The Lisbon Experience sounds a bit like one of those awful tourist attractions where you get on an old fairground ride in complete darkness whilst projections and exhibits show you the history of the city. But that wouldn’t be the right way to see Lisbon. Lisbon is a city that lives on the outside. In cafes, in squares, in boats, in parks. I’m quite proud to say that we spent nine days there and didn’t set foot inside one museum once.
But of course we were there for Eurovision, so there would hardly have been the time anyway. We had rented a one bedroom apartment near Alameda metro station and it was very charming and useful. Alameda is a great location as the station is on both the green and red lines on the metro. Thus it was just fifteen minutes to the centre of the city and also fifteen minutes to Oriente station, which was just a few minutes’ walk from the Altice Arena, site of all the Eurovision shenanigans.
For the first few days it was great to catch up with old friends who had flown into Portugal from all round the world. For the first evening we had dinner with ESC Insight’s own New Zealand correspondent, the Americo-Irish Canadian Kiwi, at the Casa Brasileira on Rua Augusta (if you go out for a meal in Lisbon you can barely avoid the Rua Augusta). Options for entertainment on that night included the fabled Israeli Party but we couldn’t face the prospect of the two-hour queue, although it did mean we met the writers of the Russian song and the brother half of Zibbz. Instead, we paid our first visit to the Eurocafe, which was hot and expensive. One of our friends spent 55 minutes waiting to get served on the Monday evening; that’s not really how you want to spend your leisure nights. Gin and tonics (which were primarily made from ice) were 10 euros. A friend posted on Facebook that a bottle of local plonk and a diet coke came to 44 euros. May I remind you this was in Portugal, known for its relatively low prices.
We went to the same restaurant on the Sunday afternoon with M’Learned Friend from Dublin, where we also met HRH the Crown Prince of Bedford who was experiencing his first Eurovision and indeed his first European holiday as an adult (I use the term loosely). We lingered in the Eurovision Village (much better value for drinks than the Café) and generally wasted the time enjoying ourselves. Monday saw us having lunch at O Portas on Rua dos Correeiros. It was probably the best meal we had in the city; a big sea bass, who swam his last that very morning, was filleted on a plate for the three of us. Nota Bene: very near the O Portas is a rip off joint called Obrigado Lisboa which has ok food but stupid surprise prices for drinks and extras. Just check it on Trip Advisor – I’ve never seen such poor feedback for a restaurant. They caught us out for Tuesday lunch. Thieving toerags.
Monday afternoon we did a boat ride to Belem Tower with HRH and M’Learned Friend. Whilst on board we bumped into some other friends, two of whom had also come all the way from New Zealand. The boat ride was fun, if a little delayed coming back; Belem is beautiful but (nota bene again) closed on Mondays. Durrrhh. Monday night was a late one in the Eurocafe, which included a great performance by Suzy (you can’t keep a good girl down). We went to bed before Slavko came on.
Tuesday was primarily notable for our first actual attendance at this year’s contest – we had General Standing tickets for Semi Final One. These were about as useful as the proverbial chocolate teapot because Mrs Chrisparkle and I couldn’t see a thing. HRH must have stood on someone’s shoulders because he saw a little more, but still not enough to warrant the ticket price. We saw Cesar from Austria during his first verse, because it was staged up in the air; we saw most of Sennek from Belgium’s performance as she performed on a platform nearer to where we were standing. And of course, they turn the screens off, so if you were relying on watching the show that way, think again. We were able to catch the results, but the rest of the show might as well have been on the radio. Mrs C spent the evening reading The Guardian website. Shame. Still, we had the pleasure of attending the Irish meet-up beforehand at Irish & Co near the arena, where I bumped into Finnish representative Saara Aalto (as you do). I happened to be wearing a t-shirt with a lyric from her song and when she saw me she pointed and gave a little cry of delight. It’s nice to know I can still have that effect on women. Dinner was in the D’ Bacalhau restaurant, again near the arena, where I decided to try the pork steaks and they were fab.
Another very good restaurant for Wednesday lunch – the Cofre Verde on Rua de Sao Juliao. It’s run by a very nice Nepalese lady who took great pains to show us our dead, but otherwise healthy looking, fish before cooking the poor chap. Full of Portuguese people, so that’s always a good sign. The ubiquitous white wine of choice, incidentally, is Planalto Reserva, a bottle of which you should be able to get for something like 14 to 16 euros. It was only 11 euros in D’Bacalhau. It was 40, yes 40, euros in the dreadful Obrigado Lisboa.
