As we wandered around Portugal, we asked each other at one point, “Wait, why did we come here again?”
Don’t get me wrong, we loved it, and were certainly very glad we did go. But we couldn’t remember why we had actually decided on Portugal.
There was no life-long dream or affection for the country. In fact, we tried to think of the number of things we knew about Portugal, and we could count them on one hand. For example, in the movie “Love Actually,” one of the love interests is Portuguese. Does that even count as a Portuguese fact?!
But at some point during the gloom of February in New York, we realized we hadn’t been abroad together in a while, and starting going through the standards: Italy? Ireland? Spain? France?
But Portugal was in the back of my mind because in January we had read Paul Kalanithi’s book “When Breath Becomes Air.” As he details his cancer diagnosis and final year, he writes about his key decisions: continuing to perform brain surgery and having a baby. He didn’t drop everything and go explore the world. However, he does mention taking one trip. And that was repeating his honeymoon to Portugal with his wife.
He didn’t even go into detail about the trip. But if a dying man chooses Portugal as his last vacation, that’s more than enough endorsement for me.
So we bought direct tickets to Porto with a return flight from Lisbon. And then mostly forgot about our upcoming trip, until May when we started nagging each other to figure out train tickets and Airbnbs.
Lola was quite upset about the idea of us leaving her for 10 days, but we didn’t think she could stomach the 7 hour flight. In hindsight, the streets of Portugal are filled with cats, so perhaps we should’ve taken her. Next time, Lola.
We flew TAP Portugal airlines, which Anna had read is known as “Take Another Plane” by some disgruntled travelers. However, we were very fond of TAP. The stewards were mostly tall, dark and handsome Portuguese men who changed into little suit jackets to serve dinner. What more can one ask for in a plane? I guess safely transporting you across the ocean is important, as well. And they covered that!
Interestingly enough, 90% of the people on the plane to Porto were Portuguese natives above the age of 75. Portugal must still be a best-kept secret because on the plane, as well as in Portugal, we very rarely heard any English. And if we did hear English in the streets, it was British or Australian English.
I chose our Airbnb because the balcony overlooked the cutest, quaintest cobblestoned street. It was also, like most things in Portugal, incredibly cheap.
Our tiny bedroom door had a rather large hole, the purpose of which we still can not figure out, but its quirkiness was appreciated.
That’s our Porto home right above Anna’s head!
Once we’d freshened up from the overnight flight, we headed out to explore. When you have no expectations of what you’re exploring, everything is a pleasant surprise. Although we did buy a guidebook in advance, we didn’t have many preconceived notions or plans. Our usual travel plan is to start walking and hope to find something interesting. Our first, jet-lagged Portugal selfie. If we wanted a picture of the two of us it had to be a selfie because we weren’t trusting enough to hand our iPhones to a stranger. But in fairness the Portuguese seem to be the least likely people to rob you. They are seriously the friendliest, most laid-back and pleasant people. As our guidebook mentioned, when the Greeks and other Europeans were rioting about government austerity, the Portuguese just had peaceful, sing-along protests. Aren’t they the sweetest? In fact, Anna just read that they are ranked the 5th most peaceful nation in the world.
For our first meal, while we were still in our timid “I-feel-guilty-because-I’m-an-American-tourist-and-only-speak-American” phase, we went to the chain equivalent of a Starbucks. The food was fine, but check out that people watching! Notice the little boy and girl with their dad all dressed up. And see the street performer painted as a soldier and “sitting” on a nonexistent chair. Still don’t know how he had the quad strength for that one. We meandered around, until this group of street dancers caught our attention. They were actually very talented, but their looks didn’t hurt either. Isn’t he dreamy? The poor Portuguese are so underrated. All you ever hear about are the Italians or the French. We eventually walked across the river to the other side of the city. And since we still hadn’t done much research, we decided to just eat treats on the river. You must know that the Portuguese make amazing pastries. No matter if it’s a high-end breakfast spot or something in a dingy display case, everything is moist and delicious. Oh, and everything seems to cost one euro. We bought this chocolate croissant from a street vendor and practiced saying “Obrigada.” In the morning, a bread-fairy would deposit a bag of rolls, croissants and their famous Pasteis de Nata (egg custard tarts) on our apartment door handle. The bread fairy is also very underrated.The next day, Sunday morning, we walked up our little street to church. Everything in Portugal seems to be uphill. We like to consider ourselves veteran walkers, but the steep streets of Portugal almost beat us. The Portuguese have to eat copious pastries because you’re burning so many calories scaling the streets. It’s science. When your legs are burning and you’re about to give up, you’d see an old Portuguese lady slowly climbing up the cobblestones, and then you’d forge ahead. Yes, the hills made for beautiful views. But sometimes the Midwesterners in us missed the flat plains. Oh, did I happen to mention we went to church? You heard that, right Dad? I think we get extra points because Mass was obviously all in Portuguese and we were jet-lagged. It was in a very old, very dark cathedral so I may have “rested my eyes” at one point, enough that Anna had to poke me. Still, we felt superior to the annoying tourists who’d walk into Mass with their hiking backpacks and cameras, stare for a few seconds and then walk out after a few pictures. We checked a few things off the toursity checklist, like the beautifully tiled train station …… and the most beautiful bookstore in
Portugal the world. Supposedly, J.K. Rowling was inspired by this shop and wrote parts of Harry Potter here while she was teaching English back in the day. You had to get a ticket to enter and it was crawling in tourists, but still worth checking out. More of your Portuguese basics: walking around fountained plazas …admiring elaborate churches …and river selfies …If I were more skilled, I’d photoshop Anna and I sitting next to each other. This’ll have to do.We embarked on a rather hot and sunny walk along the river, and discovered these rascals jumping into the river. It was pretty amusing because they’d climb on each other’s backs, jump in, then immediately climb out and repeat. At this point my legs started to rebel and Anna vocalized her frustration that she was doing all the map-reading and figuring of things out. Yes, if I were traveling all alone I could certainly read a map, but I think it’s been well-proven that the division of labor by specialization is best. So Anna made sure we didn’t get lost and researched restaurants and activities. And I carried heavy suitcases and things. I’m sure I contributed more to this trip, I just can’t think of them right now. Oh I took pictures! That counts. Note the bike race zooming through the city. And this lady resting after a hilly walk. Whenever we didn’t know what to do, we’d head to the river and dangle our feet over the edge. At one point we used our morning bag of bread as a pillow. (It’s important to always carry a bag of bread with you.)
You’d be hard-pressed to say a bad word about the Portuguese but we were befuddled that they simply don’t like water. You are never greeted with a cool glass of water when you sit down at a restaurant. You have to request it and then pay for a small bottle of water because they will rarely give you tap water. Oh well, they’re mostly perfect. At this particular meal I was scolding Anna for drinking more than her share of our precious bottle of water. Anna deemed it ridiculous to ration water and that she wasn’t about to hurt her kidneys to save a few Euros. I’m showing much restraint by only including one cat picture. This biker cat deserves it. We paid a visit to Majestic Cafe, which is a famous, ornately decorated cafe from the 1920s. We wrote postcards home, and later even managed to figure out how to buy a stamp. McDonald’s: the top destination for teenage dates in Portugal.
When Mom would hang our clothes up on a line in the backyard, Dad used to be embarrassed, thinking it looked lower class to the neighbors. He has come to his senses and now realizes just how pretty clothes look blowing in the breeze.Does anyone do facades as well as the Portuguese? Every house is either colorfully painted or tiled. Porto, you were an amazing, romantic little city. Our three days were a dream. Thankfully, we left having Lisbon to look forward to!