Gwen and I had been talking about visiting Portugal for some time, and the time finally seemed right, so we booked tickets. We started language lessons in Duolingo, but A. Duolingo only teaches Brazilian Portuguese, and B. we didn’t realize how different the Brazilian dialect is from the European one. We watched some Youtube videos for European Portuguese instruction that were rather rude eye-openers as to how different. Still, the written language isn’t that different—certainly not at the rudimentary level that we’re at—and I do feel that I got some use out of those lessons.
I think that for lots of Americans (certainly lots of people in Texas), there’s a modicum of familiarity with how to sound out Spanish, just from familiarity with place names and Mexican-restaurant menus. In its written form, Portuguese looks a lot like Spanish, but those appearances will deceive you as soon as you speak it. Some things are the same, or near enough. Por favor. Ola. But we were in one neighborhood called Belém—based on a little knowledge of Spanish, you might expect that to be pronounced “bell-EM.” Nope. It sounds exactly like the English word “blame.” In English, we have silent Es at the end of words. In European Portuguese (not Brazilian), it seems any unaccented E is silent. I got self-conscious about using the Brazilian pronunciations that I had been learning. I was told while we were there “it’s OK, everyone will understand it.” The real problem is that I won’t understand the European pronunciations without a lot more practice. Anyhow, enough language talk. On to Portugal.
Landed in Lisboa and took a cab to Estação Oriente. We probably could have walked there faster when accounting for the line to get into a cab—it was quite close. Or we could have taken the subway. But we were tired and not trusting ourselves to navigate on foot or to figure out how to deal with the metro.
Bought our train tickets to Porto, after a French tourist cut in front of us to complain to the ticket agent that he needed to cash out his ticket. The ticket agent rolled his eyes and patiently shooed him to the side while he took care of us.
We had a bit of a wait for our train, so we wandered around the area near the station, eventually winding up on the waterfront and just sitting. All the sidewalks in Lisbon and Porto are cobbled, so dragging a rolly bag is not super-fun.
The train ride was uneventful. Took another cab (our last of the trip) from the Campanha train station to our Airbnb in the Ribeira area. Ribeira is an old part of town, with very narrow streets and buildings overhanging, which impairs GPS performance. Our driver wound up on the wrong street, and couldn’t quite figure out how to get us to where we belonged, but we managed. The driving was very treacherous—neither Gwen nor I could imagine driving in that part of town at all.
The Airbnb was pretty nice. It was in a very old building that seemingly had been completely gutted and rebuilt—new floors and everything. Our unit had a sleek, small system kitchen and fancy fixtures. The original stone walls were exposed, and the windows set deep into them, showing how thick they are—about 18″.
Once we got settled, it was time to think about dinner. We wound up at a place just down the street, Mariage a Trois. This was not really a place to go for a hot meal—it was mostly wine and charcuterie boards. But the owner was interesting, and had interesting wines to offer for €4-5. It wound up being a good time. I’ll tell you what, when you order an adult beverage in Portugal, you do not get a short pour. On a later occasion, we stopped in a place selling shots of ginjinha (cherry liqueur), and the glass was so full it was only surface tension keeping it all in.
Tuesday, 27 Sep 2022: Porto
This was a huge walking day. Too much walking. (Gwen messed up her IT band for the rest of the trip.) It was good to get the lay of the land.
The old part of Porto is extremely hilly and twisty and turny. Especially down by the riverfront, it feels like you could get lost in an area the size of a large vegetable garden. Some of the streets are probably at a 20% grade, and they’re all cobbled. Many of the smaller ones had access limited by motorized bollards that you need a special pass to retract.
The old part of town inevitably has a layer of grime over everything. If Porto collectively powerwashed itself, it would be breathtaking.
Breakfast: Com Cuore. GF bakery. Not bad for GF.
We had been told by friends that you barely need cash in Portugal—that everything is done on plastic. Yes and no. This place only took cash, and there were quite a few like that in Porto (signs often say “No multibanco” or “No ATM”). We had changed a fair amount of currency before the trip, and it was a good thing. In Lisboa, though, we found a lot of places that could not or would not take €50 notes, and we wound up bringing home more cash than was ideal. Almost every place we went had the same little handheld payment terminals, and for the first time on this trip, I embraced the Apple Pay feature on my watch. Super-fast, super-convenient. The only drawback is that I have two cards registered to Apple Pay that are indistinguishable except for the account numbers, and I have not bothered to memorize which is which. I decided to go with whichever card it was defaulting to and fix it after the fact.
