Claire and I stopped, panting, at the metal rods that closed a narrow road to traffic. We had been given detailed directions and followed them closely but were lost, struggling to find the home of Ivone and Vitor Mascarenhas or the remains of a small fishing village that apparently surrounded it.
My mother’s friend Eugenia had bought a house in Portugal, near the beach, not long before our trip started. I contacted her, hoping (as budget travellers do) that she could accommodate us for a few days. She said she could, at her home in Lagos, and suggested that her parents, who live in Cascais, just outside Lisbon, might be as willing. Ivone and Vitor Mascarenhas are her parents.
I felt somewhat ridiculous, wandering through the traffic in Cascais without a map, searching for the home of a couple in their early eighties, who I had never met and was not entirely sure could speak English.
After retracing my steps, I found the house only a short walk from where I had left Claire and the bags, and rang the bell. I introduced myself – Ivone refused to shake my hand, insisting that I bend down and kiss both cheeks – and darted off, rapidly explaining that I had to fetch my girlfriend.
We were immediately fed ham and cheese sandwiches. Vitor plied us with beer and, feigning reluctance, told us their story. Born in what is now Maputo, in Mozambique (which they helplessly refer to as Lorenzo Marques), Mr and Mrs Mascarenhas met, married and built their lives there. They lost three houses when the communist government nationalised most of the property. Deported for arcane reasons, they moved to Johannesburg, but were soon allowed to return, after Vitor’s powerful golf buddy intervened.
But they still pronounced “Africa” with an intoxicated roll of the “r” and accentuated final “a.” They felt alienated from the Portuguese, despite having retired to the country about twenty years earlier. Their only attempt to return to Mozambique since the move, for a holiday, had been abandoned because Vitor required emergency medical treatment.
Ivone and Vitor were privately dubbed Mr and Mrs M, by both of us. We were unsure of how an easy assumption of first names might be taken, across generations and a culture. And we worried about forgetting, at some crucial moment, the unfamiliar surname.
Mrs M cooked us steak that evening, ignoring our bumbling offer to buy our food in town, and Mr M chased us out shortly after supper. In six short days Claire and I were to skip through Portugal, visiting only Lisbon and Lagos, the country’s two busabout stops. Mr M persistently tried to make us stay for longer, arguing that our short visit would be completely inadequate, and shook his head in mock despair whenever we loitered at the house.
A full moon had risen above Cascais, lighting the table filled streets. People sat hurriedly cracking and tearing at seafood laden platters. Away from the pedestrianised centre, traffic moved quickly though a confusing network of one way streets. A recent suggestion, to upgrade Cascais from a village to the more accurate description of town, had apparently been rejected by its residents. Claire and I sat on the shore, debating the finer points of European ice cream, watching reflections flicker on a calm Atlantic.
We slept late the next day, tired from our exertions in Galicia. After breakfast we were again chased from the house by Mr M, towards the station and a train to Lisbon.
The track ran close to the water, through a few tunnels. I looked straight onto the sea from the elevation of my seat, as if I were in or above it. A bearded man in a cowboy hat kicked my feet, grumbling, when I stretched out, poking my legs underneath the seat in front of me.
Land eventually appeared on the opposite bank, just discernable through a thick mist. We had entered the vast mouth of the Tagus River, the simple explanation for the existence of Lisbon. The city is prime property and has passed through the hands of Europe’s empire builders. The Carthaginians established a trading post here, after defeating the native Iberians. Rome followed, and in its decline was replaced by the Visigoths and then the Moors. The Christians, with early ideas of nationalism, arrived most recently, during the Reconquista.
Lisbon became the centre of a busily trading world after Bartholomew Diaz, a Portuguese explorer, rounded Africa at the Cape of Good Hope in 1487. He opened a sea route to the Indies, for which the city was ideally located, and Portugal enjoyed a brief golden age. After the country was conquered by Spain, in 1580, decline set in quickly.
A massive earthquake destroyed much of Lisbon in 1755 and many of the built relics of its long past were presumably lost.
The train’s last stop was near the Praça Comercial, an intended gate to the city. We strolled to the square past ferries departing for Madeira, which we whimsically discussed catching, and lingered a while at the statue of a long dead king, before entering the streets of Alfama through a triumphal arch. A glut of narrow restaurants lined the streets, displaying fresh and strong smelling fish in their windows.
Alfama, the city’s oldest quarter, was little affected by the earthquake. It is cobbled onto the sides of a steep hill, the river at its base and the city’s castle at its peak. We weaved our way haphazardly uphill to the well preserved Castle of St George. It looks down from what seems an unconquerable height, but it is here that the city’s past is easiest to trace. A multimedia auditorium had been squeezed between the low ceilings of an antiquated building. We filed in, watched a hazy, piecemeal history of Lisbon, and filed out, to walk along the ramparts of the last redoubt. It more easily prodded my boyish imagination.
We left the castle and bought a snack lunch and a beer at a café just outside its walls. Locals traipsed in and out, some pushing squealing babies in dilapidated prams, shouting jovially at the owner. The bill, for both of us, came to little over €5. A beer cost just 75c. I had previously thought it impossible to find locals and cheap fare at a café anywhere near a tourist attraction in Western Europe.
We wound our way back down the hill, to Praça Pedro IV, which we had seen from above. The square was a mess of badly planned traffic and we had to battle past drivers determinedly ignoring pedestrians. A scream rose above the growl of engines. A young woman sprinted past us, followed by another, and a man with what looked like a flabby, red growth, covering his entire face, then wobbled past, on our other side. The stall holders opposite us were waving their arms furiously, shouting incomprehensibly. We were unable to establish what had happened and could only look on, befuddled.
