Monthly Archives: January 2010
When Monsieur and I travelled through Vietnam some time back, this fascinating country and its people had such a profound effect on me that I haven’t yet blogged about it. Every time I think of our journey, my mind fills with such a kaleidoscope of vistas and tastes and people and experiences that it overwhelms. But now, sixteen months later, I’m going to try to share our experiences.
To start with, here’s a synopsis of how we did it. We didn’t see everything that we wanted to see, because Vietnam is a big place with troublesome roads and slow trains and we only had two weeks within which to learn how to cross the roads and explore as much of the country as possible. The upshot of that is that there’s plenty to keep us busy when we go back one day. And we will go back one day. If I could wangle it, I’d go back right this minute.
GETTING THERE AND BACK:
Monsieur and I flew on Eva Air from London to Bangkok because direct flights from London to Vietnam are exorbitant and this way we’d both save money and see a little bit of Thailand. It’s significantly cheaper for UK residents to fly to Bangkok and then hop across to Vietnam on one of the region’s low cost airlines. In our case we flew Air Asia from Bangkok to Hanoi, and from Ho Chi Minh City back to Bangkok. Air Asia is cheap and efficient, but the baggage allowance is a meagre 15 kilos. Going out, this wasn’t a problem and my packed suitcase only weighed 10 kilos, which is somewhat of an achievement for this girl scout who likes to be prepared for all eventualities. Quite naturally, as we travelled about, Monsieur and I picked up more baggage weight in the form of clothes and gifts for family and friends, so that by the time we left Vietnam, our baggage excess was such that we had to pay a hefty $125 US dollars. The way we looked at it this was that once added to the cost of the flights themselves it just made the flights feel more regular in price as opposed to a real bargain. You have been warned.
Internally we flew Vietnam Airlines, which we found to be pretty good. We later found out that they have a terrible reputation but that wasn’t our experience at all. Had we had more time, we would have liked to try the train that travels up and down Vietnam, but unfortunately the journey times were too long to be practical for us.
So here’s what we got up to. It would be great if you pick out something that you’d like to hear about, leave it in the comments and I’ll write it up for you.
Day 1 – Arrive in Bangkok. Stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Swim off the travel grime and enjoy lovely buffet at the hotel.
Day 2 – Breakfast by the river. Hire a driver to take us around Bangkok for 5 hours for the equivalent of a 15 minute cab ride in London. We manage to take in the Golden Buddha, the Grand Palace and a vibrant weekend market before returning to the hotel. Cocktails at the Sirocco Bar with fantastic views over Bangkok and dinner at the Blue Elephant.
Day 3 – Fly to Hanoi. Have fun with immigration officials and ATMs at Hanoi airport. Stay at the beautiful Sofitel Metropole Hotel. Learn to cross streets without being mown down by a tidal wave of mopeds. Walk to old town via Hoan Kiem Lake. Visit Ngoc Son temple. Circle the lake. Dinner at the Spices Garden restaurant at the hotel.
Day 4 – Take tour to Halong Bay. Long day. Epic ingests an entire dish of MSG. By herself. And suffers the consequences.
Day 5 – Walk around Hanoi. Visit Temple of Literature, Hanoi Hilton. Just about evaporate in the heat and humidity.
Day 6 – Fly to Danang. Pass China Beach on way to Hoi An. Stay at Ha An Hotel. Lunch at Banana Leaf. Do walking tour of Old Town – temples, Japanese Bridge, a ‘real’ Vietnamese home etc. Visit Yaly tailors. Dinner at Mango Rooms.
Day 7 – Fitting at Yaly then a lazy day at nearby Cua Dai Beach. Lunch at the beach. Dinner at Brothers Café.
Day 8 – Fly to Nha Trang. Stay at Six Senses resort. Laze around at the beach and in the pool. Dinner and DVDs in our room. We need to slow down for a couple of days, and so we do just that.
Day 9 – All meals taken at the hotel. The much-needed chilling-out period after so much travelling helps a lot so we spend another day at the beach.
Day 10 – Travel by road to Dalat. Looks close on map. Takes hours each way. Visit our driver’s family shrine, rest stop in village, see Dalat train station, Prenn Falls. See coffee/ tapioca/sugar cane plantations. Afternoon at Dalat Palace Golf Club. Interesting drive back to Nha Trang with our fascinating driver. Much of our conversation is taken up by what Vietnamese eat, which is just about everything.
