Gaylord and I took a break from the flat’s darkness and fresh paint smell and spent five days on the south bay of Lisbon. We had hoped, pointlessly it turns out, that the painters would collapse their staggering stories of scaffolding in our absence – we would be gone a full five days after all, what else was there to do? It turns out layers. Endless layers of paint. The building will have wider dimensions by the time they eventually finish. But anyway, you’re not here for painting updates!
I’m going to tell you about Lisbon, or should I say, the proud south-side along the Costa da Caparica (as I was carefully corrected by an Uber driver when I accidently said I’d already been to Lisbon. This is not Lisbon).
We had needed a holiday. The fact this was our first flight together to a destination that wasn’t either of our respective countries of origin goes to show just how much we needed this trip. Gaylord and I are both fidgets, we can’t lie still for long whether it’s by a pool or beach, and we both have pasty complexions so lying by said pool or beach may not be a good idea. That said, after a few days of summer sunlight, Gaylord experiences a yearly glow up and his arms turn golden like warmed sand. He takes great pleasure in wearing white t-shirts or just holding his arm against me who remains the same alabaster colour all year round.
Regardless, this holiday needed to be a reset button. We didn’t want anything on our agendas except reading books, watching sunsets, sleeping late, and eating absurd amounts of food. My laptop is my baby, and yet it was left at home to fend for itself. I was entering the business of relaxing.
Thanks to Gaylord’s work in the IHG group, we based our holiday on wherever one of their hotels happened to be… and that had space for corporate members during the summer season – not an easy feat, let me tell you. Mallorca for instance had flights from Toulouse for 15 euros – 15! – but the hotels were less forgiving to give a worker a room for a few days. So, we settled on Lisbon because Gaylord was eager to see the city, and well, pastel de natas (or pastéis de nata). The Crowne Plaza hotel on Lisbon’s south bay is new to the IHG group, and therefore had space for us, plus had the added bonus of the beach only 3 minutes away by taxi.
A rocky start
Holidays are not real holidays unless there’s the occasional hiccup – it has to be a snapshot of real life otherwise it will forever remain a fantasy, and an unrealistic one at that. Our hiccup happened straight away. Leaving the airport terminal in Lisbon, a man loitered by the door. ‘Hey, you need a taxi?’
Both Gaylord and I were caught off-guard, and before I realised, the word ‘Yes’ had slipped out of my mouth. If only I could have plucked it from the ether and hungrily stuffed it right back in. This guy, who didn’t seem suspicious, led us over to a snarl of cars, tapped on a guy’s window and then immediately disappeared. Eager to leave the scene no doubt.
The driver burst out of the car. Missing a front tooth, he was big and loud and exuberant. He hurried to the boot which opened with a creak and a groan. Feeling like I shouldn’t but I’m polite, apologetic and British, I loaded in my luggage then slipped in the backseat. Gaylord and I sat there quietly as the driver muttered to himself, sorting out his GPS. Finally, we jolted to a start, and he chatted away, oozing confidence in his broken English. Wish I could say the same for my French. I started to relax. All those stories you hear about a random person sidling up to you at airports, they are just horror stories, we should all be more trusting.
Then, about 10 minutes later, in the middle of a motorway with cars thundering past, the driver suddenly pulled up onto the hard shoulder. Exclaiming over and over that his phone’s GPS wasn’t working, he scrolled backwards and forwards through his phone, and I nervously watched, then checked over my shoulder to see if someone on a motorbike was going to pull up behind us. What if we jumped out now? Would we be able to hitch a ride to the hotel? Would we be in a worse situation than whatever the hell this is?
At last, what felt like 145 years later, he opened Waze and we trundled off again. The rest of the journey, now across the 25 de Abril bridge, went without a hitch, and I felt overwhelmed with guilt for my lack of trust. As we pulled up at the hotel, I felt awkward, my gratitude practically oozing out of my pores. Then he pulled up the cost of the journey. 339 euros. For a half hour car ride.
At first I thought it was a mistake. Had he accidently combined our journey with someone else’s and had he driven them here from Germany or something? This price is higher than some people’s rent (not including London or Paris). The driver insisted if we had a problem with the price, we should drive it, which is all good to say after a journey.
