The popularity of the Iberian peninsula has increased dramatically as a leisure travel destination for europeans with time and/or money to spare. Deciding to explore urban and rural life in and around Lisbon and Porto, me and Aline set out for Portela airport during easter 2004.
The outward journey
For once I had quite a bit of time on my hands when entering Oslo Airport. As a compensation for this the airport company offered me a nearly endless check in line. I conclude that being late has its advantages, although it isn’t necessarily recommended from leading heart specialists and other people concerned with public health.
The seating in aircrafts is always a matter of gambling. Either it is too small or it is even smaller. And when traveling alone you don’t get to choose your company. They could of course be somebody nice, but then again they could be anybody – the latter was the case with the people I sat next to, and this didn’t found the necessary basis for further conversation. We therefore remained “friends who haven’t yet met” as some of the friendlier peoples of the world say.
From a Scandinavian perspective I would suggest a small adjustment of the expression “A stranger is just a friend you haven’t yet met”. I believe the proper term applied to Norwegian social intercourse would be “A stranger you haven’t met is a friend you can do without”. Norwegians in general are a little reluctant to embark in conversation with strangers, as we always consider the consequences of a new acquaintance or – God forbid – even friend.
There is always the chance that you unlock something that should have remained locked or reveal something which should have remained concealed, hence increasing the risk of having to listen to a semi successful life story, poor on content but rich in self pity and adjectives, for the remainder of the trip.
As always I prefer to put money into anything but travel and accommodation; I want to spend the money at the destination. More specifically – I want to eat up my money rather than fly or sleep them away. This some times leads to awkward itineraries as there doesn’t seem to be any apparent link between the air mileage and the cost of the fight. My scheduled flights were therefore from Oslo to Frankfurt and from Frankfurt to Lisbon.
In Frankfurt I was squeezed into on of the lower class seats of an aircraft belonging to Lufthansa. Even though many airlines have removed the concept of class on their flights, they have maintained a division between the different “flyers programs” by actively and intentionally providing BAD service for the peasants and the proletariat who are sittig behind the infamous curtain. However, to my pleasant surprise – this time my seat neighbor was a less generously sized man than myself – which suited me perfect – and with a keen intellect and good conversation in store.
Lisbon has an interesting concept of taxi pricing from the airport. In order for people not to get screwed by taxi drivers they have made a fixed fares program. This program however makes all taxi trips 3-4 times more expensive than if you were going by the meter.
The hotel I had booked, I found on the Internet and had bought “unseen”. My expectations were really at their lowest – though I had read somewhere that they had large, suite like rooms. The hotel turned out to look as expected – or rather feared – from the outside, but the rooms delivered what they promised. It was large quarters, with two rooms, ok bathroom, a sofa, a television, a slightly dysfunctional air conditioning and all the regular facilities.
The coming of Ms Andrade
Aline was supposed to join me in Lisbon with a flight coming in from Natal at an ungodly time of the day – around 6 o’clock in the morning. It is required of gentlemen of all varieties and dispositions to be present at airports when girlfriends arrive – regardless of the time of day, weather conditions or any conceivable or inconceivable obstacle that might come in the way!
In order to try and buy myself some more sleeping time I called the airport and asked when the flight was scheduled to land. This bought me 45 valuable minutes of sleep – or so it seemed to me at the time. But you see: the Portuguese immigration authorities are keen fellows who are ready to make a bust once a bust is required; and the earlier on their shift you meet them – the keener they are.
Aline lucky enough to bump into one of these over achievers. He was an ambitious fellow who saw the chance to improve his job record by revealing the serious conspiracy in front of him. This girl – as far as he could tell – could be a threat to the very western democracy.
He didn’t take kindly to explanations about boyfriends from Norway and or visits to France the previous year – this was what he heard from people trying to sneak into the country all the time – he thought. All in all a very un-agreeable fellow, he was determined to put Aline on the first plane back home to Natal. No doubt anticipating some reward for his efficiency in dealing with these dangerous, illegal aliens who try to worm their way into Portugal under false pretence – on chartered flights from Natal.
It was therefore not without some considerable amount of reluctance that he agreed to call this imaginary boyfriend – or rather fellow-conspirator of hers.
It was with no little disappointment that he said – “Right – I will call you later if I need you”, and hung up on me. In the mean while I had enlightened him about all the details of our stay, the nature of our relationship, which hotel we were staying at and how long etc.
A person, who is determined to make a career move, is reluctant to admit that the subject at hand, he envisage as a vile offender against the law, is nothing but Aline C�mara de Andrade, a tough cookie – for sure – but hardly a criminal.
Exploring places that are really new to you but that you have in theory visited before, blinded by one of the many popular intoxicating drinks of the city, can be a distressing experience. Especially if you want to show off to your girlfriend and show her all the highlights of the city without support from guides, maps or other written material.
However – Lisbon holds so many pleasant sights that it was difficult not to make the first day a success! It did however involve walking, walking, walking and – walking, which can be a similarly distressful experience if your shoes are suited for a dashing appearance rather than a pleasant, long – even longer – walk.
Downtown Lisboa may be worth a chapter in itself and many have been devoted to it in guide books and tourist brochures; for this reason I am not going to write another in this travel journal. There are plenty of good descriptions of this elsewhere – and presumably these descriptions are far better than mine would be.
One or two observations though: Lisboa is packed with traffic – this is not without its consequence, sound pollution wise. Even the most tranquil places in Lisbon are consumed by the big city noise; cars hurrying along on their hopeless quest to beat the rush hour. The other observation is that roads, sidewalks and almost any walking surfaces are rather uneven. Also the city seems to be built between, on and around a vast amount of hills of varying size. For the fashion conscious contemporary lady with high heels and a desire to appear a pleasant view for the world this might cause some unwanted side effects.
