Archive for June, 2007

Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot, 2007

Conversations over the past few weeks about Royal Ascot have followed two patterns depending on who I’m talking to. With Americans back home, the conversation usually starts with the question: What’s Royal Ascot?  Answer: a horse race that the Queen likes to attend.

With Brits or Americans in London, the question is usually: Have you got a hat, and where are you sitting?Answer: Yes, and the Royal Enclosure.  Logical follow-on question: “Umm, how did you end up in the Royal Enclosure? (pause) No offense or anything.”

Royal Ascot lasts about a week – from Tuesday through Saturday. There are six races a day run at the Ascot racecourse (which sits next to Windsor, explaining the association with the royal family, I suppose).

As is true about many British traditions, there’s a lot of history and baggage about Royal Ascot that I’ll probably never appreciate, but here’s my point of view anyway:

Admission tickets to Royal Ascot come in three types: Silver Ring (£15 per day), Grandstand tickets (£54 per day), and Royal Enclosure tickets (£78 a day). The goal for most attendees is a combination of getting drunk with friends and wearing nice clothes. In the Royal Enclosure, the goal is just to be invited.

Traditionally, you have the privilege of paying £78 for a ticket only if you’re (1) a member of the Royal Enclosure; or (2) “sponsored for membership” by a member who’s attended at least four times. Membership, I assume, means you’ve got a link to high society, which I definiely do not. [And this year, for the first time in the 300-year-old history of the race, you can buy your way in to the Enclosure with corporate packages starting at £530 a pop, which is definitely not the way I got in.]

So, the question remains how did an arriviste like me end up in the Royal Enclosure?  Well, I thank my friend Jane for cluing me in to this (for lack of a better word) trick: As an American, you apply to the Enclosure through the US Embassy, so perhaps technically, you’re in the Royal Enclosure as a guest of the US Ambassador. The applications are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. If you’ve gotten in, the US Embassy writes you a letter to say your application is accepted and encloses a Royal Enclosure ticket form, which you fill out (with payment details, of course) and mail to “Her Majesty’s Representative.” I actually never received my ticket in the mail, but I did get a receipt telling me my credit card had been charged.

Royal Enclosure badge, Ascot, 2007

Because my ticket didn’t arrive in the mail, when I first arrived at the Ascot racecourse, I went to a Royal Enclosure “lost ticket” desk. The desk was total chaos, and it turns out that for the Enclosure, you don’t get a ticket. Rather, you get a pin that’s so ridiculously easy to copy (i.e., my name was written in with a sharpie), I wonder about all the fuss it takes to get in to the Royal Enclosure.I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

Once Jane and I (and our friend, Sahar) learned we were going to the Royal Enclosure, we set to work on dressing appropriately. Although everyone, no matter what section, dresses up for the races, there are no strict rules about it unless you’re in the Royal Enclosure. The key restrictions are: men wear top hat and morning coats; women wear dresses and a hat that covers the crown of your head (and no scandalous things like – gasp – trousers).Diva blue hats

HATS! Jane, Sahar and I figured if we were going to pull this thing off, we’d do it right, so we went to a milliner named Emily Birch, who’s a friend of a friend. Emily has her own millinery business outside of her day job, which is to work for the Queen’s milliner. Having a hat custom made is known as “model millinery,” and with Emily’s help, I went through a crash course on differences between department-store hats and model millinery.

The three of us brought Emily our dresses, and then we tried on samples in her home studio to get a feel for what shape of hat would be flattering. I chose a stylish variation on the traditional brimmed hat, which means mine has a brim that broke and folded up in the back, and I wore it at a sharp tilt (it’s kept secure with an elastic that you run under your hair).

The details that Emily dreamt up were beautiful: the sinamay was overlaid with an ornate, lacy pattern; the brim was edged with a hand-sewn grosgrain; the four types of feathers trimming the hat were hand-dyed to match my dress and again sewn (not glue gunned) to the hat. The photo to the above left shows Jane’s hat and mine. Fabulous, no?

