Portugal, no. 99

I left Morocco and immediately missed the women’s flowing garbs, the way they could flick a finger or shake a shoulder and the layers of colourful cloth would swiftly return to the right places. I missed being surrounded by the sounds of a foreign language, where almost nothing had become familiar enough to consciously process. I missed the intensity of the heat the sun rays gave off during the day, and the number of stars you could see at night in the cold void.

the roof of the monastery

But Portugal welcomed me with other things I had missed: the joy and hype of the holiday season; the cosmopolitan buzz of a busy European city; the familiarity of a language I could almost get away with communicating in; and of course, the free flowing hair of women in all different shapes, sizes and fashions who allowed me to blend in almost anonymously. My touristy goals had changed now too; instead of seeking out markets, deserts, and horses, I wanted museums, castles and restaurants. I had traded mint tea for searches of Porto wine, visits to mosques for catholic churches, and hunting Gnawa music for live Fado.

Torre de Belem, built in the sea

Lisbon is a huge city, larger than I had ever expected, and I still dont have a clear sense of space the city fully occupied. I stayed and visited things only near the centre (Baia Chiado), Parque Eduardo VII, and the notorious Alfama neighbourhood. My last night in Lisbon also deserved a visit to Bairro Alto, the nightlife district, where arriving at 9 pm made you think you were certainly in the wrong place. But it was just the wrong time, and by midnight all the streets were full of dancing people, music and cheap mojitos.

bridge to redemption

My best friend from Iceland came to celebrate New Years with me in Portugal. We rented a car in Lisbon and drove first around to the unwalkable highlights of the city, including Basilica Estrela, Torre de Belem, and the UNESCO world heritage site Mosteiro dos Jeronimos – a Hieronymites Monastery built in an impressive late-Gothic architectural style. We drove south over the ponte 25 de Abril, a bridge which looks a little bit like the Golden Gate bridge taking you from San Francisco to Rio de Janeiro, since a Cristo Redentor statue just like Rio’s Christ the Redeemer stares down at you as you near the other side.

a welcomed countryside view

We spent a few days exploring the way south and the Algarve region, stopping in Sines and Sagres, and driving through the  Alentejo & Vicente Coast Natural Park. The journey of driving along the coast and through small farm towns was a highlight on its own, and the names of all the places we stopped I’ve forgotten, but the general impression of peace and tranquility of all those places combined has stayed with me. We also spent a night in Albufeira where the off-season effects were easily noticed by the empty highrise hotels and resort pools, and paid 15 euros for a family sized hotel room with an 8th floor balcony.

Porto on the Duoro

Finally we retraced our steps north through Lisbon and all the way up to Porto, where the climate changed from Mediterranean coastal sun to a grey rainy environment devoid of leaves on their trees. Porto was more charming that way somehow, since I had started to wonder about the reality of a cold December. We ate at the most delicious restaurant, Restaurante Rito on Rua Antero Quental, where we ate bacalhau and all sorts of pork meat with house wines and fresh olives you could never pay enough money to find in Iceland.

New Years eve was incredible, since we stayed only a 100 metres from the Liberty Plaza where all the events were happening. A concert stage blasted happy Portugese and Dancy brazilian music until midnight, when a champagne shower of hundreds of bottles covered the whole crowd and a 10 minute firework show shrouded Porto’s city hall in smoke. The nightlife street was only a couple blocks away from that so we went in and out of bars who don’t charge a cover but it’s a 5 euro ticket to leave if you can’t prove you spent at least 5 euros at the bar. On New Years day we took a cruise up and down the Duoro river, looking longingly at the Porto factories covering the south bank, but did make it to Calem to wine taste.


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