Adventures in Portugal

A couple weeks ago (yes, I’m still behind on blogging my adventures, I know), Semana Santa took Sevilla by storm, which meant spring break #1 for us. Yes, we have two spring breaks; it’s kind of wonderful. TCU students went all over for break, but Alayna and I decided to slow down a bit and vacation in Portugal. I soon decided upon arriving in Spain that I wanted to concentrate my traveling in the Mediterranean, stick to a theme if you will. Most of my travel has been within Spain, except Morocco, because Sevilla makes it so easy to get there and that was my number one travel priority, and now Portugal, because I didn’t think I’d make a special trip to Europe just to focus on Portugal. Now that I’ve been there, my mind has changed on that one, because Portugal is a beautiful country whose rich history and culture often seems to be pushed into the shadows.

A note on the language barrier: Most people in Portugal, especially places that attract tourists like Lisbon and Lagos, speak very good English, as well as French or German, actually. Except the man selling bus tickets from Lisbon to Lagos…that was a fun adventure of mixing Portuguese, Spanish, and hand gestures…but it worked out and that’s what intercultural communication is all about! Other students warned me and I heard this from someone in Lisbon as well: Yes, the Portuguese will understand your Spanish, but you’re better off speaking English. Apparently the Portuguese learn Spanish in school, but the Spanish by and large do not learn Portuguese, so you can imagine that that’s a bit of a sore spot for them. Spanish did help when it came to reading, but it is not true that you will automatically understand Portuguese just because it’s similar to Spanish, at least not for a non-native speaker. The pronunciation is so, so different. It’s nice to learn a couple basic phrases before you go though—Duolingo is a life-saver. They definitely appreciated something as simple as saying obrigada instead of gracias or thank you.

We began our week-long trip with a midnight bus to Lisbon (there’s a book called Night Train to Lisbon, perhaps I should have read that on the way to be extra cliché; it’s on my reading list). This is a great way to a) save money on not booking a hostel for one night, and b) save time by traveling when you’d be sleeping anyway. If you can manage to sleep on the bus, haha; I think I was always at least somewhat awake. We arrived at 5 AM, so our hostel kindly let us crash for a couple hours in a room where there’d been an early check-out.

Once rested, we set off to explore the capital. Lisbon is the sister city of San Francisco, which becomes obvious as soon as you start walking along the bay and see Lisbon’s own “Golden Gate Bridge.” Lisbon also has old-fashioned yellow cable cars that reminded me of my grandma’s stories about riding the street cars in St. Louis when she was young. Alayna enjoyed a bit of California-like home, and now I really want to see California as well, because the bay atmosphere was so lovely and relaxing. We stayed in the Chiado neighborhood (one of the main ones) and walked about 4 miles along the bay to Belem (another major neighborhood), and the walk didn’t feel bad at all with such beautiful scenery. (The walk back, when we went through a different street and struggled to find a spot among the shipping area to enter the coastline again, felt a bit longer, however).

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Our first stop in Belem was the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a tower right on the water with sculptures commemorating Portuguese leaders during the Age of Exploration. Although it often seems to be in the shadow of Spain today, Portugal actually built a huge empire, not just with Brazil but also with parts of India and Africa. From the top we had a great view of the whole city, the bridge, and a huge cross like the one in Rio de Janeiro.  Inside we got to learn about the architecture, and I loved the quote at the beginning of the exhibit:

“Os arquitectos são poetas também.”  Architects are poets too.

I will probably say this a thousand times, but traveling in Europe has really gotten me into architecture. It’s so impressive to me that architects have to be extremely good at math, physics, and art—definitely using both sides of your brain!

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Across the street is the massive Monasterio de San Jeronimo, with a beautiful courtyard in front whose giant fountain takes you (and your camera) by surprise when it suddenly turns on again and puts on a dancing water show. The first day, we only went inside the Gothic sanctuary, which was beautiful in that it seemed much less extravagant than other places I’ve visited. We returned on Palm Sunday to see the rest of the monastery, and I learned that the holiday is quite literally celebrated with the congregation receiving palm leaves. While we were back in Belem on Sunday, we also went to the Torre de Belem, an old naval watch tower that looks like it belongs in The Little Mermaid. We also stopped by a contemporary art museum, Museu Coleção Berardo, where the highlight was Andy Warhol’s portrait of Judy Garland! So many favorite movie connections in one city, it was great.

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Nearby is the most famous bakery in Lisbon, Pasteis de Belem. We actually tried Portugal’s famed pastel de nata somewhere else later (it’s a custard-filled pastry, good but wouldn’t be my first choice), but this is a great stop for both lunch and pastries. Our waiter was super nice letting us try to pronounce the Portuguese on the menu, even though the English was right there as well. Walking back towards Chiado, we decided to walk in the city instead of along the bay, just to see something different. I loved wandering the smaller streets filled with colorful buildings and doors, and we also found some windows with broken glass and old wooden shutters that made for some cool black and white photography practice.


