For First-timers: Six Eventful Days in Portugal
We embark on our exploring six-day trip as soon as we land in Lisbon — like all my visits to foreign countries. No time for resting and all that nonsense. Time is running out and we better use it to the fullest.
We arrive at the hotel four hours before check-in time. No room available yet to accommodate us, but the slim female receptionist kindly offers to keep our luggage in the back room, gives us a map of the city and a few tips on how to spend the next four hours.
Raveen, my partner, thinks it’s crazy to even think about going out for sightseeing after the long flight from America. “Have you heard of something called jetlag?” she frowned. On such trips, I tell her, there’s no room for arguments. We leave our stuff behind and head to the nearby metro station.
It’s Saturday morning and the city is barely awake. The metro station is almost empty. We quickly figure out the metro map and off we go.
Our first stop is at the Praça do Comércio, or what’s commonly known as Terreiro do Paço. This open site rests on the bank of the Tagus River — the longest river on the Iberian Peninsula. It was initially built in the 16th century when King Manuel I chose the location to construct his residence.
Thereafter, the entire vicinity developed into a commercial port from which Lisbon traders conducted their business with other European countries as well as Portuguese colonies in other continents.
The port was entirely remodeled to its current structure after the notorious 1755 earthquake that demolished downtown Lisbon.
Nowadays, Terreiro do Paço is one of the must-see historic landmarks of Lisbon. It is populated with restaurants and wine-tasting venues that entertain their curious costumers with a unique vibe that Lisbon excels at preserving.
After an obligatory photo-taking session, posing by the Tagus with the mighty statue of King Jose sitting astride his horse, and the beautiful arch in the background, we decide to have breakfast — our first meal in Portugal. Since it was still early morning, only a couple of restaurants have their doors open. Our choices are limited, which is good because we are starving.
We pick the restaurant that has its tables more exposed to sunshine. We get seated at the edge of the sidewalk. A handful of city workers are repairing a sewage pipe in the middle of the rocky paved street. They work quietly.
The waiter hands us a simple, one-page menu that is easy to navigate through. I order scrambled eggs — simple Portuguese breakfast (No, not that kind of breakfast).
As soon as our meals are served, a feeling comes to me: a kind of feeling I have every time I eat something for the first time in a different country. It’s a fusion of excitement and neophobia. Not that I don’t know what scrambled eggs are. I guess it’s just a ritual I have grown accustomed to.
We round off our breakfast with strong black coffee and head for one more stroll in the square that is getting more inhabited with tourists now.
Two hours until our hotel room is ready, I tell myself. I make a quick calculation in my head. We have time to take a tour in the Tagus. Raveen drags herself behind me to the ticket kiosk. She’s fatigued, I don’t blame her. The next boat takes off in fifteen minutes but the line of riders is already trailing way beyond the designated waiting area.
The line moves fast and we finally get on board the boat. The one-hour sightseeing tour begins with a close view of The 25 de Abril Bridge, a gigantic suspension bridge that connects Lisbon to the town of Almada on the other side of the Tagus. This is one the major milestones that Lisbon takes huge pride in. Not far from it is the Cristo Rei monument, an imposing statue of Jesus Christ that overlooks the Tagus — and Lisbon. You won’t feel its magnificence unless you’re directly beneath it.
The Tower of Belém looms in the distance. The boat is slowly approaching it. This architectural masterpiece has made it to our list for things to see in Portugal. We are yet to come back here the next day to get inside the tower.
Before the tour is over, Raveen falls asleep. I resist the temptation of sleep by not looking at her laying on the wooden bench across from me. But I stop paying attention to the guide educating tourists about the different attractions.
At the hotel, we spend the next four hours in a deep sleep. It was only after then that we see Lisbon with fresh eyes. Hungry as we should be, we head back downtown — this time to the restaurants district. On a tiny, steep ally, small restaurants are lined up with their outdoor tables occupied with diners — mostly tourists. We try to find a place with less tourists, but that quickly goes in vain. Portugal is a popular destination in October and November because of the amazing weather — the very reason why we are here at this time of the year.
We find an empty table at the second restaurant on the street. A waiter comes to our help immediately. The menu is a little bit more complex than the one we had in the morning at the café. For drinks, I order a glass of Esporão; a revered red wine that is produced locally at a vineyard in east of Lisbon. The waiter tells me that his boss carries the wine with his own truck from the vineyard in the countryside.
Our appetizer is Arugula salad with thinly sliced pieces of octopus, drizzled with olive oil and lemon. Breathtaking stuff. The kind of appetizer that you wish only came in larger portion. The main courses take a very long time to be prepared and so we entertain ourselves with bread and butter while sipping our wines. The lengthy food preparation is part of the dining experience in this country.
Our food finally arrives with a chilly breeze as the evening wears in. Raveen has veal that is covered in a creamy mushroom sauce. I have salted codfish with potatoes and rice. I smell its freshness before tasting the food. We take our time to finish our plates — just to honor the cook who artfully spends time to prepare them for us.
