To make the most of the beautiful afternoon yesterday, we decided to hop a ferry and venture to the other side of the Tejo river, with the eventual goal of visiting the Cristo Rei statue on the cliffs overlooking the 25th of April bridge. To get from the ferry stop to the statue, we took a long and meandering route along the waterfront and then up and up through the streets of the little town above.

This area proved to be a slower, seedier sibling of Lisbon, with all of the graffiti and shabby apartment buildings and none of the older architecture that makes up for it in Lisbon proper. Once upon a time I would’ve found the crumbling high rises of the town and deserted warehouses by the river ugly. Now I know where to look for beauty.

Find it I did, in the once-grand tiled facades of the riverfront, the enormous stands of fig trees and brambles growing where there once were roofs, the charming addition of graffiti to a tall door carefully framed by seashells. Even in the town itself, there was much to admire — we were particularly taken by the clever addition of mesh cages set between the balconies of one apartment complex, which allowed people to hang their laundry without it falling four stories to the ground. Very inventive.

For lunch, we stopped at a Brazilian restaurant by the river, which had been recommended by the guidebook. We found it nestled in a corner next to another small restaurant named Ponto Final, the final point, which underscored its name by perching a table right at the end of the pier, two feet from the water. I also liked the pedestrian bridge nearby, which may have originally provided access to a boat or ferry from the pier but now led straight down into the water. Doh! Final point indeed.

Our restaurant was equally whimsically named: Atira-te ao Rio, or throw yourself in the river — a suggestion that was luckily not made necessary by their delicious food and great service. There we ate one of the more original meals we’ve had here, which was a huge relief to palates grown used to fried cod, chicken salads (or worse, plain mixed salads), and vegetable soup made of mostly potatoes and cabbage.

Gabe had an excellent fish moqueqa, a spicy Brazilian dish made with coconut milk. I had fennel soup to start, and then a shrimp salad with palm hearts and so much fruit on it that it looked more like my breakfast than my lunch. Hands down the best salad I’ve had here to date, served by some of the friendliest staff we’ve encountered. A wonderful break from our culinary routine.

The entertainment value was also high, mostly provided by the weekend feijoada buffet. There were three big terra cotta pots on the side bar, one each of rice, black beans with pork, and greens, which Gabe told me were kale. On a plate to the right of the pots, there were entire peeled oranges to put on top. It looked delicious, but since I could never do it justice and Gabe couldn’t eat the pork, we contented ourselves with watching our fellow patrons load their plates high.

That included a little girl of about ten years old, who finished one plate of food and then decided that her dad’s feijoada looked good. She was too shy to brave the buffet herself, but the waitress helped her pick out the good bits and put them on a plate for her. The girl looked delighted, and finished every bite, then embarked on a big dessert just as we were leaving.

From the restaurant, we continued up the hill towards the Christ statue, which we thought we could access by means of a huge elevator running up the cliff. When we got there though, the elevator was at the top of the shaft, and our attempts to call it back down to the bottom didn’t result in any movement. We figured it was broken, and embarked on the long roundabout road up (and up and up!) instead. About half way there, we saw some people get in the elevator at the top and take it down to the bottom. Doh! So much for that idea.

We had thought that the elevator was there to provide you access to the Christ statue, but we were still quite far away. On our meandering route up and through the city, we had to stop and ask for directions twice, guided all the way by the gigantic yet unattainable statue just on the horizon. Finally we made it into the park surrounding the statue, where we were rewarded by amazing views of the city and the bridge below us. That’s right, the bridge was below us. I hadn’t realized we’d gained quite that much elevation!

To our relief, the elevator in the statue was working, and up we rode, accompanied by two Portuguese families. One little boy refused to believe his mother when she promised he could see his house from the top of the statue. “No way,” he said, “that’s impossible.” Turned out it was in fact too hazy to see as far as Estoril, where they were from, but I think it must have been a close call.

The view was stupendous, once we finally got up there — the elevator didn’t quite take you to the top, so you had to climb a few flights of stairs and then run the gauntlet of a small chapel and a gift store before you finally got to the viewing platform. (I was sorely tempted by the glow in the dark Jesus statue in the gift shop, but the 18 euro price tag deterred me.) We duly admired the panorama, along with a few more Portuguese families and a flock of nuns, and then returned to the elevator for the long trip back down.

Having achieved our goal, we bussed it back to the ferry stop. We arrived just in time to catch a car ferry, which allowed us to stand outside on the deck alongside a scooter and a Smart car that were making the trip across the river. The Smart looked especially funny, all alone on the huge ferry deck.

We came home long enough to change, relax a bit, and eat dinner before going out for our now-customary dessert and glass of wine at our local wine bar. In case you didn’t see it, the lovely pregnant proprietor found and commented on my blog post about our last visit there, saying that we’d have the welcome of the house next time. We hadn’t been in since then, so I didn’t know if they’d remember who we were.

No to worry though — the Brazilian waitress greeted us as old friends, with a delighted hello, a kiss on the cheek, and the news that the owner gave birth to a big, healthy son last Tuesday. His name? Gabriel. How fitting! She chose some excellent sweet wine for us, light and full of pears, then ran over to the restaurant next door for our desserts.

The place was strangely empty for a Saturday night, but that allowed us to sit and chat with her for a good hour or so til another couple came in. Between their Brazilian accents and the speed of their conversation, I only understood about half of what she and Gabe said, but I didn’t mind. I loved watching the way she talked, her animated descriptions of anything from food and music to to punks in the neighborhood. No matter the topic, her dark eyes lit up, her hands waved, and her sweet musical voice lilted up and down as she warmed to her subject. After we discussed the racism her African boyfriend encounters here, the way people look at him suspiciously as if he’s about to rob them, I noticed tears standing out in her eyes.

Her warmth and enthusiasm were so enchanting to watch that I was startled when she started speaking to me in French (she lived in Paris for eight years before coming here.) In an attempt to include me in the conversation, she asked me about what I do, which only succeeded in completely flustering me. I have a hard enough time explaining what I do in English, and my exhaustion from that day’s walking combined with the amazing wine I’d guzzled far too quickly rendered me speechless, in any language. My reply came out as a hideous hybrid monster of Portuguese and French, and she must have thought me a complete idiot. Oh well.

It was a delightful evening, and contributed again to my growing sense of belonging. We have been to so many cafes and restaurants here where the servers greet their customers as old friends, or sit down and talk with them when things get slow. So when the next customers poked their heads in to ask if they were open, I realized that we were now those people, sitting and chatting with the waitress on a slow, quiet night.

The lesson to be learned for the next time we do this: it takes about six months to really start feeling comfortable and making friends. And yes, that is just when you’re getting ready to leave. But so be it.

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