The food was great (especially the pastries), the people were warm, chatty and helpful and there were cats everywhere. I would soon go back for more
By LUCY SMITH
Photos: L. Smith
What was I expecting of Portugal? I guess a lot of chickens. Cute live ones like the national symbol and dead ones covered in peri-peri sauce. I pictured the traditional costume, the custard tarts, the rich history and tradition. But that just about exhausted my knowledge of the country. With almost no prior research, my visit to Portugal turned into a process of discovery: learning all about its culture, regions, language, extensive history and lyrical, traditional music. Of course, that’s an experience better lived than told, but I’ll do my best.
The trip started with a blissfully short flight from Madrid to Lisbon. It was late at night, so we checked into the hotel and slept. Day 2 was a full-on exploration of the city: trying the cakes, visiting the famous Belem Tower and Castelo de São Jorge (where you can get a panoramic view of the city). For me, one highlight was the Lisboa Story Centre: a one-hour long audio-tour museum where you walk from room to room learning about the city’s history. It was informative and amusingly curated. After the long day of walking we were exhausted, almost ready to pass out on the sidewalk. So we went to the first café we could find, and happily it turned out to be one of our best culinary experiences in Portugal. The café is called Pois, and it’s full of cosy armchairs, foreign-language books, warm light and exceptional food.
Our last stop for the evening was a fado show. Fado is the traditional folk-style music of Portugal that originated in Lisbon and later developed a distinct style in Coimbra. A live fado show consists of a Spanish guitar, a Portuguese guitar (similar to a mandolin but with 12 strings) and a solo vocalist. Its songs are soulful, wistful and melancholic. The best fado areas in Lisboa are Bairro Alto and Alfama. The performances are housed in restaurants, and it’s common to attend them whilst dining. Live fado is one unmissable Portuguese experience: both a beautiful listening experience and a gateway to understanding the culture. When you don’t speak Portuguese it’s a little harder to follow, but the music is so emotive that it tells its own stories.
Early on Day 3 we rose to catch the train to Sintra, which seems to be the easiest way to reach the town (we had difficulties, but… that’s probably just us). Sintra’s misty mountainous beauty is a shock and a stark contrast to the slightly shabby metropolis of Lisbon. The town is a major tourist destination, as its close proximity to the city makes it an easy day-trip (although one day won’t do it justice). There are many historical attractions spread out across the forested municipality. For that reason, I would definitely recommend getting a car or a bus pass for travel. There are lots of grand monuments, such as the bizarrely stunning Pena Palace. But it was the Convent of Capuchos that I found most interesting: a tiny, isolated monastery, abandoned in the 19th century and now almost overgrown by forest. The cork-lined rooms are so small it looks as if it could have housed elves. Sintra was the most naturally beautiful area we traversed in Portugal, and a must-see for anyone travelling to Lisbon.
Óbidos was the least touristy of all these towns, and probably the least accessible (although there is a train station and a bus). There’s not so much to do there, but it has a mystical, fairy-tale atmosphere that makes holidaying there feel like a genuine escape from reality. It’s a charming little town with white houses striped in blue and yellow paint, enclosed in climbable walls. You have to try the local speciality Ginja – a delicious, rich cherry liquor.
Coimbra’s main tourist draw is its historical Coimbra University, whose students still wear traditional black cloaks. We went on a tour around the old buildings, and the world famous baroque library Biblioteca Joanina. In the evening we visited Fado ao Centro, a live show of songs interspersed with stories, introducing the unique style of fado in the area. It was geared towards tourists, but still felt authentic, with music of a high calibre. We spent just one night in Coimbra, and it felt sufficient. Perhaps it was because the students had gone home for the Easter break, but the town felt a little deserted, with no bustling nightlife that we’d expected of the university town.
Coming into Porto was exciting – I’d heard so much about its lively atmosphere, wine tastings, pretty riverfront and big, dirty Francesinha sandwiches (just Google it). And it didn’t disappoint: even from the train we had gorgeous views of the port and the rustic river townhouses. On the first day we booked the obligatory tourist Douro river cruise and port-tasting session, and wandered around the touristy Riviera area. When it came to the evening, we decided to search for some of its talked-about nightlife, but nothing seemed to be happening on a Wednesday night.
The next day we wandered up through the less touristy parts, the art gallery district and caught the bus to neighbouring coastal village Foz do Douro. We caught the tourist tram back, which was a pleasant, picturesque ride along the city. In the evening we went to see a choral requiem performance at the Casa da Music, an ultra-modern music hall inaugurated in 2005. Even if you don’t see a show there, it’s worthwhile to check out its architecture, and you can go up to the restaurant floor for a great view of the city. Coming back from the concert, we expected an early night, but it turned out Porto comes alive on Thursday nights. There was a live band playing Latin music outside one café, and the street was full of people salsa dancing (us included). The city centre was alive, bars were packed out, and it was the perfect final evening for my Portuguese travels.
As an Australian residing (temporarily) in Madrid, I found travelling through Portugal easy. The transport systems were good, nothing was particularly expensive and most people spoke at least basic English. The food was great (especially the pastries), the people were warm, chatty and helpful and there were cats everywhere. I would soon go back for more.
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