Wednesday evening we had tickets for the Jury Final of Semi Final Two, Golden Circle Standing. That’s the bit between the stage and the circular apron that many of the performers decided to run around during their songs. We got in quite early and decided to take a unique position: right round as far right as we could go, virtually under what became universally known as the Ireland Break-Up Bridge. It’s a completely side on view, and totally unobscured. Although you didn’t get any of the feel for the staging of a song like Moldova’s, where the comedy (and I use that term loosely too) is all gathered from the choreography as seen from head on, at least you could see the backstage positioning of the performers whilst that song was being performed – a genuinely fascinating experience. Other great moments were when we stood under the Hungarian guitarist; we could almost shake hands with the San Marino robots; we could peek into the back of Christabelle’s box (if you’ll pardon the expression); and HRH could see where the stagehands were extinguishing a fire backstage during Benjamin’s performance.
This is probably a good point to bring up the question of security. Little did we know on Wednesday night that some tosser would grab the mic off SuRie and damn near ruin Saturday’s show for everyone – frankly she should sue his arse. However, we were very alarmed, considering our proximity to the stage, at the very poor security presence. We were behind a lowish railing; there was a small bank of chairs in front of us, before another small railing and then the stage. During a few of the songs, one security guard sat in front of us, updating his Facebook, checking sports news, and indeed videoing the performers; in fact anything but watching out for potential Jimmy Jumps. During the vast majority of the evening there was nothing to stop me from vaulting over the two fences and running on stage shouting Justice for Jemini – apart from my innate sense of decorum and 14-and-a-half stone. I can’t see anyone in Israel getting anything like this close to the performers; and if anyone tries to rush the stage there, it will be the last thing they do.
For post-show dinner we returned to the D’Bacalhau because the nice waitress from Tuesday said she’d look forward to seeing us again. However, she wasn’t on duty and had been replaced by a couple of elderly grumps who’d learned customer care at the António de Oliveira Salazar Finishing School. Food and drink was still yummy though. Thursday lunchtime was the Radio International Team Lunch at the Tivoli Oriente Hotel near the arena. It was very enjoyable, if a little slow and chaotic, and good to see most of the team there on fine form. As it has been the 20th anniversary of the show – Gadzooks, how can that be? – I thought I would do a little after dinner speech. It would have been even better if we’d all been drunk.
Thursday afternoon saw us back at the Eurocafe for the OGAE UK party – that’s the UK Eurovision Fan Club, for the uninitiated. Mrs C and I were chosen to do an interview for ITV Anglia News that I think ended up on the cutting room floor. Great to chat to all the UK types and it was a very busy and enjoyable afternoon. Mrs C, HRH and I rushed off to Guacamole, a nearby Mexican restaurant that we had discovered that did tasty (but always cold?!) food and lethal margaritas. Good value and quick, when you want to get on to somewhere else in a hurry.
Which, for us, was the Eurovision Village, as that was where we would be watching the live show of SF2. It took us a good half hour to get in because of security, but that was still early enough (7:45) to get a good place to watch the show. Queues for the drinks and toilets were stupidly long, so it was a dry and legs-crossed night, but very enjoyable – but also surprisingly cold! The Eurovision Village was based at the Praça do Comércio, which is adjacent to the water’s edge, and when that late-night wind whipped up – boy was it nippy!
HRH took Friday off (feeble millennial that he is) so we decided to go for a wander around the Alfama district and had lunch at the Arcaz Velho on Calcada do Forte. We sat on a corner street table and had the most delicious tuna steaks, proper home-made custard desserts and a decent Galao. Later we decided to meet up with M’Learned Friend for a few drinks in the Village before going on to a nice dinner somewhere. On our way out we met Marty Whelan, the Irish commentator – he and M’Learned Friend go back yonks – and we had a charming chat with him and his wife and daughter whilst they were waiting to get served, slowly, in a restaurant. In terms of speed of service, Lisbon isn’t quite the Boris Becker of restaurant capitals. For dinner we ended up at Le Petit Café in Largo São Martinho, and it was excellent. Always a good sign when you ask the waiter for a wine recommendation and he suggests the cheapest wine on the menu – and it’s delicious enough for you to buy three bottles in all.
