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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Amelia Earhart lives in Lisbon

Warning: this is a long, but fun blog. Enjoy at leisure…

A city of seven hills, like San Francisco and Rome, Lisbon is a high-low adventure of altitudes (very hard to determine on maps: you start your walks fresh, you end them winded), rambling cobblestone streets (very bad for heels-wearing, being graceful), and stunning old buildings with elaborate tilework facades (very dangerous for gawking at, then tripping over the cobblestones b/c you’re wearing heels…), and a stellar view (no downside). More San Francisco than Rome, partly because of the mock-Golden Gate Bridge (really called the Ponte 25 de Abril, which commemorates the 1974 Portugese Revolution for democracy), partly the location to the western coastline of the continent, partly the good/cultural scene, partly the trolley cars that traverse the hills of the city, Lisbon was not what I expected. Not that I can actually conceptualize what I DID expect. Possibly, I thought it would be more sleepy, more small-town. Possibly, I expected it to be less cosmopolitan, more old-world European. Regardless, I was so pleasantly surprised by Lisbon, I wound up staying four days instead of two, and I couldn’t have been given a better welcome.

Lisbon felt a little bit like Ecuador did the first time around, thanks to Amy Abreu, a friend of Plum, Gina, and Longo’s, who made it her personal business to put me in touch with her husband’s family and friends in anticipation of my arrival. All men, not complaining. My first day was spent with João, Amy’s brother-in-law, who met me in Rossío (a central square full of fountains, cafes, shops, and for now, the cows from the cow exhibit that tours the world) who took me to the two extreme ends of the city. First, Belém, where we took in the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (church) and The Monument of the Discoveries (in front of which is a large tiled map of ALL of Portugal’s colonial territories. Very impressive for such a tiny country. You tend to think the Spanish discovered the world, when in fact, much of the credit belongs to the Portuguese…), and then went to a little café that dates back to 1837 to have espresso (new thing, love it) and these custard-egg white mini-custard/tart/cakes that you douse in sugar and cinnamon and shove into your mouth. They were…divine. Then, we went to the modern side of the city that was completely refurbished for the World Expo in 1998. It’s an area full of seaside restaurants, a concert hall, aquarium, gardens and million dollar apartment buildings, settled into another café and chatted until his car was about to be towed, and we had to drop some Euros on the table and make a run for it…

Day two brought more exploring, this time of the Alfama district, specifically the Castelo de São Jorge, ala the Princess Bride, where phrases like “My name is Indigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die,” and “Mawrige. Mawrige is what bwings us together today,” littered my head throughout. To think that people actually inhabited such a place once upon a time ago is hard to conceptualize, but fascinating when you are walking across stone passageways high above the city. Then, to ever-more beautiful churches, then to a late lunch. Fish is the thing here in Portugal. Makes sense. On a personal note, my body welcomed the contrast from the Spanish potato, bread, tapas overdose of last week. Evening brought André, cousin of João (the symbols are KILLING me…), who took me through Barrio Alto and Chiado, the older, now trendy parts of Lisbon, teeming with bars, restaurants, outdoor cafes, and throngs of people. We caught the sunset at a park overlooking the water, and chatted about Lagos and music, mostly Van Morrison, who he’s just getting into (!?!?!)

Day three brought a trip to Docas (the Docks), per João, where I lazily ate fresh sea bass under the “Golden Gate” at a promenade of outdoor restaurants, drank port (aaahh…) and made friends with the neighboring table of two Portuguese guys and an American girl, all of whom happened to be on my train to Lagos later in the week. Night introduced me to Paulo, Pedro’s friend who took me to dinner with him and his friends. Eight of us in total, it was like Ecuador all over again. Great company, food, wine, conversation, what could be better? We continued onto a waterside bar (they need more of these in New York – forget rooftops, waterside spots are the thing), and then Paulo and I went to Lux, “the” three-level club in Lisbon, where before we knew it…4:30 AM. Huh? How did that happen? I barely made it to Sintra the next morning, a UNESCO World Heritage city (I need to count how many of these I’ve been to, definitely double-digits) that is filled with more castles and old, winding streets, and of course, charm. It was in Sintra that things got interesting…