Day 11 – Another day chilling out. Vietnamese coffee rocks. We watch Vietnamese musicians at dinner. We also have a sunburn relief massage with fresh aloe vera. I’d never had a massage before. What total decadence!
Day 12 – Fly to Ho Chi Minh City. Stay at Majestic Hotel on Dong Khoi. It rains buckets. Visit the post office, haggle with street vendors, give thanks for safe travels at Notre Dame Cathedral. Walk to Reunification Palace. Dinner at M Bar with great views over river. That river is a floating highway, even at night.
Day 13 – take tour out of HCMC. Visit Cu Chi Tunnels and My Tho on the Mekong Delta. Boat ride to Ben Tre for lunch. Coconut candy factory, snakes and longboats. Cao Dai Temple. Lacquerware factory visit. Dinner with Adam from Vietnam Travel Notes – we go to Bin Thanh Market together. REALLY good night!
Day 14 – last day in Vietnam. Shopping in town. Lunch at Lemongrass. Dong Khoi. Back to the airport. Long delay because of riots in Bangkok. Stay at The Peninsula Hotel.
Day 15 – Fly home with a head full of wonderful, colourful memories of Vietnam.
+16 months – Epic finally gets around to blogging about it.
Tonight is Burns Night, the celebration of the birthday of Scotland’s favourite poet, Robert Burns. (To learn more about Burns Night, see my previous post, here.) To prepare us for this important event, Qype arranged a wonderful evening for Qypers, at Salt Bar in London’s Marble Arch. There, we were to taste three single malt whiskies, courtesy of Talisker, one of the proud single malt whisky labels owned by drinks giant, Diageo.
Needless to say, what with escaping the demands of work and dealing with slow public transport, I was late. I missed the piper who piped beautiful Scottish sounds into this Edgware Road bar. I missed the Address to a Haggis, with sharpened dirk ready to slice into the swollen ball that is a haggis. I missed the smoked salmon blinis that accompanied the Talisker 10 Year Old. But that was all. In true Epicurienne style, and knowing already a thing or two about Burns Night, I caught up quickly once I arrived.
As I entered the ground floor space at Salt Bar I noticed that it was filled with a great many pairs of eyes fixed on a man called Colin. Ah, my fellow Qypers. What a gluttonous bunch we are. Mention food, whisky, cocktails or something else worthy of placing in one’s mouth and you have our full attention. I knew I was in the right place.
Jo from Grayling sped the second whisky of three across to me as I tentatively encroached on the otherwise full bar. You see, Colin was in full swing. Our whisky coach for the evening, he was expounding on the virtues of Talisker. Right now we were sipping on drams of Talisker Distiller’s Edition – a delightful mouthful of deep sm0kiness. Colin told us that it had tones of Muscatel, dates and stewed fruits. All I could taste was a whisky-imbued smokehouse. As I like smoked fish, smoked cheese, smoked ham – this was a very good way to start the evening for this particular latecomer, but I obviously need to work on my whisky palate.
As my fellow Qypers tucked into beautifully-presented rounds of haggis layered with neeps and tatties, I headed once more for Grayling P.R.’s Jo Seymour-Taylor.
“I was late, I know. I’m sorry about that. But do you think I could try the first Talisker? Just so that I can compare.” I asked.
Jo was charm personified, whizzing off to the bar to find me a dram of the whisky I’d missed. When she returned, I sipped on the Talisker Ten Year Old, and sighed.
“It’s very good, a bit salty, still smoky…” I told her, “but the Distiller’s Edition has spoilt me. I enjoyed it so much that this now doesn’t seem half as wonderful as it would without comparison.” Impractical though it may be, I’ve always had expensive tastes.
Jo smiled at my honesty, turning to introduce me to a surprise – the calligrapher named Paul. There he sat, patient with pen and ink as he inscribed hardback notebook after notebook for every guest.
“What’s your name?” he asked, and so I told him, and a few minutes later, my notebook lay amongst the others left to dry. What a superb touch, I thought. To invite people who like to write to an event and then to give them something in which to write! That’s what I call consideration of your audience.
Next, I was introduced to Colin, our expert for the evening. I explained I’d arrived late as I’d had to cross town and he simply replied “shall I teach you how to taste whisky, then?”
