At last we arrive at the penultimate travel blog – Portugal.
A surprisingly fabulous week, in a surprisingly fabulous country. Confirming the theory that low expectations are almost always exceeded.
I arrived in Lisbon a mental mess. The two hour flight from Pisa airport, on our most budget airline, turned me into a blithering ball of batshit crazy. It was time to see a doctor before my oldest and dearest friends traded me in for a better model.
Our airbnb apartment was superb – spacious, comfortable, beautiful bedrooms, three full bathrooms, gorgeous little balconies, right in the heart of Lisbon. But my first impression was thick, humid air I couldn’t breathe. It felt like asthma (fires in Italy had caused me a little trouble), but it wasn’t asthma. And I knew it. So after unpacking my suitcase for me, handing me a non-optional tub of yoghurt, and ensuring all the windows and doors were wide open with a lovely breeze flowing through, my three friends headed out for dinner while I patiently awaited a home visit from a very nice Portugese doctor. An hour later he confirmed what I already knew – my anxiety was through the roof, with matching blood pressure and respiratory rate. He organised scripts to help me calm down, sleep, breathe, and rest. A few hours later I was curled up in the beautifully comfy bed with the crisp white sheets, and had my first solid night’s sleep in a couple of weeks. I spent the rest of my week in Portugal keeping an eye on my anxiety, and medicating as necessary – what a difference it made.
We spent five delightful nights in Lisbon – a colourful, vibrant city, full of young people, and narrow streets, eclectic architecture, and hills. Lots and lots of hills.
And the beauty of hills is once you get to the top, there’s always a fabulous view. The four of us had no idea what to expect from Portugese food, except it features a lot of cod, sardines and portugese tarts. We were – for the most part – very pleasantly surprised at the delicious food we encountered. There is indeed an awful lot of seafood on a typical Portugese menu – not the best locale for anyone with catastrophic seafood allergies. Our first lunch I tested a traditional Bacalhau à Brás – aka salted cod, onions & potatoes, shredded and mixed through scrambled eggs. Not only does it sound dreadful, it really doesn’t look pretty either. I’m here to say, it’s delicious. Very filling. Very delicious. Evenings we spent at the Time Out Market – a giant food court where great restaurants and bars serve up quick meals. The atmosphere is young and festive, and cocktails abound. I eschewed the sardines in favour of less fishy looking fish (croquettes), and rocket salad.
We made a concerted effort to taste test Pastéis de Nata (Portugese tarts) on a daily basis – despite the fact one of us is gluten and dairy free (she ate none), and another has a strong dislike of “eggy” things (she tried them all, but handed over the too “eggy” tarts). No visit to Lisbon is complete without queuing at Pastéis de Belém, purportedly home to the worlds’ best eggy tarts. It was certainly an experience – the giddy experience of rampant excitement for a bit of custard in pastry. The tarts were good – but I was a bit tarted out to have an opinion on how they rank on a global scale. The cappuccino was a sight to behold – half a mug of coffee, with sugary whipped cream piped on top. And a sprinkle of chocolate powder for good measure. To be honest, it’s not how we generally have our coffee, and is not likely to become a preferred option.
We spent one day in Sintra, exploring fairytale castles and magical gardens. The weather was grey and drizzly, lending an eerie effect to the gardens, and a slippery effect to the cobblestones. Sintra cannot be fully explored in a single day, so we opted to visit only two locations, but enjoy them thoroughly. First stop was Quinta da Regaleira – fabulous buildings, but more importantly, the mysterious initiation well was on my to-do list and the gardens were a must-see for my friends. Our second – and final – stop in Sintra was the Pena Palace. The iconic fairytale castles, with all their splendid colours and turrets and archways and gargoyles. We explored the outside, in the soggy mist, but didn’t join the crowds queuing to go inside. Instead we roamed the gardens and took lovely photos of misty ponds and quirky trees.
The rest of our time in Lisbon was spent eating and exploring the city on foot – from the Belem Tower to the Alfama District. Wandering around and discovering quaint little corners and magnificent monuments. Enjoying the street life of busy trams and funiculars, arts and musicians, and just a general funky vibe to the whole city. It turns out, Lisbon is really cool.
Our last two nights in Portugal we headed north to Porto. We had splurged on a whole day trip to the Douro Valley, with a very exclusive little tour of wineries and the valley, and a magnificent lunch on the waterfront. Our final day in Portugal we were blessed with a return to the hot sunny days that followed me around most of my travels. We popped into the Sao Bento train station to see the famous tiled walls. Bypassed the Livraria Lello which now has massive queues and a 5 euro charge to get in. Explored the waterfront. Ate more cod. And caught an Uber back to our magnificent little hotel when we learned the funicular wasn’t working.
Two luxurious nights in Porto was a beautiful, and peaceful way to finish the official part of our holidays together. We clinked our glasses of port together and reflected on the highlights of three distinctly different holiday experiences, in the space of three weeks. It was time to start the long trek home.