Highlights: Livraria Lello. This place bills itself as “the world’s most beautiful bookstore,” and it’s a credible claim. They charge admission (applied toward book purchases) just to get in, and there’s a line. We were lucky to go on a weekday—the line on Saturday was ludicrous. Buy your tickets online before you get there.
We walked to the printing museum—which was a long hike along the waterfront—only to discover that it was closed indefinitely [sad trombone].
Dinner: Adega Mercearia Bebe Se Mal (“bebe se mal” means “drinking is bad,” but we drank anyhow). This was a traditional Portuguese place, meaning fish and potatoes without fancy preparation. The fish is the real deal. They had a whole section of cod dishes. Gwen had salt-crusted grilled sardines and was quite satisfied with the meal.
- Distance walked: 11 miles
- Flights climbed: 76
Wednesday, 28 Sep 2022: Porto
We had breakfast at Floresta Cafe, in the heart of the touristy area. Oh my god, so much food. I had their “Brunch #1” and didn’t eat for the rest of the day. Porto restaurants in general seem to take an idea and run with it beyond all reason—my breakfast was a reasonable approximation of a Full English breakfast, but with a salad added. And yogurt with granola.
Our first stop of the day was Igreja de São Francisco, which Atlas Obscura referred to as a “baroque orgy.” Accurate enough. Your eyes would fall out trying to take in all the detail, most of it covered in gold leaf.
After that, because it was threatening rain, we went next door to the Palácio da Bolsa—the old stock exchange. One could only visit as part of a scheduled tour (it’s still a functioning workplace), but fortunately they had an English-language tour starting a few minutes after we arrived. It was a pretty amazing building and I’m glad we had the excuse to visit—I probably wouldn’t have gone otherwise.
I noticed that Porto has designated mandatory parking spots for rental scooters. I wish that Austin (and every other city) would follow this example. It’s not technologically difficult, and it could be a source of revenue for the city.
The public-transit systems in Porto and Lisboa both are not hard to navigate. You buy a fare card, and can either add a certain monetary value to it or make it a day pass (you can also just put a single ride on it, but that seems inefficient). Once you’ve done that, it’s good for subways, trams, buses, and trains (although a Porto pass will not work in Lisboa or vice-versa). I was a little surprised that, on the Lisboa subway, you need to tap in and tap out. Porto was interesting for being very laissez-faire: on the subway, there are tap-in pillars, but there’s nothing restricting access to the platforms. Perhaps they reason that the barriers cost more money than the additional fare capture would bring in. Although the buses and subways in Porto both have electronic signs showing what stop is next, the trams do not, so you need to watch your progress on your phone or count stops carefully.
Both Google Maps and Apple Maps give public-transit routing for Lisboa, but only Google does for Porto; interestingly, they don’t always agree with each other. For walking directions, I found that I liked Apple Maps better: the map is easier to read on the phone, and seems to show your heading based on the phone’s internal compass, while Google Maps seems to show your heading based on the direction you’ve been walking in, so it can take a few seconds to catch up with changes in direction. On the streets over there, that makes a big difference. Also, if you have an Apple Watch (I do), Apple Maps will tap your wrist to indicate when it’s time to turn left or right, so don’t need to walk with your phone out like a damned tourist. I’m surprised the Google Maps watch app doesn’t do anything like that—it is useless.
One thing neither one did well is guide you on foot to your public-transit stop, or from a stop to your destination. They assume that you’ll know the area well enough, which is not a safe assumption.
- Distance walked: 8 miles
- Flights climbed: 35
Thursday, 29 Sep 2002: Porto
Our first stop of the day was in Gaia on the other side of the Douro river, so we crossed over there and found a breakfast place, 7G Roaster. This place incidentally also has short-term rentals for €83/day, which is not bad. The breakfast kept with the “massive overkill” theme of Porto restaurants: I had a bagel with lox, to which they had added a poached egg and a big scoop of guacamole. It wasn’t an authentic bagel—more like a ring-shaped bun. But it was pretty good! Gwen had eggs florentine on a hashbrown patty, again not authentic but tasty.
