As anyone who reads my blog knows, I am always in search of felines during my travels. I was quite concerned that I wouldn’t see any cats (gatos) in Portugal as the country doesn’t seem to be known for its “street cats.”
In contrast, travelers will see “community cats” who live outdoors routinely when they visit in major cities in Croatia, Greece, Italy and Turkey. Typically these stray cats are fed by residents.
When I arrive on the island of Madeira, I immediately begin to search for cats in Santa Cruz where I am lodging. Since this is a seaport town, I thought I would find felines near the water’s edge. But despite walking for miles around the town, I don’t see one cat pop her head around a corner.
But my diligence is rewarded on the third day when I am walking the route along a cliff trail by way of the Levada do Canical to Porto da Cruz.
After a breathtaking day walking on what felt like the edge of the world, I spy an elegant Siberian forest cat posing on the sidewalk. Her fur is dove grey with tabby-style delicate ashen stripes. It fluffs up as though a breeze ripples it. Her piercing green eyes are reflected in the tufts of grass, waving in the wind. According to the Cat Fanciers Association, the Siberian also bears a bushy tail, ruff around the neck and full fluffy britches!
She locks eyes with me. I know any sudden jerking movement on my part will spook her. I gently take my first step and then look in another direction. In cat culture, it is rude to stare into a cat’s eyes without permission.
I focus my gaze on the sidewalk near where she sits and raise my iPhone. Each click brings her closer in focus. Finally I snap the photo that shows her in closeup. I just wish that I could pet her but she turns and walks away.
I ponder what her name might be. She looks so healthy that I feel that she must have a home. But I really don’t know. Except one thing. She is an dignified grey lady. Regal. Silvery.
“The smallest feline is a masterpiece.”—Leonardo da Vinci
I felt honored to meet her. I think this forest cat is my lucky charm. Because unlike my friend’s prediction that I will not see one cat during my visit to Lisbon, I see cats nearly every day during the remainder of my visit to Portugal.
In fact, I see two more cats before the end of the day. We have a steep descent with sweeping views of the oceans at Porto do Cruz. There are centuries-old stone walls. I am delighted to see a ginger tabby cat napping high above on a wall. There is no chance to pet him so I just marvel at cat in meditation.
“Cats are connoisseurs of comfort.”—James Herriott
Later when we reach our tavern where we will happily unlace our boots and consume a large tankard of beer, I meet an insouciant tabby bar cat. Part waiter/part waiting to be fed scraps from nearby tables, this orange cat is a big boy who definitely has not missed any meals. He gazes at our group from underneath a nearby table.
While I dangle my fingers to express interest in petting him, he declines with no regrets. Then he meanders over to another table to rest—turning his head at one point to make sure that I am following. Thankfully he lets me pay my respects. I get one chance to pet his head then he is off.
“Time spent with a cat is never wasted.”—Colette
I have two more stories to tell about my search for cats on the island of Madeira. The first sighting occurs during our hike in Queimadas Natural Park which is located near the town of Santana. We had just parked the van and are headed to the bathroom. Enroute I see the park’s coffee/gift shop. Sitting on the steps on the left side of the thatched-roof building are three adult cats. I suspect they live together and are fed by the ranger because they act like family. In fact, they are nestled tightly together and rest their bodies against each other. There is a black cat, a calico cat and tabby cat.
I creep up as close as is humanly possible without startling them and take the “family portrait”. I am so lucky. It doesn’t blur. The focus is sharp. All three cats stare directly at me. When I try to approach to pet them, they scatter into the surrounding woods. I can see one set of green eyes as the black cat watches me behind a tree. Stealth sits in the grass.
“I believe cats to be spirits come to earth. A cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through.”—Jules Verne
In Funchal—which is the capital of Madeira—I had heard there had been a big problem with homeless street cats. There were posts on Trip Advisor about feral cats roaming the streets. But I only see one cat during my two-day visit so I think concerned citizens must have instituted a Trap Neuter Release (TNR) program. This is one of the most humane ways I have witnessed to stop the overpopulation of street cats.
My final cat sighting in Madeira occurs on my walking tour. We had just examined the renovation project for the centuries-old Santa Clara Convent. We walk down the long hill to a nearby park with an overlook of the Funchal bay.
I see a spirited cat who circles around the legs of park benches. He is not scared or wary of us. As our guide continues his lecture, I pursue this cat. I hunch down on my knees so I can get eye-level. I try to reach out to pet him. But he is the Artful Dodger who can just slip away from my touch. Finally I have to leave him as my group prepares to move on … but not before I take a take a final photo of him posing in front of a blue-and-white ceramic tile wall, with the mountaineous city of Funchal as a backdrop.
My final two days are spent in the capital of Portugal. Lisbon is the land of trolleys and tiles … and castles. It is also the home of a biker cat.
Now I am not referring to “cats” as 40s jazz slang for a cool dude but rather an actual grey and white fur cat. Striking grey eyes. Black tail. Luxuriantly long whiskers.
I met this feline on a cobblestone street in a residential neighborhood in Lisbon. He played these streets like a saxophone, moving up and down the scales. Slink, stretch and stroll.
I don’t know if he had a home nearby, but I do know that he hung out with two other neighborhood cats—a sleek black cat with penetrating green eyes and a shy calico cat that ate her dry cat food in a dish hidden behind a trash can. Seeing these cats live outdoor reminded me of growing up when all cats were free to wander anywhere.
Now the biker cat was brave enough to sit right in the middle of the street. He would run to his hideaway if he sensed a dog was nearby. One morning, he jumped on our steps and attempted to bolt in the front door of our AirBnb. But sadly we had to block his entry by quickly closing the door as we were racing to our 9:30 am walking tour. But I definitely wanted to invite him in to visit.
On my last morning in Lisbon, I had the chance to say goodbye enroute to breakfast. It was a Monday so residents already were out and about to work. Wary of the dog walkers, he had found the perfect resting place under a cherry red motorbike. And this image of my neighborhood’s biker cat will remain one of my favorite memories of Lisbon.
P.S. Comments (or emails) are welcome!
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