Friday, 27 February 2009

Lisbon: the new Rome?

Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon boasts an abundance of stunning seafood, welcoming locals and fascinating historic districts. Adrian Bridgwater spent a week feasting on in its sights, sounds and more than a few sardines.

For me, Europe’s finest urban metropolis must be Rome. The food, the wine, the colours and the culture are unmatched. But if you’ve done the coliseum and you’ve had all the pizza you can stomach, then take a look at one of Europe’s other historic city gems and give Lisbon some consideration. It’s a city of both modern and ancient elements and it has a cuisine and way of life that endears you straight away. One day in Lisbon and you’re hooked, there is just so much to explore.

The first thing that strikes the attentive visitor to any Portuguese destination is the language. You’d be forgiven for thinking it sounds like a mixture of Spanish and Russian. It has the bounce of Spanish, but some of the rasp of some strange Russian or Slavic tongue. That said; it’s worth trying to adopt a few phrases. After all, it really is impolite to go to any foreign country without at least being armed with “hello” and “thank you”.

Know your onions

A famous traveller once said that, “To know any country, you must first eat its onions.” Or was it a TV cook? I’m not sure. Either way, I like the sentiment. I think it says that you must drink in a place’s local food sources in order to know its people. As far as Lisbon is concerned, it’s more a case of sardines than onions. They love these little healthy oily fish with a passion so unbridled that it’s common to see wives grilling them everywhere in the streets during day and night.

Hungry after my flight, I wandered the back streets straight into this olfactory assault on my senses and simply had to have some. My search was proving hard and it was looking like I might have to settle for tourist-special spaghetti or even worse a Big Mac, until I found some at last. But be warned, the Portuguese throw those little guys straight on the grill bars with a handful of salt and serve them up without gutting them. So eating sardines is dangerous if you follow my line of thinking. But with a little care you can quickly learn to to pull the flesh away from the rib cage leaving the innards still on your plate.

Lisbon sings the blues

If you ramble down the central Rua Augusta and upward into the precipitous cobbled alleyways of the Bairro Alto district not only will you find sardines, you’ll also come across the Fado. This is the Portuguese version of the blues, a plaintive, crying song with an exotic, Middle Eastern feel to it that gives it a special edge, but makes it difficult for the uninitiated to understand. Fado is pretty much restricted to the city of Lisbon and to the city of Coimbra. The Lisbon strain is supposed to come from the quarters of Alfama and Mouraria and, again like flamenco, has long represented a way to escape from poverty.

Lisbon has a history of great exploration. The Portuguese pioneered a golden age of discovery setting sail from Lisbon from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. Most notably, Vasco da Gama set off for India in 1497 – and he got there of course! Today, as well as the huge Padrão dos Descobrimentos statue jutting to the harbor, there are bus stops, cafes and t-shirts in his honour from Lisbon to Goa.

It’s worth a wander around these landmarks just so you can take in the full majesty of the city’s past. But Lisbon is city that looks after its tourists; as soon as you reach cultural overload there is a plethora choice of little friendly cafes to drink down cold glasses of the local Super Bock beer or perhaps even some chilled white Port before you move on to the more regular red. So convivial are these hostelries that I opted to eat only on the small tapas-style food portions they offered each evening. Mostly I did this standing at the bar, talking to the locals and drinking far too much of whatever was on tap.

há Caracóis!

My spirit of adventure did get the better of me one night I have to admit. I walked past a friendly looking bar and decided that it would be rude to pass without consuming at least one bottle of Portugal’s refreshing rose wine. The bar was promoting itself with a welcoming sign with a silly snail picture on it that said, “há Caracóis!” Settling myself at the bar I ordered a drink, got talking to some passing farmers and decided that I would have a plate of the little clams they were all eating. About fifteen clams into my feast, I saw a pair of tiny antennae winking at me and realised I had a plate of at least a hundred miniature snails. It is since my visit that I have learned that há Caracóis! is in fact Portuguese for, “We have snails!”

Every corner of Lisbon is worth exploring and you can do much of it on foot or using the local trolley-bus tram system. These things are just great. All clanking bells, wooden seats and ratchets and levers. It’s not so easy to work out how to buy a ticket from the machines. But once you’re on, there is no finer way to see the city’s delights. A walk up to the castle at the top of the city is a must but even with a map it’s hard to find your way through to the summit. The views are worth the effort though - and the cool breezes are a suitable reward for your stresses and strains.