I held my glass of the third and final Talisker for the evening - Talisker 57 degrees North, named for the location of the distillery and also its alcohol content (ouch), and followed Colin’s instructions. I placed my hand over the glass and swilled it in circles. Lifting my hand I sniffed and oh my sainted trousers, what an aroma there was now, thanks to all that swilling releasing fumes enough to entice a pack of single-malt – loving hounds from across the nearest three neighbourhoods.
“Now sip, but do not swallow.” Colin was a firm tasting master.
“Move the whisky around your mouth for fourteen seconds.” We counted. Obviously my counting was done in my head, lest I spurt good single malt across my new friends.
“When you get close to fourteen, the flavours will explode in your mouth,” Colin told me. And so they did. It was veritably difficult to hold it in without becoming a human fountain of whisky, but the increase in flavours was worth the heat now pervading my mouth.
“I taste everything like this,” Colin admitted, “Whisky, wine, spirits. This is how you find the true taste of a drink.” Well, I’m a convert. That Talisker 57 Degrees North was something else. It wasn’t exactly sweet, nor was it as robust as the first Talisker of the evening, nor as smoky as the second. Yet there remained hints of smokiness with a touch of peat and citrus. Ah, the citrus was what paired it so well with the final solids of the evening: chocolate mousse, elegantly served in flutes.
Colin was not done with me yet, though.
“Pour a little of the whisky onto the mousse,” he suggested, and I did so obediently. The next mouthful of smooth chocolate had a heady enhancement of whisky. And why not? My mother makes fabulous chocolate mousse laced with Cointreau. Single malt fabulosity drizzled on chocolate mousse was not something I’d tried before, yet it tasted oh so very right. Thank you, Colin. I’m now hooked on chocolate mousse with whisky. How’s that for a new vice?
The next person with whom I chatted was the manager of Salt Bar, an amiable chap called Vansi Putta. We marvelled together at the display of whisky bottles around the bar. Some names were familiar: Glenmorangie, Glenfiddich, Laphroaig, Cragganmore and Dalwhinnie. Others, made me smile with their funny Scottish names, especially Knockando!!
Vansi explained that Salt Bar has a whisky specialism, and they even provide Whisky Tours. For instance, for £25.00 you can go from the Highlands (Clynelish 14 yrs) to the Lowlands (Auchentoshan 10 yrs) to Campbelltown (Springbank 10 yrs) and Islay (Caol Ila 12 yrs) via none other than Speyside (Macallan 10 yrs fine oak).
If you want to go international, you can try Glenfiddich Solaro Reserve from Scotland, Bushmills 3 Wood 16 years from Ireland, Suntory Yamazaki 18 years from Japan, Monkey Shoulder vatted malt and a good ol’ Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel from the States. That will set you back a cool £35.00 a head, but oh, what a journey.
By now I just had time for one of the Talisker cocktails on offer, so chose the Cool Walker. The recipe goes like this:
40 ml Talisker 10 yrs old
15 ml Drambuie
10 ml Lime Juice
10 ml Gomme
Add ingredients to Boston Glass, shake and strain into highball glass filled with ice. Top with ginger ale.
My, if I’d enjoyed the Talisker drams of earlier, this was a very pleasant surprise. I’d just been telling Colin how my parents have always recommended taking single malt neat, to get the true flavour. But here was a cocktail made with a single malt and it was refreshing enough to drink in summer. So perhaps from now on I won’t view whisky as a drink for the snow days.
On the way out, the guests all received a goodie bag, filled with Talisker treats. There was a small bottle of Talisker 10 Year Old, a Talisker tumbler in which to drink our Talisker, the beautifully inscribed notebook and…
a book to help us celebrate Burns Night in true Scottish style by Burns Night expert, Clark McGinn, who’d earlier read the Address to A Haggis and proffered his dirk:
So, with at least fifty per cent of me coming from The Land of Wee Kilties, tonight I’ll have me a wee haggis, a wee tumbler filled wi’ a wee dram o’ Talisker, and a few mouthfuls of neeps and tatties. But in the interests of keeping my waistline, I might pass on the choccy mousse and save it for special occasions.
Happy Burns Night to you ALL!!!
**Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787: 2 years before the French Revolution and 11 years after the United States of America won its independence from England. This is one of the best known likenesses of Rabbie Burns and hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
Burns Night is a timely evening to beat the Northern Hemisphere January blues, when every UK day starts as dark as night and the sun sets at a depressing 4.30pm. Celebrated on 25 January, Burns Night is a particularly special time for Scots, when they remember the birthday of their esteemed poet and fellow countryman, Robert or ‘Rabbie’ Burns (1759-1796).
