The Golden Country

When my parents and I first decided to meet up in Europe over my fall break, they asked me what country would be best. I didn’t hesitate to recommend Portugal, what with its seafood, wine, and friendly residents. With Lisbon a direct flight from both Moscow and Boston, I knew it would suit us just fine. My only request was that our good friends Charlie and Deb join as well. They were game and we started planning.

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Between 1400-1600, Portugal underwent an “Age of Discovery”. Prosperous and seafaring, the country sent sailing fleets to all corners of the globe, captained by household names such as Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama. “By 1560, Portugal’s global empire had peaked. Tiny-but-filthy-rich Portugal claimed (though they didn’t actually occupy) the entire coastline of Africa, Arabia, India, the Philippines, and south China – a continuous stretch from Lisbon to Macao – plus Brazil.” This practice of international exploration yielded exotic spices, agricultural practice, and (horrendously) the beginnings of the slave trade.

Though I’d spent a few days in Lisbon in 2017, I’d missed the chance to go north to Porto, a city that has elicited only smiles and good words from friends and fellow travelers. We decided to start our journey there.

Porto

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The city of bridges, as it as known, Porto lies at the mouth of a river which runs over a mountain range and into the Douro Valley (the valley of gold), the fertile bed of the port wine industry. Taylor, Calem, and Ferreira all have lodges along the river. With a recommendation from a good friend, we made our way to Graham’s.

Graham’s Port Lodge

Featuring gorgeous hilltop view at the city across the river, Graham’s proved a great starting point in our quest to learn about the history of port. We toured it’s cellars featuring a library of vintage wines (the only wine that can appreciate with age!), some of which were over 150 years old. The atmosphere was perfect and we enjoyed a walk down to the waterfront after our port flight.

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São Bento Railway Station

You will seriously earn your steps on the streets of Porto. Staying higher atop the hill, I tried to devise a winding walk that featured mostly downhills. Our first stop was the Sao Bento Railway Station which features over 20,000 hand-painted tiles. The stained glass was gorgeous, too.

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Livraria Lello Bookshop

I could not visit Porto without seeing the bookshop which had inspired Hogwarts. Author JK Rowling taught ESL in Porto from 1991-1993 and often stopped into this bookshop. From the art nouveau staircase and dark wood finishes, it is not hard to picture sliding staircases and talking portraits. Neither the lines nor the masses could detract from the magic inside.

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On the Water

With a group of five, moving from place to place could be a bit of a challenge. We opted for a hop-on/hop-off bus tour which took us to the outskirts of town. As we drove along the water, we let our stomachs choose our next stop – a fishing hamlet with river views. Fresh cod, hake, and salmon were on offer and paired with cabbage and potatoes made for our most delicious meal yet. The atmosphere came replete with a Portuguese mother directing all the action from the window above. We joked that our meal was probably still swimming that morning and I suspect we were right.

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Ribeira

Charlie and Deb had read up on the Ribeira, an area down on the riverbank. Once a dodgy area, the neighborhood is now a fantastic spot for restaurants and music. We opted for a boat ride under the famous Porto bridges but I could easily see returning to Ribeira the next time I’m in town.

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Sé Cathedral

I could have called this post “Stairs, stairs, and more stairs” or “Just 10 more minutes walking”. Though we didn’t plan this stop well on our walk down to the riverfront, I would recommend the Cathedral for it’s beautiful tiles and gilded alters. Beautiful views over the city made the climb worth it.

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Lisbon

A quick and easy 3-hour train ride found us back in Lisbon, the City of Light. Unlike it’s French counterpart of the same nickname, Lisbon is bathed in golden light after dark, in gorgeous contrast to a typical blue velvet night sky. I had a few nights to myself on either end of the trip and I’ll say at no point did I feel unsafe taking in the streets after dark.

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A cardamom pastry – second only to the famous Pasteis de Nata which we ate daily

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Lapa

I spent my first two nights in the charmingly local neighborhood of Lapa. I’m told it’s a hub for Lisbon intellectuals – artists and writers abound. If you’re seeking an actual oasis just beyond the street, look no further than this supremely charming garden and private backyard suite. Two of the nicest hosts I’ve stayed with, to boot.

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Basílica da Estrela, Lapa
Cervejaria Ramiro

We certainly earned our steps back in Lisbon as well. One of our major treks included a very early bird dinner at Ramiro, a seafood house made famous by Anthony Bourdain during a visit back in 2012. This place surely did not disappoint with crab, shrimp, and clams as tasty as I’ve ever experienced on the shores of Maine and Cape Cod.

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Ascensor do Lavra & Jardim do Torel

Lisbon is known for it’s funiculars (ascensor) and we took a lesser known one to the Jardim do Torel lookout. With 270 degree views of the whole city, it was a perfectly quiet spot to watch the sun go down behind one of Lisbon’s many hills. The graffitied cable car was a charming way to travel.

