Portugal! You’ve blown me away!
I’ve been to Portugal before and I’ve liked it… but I finished this trip loving it and making goals to backpack along the southern coast sometime in the near future. Portugal is a hard country to describe: it feels like graffiti colored walls, happy people, historical wealth, and seafood… and although the food and language might seem familiar, this country is in a league all on its own.
We arrived in the early evening and sweated our way through winding, stair-filled streets to our Airbnb. The weather was MUCH warmer than Budapest and we quickly switched into T-shirt’s before enjoying a typical 9pm dinner. We were tired from the day of traveling and chose dinner at a place about 2 minutes from our apartment. It looked and smelled the best and there was a musician playing soft guitar melodies in the courtyard- so O Corvo it was.
That meal was the absolute best way to start our Portuguese food expedition (which we did not take lightly). Spencer enjoyed a “Portuguese Burger” made of local meat and cheese plus a homemade bun – one of the best burgers we’ve ever tasted. I tested out Bacalhau, a national cod dish that is served in numerous ways – I tried it sous-vide on top of a spiced risotto. The fish was done perfectly and the two things went so well together… and just the right amount of salt to pair well with the Portuguese Sagres beer we enjoyed. Needless to say, it was an incredible meal and left our food expectations quite high for the remainder of the weekend.
And this was only night one.
Day two: Lisbon and Belém
Neither Spencer nor I know much about Lisbon, and what we’ve read we haven’t retained so we thought a free walking tour might be the best move. We booked spots on the 11am tour which gave us the morning to scout out the nearby castle and search for some Pasteis de Natas. Check and check! Our noses found the natas before our eyes did so we pulled over on the way up to the castle for some delectable custards and cappuccinos. It must’ve been early enough that no tourists were out because the only people we saw grabbing pastries were construction workers – then, once we arrived at the castle entrance, there were only about 10 other people. Lucky!
We walked up and down too many flights of stairs to count as we made our way across the city to the tour meeting point, first stopping into the cutest little Portuguese shop called A Vida Portuguesa. With our backpacks laden with gifts we hiked up a small street, through a book street market, past a church, and finally to the tours starting point. The English speaking group was large enough to split into two groups but since we couldn’t remember if our ticket number was above or below 299, we went with the funnier guide. Dias was great! He was the right amount of sassy, funny and knowledgeable and the 2.5 hours seemed to fly by. We listened to the infamous fado style of music, heard stories of great war heroes and poets, learned about the great earthquake and discovered the many layers that Lisbon is built on. We had a fantastic time and came away having learned so much.
A cheap sandwich and orange juice in our bellies, we walked along the busy waterfront to catch a train to Belém, a district of Lisbon known for its pastries and explorers. We accidentally got off a stop too far and after a longer walk into town, we enjoyed some capirinha’s next to one of Lisbon’s most famous landmarks, the Belém tower. A location to watch for pirates back in 1514, we did some people watching ourselves before walking along the water toward the Jerónimos monastery. With a giant church and ornate courtyard it was easy to imagine monks meditating, learning and teaching here. After admiring the beauty of the monastery which also admittedly kept us out of the glaring 23 degree heat and direct sunlight we began the trek to the Belém train station. We headed to the water for views of the 25 de Abril bridge, a cousin to the one in San Francisco, and we admired the monument for the explorers, Padrão dos Descobrimentos. The natas were calling and we grabbed a final snack before getting on the train- and not just any natas…natas from the place they were invented, Pastéis de Belém. The long line looked daunting but the inside of the restaurant is a well oiled machine and the 30 person line was moved through in about 5 minutes. Custardy goodness in our bellies, we nearly fell asleep on the warm train as we headed back into Lisbon.
We enjoyed the warm air and the night walking through a happening part of Lisbon before settling down to a peri-peri chicken dinner at Bonjardim and some Ginja (portuguese cherry liquer, often served in chocolate shot cups) at the oldest place in town, A Ginjinha. The streets were busy and we enjoyed our walk home in only the lightest jackets we brought.
