Lisbon Festes: A frenzied evening of pescatarian revelry
Sardines. That’s what I was after. Not the tinned ones you spread on toast when there’s nothing in the fridge. No, I wanted the Lisbon speciality, much larger, juicier, and tasting less of desperation.
“That one looks good,” said Colin, pointing to a roadside grill on the corner where a handful of pop-up barbeques billowed charcoal smoke into the Portuguese night sky. We squeezed onto the end of one of the many long plastic tables that spewed out onto the street.
It was unusually chilly for a June evening in Lisbon; despite my jacket, I was pleased to be surrounded by a ring of open-air grills wafting warm salty aromas in my direction.
“Dois sardinhas, faz favor,” I said to the waiter gleefully. Two grilled sardines, please. “Y dos canecas grandes,” Colin added hastily. Two large beers.
I had landed in Portugal just a few hours earlier, visiting a friend who had recently moved to the country. More by accident than design, my arrival coincided with the largest party of the year, the Feast of St. Anthony, when Lisbon comes together to celebrate the city’s patron saint. The night also marks the beginning of the summer sardine season.
Lisboetas, as the city’s locals are known, celebrate sardines like most cultures cheer a world cup win. Pop-up bars line the streets of the medieval town centre, sound-systems pump out festive tunes and dancing troupes parade the narrow, cobbled alleyways. And where they can find a space, chefs grill scores of thick, tender sardines caught fresh from the Atlantic.
Despite the surrounding chaos, the waiter quickly returned with our food and drinks. Although sardines are usually eaten no pao (on bread), Colin advised that I should try one by itself first. “Imagine its corn on the cob,” he said.
As I scanned the table for cutlery, I realized what he meant. With one hand I grabbed the fish’s head, with the other its tail, and then dived in. About 40 seconds later, I dropped the ravaged carcass to the plate, licked my fingers and ordered another one. I’m never buying the tinned variety again.
Several fish later we were happily stuffed and headed into the evening, hoping for a brisk walk to assist our bloated guts. This was a fanciful idea. Within seconds, we turned a corner and skidded to a halt.
We had wandered into a small square straddling a steep hill in the Barrio Alto, Lisbon’s famous bohemian neighbourhood. At the far end, a hog was being spit-roasted over a grill as hungry revellers lined up for their cut. On the right hand side, a mammoth speaker blasted frantic pimba numbers. On the left, bartenders prepared caipirinhas by the dozen. Between us and the pig was a sea of people, most wearing comedy sardine-shaped hats, bobbing to the music.
We turned to escape the log-jam but no luck. A crowd, several rows deep, had already formed behind us. We weighed our options and joined the queue for caipirinhas.
At this point, the details and sequence of events begin to fade into a murky, alcohol-fuelled collage of fishy smells, African drum beats and disappointing, yet confident attempts at conversing in the local dialect. A few blurry hours later, I was giving my feet a well-earned break on a quiet bench when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Ginjinha!” Colin’s eyes had lit up and he was beelining toward a stall just off the Praca do Comercio, Lisbon’s main square. I was handed a tiny chocolate cup, not much larger than a thimble, containing a dark, suspicious liquid.
Ginjinha, I gathered, is a local liquor made by infusing ginga berries (morello cherry) with aguardente (firewater). It can be served in a traditional glass, but the chocolate helps to offset the sour taste of the cherries. There is another reason why most elect the edible option.
“The chocolate one is smaller, so we give you a free refill,” the barman said, delightedly reaching for his bottle again.
As I flung the sugary cup into my mouth, I caught sight of a conga line heading in my direction. I am as good a dancer as most Englishmen, but congas I can just about manage and I was soon snaking aimlessly around the square, sandwiched between two remarkably energetic elderly women.
When the novelty wore off, I slipped out of the line and reunited with Colin, who was waiting for me at the ginijinha stall with another round. We walked down to the waterfront and I noticed a warm glow on the horizon. Somehow, ten hours had passed and the sun was now emerging from the hills behind the Tajo river. But judging by the vast throngs of people still roaming the city, and my growling stomach, it was not yet time to go home.
Breakfast. I daringly suggested sardines — it seemed the only option on this sacred evening of fish adulation — but Colin had other ideas.
“Over there,” he said, gesturing at a man preparing what appeared to be fairly nondescript bacon sandwiches. “Bifanas.”
Unconvinced, but too hungry and drunk to put up much of a fight, I joined him at the back of the line. When we reached the front, I saw that my initial impression was not far off. The vendor handed me a crusty bread roll, about the size of my palm, with three thick slices of sauteed pork shoved into the middle.
Following the lead of those around me, I lined the bifana with mustard and smothered the meat in spicy piri piri sauce. I’m not sure if it was my extreme hunger, or the cocktail of alcoholic beverages consumed over the course of the preceding hours, but that was one of the best sandwiches I have ever had. The pork, oozing with garlic, juicy and tender. The bread crunchy yet perfectly moistened by the mustard. And the piri piri, explosive.
As our burning mouths finally began to cool, the party had reached its natural conclusion. I took out my phone and ordered a taxi to take us back to Colin’s place in Cascias, an elegant, well-to-do town around half an hour west of Lisbon. Shortly, a friendly Angolan named Jose pulled up in a black Honda civic. Exhausted, we clambered in.
As the car glided toward the green Sintra hills, bathing in morning sunlight, Colin and Jose struck up an enthusiastic conversation about African music. I, however, was no longer sufficiently energized to attempt to decipher a foreign language. I rested my head against the window, closed my eyes, and fell asleep to the sounds of jovial Kizomba beats bouncing from the stereo.