The first stop in our 22-day vacation abroad began with a two-night stay in Belém, Portugal. Belém is the most historic neighborhood in Lisbon. It is a short distance, about six miles, from downtown. It is a coastal place from where a significant amount of history and tradition sailed to the new world.
Belém is located right on the shores of the Tagus River and boasts a beautiful riverfront sidewalk connecting the Discoveries Monument with the imposing Belém Tower. The weather headlined a gentle cool breeze and partially clouded skies making our stay a pleasant one.
Our hotel room had a balcony window facing the imposing Jerónimos Monastery with a quiet that surprised us. Birds chirped, and the sun gently peeked through the clouds. The quiet was surprising because of the amount of activity outside. Some travelers like us, might not enjoy the tourist crowds and long lines, but this has become the standard. Start the day early is my advice.
We were there on a Sunday. I was fortunate to attend Catholic mass at the monastery’s church, Santa Maria de Belém —the church and monastery date to the sixteenth century. King Manuel I of Portugal built it with funds derived from taxes on spices from India after Vasco de Gama’s incredible journey of discovery. Its architecture is referred to as the Manuelin style in honor of King Manuel I, who was the driving force behind the project.
The light masonry walls of the monastery and the Belém Tower contrast sharply with the blue shades of the nearby river. The monastery is an impressive building, and I will forever remember cool morning walks by its walls. If only wall could talk!
I had read Vasco de Gama, and the poet Luis de Camoes’ gravesites were here, but it was a special moment when I encountered the tomb of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. I’m a big admirer. Travel never ceases to surprise and amaze me.
If we keep our minds open, traveling also bestows interesting reflections of ourselves. Such is the reason for the title of the post. Gluttony. At home in America, when my husband and I enjoy a cup of coffee at a local restaurant, the coffee keeps pouring – constantly – sometimes, an insulated pot is placed at our table! Waiters also bring plenty of milk and sugar, as if we were ten of us and not two. The popular expensive, and trendy coffee we all know offers three different sizes, the larger being their “venti” size of 20 ounces! This popular franchise is also present in Belém and just about everywhere else.
The first thing on my list was to try the famous Pasteis de Belém, only called by that name in Belém. In the rest of Portugal, they are sold as Pasteis de Nata, a tart egg pastry that is feeling and meant to enjoy slowly, like all the good things in life.
Because our hotel was around the block from the famous café, we visited after the tourist crowds were gone and locals come out to reclaim their space. We ordered “café con leche” even though we drink our coffee black, but we discovered “café con leche” comes in a larger cup. We’d ordered café before, and the dainty tiny cup holds about two ounces of coffee. Maybe not even that much. Oh, the tragedy! Haven’t they heard of unlimited coffee served in a mug?
I decided to focus on my favorite pastime; people-watching. I noticed Portuguese-speaking patrons seated nearby sipping from the tiny coffee cups accompanied by one or two Pasteis de Belém. I figured they’d be done in a short time. But they were not.
We gobbled our coffee like true gluttons and dared to order a second cup! It seemed ok until I noticed the waiter’s expression. “You want a second cup”? he asked in broken English. He seemed intrigued when I said yes, please. We also ordered six pasteis! They’re small, and the more, the better, right? We each ate two and asked for a box to take home the remaining two. These famous pastries were hard to digest. Even worse for me, because I seldom eat pastries. After that first try, I had enough pasteis to last for the rest of the trip.
The lovely logo-embellished box can be a collector’s item. It may sound ridiculous, but it makes a difference to me. It says they care about customers; they pay attention to detail and, at the same time, they promote their emblematic product. You see people across Lisbon carrying the famed Pasteis de Belem paper bags.
After the curious exchange with our waiter, I resumed people-watching. I noticed locals were still sipping from their pretty tiny cups after we had consumed almost two regular-sized cups of coffee.
The same went for sparkling water bottles and canned soft drinks. They were smaller than what I’m familiar with. Ice is by request only. I wondered why we are so obsessed with ice.
Belém, a popular sailing port during the Age of Discoveries, is where I witnessed my gluttony tendencies and rediscovered the value of slowing down and living in the moment.
Do you identify with my story? Are we too wasteful here and too privileged? Please share your thoughts.