All we had in cash was 100 euros. We do not have that kind of money to burn on a taxi ride – does anyone? So, annoyed, he called his boss. The boss didn’t put up much of a fight, surprisingly, as I was expecting him to make Soprano-style threats over the phone, maybe bring some guys down to insist we pay. As a result, the driver left, huffily clutching Gaylord’s 100 euros.
Shaken, and fully expecting him to return with a baseball bat, we hurried into The Crowne Plaza hotel.
My twitchiness remained for the rest of the evening, but that didn’t dampen my shock and awe as I gazed around the hotel lobby. Made of almost entirely glass on both sides, the reception overlooked the outdoor swimming pool on the back veranda, the parasols dancing in the light breeze. The hotel glittered like a greenhouse in the sun, and I soaked up the surroundings while Gaylord bantered with the receptionist, our new friend Pedro, about being a receptionist too. Kindred hospitality spirits.
Allocated our room, we descended a floor and walked down the thickly-carpeted corridor just off the dining room and terrace, our footsteps muffled. Swinging the door open, we cautiously edged our way into our room, not quite believing our eyes. Being a corporate member of IHG is nothing fancy, it just means you work for the company. The hotel room discounts are incredibly generous, but you also expect it to come with a ‘well, you managed to get a room in peak season for a sizeable discount, so we’re gonna squeeze you into this box room in the basement. Have a nice stay!’
They’d instead given us a Premium room – spacious and plush with a huge flat screen TV on the wall, a sofa that could transform into a sofa bed if Gaylord annoyed me, a coffee station and microwave, an ensuite with a waterfall shower (although not ideal on non-hair washing days), an enormous king-sized bed, and wide balcony with table and chairs overlooking the swimming pool.
Best of all, this was the kind of holiday where we could enjoy our room. We weren’t on a city break where we’d feel guiltily idle if we stayed inside. So, our balcony became our haven for those five days. We sat there in the cool shade, people-watching mostly, our scantily-dressed fellow hotel guests lounging around just below us, and we happily observed them or mostly worried about their skin because no one ever reapplied sun cream, and we played fierce rounds of Yahtzee, and drank rum and cokes.
Some nights, we would sit there watching the pool man throw the robot cleaner into the still silent water, or we would lounge on the bed watching terrible films that were available on the movie channels, or manage to catch some old Jamie Oliver 30 Minute Meals. One our last night, we watched Jamie cook chicken as we shared a big, squidgy Boston Cream doughnut, chocolate inevitably working its way on to the sheets. The next day, paranoid and desperate, I scrubbed at that chocolate stain in case the housekeeping staff wondered if it was something else entirely. But moving on…
We were in Costa da Caparica for only a four full days, and as we knew they would, those days slipped by too quickly, like water pouring through our hands. It felt strange at first, this whole sensation of having nothing more urgent to do other than reading my friend’s book that I’d borrowed back in September and had to finish so he didn’t think I was taking the piss. (N.B. I did finish it, on the last day in fact. I’m sure many of us experience this, but reading can be hard work when the mood isn’t quite right. This holiday was the perfect time to escape inside the pages).
My other goal, and Gaylord’s too of course, was to eat, and to eat well.
Where to eat along the Costa da Caparica
Gaylord had asked our new friends at the reception for dining recommendations which they kindly provided. On our first night, we took a taxi (an Uber this time, please no more 339-euro charges) to the beach to find our dining destination full. So we wandered along the strip, proving to be products of our generation as we Googled alternatives.
We really did just stumble upon Easy. It looked like a shop selling handbags and earrings, which it does, but the shop is also a cosy little restaurant, a one-man kitchen squashed in at the back. We sat in the window, Gaylord bathed in pink light from the sunset, and we ordered cocktails, hummus to share, and then fat, squashy burgers, stuffed like plump cushions. We shared the two, one full of shredded barbeque pork, the other piled with prawns and creamy herby chicken.
