Portugal – Porto & Lisbon: June 24 – July 5, 2017
It’s just past 4pm on Saturday, June 24 and I look down about 3,000 feet towards the city of Porto, Portugal. It’s my 10th country in 5 months and the last country we will visit during our 3-month stay in Europe in Spring 2017. The sky is clear and bright, and the city looks picturesque, like out of a movie. Descending towards the airport from the south, we seemingly navigate along the Duoro River. It’s a river famous for its economic importance in this historic wine region.
This bird’s eye view of Portugal’s second city is quite a welcome. We turn north towards the airport and it’s as if the aircraft enters into a delicate dance with the 20+ miles per hour headwinds typical in this seaside region. The approach is rough but the landing is smooth. I lean forward bracing myself for the abrupt deceleration, realizing that I’ve finally made it a destination we’ve had on our short list ever since our first trip to southern Portugal in June 2016.
I walk towards the front of the aircraft and say “Obrigado” to the flight attendants while making a left turn to walk down the air stairs. The wind hits me like a rocket. The sun is bright but the wind is strong, and I feel the first bit of chill for the first time in weeks. I’m arriving after a week in Italy with temperatures near 100-degrees and recent weeks spent in warm, Mediterranean Valencia. Now I’m stepping out onto the airport tarmac, less than 3 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, and it’s no more than 65-degrees (not taking into the account the obvious wind chill). Perhaps the wind is more than a cooling force. It’s a force telling us to take our travels slower, pushing us in a new direction.
In the next 10 days, we’ll explore the two largest cities in Portugal – Porto and Lisbon. We’ve heard good things about both cities and given weather, charm/ambience of the country, and the lower cost of living (in comparison to Spain), the cities have been on our short list as possible European home bases in upcoming years.
But my wife hasn’t yet arrived. She has spent the day in Berlin, then Belgium and Zurich, and is now en-route to Porto. The sometimes unfortunate and unplanned result of travel delays and reroutes. Needless to say, once she arrives, we’ll be in a collective mood to slow things down for these last 10 days. Tonight, we’ll simply try to make it “home” to our Airbnb apartment before the sun sets at 9:30pm and wake up in the morning ready to see what Portugal has in store for us.
Porto – A Picturesque City Past its Prime
At first glance, Porto seems like a city past its prime. Our neighborhood is just a 1.5-mile walk from the center of town and yet some blocks feel like a ghost town. But we know there are people living in some of these once beautiful buildings that are now aging without much care. It’s Sunday and the streets are quiet, the stores are shut. Instead of exploring the neighborhood, it’s best we take the long walk downhill towards the river and say hello to the city of port wine.
The riverfront is simply breathtaking. Though it’s quite cloudy, gloomy, the charm of the city – its hills, old facades, and tiny side streets – captivates the senses. It’s one of those places where it doesn’t matter if it’s sunny or cloudy, you can find beauty in both backdrops. The rest of the town may be sleepy on this Sunday morning, but the riverfront is slowly coming alive with tourists, street vendors, cafes, and boat tours. It seems that beyond the wine industry, tourism might be the only major economic lifeline to this once booming port town.
It’s late June yet it feels more like the first week of March – perfect weather for a light sweater, warm coffee in hand, and a walk along the riverfront. To our left is the fantastic Dom Luís I Bridge – a two-level steel bridge constructed by an associate of Gustave Eiffel. No wonder it resembles the famed symbol of Paris. We decide that we have to cross it. The bridge bounces with each passing car and we make it a point not to step off the small sidewalk into the street on our left or drop our cellphones into the river on our right. We can’t help but appreciate the views from the bridge and the lookout point from just across the other side.
We decide that this brief introduction to the city is enough for our first day in town. We have a long 1.5-mile, inclined walk back to our apartment. There, we’ll make a picnic on the patio with a $3 bottle of Portuguese wine and share stories from our last 8 days apart in Europe.
A Taste of Porto
Over the next few days, we decide to just explore the different areas of the city. It’s too cloudy, chilly, and windy to visit the beach. We’ll have time for that in Lisbon where it’s a bit warmer and forecast to be sunny everyday. Instead, I walk out in the mornings to check out the local café scene and get some work done. But there aren’t too many cafes in the area. There are a handful of co-working spaces spread around town but that’s not how I roll. I prefer just a nice coffee shop and Wi-Fi. There are lots of cafes, more similar to diners, and they all have Wi-Fi. But they are filled with smoke. Everyone smokes here, indoors and out. I can only stand it for so long. Luckily my workload is light this week.
We make it a point to explore the regional foods and drinks while walking around to take in the sights. In the mornings, we eat Portuguese croissants (which are notably different from other parts of Europe). My wife tries the “pastel de nata” (similar to a Vietnamese egg tart) at the various cafes. She loves it but it’s not my thing. I prefer the croissants and black coffee – I never had a bad coffee in the entire 10 days in Portugal. I don’t know what they do to the beans or how they make it differently, but for less than 70 cents a cup, it’s arguably the best coffee I’ve had – and it was consistent at every café.
For lunch, we try the bufana and franchesina – popular local dishes in northern Portugal. The bufana becomes our lunch staple while the franchesina is simply too much for us. It’s like a grilled cheese sandwich with a slab of meat and a pound of sauce. At least, we tried it.
