Posts Tagged 'Portugal'

Street Art Pictures: London, Spain, Morocco and Portugal

First, a disclaimer: I don’t profess to be any kind of expert in street art. Or even a novice, really. I just know that, when I spot a fresh stencil or spy some sick piece, it makes me smile—and, if I happen to have a camera with me, snap some photos.

I guess the thing about street art is the sense of place it evokes—which one naturally notices more when one is traveling, seeing a city with fresh eyes. As the world gets smaller, regionalism can be hard to find; this is especially true in the Westernized world. Traveling in Western Europe, you constantly see the same chainstores, the same brands, the same fashions—girls are wearing whatever’s hip at H&M everywhere from Malmo to Madison (and I’d like to say myself excluded, but that would be a lie). Street art, whether it’s good or not, shatters through that; its viscerality marks a place, claims it, and if you’re traveling, can often reveal a lot more about where you are than reconstructed period buildings and restaurants with picture menus (really, paella all kinda looks the same).

I hung around some East Bay graf kids for a time, and still smile when I see their tags around town. A repeated stencil, a tag, a distinctive style—they’re like recurring images from a dream, someone else’s dream, and you catch little glimpses, train your eyes to look down alleys and up at overpasses, and you feel like you’re in on something. It grounds you in a very tangible way, connects you with the phantoms that sneak around at 3am with backpacks full of clanging illegality, with their finger-staining passions and illicit dreams. Of course, I was never one of them; a certain romance remains when it’s not you getting arrested or jumped in some strange turf battle. But I will say you interact with a city—its architecture and landscape, its thingness—differently when you’re even vaguely in tune with its street art. And when you’re traveling, it can often be your only contact with the night-crawling kids that in large part create the pulse of a place.

My first stop on my trip was London, where I of course went on an all-day goose chase for Banksy (chronicled here). The hunt also took me past several of these digitized little fellows by Invader..

Super poor picture quality, but what can you expect from a 2am street lamp and a mediocre camera? This I spotted in Madrid, near Plaza Sol. If you can't tell, it's two tangoing figures with security cameras for heads.

Granada generally had some piss-poor graffiti and stencils, but this one made me laugh. Totally fitting for a college town.

I spotted this one several times around the beach breakers in Tarifa. The sentiment jived well with the surf-town vibe, and the fact that it was in English spoke to the internationalism of the unassuming little place-between-places.

As you might guess, there wasn't a whole lot of street art going on in Morocco, or at least in the places I went. What one does see a lot of is stenciled Muslim calendars, on the side of buildings, with icons depicting certain holidays and dates. My favorite was the rose. I of course have no idea what it denoted or what the Arabic says, and retained none of the heavily accented, half-French explanations.

But of course, the best stencil piece I saw was in one of my favorite dirt-road beach towns, Mirleft. Popular with vacationing Marrakeshis, artists, dreadlocked travelers and, well, me, Mirleft seemed a perfect place to find this, peeling away on a side street.

Back in Europe, much of Lisbon's street art had a distinctive Brazilian flavor, which makes sense considering the city's large Afro-Brazilian population, and the fact that São Paulo and Rio are some of the biggest and baddest producers of street art in the world. I saw this stencil around the center, around uber-hip Barrio Alto.

And this was a simply incredible wheatpasted portrait over near the Alfama district.

Another college town, Coimbra had a fair amount of politicized stencils. This one was especially interesting given the prevalence of domestic violence in Portugal, and the pervading stigma against seeking help: "Every 2 weeks, a Portuguese victim of domestic violence dies." The number is a little more somber when you consider the small country's population of 10 million.

On the flip side, this was just awesome.

And I quite liked this one as well.

But the place that really took the cake was Porto. Good ole unsuspecting Porto, forever in the shiny, smiley shadow of Lisbon. These were all taken near hip-slick-and-cool Rue Miguel Bombara.

The paper cranes were part of the 1000 Tsuri Project. They acted like punctuation, all over the walls of the street, serving as both a kind of visual break and space filler between the other pieces.

Part of a larger project by artist Costah; check more out here: http://www.costah.net/the-icons.html

This little girl is up a few places; each time, she's touching something different. From what I could tell, this was the logo of a nearby art gallery/collective.

One my favorites. Simple but expressive, and totally took me aback when I spotted it down an alley.

I don’t know if these reveal any more about the places I was in, but to me they do. And if nothing else, they’re better than cell phone ads.

