Almost two years ago, through a weird series of connections and circumstances, I ended up tech-ing a clown show called Aga-Boom, which was performing in the Vilnius Comedy festival. Long story short I became friends with the principles, Iryna and Dimitri (and Jesse, who is also in the show and with whom I have many mutual friends from many different facets of my life) and several weeks ago, they asked if I could tech their upcoming run in Lisbon, Portugal. On the plus side, I’d never been to Portugal, it was decent money, and I always love working in theatre. The down side was that it was a three-week gig at the end of the semester and with Monki only 4 1/2 months old I would miss her 5 month check up (this after missing her 1 month for a gig in Vegas) and three weeks is a long time away from family.
That said, I have the most supportive wife in the world (and we could use the money) so I accepted the job, made arrangements to handle my university work online and prepared to go. Naturally, the flights to Lisbon were out of Vilnius and, this being Vilnius, they couldn’t be at a normal time so with my departure set for 6:20 in the morning on the 28th of November, I would be graciously hosted by my friend (and birthday twin) Gaby in her brand spanking new loft in Vilnius the night before my flight. I kissed Rasa and Monki, said good-bye to Laika and Monika dropped me off at the train station for a 9:45pm train, leading to an 11pm meeting with Gaby, a walk in the softly falling snow to her place (complete with our usual, wonderful conversation which jumped topic to topic with ease) and a bit of a an issue calling a cab for 5am… but all was good in the end and I made it to the airport in time to board, had no problem getting to Frankfurt and changing planes and made it to Lisbon to be met by someone holding an Aga-Boom sign.
I must say, there’s something a bit cool about being met by a stranger holding a sign. In this case, the stranger was Fanni, who was the theatre’s production manager for our show and (as I have been discovering all week) is a pretty damn cool human being besides. She took me to meet up with the rest of the gang before getting Jesse and I set up in our respective AirBnB flats before showing us where the theatre was (a 7 minute walk) and setting a call time to get started on Tuesday morning. Our first show was Thursday afternoon so this was all good.
Jesse, Iryna and I went for a walk to get the lay of the land and when Iryna called it quits for the night, Jesse and I continued out for a bit, did a little sight-seeing (Jesse, having performed on cruise ships, had been to Lisbon a couple dozen times so he was playing a little bit of tour guide, which was awesome) wandered into a few shops and had some fast food dinner before calling it for the night.
A night which was only interrupted once – by a loud banging on my door. Naturally, i ignored it being my first night in a strange place. I probably shouldn’t have as it turned out it was Jesse, whose power had gone out and was looking for wifi to use to call the landlord. It worked out okay, and when his fuse blew again the next night, I let him in when he knocked.
Tuesday we all met up at the Teatro Tivoli, where the process of putting the show together really started. Okay, not entirely true. The show itself, with Iryna and Dimitri, both former Cirque clowns, has been going for more than 16 years. Jesse joined in the role of the third clown about 4 years ago. But with each new venue, there are new lights which need to be set, props which need to be procured, paper walls which need to be made, etc. While the performances are solid, the production itself needs to be created anew each time to conform to the space. When I did the show with them in January of 2015, the setup was quite different than it is here. Here, we have a professional crew, a beautiful performance space and, oh yeah, an orchestra pit which we would have to deal with.
So like I said, we got started putting the show together. We started putting the light plan in place, building the props which had been brought from Vegas, as well as incorporating the locally sourced items (like ten rolls of white paper, 18in fans to power 9 meter sky dancers, bubble and fog machines and a whole bunch of toilet paper). Honestly, there’s not a lot to say about the inner workings of setting up a prop heavy clown show except to say the crew (Miguel, Antonio, Vladimir, Roy, Lorenzo, Pizzi, Ana, and of course, Fanni) are all top-notch and amazing. Tuesday and Wednesday (and Thursday morning), while long and sometimes difficult in the moment, really went fairly smoothly and by our first show on Thursday afternoon, we were ready.
