Bury Me in Portugal
Portugal is it, y'all.
And I think it is a pretty accurate description because Portugal is literally the embodiment of anywhere and everywhere you've been or want to go. Wherever you want Portugal to be, you'll find pieces of it here. Hence the "it".
We landed in Lisbon at 5pm, and from the second my feet crossed out from the airport threshold, I knew I was going to regret not spending more time in Portugal. My instincts were right. 21 hours later, and the very last thing I wanted to do was to get back on a plane and head home.
We took an Uber from the airport into the heart of Lisbon, and the first thing I remember thinking from the inside of the car was how familiar this country felt. At first, the colorful store-lined streets we cruised by felt identical to those I was so familiar with in Tijuana, Mexico. A little further into the city, and suddenly I had this epiphany that maybe Lisbon favored Goa, India more than Mexico. Minutes later I had convinced myself that it was Madrid, Spain that Lisbon so closely resembled. By the time we arrived at our hostel, I came to the conclusion that Lisbon was the culmination of like, every city I had ever traveled to, all wrapped in one destination.
Our hostel was located inside the Central Station of Lisbon. Meg and I checked in and got the low-down from the uber-helpful staff. I cannot say enough great things about this hostel. The employees gave us great advice on how to make the most of Lisbon by night, and I must say, they absolutely nailed it. The two of us dropped our stuff off in our room and headed out by foot towards the water. The tiled sidewalks of Lisbon are a sight in themselves. Their ornate designs stretch across the entire city, making the streets themselves art.
On our way to the the water, we passed through Praça de Comércio, the entrance marked by a grandiose archway. On the inside, restaurants lines the perimeter, while a huge statue stood in the middle. As we made our way through the plaza, we approached the beach. Upon consulting google, we learned that the body of water was actually the Atlantic Ocean. Locals and tourists alike found the sight to be as mesmerizing as we did, and sat on the infinitely long concrete steps that bridged the sidewalk to the water. Guarding the beach entrance, an artist was putting the final touches on his life-size sand sculpture. He had crafted a impressively detailed sofa with dogs lounging on it. I wish I had snapped some pictures to show, but I didn't know if a picture warranted a donation, and like I've mentioned before, I'm trying to keep my spending to a minimum.
We walked along the ocean sidewalk, passing by boardwalks and rock sculptures protruding from the water. Eventually we arrived at Cais do Sodré. The outdoor area was situated in front of the ocean and lit up with string lights. Dessert food trucks were parked along the sidewalks, a stage had been set up for a band, and street performers (read: fire breathers) had gathered crowds. In the distance, the city reflected on the water, adding to the ambience.
Because Meg and I had not eaten since lunch, we scouted out a hole-in-the-wall pizza place that had a massive line. We figured with a line that big, the food must be good. When we got to the register, I ordered for us in Spanish because the staff didn't speak English (in Portugal, they speak Portuguese; however, Spanish is very similar to Portuguese. For example, I would order in Spanish and she would respond in Portuguese- they're similar enough to where you can easily communicate). We carried our pizzas and Somerby ciders out to an empty bench in the park area and chowed down. Y’all- I was crushing on Portugal hard.
As things started closing up in Cais do Sodré, we began the walk back to the hostel, this time taking a detour through the more central pedestrian only street that goes from the water to who knows how far into the city. We passed the ever-famous Lisbon street cars, and although we didn't get a chance to ride on it, we had heard nothing but positive things about it. We popped into souvenir shops and wandered into dessert shop after dessert shop. We eventually were won over by Amorino, a gelato shop that makes the most beautiful gelato flowers on a cone. I went for coconut, cookie butter and coffee, while meg went for vanilla, raspberry, and chocolate. We both topped ours off with a macaroon.
We enjoyed our gelato creations at a table in the center of the lively strip and ate every last bite. Before calling it a night, we walked to a few more statues that were close in proximity to our hostel.
Our alarms went off at 5:20 AM the next morning. We quietly packed out bags and got ready, careful not to wake up the other four girls in our bunk room. By 6:01, we had loaded up our belongings, purchased metro tickets, checked out of our hostel, and headed to the nearby beach town of Sintra. Sintra is a forty or so minute metro ride from Lisbon and is one of the best kept secrets of all of Europe.