A fashion shoot was in painful progress on the square. We watched for a while, took some photos of our own, and carried on, along Portugal’s decorative pavements, through a street filled with brightly painted model cows. The pavements are made from fist sized stones of either black or a dirty white. Ebony patterns, different on almost every street, are carefully traced along the ivory base. They are impractical – slippery and expensive to maintain – but also unusually beautiful, partly because your feet fall on what is so obviously frivolous.
We drifted aimlessly through the run down centre of Lisbon, noticing peeling plaster and paint, chipped tiles on houses covered entirely by the intricate ceramics, and the Portuguese flag flying everywhere, not long after the World Cup. We sat on a street corner, watching people very slowly climb a hill rather than wait for the infrequent yellow trams. Near the top of the hill we came across a small park, the rich smell of hashish drifting through it, adjoined by a sleek, modern bar with panoramic views of the city. We entered. The mist that had obstructed our view that morning had cleared, and I could at last see clearly the long suspension bridge that crossed the river, a statue of Christ standing with open arms on the other side.
Claire and I had discussed teaching English in Spain, to learn Spanish, if we are happy doing the same job in China. Sipping a beer above Lisbon I pondered the growing importance of Portuguese – a consequence of Brazil’s fast expanding economy – and decided it might be an equally good idea to live here, and learn this language. Quickly imagined new lives are a symptom of travelling, and perhaps the truest way to test your feelings about a place.
I’ve imagined alternate lives since I was 12. Wading through unusually warm water at my grandparents’ home in Yzerfontein, on South Africa’s West Coast, I lyrically described the simple life to my mother. I explained to her how I could happily work as a fisherman there, close to nature, with little more than fish to eat and a modest roof over my head. Unfortunately, a cloud of small jellyfish had drifted to Yzerfontein with the warm water and I was at that moment stung across my thigh. The idea was quickly abandoned, replaced by much more heartfelt yelps.
We left the bar and walked down to the river. The moon was rising underneath the suspension bridge by the time we reached it, watched by men who were tackling up to fish after work. After ambling along the river’s banks for a while we caught a train back to Cascais.
I turned the key three times in the wrong direction at the Mascarenhas’s house, and locked us out. Mrs M was, luckily, still awake. She unfortunately had to wake up Mr M, who chirpily let us in through the garage.
We went for a swim in the chilly Atlantic the next morning, and lazed on the beach amongst the very bronzed. Mrs M fed us again that afternoon, a lunch of shrimps in a white sauce. Mr M patrolled with a bottle of red wine, refusing to go for his habitual siesta until we had accepted a glass. After lunch, Mrs M tutted worriedly in the passenger seat, with some justification, while Mr M drove us chaotically around Cascais and the surrounding coastline, before dropping us off at the station.
The train to Lagos we had optimistically hoped to catch was full. We had to wait three hours for the next available seats and arrived after midnight, much later than expected. Gleefully happy with the offer of a free house in a foreign country, Claire and I had done very little research, instead imagining Lagos to be a somewhat rural idyll, with a satisfactory number of bars and other useful amenities. But, trying to find Eugenia’s house amongst often unmarked, randomly arranged streets, we bumped our way through crowds of pleasure seekers, commuting between busy bars and souvenir stalls.
Eugenia was away, visiting her son in Australia. She had initially planned to meet us, but had found herself detained down under. We were ushered into her dusty house by a kindly neighbour, who we found staring forlornly out of her window, wondering when we would arrive.
Although disappointed that Eugenia, one of my mother’s most interesting friends, would not be there, Claire and I relished the idea of having our own place, after so many dirty hotel rooms and hostel beds. Portugal, the land that invented piri piri, was something of a culinary homecoming for me. I wanted to cook with it, everything that I could, in a kitchen that was temporarily all my own. There was little else to do in Lagos, other than wander down its ornate streets, skirt sunburn on the beaches, and drink in the mostly uninteresting, overcrowded bars.
A boat ride was our only venture into the thriving tourist economy. After trying to bargain with a slightly bemused tout, who claimed that the prices were set by the local tourist office, we boarded a small motor powered dingy. The captain, despite being squint and unable to speak English, startled us with his ability to handle the battered vehicle. He would steer us into impossibly small grottos, and casually reverse out. We moved slowly along the coastline north west of Lagos’s marina, past odd sandstone formations, which our captain most often compared to “King Kong”, and secluded beaches. We took a photograph every time he pointed, struggling to otherwise convey our appreciation.
I managed to overcome an involuntary fear of the deep in Lagos. I’ve dived in reasonably deep water, in Cape Town and Mozambique, always suppressing a reasonable amount of dread. And despite a love of swimming freely, beyond the crowds, I often worry about what might lurk not far from my dangling feet. This might be sensible in the shark infested Cape, but is irrational in the Mediterranean. The last shark attack in its waters happened in 1993. The victim suffered damage to one of the toes on his left foot. Although I miss playing in the waves that are so much a part of the ocean’s mystique, treating the sea as if it were an oversized swimming pool was some compensation.
On our last night we threw ourselves at the bars in Lagos’s debauched hub, but found them stale. An indirect route home found us at a heaving back street bar, near Eugenia’s house. Locals and Portuguese holidaymakers were fighting to order from a tired, middle aged barman. I ordered more drinks than we needed, which we sat sipping dutifully outside. But we were already tired, and soon continued on to home.
The discovery of a place, quite obviously, takes time. Claire and I have allowed ourselves enough of it for a slow, only partial, understanding. But too soon after we discover places off the proverbial “beaten track” we leave, move on, and follow our own momentum.
If you enjoyed Portugal, subscribe to email updates or our RSS Feed. You'll be notified when we next publish a story about the Old World.