Along the way, Jesse and I experienced a great little Chinese place across the street from our flats and I was taken out for lunch by the crew to a Portuguese place where I had a delicious fish and rice dish. We went on December 1st, which is a national holiday so the place was packed (it might be packed on regular days, too, I don’t know as I’ve only been there the once). When we got up to leave though, Roy (which is not pronounced like it’s spelled, if indeed that’s the correct spelling – it’s just what he told me to call him in English) decided to have me on a little bit and explained that since it’s a national holiday, celebrating Portuguese independence (Like Lithuania, there are a few “independence days”), all the restaurants were free.
Shame on me, I bought it. Just for a second, but dammit, he had me. My old buddy Tom Moran would have been so excited since getting me is not an easy thing to do but for a few beats, I was caught hook, line and sinker. Then I stepped up to the counter and paid my share before heading back to do the show.
The show wasn’t hitchless (and I’ll take the blame for the missed lighting cues) but the 700 or so members of the audience enjoyed the hell out of it and we were off and running! Sort of. That was our only show for the day and we were off on Friday so we pre-set what we could and prepared to enjoy our first day off.
Friday, Iryna, Dimitri and I decided to hit the big castle on the hill, Castelo de São Jorge. I’d been out already in the morning to take some pictures and just have a bit of a wander but this was going to be fun. We met up and headed out, getting lost a few times on the way, but eventually we made it up there and started walking through. Turned out to not be such a good day after all. I left them and made my way, slowly, back to the flat, where I stayed for the rest of the night.
Saturday was two shows and while the audiences weren’t as big as our first, they were just as enthusiastic and while I may not have been at 100%, the shows were a good distraction.
On Sunday, Jesse and I did what clowns do on their day off – went to a circus. When we had been out for our wander on our first night, we had passed several theatres showing kid friendly fare during the holiday season and it turns out Circo at the Coliseu is a tradition dating back over a 100 years. Jesse was able to arrange a ticket swap for us so went to enjoy the show. The space is amazing, designed like an indoor coliseum (hence the name) and by the time the show started it, it was packed. The show itself was okay, but not great, feeling more like a teaser to the various acts than their full performances. The exception being the magician in the first act. He looked incredibly uncomfortable and unsure of himself. Turns out the reason (I’m guessing here) is because he’s NOT a magician. In the second act, he came back doing a teeterboard balancing act and he was brilliant. All the confidence lacking in the first act came back in spades in this one. Easily the best performance of the show.
Come Monday, the first of three days off in a row and marking of a week being in Portugal, Dimitri, Iryna and I decided to go to nearby Sintra (seriously, had no idea how close it actually is) for the day to see the castles and sights.
When we got to the station in Sintra there were a number of tour guides there. Seems the way it’s done is you hire a private guide, starting from €15 a person (for a party of 6) and you get a guide for the day. There’s no time limit or anything and this will get you to the main attractions. A few euro more and you can get out to Cabo de Roca, the furthest point west in mainland Europe. Of course, we don’t know any of this and discovered it by talking to one girl in the lobby of the train station. When we told her we were only three, the price jumped from €15 to €35 a person. And honestly, she just wasn’t selling her services. As a tour guide for hire, especially a private deal like this, you kinda need to self yourself as well. And that she was just not doing.
So we moved on to the next person. Here was a bubbly woman, full of enthusiasm who sold herself, her tours and just made a much more favorable impression (and was €10 cheaper, too!). This was Sofia and we chose her (or maybe she chose us?) to be our guide for the day. We started in the “Historic Center” of Sintra. This is opposed to the “modern center” which really doesn’t exist, but everyone calls the center, the “Historic Center” so there we were, experiencing its historicism at our first stop, the Town Palace or Palace of Sintra. Actually, our first stop was a little pastry place called Piriquita where we sampled the local delights (whose names escape me, but one was a small round piece with the consistency of pumpkin pie and the other was a long, thin flaky confection which was melt in your mouth sweet) before walking across the street to the Palace. While we didn’t go inside (wanting to take advantage of the beautiful weather) we did get some great shots of the landscape and the Pena Palace (more on this later).
