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the best of portuguese architecture my top ten – part one

Sometimes someone comes out with an opinion so contrary to your own that it provokes you to revisit the foundations of your beliefs.

I was at a BBQ the other day and was asked to explain my reasons for coming to live in Portugal. The English host took offence that one of my reasons was the “great architecture”. “What architecture?” he blurted, revealing not just a strong opinion, but just how many drinks ahead of us he was.

So, just in case I’ve somehow come to live in Portugal under false pretences, let’s take a tour of those “foundations” I mentioned…

1. Gare do Oriente (Lisbon)

Gare de Oriente (Lisbon)

One of the major train stations in Lisbon. Its audaciousness reminds me of the Opera House in Sydney. Part space ship, part electric tree…and if train stations are your thing then feast your eyes on the restored 19th Century Neo-Manueline Rossio Station in Lisbon and the extraordinary tiled history of São Bento in Porto.

Gare do oriente

2. Avenida Infante Santo (Lisbon)

lisbon street

This particular street is just one example of the juxtaposition of architectural styles in Lisbon. New-Old, Ornate-Modern, Renovated-Dilapidated. It’s a funky, bold, exuberant city. Lisbon was completely flattened by an earthquake in 1755, and much like many modern European cities it’s a mish-mash of styles and additions from the 18th-21st centuries. Lisbon just pumps with character, wherever you go, as every little neighbourhood has it’s own fierce personality.

3. Churches of Bom Jesus de Monte (Braga) and Santa Maria (Obidos).


Yeah I know, it’s two, but they are examples of the same thing. Small, not particularly significant churches with super-sublime decoration. Santa Maria is Baroque and 18th Century, and Bom Jesus Neoclassical and 19th Century. But what they have in common is almost every interior surface is decorated. You might think that the effect would be gaudy but it’s elegant and lovely. Multiple patterns against pattern, it makes me speculate whether the harmony is inspired by genius or created by pure chance.


4. Mosteiro Santa Maria da Vitoria (Batalha)

She rises from a boring landscape like a gigantic hairy spider; this monastery is so much in contrast to the environment that it seems alive. It’s a radical, fantastic building that reminds me of the audacious Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Except Vitoria was built in the 14th and 15th centuries (and the Sagrada still isn’t finished). It’s sharp and scary from the Gothic Style, and it’s curly and knotted in the Manueline Style. The interior is just gob smacking. Full on.

batalha cathedral

As a whole, it seems an imposing, serious building, but one of the secrets of Portuguese Ecclesial architecture is the funny little details. The stonework is full of cheeky little critters, alien faces and naughty mythical beasties. It’s playful. So un-churchy!

5. Kitchen at Alcobaça
The Mosteiro Santa Maria da Alcobaça is, like Batalha, an UNESCO world heritage site, and is also an awesome piece of work. My favourite bit is the kitchen, very simply finished with grey/white fired glass tiles and trimmed with blue and white azulejos. It has a elegant Moorish quality with long curved lines and an infinite ceiling.

alcobacaalcobaca kitchen

The Cistercian monks who lived in the monastery and were famous for their culinary decadence. A stream from the local river diverts into a pool in the kitchen, providing a water supply but also fresh fish! The massive fireplace and chimney could cook a small herd of cows.


Haven’t been posting for a while because I’ve been busy dying. Almost.

A couple of weeks ago I woke up and then walked a few steps to the kitchen. Suddenly the floor fell out from under me and I was lying on the concrete yelling at Wookie to get his wet nose out of my ear. I thought the dizziness would pass, but as I sat with my head between my knees, a searing pain shot up my neck and into my head. Migraine. I crawled back into bed somehow, but I can’t remember much more except being hung up on by Emergency when I called them an hour or something later.

For those unacquainted with migraine: plucking out your own eye seems like an appealing solution to stop the pain. I would have been quite happy for someone to drill a hole in my head with the Black & Decker there and then to give me some relief. It’s like that. You’re insane with pain.

I rang Emergency not just to avoid self-harming with power tools, but also because the world was whirling around me like I was a 14 year old with a cask of Fruity Lexia. Except there had been no dancing beforehand. I did feel like spewing, but.

It’s a bit of a bummer for the ambulance people (Bombeiros, they’re called here: Portugal has the American system of combining ambulance with fire fighters. So you could have a Firey deliver your baby, which is an interesting idea, to me at least. Hi to my Colorado friends Dom Pedro and Vasco, if you’re out there). Anyway, bit of a bummer as I was saying, when you don’t have a street name or a house number. Basically they had to wander around the village looking for someone to ask where an urgently sick person might be living (or dying). It took quite a while, but they got here eventually.

