Empire State of Mind

Lisbon

Barcelona—Lisbon, 637 miles (so I did cheat and flew this bit)

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On a map, Portugal doesn’t make its presence felt, boxed in by Spain on three sides and very easily visually absorbed into its Iberian neighbor. When you visualize Spain, you visualize that whole peninsula, rather than a piece of land with a chunk taken out of it. But Portugal is very, very much its own country and a totally distinct place from Spain. Aside from the language difference, I don’t think you would ever confuse one with the other.

I thought the two of them would have a fair amount in common, similar to Belgium and the Netherlands. There are similarities certainly, but Portugal is not Spanish. In my experience, the Spanish and the Italians have a lot more in common; they’re very demonstrative, emotionally expressive people. “Fiery” is a word commonly used to describe them and I think that’s fair, and a compliment. They’re passionate people. They gesture a lot when they speak. They’re loud. They love good food. They spend too much time in the sun. They’re not necessarily known for their work ethic. Italy is a wonderful country, but “industriousness” is not the first word that comes to mind.

Portugal is not of this mindset. People are very laidback and the culture is not loud and colorful and in your face. Probably more than any European country I’ve visited, the legacy of colonialism in Portugal is very strong. Mentions of former colonies—Angola, Mozambique, Brazil—are everywhere. At first I thought this was kind of cool, this kinship with places with a common heritage, but when you take into account the nature of the Portuguese being there, it’s not exactly a partnership. Mozambique or Angola are certainly no longer colonies, so there’s something kind of odd about Portugal’s continued sense of almost ownership over them, like if a restaurant in England had American beers listed on the menu as being from “the colonies”—even this would be cheeky given our relative positions in the world. There’s nothing really sentimental for Angola about a history of brutal colonialism.

Unlike Germany, which I praised for its openness with its own less-than-pleasant history, Portugal is not. As another foreign visitor pointed out to me, their attitude towards slavery seems to be “What slavery?” despite the fact that the slave trade almost single handedly funded and built their empire, and they were the early pioneers of the transatlantic slave trade corridor. I’m not saying they owe the world some grand apology; they certainly didn’t invent slavery, nor were they the only ones engaged in it. All of our hands are dirty, but to not even acknowledge it feels duplicitous.

Depending on how you break it down, no country has fallen further from greatness than Portugal. For hundreds of years they held land from the Caribbean to the South China Sea and drew in unimaginable wealth from the spice and slave trades. A lot of former European colonizers have this distinction; Spain isn’t exactly ruling the world anymore, but to see Portugal today is almost shocking.

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The thing that immediately struck me about Lisbon is that it is literally falling apart. The infrastructure is just a mess. The streets are cobblestone, which is bad enough when it’s well maintained, but this is a nightmare to walk on. The sidewalks are made of very slippery tiles and on Lisbon’s famously steep hills, it makes walking down treacherous even on a dry day. Buildings are crumbling everywhere. With the exception of the few nice hotels, I don’t know that I saw a single facade that wasn’t spewing hunks of stucco and dry wall, often with the I-beams exposed. Some of this feels a little intentional; Venice is falling apart too, but I’m convinced that’s the image they’re cultivating and could fix it if they really wanted to.

There’s definitely charm in Lisbon’s shabbiness but you also look around and wonder if anyone is taking care of anything. The old buildings are what make the city. I’m not suggesting they start over just because the infrastructure is getting old. Preserving historic buildings is crazy expensive, but it won’t be around forever if they don’t do at least something to keep the decay in check. This is perhaps a bit extreme, but parts of Lisbon reminded me of Yangon in Myanmar, a city that’s basically one giant British-built colonial building that’s totally falling apart. It’s lovely, but also in need of some serious work. And in Myanmar’s defense, they’ve been run by military dictators and assorted lunatics for 50 years.

Portugal is not an unusually poor country. They’re solidly in the middle of the pack when it comes to GDP among other European countries (though they do trail Greece). The era of colonialism (at least in one sense) has been over for a while, but it’s still baffling to see how little economic power they’ve retained. By every measure, Portugal is unquestionably a part of the developed world, but parts of Lisbon would almost make you doubt that. If I’d been dropped here on the street and had to guess where I was without going into stores and restaurants and everything that would give away what a modern city it is, I’d think Lisbon was a well-off city somewhere in the Caribbean or Northern Africa. I don’t mean that as an insult, but it’s indicative of the level of urban breakdown that immediately strikes you around the city. The standard of living in Portugal is much higher than either of those regions, but its capital wouldn’t necessarily give you that impression.

Anyway, onto lighter topics, my experience with Portuguese food before this was limited to a Portuguese sandwich shop in midtown Manhattan, whose approach towards food preparation was basically to take a normal sandwich and then add one totally bizarre ingredient, in addition to always trying to sneak olives into everything. In Lisbon, I had a hard time getting a better sense of Portuguese cuisine. There’s a lot of seafood predictably, but then they’re also really into steak sandwiches. These are delicious but often served at the end of a big seafood meal, which is really a test of how much you can get down. The big thing is the pastel de nata, a tiny egg custard tart.