Our next stop, after passing Lawrence’s, one of the oldest hotels in Europe and a stopover for Lord Byron, was the Quinta da Regaleira. While relatively new, only built in the late 19th century, this place is a summer dream home. Aside from the neo-Gothic house, there’s a 27 meter pit used for masonic rituals, waterfalls, imitation ruins and underground caverns. All sorts of really amazing things to see and I’m sure, during the summer, the grounds are perfect for just chilling out. Weirdest thing, though, which gets filed in the “ain’t it a small world” category was that as Iryna and I were walking up a tower, I was talking and all of a sudden, someone said “Jaq?”
Yeah… one of my former students, who is spending an Erasmus semester in Spain, was in Portugal for the weekend due to a Spanish holiday. I’m spreading knowledge all over the globe! I’m also a klutz. We stopped at another former palace, the Seteais Palace, which is now a very exclusive hotel, not open to random tourists, but there is a nice view on the property which is. You basically park, walk up, say “ooooh,” take some pictures and leave. Well, you would if you were normal people. If you’re me, you drop your lens cap then have to ask nicely if you can walk through the nice, 5-star hotel lobby to get out to the garden, retrieve the said cap and come back out, all in record time, because they don’t like scruffy guys wearing zombie archery t-shirts wandering the premises.
Our next stop was the Pena Park, home to a vacation from vacation house made entirely out of cork. See, the King had the Pena Palace, which was a kinda summer home, but even so, it was still an official residence where he would have to do official things. So when he wanted a break from all that, to spend time with the missus, he built this little cork mansion a couple of kilometers away from the main house. Sofia took us here for a number of reasons – the house is really cool; there are some interesting nature bits and great views of the actual Pena Palace, and, oh yeah, no lines for buying entrance tickets! 1o points for the knowledgable guide who doesn’t want to waste any time!
Before we hit the Pena Palace itself, though, we made a quick stop to see the old Moorish Castle walls (if you’re counting, this is three – there are a lot of castles here!). The Moors play a big part in Portuguese history so you’ll often see places where they were, and then were overtaken by the christians. Our stop here was brief, though, as Sofia only wanted to show us the walls and suggested we not go inside as the day was getting late and we still had Pena Palace before heading out to the coast for sunset. We agreed with her and soon found ourselves at the bottom of the hill about to head up to the main attraction.
The Pena Palace is on the highest hill in Sintra so can be seen from everywhere. It’s a mix of styles and colors and is simply gorgeous. To get up to it, though, is a fairly long walk so we decided to take the shuttle service instead. No problem. It’s a small bus but runs fairly frequently. So we all get on, and I decide to jump out and take some pictures before we get going. While I’m doing this, however, more tourists get on and Iryna doesn’t save my solo seat across the aisle from where she’s sitting with Dimitri. I get back on the bus and there’s a woman where I was. I joked that Iryna let someone steal my seat at which point the woman got up to give it back. A playful argument ensued where I insisted she keep the seat. The ride was all of 3 minutes so surfing the rough mountain road while standing in the back was no big deal.
Later, though, it was funny because there’s a spot for sitting in a window-sill type of area and taking some fun pictures, and the same lady was behind us when we left from taking our pictures, so I joked she was again stealing my seat. We all laughed.
We grabbed sandwiches from the snack bar to eat on our way to our next stop, Cabo da Roca. It took us about 25 minutes to get there, sometimes “kissing” the mirrors of cars going the other way on the narrow streets, but Sofia is the master of her Jeep so we were in safe hands the entire day. And we made it to the cape, which is the westernmost point of mainland Europe, in perfect time for sunset. We weren’t the only ones, either. Seems like this is the spot for sunset viewing. And yeah, if you look hard enough, you can see New York from there!
Once the sun went down, though, it was a free for all to get out as quickly as possible. Gets dark fast in these parts, so we waited long enough to take some pictures of the water and the lighthouse, then hightailed it back to town, passing again Monserrate Palace (which we had passed on our way to the coast and looks like the Doumo in Florence) and ending our daylong tour with Sofia. Seriously, a brilliant tour and cannot recommend her and Lighthawk Tours highly enough (their website still isn’t up, so until then, find them on Facebook).
Dimitri, Iryna and I had dinner in Sintra, at a delicious tapas place recommended by Sofia (even after she left, she was making sure we had a good time!) then walked back to the train station for our ride back to Lisbon. All told, it was a great day and a great end to the first week of our stay.