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Portuguese Treasure

It has been, upon reflection, an excellent day.

It is early in the evening, and as such, I am the sole customer in the restaurant. Perhaps I have forgotten that the locals eat later, not dining for at least another two hours.

My very limited Portuguese prevents me from conversing fully with the waiter. Hopefully my satisfied grin speaks volumes. Manuel has dished up fresh goat cheese, a roast leg of lamb, stuffed mushrooms in garlic sauce, and fresh bread. All washed down by an ice-cold bottle of Satres, the local beer.

My mind wanders to the charm that is Lisbon.

The morning features a visit to a local bullfighting ring. It looks very much in disrepair, the exterior scarred and littered with debris. Even worse, it seems to be closed. The solid gates refuse to budge, the locks heavy with rust. Ancient turnstiles guard the narrow stairways to the seats inside.

Yet I am in luck. An old man appears, stooped and slowed by time. What follows is a pantomime. Using sign language, I ask to look inside. No success. I signal again, offering a few crumpled notes. This time I am successful. A gate groans in displeasure and I am in.

Over the turnstile and up the stairway. I emerge onto a narrow concourse that rings the top level of the arena. The bull ring, perhaps 25 meters in diameter, sits empty below. Other than what appear to be a few “corporate boxes”, there are actually no seats. Rather, a series of steep, sectioned terraces await the fight. The duel between matador and bull merits standing room only.

I scramble down the stairs. From the chipped and stained railing above the dirt floor I look across to the bull pen. Images of dust, sweat, and noise. Blood and terror as a huge, black monster charges into the ring to confront the matador. The matador’s art will be to use his cape to fool death. He must risk being impaled on the bull’s horns. He must never show fear. To show fear is to lose.

Too soon it is time to go. I thank the old man for his kindness. He taps his pocket and thanks me for the money.

I take a bus towards the Alfama district. This Moorish quarter is the oldest part of the city. In the labyrinth of cobblestone streets, I am soon happily lost. Men play backgammon and smoke hand-rolled cigarettes. Under the purple jacaranda trees, women gossip the way women gossip the world over. Various garments hang from the iron balconies of the blue and white tiled houses.

I roam aimlessly, chancing a few words with some of the locals. At a café I meet Maria, who serves the coffee. Across the street, hunched in his little kiosk, there is Pepe, who sells the papers.

From Alfama, I move upwards to the imposing limestone Castelo de Sao Jorge, the 12th century citadel that overlooks the city. The climb to the castle, and then to the ramparts is steep. It literally takes your breath away. So does the view. Ruby red tiled houses are stacked haphazardly on a hillside that slopes down toward the Tagus River. The sky is a brilliant sapphire, the water in the harbor silvery blue.

I leave the castle in the late afternoon. Negotiating the winding side streets, I eventually arrive at the Belem district, along the waterfront. Here the Tagus empties into the Atlantic Ocean, and here are two of Lisbon’s greatest monuments. I imagine all the great navigators and the crews that launched their expeditions from the Torre de Belem, a 16th century tower. Farther along is a monastery, the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, commissioned in 1501 to celebrate Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a sea route around the tip of Africa.

It is now approaching 10pm, and the restaurant is starting to fill. I am interrupted from my reverie by Manuel. He wishes to know if I am finished.

It must be fate I decide, this curious mix of timing and good fortune that sees other people arrange for me to travel the globe. All in return for refereeing a game of rugby. Indeed, the Portuguese word “fado” translates literally as fate. Fado is also a type of blues music, of melancholy ballads expressing both longing and sorrow.

How appropriate. Two days from now, after my match, I will leave Lisbon. I long to know her better. I will be sad to go.


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