A traditional Burns Night event will kick off with a few wee drams (small measures) of something toasty like a good single malt whisky, which serves both to warm the extremities and to lubricate the tonsils of those bold enough to recite some lines of fine Scottish literature for their friends, often from the works of Burns himself. Then, moving to the table, the Selkirk Grace may be said before the starter is served.
“Some hae meat and canna eat, And some wad eat that want it; But we hae meat, and we can eat, And sae the Lord be thankit.”
“Some have meat and cannot eat, Some cannot eat that want it; But we have meat and we can eat, So let the Lord be thankit.”
Next, if you happen to know someone who deafened the neighbourhood with bagpipe practice sessions whilst growing up, you would hopefully forget past pain and ask them nicely to attend your Burns Night Supper to pipe in the haggis to one of those famed kilt-swinging tunes, like Brose and Butter. If you don’t happen to have such a friend, you can always book a piper for the night (although I’d recommend doing so well in advance as this is one of the busiest nights of a pro-piper’s year). Where a piper is either unavailable or unattainable, you could always play a CD of a good solo piper. If you choose the latter, I would definitely advise avoiding recordings where guitars and/or brass bands are involved. It won’t provide the same sort of atmosphere.
As the piper plays, the chef will carry the haggis with great reverence to the table, where it is set before the host/ess on a plate called The Groaning Trencher. Then the guest with the greatest penchant for dramatics and vocal cords loosened by a quick few drams will speak to the haggis with Burns’ poem, aptly named ‘Address To A Haggis’.
The mere mention of haggis is enough to make many a grown man squirm, once they understand that it consists of a sheep’s stomach bag, stuffed with the sheep’s liver, lungs and heart, which have been blended with onions, suet, oatmeal and stock. In spite of sounding like a murder scene, it’s really rather tasty, although there is a growing demand for vegetarian versions containing kidney beans, lentils, nuts and vegetables in place of the bodily remains of a former sheep and somehow, I don’t think it’s only vegetarians who might opt for the vege version; the thought of eating a literal stomach full of offal could be understandably off-putting, even to a hardy carnivore.
The usual way to serve a haggis is with neeps and tatties, which to all the non-Scots among my readers translates as mashed turnips or swede (the neeps) and mashed potatoes (the tatties).
Prior to serving, the haggis is ceremonially sliced open with a lethal-looking knife called a dirk, as the piper, chef and performer of the Address receive a thank you dram of good Scottish whisky. Some people pour a little whisky onto their serving of haggis to add to the flavour whilst purists steer clear of such practices, preferring to keep their haggis and whisky quite separate and unadulterated. Either way, the haggis forms the focus of the event that is Burns’ Night.
As whisky and ale flows and wallflowers find the (Dutch) courage to stand up and sing or recite a wee bit of Burns, the evening will progress in a warm haze, and perhaps some fun will be had as the group takes to the floor for some group dancing, known by those from north of Hadrian’s Wall as ‘reeling’ which, after a few exhausting rounds of the room, you will be. And so it is that Burns Night is celebrated to a greater or lesser degree in Scotland and wherever in the world the Scots have dispersed. To illustrate the importance of Burns Night, according to recent analysis of the Burns Economy, there are currently around 10,000 Burns Night Suppers held internationally, a statistic which I personally consider to be conservative. In any case that means that come Tuesday of next week, all over the world there will be many, many thousands of sore heads.
To prepare us for the possibilities of this year’s Burns Night, earlier this week a group of Qypers was invited to a Burns event at Salt Bar in London’s Marble Arch, courtesy of Talisker single malt whiskies. It was a fascinating evening, with excellent whiskies, food, experts and calligraphy. My next post will tell you how it all went, so tune in for more Burns Night fun, including how to get the most out of your dram and mouth-watering suggestions for matching whisky with food.
In the meantime:
- There are eight stanzas to Burns’ ‘Address To A Haggis’ and it takes some working out if you’re not accustomed to reading Scots, so here’s a link to a truly comprehensive Burns site, where the hard words have a multi-lingual glossary attached to them – just click on the troublesome word, which is highlighted, to find its meaning. http://www.robertburns.org/works/147.shtml)
- Did you know that Rabbie Burns wrote ‘Auld Lang Syne’, which so many of us, Scots and non-Scots alike, sing on New Year’s Eve?
- Did you know that Rabbie Burns died of a heart condition at the age of 37? His youngest son, Maxwell, was born that same day.