That first stop was a tour of a small port vintner, Quinta dos Corvus. Small enough that they don’t export. All the port vintners run these tours, and of course, the best part is the tasting room at the end. They served us a white port and a tawny for the price of our ticket, and we bought a glass of vintage ’96. I like port.
We made our way back to the Porto side and visited a couple of graveyards: Lapa cemetery and Cemitério do Prado do Repouso. We didn’t have enough time to really take in the second one (which is huge). We noticed that the cemeteries had signs indicating that there were feral cat colonies living in them, and that the cats had all been fixed and an ear clipped to indicate that.
We had dinner with our ex-Austin friend Echo and her husband João. João took us to Taberna do São Pedro, an old-school fish restaurant in Gaia, and after that we walked along the waterfront for a while. It was great to see Echo again, and to meet João. Initially they tried to take us to a place that Echo just referred to as “the meat place,” but they were booked solid with reservations. Gwen and I made a note of its name and location and resolved to try again—it smelled amazing.
- Distance walked: 8 miles
- Flights climbed: 18
Friday, 30 Sep 2022: Matosinhos
For breakfast, we went to Swallow Decadent Brunch. Who could pass up a place with a name like that? Gwen said it was overpriced, but I thought it was a decent value. Good food, and another overkill breakfast. Pancakes, eggs, bacon, potatoes, fruit.
We took a streetcar to the nearby beach town of Matosinhos to spend the day. Walked along the beach for a while. I know that Portugal is supposed to have good surfing, and indeed, we did see some guys taking a surfing lesson there. We stopped in a market and made the rounds, picking up a croissant and a loaf of bread, and a few pieces of fruit. The greengrocer had huge, red persimmons. We bought one and ate it just outside, and then had to go back in to clean ourselves up because it was so messy. But good. After a lot of reading about people with gluten intolerance Gwen decided it was time to experiment and enjoyed her first bit of croissant in 11+ years. Then we walked down the main drag, which felt a bit old and frumpy, before returning to Porto.
For dinner, we had reservations at A Despensa. This was a bit of a splurge, but it was worth it. Excellent food.
It was Friday night, and for the first time we saw that Porto does seem to have some nightlife (not that Gwen and I are party-all-night clubgoers). I also noted with interest that even young women dressed for a night on the town mostly wear very practical shoes—Chuck Taylors seem to be a favorite. I wonder if the rubber compound on the sole grips cobbles especially well. Considering how treacherous the streets are, this is probably just a basic survival adaptation, but practicality doesn’t always get in the way of fashion. I kept half an eye out after this and saw very few women in heels, and not preposterous ones at that.
- Distance walked: 8.5 miles
- Flights climbed: 32
Saturday, 1 Oct 2022: Porto
For lunch, we made our way back to the “meat place”, Stramuntana, and discovered that they were fully booked with reservations even just for lunch. But upon learning that we were from the U.S., the maitre-d moved some things around and seated us. The place seems like it’s mostly popular with locals—only one English-speaking waiter—and it’s one of the few places we went that had the kind of service we’d read is typical in Portugal, where they just start bringing food and you send back what you don’t want. The place had a single menu, written on a small chalkboard, that the waiter brought around. We had entrecôte of beef for two, served with soupy rice and homemade potato chips. Appetizers were olives, cheese, bread, a simmered pork dish called rojões that was amazing (we looked up recipes, and we don’t think this was a typical preparation), and some kind of codfish fritter. A memorable meal. We were seated on the balcony and a little tortoiseshell cat came around—the only friendly cat we encountered in Portugal—begging for table scraps. There was also a small animal pen just over the balcony wall with a tiny goat, a muscovy duck, and possibly other livestock.
We also visited the Cemitério de Agramonte. And took in “the world’s most beautiful McDonalds.”
- Distance walked: 8 miles
- Flights climbed: 22
Sunday, 2 Oct 2022: Transit
We took the train back from Porto to Lisboa. When we arrived at the train station in Porto, there was a get-together for the local air-cooled VW enthusiasts, and we had a few spare minutes to ogle their cars. Two or three were old enough that they used semaphore turning signals, and they all seemed to be in great shape—not garage queens, but regularly used and carefully maintained.
