Cacilhas ekes out barely a dozen lines on Wikipedia and is not in our Portugal guide book but, like so much of any unfamiliar landscape, it can still startle and delight, at least for an afternoon.
We gave Cacilhas one of our afternoons in Lisbon because our AirBnB host told us we could get delicious seafood on the waterfront there. Combine delicious seafood with seeing Lisbon from a boat, and how could we not go? For a mere 1.20€, we hopped one of the passenger ferries that dart across the River Teja (Tagus in gringo) to burp hordes of commuters, other locals and the occasional diner onto the opposing quay every 15 minutes, 20 hours every day.
Cacilhas (6,000 souls in 2011) is the waterfront of larger Almada, and it did indeed hold the power to startle and delight.
We found the last man of war commissioned by the Portuguese Navy retired there. Forty-four guns strong, the Dom Fernando II e Glória has been meticulously and lovingly restored by the Navy to 1850s standards and crewed with mannequins that depict everything from manning the war cannons to being held in irons. Louis was in heaven, and Doris was at least in the clouds.
Then there was the old Catholic church on the main street. Simple and the color of the Lisbon sky on the outside, the interior of Our Lady of Bom Sucesso was astonishing – paneled its entire length in classic blue and white azulejos depicting scenes from the life of Christ, some of the tiles survivors of the 1755 earthquake.
The contemporary pièce de résistance was the waterfront and the ruins that line it all the way to lunch.
For maybe a kilometer, the quay is lined with what were once factories, warehouses, elegant homes, stores and other relics of prosperity. Today, they are all ruins – stone and brick shells of former industry and grandeur, some still clinging to the last tiles of their glory, all now serving as a running canvas for kaleidoscopic graffiti.
On the crumbling stone docks, tourists take selfies, and fishermen trail lines into the river, Lisbon shimmering on its seven hills in the background.
Our host had told us to walk walk walk even when it seemed there could be nothing beyond, and we would finally come upon two restaurants: Atira-te au Rio and Ponto Final. Ponto Final is closed on Tuesdays so Atira-te it was. In other seasons, the turquoise tables and chairs on the on the water must be filled. On a brisk December afternoon, the diners were all indoors. Lucky for us, a premier window table was waiting.
It was chilly inside, too. A glowing space heater warmed the cook, but the wait staff of two wore scarves and heavy sweaters. Guests warmed themselves on the food and wine. Grilled octopus salad and grouper on shrimp rice, washed down with crisp Portuguese wine wine, did it for us.
Like nearly everyone we meet anywhere around Lisbon, our waiter spoke excellent English. (Note to anyone considering Portugal but daunted by the prospect of navigating Portuguese: One of our more startling discoveries is how widely and well English is spoken. Of all the European cities where we travel, only in the Netherlands is it as widely and fluently used.) We asked about the ruins and how such an excellent restaurant ended up in such a forsaken-feeling location.
Even though he has spent his whole life in the area, the waiter did not know the story behind the ruins. “They were here when I was born,” he said. He believed they might have been sardine factories that had been closed and abandoned along with the homes and services that once flourished around them. Periodically, there is talk of restoring the waterfront, possessing as it does waterfront, spectacular views of the city and cheap, reliable transportation, but nothing ever comes of it, he said.
Meanwhile, the owner of Atira-te au Rio thrives. Twenty-five years ago, when there was even less traffic to Cacilhas than there is today, he opened a bar for one and only one reason: the views, according to the waiter. As time went on and traffic grew, Atira-te grew, slowly, quietly and successfully. Now the restaurant is open 10 or 12 hours a day, depending on the season, 364 days a year, mostly patronized by tourists who find it in the restaurant reviews and day trippers like our host, Carlos, from Lisbon. The waiter says there are people who have spent their entire lives nearby and have no idea Atira-te and Pont Final exist.
There was actually still more to see. Perhaps a five-minute walk beyond lunch, a skyscraping elevator soars to the 900-foot-tall Sanctuary of Christ the King monument, inspired by the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil.
We left the Sanctuary for another lunchtime beyond the ruins of Cacilhas and ferried back to Lisbon under a setting sun.
In the rear-view mirror:
• Reunion weekend: Brian Kelly and Louis started working together in 1971 and were reunited, briefly, in 2014, when Louis was in London on his last documentary assignment for CBC. Bryan and his wife, Caroline, flew in to share the weekend with us.
• Nata and queijadas de sapa: Portugal is a land of bakeries. Nata is an egg custard treat native to Lisboa (left). Queijadas de sapa is a miracle of almonds and marzipan local to fairy-tale Sintra, 15 miles away. Resistance is futile.
Coming soon: Those Romantic Portuguese