by Luca Iaccarino
I write “Último Porto” on Uber and it marks the destination on a goods platform in the middle of the River Tagus. My wife peeps at the telephone. “Are you sure?” “No, but there’s no harm trying”. Well, it won’t harm my pocket anyway: Uber in Portugal is the cheapest in the whole of Europe. It’s not a good sign for the country: it shows that the crisis here means that lots of people are willing to work for next to nothing. Hardly any of the Uber drivers own their cars: most drive cars from fleets, earning one or two euros per trip. Even worse than the food delivery riders. It’s not a good sign for the country, but it’s great for tourists: a trip hardly ever costs more than five euros, so trying to see what the Último Porto is like bodes no threat to my typical Ligurian tightfistedness.
João arrives. He’s got enthusiastic reviews on the app: “Muito simpático, boa conversa, carro imaculado e ótimo condutor!” [Very friendly, good conversation, immaculate car and excellent driver!]. He loads us into his carro imaculado at Praça do Império in Belém. We were in this neighbourhood in the westernmost part of the city for three reasons: because there’s one of the biggest squares in Europe overlooked by the exuberant Jerónimos monastery; because my wife absolutely had to see the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, the monument to the discoveries, the immense sculpture that represents a caravel with Henry the Navigator leaning towards the Atlantic Ocean; because I, only capable of thinking about one thing – food –, wanted to try the famous pastéis de nata – the puff pastry tarts filled with egg custard which are Portugal’s national cake – in their temple, the confectioner’s Pastéis de Belém.
João has a dark-coloured Renault Mégane, like almost all employed drivers, and a relaxing manner, a common trait of many condutores in Lisbon. He’s never heard of the Último Porto. What’s more, it seems quite unlikely to him that you can eat where the app is pointing to: it’s a platform for containers. I say: “Well, we’ll have a go”. He agrees: “Let’s try”. I look in the mirror at my wife and our two children sitting on the back seat for confirmation. They give me none. They’re not adventure lovers. No daring in them. João sets off and the carro imaculado drives along the brightly lit riverfront, opposite the new, futuristic Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, then under the 25 de Abril bridge, the one that looks like the Golden Gate and is named after the date of “their” liberation, 25 April 1974, the day of the “Carnation Revolution” against Salazar. We enter the city skirting round the LX Factory, the large industrial quarter that was a printing works and is now one of Lisbon’s creative districts, and finally come back down towards this long quay built in the middle of the river.
It’s a platform for containers and it looks just like a platform for containers.
An expanse of concrete with hundreds of containers piled on top of it.
As well as the containers there are the cranes to move the containers.
And a ship in dock. A container ship.
João drives along the road alongside the containers and looks at me inquiringly. I peek into the mirror. I focus on my wife: the situation’s bad but not serious. One of my children, who sees me looking, says: “when are we going to eat?” In my best Portuguese, I try to reassure everyone, João included: “ve beh, provemos” [my stab at: OK, we’ll give it a go]. The moment gets that bit more critical when we see a column of smoke rise from behind a pile of Merks containers. Great! Burning chemical substances too. Poisonous. Lethal. We’ll end up like The Toxic Avenger. We’ll turn into Portuguese mutants.
But no, that column is a victory sign: João gets past the last pile of these enormous building blocks laden with mysterious goods and right there, right next to them are three enormous grills where fish heads and other unrecognizable objects are sizzling away. Food. I’m relieved. And proud: like an explorer who’s finally found what he was looking for after a long, long journey. I imagine myself in Henry the Navigator’s place, with my family and João behind me, in the same pose as the Padrão dos Descobrimentos.
“The Último Porto, I suppose,” I say to João, paraphrasing Henry Stanley, when in 1871 he came across Professor Livingstone in Tanzania, after he’d disappeared five years earlier. My wife hates my corny jokes, but curiously doesn’t point it out: she’s quite relieved that there’s some food to placate the kids’ hunger. We leave the air conditioning of the car behind and put our feet on Mars. That’s what the temperature felt like. But no worries: the Último Porto, which we thought was somewhere made up like García Márquez’s Macondo, like Stephen King’s Needful Things, like Stefano Benni’s Bar Under the Sea, exists. The drive with João – 2-minute wait and a 4.9-kilometre, 17-minute journey – cost us 6.75 euros. We’d have paid twice as much in Italy. In an official taxi of course: Uber’s banned in Italy.
The Último Porto really exists. Diego Rossi was right. The cook with chunky arms, but a fine mind, from the “Trippa” osteria in Milan, who told me in no uncertain terms that I just had to go to the Último Porto in Lisbon. Diego is a rocker and a wise man, and I love people who rock and are wise at the same time: the wise alone are boring, the mere rocker dangerous. The Último Porto certainly rocks: as well as the three grills I was telling you about, there’s an expanse of unfancy, crowded tables, and a low building embedded between port authority offices, customs and other things I could tell you if I knew how to read the signs in Portuguese. And knowing some Portuguese wouldn’t have gone amiss to read the menu either, which we’re given on a little piece of paper as soon as we manage to find room to sit ourselves down, under the large sunshades. But, to tell the truth, a food lover doesn’t need words: he just has to look.
I get up, and, with the determination of Henry the Navigator, go to the grills, where a lady as unforthcoming as a stone is cooking wonderful things. And strange things too. “What are they?” I ask her. “Ovas grelhadas!” she says: ovaries, the same ones we get from tuna or mullet to make roe. “That?” I point to a fish head on the grill. “Cabeça de corvina!”, the “corvina” is a croaker fish. “Cabeça?” I ask. She gestures to explain that the head is delicious, you eat practically the whole thing. And that? “Cabeça de garoupa!”, the head of a grouper fish. If you don’t know what a grouper looks like: its head is bigger than that of my eldest child. One grill is completely covered by enormous, vivid brick-red calamari, as plump as cuttlefish. “Calamari?” say I, “chocos!” says she. Then bass, sole, sardines of course (they’re the national dish). One grill is for meat. That? “Picanha!”, rump cover, the delicious cut of beef you eat in Brazil. It’s all cooked “no carvão”, on coal.
Faced with such beauty, I’m struck by a bout of Stendhal syndrome. I have to sit down, but first I order everything. Not quite everything: I see a tray of enormous clams go past. “What’s that?” I ask the waiter. “Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato”, he says, and they’d turn out to be the best clams I’ve ever eaten, simply tossed in a frying pan with oil, wine, pepper, lemon and lots of coriander (which they always use here instead of parsley). I’ll have some. I have everything, I want everything, leave me here, this is heaven. Aided by jugs of white sangria overflowing with fruit, I forget everything, my wife, my children, my previous life, even the containers: now it’s just me, the grills, the creatures from the abyss that offer themselves up to me as if I were Neptune. The grouper’s monstrous mouth sings a sweet song, the clams clap their valves like castanets, and I feel pure happiness. Now I understand why they called it the Último Porto: once you dock here, you’d never want to set sail again. The sardines are my sirens, I’m their Ulysses. Adeus, amigos, adeus. Now that’s what I call travelling.