Two fittings and several weeks after our initial meeting, Emily had created beautiful and unique hats for the three of us. Her hats cost upwards of £300, which is pricey, but the compliments Jane, Sahar and I received on our hats (and all the little girls who openly stared and smiled at our hats) – well, that was priceless. (I see a MasterCard commercial in the works, don’t you?)

The trains from Waterloo to Ascot were standing-room-only packed, and these are trains that run every 10-15 minutes from Waterloo. A lot of passengers had started drinking early in the morning and kept up the partying while on the train, which I guess is fun for everyone except the people on the train who are sober (like me).

It was a rainy day, but we loved our time at the races. We arrived just in time to see the Royal Procession roll in on the race track (i.e.,the Queen and her guests arrive by carriage from Windsor), which signals the start of racing for the day. Because the Royal Enclosure includes a slice of lawn by the finish line, we were able to get right up by the fence within 15 feet of the passing carriages, and Jane took this fantastic photo of the Queen and Prince Philip:

Queen’s arrival in the Royal Procession, Ascot 2007

The three of us stuck around for four of the six races yesterday, and not only did we people watch, but also we placed bets in three races, picking either the winner or second-place winner every time. It’s always nice to be a winner, especially when a few of our picks were underdogs with odds of 34:1 for a win payout, but even if we hadn’t won, the races were fun to watch. There was one short race, the Golden Jubilee Stakes, that took place only on the straightaway portion, so in that one, there were 21 horses thundering down the track, which was pretty colorful and dramatic (photo below):

Golden Jubilee stakes, Royal Ascot, Day 5 2007

Even though each race is over in a matter of seconds, it’s exciting to watch and cheer for “your” horse, and I have to admit I was glad not to be in the other parts of the grandstand, mostly because they looked so packed and crowded as to be uncomfortable. The lawn/concourse level of the Royal Enclosure, for example, had nice park benches spread out in a spacious way, and in contrast, the lawn in the grandstand area nearby looked packed with people sitting on blankets or crowded together by the fence.

There’s been criticism in the papers that the Royal Enclosure is now set up so attendees don’t have to mingle with the “regular” people in the other sections, but rather than taking a point of view (like this guy) on the rightness or wrongness of the Royal Enclosure’s exclusivity, I’m just stating a fact that it’s nice not to be in an overcrowded space.Queen’s Box at Royal Enclosure, Ascot

Overall, despite the gray, rainy weather yesterday, I had a great time at Ascot and would go again. In sunny weather, it’d be a perfect summer experience. And maybe next year, being the goal-oriented yuppie that I am, I’ll aim to be in the Queen’s box within the Enclosure:

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 Clotilde Dusoulier book launch event in London

I’ve never been to a book launch before, but when I saw that Clotilde Dusoulier (better known as the author of the Chocolate & Zucchini food blog) had written a book, I looked forward to attending her UK book launch party.

So today was the big day.  At 6:30, Cathy, Elizabeth, Johanna and I converged on the Institut Francais (where else would her book launch be, really?) in South Kensington.  The Institut Francais feels like someone’s home, which I thought made it a nice, intimate place for the event.  Clotilde spoke for a while about her switch from software engineer to food writer, and of course I was envious and inspired.  How to make your beloved hobby into your day job – the question of the 21st century.

Chocolate & Zucchini cookbookI waited at the end of her talk to get my book signed, and I surprised even myself by hanging around longer to have my photo taken with Clotilde.  (Ta da!  Photo at the top of this post).  I couldn’t resist – she was so personable and approachable.  Her publisher also seemed friendly and had even taken the trouble to make a few of the recipes from Clotilde’s book and serve them at the party.  How many publishers would do that for their authors?