Arabian Lisbon

I think the magic you get from Lisbon comes from a combination of its history and its food, wine and people. There is a long history of Arab and Moorish influence and much of this can still be seen if you open your eyes. It is as far back as the year 711 that Lisbon was taken by the Moors and the nearby Algarve region still retains a link to the Middle East. In fact, Al-Garb in Arabic means something along the lines of, “The furthest land West in the setting sun.” Showing that this really was as far West as the Arabs got. Many of Lisbon’s place names that survive today are derived from Arabic, the Alfama is the city’s oldest district and comes from the Arabic “al-hamma”.

If you’re lucky enough to be in Lisbon for more than a couple of days, it’s worth planning a few day trips. Even if all you is go twenty minutes further down the coast to eat fresh fish in a water front café and escape the hear of the city, you’ll know it was worth it the minute you get there. A word of local advice, if you order sardines and find that they have run out you may instead get offered a fish called Carapous. Just go for it, they’re like big sardines.

The real beauty of the city is probably best appreciated if you just take up a seat on a ledge somewhere down the city’s central street, the Rua Augusta. It’s from here that you’ll see all manner of life go by. There is plenty of tourist-driven nastiness; did you really come to Lisbon just to get a henna tattoo? But there is also real life here. Old men pass with guitars, trying to busk for enough change to buy dinner. Local fishermen walk by on their way home with blistered faces and sore overworked hands. Young children playing happily in this safe city that is untroubled by many of the worries associated with modern 21st century living. This is real life and this is the real Portugal.

Custard, paprika & baby goats

Most of what I enjoyed about Lisbon didn’t come from my guidebooks and it was this voyage of exploration that endeared me to the city so strongly. OK, every city guide worth the ink it’s printed on will tell you to try Lisbon’s famous custard tarts. But they don’t tell you to go into the little delis and buy as much of the smoked paprika chorizo sausage as you can carry, it is almost blood red in colour and is intensely powerful. The books don’t tell you much about traditional cooking either so it was only by trial and error that I wound up eating baby goat one night – really, no kidding!

If you don’t know much about Portugal or only thought of it as a tacky tourist destination please explore a little further. As a final note, if you do feel like going to a bullfight, even the small ones are very exciting and no – in Portugal they don’t kill the bull. The only dead beef you’re likely to encounter will be in your hamburger from the vendors outside. Mind you, the meat tastes very fresh, so I’m not altogether sure.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

It’s “Virtual Reality” Time in the Data Center

This is my Editor's Letter for the next issue of ISUG Technical Journal

Now that we’re past President Obama’s inauguration and well into the global economic slowdown we can, I hope, start to concentrate on a few home truths and hard facts as we look at the daily realities faced in the IT industry. Economists argue that recessions are in fact a healthy part of economic cycles that always rise and fall to flush out the ‘dead wood’ and unproductive units within any type of business. If that theory is true, then perhaps now we can look around us and start the road to recovery. So what role will the data center play in this process?

In the midst of this doom and gloom, Sybase has just recorded the most successful period in its corporate history with better than ever financial results and you can read more about this in the news pages of this issue. While Sybase IQ and Sybase 365 have been key to the company’s recent successes, there are other means by which organizations are rationalising their data stacks to be more profitable.

Virtualization has spent the last couple of years getting a huge amount of press coverage despite it remaining still nascent with limited adoption in many environments. Now, in 2009, the situation is changing and virtual realities are being brought to bear with an increasing amount of server consolidation being seen. Additional layers are now being considered such as virtual delivery of desktop applications and there are further implications (such as billing and management) this throws up for the hosted service providers that supply these services.

What this means to you as a DBA, developer, or software engineer of any description is that we find ourselves faced by somewhat of a new playing field upon which to operate. The phrase Return on Investment may no longer be confined to the corporate boardroom and you are just as likely to hear your project manager start using it now. Efficiency, productivity and profitability may be words that you have to form a new or at least a closer acquaintance with. I hope the pages inside this months ISUG Technical Journal serve to arm you with food for thought and valuable technical advice in this new more challenging technology landscape.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Hello world

This may, just may - become an extra diversion for me.

Too many blogs spoil the broth, after all.