September 21, 2012

We started off the day with a hop-on/hop-off bus tour. One of those big red double-decker guys. We drove through large and open European-style squares, tree-lined boulevards, and tiled shopping districts. The color-palette is still pretty uniform (whitewashed plaster, red/orange tiled rooftops), but there are a few buildings in pale blue, yellow, and pink. Lisbon is on seven hills, and so everywhere you look, there are rows upon rows of buildings, all different heights, sticking up every which way, a tumble jumble warren of houses and shops and businesses. Clotheslines and powerlines strung from place to place, sunlight streaming over it all, the river and the sea sparkling.

Our first stop was a place called Jerónimos, which I thought was a museum, but I was tricked! It was another monastery! Very pretty, but if I see another monastery, I’m going to throw it out the window.

The one cool thing about the monastery was that the cathedral housed Vasco de Gama’s tomb. As I gazed at it, I thought of all of the places those bones had been, worlds previously unknown to others. My dad, who basically hero worships de Gama (and calls him “Vasco d’G”), gasped and clutched his chest when I told him who was in the tomb. He was kidding around, but only a little.

We then explored the Museu da Marinha. Ordinarily, I don’t think I’d be so into a maritime museum, but there were a bunch of displays dedicated to the Age of Discovery, so it was actually pretty interesting. The craziest exhibit was all of the navigational instruments — astrolabs, sundials, hourglasses, octants, sextants, peloruses, bearing compasses, magnetic compasses, marine chronometers, astronomical rings… They were all so perfect, with all of their tiny component parts, some with cogs and wheels, all of them works of art and likely to make any steampunker drool.

OK, so. It’s fairly “easy” to set latitudinal lines because of the earth’s relation to the sun (ie, where the sun is in the sky at noon allows for a fairly simple trigonometric equation). In order for navigators to be able to pinpoint their location, however, they also needed to be able to calculate longitudinal lines, which run north/south. The tricky thing here, however, is that to calculate longitude, you must have an accurate timepiece, and until the 20th century, the most reliable clocks used pendulums, which renders them completely useless on a rolling ship. This is why marine chronometers are so impressive — they rely on a complicated system of springs, ball bearings, balance wheels, pivots, and escarpments to accurately tell time, even on a moving ship, and also accounting for minute changes in gravity. And with accurate time and speed, distance is quantifiable and — zing! — longitude! ALL OF THIS IS TO SAY THAT MARINE NAVIGATION WAS REALLY HARD BEFORE COMPUTERS AND SO PEOPLE LIKE VASCO DE GAMA WERE BRILLIANT.

You know, even though people knew that the earth was round in theory, it must have been pretty incredible to see Magellan’s ship start in one direction and return from the opposite direction. Visual proof of a spherical planet. Cooooooool. Too bad Magellan died in the Philippines, and so wasn’t actually alive when his ship returned. Let’s all take a moment to give some props to Magellan.

When we left the maritime museum, we met my mom at Pastéis de Belém, which is famous for its pastel de nata, an egg pastry that you can find pretty much everywhere in Portugal. (Please note that I am eating one right now and it is delicious.) Pastéis de Belém did not disappoint, and was totally worth the crowd and the line to get one of those suckers (ok, two of them) hot out of the oven.

We then hopped back on the bus and visited the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, which is a museum of a really, really rich guy’s private art collection. I didn’t really care for the museum (a lot of furniture) and made it though in twenty-five minutes (shazam!), but it was pretty cool to see some Renoir, Cassatt, and Rodin originals.

We decided to venture into the Alfama to find dinner and Fado music. The Alfama is a district of zigzaggy, hilly, intersecting, and winding streets that are too narrow for cars (and sometimes for people). This part of Lisbon is heavily influenced by the Moors, and so while walking through the maze, it was easy to pretend that I was in Aladdin. We struck gold by chancing on an amazing candle-lit family-run hole-in-the-wall establishment tucked into the side of a steep hill, called the Corasão de Alfama. Dinner was delicious, the atmosphere was magical, and the singing was powerful and raw and emotional (all marks of good Fado). And the desert was orange chocolate cake. Yes. Yes it was.

Walking back to a place where we could catch a cab, we heard Fado from different restaurants bouncing off the stones of the buildings and the streets, and it was beautiful and other-worldly.

I’ve had a break from walking long distances for the past few days, but I’m now back on the urban trail, which renders me so sleepy at night that I can barely keep my eyes open. I don’t even have the energy to go to my notebook for today’s Parent Quote of the Day. Just know that my parents are ridiculous and I love them for it.

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