Anyway, Clotilde’s cookbook got rave reviews in the New York Times in late April, and based on the food served during the event today, I’m already excited to try the book’s chorizo bread recipe.  I have a feeling it’s the best £9.99 I’ve ever spent.

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Columbia Road Flower Market

During a quick spell of bright sunshine on Sunday (it rained all weekend otherwise), Jon and I caught the 55 bus from Old Street tube station to reach the Columbia Road flower market. We decided it was time to try again to make our roofdeck an inviting place to sit, which means getting plants.  (Our effort last year didn’t amount to much beyond three shriveled hydrangea bushes and a sickly wisteria vine).

Every Sunday beginning at 8 am, several dozen sellers of flora and flora accoutrements sell their wares along Columbia Road, which is in an east London neighborhood that has a lot in common with the Lower East Side.

Crowded doesn’t begin to describe the jostling masses of people at the market, but (1) there’s no beating the market’s selection and prices; and (2) listening to all the cockney accents shouting out competing deals to potential customers is priceless.

It was at the market that Jon first fell in love with calling a £5 bill a “fivah.” The m.o. when you show up at the market is to move from stall to stall, checking out the inventory, listening to the deals offered (“I’ll give you three for a fivah, three for a fivah”), and then gesturing that you’ll accept one of the deals. The seller/auctioneer then acknowledges your win by throwing your plants at you. If you don’t seem the type who’s likely to catch the plants in time (i.e., you look like me), the seller tosses your plants to a sidekick who stands among potential customers, and the sidekick will then hand you the plants in exchange for your cash. It’s a fast-moving, entertaining system.

In addition to potted plants and herbs, the market vendors sell cut flowers, which are gorgeous and incredibly cheap. Every time I go to the flower market, I think about how I’d love to buy dinner party flowers at the market, but who has dinner parties on a Sunday night?

If you show up at the market near closing time (2 pm), the deals on the cut flowers get to be particularly good, but like any good deal, showing up late risks an unappealing selection of leftovers. Dilemmas, dilemmas.

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The Albion gastropub, Thornhill Road, London N1

Just a few weeks ago, in early April, the Albion gastropub reopened after an extensive renovation. The Daily Candy, whose restaurant alerts I normally ignore, associated chef Richard Turner’s creds with Tapas Brindisa, a restaurant I like very much. Throw in the Albion’s location around the corner from my flat (journey time door-to-door: 5 minutes’ walk) and of course I checked it out.

Five out of the seven times I’ve eaten at the Albion since it reopened, I was in heaven. The service was a little unorganized (e.g., every time I called to book a table, I was told the restaurant was full, but then I’d show up as a walk-in and end up being seated almost immediately), but always friendly. So despite service slowness, the pros far outweighed the cons: The pub dining room and bar are cozy and welcoming; the large outdoor garden is a perfect place for large groups of friends to meet and hang out; and the prices are reasonable (10-15 GBP per main course and most bottles of wine for under 30 GBP). Best of all, though the food was simple, it was made with care.

Potted Duck at the Albion gastropub, Islington, N1

Among my favorites is the potted duck appetizer (photo above). I joked with my photographer friend Julie Kubal (who took all the photos in this post) that there’s no way to make potted duck a visually-appealing dish, but Julie proved me wrong.

Potted duck, in case you were wondering, is duck cooked in a lot of its own fat – confit’ed – until it’s soft enough to be a spread. I love schmearing the potted duck onto a crispy, hot slice of toasted baguette. In moving to the UK, I may have irretrievably lost bagels and cream cheese, but I won potted duck. It’s not a bad trade.

