In the week leading up to my second departure to Europe I bounced around between BC and Alberta several times tying up loose ends and saying goodbye to friends before leaving again. I logged nearly 3000 kilometres in my truck, and arrived in Calgary with only an hour to spare before needing to board my flight. A stress filled whirlwind trip through Calgary traffic during the first snowstorm of the year, and before I knew it I was two glasses of red wine deep at 40,000 ft.
I arrived in Lisbon mid afternoon, grabbed an Uber to my Airbnb and checked in while waiting for my friends to arrive on their later flight. Services like Uber, Airbnb, Google Offline Maps and Translate have completely changed the way we travel now. It cost 3 Euros to ride from the airport to the old Alfama, and our Airbnb was located in the heart of Lisbon’s cultural centre for a fraction of the price of a hotel. Technology has opened up doors to opportunities that were extremely difficult to find in the past.
Our groups intent was to travel Spain, but a cheap flight from Calgary to Lisbon came available and once you arrive in Europe internal flights are cheap so we decided to spend a couple of days in Lisbon before heading to Madrid; I’m so glad we decided to. My knowledge of Portugal was slim, and I was not sure what to expect. 48 hours was no where near enough, and now as I sit here in the Barcelona airport writing this blog I am about to board a flight back to Portugal for more.
My first evening was spent alone, and I walked around the Alfama carefully watching my back after my last colourful experience in a new city in Europe. I stopped at a bar overlooking the barrio and city below where I ordered some Sangria and sat people watching. I watched groups of young English and Australian kids pour out of their hostels and into the street carrying open beers, toasting and laughing and it briefly made me think about how much I wish I’d have done this sooner. I bought a beer after realising it was alright to drink in the street, and sat on a park bench while contemplating this and listening to a young man playing his guitar at a nearby table. A moment of pause to appreciate yet another subtle moment of joy brought to you by world travel. My first night in Portugal was, in my eyes, a great success. My expectation of hoards of down trodden junkies hiding in dark alleys, higher than a giraffe’s genitals on decriminalized meth did not materialize.
We had two full days to explore the city, our first stop was the Castelo De Sao Jorge, a hill top construction dating back as far as the 12th century, with human evidence as early as 48BC! This location, clearly chosen for it’s strategic position, provides wonderful 360 degree views of the city and surrounding area. We walked the castle walls enjoying the view with 9 million other iPad toting tourists, taking photos and being careful not to fall off the side. With the castle off our bucket list, we wandered streets visiting cathedrals, the national Pantheon, and the Praca do Comercio where we stopped for a drink – and paid tourist prices for it.
I recommend getting away from these tourist areas for your drinking and dining pleasure. You’ll pay half the price and receive much better food. We headed out later that evening in search of dinner, and ended up at a small hole in the wall restaurant where meat was being grilled in the window and the tables were full of locals. We dined on Portuguese style grilled meat, fried potatoes and heaps of red wine. As it turns out, a “large carafe” of wine is equivalent to two bottles, and with only two of us wanting to share a bottle this night ended up being a bit of a run away.
After a slow start nursing some headaches, we headed for the central train station and travelled several stops to the town of Sintra. Sintra is known for it’s early 19th century Romanticist castles, it’s also a UNESCO world heritage site. I’ve never been disappointed when visiting a UNESCO site and this was no exception. On arrival at the train station we found the appropriate bus to take us up to the castle, though you could certainly hike up on a less hot and hung over day!
During our journey up we met a new friend as you often do when travelling, a solo traveller from Tahiti by way of Montreal. Together with our new friend we toured the Castelo dos Mouros and the Pena National Palace. Towering high above Sintra and Lisbon these two sites provide stellar views of the valley below – all the way back to Lisbon on a clear day, and all the way to the ocean on the other side. The romantic architecture style is something to behold, with bright colours, detailed tile work and incredible archways throughout. You could easily spend two or three days exploring the surrounding area, something I hope to do in a future blog post when I get back to Portugal – this time with a car. The hiking in the area is meant to be fantastic, and if the views from Pena are any indication I can imagine that’s quite true. If you come to Lisbon, do set aside at least a half day to visit Sintra – you will not regret it.
Part way through our visit to Sintra one of us realized that it was actually Canadian Thanksgiving, so in typical Canadian spirit we invited our new friend to join us for a not so conventional Thanksgiving dinner. She suggested, and we were so glad she did, a visit to the “Time Out Market” in Lisbon. This huge market is full of food stalls with everything you can imagine surrounding a huge dining room with communal tables. You select a booth and order your food and wine, they give you your bottle (opened) and however many glasses you’d like along with a pager to return when your food is ready.
Think fast food but replace the burger with Michelin Star quality food. My risotto with pan seared swordfish was easily one of the best meals I’ve had travelling, and this with an appetizer, dessert, and a bottle of wine to share was 24 Euros. This meal was a wonderful way to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving with some of my favourite people in the world and to cap off our all too short time in Lisbon – a city that’s left a lasting impression on me, and a place I will likely return again and again throughout my life. I can’t wait to see what it has in store for me next time.
From yet another airport cafe – Bon Voyage,