- In 2009 an STV survey of the public found Rabbie Burns to be The Greatest Scot. Well done, Rabbie! Now, that’s what I call cause for celebration.
Last Sunday I decided that something had to be done about my current addiction to (a) duvets, (b) blankets and (c) our gas fire. Donning as many layers as possible I took my camera to photograph the canals of Little Venice, which had frozen over.
Looking down Regent’s Canal from the blue Warwick Avenue bridge the canal looked more like a road you could drive along, rather than a waterway to float along.
A rare patch of water was visible under the other side of the blue bridge. Further along I found the beautiful red puppet theatre barge, which brought its optimism to the otherwise grey-and-white day.
Around the corner, poor old Jason sat quite inert. In the warmer months of the year he keeps busy chugging tourists up to Camden Lock and back, but now the canals are frozen solid so there’ll be no chugging for Jason for a while.
Some local folk had been testing the solidity of the ice, throwing bricks and other rubbish onto the canals to see whether the ice would break. It didn’t for this piece of scrap metal that will soon be polluting Browning’s Pond.
I once watched someone walk across an iced-over canal in Regent’s Park, but didn’t feel like risking an icy bath by trying to do so here. Meanwhile, in Scotland, a couple of joy-riding youths narrowly escaped death this week when they took their Peugeot 406 for a spin on the frozen Union Canal. Were their brains frozen? Apparently so.
This barge-café was open as usual, serving mugs of tea and coffee to walkers in need of somewhere to thaw.
Looking back at the Puppet Theatre and the blue bridge on Warwick Avenue, all of Browning’s Pool had disappeared beneath the ice.
The seagulls and other inhabitants of Browning’s Island took to their feet, walking about the ice in confusion. Where had the water gone?
Bilster wisely wore a coat against the weather.
And Bilster had obviously been around for a while, having been part of the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company, in the days where the canals were used to transport goods up and down the country. FYI London hasn’t seen a phone number like CITY 4755 for quite some years.
The plants on this barge were hardy in the cold, but still I wondered if they might like to be taken inside to warm up, if only for a little while.
Further along, I met a swan in a patch of water near Paddington. He was swimming in circles, bleating at me as he searched in vain for his friends. Where had they gone? How ever had he been abandoned?
Still, he seemed happy of my company, even if the other walkers looked at me with concern each time I replied to his cries with a quack of my own.
Near Paddington I found a barge with homely plume of smoke coming from its chimney and two loads of firewood stacked on its roof. The occupants must be long-time residents of the canal and know how to protect themselves against the elements.
It was time to turn back. At Browning’s Pond the island’s usual population of Canada Geese were on the ice, preening themselves with the aid of watery reflections.
But now it was time to trudge home, careful not to slip or do involuntary ballet-like manoeuvres in an attempt to stay upright on icy patches. Enough of ice and snow. Bring on the gas fire, duvets and blankets!
Isn’t it wonderful to travel somewhere, knowing exactly where you will eat that first bite of something that locals relish just as much as visitors to their neighbourhood surely will? When Monsieur and I travelled for the first time to Lisbon recently, it was with exactly this sort of anticipation that my belly growled en route. Forget Christmas; I no longer count the days to Yuletide, but tell me about a place where chicken drips off the bone in flavoursome mounds, and I will count weeks and hours and minutes to that first taste.
So it was with Bom Jardim, meaning ‘nice’ or ‘fair garden’ in Portuguese, although there is no garden to speak of at this establishment, tucked away carefully down a non-descript alley near Restauradores. But for those in the know, there is the olfactory signpost of wafting chicken-y smells to lure one away from the nearby broad, tourist drag to a slope of outdoor tables wobbling on Lisboan cobbles.
Monsieur and I had barely arrived in Lisbon when we dined at Bom Jardim, so keen we were to sample their signature rotisserie chicken. Following a white-aproned waiter we sniffed our way up well-trodden stairs in pursuit of the perfume of roasting birds. There we found a dining room brightened by strip lighting, the floors more practical than smart, the tables more functional than elegant and the decor understated yet unmistakably Portuguese with traditional tiling halfway up the walls. Chefs sweltered in the heat of the kitchen, open to all passers-by, whilst large family groups tousled over legs and breasts and couples canoodled as chicken juice dripped down their chins.