And then we had to have a Portuguese lesson. Can’t imagine why, but the words Migraine, Dizziness and Vertigo had not entered my vocab databank. I think I got there in my little verbose way by explaining that the world was rotating and I had a really really big headache. Three new words that I’ll never forget! Enxaqueca, tounturas and vertigens!

Fortunately for me, but very unfortunately for her, my mother suffered an attack of Vertigo last year. It is a rare, very debilitating and very strange condition. Basically you completely lose your balance. Like being incredibly drunk but completely lucid at the same time. You can’t walk, can’t see, you want to vomit. Even when I’m lying down with my eyes closed, I still have a sense of being on a boat on the high seas.

Anyway, if Mum hadn’t had it and hadn’t told me all about it, then I’m sure I would’ve been terrified. I can handle the feeling that someone left a sharp axe planted in my head, but having an uncooperative body as well is just a bit too much to take.

The Bombeiros really sucked. They weren’t that cute and they didn’t have gas! It’s almost worth being critically ill in Australia just for the hotties and their nitrous oxide. This scabby socialist country wouldn’t even give me oxygen on the house. Buggers. So I writhed about on the pointless voyage to the health centre, where, lo and behold, they took one look me and said “too hard” and off we went to Coimbra Hospital.

I’m not going to give a blow by blow account of the whole hospital thing. It wasn’t nice. The veryold were there. The dying were there. And the groaning were there. There were flirting frivolous stupid people who stuck needles into me without even introducing themselves. There were big machines on me at 3am. There were some drugs, but I needed them too much to enjoy them, if you see what I mean. At the end of it all, they said “too hard” and sent me home.

My arrival in the village was a soft fuzzy warm one: all the neighbours were out to greet me, including the dog-killer suspects. They were all being really sweet, just like people who care! I was really touched! (but I was also on drugs). I was forcibly removed from my home and taken to Tia Maria’s for some proper TLC.

But it wasn’t to last. Once the hospital-strength drugs wore off, the migraine came back- this time in my sinuses, all sharp and pointy and nasty. I was already verging on an overdose of codeine, so I had no option really but to call back the Bombeiros. And now I had a new, alarming symptom: half of my face had gone numb. I thought I was having a stroke.

The Bombeiros were delightful this time. A very nice person called Anna held my hand and stroked my hair on the way to the “still too hard” health centre where I had a fight with a couple of people for jabbing needles full of paracetamol into me without asking if perhaps I might be allergic to anything, like, say, paracetamol? My mother is, you see. If the stroke wasn’t going to kill me, a hapless nurse would. Thank god for Anna, who put in a good word, got me a shot of something strong, and then whisked me back to Coimbra. Another night of state sponsored torture to make Salazar proud.

Some of the same suffering people were there, ranting in that special dementia way. But the staff were a different horrible bunch altogether. One little charmer, raised on a diet of House and Grey’s Anatomy, tried arranging a date with a nurse-boy while attempting to extract blood from an arm of mine. She slipped with the needle, provoking a suitable flow of blood and a flow of words from me suggesting that she should pay a bit more attention to what she was doing. She replied by saying she could do two things at once (!) provoking another flow of words that included Fuck and Bitch. That put me at the bottom of the morphine waiting list for the rest of the evening. It didn’t really matter, as approaching death kinda feels similar to morphine anyway.

No one had a clue what was going on with my head, but seeing as they’d cleverly ruled out a heart attack, a stroke and swine flu, they decided that a forced discharge was the next proper course of action.

Disclaimer: Don’t misread me, people, I love socialism. I believe in free health care for all. I’m grateful to Portugal for allowing me access to the health system. It’s just that I’ve had better care in Africa. It’s also free in Australia and the care is of an infinitely higher standard. Why not charge non-citizens a surcharge so you can pay the nursing staff more or invest in better training?

