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Published: February 27th 2014
A while back, in the midst of ever darkening days here in Scandinavia, I booked a ticket for February break. After toying with going father north to experience reindeer and, if lucky, the Northern Lights, I decided instead to head south for a break from my vitamin D supplements opting for direct sunlight instead.
As I had never visited Portugal, it seemed a great opportunity to do so. My friend’s mother teaches in an international school outside of Lisbon, and she opened up her home to me! What a chance to talk with an International Baccalaureate legend and to have a home base from which to adventure!
This had me staying in the beautiful Cascais, a 40-minute train ride from Lisbon. Cascais brims over with lovely castle-like homes and views of crashing waves. I can only imagine what the town is like in summer! It would be an ideal place to bike, beach, and enjoy Portuguese wine and seafood.
The insights offered by staying with someone immersed in the culture always adds depth to those read in a book or
Bridge and Statue
Am I in San Fransisco? Or Rio?
gleaned from casual observation. After our initial discussions, I paid particular attention to how incredibly polite people are- the guard rushing to alert a tourist that no flash was to be used stopped to turn to apologize for bumping into a different oblivious tourist in his haste, the bus driver having me sit in the front seat so he could point out my destination to me, my tour guide removing his sunglasses while talking directly with me, and so on. I was also on the lookout for lack of young people. Of course, this occurs during times of economic crisis. Beyond my cultural insights, I cannot rave enough about my hostess! How lucky I am, again!
That good fortune extended beyond my housing, as it turns out. I hear that months of rain had preceded my arrival... well, no more! Though there was a little drizzle on a few occasions, overall, my experience was dry! That sun allowed Lisbon to put its best foot forward.
It was in this warm sun that I took off for the mountains and Sintra. My exploration of this UNESCO site
began at the Moorish Castle, dating to the 9th
century. As I wandered around the thick walls overlooking the valley and Atlantic, I couldn’t help but think that I would have volunteered to keep lookout just to soak up the green hills and blue sea and sky.
A long, steep, winding path took me to the Pena Palace. Once a convent and monastery, it became a palace in the 19th
century. Here I could not help but take my time eating my lunch, as I wanted to savor the brightly colored walls and the views of the surrounding hills and ocean. The interior held beautiful tiles, art, and furniture. There was just enough explanation and few enough rooms to keep my interest, before I couldn’t help myself but return to the sun! Wandering the enormous forested hills, complete with treasures like little bridges and fountains, rounded out an excellent first day in Portugal!
One more contribution from my hostess to my time in Lisbon came in the form of the recommendation to take a free walking tour of the city. It was three hours well spent! A local
guide, three Italians, a Brazilian, and myself covered not too much physical ground, but took in many of the main attractions within Lisbon proper while gaining an incredible amount of insight and information about Portugal’s history and culture. We even stepped in to the world’s oldest bookstore to wait out a brief rain. I enjoyed the candor of the guide in sharing the glories and tragedies of Portugal.
The tour gave me context to what I was seeing all around me. I started to look for differences between neighborhoods based on whether they were remodeled after the 1755 earthquake or had survived the disaster. I also had a sense of the city’s layout, and with that confidence, took to exploring! Well, that is, once I had enjoyed rustic Portuguese stew and delicious cheap wine. Then I was ready for exploring!
Lisbon had qualities to it that whisked me off to other cities. The chipped tiles, sound of hammers tapping, decaying facades supported by scaffolds next to restored buildings, and the hanging laundry transported me to Havana. Then as I wound up the confusing streets of the
pre-earthquake neighborhood of Alfama, I couldn’t help but think of not- so touristy Montmartre as I stumbled upon an artist’s shop or wine bar. Then there is the red suspension bridge and cable cars that naturally took my to San Francisco.
But, while Lisbon has components of other places, it has much more that makes it distinct. The tiled buildings drew me in. I couldn’t help but snap photo after photo of the different patterns and colors. The city has an interesting blend of European capital grandeur and small-town Mediterranean. Depending on my mood, I could eat lunch in an impressive and formal colonnaded plaza with a view of the river, or I could nestle in to table in a small square surrounded by low sun-bleached buildings.
Though Lisbon spills over with charm, I could see how one could overlook it, especially on a gray day. Beyond the tiles that I could continue talking about, (Really, I could. I’m informed. I visited the tile museum!), the cobble stoned streets and plazas are often in a black and white wave pattern that is, at least in my
travels, exclusive to Lisbon. Sampling the delicious local baked treat of pastel de nata with a coffee makes for an exceptional people watching opportunity in this slow-paced city.
For me, the trip was ideal. The pace, the sun, the sights, the sea, the wine, and the food all took me in. I didn’t feel the rush that I often feel when traveling to cities. There was no checklist in my head of museums that I “had” to see or foods I “had” to try. Instead, Lisbon opened itself up to me and let me take on as much as I wanted, and leave the rest for another time. Or not.
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