Getting to Portugal was a long time coming. For years our family and friends had gushed over it, so we finally mapped out a trip. We were originally going to be there for NYE, ringing in the year in Lisbon’s main square before journeying up and down the coast. But as the Omicron variant spread rampantly, and the closer we got to our departure date, the more hopeless the plan was feeling. Every time we got used to the restrictions we were going to face (COVID tests to check into every hotel, for example), more stringent ones would follow. A mere 24 hours before departure, we made the agonizing decision to cancel. I wrote about this previously, how we instead ended up on a hiking trip in Arizona to reset from what was a surprisingly harder year than the one preceding it. The virus stole yet another little piece of what makes us the happiest. But like inertia, we moved forward. Things settled. The world opened up yet again and appeared foreign to its 9-months-ago self. We planned the trip again, exactly as it was originally so. We even made a point of booking the exact same hotels, knowing that they’ve struggled in the endless unpredictability of the pandemic. But mostly, to feel like we were taking back a tiny piece of what was stolen.
First stop was Lisbon, the busy, bustling, colorful city at the center of it all. The streets were covered in slippery cobblestones (good sneaker tread is essential), and cars barrel down impossibly steep inclines so fast that you can hear them echo off the spaces in between each stone. I learned quickly to watch for them, because they won’t watch out for you! We checked into our hotel, a quaint villa-like place tucked into a street that is almost too small for cars and protected by a large wall that made it feel like it was a secret garden. Inside there is a small outdoor pool. After dropping our things, we wandered in a bit of a fog over the hills and stone steps that painted the downtown, trying to nail down a few words of Portuguese with an unreliable Google Translate (fun fact, European Portuguese is different from Brazilian Portuguese). Buildings are adorned with hundreds of hand-painted tiles, wrought iron balconies, and fresh flowers. Be mindful where you walk – the “shift” into more questionable neighborhoods happens suddenly – when people disappear, boarded up doors and windows increase, and the air feels a bit haunted.
Our first day swirled in a cloud of jetlag, but we still managed to make it out to dinner. The sun is bright and intense during the day, but by evening it cools significantly and softens from a fresh breeze. The streets don’t always have names, somewhat like Venice, and some are unrealistically narrow and adorned with crowded clothes lines drawn window-to-window. Tips from a local: if a restaurant is open before 7:30pm for dinner, it’s for tourists; it should not cost more than $5 for a bottle of wine in the shop; bread at dinner is not free (kindly decline if you don’t want to pay); unless noted, you’ll get bottled water (again, $$). We piled into plates of fresh fish, boiled potatoes, and seafood rice, washing it down with surprisingly inexpensive wine. Check out the “Vinho Verde” (green wine) – it’s not green at all, but a faintly bubbly dry white. Afterwards we stumbled upon a limited-run light show housed within a set of old church ruins called “Lisbon Under Stars”, where they project a visual and audio story onto the church walls that tells the history of Lisbon.
Over our three days in Lisbon, we visited Castelo de Saint Jorge in the middle of Lisbon, the neighborhood of Belem (home to the famous Belem Tower and delicious “Pasteis to Belem”), and attended a traditional Portuguese Fado Show (slightly touristy, but essential). The dinner at “O Fado” was clearly priced for tourists – three courses at a Manhattan cost. But the show itself was beautiful, a series of small groups of singers and musicians playing sets of emotional songs that echoed off the walls of the low-lit room where we ate. Everybody got quiet while they sang, swaying to the mood in the room like one might respond to the Opera. It was mournful but also passionate, a journey that didn’t require comprehension of the language. No photos allowed.
The massive inclines in Lisbon’s roads made daytime travel by bus or tram essential, both of which trudged up the hills in a grinding haul. We journeyed towards Castelo de Saint Jorge, exploring the old sandy buildings before pausing for lunch. In a sweeping square at the center of the castle, you can grab a drink and snacks from food trucks while giant peacocks roam around. Keep an eye on your bag if you ride Tram 28 back down…it’s known for pickpockets.
The next day we took our trip to Belem, only a 20-minute Uber ride away. It felt immediately like being in a different city. The neighborhood ran alongside a quiet body of water with a long walking path and small carts selling wine in plastic cups. We waited in a seemingly endless line to get into the Belem Tower, a 16th Century structure built to defend the city, only to end up climbing a steep and claustrophobic spiral staircase to reach the eventual view. I immediately regretted at least two of the glasses of wine I’d had the night before and could barely appreciate the history of where I was standing. To quell my vertigo, we finished off with a few pastries from Pasteis de Belem, a slight modification on the country’s famous Pasteis de Nata – a little more custard, and a crispy and more buttery shell. It was sweet heaven, and just like that I was ready for more Vinho Verde.
On our last day in the city, we met up with a new friend of ours, Mariana. We had actually “met” Mariana on Facebook just before our original trip was supposed to take place in late December. She was part of a girls travel group that shares ideas and information on world travel. We found ourselves in a small side conversation with a few other girls who were also trying to navigate the confusing and evolving COVID restrictions for their trips to Portugal. Mariana was a local who graciously offered to talk through the situation in Lisbon and give her guidance. Now that we were finally in her home city, we decided to meet for a drink. It may sound weird on the surface, to meet somebody who you only know so superficially through social media. But there is something about a fellow traveler that feels familiar even if they’re a stranger. She took us to a rooftop bar hidden inside an unassuming office building. It was immediately effortless. We talked about how we each lived our lives in our respective countries, and she rattled off some fun facts like why salted codfish is SO popular in Portugal (it’s all imported, so it can only come salted, but it’s prepared around 10 ways after that point). She said that the Portuguese are a “people mourning for what once was, a deep longing”. That’s why Fado is so emotional.
We came back to our hotel later that night to find that she’d secretly left us a “Welcome to Portugal” gift package at the front desk – containing wine, cheese, snacks, and plastic champagne flutes for having an outdoor picnic. Hospitality runs different here.
We bid goodbye to Lisbon after a picnic outdoors at Miradouro de Santa Catarina, a popular promenade for locals to watch the sunset. We tasted through the gift package that Mariana had left us and sipped wine as the sun painted the rooftops pink and orange. Americans just don’t have the same motivation to do thoughtful things for strangers the way that Mariana did for us. When you think about it, we barely do things like that for friends or family. I’m not sure why, but it really got to me that day. I wondered why we couldn’t better prioritize the special ways we could be spending our time. We are always exhausted, always needing space, but then complain about a lack of connection. To give up time in your day to something genuinely kind and with no motivation for yourself – no gain – is rare. It left me deep in thought.