The rest of Easy’s menu is a kind of contemporary spin on Asian fusion – it’s not particularly Portuguese or a product of Lisbon’s cuisine, but it was filling and utterly delicious. The only problem was that I was wearing a jumpsuit that didn’t account for my ribs, so while hungry and therefore empty, the outfit is acceptable and I must admit, very flattering. But having eaten, breathing becomes a problem. So, once we’d withdrawn into the brisk evening sea breeze, Ubered our way back up the hill to the hotel, I gratefully burst free of this modern corset and hung around in my underwear.
Next evening, we hit up the beach. It was a beach holiday after all and we needed to smell the ocean, we needed to watch it crashing into the sand in those angry, aggressive waves that the Atlantic does best.
So, we went to Sunrise. The cafe and bar is perched on the bluff overlooking the waves, and its whole front wall is removed like a stage at the theatre. Yet instead of the customers and waiters appearing as the actors, we are the audience, once again taking this pivotal position to people-watch the surfers, strollers, dog-walkers and skate-boarders walking along the promenade.
At Sunrise, you can order a table-topped barbeque and cook your chosen meats or seafood from your seats. We went with this mouth-watering day dream in mind, then after greedily eating too many appetizers, we realised we could not do justice to such a dinner. You may ask, what god-given appetizers could have kept you away from a table-topped barbeque? Well, I’m shocked to tell you it was only three – local Portuguese cheeses, a platter of crisp fried cuttlefish which we hungrily dipped in lemony mayo, and king prawns swimming in garlic butter which we slurped out of the shells.
We kept our waiters busy though, ordering more mojitos, asking for recommendations, and Gaylord, well, he’s a charming guy, and soon it became obvious the waiters – all of them men – liked him. Every question, query or order he made, even the orders I made, Gaylord received a hearty clap on the shoulder, a gentle hand on his back, a considerate grin and anxious enquiries in case he needed anything. At first, I was happy to avoid all the touching, but then I got FOMO. I was half expecting them to ruffle his hair as we left. And I left the tip. Did I at least get a goodbye shoulder clap? Nope.
The following evening, we grabbed a table outside at our original recommendation from the hotel’s concierge. A Tasca do Marreta was that slice of coastal Portugal that we had been waiting to sample. We’d spent the early evening lounging on the beach, once again people-watching of course, and warily edging our way into the icy waters lapping the sand. It was so cold it was like a shot of hard alcohol, and I plunged in deeper, returning for Gaylord who was considerably more cautious. We braced ourselves against the waves, squealing like children when they arched over our heads then slapped down, almost sweeping us off our feet.
After cocktails and dice like old gamblers at a casino – except we drank pina coladas and blue lagoons at a beach-side bar – we arrived at A Tasca do Marreta and grabbed an outdoor table. Our waitress was sceptical and reluctant, not to serve us, but why on earth would we want to sit outside in this heat? Maybe it has something to do with the scaffolding at home, the submarine suffocation of our flat in Toulouse, that just means we want to greedily wrap the outside, the sun, the summer evenings and cool sea breezes around us like scarves.
As we scanned the menu, our sceptical waitress came out with nibbles; first olives, then bread, then local cheese, then pata negra sliced wafer-thin, ruby red and topped with frothy, creamy fat like the icing on a cake. We shared a half litre of wine, a glass of which I managed to pour all over the table, ripping our paper table cloth, and ordered grilled sardines and sole. My sardines’ skins were so crisped they shattered under my knife, and every mouthful was rich with salt from the sea.
The restaurant itself is muddled – serving delicious seafood and barbequed meats is their modus operandi, but the place looks like a bric-a-brac shop meets a grandma’s front room, piled with odds and ends including a shelf of cheese graters. Then the bathroom takes Andy Warhol’s pop art and gets it drunk. The restaurant was packed with both tourists and locals alike, from guys covered head to toe in Louis Vuitton to vast families, babies hanging from their hips.
On our final day, we felt well-rested enough to take on Lisbon! If you’d like to read about what we did during our day-trip to Lisbon, including a bargain scenic lunch spot and enormous doughnuts that were, quite frankly, obscene, read it on my newsletter here!