These are incredibly good—warm, gooey egg custard served warm in flaky phyllo dough crusts. Originally invented by Catholic monks some 300 years ago, most former Portuguese colonies are big into the pastéis. Hong Kong and Macau are actually a major battleground for this; Macau is known for the traditional tarts, while Hong Kong pastéis are slightly different, served room temperature and with a crust more like shortbread.

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Personally, I prefer the Portuguese version, but both are excellent and you can’t leave Lisbon without picking up one. Like croissants, not all pastéis are created equal. Every coffee shop has them, but most of them are mediocre. Pastéis de Belém is unanimously agreed to be the place to go, but I think Confeitaria Nacional in Lisbon center was maybe better. The basic rule of thumb is, the older the bakery and the more wood paneling, the better the pastéis will likely be.

I’m sure someone is going to strongly disagree with me on this, but Lisbon is a pretty seedy city. There’s something kind of interesting and charming about that element of it, but it’s the kind of place where I was careful walking alone at night. Which isn’t to say that it’s unsafe, but anymore, in most cities in developed countries, it’s hard to end up in the bad part of town. Not that it can’t happen, but no one just accidentally wanders into the south side of Chicago. Anymore, even cities in the developing world popular among tourists have really pushed out a lot of crime. Lisbon today is New York in the late 90’s. Common sense is all that’s required really, but you have to pay attention. In every other European city I’ve been to, you would really have to work at it to find yourself in trouble.

It’s entirely possible this is completely my own warped perception. I think people who come to Chicago and think it’s unsafe are absolutely insane, so perhaps I’m just being Lisbon’s biggest ninny. But it just felt different and I’d like to think by this point that I’m not easily intimidated.

Lisbon is a nice city for sightseeing. There’s actually a fair amount to see without it feeling like there’s a laundry list of must-sees. Barrio Alto (the old town), the Alfama neighborhood, and everything in between around the main port area is more or less central Lisbon. The streetcars are perhaps Lisbon’s most iconic feature, being both incredibly decrepit and quaint, and also functional for getting around the city. Like in San Francisco, they’ve now become a bit of a tourist trap, but they’re the only thing in the city that have really been taken over by this crowd. For a small city, Lisbon is very popular among tourists, but for now it’s not overcrowded, even on a summer weekend.

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Alfama

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Barrio Alto

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Alfama

Narrow streets strung with clotheslines, sun-drenched plazas and nice terraces overlooking the city, a smattering of sidewalk cafes, interesting nooks and crannies—Lisbon has the usual line-up of warm-weather port city staples. There’s a very distinctive Portuguese flavor to all of this, one I can’t really describe except to say it is very unique. The many hills make navigating the city, on foot or on the tram, a bit of a headache, but it also means you see more. You inevitably get lost trying to get from one place to another and there’s not a lot of dead space in this central area. Every street usually has some interesting stores and shops, and you get to see it whether your like it or not. Nothing is very tall in this part of the city, as the financial city is in a whole separate area, so you forever get interesting and new views over Lisbon.

Along the coast to the south of Lisbon is the neighborhood of Belém, where a lot of Lisbon’s biggest sites are. You are legally obligated to stop and get a pastry at Pastéis de Belém before going to Jerónimos Monastery. An order of monks has been there for more than 500 years and the architecture is Manueline, a style unique to Portugal.

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Nearby Belém Tower has the same thing happening. For what looks like a heavily fortified lighthouse, Belém Tower is a surprisingly big deal. It was basically the hub of the city’s defense system during the height of the Portuguese empire and became a symbol of resistance and military might, despite being not a particularly large structure. Like at the monastery, the details and intricacy of the architecture are beautiful, but this just does not look like a menacing defense system.

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View of the Vasco da Gama Bridge in the background

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Finally, further east in Belém back toward the center of Lisbon is the Monument to the Discoveries. This is a beautiful monument and one of the most recognizable sites in Lisbon. As its name suggests, it’s a monument honoring the golden age of Portuguese global exploration, with Henry the Navigator at the front flanked by a bunch of other explorers, kings, missionaries, writers, cartographers, mathematicians, and painters.

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On this side, Vasco da Gama is third from the front, facing forward with the long hair and the cross around his neck, after Henry the Navigator and King Afonso V.

I’m not an expert on Portuguese colonialism and I’m not one of these people who gets hung up about things like Columbus Day, but something about this monument just strikes me as odd. Maybe it’s the posturing of it, the way the thing kind of aggressively juts out into the river, but it just seemed kind of strange. The achievements of 16th century Portuguese explorers are incredible. They were expert sailors and scientists who contributed a lot to the world, and that’s worth celebrating, but I’m not sure this is the way I would have chosen to do it. It’s a striking and beautifully done monument certainly, but the vibe to me was more “We’re coming for you, rest of the world” rather than “Isn’t scientific discovery wonderful?”

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The thing I didn’t get to do in Portugal that I would have really liked to do is head south. The Algarve coast and the interior wine regions are supposed to be beautiful and would likely present a totally different view of the country. I have trouble describing Lisbon as cosmopolitan, but it’s certainly not going to give you an idea of the more rustic side of Portugal.

