We just got back from a wonderful trip to Portugal, where we met up with Kelly, my best friend. Portugal is a lovely country with sweet people, sweet wine, and sweet pastries. We had the opportunity to visit Porto (Oporto), Lisbon (Lisboa), and Lagos – all very different parts of the country.
A couple things struck me about Portugal:
- The people are the most warm, welcoming, and open people I have ever met. Whether it was our airbnb host or a guy selling frozen lemonade at a kiosk, people went out of their way to make conversation with us. It was genuine conversation, with genuine interest in us. In Lisbon, Kelly and I befriended a local shop owner down the street from our airbnb and returned a couple times to the shop. The husband and wife chatted with us and shared their experience with the changes tourism had brought.
- …which brings me to the second thing that struck me. Portugal was not that crowded with tourists! August is supposed to be the high season for tourism in Europe, but we found the streets and venues much less crowded than any street in Barcelona. I could not believe how uncrowded it was. The biggest impact of the growth in tourism seemed to be a ton of these “tuk tuk” vehicles that could fit in the small streets of the Alfama and getting offered drugs when walking around at night. It seemed tame compared to the aggressive light-up toy vendors in Barcelona.
Visiting with Kelly was so refreshing. Even though we were in a totally different country and we haven’t seen each other for eight months, everything was normal and seemed like we had just seen each other last week. Kelly is one of the few people outside my family who I can really, truly be myself with. I can let all the weirdness, anxiety, and loopiness hang out. I can walk us 20 minutes out of the way downhill, forcing us have to walk an extra 30 minutes uphill, and be found “cute” that I suck at maps and directions. I can say what I mean, and I can hear her clearly tell me the perspective I need to hear.
There is something incredibly special about being loved by someone outside your family – someone who chooses you and keeps choosing you long after you can just walk down the street to each other. Someone who will spend eighteen hours on a plane to visit you. Friendships like ours truly don’t come around often. I am so thankful for her.
Plus, Kelly willingly poses for door photos for me. So if that’s not true friendship, what is?
Grant, Kelly, and I each focused on different parts of the trip, so it was balanced and flowed well. We decided that Grant was in charge of the adventures activities, Kelly was in charge of the cultural and historical activities, and I was in charge of the food activities. That split of duties served us well.
Our glamour shots:
We landed in Oporto first. Unfortunately, I had been battling a cold/allergies prior to the trip, so I was looking ragged when we arrived. However, I still managed to convince Grant to do a welcome dance with me when Kelly walked out of arrivals. We took it easy the first day since I was having to blow my nose every five minutes. Our airbnb hostess was a ceramics artist, and the apartment was filled with her work. She told us about some neat places to walk around Oporto, and we set off. One of my favorite things about walking around Portugal is the tiled facades on buildings. They are intricate and beautiful, and more than once I almost fell flat on my face walking down the street because I was staring up at the buildings.
By the next morning, my extra-high dosage Portuguese allergy medicine had kicked in, and I started feeling better. The Europeans do not mess around with their pharmaceuticals, let me tell you!
We started the day with beautiful eclairs at a bakery I had read about on a blog. The cream inside them was so fresh! We headed next to the Lello & Irmao Bookstore, which is a richly colorful and warm old bookstore that was the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. They still have books that are hundreds of years old on the shelf. The red carpeted staircase framed by walnut wood handrail in the middle of the store was the highlight of the shop.
Next, we walked along the river, across the bridge designed by an Eiffel apprentice, and to Gaia, where all the port wine tasting houses are.
We got to taste ports from Taylor’s, Croft, and Offley wineries, which where all within a five minute walk of each other. Gaia has all the tasting rooms for wineries with vineyards in the Duoro Valley. We got to taste and learn about white, rose, ruby, and tawny ports. At Taylor’s, we took a tour and learned that the winery has been family-owned since 1692. We also did a chocolate flight at Croft with each type of wine! Grant’s favorite was the ruby, and Kelly and I preferred the tawny, which is sweeter. We bought a few bottles which we nursed for the rest of the trip. Since most of the port is exported, most of the wineries are owned by foreigners. This was certainly the case for the wineries we visited.
We got to see sunset over the city from the bridge before having our first taste of nata, the Portuguese pastry treat which made almost a daily (or twice daily) appearance during our stay. More to come on that.
Next, we got a rental car and headed south to Sintra, just north of Lisbon. The town of Sintra hosts 19th century estates from wealthy Portuguese families that are now open for touring. It sounds odd to tour these, but they were beautiful estates and castles that were so different than anything I had ever seen. We almost felt like we were in Disneyworld, because the structures were so colorful and grand.
