t help feeling a special connection with that area where I was born 35 years ago in the military hospital. Lisbon was a different city then: grey, dirty and sad, but perhaps more genuine. I miss going to Lisbon with my parents or relatives during weekdays. We would take the old trains, which had a characteristic smell of piss, old leather and steel, and stop just outside of Rossio station in a corner shop where the most amazing bifanas (pork sandwich) were served – they were left simmering in the same sauce for days, perhaps even a week, and would most certainly be deemed illegal today by health and food authorities. I remember stopping at Praça do Rossio with my grandmother and buying corn kernels from an old lady dressed all in black to feed the pigeons; sometimes I would try to kick one, a plump ball of feathers, but they always fluttered away too quickly for me. At certain times, I feel a bit nostalgic for the Lisbon of my childhood. Nowadays the city has exploded into a vibrant and trendy capital, a multicultural hotspot of Portuguese and African cultures with a dash of Brazilian flavour, both modern and traditional.
There was already a small local party being assembled around a kiosk and a portable gin corner bar, beneath the purple flowers of the lilac trees next to the Estrela Basilica. We took tram 28, which nowadays has become the unofficial tourist tram in Lisbon and a pickpocket’s heaven. While my mother told Natalie about the places where she grew up in along the route of tram 28, I thought about when the trams had wooden benches that could be adjusted back and forth according to the direction the tram was going and the grab handles which dangled from leather straps.
Due to some religious procession, the tram only went as far as Largo de Camões on that day. We walked down to Martim Moniz where there was already a long queue waiting for the tram towards Graça. Nat negotiated a ride on a tourist tuk-tuk and the four of us hopped on. João, the driver, was a trained chef who had decided to trade in the pots and pans for hauling tourists in the historic centre of Lisbon. “I earn almost twice as much”, he said.
At the viewpoint of Senhora do Monte, we stopped for a sweeping view of the Castle hill and the river Tagus. We strolled down to Largo da Graça where dozens of food stalls and a stage had been assembled. People sat on plastic chairs and ordered grilled sardines or meat, chouriço and caracóis (snails), and had beers or sangria. The food was a bit weak, in my opinion. After all, rent for these stalls is very expensive and most vendors are looking to make a quick buck. There’s also a shortage of quality sardines – about two tons of the popular fish are sold during the course of two or three days.
We had a quick walk to the Sophia de Mello viewpoint in Graça for another gorgeous view of Lisbon at dusk and then decided to call it a day and take a taxi back to Estrela; for just 7€, it was much cheaper than a tram for four. While the evening of the 12th is certainly more exciting and mad, the 13th make for a much more appropriate family outing. At the end, I was happy we made the right decision.
THIS YEAR we skipped the city’s festivities that start on the 12th of June, with a procession of popular marches through Avenida da Liberdade.
I was more up for a quieter evening and considering that I had been planning for quite some time to go out with Rui and his parents, I wanted to find something they’d enjoy doing. I thought to my self that Santo António would have been just the right time and occasion for a family outing.
Rui’s mum had told me she wanted to show me the area where she grew up which was exactly on the route covered by Tram 28. Going along the narrow lanes was like being on a slower motioned rollercoaster and I thoroughly enjoy it. Rui’s mum was telling me all about the places where he was born, where she lived and went to school, pointing at a building that belonged to her godfather, the restaurant where she had her wedding reception and where her best friend lived and still has her shop. In other words a lifetime spanning in the length of a road that ended in Largo de Camões. We had to get off because its route had been interrupted by the popular marches.
As we strolled down towards cafe “A Brasileira”, we could see that at the end of the road the was some festive dancing going on with red and golden flags being swung up in the air. We got very excited and rushed towards the crowd to participate.
Quite amazed, we soon realised that the hopping and cheering came from a group of Arecrishna preachers. Rui’s mum’s and my own questioning expressions could be clearly read on our faces. I just wanted to laugh out loud.
Largo de Camões and the streets leading up to the Elevador de Santa Justa, and continuing onto Martim Moniz square seemed to have been handed to crowds of tourists. The traditional Lisbon and its folklore seemed to have been invaded and eradicated by cultures from all over the world.
We had yet to reach the oldest quarters of Lisbon, where families of locals had spent their time organising meticulously for the Festa de Santo António. The mission was to surpass the tourists and reach Graça in the most comfortable way. The solution was right there in front of me. A smiling man turned around towards me and he was sitting in a Tuk Tuk. After bargaining the price down to €10, we “tukked” in safely to swing up and down the lanes that would take us to the Miradouro de Nossa Senhora do Monte.
The view was just breathtaking but the wind was so strong that we had to soon abandon the romanticism and head down towards our next stop, Largo da Graça.
Finally! we had accomplished our mission. There were laborious decorations made up of multicoloured paper lanterns, streamers festoon balconies, walls and snake up lamp-posts. It had been the smell of roasted sardines, bifanas (pork sandwiches), chouriços and salgados that had guided us there through our sense. The area had been set up with food stalls and a stage had been put up for local bands. We managed to find a table under a big umbrella and ordered all of the dishes available including Sangria and beer at a modest price of €30 for the four of us.
Everything was so tasty and smelled so good. There was a stall that made this twirly kind of doughnut called farturas which teased my taste buds, but looked too sweet and oily so I decided to save up space in my belly for just savoury food.
We left the square to continued our walk towards Miradouro Sophia de Mello feeling full and satisfied with that sprint given by the red Sangria. More decorations and coloured globes covered up the old walls and squeezed onto cobbled pavements where weathered women selling manjericos (tiny pots of basil), a bouquet of which can be savoured by rubbing the leaves together and never by directly nuzzling at it because for the Portuguese is bad luck. As long as it concerned me I wouldn’t have dared to challenge this belief and was glad Rui’s mum had alerted me. Our walk ended with a background of folkloristic music and a contrail of Barbecued sardines. We took a taxi for only €7, which left us in Estrela where we had left our car.
The whole month of June offers a wide variety of events such as fado, jazz and other musical performances, sports events and exhibitions. Definitely another event I am glad I didn’t miss as it made feel less of a tourist in Lisbon.