Saturday, November 30, 2013

The sea inside steals the show

Sleeping until lunch and then heading to a mini wine tasting at ViniPortugal: this is not a bad way to start the day.

Travel has changed so much since my first backpacking experience. Now we have global gadgets that remind us where to go, tell us how to get there, and tell us all the backstory we could hope to have--anywhere, instantly. Except, I don't have a global wi-fi package on my gadget and I forgot to sync my calendar before leaving the apartment. Therefore I don't have that sketch of the day and basics about the most efficient route to take between sights.

I shall have to rely on my wits--like the good ol' days.

This is nice. Really, it's good to go gadget-free sometimes.

The first non-alcohol-related stop was the Oceanário de Lisboa. The aquarium was on my "if I get to it" list. I'm glad I got to it! I paid the extra few Euros to see the temporary exhibit floor (featuring sea turtles), as well as the permanent (2) floors. What an impressive building and arrangement!

The view from the connecting corridor between exhibits when I arrived.

The view from the connecting corridor between exhibits when I left.

In the turtle exhibit, the highlight was the seating nook built into the tank... Imagine you are in a sleek sports car. Now imagine the path that the air follows, as you speed along: up over the hood, over the roof, down the back windshield, and off the trunk. So, this nook was the sports car and the aquarium bent around it like the air flow. There was a playful stingray just over my head for a long time, fish screamed by at top speed, and a giant sea turtle napped at my feet.

This would have been enough, for me, to justify the price of admission (approximately $20). But the turtles were just the beginning. (I almost wrote "just the appetizer" but that would be politically incorrect and in violation of my affinity for them.) Then you enter the permanent exhibit space from the third floor and you are standing in front of the main tank. It is very, very large. It holds your general assortment of sharks, stingrays, chimaeras, and bony fish. My favorite: the Ocean Sunfish.

Standing in front of this huge wall (of acrylic? tempered glass?), you have an opportunity to stand very close, which brings everything into proportion. The main aquarium provides two-story viewing from all four sides of the tank, in addition to peek-a-boo cutouts throughout the visitors' "journey." Adding to this spectacle are the four corners of the oceanarium, which feature tanks specific to various climates like tropical and Antarctic.

Just go there. Tri-legal. Super-bacana. Awesome.

And, at the end of the route, they present a "behind the scenes" video. First the audience is captivated by explanations of what, how, and how often the various species are fed. Then they discuss medical care--even showing a clip of a fish surgery: who knew?! Then they show the mega-operations behind running the facilities. (They import a crazy amount of sea salt from Israel and blend it with fresh water to manufacture ideal sea water!) Lastly, they discuss their research, education, and conservation initiatives.

Now that I work at a museum, I can appreciate the challenges museums are facing in staying relevant with advancing technology. The key is to engage the visitor, to bring them into the experience. At the Oceanário, man, they nailed it! But they also told me about the important things that I didn't get to see, and why I should care.

Oh, and the Oceanário is in the Parque das Nações complex. There is a great deal more to see. I also enjoyed the sculpture gardens and creative fountains on the grounds. A bonus for me: The Chimarrão Churrascaria just outside the oceanarium. And they served coração!

I head back across town to Bairro Alto for evening wine tasting at Solar dos Vinhos, but felt I was underdressed as I approached. Rather, I meandered the winding streets as they filled up for Friday night revelry. What I had read proved true: this neighborhood really does host all types at night. Older, younger, well-heeled or grungy, and everything in between. There are a handful of narrow pedestrian streets with little bars and restaurants of all sorts dotted along them. Occupancy caps out around 50 (like sardines), or 30 (for the less feverish places). Music pours out from open doors. It's like window shopping for the perfect vibe. If you like the vibe, you go in, sit if you can find a spot, order a drink, and relax. Maybe you order another, maybe you move on and repeat.

My vibe was A Tasca do Chico. Turns out it was Anthony Bourdain's vibe too--his picture is on the wall of fame, in good company--but I didn't know it when I walked in.

There was also an Internacional centenário scarf on the ceiling.

Who needs a global gadget to find a good vibe?

Almost lost that good vibe when I returned "home" to find the souvenirs shop--my front door--all shuttered up. I stood on the street in a moment of panic, near tears, until I remembered that the apartment owner has some loose affiliation with a hostel around the corner. It turns out that a guy there used to rent this apartment, so he told me the trick to getting in. Phew.

Then there was just the sea outside... Cascais...