Hanging On: Porto and My Final Days

Porto, being hella beautiful

Porto, being hella beautiful

I´m nearing the end of my trip, fighting the blues and impending sense of finality not at all discouraged by the dark and brooding city of Porto.

Every place I go in Portugal seems to the up the ante. College-town Coimbra was a steep jumble of old streets and sudden squares with startlingly beautiful sights tucked inside every twist and fold. It was as pretty as a girl without make-up on, a girl who doesn´t know how pretty she is—clutching her parks and praças (plazas) and fountains to her chest like a Valentine. I wandered around the small city, sighing and thinking, This might be my favorite place in Portugal.

Then came Porto, sharply cleaved by the Douro River in a precipitous dive of rock and stone, bridges and dancing light. It´s the dark-haired, fiery-eyed counterpart forever in the Northern shadow of its shiny, more popular younger sibling, Lisbon. The two cities have a huge rivalry (most overtly expressed via football); I feel like an aunt that loves them both, for their different personalities, but that can vibe a little more with the darker side. At least, right now I can.

I spent the bus ride in yesterday not reading or writing or listening to my ipod, but staring out the window and wishing I would never arrive. Just keep riding, keep traveling, keep going. It was the last bus ride of my trip and I was savoring those precious moments of just sitting, thinking, living in that inbetween state—like when I used to ride the bus as a teenager. Having the time just to sit and stare is a huge luxury for me these days, and I´m going to miss it.

But more than even that, I wanted to hang on to the feeling of traveling, the mindset. When I´m on the road, everything seems possible; I´m more open to chance, more aware, more able to live life on life´s terms. When I´m at home, nothing seems possible; everything seems difficult and riddled with tedious and insurmountable obstacles. Of course, neither view is entirely accurate, but I enjoy the former much more than the nose-to-the-grindstone latter.

Two days ago, on the bus ride from Peniche to Coimbra, I began plotting and planning—sketching out timetables and earning versus saving projections (yes, really), trying to figure out when my next trip would be. I was seized by panic, stressed by the dismal prospect of not being able to travel anytime soon. Basically, I was future-tripping, trying to manage and arrange life before I even got home.

But I´m not alone in that. During my trip, I´ve slowly been reading Peter Matthiessen´s The Snow Leopard, a classic travelouge and meditation on the state of living. As timing would have it, Peter´s about to head back down the mountain, towards home, just as I´m about to hop on a flight and sleep in an airport and hop another two flights. In the passage I read today, he´s also losing the Zen of travel and stressing about home, “forever getting-ready-for-life instead of living it each day” (p. 244). He suggests that perhaps the greatest spiritual challenge is to live in the present, to “pay attention even at unextraordinary times, to be of the present, nothing-but-the-present, to bear this mindfulness of now into each event of ordinary life” (p. 245).

So I rambled around the shuttered shops and lonesome graffiti of Porto this afternoon, the uneven stones in the street like a repeating mantra against my worn soles: be present, be present, be present. I wandered past baroque building facades adorned with trumpet-blazing statues, up gasping stairways, into gold-dripping cathedrals, past the darkly oxidized rock (“the awful and irrefutable rock-ness”) that jutted from the earth, bold and undeniable. I felt the murmur of Roman ruins beneath the surface, beneath my sneakers, and tried to hang on to this fleeting feeling of present.

No Port in Porto

DSCN3759I ended up at port tasting in Porto today. If you know anyone who´s been to Porto (yes, the homeland of port), this probably topped their itinerary, sent them scampering up the city´s steep hillside for a free tour and tasting of the  carefully aged, exquisitely sweet wine that is as Portuguese as codfish. If you know me, you´re bound to be uttering a “wtf?”

The thing is, I don´t drink. Not even wine; not even to taste. It´s been over 9 years since I´ve had a drink, so I don´t think of this as a very big deal anymore and don´t think to announce it on my Couchsurfing profile. So when my host picked me up from the bus station, drove me around town on a personalized sight-seeing tour (this is the life), and thought, you know, it´d be fun to stop off for a port tasting—far be it from me to not tag along.

It was mildly interesting, to wander amid the massive barrels and cool stones, listening to the heavily accented spiel (I serve ports at work, which I´ll be returning to in exactly one week, so it was good to have a little refresher course). I observed everyone else´s excitement, especially for the free tasting portion, and I have to say, it was a little awkward when I was the only one not politely pushing to the counter and grabbing a glass.