Monsieur and I sat to concentrate on our menus, which in places had been erased by hungry hands. We didn’t need menus, though. I knew exactly what we’d order: a platter of roast chicken to share, straightforward chips and salad, some ham and a plate of salt cod croquettes to start, and a couple of icy cold Super Bocks – the local brew – to quench post-flight thirst.
“I don’t know why we have to have chicken on our first night.” Monsieur commented. “You cook perfectly good chicken at home.”
“That’s the whole point,” I replied. “I’m not cooking. This will be a real holiday for me – with someone else doing all the hard work.” A grin spread across my face at the thought.
As is the way in Portugal, unsolicited bread and butter was presented to us first, along with a plate of cheese. This would be charged to us if we ate it. The bread stayed, the cheese was sent away, but we were still charged for both. Did this matter? Not a jot, although we’d be firmer about whether or not we accepted such things in future. In any case, the starters had arrived and we were now busy sampling Bom Jardim’s offerings.
The ham was cured and considerably drier than the Italian equivalents to which we are accustomed. It was like eating slivers of dry gammon with a tang of vinegar on the tongue followed by the taste of honey. At €8.00 for the plate, this was well worth the price, but I couldn’t say the same for the salt cod croquettes. They weren’t expensive; not in the least at €0.85 each. We ordered four and I was so looking forward to them, being somewhat of an a-fish-ionada, but they were so akin to cardboard in texture that they stuck to the palate in the most unpalatable of ways. This was disappointing. How would it bode for the chicken?
To its redeeming credit, Bom Jardim is not a salt-cod croquette specialist. It is a rotisserie chicken-lover’s destination. Our chicken duly arrived, already carved into quarters on a large plate. It smelled delightful and tasted the same – juicy, tender, moist (that unavoidable adjective we so love to hate) and filled with flavour. At €9.40 for the entire bird, this has to go down as one of the most worthwhile culinary bargains in Western Europe. The fries were forgettable, the salad very carrot-heavy, as we’d find with so many Portuguese salads during our stay, and you can forget those cardboard croquettes, but the chicken, oh what a bird. Served with a little jar of piri-piri, we brushed the flesh with chilli, taking care not to leave random bristles behind, but I found the piri-piri quite unnecessary. This chicken is perfectly capable of standing on its own succulent merits and is also capable of filling the bellies of a pair of famished travellers following a long day on the hoof. So much so, in fact, that we had no room for dessert, but if the croquettes and side dishes were anything to go by, nothing on the menu could equal the chicken, so skipping dessert could be no bad thing.
Monsieur and I paid thirty something Euros for our Bom Jardim dinner. Including 4 beers, a whole chicken, bottled water, 2 starters and 2 side dishes, that’s pretty competitive and should we ever find ourselves in Lisbon again (and I sincerely hope we do) we’ll definitely return for more of the wonderful Bom Jardim chicken because it was truly BOM BOM BOM! But next time, I think we can forget about those cardboard croquettes.
Travessa de Santo Antão 12
1150 Lisboa, Portugal
213 427 424
How to find it:
Standing on the Avenida da Liberdade with your back to the sea, it is down a little alley by the Santander bank on the right hand side of the avenue as you look up the hill. It’s not far from the big needle-type monument at the Restauradores end of the avenue. Find the alley and follow the scent of roasting chickens to find Bom Jardim.
(Painting by Manuela Gouveia, in Lisbon’s Sofitel Hotel, Room 7-11, just like the convenience stores.)
Until November, Lisbon was uncharted territory for Monsieur and me, yet we’d decided to go and check out both Lisbon and Madeira for various reasons, being: (a) we’d never been to Portugal, (b) the flights and accommodation were insanely cheap as November is low season, (c) it’s not too far from us in London and (d) the weather would be considerably warmer than in England. We also had a bunch of leave to use up before the end of the year.
We’d heard unending positive reviews from those who’d been there before us. One colleague has a holiday home in the Algarve and another goes to Portugal for R&R every year without fail. The Epic Brother had visited friends there earlier in the year and raved about the Portuguese, how helpful and welcoming and warm they are without being flashy or in-your-face. Then others told me that to be in Portugal was like being in a world between worlds; that sometimes it seems modern and at others it’s quite medieval, but nonetheless enchanting. Monsieur and I were now keen to check it out for ourselves.
Our first good impression on arriving in Lisbon was created by the weather: for a Northern Hemisphere November, to find 18 degrees Celsius awaiting us at 7.30pm on a Friday night was an excellent way to start our holiday.