Our train wound up being delayed en route by a jumper on the line. Our Airbnb host in Lisboa had to hand off the keys in person, and I suspect this threw a wrench in his own plans, but he was nothing but gracious and friendly when we arrived.
The place we were staying was…kind of weird. Very small, very low ceilings, weirdly chopped-up spaces. I halfway suspect that it had been an outdoor area that was recently enclosed. The neighborhood was rough and did not show Lisboa in its best light. A lot of trash. The most direct route to the apartment took us up a staircase, which would obviously be a hard place to collect trash, and indeed, there was a lot of trash on it. Even at designated collection points, there was a lot of trash not getting picked up. Cigarette butts and dogshit everywhere.
But there was also a public square nearby with a few restaurants, and we wound up eating at three of them and enjoying all of them. On this day, we went to a place that seemingly had only outdoor seating called Joana’s. Nothing special.
We went to the neighborhood grocery store and picked up a few things to have in the apartment. Going to grocery stores in foreign countries is always interesting, and this was no exception. It was a small store—maybe 2000 sqft. One of the things we found (and that Gwen bought) was tiny tins of sardine paste.
- Distance walked: 4 miles
- Flights climbed: 16
Monday, 3 Oct 2022: Lisboa
We hit the Castelo São Jorge, a massive, ancient complex looking out over the city. In its vicinity, we also stopped in an antique store that had a lot of old Catholic kitsch, but Gwen was especially taken with tiny clay figures that resemble some netsuke I’ve inherited. We made a note of the place’s location.
For dinner, Gwen wanted pizza. She’s been gluten-free for about 11 years, but there’s anecdotal evidence that a lot of Americans with non-celiac gluten sensitivity are not reacting to gluten per se, but to something else, and whatever that something else is, it isn’t present in European wheat. So these people can consume gluten in Europe. With that in mind, Gwen experimented with eating wheat on this trip, and when that worked out ok, she dove in.
Unfortunately, we were thwarted our attempts at finding pizza. One place we tried was no longer a pizzaria. Another was just a take-out place. And so on. Eventually we wound up at a neighborhood place, Maria Food Hub, that was pretty good but nothing special. No pizza.
- Distance walked: 8.5 miles
- Flights climbed: 19
Tuesday, 4 Oct 2022: Lisboa
We started with the flea market, which is held Tuesdays and Saturdays. It’s huge. It just…keeps…going. There’s a lot of crap, as one might expect. Probably six vendors all selling the same hippie wear made in Guatemala and India. But there were a few interesting vendors. I got a kick out of one guy selling lobby cards for 70s-era porno films. Gwen found a pair of square hoop earrings, something she’s been seeking for about twenty years in case she loses the pair she’s been wearing…for twenty years.
We went out to LX Factory, a funky commercial development in a disused industrial sector, where we found a record store called Jazz Messengers in what had been a printing press (the press equipment was still present, clearly more expensive to move than it was worth). It happened to be the 40th anniversary of the sale of the first compact disc, so to commemorate, I bought a few.
Our next stop was the National Coach Museum. This is a museum of horse-drawn carriages. Fancy ones used by royalty in particular. I’ve decided these were the original art cars. They were pretty amazing: as nerdy as this sounds, it was a lot to take in.
For a late lunch, we stopped at Time Out Market, a giant food court, where we finally got that pizza, as well as some pastries. For dinner, we went to a place on the neighborhood square, Josephine’s, where I had a ridiculous cheeseburger with a fried egg on it.
- Distance walked: 8 miles
- Flights climbed: 34
Wednesday, 5 Oct 2022: Lisboa
We started with the Decorative Arts Museum today. This was another museum you can only see by guided tour, which was a little odd, because it was clearly set up for free-range visitors. When we got there, we were informed that a tour had started six minutes before, but we could join it. But there were no other visitors in the museum at all, so we hadn’t missed anything. We kind of felt hustled through this place—we could have easily spent more time there.
Everyone said we should check out the Santa Justa lift for its incredible neo-Gothic architecture. It was a really gorgeous structure, though the line to go up was ridiculously long. We walked up the hill to the top, great view of the city. Cafe Brasilero was in the neighborhood so we peeked in but didn’t feel like joining the throngs there.
At some point we found ourselves back at that antique place, so we stopped in and Gwen bought those clay figures.