Saturday was the big day, in Eurovision terms of course, and we had seats reserved for the Family Show (in other words the final afternoon rehearsal) for which we were joined by none other than the doyen of BBC4 Eurovision coverage, Dr Eurovision himself. The view of stage, screens and arena was second to none and we got a really good feel for what Europe would be watching later that night. Dr Eurovision had to leave before the final song, muttering something about a Turkish Television interview and Sky News. He’d been on his phone throughout the whole Family Show anyway, presumably fending off media enquiries and setting up other meetings. Fascinating to see how what started as pure fandom on his part, and then became the basis for his thesis, has shaped a significant element of his career with the result that he can’t just sit back and watch the damn thing anymore. Mind you, he loves it.
Our friends Mr and Mrs Flying-the-Flag were in town, taking a quick trip into the capital from their holiday getaway in deepest Estoril, so we met them for a beer and a steak and chips; but by 5pm we could already see the queue to get into the Eurovision Village was getting longer. By 5:30 my enthusiasm had won me over so we started queueing, and in fact it wasn’t too long before we got in for the 6pm show with Ruslana. Yes, Xena Warrior Princess is still thwacking out the Wild Dances and Dancing with the Wolves (nothing to do with Molineux). The queues for the bar were already ominously long but it’s a long Eurovision night without some libation, so HRH headed off to join the back of the queue and we agreed to keep in mobile contact as to his progress. This was shortly after 6.30pm. At about 7.40pm he thought he’d got close enough to the bar, so I joined him. We were thronged by a pack of thirsty people pressing hard up to a counter, behind which were a few laissez-faire Portuguese, tending to customers provided it didn’t get in the way of their private conversations. The queue wasn’t moving anymore, and the show started at 8pm. Mrs C was now also engulfed in a sea of other Eurovision punters and didn’t expect us to find our way back to her before midnight. But I remembered where she was, and once we’d finally got served, and took the perilous path back to the big screen, we got there just in time for the fourth song to start. That’s one helluva long queue – and shows how totally inadequate the provision was in the Eurovision Village.
Israel won; I was a bit disappointed, as it’s very silly and messy. Even if it is about the #metoo generation it also contains muthabuckas, Pam pam pa hoo, prram pam pa hoos, and Cululoo, cululoos. Curiously, the stupid boy that Netta rejects in her song is probably Mikolas in the Czech Republic’s Lie To Me, dripping on his wood bamboo, with his camel in the mood and standing in a puddle. Honestly, some of this year’s lyrics are execrable. I’d hoped that wholesome girl from Cyprus would win; the prospect of a week at a sunny hotel in Limassol was rather enticing. I can’t see us going to Jerusalem for Eurovision week though. We went there on a cruise a couple of years ago and we’ve never been anywhere so tense (and that includes Hanoi, and the Uzbek-Afghan border.) It’s stunningly beautiful, but scary; and if you show one hint of touristy, dithery weakness, that’s the cue for some ruthless shopkeeper or restaurateur to rip you off mercilessly. Tel Aviv – that would be different. But – currently, at least – that’s not looking likely.
Our Sunday was spent back up in Alfama, lunching at the Allfama restaurant – very nice; then doing an hour’s tuktuk tour, seeing some of the historical sights. That was good fun. Dinner was at the Portugalia Cervejaria, a 1920s beer hall, with some of the Radio International crowd and the Americo-Irish Canadian Kiwi, which was chaotic but tasty. Then back to bed. Then early to rise for that dreaded plane back to the UK…
So a final few thoughts; best Schlager song (only Schlager song?) in the contest was Azerbaijan which didn’t get through to the final due to silly staging. Azerbaijan, Romania and Russia all lost their 100% qualifying record (quite rightly, for the other two, IMHO). Norway won their semi then faded drastically after being given position no 7 to sing from. UK and Finland both did poorly in the final results, and were both performed after a commercial break; in fact three of the bottom four songs didn’t have to qualify, which always speaks volumes. The Top 3 were all from Semi Final One, and you have to drop down to 7th place (Sweden) to get a song from Semi Final Two. After Cyprus, Ukraine provided the best singalong opportunity in the final, but was also shafted by singing first. Denmark still won the day for me, with their heroic Viking stomping. The four hosts were good – the lady in the black dress who stood on the right, Filomena Cautela, was hilarious. The staging was exciting, as was the voting, although, visually, the final result was very confusing on the TV screen as they didn’t switch back to a view of the scoreboard, and it was a while before we were convinced that was indeed Israel who had won.
On the whole, a very good year. Every year, fans typically say, “this year is the worst ever” but in fact the quality this year was very high. Remember – after 1st September, songs newly published become eligible for next year’s contest. Get writing!!