So after I made sure that my surviving pets were still fed, medicated and watered, I went back to Tia Maria’s 5 star nursing home. It really was awesome. Big comfy bed, enormous and yummy meals brought to me in bed three times a day. Regular entertainment brought to me via children and naughty dogs. And two mobile phones running hot with international text messages. Top quality TLC. With furry visitors taking full advantage of the situation too.

wookie and muppet visiting the sick

Considering I was lying like a useless lump in bed the whole time, it was actually an action-packed week. Tia Maria’s is something of a transit point for all the neighbours so I got to see way more of all of them than I wanted to. They were all morbidly interested in the progression of my illness. In someone else’s house you inevitably get exposed to their dirty laundry, and here it was like the whole village was queuing up to use the washing machine. As a captive audience, I became in-confidence to everyone’s blunt little prejudices and grievances and ancient inter (and intra)-family quarrels. Reconfirming what I learnt when I first came to this little village, everyone has it in for everyone else. Even old granny got a serving. Forget Telenovelas: this here is a seething hotbed of hate and dirty little secrets, and everyone is a villain dressed as a saint.

As far as the Case of the Missing Babywookie, accusations were flying left and right: the accuser’s motives were more of interest than the accusations themselves. Once I could stomach the truth, it was pretty obvious. In three weeks, three dogs disappeared; first Dingo then Max then Baby. As I’ve said before I don’t really want to know the ugly details – but everyone has had their part to play, either by giving the orders, carrying them out or keeping mum about it. I feel sorry for the kids here, though. Old enough to know what’s going on and old enough to know it’s wrong. Silenced and confused, they are doomed to grow up just like their parents.

Lest we forget the little guy, here’s an encore pic of Baby at his fuzzy finest:


There are those who think we bring illness upon ourselves, and for those who think that illness is a manifestation of unprocessed emotion, I have this to say. I couldn’t properly grieve for my little pet, nor spit out a torrent of snowballing fury, because I just didn’t want to believe that a neighbour would kill my baby. In short, stress brought this on. These people give me a headache. But a victim, I ain’t.

The other night I had the sweetest dream, (in Portuguese they call them pink dreams) that Babywookie came home with six little puppies. In the dream, no one had realised that he was actually a she. When I woke up I realised that I had been waiting for Baby to come home. But he isn’t coming home. Under the influence of a potent pharmaceutical cocktail, I got really angry and confronted a few people and told them what I thought of their stupid, uncivilised, cruel little lives. Now I feel sad, but better, and more determined to get the house done and get the fuck out of here as soon as possible.

Meantime I’m still stumbling around like a hopeless drunk. Wish I was. It’s a good cover for ranting whenever I feel like it.


So as not to leave you on a bum note, two slightly amusing things happened while I was in my sick-bed: a chook got out (I love it when there’s a chook free on the streets) and the rabbits had babies. Check out the newborn bunny-kitten!


…and Wookie enjoying the spring weather.

wookie in the grass

great wines under 2 euros!

One of the reasons I really like Portugal is that the wine is good and cheap. But I’ve been wondering, just how cheap can you go? And is it good, or am I just drunk on the vista of olive trees and vines and the sweet sound of trickly rivers and fresh air?

So I put the question out there to the experts – OOPS I mean expats. As non-Portuguese, I felt, expats have a home-country standard to compare to, and therefore an appreciation of the price-value of these wines, that a native might take for granted.

And as it turns out – (see expatsportugal.com) the expats are veritable connoisseurs of the 2 euro wine!


I took their recommendations to the supermarket and bought 10 of those available. The random selection broke down into regions like this:

Six from the Alentejo, two from the Dão, one from the Bairrada region and one from Setubal. The Alentejo is a hotter, drier region and the Dão is a cooler, wetter region. The Bairrada is slightly less wet and cool and Setubal is slightly less hot and dry. See Map.

As in France, wines are defined by region rather than grape variety, as each region has a profile of grapes specific to that region.

So that the judges would not be tempted to downgrade all the wines indiscriminately, I threw in a 2007 Marques de Borba, a very well respected drop from the Alentejo that retails for about 6 euros. Posh.

I presented the 11 wines to a carefully selected panel of portuguese friends, who instead of turning up their noses at the whole process as I expected, took to the project with sincerity and conscientiousness. We got quite pissed.

The wines were tested blind. Without labels, that is… I don’t mean blindfolds.

On with the results, which I’ve listed in tasting order, as I do think this had an influence on the results…


1. Encosta da Estrela 2005. Vila Nova de Tazem. Dão D.O.C.
This wine has a transparent chestnut colour and a sweet, fruity aroma. Lots of red fruit especially strawberries, quite acidy and young in flavour. Overall: Bom!