Lisbon is an interesting place and certainly has its own unique vibe, but it feels like a city with a lot of what-ifs. There’s a lot to like here and a lot of charm that would be lost if the whole place decided to really modernize itself, but it also feels like there’s a really great city underneath everything if they could just clean it up and get their act together a bit. Lisbon is a very lively city, but it also feels very tired in a lot of ways. It’s not at all quiet or relaxing—if anything, the nightlife is a little out of control for a city its size—but it can also feel, paradoxically, really lethargic at the same time. Unemployment is high at 13 percent, but not astronomically high and much lower than Spain. It feels like a place that’s waiting for something. I was in Lisbon when the referendum passed in the UK and while it certainly made the news, it was more a blip on the radar, not the earth-shattering jolt that it was in Brussels and Germany.

Portugal seems to have a strong national identity and a very well preserved and rich culture, but it’s like it doesn’t know where to go with it. It’s part of Europe and the EU, but it feels so periphery. They have a lot in common with some North African cultures, but they’re never going to have a strong bond with that part of the world for countless reasons—religious, political, economic. For a country that was at the forefront of global exploration, they haven’t quite figured out how to live in a truly globalized world.

Tarragona

Lisbon—Barcelona—Tarrgona, 699 miles

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For booking reasons, I ended up spending a night in Tarragona, a small seaside city about an hour south of Barcelona. No one is going to tell you to drop everything and get yourself to Tarragona as fast as possible. It’s aggressively normal and there’s nothing of any real interest there. They do have an old Roman amphitheater, if you find that your beach visits have been lacking a certain gladiatorial edge, but that’s about it.

What I enjoyed about it was that it’s the kind of place that’s not trying to be anything. When I think about all the places I’ve visited this trip, no matter how big or small, all of them have an agenda—they want more tourists or less tourists; they want to be bigger and more modern, or are aggressively fighting to stay small and keep out chain businesses. Almost everywhere has an objective and an ideal image of itself.

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Tarragona does not care. It’s a pleasant beach town that’s frankly pretty tired and not a place any tourist would want to hang out for any real length of time, but it was only when I got here that I realized how rare it is to find a place that just is. That’s not a typo. Tarragona isn’t really anything special; it just is.

Aragón

Tarragona—Fuentespalda, 86 miles

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La Fresneda

The southeastern edge of Aragón is actually, genuinely one of Spain’s well-kept secrets. This area is yet another “Tuscany”—rolling hills, vineyards, sleepy medieval towns, but in this case it really is sleepy. Getting here is actually incredibly easy but does require a car, which tends to cut down on the crowds. The smattering of towns—Ráfales, Fuentespalda, Valderrobres, La Fresneda—are almost eerily quiet, though Sunday in La Fresnada saw the elderly church going crowd out in full force.

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La Fresneda
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La Fresneda
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La Fresneda
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La Fresneda
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Ráfales
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Ráfales

“Arid” is a good blanket term to describe this area. It does not have that fertile, land-of-plenty vibe like in Tuscany or Provence. It’s dusty and there’s a hot wind that blows through on occasion. Thunderstorms will appear out of nowhere and just as quickly dissipate. Aside from the villages, the only things out here are some B&Bs and huge swaths of dry wheat fields and sand-colored rock, broken up now and again with the odd stream. There’s not much in the way of culture here like in the rural Bavarian region in Germany, nor is it the gastronomic heart of Spain like Tuscany is to Italy, but it’s a lovely slice of life in northern Spain that’s a great place to while away a few days.

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La Torre del Visco
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La Torre del Visco

Fuentespalda—Bourges—Paris, 792 miles

So that’s that for the Continent! I made the long trip back to Paris to drop off the car, which hasn’t been given its proper due yet, I don’t think. I’ve spent the last three months tooling around in a Renault Clio, probably the most ubiquitous car in Europe, but unbeknownst to me, I’d gotten the sport model outfitted with the douche package. In addition to the unnecessarily tinted windows and black-on-black coloring, the whole thing had red trim—red vent liners, red stitching on the steering wheel, and easily its best feature, cherry red seatbelts. I really can’t emphasize how red these seatbelts were. It’s the kind of detailing only a regular customer at Planet Hollywood would find appealing. Sean, the Irish man on the GPS, was known for guiding one to phantom gas stations and into lakes and if I was going any more than 80 mph, I genuinely feared the side paneling on the door might fly off such was the construction and quality of the exterior. The mileage was terrible and the seats were racing seats, one of the worst features ever conceived for road cars. When it wasn’t stalling in rush hour traffic on a bridge in Rome or breaking down in a Croatian alley, it was a pretty enjoyable pocket rocket and fun to drive, even if you had to wear a bag over you head. Between the French plates and the ridiculous design, it was basically like driving around in a lightning rod for three months. But kind of a lovable lightning rod.

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The Clio in its natural habitat, the petrol stop

I’m coming up on the last few months now—let’s not talk about it—and will be spending it in the UK and Ireland. First stop in the erstwhile EU: London.

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