The night before at dinner, José, a friend of Paulo’s, was telling me about a friend of his, Luís, who is an aerobatic pilot. You know, the kind of pilot who does tricks in the air in a two-seater plane. Talk about a daredevil. Of course, I’m all, I would LOVE to do that, blah blah blah… Next thing I know, I’m on the phone with Luís, tentatively making a flight time for the next day. I didn’t REALLY think it would happen. However, on my way to Sintra, my phone rings. Paulo. Tells me that I need to be at the airfield outside Sintra at 2:30 PM if I want to fly. GULP. Um…well, I won’t have time to really SEE Sintra, then. Right? Right. But, it’s the chance of a lifetime, and why the hell not? So…I make a quick tour of the castle, then have lunch (bread, cheese, water – very light, I’m going to be a little queasy, likely…), and head to the airfield. Paulo meets me. GULP. Paulo, who is terrified of flying comes to actually watch me do this because he can’t believe I will... BIG GULP.

I meet Luís, who is eating SPAGHETTI CARBONARA, when we get introduced. IS THIS MAN ASKING TO BE SICK IN THE PLANE? He’s a robust, affable guy, thrilled to take me with him for the day. Turns out, MTV and Ford (the sponsor of his plane) are doing a documentary on extreme flying, aerobatics. Luís is one of the top aerobatics pilots in the world, so he’s their focus. So…….I fly with him to the shoot in full flying garb (with the hat that made me think of Snoopie, all I needed was the scarf), in his two-person-Red Barron-type-glass-sliding-over-the-top-of-your-head-plane, doing tricks along the way, chatting with him through my mouthpiece, receiving him in my headset. WHAT IS GOING ON? Then, watch him from the ground while they film. I must’ve lost my stomach about 10 times, but it was fucking unreal. Exhilarating doesn’t cover it. It’s indescribable. THEN, I go up in a 4-person Cessna with the guy filming and a pilot, while they shoot footage from the air (!!), open-door-Vietnam-war-helicopter-style. I’m taking photos, giving thumbs-ups to Luis, dying about what the hell my life is, all the while open-mouthed over the spectacular Portuguese coast. Talk about SEEING a country. This is the way to do it. Then we were to fly back to meet José, who was going to pick me up and take me back to Lisbon to make my train to Lagos.

Needless to say, I didn’t make my train to Lagos. Instead, I spent the day on a roller coaster in the sky, without a track, twirling, pirouetting, flipping and dipping, in a aerobatic aircraft, filming a kamikaze pilot messing around with gravity, and having the time of my life. I learned to fly a bit (I was terrified to be in control of that machine, but secretly loved every minute of it, knowing that if I did anything wrong, I had back-up), but every time I gave the controls back to Luís, somersaulting we went. My photos are half right side up (ocean underneath us), half upside down (ocean on top of us). Oh my god. The most AMAZING thing I’ve ever done. (Kar, I thought of Neal the whole time…) I now need to jump out of a plane, to skydive, I’ve decided. I think that’s likely the ONLY thing that can top this.

José met me on safe landing back on Earth. He took me to change, as we had dinner plans, of course. We went to Cascias (Lisbon suburb) to the Design Hotel there (each room designed by a different person), a boutique hotel of fabulous proportions, for dinner. Dinis, the owner of the hotel, restaurant and adjoining club, Nuts Club, was a friend of theirs and hosted 10 of us for sushi. He shared with me that Uma (Thurman) and Andre (Balazs) finally called it quits this week, and I shared him with him how to make a good saketini to accompany his sushi: “The drink of next summer, for sure. Thank you for that.” After a quick peek at Bob Sinclair, seemingly “the” world’s #1 DJ of the moment, who was playing at the club, and the rumor of Athena Onassis staying on premises, I had to call it quits. It was well after 3 and I had an 8 AM train to Lagos in the morning.

Think I made my train? Think again.

More soon.

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