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I love this photo of the crew – Dad and Charlie have been best friends since Grade 8 and Deb not long after. My mom is the newest member, having met these guys when she was only 18. It was really special getting to spend time with them all together.
Jerónimos Monastery, Belem

Our last day found us in Belem, a small town just down the river from Lisbon. The monastery was well worth the 10 euro entrance fee and left us marveling at the architectural flare throughout. We enjoyed pasteis de nata in the park and took the slow boat back to Lisbon, which was a perfect choice.

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Largo do Carmo & Bellalisa Elevador

Deb had the idea to return to a square we had spied the night before called Largo do Carmo. With quaint tables and umbrellas, we enjoyed our drinks next to the ruins of a convent. There is a famous elevator in Lisbon which has lines for days (literally) but with a little help from a guide, we realized that the Bellalisa Elevador Restaurant would make a perfect spot to cap off our trip together. The drinks were flowing and seafood was top notch. Before we knew it, it was time for the crew to fly back to Boston.

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Gulbenkian Museum

On recommendation from a train seat mate, I spent my last day in Lisbon visiting the Gulbenkian Museum. Soaking up the sunshine in the museum’s gardens and the Turkish artwork inside proved the perfect send-off. I look forward to my chance to return again and will look back at this special trip with fond memories.

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Portugal

My spring break arrived in early April. As Moscow was showing absolutely no signs of spring, I hopped on a plane to Portugal pronto! Having never been to Portugal, I listened to friends tell stories of this calm, friendly oasis in the south of Europe. Amazingly, the rumors were true – incredibly kind people, delicious wine (port), and gorgeous beaches.

Lisbon’s Central Square

I started in Lisbon, a modernizing city still retaining its old world charm. Squares filled with fruit and sangria stands appeared at every turn. Trolley cars rumbled by and sunshine streamed down 24/7.

Jeronimos Monastery was absolutely stunning.

 

Me snacking on a pasteis de nata, essentially an egg tart. Hot off the grill and oh so delicious!

My friend Anna had flown over from Boston for the trip and we had a fantastic time exploring the sights – botanical gardens, sardine shops, and the Jeronimos Monastery just outside of the downtown. Tilework covered nearly every surface of the town – from cobalt blue floral walls to parks full of wavy stone pathways, Lisbon is a feast for the eyes.

We rented a car and headed up to Sintra, an idealic town only 45 minutes outside Lisbon. Staying in an inn just outside the touristy downtown provided us with a chance to meet some very friendly locals.

Our inn served a huge breakfast from which we would pocket supplies for daily picnics.
Our inn served port on this breezeway each evening. In fact, so did every spot we stayed in!

Highlights from Sintra included the Pena Palace and Quinta da Regaleira, a meandering acreage replete with tunnels, grottos, and lilacs.

Pena Palace, in all its glory
I’ve never seen architecture like this – it seemed to be part Scottish fortress, part Aladdin’s castle.

A grotto of the Quinta da Regaleira

From Sintra we took a day trip to Tomar to see the Convento de Cristo, the original digs of the Knights of Templar. With virtually no crowds, we delighted in this off-the-beaten-path gem. Many hours were spent wandering through the magnificent convent and I took a little time to sketch a bit of the gorgeous architecture.

Anna looking quite at home on the grounds of Convento de Cristo.

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There was an Indian Jones feel about the place.

Next we headed south past Lisbon and into the Algarve. While we went for the hiking, we most enjoyed the views from the ocean cliffs.

Our stay at Très Marias, a gorgeous farm in the middle of nowhere, proved a highlight of the whole trip. Anna had read about the spot years ago in The NY Times and it did not disappoint. Waking up in the valley of poppies was heavenly and we made friends with the resident donkeys.

The view from the breakfast nook at Tres Marias. The donkey pasture and mountains lay in the background.

While we would have loved to see more of the Algarve, my time in Portugal was drawing to a close. After heading back to Lisbon, we made a pilgrimage to the Museo Nacional do Azulejo. Host of a magnificent collection documenting the history of tilework in Portugal, the museum had much to teach us about the Islamic influence on Portuguese design.

Museo Nacional do Azulejo

A fantastic dinner of tapas capped off our trip. As I headed for the airport, Anna took a train north to Porto, a spot I hear is worth the trip. All the more reason to return to Portugal someday!

Yellow light emanated from the street lamps of Lisbon, bathing the city in a warm glow perfect for wandering the cobblestone streets.

All in all, we found the landscape of Portugal to be just as beautiful as the generosity of its people. Affordable, welcoming, and intriguing, Portugal is absolutely worth it.

Back in Moscow, we’ve had a rainy, cold past two weeks, making tennis practice a little challenging. Today, May Day, is the first warm day of the year, bring buds to the trees and hope that the winter is finally over. Much to look forward to in the coming months, most especially a visit from my parents in only a few days! Hope you’re all enjoying spring time, wherever you are. Until next time…

Sunset over Moscow – the end of a wonderful journey.