I´ve been thinking a lot about drinking and traveling, since I read Matador article discussing the pros and cons of alcohol consumption on the road. The article asked whether we needed alcohol to connect on the road. The 21-and-counting comments ran the gamut, and revealed a lot about the people the wrote them. On his personal blog, Matador editor Carlo Alcos offered his ruminations on the subject. “Okay,” I thought, “I can totally write a post on this.” I saved the links and let the subject swim around in the back of my head. And, I´m surprised to say, I actually have very little to say.

So, of course, I´ll say something about that. I found the responses to the article fascinating, little boxed glimpses into the psyches of the thumbnail photos that accompanied them. The fervor and conviction with which so many people wrote intrigued me, especially when they went so far as to make blanket statements or preachy proclaimations. I observed it all with a strange sort of detachment, as though I were looking in on something that had nothing to do with me, like watching a documentary on the culture of people in a terribly far-away land. And, in a way, I was.

I´ve never drank while traveling. I got sober at 17 and never looked back. At home and on the road, people who don´t know this will offer me drinks—I casually decline, and that´s the end of it. Sometimes they notice my repeated refusal and ask why, and I tell them the truth: I´m far more charming company sober.

Drinking for me was never about the kind of camaraderie and conviviality the Matador article talks about—it was about self-destruction and oblivion.  I didn´t win many friends by cussing people out, pissing in doorways or sobbing in corners. Nor would I expect to while traveling. And while I don´t hit the pubs or search out the coke bars when I´m in another city, I do go out. To parties, yes, sometimes to clubs and bars. Sometimes to port tastings. And I dance and laugh and conversate (I´ve stopped fighting, it´s a word now) and do all the stuff everyone else does. I just remember it the next day.

Or, at least that´s the position I´ve always maintained. But in my Portugal travels, I´ve had this lurking feeling that I´m missing out on something. Wine is a huge part of life in Portugal, a cultural characteristic that culminates in the precipitous cleave of Porto and the surrounding green valleys of the Douro. And in the same way that you get a better, ahem, taste of a culture via their traditional foods, I think I´d be getting a better feel for the soul of Portugal if I were swishing a tawny port around my teeth and pontificating on notes of walnut and honey.

But even this feeling, this knowledge, I observe with a distance. It´s all so far away, drinking and the culture behind it, and I find myself regarding it with complete indifference. That is to say, regarding other people´s drinking with complete indifference. I guess what I realized with the Matador article and the responses it provoked was that I really don´t want to be the arbiter of anyone else´s drinking. I´m probably the least qualified person in the world to do that anyway. I just want to keep living my little sober, happy life—even if I end up wandering into a port cellar or two.

Livin´ La Vida Português

Beach from a bus window: NOT the way to be enjoyed

Beach from a bus window: NOT the way to be enjoyed

Nearly a week into my Portuguese travels, I am convinced of two things. One, Portugal is a country best enjoyed by car. Two, Portugal is best a country enjoyed.

On my second day in Lisbon, my Couchsurfing hosts and I chased the sunset along the granite coast, driving through increasingly posh, and beautiful, suburbs where tan bodies gleamed in beach coves, green parks and umbrellaed cafes. My hosts, recently relocated Hungarians, had spent a month driving around the country, stopping in at whatever little village or beach enticed them. As we curved down the coastline, in pursuit of their favorite sunset spot, they told that Portugal was best explored by car. Infrequent and/or nonexistant bus service cuts you off from a lot of the country, they told me; cars mean the usual freedom from timetables, but also a better glimpse into Portugal. I stared out the window, at the pinkening sky and grey sheets of cliff, and nodded—I certainly wouldn´t be feasting on that sight if it weren´t for my hosts´car. Of course, traveling solo, renting a car was far out of my budget, but I lamented my inability to see more of the country, to get off the beaten path and into the dying villages the speckle the green countryside.

But as we climbed out of the car and scurried along the rocks just in time to snap photos and sigh at the insane beauty of it all, another thing occured to me: the Portuguese know how to enjoy life. They don´t initially bowl you over with siestas and late-night partying like their neighbor; coming from a night in Seville, Lisbon actually felt a little tame. While the Spanish are a bit more flamboyant in their lust from life, the Portuguese have a subtler, but equally infectious, approach to living it up: they´ve got the beaches. And the pastelerias. And futbol and fado and seafood and port. And all of it´s twinged with this hint of melancholy that really gets under your skin.

