PC 131 Sipping Ginger Tea

Sipping ginger tea and eating a large succulent red grape –  my body radiates warmth, at least that is what it feels like, in that afterglow of a massage. I’m on the third floor of the Banyan Tree Spa complex in Estoril, Portugal – a collection of pools, spas, saunas, a gym, treatment rooms and an indoor/outdoor café. The Spa Pool has water jets and a large circular section where the water rotates at about 2 mph. Swim against the current or simply let it lift you and take you – around and around!! Just the place for a wet Friday afternoon.

Massage has a funny reputation, a sort of nudge-nudge, wink-wink, amongst the male species and that reputation is not helped by some dubious massage parlours being used as a front for prostitution. You will have seen the different types of proper massages being advertised – Swedish, Aromatherapy, Hot Stone, Chair, Deep Tissue, Trigger Point, Shiatsu and Thai – and unless you regularly have them in conjunction with keeping fit or for some medical relief, it’s likely you only have one or two a year, on holiday maybe? I once heard a masseur saying that one a year is a complete waste of time – but hey that ‘afterglow’ is something, so why not have more?

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Celina gave me a gift of a 90 minutes Thai massage: “Apparently it’s really fantastic!” I love massages, so readily said: ‘Yes please’. I prefer being massaged by someone of the opposite sex as that introduces an imaginary world that excites and disappoints in equal measure. I once had a massage by a chap who was blind; with his enhanced sense of touch and space it was unique, but it missed that frisson that develops, in my mind if nowhere else, between a male and female.

One website says: “Thai massage is a unique blend of assisted yoga, passive stretching, and pressing massage movements. Thai massage is more energizing than other forms of massage: it’s a little bit like yoga without doing the work, as the therapist moves and stretches you in a sequence of postures, usually on a mat on the floor. Like shiatsu, Thai massage aligns the energies of the body. The massage therapist uses rhythmic compression along the body’s energy lines to reduce stress and improve flexibility and one’s range of motion. It is done fully clothed. This type of massage can reduce muscle spasticity and back pain, and has been shown to be useful in treating balance problems and migraine symptoms.”

So at 1720 I check in with Deborah at the Reception Desk, go and change into those obligatory white towelling bath robes, and report back. A Thai woman appears; it’s not until later I ask her name – Nicole – and there’s probably a Thai name by which she’s known at home, but here she’s trying to westernise herself. I think about asking but realise that pronouncing a Thai name might stretch my linguistic ability.

“OK. Go in there and take your clothes off. Here’s a sarong to wrap around yourself” – so much for the ‘fully clothed’! Obviously what follows is about my own experience, from my masculine perspectives. On my return she gestures towards a chair; I sit and have my feet washed – just so indulgent! Orchids and that piped music so typical of these places – ‘The Music of the Andean Pipes’ – Thai style! Then I am instructed to lie face down on the massage table, naked; she shields me from herself with a large green sheet, although there isn’t much to see! And once I’m prone I can’t see much either, as my head is face down in that little indentation in the table, tastefully covered with white gauze. After some initial kneading on my legs, I sense she climbs onto the table and starts on my hips and lower back, I can feel her thighs against my legs and that contact is ……… She presses her torso against my back and it feels good!

Banyan 2

Being completely naked there isn’t that pulling-down-the-hem-of-your-knickers normally associated with the masseuse working on your hips. Nicole simply moves the sheet and, besides, she’s seen it all before! I’m grateful she doesn’t chastise me for my sunburnt buttocks, the result of an hour in the sun earlier. At some point, in this warm haze of sensory overload, my arms are down the side of the table; she brushes her thigh against my hand and I smile to myself.