2. Dão Monastico 2007. Dão.
A strong magenta in colour, velvety and fruity in the mouth, but probably a bit too acidy. Maybe good with chocolate. Overall: Bonito! 25/50

3. Porta da Ravessa. Alentejo.
Same intense pinky colour of the last one. Big berries, but a bit rough and not very inspiring… 20.5/50

4. The wild card. Marques de Borba. 2007. Alentejo D.O.C.
Getting boring, nice smell but unimpressive. Overall: Rough! 21/50

5. Almocreve 2008. Alentejo.
Looks like red wine, tastes like red wine. Overall: Forgettable 20/50

6. Continente brand. 2007 Alentejo.
Strong ruby colour, very fruity smelly, young, lots of bang, pretty smooth. Overall: Punchy! 29/50

7. Terras del Rei. 2007. Alentejo.
Smells like dirt and poo, and tastes a bit of overripe red fruit and tomatoes. “Good cooking wine”, “good with bolognese or burgers”. Overall: Slug glug. 23/50

8. Terras do Xisto 2008. Roquevale, Alentejo.
A cheesy smell, a bit dirty, robust flavour, quite woody and a little acidy. Chewy. Bordering on complex. Overall: Agradavél! (nice) 25/50

9. Uvas Douradas 2007. Bairrada. WINNER!
Transparent with a rosy perfume. A young wine, lots of zing, kind of freshy and lighter than the others, not overpowering, very drinkable. Smooth and velvety. Overall: More! 33/50


10. Alandra. Esporão.
Perfect colour for lipstick. Nice smell, more mature, meaty, lots of flavour, busy, yummy! 31/50

11. JP Azeitão. Terras do Sado, Setubal.
Red, alcoholic, sweet berry wine. Rich, bitey and willing. Yes, quite sloshed. 28.5/50

Notice how the scores got higher as we went on? And the Bairrada wine has a completely distinct Baga grape, so it stood out from the others. But why did the expensive one not rate? Interesting!

Overall, the judges felt that none of the wines were truly terrible, but that only some compared better to the others. The standard was considered very good. The judges also commented that while they normally didn’t buy wines this cheap for quaffing, they couldn’t immediately claim that more expensive wines were actually any better. In fact, it’s not uncommon to be disappointed in a more expensive wine.

And that’s the bottom line: for two euros, disappointment isn’t really a factor.

To recap,

The Best:

Uvas Douradas 2007
Continente brand Alentejo.

The Worst:

Almocreve 2008
Encosta de Estrela
Porta da Ravessa

And this is only a tiny sample of what’s available in Portugal in this price range. The quest to find a Truly Great Wine Under 2 Euros could go on, and I feel pretty confident that we can find a cheapie that can beat a 10 euro wine. And then, who knows, maybe a 20? A Grange Hermitage?

I wonder whether it’s possible in anywhere else in the world? A quick glance around the net and I think not… but at least people are testing the idea! Thanks winestar… anyone else game to try?

bye bye baby

Injuries: none… well nothing physical, anyway.

Life Satisfaction Index: down 18%

I should’ve known that a holiday would be a bad idea. But it’s not everyday you get invited to Paris by a generous brother, and we all need a shot of Paris once in a while.

It’s maybe my 4th or 5th visit to the City of Light but every time I’m spellbound by how beautiful it is. And I swear it’s getting more Parisian all the time. It’s as though every ordinary cafe has been retro-renovated to look like it was always a classic old French joint. Or maybe the rest of the world is getting more modern and bland and Paris is still as cool as it always was. Maybe it’s me who’s changed. I know I’ll sound like my mother when I complain about how expensive it is. Café Portugal: 50 cents. Café Paris €2.50! And to use my Portuguese friend Tania’s words “and it’s shit coffee!”. I’m not one for definitives when it comes to films or coffee, but I’m certainly used to the smooth, caramel flavour of Portuguese coffee. In contrast the french cup tasted like a burnt chop.

paris cafe paris

After waving my family goodbye on the train to the south of France I wandered dreamily around Montmartre without realising that the mobile phone that just died was the one with the correct time. My other phone was still on Portuguese time. I woke up to this ten minutes too late. Thus, I missed my flight home. After forking out for a new ticket, I bedded down at the airport, along with half a dozen other jet-set refugees.