Gloucester Old Spot (pork belly) at the Albion gastropub, Islington, London N1

For my main course, I’m a big fan of the spring vegetable pot pie and the Gloucester Old Spot (photo above), which is a poetic-sounding way of saying I like to eat pork belly. Lately, though (as in: the last two times I was there), the slab of Gloucester Old Spot that arrives on my plate has been hard-as-a-rock on top and mushy on the bottom. It used to come lightly browned and crisped on top and juicy and meaty on the bottom. So are things sliding down hill, or have I just hit two bad nights by accident?Albion fries chips, Islington, London N1

And worst of all is the downhill trend in the quality of the small details like the chips. Just a month ago, the triple-fried chips were excellent – golden and ultra crunchy. To the extent the world is divided into crust lovers and middle lovers, I fall into the former category, so the crispier the better.

Alas, on my last two visits, the chips were soggy – definitely not triple fried or even double fried – and mealy in a way that I thought only frozen pre-bagged chips could be.Service during my last two visits, while never particularly good at the beginning, was also on a slide.

On one Saturday evening, the server brought out a wrong dish and kept insisting that it was our fault the dish was incorrect. It was an unpleasant conversation and the gist appeared to be that because the server had already brought out the dish, we should just accept it and eat it.

On another recent occasion, our table of six waited a half hour for a server to take our order, despite its being a quiet (empty) Wednesday evening.

Overall, I’ll give the Albion another try or two to see if things shape up, but I don’t understand how a place could start out so well and be already headed downhill.
Albion on Urbanspoon

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Cadogan Square Gardens, London, UK

This past weekend, I engaged in the annual London ritual of peeking into wealthy private gardens during London Open Garden Squares weekend. Hidden away throughout London are dozens of private gardens. The gardens are patches of green (well, some are much larger than patches) that generally are accessed only by those whose homes line the perimeter. You might hear someone talk about having a key to a private garden in breathless tones – it’s just that exciting when you’ve got one!

Anyway, for one weekend every year, the gardens are open to the general public for a mere £7.50 a person. A few of the gardens even host wine tastings, though the one Jon and I happened upon at Stanley Crescent Gardens (not to be confused with Stanley Gardens, of course) wasn’t really a tasting as much as it was a French guy with a few bottles of Loire Valley white served in thimble-sized plastic cups. The meagreness of the offerings is alright, though – you’re not going for the booze (I can hear the Brit objecting: au contraire!).

I visited Cadogan Place Gardens and Cadogan Square Gardens on Saturday with my friend, Jill. Seeing as how those two gardens are just off Sloane Street, of course we did some pre-shopping in preparation for the summer sales (yes, July is just around the corner). The former was large and sectioned into three parts – a formal gardens, a tennis court area, and a children’s playground, and the latter was smaller and more charming with just a pretty bit of statuary in the middle, a mere one tennis court, and benches all around for relaxing and chating (see photo at top of post).

Stanley Gardens, Notting Hill, London

A group of us then spent the evening picnicking in Stanley Gardens in Notting Hill, to which Jill has access (see photo above for a view of Jill’s building from the garden). There were all these neighborhood kids playing with tents and giant plastic tunnels, and now that I think about, I suppose it’s an ideal setup to have a large gated garden when you have kids. But it’s no less exciting for adults to be able to hang out in the same garden. Actually, park is a more accurate word.

Stanley Crescent Gardens, Notting Hill, London

A few of the gardens, like Stanley Crescent Gardens in Notting Hill, are cozy and well-loved by a select group of 150 dues-paying homeowners (photo above), and then other gardens welcome members who don’t necessarily own homes abutting the garden.

Ladbroke Square Gardens, Notting Hill, London

Ladbroke Square Gardens, for example, is enormous enough that it’s more like a private park that you can join. In other words, no need to live right on the Gardens in order to have the privilege of paying for the upkeep of the Gardens. Originally, the Gardens were built in 1837 as a horse track, but apparently the soil was too muddy, so then the racetrack became a really large communal garden. It’s just that big.

I suppose it’s a little weird to spend your weekend gawking at private gardens, but maybe the UK is rubbing off on me. It seems perfectly normal in the UK to see how the other half lives (see, e.g., the popularity of visitng English Heritage homes of noble families), or if you can’t admit that you’re in it for the voyeurism, you can tell yourself that you’re really going to look at the beauty of the plantings and greenery.