For dessert we share a piece of tiramisu. What’s better than an Italian dessert dipped in Portuguese coffee?
Our first night in Lisbon wouldn’t be complete without checking out the nightlife scene. The waiter recommends Clube De Fado, named after the country’s traditional music. The club is located in the Alfama neighborhood, a mile away from us, so we walk along the Tagus until we get there.
The place is already packed. Some are eating, but mostly costumers are there for drinks and music. A young man is playing on his Portuguese guitar. Next to him is a mustached middle-aged who is playing on a pear-shaped instrument — something similar to the Middle Eastern oud, only a bit smaller. The two-man band is performing a classical Fado song. Starting from the late hours of P.M., Fado is heard throughout downtown Lisbon. It’s an essential part of the scene.
The second and third days, we decide, will be dedicated for exploring the historical landmarks and must-see attractions Lisbon has to offer. We are enthralled by everything we see. Every inch of this city tells a story of ancient times. The streets, bars, bistros and even gift shops are filled of unique aroma that only old cities are lucky to possess.
Raveen and I check out the Lisbon Oceanarium, the largest indoor aquarium in Europe. The temporary exhibition hosts Japanese photographer Takashi Amano, featuring tropical forests inside a superb aquarium. We spend a good hour there before moving to the permanent exhibition. This is precisely what I had imagined prior to arriving in Portugal. The place is designed to host a variety of sea creatures — from sharks and ocean sunfish to tiny, exotic jellyfish. For a change, they have placed a small conservation that entertains lazy sea otters and several other marine mammals.
We end the tour with a telefreak ride, hovering over the Tagus from 100-feet height, gives yet a better aerial glimpse of this part of Lisbon where the old Vasco da Gama Tower is now called My Riad hotel.
The afternoon is spent for the Belém Tower — the one that we vowed to see during our tiring water taxi tour. We stand in line at the bottom of the magnificent 16th century building. It definitely is higher than it appears from the taxi in the Tagus. The interior of it has two halls under a vaulted ceiling that is backed by granite arches. A spherical stairwell is located at the end of the bastion. Everything inside the tower suggests that the purpose of building it was to be a strong fortified structure in the face of enemies.
Lisbon is a hilly city and walking through its beautiful streets is certainly no easy task. No wonder they call it the City of Seven Hills. Nonetheless, walking is the best way to see much of interesting attractions in the downtown area. Things are more intimate when one looks at them by walking than by taking a cab or even a tuq tuq — a local rickshaw.
Porto: Soccer & Port Wine Tasting
On day four, we are ready for our northbound trip to Porto. Two main things to do there: watch a soccer game and taste their port wine.
For the three-hour train ride, I download a collection of Fado songs by Amalia Rodriguez and Alfredo Marceneiro to my playlist, in order to keep my Portuguese vibe high and to familiarize myself with this splendid traditional genre.
As we near Porto, the train crosses over the Douro river valley. “This is where the world’s finest port wine is produced,” I tell Raveen. And we exchange some looking-forward-to-it smiles.
Soccer here is a big deal — like the rest of Europe. But this game between FC Porto and their Belgian rival, Club Brugge, is particularly interesting since its part of the very competitive European Championship. This is going to be my first time to watch a live soccer game in Europe — a childhood dream will finally be realized. But I don’t tell Raveen that’s the main reason what I wanted to come to Porto — or even to Portugal.
Belgian team fans are darting the small streets. Some fans are already intoxicated, draining their beer bottles at sidewalk restaurants or even while walking. This is — among many other reasons — why I adore Europe.
We have an unforgettable dinner in downtown Porto and head to our hotel room after a mandatory stroll. Porto feels cozier than Lisbon but its cab drivers — we agree — are crazier.
The next day begins with another tour downtown. We then cross the Douro to Gaia, a small town across from Porto. When it comes to port wine, a young guide tells us, the real deal is to be found there. It doesn’t take us a long time to choose a winery. Wine tasting is free. After sipping a 42-year-old tawny port, I feel obliged to make a purchase. I find an affordable Cruz and so we leave the store with great satisfaction.
The night concludes with the long-anticipated soccer game at Estádio do Dragão, which is only one block away from our hotel. FC Porto win and this adds more fun to our exhilarating experience at the stadium.
Next morning, we prepare to head back to Lisbon, where our flight back to America is scheduled in 24 hours.
If our calculations are accurate, we will have time to visit the Gulbenkian Museum and also spend a couple of hours in the nearby town of Sintra on our last day in Portugal.
But the nap we take after the train ride from Porto to Lisbon leaves us with few options. It’s either the museum or Sintra. We decide on the museum, specially that my boss and a colleague have highly recommended it.
Indeed, we don’t regret seeing the amazing artifacts the Gulbenkian has showcased for its visitors.
We head for the airport and my only regret in this trip is that I couldn’t witness a beautiful sunset in Sintra. I’m certain that too will happen one day.