Thanks to Ryanair, who will provide almost free flights for those desperate enough to want to check in at 4am, I am accustomed to an airport sleep over. Me and the world’s backpackers. I laughed out loud the first time I saw Stanstead airport after midnight. It turns into an industrial sized dormitory, with thermarests and sleeping bags lined up in orderly fashion along every available wall. Numerous times I have carefully selected a quieter, darker, sneakier spot, only to wake up sharing the bed with 50 others. The really professional air-slumber-party-goers carry eye-mask and ear plugs, courtesy of some airline, but at Paris Orly they were truly a cut above : they were watching tele on their laptops and portable DVD’s.

paris train

So anyway, I arrived home tired and emotional. The cat wasn’t at home. He hadn’t been seen by my house minders for two days. Panic. Just as I’m on the hotline to sympathy sister, he comes slinking in the door looking as fat and content as ever. Then I realise the reason he’s been out: the neighbour’s tom cat has been in and has pissed all over the house. It reeks. Mao not happy, me not happy.

And now to the dogs. Wookie has lost his voice from crying after being tied up 24/7. I appreciated his enthusiasm to see me but this was overshadowed by Babywookie’s absence. Where was my Babywookie? No one had seen him for 5 days.

Could it be that my neighbour’s threats to get rid of any dog of mine not leashed have been realised? According to my neighbour, all dogs are potentially bloodthirsty sheep massacring psychopaths (except his dog). Even the toy poodles that another neighbour keeps are lethal teeth-gnashing werewolves. I’ve tried explaining that in Australia dogs work with sheep and we also employ a concept known as a fence to protect our warm investments.

Another neighbour firmly believes that my over-fed, one year old playful pups are going to kill their goats. Goats: 120kg, Dog: 12kg. Goat: horns. Dog: bark. But forget logic and commonsense. “We know dogs here” I am told. They know maltreated dogs, more like.

At this moment I can’t help see the significance of the  arrival of two lambs and two goats since my departure a week ago. Coincidence? Or motive?

paris paris

However, as my ex-policeman neighbour  pointed out, you cannot know for sure what you haven’t seen with your own eyes. And there it is. And I’d prefer not to know for sure. I’d prefer to believe he has charmed his way into a nice home a few villages away where they have taken him for an abandoned dog. Now that the truth is subjective, and I can choose what to believe.

Meanwhile I’m trying to occupy myself with the immediate reality. Wookie hasn’t eaten anything for three days. It seems he’s on a hunger strike until his little brother comes back. So I’m tempting him with things formerly forbidden. Cat food, fresh meat, vegemite toast… so far he’s only taken a toffee caramel, which we can’t count as any kind of victory.

I pacify my mind with sweaty hard work. I’m digging a trench down one side of the annexe to seal the lower part of the wall against water. My good neighbours, who are very very good, drop over to see how I’m holding up. We get talking about an overgrown patch of land that is standing between me and fire safety. And wouldn’t you know, they own it. “Want it?” she asks, in that off-hand portuguese way. “For how much?” I ask. And in a nice piece of circular symmetry she wants the same amount as the flight from Paris cost me. Either the flight was very expensive or the land is a bargain. But just like the truth, the value of things is completely subjective.

bye baby

my favourite five portuguese music making people

1. Amalia Rodrigues

If you want a quick history of Portuguese music – go straight to Amalia. She is the goddess of Fado, a uniquely Portuguese musical tradition that sits somewhere between jazz and folk. Fado’s songs are of longing and sadness, nostalgia for places, and celebrations of personalities and of fado itself. It epitomises the Portuguese psyche: A pride that embraces the failings and difficulties of life.

amelia rodrigues

2. David Fonseca

Nothing poetic to say about him except he’s as cute as he is talented. An exceptional songwriter, especially considering he’s doing it in English, a popular modern trend in the Portuguese music industry. Attention outside the Portuguese-speaking world would be well deserved.

david fonseca

4. Rita Redshoes

She’s a fun gal with a great name and a great look. Her songs are full of empathy and feminine feeling, pop with a splash of country, and a shade of classic femme fatale.

rita redshoes

3. Balla

A.K.A Armando Teixeira creates beautiful, interesting music in the electronic, chill out, retro vibe that would be happily inserted into the Café del Mar / Buddah Bar / Hotel Costes genre.


5. Blasted Mechanism

According to my sister they are KISS meets the Allblacks. But they rock! Way out there futuristic – tribal costumes and rhythm based anthemic music, Blasted go off. An original blend of African beats, power melody and ironic mentality (‘You are being manipulated!’, the lead guy calls as the 10,000 strong crowd scream for more) prove that the get-up is much more than a gimmick.

blasted mechanism

If you’re interested in any of these you can buy them here

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