There And Back Again: Portugal
It was December 2013 and my friends and I were beginning our first journey across Europe without a guide after our semester abroad in Greece. It was to begin in Portugal - a place that had not been recommended to us and a place we knew nothing about.
Lisbon was like a dream from the moment we arrived. We got off at our metro stop to see a town square dominated by a giant Christmas tree with Christmas lights and décor going down every street. We walked down dark cobblestone roads until we got to our hostel.
A tall cement wall marked the entrance to Old Town Hostel, which we discovered was the #5 hostel in Europe – and well deserved. We were greeted warmly and shown to our room, which was clean and full of blanket-laden beds. We went back to the common room to do some research on this mysterious city, and as soon as we started learning about it we regretted not planning more time there. We pulled out a map and started planning a route that would maximize our time there before our train to Madrid the next night.
And so we woke up in Lisbon. About the time that we finished breakfast a woman walked in and asked if we wanted to go on a free walking tour - something we had never before experienced, but would soon become our favorite aspect of European travel. It seemed pretty lame. We deliberated amongst ourselves and decided it was a good idea since we didn’t know much about Lisbon and a tour would allow us to see sights afterward as well. She walked us to a town square where we met Aneesh, our tour guide & the small, eclectic group of travelers we would be touring with.
Anis was a young Portuguese girl who was well-studied and excited to be giving tours. By 10:30 we were sampling Portuguese foods and drinks outside the Lisbon Cathedral as Anis began to tell us about the thousands of Jews who were massacred there during the Inquisition.
We walked inside the church and saw how incredible it was. It was perhaps not incredible like St. Peter’s or Sagrada Familia is incredible, but it was so unique. It’s great gray stone darkened the church, but it was masterfully carved in ways that I had never seen in other churches. Its most distinguishing quality was its color. The walls were painted a deep red, a memorial to those whose blood was spilled at the hands of this church. It was truly magnificent.
We then proceeded to a random street corner and Aneesh stood in a doorway. “Is there anything special about this place?” Upon walking in the generic doorway, the room opened up into a beautiful Moorish courtyard, intricately designed and full of history. We went upstairs to a more Roman-style room where people would dine and perform. She showed us frescoes revealing Portuguese history and told us the tale of her namesake, Queen Aneesh, who was queened post-mortum when her beloved had all of the nobles kiss her dead ring finger.
We went on to beautiful overlooks of the city, statues that make no sense even to the Portuguese, monuments to poet Fernando Pessoa, and authentic Portuguese restaurants. She took us Bairro Alto, Lisbon’s party neighborhood, and home to traditional fado music, full of deep, sad tones that define Portuguese culture.
We decided to make the most of our time and started toward St. Jorge’s castle, stopping to get some extremely cheap pastries along the way. We climbed around the ruined castle, which had been bombarded by huge peacocks.
After the castle we went into Alfama, another famous Lisbon neighborhood. We had fun walking around the neighborhood - accidentally stumbling into a room of giant plaster replicas of Portuguese monuments that was, unbeknownst to us, being watched by a soldier named Tiago who was bored enough to tell us all about all of the replicas and himself before we headed out to discover that the gate to this dead end road had been locked shut and we would have to shimmy out through a small opening in the gate to unlock it- before it was time to go to the train station.
We grabbed some dinner at a local place right outside the train station where old men sat outside playing checkers and murmuring in Portuguese, "You're letting tourists come in here?" We ordered traditional pizzas and tosta mistas made in a brick oven and then walked back across the street to board our train to Spain.
Three years later, it was finally time to make up for some lost time in Portugal - or at least try.
Alyssa and I arrived in Porto, Portugal's second largest city, around 8:00pm. Approximately 20 minutes before we departed from Geneva my friend got a text saying that the Air B&B that we booked months early had to cancel, but had rebooked us at a place owned by a guy named Mario, but the place had no profile, no signage, and was in what seemed to be a sketchy part of town. We had a slight fear of being trafficked, but saw that there was a place close by where we could splurge and stay in a castle if we didn't feel safe at Mario's. We finally located it and, luckily, it wasn't a trafficking scam. Mario owned an apartment floor and had essentially transformed it into a mini hostel. So, that minor stressor of being brought into a trafficking ring on the first day of our trip was relieved.
We began walking around the city looking for a restaurant that was still open without being intimidating - which proved difficult since everything we stumbled upon was packed with nothing but loud Portuguese men and cigars. We finally found a place that would be open late and we enjoyed francizennias, traditional Portuguese sandwiches filled with diverse meats and covered in a mysterious gravy, followed by chocolate mousse. We stayed late, watching tourists and locals filter through - all eating francizennias. Outside a procession of locals holding candles and following a floral motorcade commemorated the Day of Fátima, a festival celebrating a time during WWI when three children in the village of Fátima saw an apparition of the Virgin imploring them to pray for peace, for prayer is the only weapon that can stand against violence and oppression.