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Bar Cercamoura pastries, Lisbon

Eating in Lisbon was generally cheap and good, though the simplest food turned out to be the best food. Fresh meats and fish, grilled or stewed, dominated our meals. Pastries, including, of course, the egg custards (pasteis de natas) were everywhere, and oddly, chocolate mousse seemed to be the dessert of choice at many of the restaurants we tried.

The cover charge system was a little unusual in that every restaurant starts you off with rolls and cheeses, but if you don’t want to pay the 1 or 2-euro per person cover charge, you just don’t touch the rolls and cheeses. The restaurant then takes them back and presumably serves them to someone else. I wonder if this means there are breads and cheeses that get recycled for days at a time before an unsuspecting diner eats the stuff.

We tried a variety of wines from the Alentejo region of Portugal, and I was consistently impressed by the syrah. Although I’m no expert on wine, I was surprised that I’d never heard anything at all about Portuguese wines, because the ones we tried were generally very good. Maybe wine exporting is all about marketing.

Below are my notes on the places we ate, from my favorite to least favorite:

Nariz do Vinho Tinto (“the Red Wine Nose”) is in the Lapa district of Lisbon, which means it’s in a “nice” (think Embassy Row) but deadly quiet neighborhood at night. We loved this restaurant, and I wished we’d found it earlier in our trip so we could’ve eaten there more than once. We went after reading a 2002 New York Times review describing it as the venture of a food magazine editor, but when we arrived at the restaurant, we were struck by how disorganized and informal the operation was. The maitre d’/server/restaurant owner were the same guy on the evening we ate there, and he looked a lot like Richard Kind (the guy who was on Spin City).

Only after we finished dinner did we learn that (1) the food magazine editor had died years ago, (2) the restaurant had gone downhill, and (3) the current owners (our maitre d’/server and his brother) were trying hard to revive the place’s quality and reputation. The food was well-prepared, delicious traditional Portuguese food, and the service was friendly and welcoming. Definitely give this place a try when next you’re in Lisbon.

The muzak at the beginning of our meal was mildly irritating, but as the courses arrived at our table, we were increasingly thrilled. The only “miss” of the evening was my asparagus and eggs starter, which could’ve been a lot fluffier and creamier, and at 12.50 euros, it wasn’t cheap. Otherwise, the food was simple and delicious. The black-hoofed ham (pata negra) was incredible. Its deep burgundy color made me doubt its deliciousness (I thought it looked too dry), but in fact it was tender, meaty and marbled just so. The portion was large enough to share among the four of us, so well worth the 14 euros.

My main course of grilled, tender goat was excellent. A million times better than the supposedly grilled meat I’d eaten at Pap Acorda (see below). Jon’s hare with a side of rice in a red wine sauce was also hearty and delicious. The hare had been braised for 24 hours and was falling off the bone, and the portion size was beyond generous, arriving at the table in a dutch oven. Ray’s game sausage was packed with herbs, meat and breacrumbs – more like a meatloaf. Kate’s battered-and-fried whole baby sea bass was also simple, fresh and good, and its accompanying “tomato rice” was a good match.

We enjoyed the 2002 Cortes de Cima syrah and downed two bottles of this bold, rich red with that hint of cherry I love so much. As the evening wore on, the other diners left and the muzak was replaced with fado music. Much better. Our host graciously let us stick around for as long as we wanted and kept pouring us several glasses of Kopce 2003 Vintage port on the house. The port was dangerously smooth and sweet, and it was the perfect way to end a great meal.