Porto has a good mix of natural sites and man-made attractions. Prior to heading down to Lisbon, we spend our last couple of days navigating the hills and narrow streets in and around town. We spend one afternoon exploring the Crystal Palace Gardens and then visiting the Sao Bento train station to marvel at its tiled walls and learn a bit of Porto’s history. The city is charming but it’s clear that Porto is struggling to reinvent and reinvest in itself. It has a rich history and a vibrant culture. It has potential. But only time will tell if the wind that blows mightily off the coast will be a force that pushes it forward or if it will continue to be a headwind, challenging it to move beyond its storied past.
Lisbon – The Pride of Portugal
It’s day five of our Portuguese excursion and now we’re standing on platform 9 waiting for our train to arrive for our 3-hour trip down to Lisbon. As the train nears, it starts to rain – heavily. Perhaps that’s a sign that things in Porto (economically) will get rougher before they get better. Yet, perhaps like most of the money and intellectual capital in this region, we are heading south to Lisbon – the capital city. There isn’t too much to see along this rocky, rainy ride down the coast. The broad landscapes are nice but if you’re able to catch a glimpse of the forgotten trackside towns along the way, you’ll get a sense of the economic struggles of the region.
In recent years, Portugal was the “P” in the acronym, PIGS. A moniker bestowed upon the sunny, southern European nations at the heart of the recent financial crisis. Slowly, they have emerged stronger but one could argue that it’s mostly on the surface. The macro statistics may have improved but life on the ground is slower to improve. Ironically, though, if you weren’t aware of the recent economic numbers, you’d be hard pressed to feel it from the people in the streets. Everyone seems warm and pleasant. Maybe it’s the sun, the warm temperatures, and the bright blue skies here in Lisbon. The sky seems to be a darker hue of blue here – something that I’ve only seen in Lisbon. I wonder if the sea breeze and the red rooftops add to the effect – cleaning the air and creating a sharp visual contrast.
Feeling at Home in Lisbon
While its seven hills can be treacherous at times, Lisbon is a city best explored on foot. Almost every neighborhood seems to have a mirador (or viewpoint), where you can overlook the red rooftops and peer out towards the waterfront. Then there are white tiled sidewalks and plazas that are unique and beautiful, but also can be blinding on sunny days. The city is also filled with amazing street art and architecture at every turn.
It’s shocking that this place is often low on the list of primary European destinations. It’s the closest continental European capital to the US and it’s by far the most economical to explore. Near our apartment, there’s a new French café/bakery (Boulangerie Costes) that sells freshly-baked pastries and offers an awesome afternoon special – buy one pastry and get a coffee for just 1 euro. We are there every afternoon after our daily urban explorations.
Then there are the restaurants. Just down the street from our apartment is a Nepalese-Portuguese restaurant. The owners are charming and welcoming, and their meals are delicious and soothing to the soul. For what we paid in Spain and Italy, we can get meals in Portugal for half the price. They are just as good, if not better in some cases.
Sunday, we decide on a whim to take the train out to the beach. It’s only a 40-minute train ride to Cascais – the popular Riviera region near the capital city. Who knew that such a beautiful place could be so close to a major city. The beach and waterfront remind us of the area near Santa Cruz, California. It’s the type of day-trip we would take back when we lived in Northern California. This place is starting to feel like a comfortable future home base. It feels magical, peaceful, and charming.
On the way home, we walk through the narrow streets and alleys near the picturesque Pedro Square. We’re trying to find a restaurant found on Trip Advisor but it’s closed. Luckily, there’s a restaurant next door (Restaurant Mili). Though the husband and wife owners seem to be closing, they allow us to come in and take a seat. We order two typical Portuguese dishes – the grilled sardines plate and a cod (bacalau) fish casserole. The food is beyond amazing and the owners are so, so nice. In addition to allowing us to be the last guests of their afternoon shift, they also give us a complimentary glass of port wine to enjoy at the end of our meal. Needless to say, this would not be our last time visiting their restaurant.
Monday, we head out to Sintra. It’s a famous tourist destination and former palace for the Portuguese royalty. The hills, crowds, and heat are bit too much for me. Yet, I try my best to deal with it, so that my wife can enjoy this fairy-tale destination that was so high on her list. To apologize for my inability to adjust to the crowds and the heat, I treat her to dessert at Kacaoland – a place featured in one of my favorite vlogger’s (LukeLifeCharms) recent trip to Portugal.
Saying Goodbye to Europe in 2017
We spend our last day in Lisbon (and Europe) simply re-walking many of the same streets from the previous days, thinking if this could be a future home base. The city is gorgeous and the people are welcoming. It’s a diverse city and it seems that people of all shades interact with each other; unlike some of the other places we visited and lived in Europe.
For many reasons, I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel completely comfortable living in Europe long-term. I love it in short bursts. But for a variety of reasons, I always feel like a second-class citizen, even though I’m an expat or tourist depending on the destination.
Outside of the treacherous hills, Lisbon feels comfortable. However, I thought the same thing last year during our brief trip to Valencia and after spending two months there this year, I no longer feel the same. So perhaps we’ll have to come back to Lisbon for a month-long stay to get a better feel for the city and its possibilities. At the very least, the city, its food, people, and landscapes, left an indelible mark on our second springtime stay in Europe.
Read more Tales from the Nomadic Adventure and find out where we’ll be in the coming months.