I ask how long she’s been in Portugal and she says she’s here for eighteen months. Her English is very limited (but better than my Thai!) so conversation doesn’t flow; she just gets on with her job, applying her skill and oil to my body. I wonder what she’s thinking as she adjusts the sheet to ensure my limited modesty as her hands massage my inner thigh; probably wondering which noodle bar she will go to when she finishes, with the other masseuses with whom she shares an apartment. My thoughts are not on supper! I learn later that a Thai company provides the masseuses for a two year stint.

There was certainly no sexual attraction between Nicole and me but the mere fact that some stranger’s hands are touching my skin, sometimes quite intimately, does cause feelings, strokes the imagination one might say. The fantasy suggests her asking: ‘You like something extra sir?’ but in reality that is exactly what it is, a male fantasy.  Add the fact that my masseur was a woman, so masseuse, and it’s most men’s pleasure. I say most men as some presumably are repulsed by such intimate contact, but if you are a tactile person like me, it’s heaven. I am instructed to turn over onto my back, the raised sheet much like a magician’s cloak, and the fantasies I had when ‘tummy down’ restart, as I suspect do Nicole’s about noodles.

Towards the end she lifts a leg to one side and pushes against the hip, opening that joint to its furthest extension. Wow! The Thai massage ‘Spinal Twist in Lying Position’. A few minutes massaging the hands and fingers, then my skull and I’m done. Off for a shower in a side room then, dressed, back for ginger tea and large succulent red grapes.

For Nicole this is just a professional job, what she does, and she relies on feedback from her clients. I mark her card accordingly – excellent. It cost Celina an arm and a leg, an appropriate expression here perhaps, and I hope Nicole gets at least 50%, but somehow doubt it.

On the way back from the Spa, Celina and I compare notes. She suggests a massage is a bit like a sexy dance between two strangers. Whilst there need be no sexual attraction, the act of following one’s natural rhythms and inclination can engender a feeling of sexiness. She’s hit the nail on the head; a great analogy. A true basic instinct, this sexual urge, encouraged by the sense of touch, of smell, of heat, of oil ….. and lots of imagination!

The Thai goodbye, hands together, fingers steepled, slight hardly-discernible bow and she’s gone – and leaves my empty outstretched hand, the normal British ‘goodbye’ gesture, untouched!!

Richard 23rd August 2018                                                                richardyates24@gmail.com

PC 130 Lisboa, Mafra & Sintra – July

Sitting outside A Brasileira, the cafe on Rua Garrett in the Chiado quarter of downtown Lisbon (see PC 112), having a double espresso and a couple of naughty Pastel de Natas, I reach for my iPad and scribble. Around me sit tourists from across the world, although as this is the European holiday period the majority seem not to have travelled too far. It’s cloudy and muggy, not typical of normal Portuguese late July weather but this year is anything but normal, with global temperatures in the northern hemisphere significantly above average. The loss of life in a raging fire east of Athens is on everyone’s mind.

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It is too airless inside the café so I try my luck at one of the outside tables, conscious that most are taken by smokers. Sure enough, just after I’ve sat down a five-people family group occupy a near-by empty table and packets of Gaulloise are placed on the table, together with the obligatory mobile phones ….. in case Mutti calls from München to check on the family, especially on Otto with his cold. Otto I should add looks 24! I watch the down-on-their-luck trying to cadge a cigarette, or just a light for their carefully cobbled-together roll-up made from picked-up fag ends. Further down the street cardboard from a shop’s merchandise’s boxes are used to insulate another from the little cobbled tiled pavement. The tourists step over the lying form, without so much as a look of sympathy, for this example of street life is in every city, a sad reflection on the world we live in.

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The pace of life here is slow. The Portuguese are slow people, at least the modern ones, but you remember how its sailors and adventurers opened up the rest of the world to Europe? No slouch then huh?  Recently the singer Madonna, who’s made her home in Lisbon, was reported to be exasperated at the attitude of the Portuguese: “Lisbon is an ancient city and no one is in a hurry to do things.” Maybe she should sing ‘Like a Prayer’ more regularly?  The image of the typical Portuguese man or woman hasn’t changed much in decades – the black clothes, the rather bowed legs, the flat cap – and it still projects the country; somewhat rural and backward-looking. Of course sometimes this pace has its attractions, particular for those used to the rush rush rush some of us endure. It reminded me of that observation about how someone was so laid back they almost fell over. But when you come up against this personally, trying to get a builder to come and quote, for instance, it frustrates and irritates in equal measure. And when they do come, they turn up at 8pm and start hammering!!

