July 14, 2014

Travel Series - Under-appreciated Gems of Portugal

When you think of traveling to Europe, chances you are more likely to think of big ticket places such as London, Paris, and Rome. However, it is sometimes the less popular destinations that are more enjoyable. Thanks to a suggestion from a friend (Amanda) and a very good flight deal from Air Canada, the first European city I visited was one such under-appreciated gem called Lisbon.

Imagine a city dating back to the Phoenicians 2700 years ago with cobble stoned streets, classic (and new) yellow trams along its narrow streets, spectacular beaches not far away, and a medieval hilltop castle called Castelo de Sao Jorge. In spite of Lisbon’s steep terrain, the city’s streets actually feel pedestrian friendly, though I wouldn’t recommend cycling in the city core. This is because motor vehicles are forced to go slow (though they do block sidewalks at times) and certain streets are closed to motor vehicles in favour of outdoor cafés and various street performances including fado music. The people tend to be relatively laid back, friendly, and tolerant; while the ambiance you feel while walking around Lisbon makes it almost impossible not to feel happy there. Last, but not least, Lisbon and other Portuguese cities are among the more affordable in Europe with a decent meal costing ten euros ($15 Canadian) or less, while alcoholic beverages cost around two euros ($3 Canadian). For a great yet affordable place to stay, I recommend the Lisbon Poets Hostel downtown near Baixa-Chidao subway station.
So, what is there to do in Lisbon? The Castelo de Sao Jorge is a good hike east from downtown, but that castle offers excellent views of the city and is a showcase for various historical artifacts. From there, you can head down to a large plaza by the shore called Praça de Comercio. You can find the tourist information office and a beer museum there, but most importantly, this is where you can catch the tram to go to Belém. At Belém, you can find a large church called the Jeronimos Monastery and the Torre de Belém, which was used to signal ships to port and for defensive purposes. Don’t forget to try the custard tarts (Pasteis in Portuguese) while in Belém.
Also at Belém, I came across two hidden gems which may serve as inspiration for Canadian cities. One is Portugal’s love for poetry is displayed on parking lots and is even used as a bike lane separator. The other is the presence of outdoor public exercise machines, which are a great way to sneak in a five to ten minute workout on your way to work or on your way home. Who says physical activity and culture cannot be made accessible to the public?
If you are looking for beaches, the train at Cais do Sodre station heading west towards Cascais, which leaves every 20 – 30 minutes, gives you several options. I got off at the Estoril train station (30 minutes from Lisbon), which is right next to Tamariz Beach. If you see a castle while getting off at Estoril, it’s actually owned by the royal family of Monaco. There is a boardwalk which connects at least a dozen other beaches from Cascais in the west to Estoril (and possibly a few east of there). While you cannot swim too far before the water is over your head, Tamariz is still a beautiful beach with its historical buildings and palm trees. Once swimming and walking the boardwalk makes you hungry, there are several restaurant choices. I stopped by the Absoluto seafood restaurant by Tamariz Beach, where I recommend trying their sardines. Another beach area, which I didn’t check out, is the Costa da Caparica just south of Lisbon.
Lisbon was also one of the cities where I ended up checking the bar scene. The staff at Lisbon Poets took some guests and I west of downtown to the Bairro Alto district (the bar zone) during a city wide music festival. Not knowing Portuguese that well caused some discomfort, but it was a cool experience which you should find out for yourself.
From speaking with friends, I heard Porto with their port wine and Algarve with their beaches are good, but did not have time to travel to those places. However, the impression Portugal left would make me seriously consider spending at least a week just in Portugal in the future. As they say in Portuguese, “Eu amo Portugal!” (I love Portugal)

Up next, I will discuss the chaos theory of London.

Rob Z (e-mail)

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