Next, to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. This is situated in an extensive park with a meandering path through it—we actually had a hard time finding the entrance because we were approaching from the wrong direction. But there’s so little greenery in the cores of either Porto or Lisboa that without realizing it, I was really missing it, and spending just a little time in that environment recharged my batteries. The way that park is laid out, there are numerous little semi-private diverticulations with benches along the path, so numerous people could have small get-togethers and feel like they’ve got a bit of park to themselves. There are also broad open areas that were getting a lot of use. The whole place seems like an important asset for city-dwellers.
There are two exhibition spaces on the grounds (and it looks like they’re building a third), one for modern art and one for not; we went to see the not modern art. It was an idiosyncratic collection of ancient devotional Christian and Islamic art, Chinese porcelain, Japanese inro, Baroque-era paintings and sculpture, a large decorative-arts section, and a really stunning Lalique exhibition.
Both of these museums started out as a rich guy’s art collection, sort of like the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia.
The train stop for the Gulbenkian was right across from a place Gwen had wanted to try called Rice Me Deli, as well as an El Corte Ingles department store, so we after the Gulbenkian, we stopped for a snack at Rice Me, and then to Corte Ingles to explore a bit. Gwen tried on some shoes, and we went to the basement grocery store which was big and full of stuff. Picked up a few things to bring home.
For dinner, we went to a semi-fancy place on the neighborhood square called Infame. It was really good. We had a duck and rice dish and felt like the Portugese while known for their fish most definitely know how to cook meat!
- Distance walked: 7.5 miles
- Flights climbed: 25
Thursday, 6 Oct 2022: Sintra
Sintra is about half an hour outside Lisboa, and has the feeling of a mountain town originally developed as a playground for the rich. That said, it has been inhabited since your ancestors’ knuckles were dragging, and was recognized by Caesar around 49 B.C., so there’s some history there. It’s difficult to visit except as part of an organized tour, so that’s what we did, despite our general suspicion of such things. The town is now very tourism-oriented and very full of tourists, even during the off-season.
The tour we went on took us to two locations: Palácio Nacional de Pena and Quinta da Regaleira. Pena Palace was a retreat for the monarch, and Quinta da Regaleira was built at the beginning of the 20th century by a rich guy. In both cases, the builders didn’t miss any opportunity for ornament. Both places were kind of whimsical and weird, and although we didn’t get a chance to visit any other places in Sintra, from what we saw in passing, there were more examples of the same. I had not been especially interested in going to Sintra beforehand, but was really glad we did.
For our last night in Lisbon, we found a random typical Portuguese place. Gwen had grilled sardines again (these are much bigger than the sardines you’re imagining), I had some kind of pork dish. This was one of the few places we had to interact using only our limited Portuguese.
- Distance walked: 9 miles
- Flights climbed: 20
Friday, 7 Oct 2022: Transit
The advice to travellers that we found told us we should get to Lisboa’s airport four hours before our flight, which sounds crazy, but we didn’t want to risk anything, so we did. Once we got there, we found that it was noisy and hectic but pretty efficient, and in fact four hours was way more time than we needed. International travel is all about herding passengers through a series of controls, and those controls are different in different countries. This being our first time departing Portugal, we didn’t really know what to expect. In this case, we went through a ticket check fairly early, and then were perplexed when it wasn’t obvious where we should go next—the next thing in our path was a huge duty-free shop. Eventually we realized we had to run the DFS gauntlet to continue. I’ve never seen retailing quite so aggressive as that.
We made it to passport control, and there were separate lines for passports with embedded RFID chips (basically any new-ish passport), which are much shorter.
Once we located our gate, we worked our way back to a restaurant and had coffee. We found ourselves seated next to a couple of Spanish guys who were totally fucking plowed and having a great time. This was at about 10 AM, mind you. On our way back to the gate, we walked by the airport outlet of O Mundo Fantástico das Conservas Portugesa. This is a chain of tinned-sardine shops that have a carnival theme—you’d expect them to be selling candy based on appearances. They had an instagram-bait throne, so of course I took Gwen’s picture on it.
After we got seated near the gate, they shooed us all out of the gate area, put up a cordon, and had us go through another passport check in order to get back into the gate area. I’m guessing this was a US government requirement.