I had read about Mafra in a general book about Portuguese history, but didn’t inspect the DK entry carefully enough! “Open W-M except on 25 December.” …… ie closed on Tuesday. We visited ….. on a Tuesday; the Palácio de Mafra was closed …… for cleaning ….. but the basilica was open. A thirty minute drive wasted you might think, for Mafra lies about 35kms north of Estoril but actually, apart from the magnificent library with its beautifully crafted marbled inlaid mosaic floor …… (See note)

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…… I wondered how many of the 800 rooms one would see on the guided tour? Certainly I could give the room containing hundreds of animals stuffed by taxidermists a hundred years or so ago a miss …… so all we saw was the basilica, built between the king’s bedchamber tower and that of the queen’s. We peered inside; cavernous! Bigger than St. Peter’s in Rome? Maybe? And ‘dusty’ didn’t do it. (Maybe not part of the Tuesday cleaning programme?) Statues to those considered at the time worthy of sainthood or public commendation adorn the alcoves, the domed ceilings intricately laid with coloured marble and actually, for a Catholic Church, plain ….. but it sits in the biggest of buildings.

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It was originally designed in 1717 to house 13 monks; I am not sure why thirteen, but it was obviously not an unlucky number then. The extravagance, the exuberance and sheer folly ran away with the Italian architect Ludwig and his client the king, João V. Portugal’s coffers were overflowing with gold from one of their newest colonies Brazil and, after 52,000, yes fifty two thousand builders laboured away for 13 years the result was a monastery for 300 Franciscan monks. For 104 years it was their home and a place for the hunting/shooting/ fishing set to spend their weekends. Actually I think ‘Le weekend’ is a modern concept and those who went stayed for as long as they wanted! Wasn’t it Maggie Smith as Downton Abbey’s Violet Crawley who asked “What’s a weekend?”

Eventually like all good things it came to an end. The monks got their marching orders in 1834 when all religious orders were dissolved …… and the king took all the furniture to Brazil in 1807 when his court fled the advancing French. The palace lay empty; the monarchy ended in 1910 and the then king left for Twickenham ….. so now it’s empty and a hideous example of how to waste money. But I read the Portuguese have been wasting money for decades!

Sintra, which lies south of Mafra, is a little like Disneyland, although I have never been to either the original one or even the French one. A magnet for tourists all the year round, it’s the Portuguese equivalent of Petropolis in Brazil or Shimla in India, built by the monarch in the former case and the British Government in India in the latter case as somewhere to escape the summer heat. I should add that Sintra is normally surrounded by mist and low cloud; and so it was when we went! Lying north of the capital Lisbon it’s close enough for a trip for those taking a city-break weekend. Three palaces and their grounds cover some tens of square kilometres and we visited the Palácio National de Sintra, started in the C14th on the site of a Moorish palace. The best bit was the chimneys for the large palace kitchens and it’s these that give it, for me, a Disney feel; they are gorgeous!

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There is also the Palácio da Pena and the Rococo Palacio de Queluz, a C18th development of a hunting lodge, to see but we left those for another time. I find after three hours of looking, peering, visualising and studying, my brain starts to fry and if anyone suggests a coffee, my hand is in the air quicker than you can say disconbobulation.

Richard August 2018

Note: “There is a colony of bats which live in the library and protect the ancient books from insect damage. These small bats are let out at night and can eat twice their weight in insects. This natural form of pest control has been in place for over 300 years.” Now that’s fascinating!!