The morning after our arrival in Porto we went to breakfast at a cafe, enjoying coffee and pastries as we watched the rain clouds dissipate and be replaced by other gray but less ambitious clouds. We had started out going to a popular cafe where J.K. Rowling liked to hang out while she lived here, but it was closed. Then we headed to a cafe that was popular on Pinterest for its unique storefront, but when we got there we discovered it was actually a very pretty meat market. But next door there was a local cafe, which had a delicious breakfast even though it's probably not on any Pinterest boards.
We purchased train tickets for later that afternoon at São Bento train station, which is where we also began our walking tour for the day. The station is adorned with Portugal's signature blue tile, maintained for centuries by mixing paint with a mysterious poison that can allegedly withstand just about anything.
We then went to the medieval town center, El Catedral, which was the government center of church-ruled Porto during Portugal's dictatorship.
We walked through the old town, listening to stories of old and dodging pigeons. We walked along the Douro River, which claims to be the home of the souls which it took, souls beckoning others who risk to enter the tumultuous waters.
After our tour we headed to a local restaurant decorated floor to ceiling with eclectic collectibles for fish, rice, peas, and oranges. After lunch we went to Liveria Lello, the bookstore that supposedly inspired J.K. Rowling to write the story of Harry Potter. Feeling compelled to buy something, I got some of Pessoa's poems in hopes that one day when I can read Portuguese I'll have something of quality to read.
We grabbed our bags and headed back to São Bento to begin our journey to Lisbon. We boarded an urban train and switched to another train 15 minutes later. There was only one train departing for Lisbon at 17:46, even though our ticket was for 17:52. We assumed the schedule had changed since we bought our tickets that morning. Then we looked at our seats, which were to be found in car 23. Since the options were only cars 1-5, we assumed this was a misprint. I now see that these were not odd coincidences, but rather red flags.
After a few stops someone claimed to have Alyssa's seat. Though they had kindly moved to another seat, the train was beginning to fill up and eventually we were forced out of the seats. We took our tickets to the conductor, who instructed us to get off at the next stop and our train would be soon behind. That's when we arrived at Coimbra-B.
So, there we were at the mysterious Coimbra-B stop, which by my speculation may be the most lackluster location in Portugal. After talking to some workers there we discovered we were not only on the wrong train, but on the wrong day. Our train to Lisbon would not be there for 3 days. Thankfully the man at the counter switched our tickets to the next train to Lisbon. We wouldn't have to wait 3 days, but we would wait for 3 hours.
Once again, a mistaken ticket date was preventing us from enjoying a night in Lisbon. For some reason beyond my understanding, neither of us had checked the weather in Portugal and both of us had assumed it would be warm, so we sat outside in shorts and sundresses while local people milled about in parkas. We sat there commiserating until our train finally arrived. We got to Lisbon, back at Old Town Hostel, around midnight.
Even though much of our trip was meant to get us back to Lisbon, we ended up risking another train adventure to go an hour out of town to the popular tourist destination, Sintra.
We walked around the fairytale town, admiring the local style before heading to the infamous Pena Palace. The Palace looked like it was pulled out of a Supersmash Bros game.
After the palace we went back to the main town for lunch, where I ventured out for some codfish soup in a bread bowl. It was delicious. After lunch we explored the town, full of Portuguese culture and tourists.
After some exploring we had to do the one thing you must do in every city - get coffee. And, as with every truly great city, the coffee was awesome.
Then it was time to go back to Lisbon ... or so we thought. Moments before our train was about to leave I began looking through my bag for my ticket, which was nowhere to be found. Alyssa had already passed through the revolving door before I could locate my ticket, and she was unable to get back through. I watched our train pull away through the plexiglass wall. Once again we were prevented from reaching Lisbon in a timely manner.
Eventually we made it back to Lisbon. After we hit up some souvenir shops we went to Alfama, the infamous neighborhood in which fado music was born. We walked around looking for a fado restaurant with available seating - which was no easy task. We finally found one, San Miguel's, that had a hostess standing outside. She said we could have a seat as long as we agreed to spend at least 15 euro. We figured that wouldn't be too hard. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a bit of a scam since even the cheapest thing on the menu was 15 euro and they proceeded to bring out additional items that we did not request, but still paid for. We weren't impressed with the skeezy restaurant or its fare, but we finally got to listen to some fado music, so all's well that ends well.
We then began our search for a rooftop garden called First Floor that had been recommended by our hostel. It was on no map. After being lost for a really long time, we were about to give up. Luckily a Starbucks barista approached us, clearly lost, and knew exactly where we were headed - a place about 5 minutes away.
We finally got there and walked into a dark room that appeared to be a basketball court full of people laying around and looked like a place where it would be easy to access large amounts of heroin. Surely that wasn't what we were looking for. We looked around in despair, wondering why the universe was constantly conspiring against us fully enjoying Lisbon. Then we saw a previously unseen door open and a line of people filed out. We walked toward the graffiti-covered door and up the stairs to discover First Floor.
It opened up to a garden where locals were hanging out, watching soccer, dancing, and playing foozeball. And there was a rooster. We hung out for a couple hours before walking back to the hostel and, of course, getting lost.
The fates may be actively preventing us from spending too much time in Portugal, but we've loved everything we've gotten to see (except Coimbra-B) & I anticipate that we'll probably see some more some day.