Bacalhau a Bras at A Buica restaurant, Alfama, Lisbon

A Buica: In the heart of the Alfama, the oldest surviving neighborhood in Lisbon. Delicious food, great service. Décor was fun and eclectic – a fado shawl here and there, shelves with music-related bric a brac everywhere. My grilled dorado was outstanding, fresh and just a little bit charred from the grill. Throw on the sea salt, olive oil and lemon, and voila, a filling and delicious lunch. Jon and Ray both tried the restaurant’s bacalhao a bras (photo above), which is a Portuguese comfort food dish much like a hash, and even though I can’t get excited by the ubiquitous salted cod, it’s not bad when mixed in with onions, eggs and potatoes. All the main courses here were generous and less than 10 euros, so for a simple, good lunch in the Alfama, it’d be tough to beat A Buica.

Olivier: On a rainy Friday evening, Kate, Ray, Jon and I arrived at Olivier for our 10 pm reservation. The restaurant was so packed that when the front door swung inward, it hit several people who were crowded in the restaurant’s tiny foyer. The maitre d’ was friendly but couldn’t find our reservation, so we ordered a few glasses of white port and Portuguese wine and huddled by the door, hoping the restaurant could find us a table.

We were eventually seated, and other than being repeatedly asked when and how we made our reservations (subtext: are you sure you made a reservation?), the meal was hearty and overall good.

There’s only one prix fixe menu available (a few customisations are offered for the main meat course), and even though we had aperitifs, nine courses and two bottles of local wine, the $170 per couple price tag seemed a little high for what we ate.

A few of the courses stretched the limits of what counts as a course (e.g., one tortilla chip each, topped with crabmeat and guacamole), and while the wood-paneled decor of the place felt very old-fashioned Portuguese, the food had a very international, random theme to it. There was tomato and a haloumi-like cheese on skewers, (flavorless) octopus carpaccio, thick mushroom soup served in a trendy martini glass, puff pastry stuffed with feta and honey; osso buco, and molten chocolate cake.

Ironically, the foods I enjoyed the most (i.e., the osso buco and the pastry stuffed with feta and honey) weren’t Portuguese, and the authentic Portuguese dish of pork loin from the black-hoofed pig was served crusty and tough, as if it’d been under a heat lamp for the past few days.

Complimentary grappa was served when we got the bill, and it turns out grappa all around the world is strong as all get out.

Overall, service was friendly, the atmosphere was warm and buzzing, and the food was more good than bad. Worth a visit, but go elsewhere if you want a traditional Portuguese meal.

Restaurant Bonjardim exterior, Lisbon, Portugal

Restaurant Bonjardim serves hot, fresh, rotisserie chicken. The secret to the restaurant’s success appears to be high turnover, which means chickens don’t sit around drying out. For 50 euros, the four of us gorged ourselves on spit-roasted chickens with all kinds of side dishes and drinks. The restaurant has pleasant outdoor seating just off the busy tourist trail of the Avenida da Liberdade, so for a tasty, cheap, relaxing lunch, you could do a lot worse than Bonjardim.

Pap Acorda interior, Lisbon, Portugal

Pap’Acorda, Rua Atalaia. Pap’Acorda is one of those restaurants that had rave reviews in everything from our guidebook to the New York Times. Genre of food? Trendy Portuguese. Hipster neighborhood (Bairro Alta), check. Well-dressed diners, check. Servers with attitude, check. Definitely a too-cool-for-school kind of place, and the food was so-so. If you really want to see what the fuss is about, just stick with the appetizers, which were generally better than the main courses.

About the decor, there’s an annex to the pretty main dining room that lacks character and warmth, so avoid the annex if you can, and as for the service, I was immediately put off when our server insisted that if we drank tap water instead of bottled water, he would not be responsible for our having to use the toilet all night. What a gross thing to say. It was like he threw a hissy fit because we didn’t want to buy bottled water. I don’t know about you, but I expect a little more graciousness when I eat out. The guy’s attitude left me wanting to leave the restaurant right away, rather than, say, linger over another bottle of wine or coffees. So if his objection to tap water is that he can’t make money off of it, then he should seriously reconsider his calculation.

