Portugal postcard #1

I about had a stroke scaling the steep medieval alleyways of my ‘hood in Porto, Portugal, last week, fuming at yet another of life’s inconveniences — precipitous hills! The humanity! — while clutching my chest and wiping my brow.

It was the same in Lisbon’s Alfama area, the capital city’s coolest, oldest, most mazy residential neighborhood, cut through with endless perpendicular hills and narrow passages. I am either desperately out of shape or the Portuguese are sadomasochists. (The former, decidedly.) 

These are not complaints. These — crippling strokes, premature heart attacks — are symptoms of the kind of euphoria travel so uniquely delivers, and what I experienced during a week split between Portugal’s two largest cities, Porto and Lisbon. Considering strokes and such, you could say the trip was to die for. I was smitten the entire time. 

I’ve been to much of the continent and Portugal reverberates with a different European tang that’s refreshingly, truly Old World. The people are amazing. And, except among many hacking, shriveled taxi drivers, English magically appears whenever you need it. It’s a country of nuance and contrast, urbanity and tradition. And with crazy luck, gorgeous January weather of cobalt skies and 60-degree days, everyday.

Both cities exude singular flavors. Sight-wise, there’s much to see but not an excess. That’s why walking tours are outstanding, taking you deep to reveal the nooks, the crannies, the crooks, the grannies (seriously: old women pop their heads out of two-story windows and chirp, “Bon dia!”). These are pleasant places, vibrant and laidback, and, with their fabled trams/trolleys, rolling hills and postcard waterfronts, redolent of classic San Francisco, my old stomping ground.

My brother asked if I missed a museum-centric city, à la Paris, but I did not. I do weary of so many museums in other cities that can, occasionally, feel like obligations. These cities are all street, with street art, graffiti, cathedrals, tavern after tavern (wifi — what’s that?), earthy food, multitudinous alcohol (Port, wine, Ginjinha!), ankle-twisting cobblestone, claustrophobic side streets, vertiginous hills and slopes, all of it intoxicating.

The streets are brilliantly bad for driving — lots of cobblestone in rattletrap cars with Model T shock absorbers. Sometimes I thought we’d been in an accident, but it was just a thump in the road. Rides are a steal: Uber lifts ran me $3 on average, with taxis still a bargain at twice the price.

Four days in Lisbon, then a three-hour train north to Porto, which resides languidly in pastel colors on the picturesque Douro River. My boutique hotel, a little alleyway charmer, was smack near the water, where it’s clotted with touristy action, even in January, but not too much. Like the guy with the explosive man bun juggling for tips. I got, but did not finish, a fish bowl of sangria, on the water, in the sun and breeze, while a hippie juggled in the distance.

In both cities the women are dark and lovely and the old men are raisin-faced, unshaven, bent over, sweater-clad, with baggy pants and newsboy caps — exactly how I hope to turn out. One day I had two female servers who possessed hairier arms than mine. As a man of Portuguese heritage, I almost cried with respect and admiration. They put my Aunt Silvia to shame, never mind my Uncle Johnny.

The Portuguese language is enchanting, musical, soft around the edges, like cookie dough. It has notes of Spanish, Italian and Russian, dappled with flower petals. It’s fragrant, easy on the ears and I know all of four words of it.

I found these twin cities fresh, novel, relaxed, uncrowded, winsome. Really, from the fine hotels to the affable people, authentic atmosphere to gushing hospitality, legendary history to rapturous food, Portugal is in my travel pantheon. It’s real Old World material. Humble but proud, and never pushy or arrogant. And always something beautiful.

Onto the slideshow, continued in the next blog post … 

Lisbon
The riverfront plaza three steps from my Porto hotel (try and spot the moon)
Alfama neighborhood in Lisbon, modern graffiti clashing with ancient tiles
Alfama
The infamous must-have Porto meal, the Francesinha, a heart-arresting cholesterol orgy of steak, ham, sausage, cheese and bread stacked and drowned in beer and spiced tomato sauce. Staggering decadence that could fell a mastodon. 
At Povo in Lisbon, where you eat and drink while witnessing fetching fado by up-and-comers in the Portuguese musical form, which is founded on soaring sentimental vocals. This singer cracked a roomful of hearts and we didn’t even know what she was saying. 
The Douro River in Porto
Street art is rampant, and almost always striking

 

Pleasures of Portugal, rediscovered

For all my previously stated apprehensions about the upcoming trip to Portugal — I leave in four days, with unease about how wonderful it will be — I’ve found some solace reading journals from my last Portugal journey, more than 15 years ago. Poring over the pages, it comes back to me: the rolling, vibrant cityscapes, the bonhomous people, the embracing Old World charm, the generously poured Port. What am I worrying about?

Here I am on my arrival in Lisbon those many years ago:

“Beautiful, entrancing, even at night. Quickly lost in the dense street maze searching for food. I’m in the Bairro Alto warren of eats and bars — bony alleyways, pastel walls, quintessential old country. Chanced upon a small, dark, red-lit Parisian-style bar filled with young, mellow boho types. Incense burning, jazz playing, modern art, movie lobby cards. Very hip but stripped of pretense. The basso hum of lively conversation. I am jet-lagged, spaced, zonked, enraptured. I am deranged with travel. It is sublime.”

Fueled by jogged memories — just in time — my enthusiasm for this trip gladly spirals. The journal, scribbled in blue ink and dappled with doodles, proves an encouraging record of a good trip, leavening heavy thoughts of the future voyage with hope and anticipation.

The Portugal journal, discreetly blurred to conceal my innermost thoughts.

I adored Portugal, though I must admit I wasn’t totally taken with its high-altitude fairy-tale town Sintra, with its cupcake castles and princely palaces and perilously steep hills that about sent me into cardiac arrest. My visit, I wrote, felt “mechanical,” the buildings “precious,” the whole joint a tourist trap of ersatz charms. The sylvan setting was nice, however, so green and lush and tall.

We must be reasonable. Travel inevitably presents the occasional hiccup, and you can do far worse than pretty Sintra. It’s all part of the adventure. Like this meal in Lisbon I noted:

“Dinner was ‘Typical Portuguese Sausage.’ But only a third of it was the kind I know and love; the rest was wretched: red, and mushy like squash, and black with bubbles of tough fat. Didn’t eat the pasty ones and tucked the others in a paper napkin so the lovely owner lady — ‘Is it good?’ she asks; ‘Delicious,’ I lie — wouldn’t know. I threw them outside. I hope a dog found them.”

Note to self: try the blood sausage again. You might like it. Older, wiser, and all. 

And that’s how I’m taking this whole trip, equipped with wider eyes and hard-earned wisdom. The last Portugal visit also included a few cities in Spain and Morocco. This time it’s two places in Portugal — Lisbon and Porto — and that’s it. Seven days of focused voyaging, all of it, I think, I hope, divine.  

In the byzantine backstreets of Lisbon