If you have planned only one escape from Lisbon go to…
Apparently this little place has won the hearts of most guide book authors and tourist publications. And even though the place is very, very nice in its natural beauty and architectural extravaganza it fails to excel in one specific way; the cuisine is nothing to write home about.
Castello de Pena is a 19th century building where it is very difficult to see that the architect could have felt any constraints whatsoever during neither the drawing nor the construction phase. A similar neglect of convention was displayed by the kamikaze bus driver on the bus no 434 from the Turismo in Sintra Ville to the gates of the Parque de Pena.
After a rather strenuous climb to the castle, me and Aline were ready for a sturdy meal in one of the local restaurants – most of which for some reason seemed to be closed. Finally we ended up in something passing itself off as Tirol de Sintra. This specific joint pushed a nasty little bagel called “Queijadas de Sintra” which we initially mistook for a meal in it self. Accompanied by a cup of coffee it was exactly enough to irritate half of the taste buds, but sufficient to get us through the 45 minute train ride back to Lisboa, Rossio.
Towards the mouth of Rio Tejo
Another place that is recommended in guide books is Cascais on the Costa do Estoril, some 30 km west of Lisbon. Trusting too much in guide books is not a good thing; it did among other things bring Aline to Tati’s in Paris, “Rough Guide Paris” claiming that this was THE destination for those after fashion at discount prices. Cascais however, as it appeared to us 25 minutes or so after our departure from Cais Sodr�, was a most agreeable place. Not remarkable, but agreeable.
The centre consisted of a small number of pedestrian streets with small, cosy shops, laid back – English Riviera style – atmosphere and no shortage of pubs and restaurants.
Being, by reputation, a beach resort, one could argue that the beaches weren’t too impressive. What I have decided must have been the beaches, were primarily small patches of sand, unevenly distributed among rough coastal cliffs. For the sun hungry, European audience however, anxious to get acquainted with a new summer season, the beaches seemed to be more than sufficient. Many, nasty things that had been tucked away in heavy clothing throughout the winter, and that possibly should have remained so for some months more, were revealed to the public by diverse German, British and God forbid, Scandinavian tourists.
Careful not to wear out too much of the soles of our shoes in Cascais, we set sail for Lisbon again – aiming to stop by Belem on the way.
Belem, famous for being the location where Vasco da Gama found the other other sea way to India, is host to the Monesteiro de Jeronimos, built in the honor of the afore mentioned Vasco, upon his successful return from the Indians (curry and rice – not feathers, as was the sad case with Columbus).
After a brief visit to the monastery there was only one mandatory item left on the agenda; popping by Pasteis de Belem. This coffee shop cum bakery was famous for its feature dish; a small sweetish bagel carrying the same name as the place itself “Pasteis de Belem”.
A night in Lisbon is easily spent in one of the many, many bars, restaurants or clubs. We landed on the Hot Clube de Portugal, which despite its dodgy name was a dedicated Jazz club with all that you expect from such an establishment. Small stage, lots of smoke and crowded with people.
Leaving Lisbon behind for a few days Porto is a good destination, although arriving during Pascoa (easter) could easily make you believe that everybody abruptly and suddenly died of some unknown cause and just disappeared. That is how silent the place was when we arrived.
Speaking of unknown causes, it could be interesting to know why it is that we, or mainly I, always manage to end up in the completely abandoned streets whenever exploring a new place. Still we are rarely more than 3-4 blocks away from the real places. Eventually it was possible to get a feel of the layout of Porto and start enjoying whatever was on offer.
Porto is remarkably enough best known for a sight that is not technically in Porto – the port wine houses across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia. It is however best seen from Porto, the views from the world heritage listed Cais de Riberira are truly magnificent and gives the impression of a city that hasn’t changed much over the past 100 years regarding its well preserved architecture.
Porto has a reputation as a working city; from the house facades it seems that most people are busy doing their laundry. Also there is a remarkable amount of pharmacies and places for people to have their hair treated (or cut).
A lot of nice things being said it is also of importance to mention that the city seems to be in a state of chaos due to the many, many building and construction sites. Nowhere is it possible to avoid the incredible noise from ongoing construction projects. Traffic also seems to have caught Porto unaware, no successful measures have been taken in order to limit the problems caused by sound and air pollution in the narrow streets of the city centre.
Shopping is always a big issue when you travel with a woman. In Portugal, as in many other countries, it seems that the current trend is to copy the American style big, big shopping centers or malls. Whether or not this is a good development is not for my rural self to say. The shopping malls however are complete entertainment palaces for boys (FNAC, car exhibitions, restaurants and cinemas) and girls (clothes, sunglasses, clothes, hair and beauty saloons, clothes, etc.). They are also located outside the main city center, basically because they simply wouldn’t fit in there.
The river front is where we inevitably ended up during our numerous walks in Porto. Strolling along the banks of Rio Douro, looking at its many elegantly designed bridges, is a nice activity. Interrupted only by the odd espresso at the numerous outdoor restaurants or a small river cruise, this is the way to spend days in Porto.
Preparing the retreat
When you wake up and find yourself in Porto when you know for a fact that your return flight is from Lisbon it can be a most distressing experience – unless you have anticipated that this is not the ideal logistics solution. I had.
So one fine morning we found ourselves on the train back to Lisbon with our incredibly heavy luggage. Blame us of many things – but not traveling light!
Having overcome the initial despair to experience “new” things, Lisbon now laid open for us to enjoy. A stroll in the park, a visit to yet another Indian restaurant, drinking in clubs way into the small hours and enjoying cultural experiences such as concerts and performances.
And in short, that was that!!!