Customs was unusually straightforward, the luggage caroussel quick to produce our suitcases, and, as an added bonus for the traveller disembarking with a growl in their tum – all around baggage claim were opportunities to grab a snack. There were little shops selling food, a well-stocked café, and a woman with a trolley laden with crisps, drinks and plastic containers filled with fresh fruit. Now, that’s what I call civilised.
On a more romantic note, as we waited for our bags, a tall black man walked past us in robes of flowing gold. On his feet were pointy-toed slippers of cream silk and on his head sat a loosely-wound turban. Not only was the man a reminder of Portugal’s colonialist ties, he was the picture of orientalist elegance as he glided on by, a good head or more taller than anyone else in the hall, his robes glistening against the blue-black of his skin.
Once land-side, I noticed something rarer than a two-trunked elephant: a properly-stocked information desk with real maps, not just those freebie maps for tourists that only show one in four streets (never the one you’re actually looking for) and which never, ever show the routes to or from the airport. Here at Lisbon airport there were city maps, regional maps and maps of the entire country, stood on racks alongside guides from various publishers. This is just what’s needed at every airport in the world. I was impressed.
We didn’t wait long for a cab to our hotel on Avenida da Liberdade and our driver was patient with our novice attempts at speaking Portuguese, phonetic phrasebook in hand. The road leading away from the airport was lined with big, square houses, reminiscent of the architecture we’d seen in Melaka, Malaysia, where the Portuguese once ruled the roost. Many sported a deep rusty red colour, also familiar from our Malaysian travels. It struck me that we’d seen the effects of a country out there before understanding it’s background, which was now right here in front of us. It may be a back-to-front way to travel, but it works.
It was also soon apparent that the Lisboetas like their monuments, especially large ones parked at the centre of busy roundabouts. We circled two elaborate examples and spotted a couple more during the 15 minute ride to the hotel, and would see a lot more in the course of the next few days. Lisbon’s stonemasonry rocks.
(I’m terrible at night photography but this is one monument at Restauradores, on Avenida da Liberdade, and this monument is small compared to some of the others we saw!)
A modest €7.00 later, we arrived at the Avenida da Liberdade. It is a long, wide thoroughfare, with dual carriageway through the middle separated from extra lanes at either side by islands planted with mature trees. For November the branches were decorated with weepy drops of twinkling white lights and one corner building was wrapped like a gift box with a gigantic illuminated bow, a hint that Christmas would be upon us within a matter of weeks.
Monsieur and I like the Accor hotel chain when we travel. They always look after us well. This time we were staying at one of their Sofitels. The lobby was decorated in reds and blacks and golds in what would have been quite an asiatic style but for the pair of golden angels clinging to the wall behind reception. The concierge treated us to free welcome drink vouchers and a room upgrade as we checked in – another positive to travelling out of season, no doubt - and a few minutes later we were walking into our room overlooking the Avenida. Once again the décor had the hint of asia with dark wooden furniture of Japanese style and the walls hung with striking paintings of silhouettes on a red background – by Manuela Gouveia.
(a Sofitel bed. See how SOFT it looks? And it’s even better when you lie down on it. If you never go to Sofitel for any other reason, do at least go to try out their beds.)
There was also an unexpected surprise waiting for us: on the desk sat a cellophane-wrapped plate of half a dozen pasteis da nata, or the special custard-filled tarts for which Lisbon is famous. But best of all was that Sofitel bed. All you have to do is look at one to know that when you slip into it, the linens will be cool and their trademark mattress topper will support you in such luxurious comfort that you will dream of sleeping on marshmallow beds in a land constructed entirely of clouds. Monsieur and I are not the only ones who feel this way, either; next to the bed was a brochure outlining Sofitel beds and Sofitel pillows and the Sofitel bed linens and mattress toppers and everything you could possibly wish for when trying to recreate the Sofitel bed experience at home. Alas, the prices are steep. You’ll have to be an exceptionally good girl or boy for Santa to put Sofitel bed things in your stocking at Christmas. Either that or exceptionally rich.
(I’m not even into custard but these cunning little pastries foxed me into enjoying their sweet creamy wickedness. Note that there are only 5 on the plate in this photo. One has already been wolfed. I won’t say by whom.)
Before we could even think about sleeping, however, Monsieur and I had a date with a rotisserie chicken at the nearby Bom Jardim restaurant. It was time to see whether this bastion of Portuguese chicken was all it was cracked up to be.