Day three: Sintra, Cabo de Roca, Cascais
Waking up early has continually demonstrated its benefits. After feeling content with Lisbon and it’s district of Belém we started our day early with the first train to Sintra, a resort town in the mountains. It’s famed for its colorful palaces, big estate homes, and moorish castle – so we decided to check it out! I had been there years before but hardly remembered anything so it was nice to go back.. plus the weather was much better than I remembered! There was a steep hiking path through a beautiful smelling garden and past some rock climbers to get to the top of the mountain where the main palace is located. After sweating our way to gorgeous views with no tourists we arrived at the medieval Moorish Castle, standing since the 8th century. As we walked from the castle to the 19th century, fairytale-like Palace of Pena, the tourism increased like crazy and we were quickly thrown into a throng of about a hundred people. Crowds of people were gathered for their Instagram worthy pictures and after snapping a couple ourselves, we toured the inside of the palace. Although the outside is colorful and the views from the top allow you to see the 25 km to Lisbon, the inside is quite blah. We enjoyed it none the less but the hike to the views was probably the best part.
On the way down the hill we planned to grab a gelato and then try to find a bus to Cascais, a beach town on the Southern coast of the area. We also wanted to go to a place on the western coast called Cabo de Roca but it didn’t seem to be a possibility with what google maps was telling us for bus times. Slightly bummed, the gelato picked our spirits up.
Down at the bus terminal, just as we finished up our treat we noticed a bus heading to Cascais leaving in about 5 minutes. What luck! Only €4.50 per person for a 45 minute journey! Not too bad time wise, plus it would ensure that we were ready for lunch once we arrived at the beach. We bought tickets and boarded with just enough time to spare to notice that the bus had a via point in the location of Cabo de Roca. Woohoo!
It was a winding ride to the westernmost point of continental Europe.. we passed through little towns and street markets before the bus stopped near the edge of the cliffside. The views from the bus didn’t satisfy us so we decided to hike around for about half an hour before the next bus for Cascais arrived. Cabo de Roca did not disappoint and we were so happy we decided to take this little detour – the views were stunning!
The ritzy little beach town of Cascais has everything to offer: beaches, bike paths, a castle, museums, restaurants and shopping. With the rest of the day to spend there, we relaxed (not in the sun of course, I’m a bit too pale for that), dined and walked all over the beautiful town. The beaches were full and as the sun got higher in the sky and the heat was at its worst we went down a main shopping street in search of something good to eat. We were at the seaside, so seafood was on our minds and a small petiscos (the portuguese cousin to tapas) bar called The Tasting Room caught our eye. We befriended some rowdy Brits next to us and as we finished ordering they began to pass portions of their tapas plates our way so we could try even more things. Spencer enjoyed a curated port wine tasting while I tried a refreshing port tonic drink that I had been aiming to taste. The food was delicious and fun to try: Spencer hadn’t tasted octopus before! We had fried octopus, codfish cakes, and squid covered in a delectable tomato basil sauce, while the Brits offered us some vino verde, a spicy pepper sauce and some fire charred sausages. All local products and all absolutely delicious. I thought that first meal we had in Portugal was the best but this was quick to draw a tie.
After lunch it was time for a walk so we headed along the coastline to some rocky outcrops that reminded me somehow of Washington state beaches. We shared the road with other walkers, bikers and roller skaters and it was a beautiful way to spend the last sunlit hours of our Portugal adventure. On our way back toward Cascais and the train that would take us back into Lisbon we grabbed some froyo to split while we sat on a wall overlooking the beach and people watched with the sun on our backs.
The full day of travel and heat of the sun left us worn out and ready for bed once the train reached its Lisbon stop. As the sun set, we hiked up a hill to Landeau, a chocolate establishment known for its famous chocolate cake. We were smart and ordered two slices to go and boy was it the right move – I’m still drooling. That was, hands down, the best chocolate cake I’ve ever eaten. Ever.
We did so much in two days; ate incredible food, saw five amazing places, drank Portuguese specialties and left with goals to come back. A truly amazing weekend.