Old folks in Obidos

Old folks in Obidos

The theories converged and cemented today, as I treked off to Obios. The medieval village wasn´t initally on my itinerary, but two Portuguese guys and my hosts assured me it was the most beautiful town in Portugal, that I had to go there. An expensive touristy place to sleep, I booked a hostel in a nearby beachtown, filled with shirtless, sunbleached Austrialian surferboys. As they tossed their towels over their shoulders and headed out a day in the waves, I walked to the bus station. And waited.

The bus ran every two hours and, when it came, made a winding route through narrow streets, stopping at what felt like every crossroad. I got to Obios and, well, was a little underwhelmed. It was pretty, had a castle and cobbled streets and lots of stores selling lace and ginja, cherry liqeuor. I wandered amid the elderly tourists and billowing bougainvillea, half-heartedly snapping photos of the lush rambling countryside and gold-dripping cathedrals. Meh.

I´d been thinking about trying to make it over to another village, only about 30 km away. It sounded even more boring, but was home to a medieval monastery with a gruesome history—gruesome in the way Quentin Tarantino meant when he wrote the line, “I´m gonna get medieval on your ass.” Murals depicted scenes of the monastery´s founder ripping out and eating the hearts of the people who murdered his forbidden beloved, while making memebers of the court kiss her decomposing hand—metal enough to put Lords of Chaos to shame.

But, alas, the bus to Alcobaça only ran once every three hours, and would put me in town only an hour before the monastery closed. I debated: wait around in pretty-but-dull Obios for the bus and try to squeeze in one more sight, or head back to my hostel and do like the Portuguese: hit the beach. I´ll let you guess what won out.

Freshly shaved and bikini-clad, I took my crappy travel towel and joined the fat old men and tattered fishing boats along the gentle coast. The water was cold at first, but soon I was breast-stroking and wave-hopping with the best of em. I´ve been told the Portuguese love their beaches and escape to them at every available opportunity—and now I can see why. Rockless and clear enough that I could see my feet, it felt pretty heavenly. I stretched out in the sand, soaked up some sun, and stopped for an ice-cream cone on my way back.

I may not be making it out to the remote hilltop villages, and I may be spending hours twittling my thumbs at bus stations, but I´m starting to get the hang of this Portuguese living thing. And you know, it´s not so bad.

The Trials of Trying

DSCN3637I´m learning to become a travel writer—which has a lot more to do with learning to travel, and travel differently, than it does learning to write.

Sure, it´s its own genre, a new craft to negotiate. And, yes, it involves hours hunched over a notebook or a computer, weaving images and experience and attempting to capture the whiffs of a place, the strange sentiments it evokes—those vague stirrings that Viriginia Woolf lamented go “fluttering through the nets” of even the best writers.

But, for me, the tricky part has been the first half of the phrase, the “travel” part of “travel writing.” It means traveling in a different way, pushing myself more beyond my comfort zone and inherent shyness in order to experience more—more interactions and more adventures mean more to write about. It means forcing myself to follow those little nudgings, those whispers to, say, delve into that shadowed medina alleyway or say yes to going out on the town when I´d really rather sleep. Fuller travels equal richer content; everyone wins.

I knew on the on-set of this trip that it´d be different for me—my first long trip since getting serious about travel writing. And I set out blazing—tromping around, joyfully holding hands with serendipity, taking feverish notes and spending long hours at cheap internet cafes, searching for punctuation marks on foreign keyboards. I was feeling positive, productive, learning more each day to let go and follow my hunches, the random doors that open.

Then came Lisbon.

I loved Lisbon. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe its bittersweet melancholy sunk in a little too deeply. It´s hard to say. But I spent my last morning woefully walking its steep streets, ruing in a mosaic of regrets not too dissimilar from the sidewalk stone designs.

Vibing well with my hosts, I´d stayed a day longer than intended, and still felt like I´d wasted my time, hadn´t used it well enough—missed out on a chance to go to my first football game, didn´t make the trek to a huge experimental design expo, didn´t go inside a cool-looking vintage toy store that probably would have made a killer (and sellable) story. I´d dropped so many balls, as my friend Katie would say, you´d think I was trying to dribble.

