Favourite things in Portugal – brought to you by the letter C

On a recent trip to Lisbon, Portugal, I was struck by the fact that so many of the things that defined my visit started with the letter C. Fittingly, since Christopher Columbus spent so much time in Portugal, and some debate that he was Portuguese, I decided to provide you a list of my seven Cs of Portugal: after all, Columbus himself was named Admiral of the Seven Seas after his notorious 1492 voyage.

Without further puns, here are my impressions of Portugal, brought to you by the letter C. Lisbon’s most obvious Cs are probably: churches, castles, ceramic tiles, cobblestones, and cafes, but because I am a foodie, I will also add in custard tarts and cataplana.

Not unlike most European centres, there are loads of churches and several castles a stone’s throw apart (and they get the first two Cs.) What is different from many EU countries is that as Portugal was not in the Second World War, many are original and very old. Most of my photos have either a church or a castle in the background, even when they weren’t the subject of my photo. In the castles and churches, aside from the usual beautiful cupolas, paintings, and/or woodwork, the tile work is stunning. Thanks to a Moorish and later Dutch influence, murals of ceramic tile were painstakingly created, and Lisbon even has a tile museum to walk you through the latter history of tile.

That brings me to C number three, ceramic tile. It’s certainly not reserved for the interior of churches, it adorns the outside of buildings instead of bricks. Sometimes a whole side of a building is faced in colourful patterned tile, other times it is simply featured in the house number. The painted ceramic tile, set off against the terracotta tile roofs and the bright blue sky was truly mesmerizing.

The problem with the captivating tile work is that as you walk down the cobblestone sidewalks and streets, if you aren’t focused on your feet, you may be meeting the ground face first. The steep, windy, narrow streets of uneven cobblestones earn the fourth C. Since people don’t seem to collect their dogs’ ‘packages’ either, watching the women in their very high cork heels navigate steep, uneven, booby-trapped cobblestone paths is quite amusing. (And there is another C, as cork is one of Portugal’s exports of note, but I’m not counting it in the list.)

People-watching is a wonderful sport in Lisbon, especially from the comfort of one of the many sidewalk cafes. Choosing the beverage to accompany my pastry was difficult, as the beer and wine are cheaper than the soft drinks, and they also all seem to offer fresh-squeezed orange juice, and of course, great coffee. As you can imagine, I had to visit many such cafes for the excuse to try different beverage-pastry combinations. Lucky for me, there are even more cafes than there are churches, so they get C number five.

As I’ve now segued to my reason for travelling to new places; to discover their culinary best, I’ll introduce you to C number six: custard tarts. I would travel back to Portugal just to eat more of the often-imitated, but never replicated, Pasteis de Belem (known as pasteis de nata in other bakeries.) A short train ride out of Lisbon gets you to Belem, a cute suburb with more churches, castles, ceramic tiles, cobblestones, and cafes. I bought six custard tarts fresh out of the oven to share with my sister on a park bench. She had rightly recommended the quantity, as we would have to have one plain, one topped with cinnamon, and the other topped with icing sugar. Not sure what to expect, I sunk my teeth into a warm, creamy custard, and through the flaky pastry. Washed down by a swig of six-euro port (that rivalled $40 bottles back home), I was in heaven.

The seventh C brings us back to the sea. A trip to Portugal is not complete without sampling some (or a lot) of the fresh seafood. Cataplana is a bunch of fresh shellfish and cod steamed with cilantro, potatoes, and tomatoes, and served in a copper clam-like ‘pot’ with the same name as the dish. We chose the restaurant where I’d experience my first cataplana by looking at the selection of seafood displayed in their window. The shrimp looked like lobster, the snails were in season, and the clams and crab abounded.

Having come full circle, through seven Cs, it’s interesting to note that cod is the mainstay of many traditional everyday and celebratory Portuguese dishes, and yet they now have to import cod, having overfished it in their own waters — and yes, one of the places they import it from is Columbus’ new world.

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