Back in Chiado, we went to every booklover’s dream, the oldest bookstore in the world, Bertrand Books. It grew into a chain, so if you’re looking for it, it’s the one on Rua Garrett. I must confess that this stop made me a little sad, because they’ve converted it to look pretty much like any other chain bookstore instead of preserving the old feel.  Reading a bit of The Little Prince in Portuguese eased the pain a bit, however. As we continued walking along the streets, we came across several groups performing the traditional dance forms of kudaro and fada, both with influences from Angola.


For our first Portuguese sunset, we climbed many hills and stairs to the Castelo de São Jorge, a Moorish palace later conquered and renamed by the Christians. Lisbon isn’t named the “City of Seven Hills” for nothing, but it was so worth the hike because we could see the whole city and beyond. You could climb all the way up to the flag towers, provided that you aren’t troubled by narrow stairs and a lack of any sort of railing…that’s why I’m here when I’m young though, right? I love flags, and Lisbon’s is especially cool because it’s black and white, not very common today.

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On Saturday, we checked out the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, with an impressive display of tea cups, jewelry, furniture, and other artifacts from the 16th-18th centuries in Portugal, India, China, and Japan, as well as a small garden overlooking the bay. The highlight of our Saturday, however, was a wine tour. The lead producer of cork, Portugal also has some great wines. Instead of going to a vineyard, this tour took us to five of the classic hidden gems where the locals hang out in Chiado. We tasted vinho verde, “green wine,” which is a really good sparkling wine that hasn’t been aged as long (we had white, but it can also be red), some other red and white wines, a spiced cherry liquor, and, of course, port. Here’s my opinion on port: Never again, haha, way too sweet for me. To accompany our wine, we tried several typical Portuguese foods, including balacao, codfish (my attempts to try and like fish have still not succeeded), mermelada (not marmalade exactly; this is less spreadable and eaten in Spain as well, with bread or cheese), black-pig ham, amazing pumpkin jam, and some great mushrooms at our final stop, which was Lisbon’s first casino converted into a bar.

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I don’t know that I became a wine connoisseur on this tour, but our guide, Pedro, taught us a lot about Portugal. Outside one of our stops, we stepped into a Catholic church that was startlingly plain inside, and Pedro explained that this church is sort of cursed: A massacre had killed many Jews inside, and years later major earthquakes destroyed much of the sanctuary. They’ve rebuilt the church more plainly out of respect for the victims, and outside there is a memorial with the Star of David and the phrase, “Lisbon: City of Tolerance” written in many languages. Pedro also pointed out a sausage at one of our stops, farinheiera, that’s actually vegetarian; Jews would eat it and pretend that it was pork to try and prove they had converted to Christianity to escape persecution.

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A couple lighter, random facts that I learned about Portugal: To order coffee, locals ask for a bica, which is an acronym for “drink with sugar” in Portuguese. I would have to agree with the Portuguese; I still can’t drink coffee without azúcar. Also, the Treaty of Windsor between Portugal and the UK represents the oldest formal diplomatic relations in the world. Again, not a country whose historical importance should be overlooked.  Finally, Pedro let us in on two secrets: 1) Santini’s is the best place for gelato outside of Italy. We have confirmed this.  2) There is a secret way to reach the top of the oldest elevator in the world without the lines/fees. I’m not sure if it’s a legal way, but it’s a way…however, we decided not to chance that one at night.

The best part of our wine tour, however, was the group. Two older Canadian couples, two college students, and eight women in their 40s from Holland who met in a jazz dance group and have been friends ever since. Every year they get together, and every other year they take a girls’ weekend and travel somewhere new. A very odd combination, but everyone got along so easily, and it was cool to meet people from some countries I haven’t visited!

Monday morning we set off for Lagos, a small beach town a couple hours south of Lisbon. And by small, I mean that the bus station has three spaces and not even a fully enclosed building. Since we came in the middle of the week and it wasn’t quite high season, it wasn’t crowded at all. I won’t say deserted…but pretty darn close. The beaches here are not like the long stretches of white sand I’ve always been to. They’re much smaller, divided by huge cliffs (so you have to take long wooden staircases to get to the beach), and have golden brown sand, rocks, and very low tides. So different and so beautiful. I had another Little Mermaid moment at the grottos, and yes, I did sing “Part of Your World” throughout the rest of the day. The Atlantic in this area was freezing, but we did overcome the cold once to swim, because it’s really kind of required to get in the ocean if you’re at the beach. Most of the time, however, we just enjoyed reading and taking in the gorgeous nature around us, a bit of a mental health break from the crazy adventure that is study abroad.


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Both Lisbon and Lagos were so fun and relaxing, and they left me rejuvenated for a late night of Semana Santa activities upon my return! (Post coming soon, I promise I’ll catch up)!



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