Lisbon Love Affair
It was love a first sight. From the moment I stepped out of the underground station and into the Lisbon sun I was hooked. It took my breath away and literally stopped me in my tracks. I realized belatedly that I really hadn’t seen all that many photos of Lisbon; I hadn’t really done any research at all for this trip. So the beautifully tiled buildings, cobbled streets, and wrought iron rails came as a very welcome surprise. My day had started in the dark and cold of London. I had slept literally an hour and a half before getting up to catch a bus to Luton airport–with a flight at 7:20am, it meant with travel time I was out the door at 3:30am to get there in time. As soon as I got on the plane I was asleep and didn’t wake again until the wheels struck tarmac in Lisbon. From airport, to underground, to city center, I had no idea what I was getting myself into until I walked out into the southern sun.
My love affair with this city only grew thanks to an amazing hostel simply called Home. I was only there for two nights, but by the time I left the staff all not only knew my name, but where I was from and what I did for a living. It seemed like everything that happens there is an excuse to hand out drinks, and in the evenings you can sit in the lobby with everyone else drinking 1 euro sangria. You can join for a family dinner every night, which is a three course meal where thirds are encouraged. Home has a Mama, who is a very real person, and is cooking dinner every night. This is the kind of hostel that draws people who want to socialize with others. They also do pub crawls, walking tours, and day trips every day–all of which are worth doing.
My first day was spent in a combination of wandering and eating. I was realizing that I really should have researched before I left so that I would have at least a vague plan of what I wanted to see in my three days. But this trip was booked out of frustration with a job that seems to be taking over my entire life, resulting in a just go mentality. So that is in fact what I did–I just let my feet take me where they willed, seeing what I can see. Only a slight problem when I got my self completely lost. But, as usually happens, I stumbled on a landmark I knew completely by accident and found my way back to the hostel, and a much needed nap.
Over dinner (an all you can eat three course meal cooked by someone’s mother and finished with a shot) and sangria that night my room mates sold me on the idea of signing on for the day trip to Sintra day trip. With nothing planned for the next day, I figured why not. Best idea!
After breakfast we drove out of Lisbon bound for Sintra. There is something about the quality of light when you get to that latitude that just makes me let go and relax. As the city slips away, work slips away too and I could have stayed in that car all day just listening to music and watching the scenery go by. But Sintra had something far better in store for me–Quinta da Regaleira.
The group consensus was to spend our two hours either in Quinta da Regaleira or in the town of Sintra itself–your call, just be at the van at the appropriate time. I could have easily spent all day there. I have every intention of coming back in the near future to do just that. But what is Quinta da Regaleira. It’s the fever dream of an opera set designer and rich man with ties to a secret society. The manor house itself is quite impressive, but it is the grounds and gardens that really steal the show. Full of strange structure, hidden passages, ponds, and grottoes, all with an added layer of symbols from alchemy, the occult, the Knights Templar, and Free Masons.
The moment I will always remember from my brief time at Quinta da Regaleira will be stumbling upon the large initiation well. I knew it was here, I had recognized the image in the brochure as the same one I’d seen countless times on Pinterest. However, I had assumed I’d see the crowds before I saw the well. Any attraction that big draws a crowd of equal size. My journey began in a separate part of the grounds, where my new found friends and I discovered a tunnel behind a fountain and decided to go exploring. The grounds are all interconnect by a series of passages that are only lit just enough make your way cautiously through. Never one to pass up a chance to explore a tunnel, we went into the darkness not knowing where we would end up.
When we emerged again into the light we were at the bottom of the initiation well. This place is a UNESCO world heritage site for a reason. One of those places that are rightly termed epic.
I never did get time to see the town of Sintra itself. Every spare second was used to try to see more of Quinta da Regaleira. Next time. We opted just to see the Norman Castle and the Pena Palace at a distance so we would have time for other things. We were aiming for the coast because there was a storm rolling in. Now I know it’s not the usual thing, to go towards the storm rather than away. Especially as this storm was throwing up waves so big that the police had closed some of the coast roads. But we were hoping to get as close as safely possible before the storm came in properly.
Our guide for the day started by taking us out to one of his favorite look outs in the national park. Facing out to the Atlantic with no one around but us an a few buildings with a feel of abandonment.
From there we were on to the most western point in Europe. The point itself is a tourist hot spot where coach buses disgorge hordes of camera toting tourists–of which I am admittedly one. But if you step just under the fence and walk a little ways a long the path you get to a different point where you don’t have to jockey for position with other tourists and we were able to just watch the waves.
I spent some time trying to get the perfect video of the waves crashing on the rocks below. But there is a point where you need to put the camera down. The point where you need to just experience the moment as a whole rather than just a portion of it through the view finder. I don’t know how long we stood there watching the waves. As our guide described it, we all had a strong emotional connection with the waves and with the storm.
The storm ruled out a leisurely stroll on the beach. Even as someone who doesn’t know what the waves normally look like, I could tell that the water was absurdly high. We’d hear the next day that a few tourist had been swept away trying to take selfies with the waves. We stopped at a few points where we were far enough back that we figured we were still safe. I wish we could have stayed, but eventually we had to go or risk having the road closed by the police as the storm moved ever closer to land fall.
Our last stop of the day was not on the usual route, but one we were lucky to get to, especially with the waves the way they were. We climbed up a berm to stand above the Boca do Inferno–Hell’s Mouth. Named because of the sound created when the waves retreat through the rock formation. This was by far the closest we got to the water, perched a long the edge of the drop. When a wave was actually big enough to get us wet we knew it was time to move. That was just a little shower, anything bigger could either pull us forward into the pit or push us backwards into the road. Neither is a good option. Still, leaving and returning to the city was very hard to do.
The last day of my mini break was a similar situation–not sure what I was going to do because I hadn’t done enough research to know what I was missing. I also only had half of the day to work with. My flight was that evening, and once you factored in the time to get to the airport and all that, half my day was gone before it had even started. The hostel came to my rescue that morning with their free walking tour.
I wish I had done this walking tour at the start of my trip. Content wise, it was combination of history and linguistics–which to a nerd like me, this is a great way to spend a few hours. But also there were little bits of useful information such as never spend more that 0.60 cents on a coffee. Really good coffee at that! Or that you can get a really good full meal for less than 5 euros.
My favorite way to get to know a city is through food. Which means that Portugal is definitely the place for me. I didn’t have a bad meal while there. Octopus baked with olive oil and garlic, bacalhau (salt cod), amazing coffee, and of course Pastel de Nata. These little egg custard tarts were previously the only Portuguese food I’d had and could identify. However, they had never tasted as good as the ones I had in Pastéis de Belém.
Warm and freshly baked, they were well deserving of the hype. This is where my trip ended, two warm pastries in hand sitting on a set of steps in Belém. From there back to the hostel to pick up my bag, on to the airport, and back to London.
I will be back. When, I do not know, but I know I will be back. I want to spend more time on the coast. I want to go back to Sintra and spend some time just in the town itself. There is more food to eat and more streets to explore. Without hesitation I would stay at Home again, because it felt just like being home. Like all travel flings, my love affair with Portugal was sudden, intense, and over far too quickly. Like a shot of espresso. You leave thinking about what could have been if you stayed for a while longer. But unlike many travel romances, this one I can go back to. I can get on another plane and have that experience again of stepping from the underground station into the stunning beauty that is Lisbon’s streets.
***Post Note: I shot a lot of video on this trip and have thrown them and some of the photos into a short video. This is a first attempt at a video, but check it out here!***