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He who controls the spice…

Written by Jeff Drake
7 · 05 · 18

The old science fiction book, Dune, has a saying that goes, “He who controls the spice, controls the universe.” This could hold true for Portugal, for its history is full of hard-fought battles, royal family strife, subterfuge and local stuggle, all over the ancient spice trade.

Yesterday we toured the city. Our OAT tour guide, Miguel, was just what we have come to expect i.e., extremely knowledgeable about the history and customs of his country and able to answer almost all of our questions. There were a couple questions about the local fauna that he couldn’t answer, but today when we visited the city of Sintra, we had another local guide who specialized in that very subject as she was our guide through the royal gardens!

Miguel recounted the history that keeps coming up in various places, about the great earthquake of 1755. I suspect that the stories about that event add to the melancholoy that many have talked about feeling when they visit Portugal.

I try to imagine that day in 1755. It was a day apparently like any other, with the exception that it was All Saints Day. Celebrations ensued all day long, because when it comes to their Catholic saints, this country goes nuts and they pay their saints a lot of attention, even today. As evening descended, people lit candles in all their windows and then walked the narrow streets to their local churches for services. Almost the entire population of Lisbon could be found in church that night. Then, without warning, an 8.9 earthquake hit. Much of the Lisbon city proper crumbled in an instant like a house of cards. The many churches collapsed, burying up to 50,000 people. Fires raged throughout the city due to everyone using candles. The disaster wasn’t over, however, for the earthquake didn’t happen under the city, it happened offshore. It turns out Lisbon has a fault offshore similar to the fault off the shore of Oregon. The tsunami that came put out the fires, but drowned more of the populace. Estimates go as high as 100,000 dead. I’m not sure what the saints were doing that All Saints Day, must’ve been playing poker or something, because they were a no show.


Our Lisbon local guide, Miguel.

Our guide told us that around 98% of the population of Lisbon declares themselves to be Catholic. Of course, this just means that they were baptized. He went on to say that only about 25% of these same people actually go to church. They haven’t given up their faith, but have stepped away from the Catholic Church. This also follows the increase in secularism seen spreading across Europe right now.

The city of Lisbon is beautiful and Lisa and I definitely like it here.  As a group we saw all the Lisbon highlights, some by bus, others as we stopped along the way. I think I mentioned something about the big festival we ran into our first night here. Good fortune shined on us again, because it turned out that second night of the festival was even bigger than the first!

Sira took us to Old Town Lisbon. You can clearly see on the town map where the pre-and-post earthquake areas differ. Old Town is a maze of narrow streets, shops, restaurants and bars, exactly the kind of place Lisa and I love! Just outside of Old Town, the streets are all well-organized and look like any other city map.

Old Town was fairly quiet when we stopped there, but Miguel and Sira both told us that if we were to go back to Old Town in the evening, the place would be much busier and a bit crazy. So, that’s just what we did! Wow, they were not wrong! The entire area was jumping! Like New Orleans, the bars all opened their windows to the street and sold wine, beer and spirits, which you could then carry around with you. Sangria was on everyone’s menu and each shop or bar had their own to sell. I discovered that not all were equal when it came to quality, but in the end I did have some very good sangria.

Sardine smoke permeated the air, as every shop and restaurant had an outdoor barbecue and each was filled with racks of the local favorite seafood, sardines. Sira and Migues told us that if we visited in the evening we would end up smelling like the local favorite cologne: Sardine #5. LOL! They weren’t wrong about this, either.


Barbecuing sardines in Old Town Lisbon!


A bridge made by the same architect that designed the Golden Gate Bridge.

IMG_5583The Belem Tower (The Tower of Bethlehem)

The Portuguese King was a smart guy. He wanted to build himself something grand, to show the world how rich and powerful he was, so he got together with the local monks and priests and built a huge, beautiful monastery for them. See below.


The Jeronimos Monastery

Later, due to fatigue from the Spanish Inquisition and a general, growing dislike and distrust of the Church, the king bought back all the buildings he built for the church and turned them into private residences. The order of monks this particular manastery was build for are no more. They were called the Jeromonians because the King’s favorite saint was Saint Jerome. After he took back his property, he let the order fall into disuse, probably due to lack of funds and so the order was eliminated when the Vatican wouldn’t pick up the tab.

We finally got to taste Portugal’s national pastry, the “paisteis de belem”, otherwise known as a custard tart. The Portuguese seem to share quite a sweet tooth! This particular pastry is famous and we actually had a coffee and pastry break at the restaurant which made the tart famous. It is supposedly the “standard” for all other tarts. So important is the recipe for the tarts that only 3 people in the family are allowed to know it and they are not allowed to go anywhere on the same plane. LOL! I would describe the tart as eating a delicious bite-size creme brulee. Just like that irreverent show on Viceland TV, it was “fucking delicious!”

IMG_5641Portuguese national custard tart.

Below you can see the quiet afternoon in Old Town. I’ll post photos of the evening once I get them on my system.

IMG_5694Old Town Lisbon, quiet afternoon readying for the festival.

Today we got our first taste of Fado music. We liked it, so tonight, our last free night in Lisbon, we’re going to go to a recommended Fado Bar, have dinner and listen to the music that a famous poet once described as “the absence of presence”. If I understand this right, the music is meant to impart a feeling of longing, like pining for your mom’s cooking, being somewhat homesick, perhaps. They swear it isn’t “melancholy”, although many describe it that way. All I know is that it transported me. I couldn’t understand a word, but the feeling the singer put into it was palpable. It is also said that to sing fado you really need to have lived life, so older singers are treated with great respect. Fado singers are mostly women.

So much more to talk about, not enough time.

I’m looking forward to the evening!


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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.
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