My softshell crab appetizer (caranguejo casca mol) was 14 euros and tasted fresh, but the batter was so thick and dense that it peeled off from the crab like armor instead of adding an extra nice crunch. Kate’s salad served with a chevre button that had been lightly battered and fried was more successful than my crab. It was an interesting and tasty thing to do with goat cheese – a fancy fried cheese.

Feeling that I should give the famous black-hoofed pork a try, I ordered pork chops that were horrendously dry and tough. The saving grace of our meal was a 29-euro bottle of Esporao syrah from the Alentejo. Overall, the tab was 161 euros for appetizers, mains and a bottle of wine shared by the four of us. Not a bad total, but unacceptable for such so-so food.

Notes on three bar/cafes we tried:

Les Mauvais Garcons (39, Rua da Rosa) was our bar discovery of the trip. It’s a small, cozy bar/cafe in the Bairro Alto not far from the Gloria Funicular. We loved the service, which was friendly and knowledgeable, and we especially loved the deep leather armchairs and the strong caipirinhas.

Bar Cercamoura, Lisbon, Portugal

Bar Cerca Moura, 4, Largo das Portas do Sol, right next door to the Museum of Portuguese Decorative Arts and across the street from a stone terrace with stunning views of the ocean and the Alfama district (a miradoura). As if the location weren’t enough, the Bar Cerca Moura has sunny, outdoor seating and a surprisingly sleek and modern interior (surprising because the café appears to be housed in an old stone cave that’s been updated with leather banquettes and steel fixtures). The moist, lemon poundcake gets special mention, though of course you can find strong coffee and Lisbon’s famous natas here, too.

A Brasileira in Chaido, Lisbon, Portugal

Cafe a Brasileira is the single-most-cited café in every guidebook or travel article about Lisbon, which explains the crowds of guidebook-toting customers. Definitely tourist territory. The ornate ceilings and walls are described as great examples of Manueline architecture (not having any knowledge of Manueline architecture, I can neither confirm nor deny this claim), and if you can get a seat at the cafe, the drinks are surprisingly not expensive. It’s a nice place to take a break if you’re shopping in the Baixa neighborhood, and the cafe is well positioned so you can monitor the traffic at the Hermes store across the street.

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View of Lisbon rooftops from Castelo Sao Jorge

Just over a week ago, Jon and I traveled to Portugal with our friends, Kate and Ray, who visited us from San Diego.

My impression of Lisbon based on the 3+ days I was there is that it’s what you’d get if San Francisco and Seville got married and had a kid. There are steep hills climbed by a series of quaint, creaky (still-functioning) electric street cars and funiculars, and you never know when you’ll crest a hill and be treated to a view of the gorgeous blue waters of the Tejo River. And there’s even a suspension bridge (the 25 of April Bridge) whose reddish coloring and graceful shape make it a dead ringer for the Golden Gate.

Lisbon’s Seville-like features are the winding cobblestone streets, the warm-colored, clay roof tiles, the popularity of bacalao, and most importantly, a feeling of faded glory.Praca de Comercio, Lisbon, Portugal

There was a time, as many Lisbon monuments remind you, when little ol’ Portugal controlled bits and pieces of every continent in the world (Brazil and India, for example). Rich from the spice and slave trade, the Portuguese were able to afford spectacular squares and buildings, like the Praca do Comercio (pictured above).

While Lisbon is a pretty popular destination for European tourists, there hasn’t been much else going on in the past 500 years since Portugal’s world domination days, and so you end up with a square like the Praca do Comercio, which is eerily empty – no pedestrians strolling shops and cafes or some such. Where are all the expensive shops and cafes? I suppose whoever made St. Mark’s square into the beautiful tourist rip-off it is today should take note and look into the primo real estate at the Praca do Comercio.