First we visited Quinta da Regaleira, which I would say was like an adult playground. There was a large palace, but by far the most fun part was getting lost in the estate’s large surrounding park, which included waterfalls, tunnels, caves, lakes, towers, and lots of hidden nooks. Grant was in heaven discovering and exploring! I have never seen such complex, designed grounds built into nature. The tunnels ran underground for long stretches and connected various parts of the park. You could wander the grounds’ paths for hours and still not see everything.
The highlight for me was the initiation well, which resembled a large tower, but underground! It was awe-inspiring to stand at the bottom of the well and look up to the circle of light.
We also got to visit the Pena Palace, which was a fiery rainbow estate on the top of the hill. Its red and gold facade stood regally against the bright blue sky. It looked more like a traditional castle but also included Arabian styles in the arches and angles. Again, we just wandered the grounds, soaking in as much as we could and pretending we were the royalty who lived here during summer.
The hostel we stayed at in Sintra provided some great stories as well. It had a medieval-themed pub on the grounds, which served homemade mead and apple pie. It was set back from the noise and crowds of the town and overlooked the valley outside Sintra. Ignoring the guy who laughed to himself, came down to breakfast in a towel, and started playing an Australian instrument in bed in the morning, the hostel was pretty relaxing. Hey, there’s always got to be at least one weirdo at the hostel.
Alas, the beach was calling! We headed south again to the Algarve and the sand! We got both chill sand beach time, and we also got to explore the rocky coastline and arches that make the Algarve famous. Unfortunately, the seas were too rough to visit the sea caves by kayak or motorboat while we were there, so we enjoyed them from the shore instead. Although flip-flop and barefoot hiking weren’t the easiest, they did yield beautiful views.
A highlight of our downtime was Kelly and me renting an umbrella and chairs right on the waters edge. We sat sipping our drinks just chatting. Everything is so affordable in Portugal, so we splurged to get the luxurious beach experience.
Oh, and I got to be buried in the sand! I’m not sure if I had more fun with that, or if Kelly and Grant had more fun laughing at me looking like a beached manatee under the pile of dry sand.
One morning we went to a rocky beach early. Since it was low tide, we were able to hike back into some sea caves and tide pools. I had never seen sea caves quite like these – tunnels of light carved right out of the rock to the sky. It was good that we got there early, because we had to leave them around 11 AM in order to be sure we could get back out of them. The beaches felt like our own little secret because we had them all to ourselves.
From different vantage points along the coast, we got to see the famous arches and rocky cliffs that make the Algarve famous.
On our way back north to Lisbon, we stopped at the world’s largest sand sculpture festival. It was themed “music” and included work from artists from all over the world. It was pretty cheesy, but we were just too curious to pass it up.
Lisboa – Day 1
Our journey in Portugal ended in the capital, Lisbon. We stayed in the oldest part of the city, the Alfama. Our apartment was hugged in by cobblestone streets and clotheslines hanging out of tiled facades with windows. Since we had the attic apartment, we could see all the way to the ocean from our apartment. It was beautiful to say the least.
On our first evening in Lisbon, we hiked up to the Castle. Needing energy along the way, we stopped for the famous ginjinha cherry liquor drinks. Two things you need to know about ginjinha: 1) It is tasty if you get a good kind (there are bad kinds and they taste like cough syrup) and 2) It is strong! Let’s just talk about the burn in your chest after drinking it.
We explored the Castle and enjoyed gorgeous views of the city from the castle walls. Kelly and I had a “I’ve made a huge mistake” Arrested Development moment. We walked down this long set of stairs thinking it would lead us out of the castle, only to discover it didn’t. Grant enjoyed taking this time lapse of use climbing back up the steps. From this experience and a few others, we decided that the street signs in Portugal cannot be trusted.
Kelly had made several suggestions on our trip from the “rough guide” for Portugal. There was a restaurant listed on there close to the castle, so we decided to try it out. Were we in for a surprise! The restaurant was also a showcase theater for students of the acrobatics and circus school. We got to watch a few different circus shows as we ate dinner. Watching the show really inspired me and opened me up to the thought again that “anything is possible.” I really enjoyed watching the dancers up close and seeing their vulnerability and joy in dancing.
Lisboa – Day 2
On our second day, we hit some of the most recommended sites. We started the day at the Se Catedral (which incidentally we discovered was really close to where we were staying). Next was lunch! Kelly’s mission during the week was to eat as much seafood and shellfish as possible. She ended up trying cod in five different ways throughout the trip! The Portuguese really love their codfish. After, we had some of the freshest ice cream/gelato I have ever tasted.
Fueled by the delicious Portuguese cuisine, we headed to the Carmo Convent and archaeological museum. I have to say, from the outside, I was not convinced of the value of our visit. It just looked like a normal church. However, the inside was phenomenal. SURPRISE!