I´m not sure why I fell off so steeply, as precipitous as the seven hills of the city (at least I´m making some anaolgies out of it). It´s possible I´m just being hard on myself. I´m a person that always feels like I should be doing more, working harder, being better. I´m excellent at rallying, at pushing myself—working six days a week for months, saving money to travel. I told myself that for every place I visited on this trip, I´d come out with at least one story. This didn´t happen in Lisbon, and I think there´s a lesson somewhere in there.

I arrived in Lisbon tired. Exhausted, and it wasn´t just the six hours of broken sleep on an overnight bus. I´d been power-traveling for over a month, never sleeping in the same place for more than three nights. My clothes were filthy, my chest blossoming in a recurring stress-related rash. I´d had on-and-off-again diarrhoea for almost two weeks, but hadn´t had a period in over six. My last day in Marrakesh was emotionally draining, and I was ready to relax. To hang out with fun people, to eat pasteries in a shady park and watch trashy American movies. Which is what I did. Rejuvenating? Yes. Fodder for great travel writing? No.

There´s no use in wallowing in regret; all I can do now is try to learn something from it. And while I need to continue to push myself to take risks while traveling—to push open those cracked doors, to go into that toy shop—I also need to go easier on myself. Working as hard as I could got me sick for a month with summer (with swine flu, a whole ´nother story); similarily, traveling as hard as I can will burn me out. It´s tough, cause my time is so limited and my resources are so meager, but I need to move a little slower. Schedule in down time. Take moments to breathe.

Of course, it´s a spiritual challenge as well as a travel writing challenge, a lesson I´ve had to have beaten into me repeatedly. Maybe this time, I´ll finally learn.

Lisa, the Beautiful

DSCN3627Tiles and terraces and tired-ass legs: it´s my third day in Lisbon/Lisboa/Lisa, and she´s working her charm on me.

Portugal´s an intriguing country: it feels overlooked, almost forgotten to me, hanging on to the edge of Iberia, of Europe, like fluttering laundry. I never hear much about it, tucked away down there, in the shadow of both Spain and its dominating former colony. (Prior to my arrival, my only two words of Portuguese were Brazilian: “caçhaca” and “caipirinha.”) A small country, it´s hemorrhaged emigrants for decades, leaving the country a little empty and a little lonely. It´s bittersweet, and so far, I love it.

I´ve spent my days in Lisbon rather lazily, sleeping late, hanging out with my Couchsurfing hosts, lunching and napping and strolling slowly. It feels like a city to be taken in slowly, to be savored, and I´m doing my best to oblige.

My hosts tell me that Lisbon is the most underrated city in Europe; they´ve seen more than I have, but I´m going to venture to agree. They live in a comfortable flat with smooth hardwood floors and modern appliances, in the heart of the city—“In no other city in Europe,” my host told me thoughtfully, “would this be possible.” Rents are cheap, and abandoned buildings with boarded-up windows and cracked tiles line streets that in Paris or Barcelona would be bustling, booming, and demanding rents at least twice as high.

Lisbon is a humble city. Though complete with all the usual big-city stuff—busy metro stations and graffiti and honking snares of traffic—there´s a certain quiet underneath it all, a kind of yearning in the gleaming stone streets, the zig-zag of rust-colored tiled roofs. She´s filled with a brave nostalgia, this Lisa, with the rattle of yellow street cars that young boys cling to the sides of, hooting and yelling, sharp limbs hanging in a bravado that feels old, a relic from another time. Her seven hills rise and fall sharply, like breath; steps are carved into the sidewalk. The hills don´t slope gradually but seem too reach, almost hungrily, for the water, too bright and sparkling for blue eyes to bear.

DSCN3639Today I wandered around Alfama, the old Moorish neighborhood, a European version of a medina—tight alleys that twist and angle and dead-end into the sides of terracotta buildings dripping with flowers and bushes and colorful plastic streamers. The streets are so narrow that old women can lean their full arms against the wrought-iron railings and gossip between the buildings, between the lines of laundry, laughing and shouting in their flower-patterned aprons. In little squares, trees jumble the black and tan stones that have been worn smooth—by Romans and Moors and Crusaders, by my thin-soled Toms that make me slip from time to time, lose myself amid it all.

It sounds sentimental, and it kind of is. It´s a city like that—with soul. And tonight, I´ll go to hear the sound of its melancholy mourning, its bittersweet longing, its Fado. I think Lisa´s prepared me well.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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