We had a lazy, relaxing trip. I knew we were off to a good start when our taxi driver from the Lisbon airport used his limited English to convey the important information that Beyonce (one hot lady, he’ll have you know) was in town that night in concert. I thought Lisbon was great for aimless walking and relatively cheap eating (nothing fancy, but a paradise if you’re a bacalao fan). Lisbon wouldn’t be the best European destination if you’re big on fancy shopping or major museums.

Here’s what we saw by way of sights:

Castelo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon, Portugal

The Castelo de Sao Jorge is *the* big sight in central Lisbon. As seems normal for this part of the world (i.e., the Iberian peninsula), the castle was controlled at different times by Moors and Crusaders. From a tourist’s point of view, there’s not much to see once you get inside the castle walls. A much-touted “multimedia” show consists of a wall of TVs all showing the same video of Lisbon history. Not sure how it’s multimedia – maybe the fact that there’s more than one TV?

There are ten impressively-tall towers that you can climb around on, which was pretty fun at first, but there’s only so much climbing up and down that I find entertaining. More amusing was the guy posing in glamour positions for the benefit of his camera-toting girlfriend. Jon kept hoping the guy would do a handstand on the castle wall, as he promised out loud to do.  No such luck, alas.

Gloria Funicular, Lisbon, Portugal

Funiculars (aka trams that run up and down steep hills) are much fun. I can’t help but want to sing the Rice-a-Roni jingle while being jostled around with the Japanese ladies gleefully passing their cameras back and forth around me. Our guidebook claimed that “locals” ride these things, but in our experience, the guidebook can only be correct if the Japanese ladies with the camera happen to be Portuguese. Possible, but no probable. Still, it’s pretty fun to ride the funiculars at least once.Monument to the Discoveries, 25 April Bridge, Belem, Lisbon, Portugal

A 20-minute tram ride from the Praca do Comercio puts you in Belem, which in Portugal’s heydey was the departing point for the much-celebrated Vasco da Gama and his adventurous peers. As was discussed by our little group (we’re very serious conversationalists, you see), Magellan was Portuguese, but you never hear about him in Porgtugal. Well, it turns out what Magellan did his thing for Spain, so I guess that would explain why it’s all about Vasco in Lisbon.  We didn’t spend much time in Belem, but we were unimpressed by the Monument to the Discoveries (photo above), which had a look only a 1960s dictator could love. Plus the waterfront is industrial and therefore not a pleasant place to walk.Jeronimos monastery, Belem, Lisbon, Portugal

The Jeronimos Monastery, located across the street from the Monument, is pretty impressive-looking (photo above). The tourist tale (i.e., likely not true) is that King Manuel I promised to build this thing if Vasco da Gama returned from India safely, which he did. A man of his word, that Manuel. We couldn’t go in because of course we decided to visit on the one day a week the monastery is closed (Monday).

Pena Palace, Sintra, Lisbon, Portugal

We took a day trip to Sintra, which, among other things, was the vacation getaway of choice for the Portuguese royal family. It was an easy trip by train from Lisbon (a 40-minute ride and about 3 euros for a roundtrip ticket), but we were disappointed because of:  (1) the rainy and cold weather that day; (2) the lengthy distance between castles considering the rain; and (3) the fleets of tour buses in town.

We ate a really heinous lunch in Sintra ville.  So that didn’t help.  But then we had a pleasant, largely uphill, 45-minute walk through damp parklands to reach Pena Palace (photo above).

The Palace is Exhibit A for why it’s crazy to have royal families around spending taxpayer (serf) dollars. We just imagined some Portuguese prince watching Disney movies (if they existed hundreds of years ago, of course) and deciding he’d build one of those castles for himself. There was no particular style to the palace – just a lot of mismatched architectural elements. An Aladdin-like minaret here, a Gothic-style cloister there. Jon and I now refer to Pena Palace as “the Candyland Castle.”

So that’s all we really “saw” in Lisbon, which was fine by us. There’s no limit to the wandering and eating we can do on a vacation, so more on that in the next post.

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