The church had been destroyed in the big earthquake that Lisbon experienced. They started to re-build it, but never finished. So the inside was basically preserved as if it was the inside of the church, but without the roof. All the weight-bearing arches were still in place, standing white starkly against the royal blue sky. It was one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen in my life – and quite possibly I say that because it was a different viewpoint on something that seems so familiar to me. It was like a church with the ultimate view of heaven – the sky.
The awe-inspiring views continued at the Oceanarium – the largest of its kind in Europe. It was a very well-designed experience, walking us through the five different oceans. We also got to see a special exhibit from a Japanese designer (called an aquascaper – what a title!) who created the world’s largest natural and self-sufficient aquarium. Two words: I want.
As we do, we each chose a spirit aquarium animal. Grant is a penguin, Kelly an otter, and me a sunfish.
That night, we wandered Alfama looking for a restaurant with fado, a type of distinctly Portuguese music style. We did find one. The closest way I could describe the fado we heard there was almost like opera – the woman singer’s voice was strong and controlled. She had all of us clapping and singing along by the end, though, which is distinctly different from the reputation that fado has as being a sad and depressing tune.
Lisboa – Day 3
Kelly had brought Flash temporary metallic tattoos with her for us to use at the beach, but we had somehow kept forgetting about them. So with twenty tattoos to use between the two of us, we set to work bedazzling ourselves. You can never have too many flash tattoos, right?
We spent our morning in Belem, a suburb of Lisbon. We started the morning by going to the traditional pasteis de belem bakery. Here, they make a mean nata. Quick aside on nata: it is an eggy custard pastry wrapped in flaky dough. It is about 3-4 bites, and it is the perfect sweetness. It doesn’t look like much, but it is very addictive. There is a very good chain of it throughout Lisbon that sells them for one euro each. This was dangerous for me.
Aside from the aside: Even more dangerous is that Barcelona has a a shop with nata!
Anyway, at the bakery, we got to try some different traditional Portuguese pastries as well as see the nata being made.
Across the street, we were able to tour the beautiful and historical Jeronimos Monastery. We walked to the ocean to see the Monument to the Discoveries, a large statue honoring Portugal’s heyday of world exploration. Then we also artfully and tastefully re-enacted our interpretation of the statue. We walked along the water to the Belem tower, which had served as the first sea defense for ships entering Lisbon.
We rested in the afternoon in preparation for the walking food tour we had booked for the evening. The food tour was gourmet, and we were absolutely spoiled. We were on the tour with a family from Belgium, and everyone got along grandly. The host and tour guide was very knowledgeable and easy to talk to, and she definitely knew the best places to take us! She was the type of person that I could see actually becoming friends with too. We had so much food, and I’m pretty sure we ended up rolling down the hilly streets home.
- port wine tasting to begin
- dinner of tapas, including octopus, pumpkin spread with sheep cheese, garbanzo beans, codfish mixture with eggs, and seasoned beef (with another bottle of wine)
- clams, half a prego steak sandwich, chocolate cake, and a custard dessert (with more wine)
- natas and espresso
- famous gelato ice cream (where I managed to lick my cone so aggressively that the whole scoop of ice cream on top fell on me, I caught it, and put it back while Kelly cleaned me up as if I was a child)
- ginjinha shot
If anyone is in Lisbon, I would highly recommend the food tour with Eat Portugal. It was great to talk to someone who had grown up and actually lived in Lisbon, as well as get the lowdown on the best eateries in the city.
Side note: Did you know that Portugal introduced the tempura techinque to Japan? Portuguese were using tempura on green beans before the Japanese started using tempura for other foods. Go figure.
Lisbon – Day 4
Our last day in Lisbon, sigh. We wanted to have a relaxing and leisurely last day. At the suggestion of our food tour guide, we walked to the food market, which was a cool collection of foodies and chefs from around the city. Kelly had gifted me a Lisbon street art booklet that we followed to an alleyway of various street artists. We also checked out the city’s art museum and relaxed in the adjacent park.
The highlight of our last day was a fado show that we saw in the evening. Not only it is a restaurant, but the establishment we went to is an incubator of young fado artists. Young artists intern there and get to perform. It was an intimate audience of about twenty people, and the fado music just swept me away. Even not understanding Portuguese, I could feel the dramatic emotions of longing and sadness that are characteristic of the fado style. The guitarists who played along were wildly talented as well. I felt that the experience was so cathartic and the fado singer so captivating and dripping with emotion. I think what struck me the most was how vulnerable the art form was – really laying it all out there – the sad emotions and all. It was the perfect way to end the trip.
A note on food
It was delicious.
The week and a half in Portugal showed us an amazing variety of sides to the country and gave us an opportunity to bond exploring a new place together. I just wish we could have packed Kelly up and taken her back to Barcelona with us. I would have also settled for a checked bag full of natas, but Grant wouldn’t let me take that either.