Our idea was to make it to Azenhas do Mar for sunrise, hence the early start to our day. We had to be back at the airport by 3pm to make our flight back to NYC. What we didn’t factor into our quick trip to Sintra was the actual process of getting from the Sintra metro station to the ocean village. We were one of four people debarking the metro when it reached it’s final destination at 6:40 in the morning, and as we exited the tiny station, it occurred to us that we had no idea how we were getting to Azenhas do Mar. Unfortunately, our lack of preparedness cost us our precious sunrise experience.
After surveying our options, we eventually decided to take one of the two taxis waiting outside the station. This, in hindsight, was our best decision of the whole trip. Our taxi driver, Pedro, became the most invaluable asset to making our flash-trip to Sintra so successful. When we told him we wanted to go to Azenhas do Mar, he equipped us with all the information and tips we had not known we needed. After (correctly) advising us that we most likely wouldn’t be able to use our credit cards, Pedro drove us to one of the only ATMs in the town. Once we got to the tiny town of Azenhas, Pedro pointed our the best vantage points, and the (two) restaurants he thought would be open during off-season and at the early hour of 7am. Before we got out, he gave us his number and told us to call him if we needed anything.
Meg and I dragged our tired bodies from the cab down the cobblestone roads into the tiny white village. Again, Portugal did that crazy thing where it takes on the character of a different country entirely. This time, the little houses overlooking the ocean gave off a very Italian vibe. From the main street, we spotted a trail leading down to the ocean, so obviously we went down to inspect. The trail took us past Sintra’s legendary fish restaurant to an ocean pool. Waves crashed over the rock walls, filling the natural pool with ocean water. Here we took many pictures before hiking the rest of the way up. The trail spit us out right at the entrance of Azenhas do Mar. We recalled from our Taxi drive that the next closest town was within walking distance, so we tightened the straps of our backpacks and headed out by foot. The walk ended up being about twenty minutes, and because it was so early in the morning, the streets were pretty dead, making us feel a lot safer trekking alongside the road.
Once we reached the next little town over, Praia das Maçãs, we spotted a little cafe serving breakfast. By this time, it was about 8am and we were both starving. We went inside, and again, my Spanish proved to be super handy. I ordered for both of us- a yummy pretzel and espresso for myself and a pastry for Meg. We munched on our food and decided to call Pedro and ask if he could pick us up and take us to the next place on our Sintra bucket list. Pedro happily agreed and told us he’d pick us up in twenty or so minutes. Before we went out to quickly explore the town, we ordered two more pastries to go because our meal was so tasty and cheap (the equivalent of about $1.50 each). Portugal- in general- is exceptionally cheap because of their recession, which makes traveling there super affordable. Our aimless morning wanderings led us to another beach, much bigger and jungly. I was hit with some serious Maui, Hawaii deja-vu, which was about the 100th time Portugal reminded me of somewhere else.
We headed back to the breakfast place to wait on Pedro and devoured our pastries in the meantime. When Pedro arrived, we asked him to take us to the Palacio do Pena. Pena is an old palace that the royal family once used as a summer home to escape the heat in the hot summer months. This castle was actually the main reason we decided to come to Sintra in the first place- it’s striking colors are visually unshakable. The drive was another twenty minutes, but we talked with Pedro the entire time. He showed us the street car tracks that trains operated on in the summer months, and the famous bakeries in every little town we past. As we took the crazy windy road up to Pena, Pedro told us that it would backed up by two or more hours of traffic in the summer season. On the way to Pena, you pass many other historical sites. Pedro informed us that Pena wouldn’t open until 10, and offered us a solution to kill time until it opened. He drove us to the nearby Moore Castle gardens and told us to walk to the entrance of Pena after we had finished exploring.
The Moorish Gardens were unbelievable. I felt like I was in the set of a fairytale movie the entire time we were there. Towers and walls all still in working condition are left open for tourists to climb up and explore, which absolutely delighted my inner kid. The lush green landscape transformed the gardens into a jungle of sorts, and the hillside castle premise was just high enough in elevation to peak above the fog that had gathered on the valley below. Although the actual castle grounds did not open until 10, the gardens were a treat. We began our walk to Pena twenty minutes to 10:00 and were almost immediately huffing and puffing. The roads of Sintra aren’t just winding- they’re ungodly steep. Loaded down by our heavy carry-on backpacks and purses (our checked bags didn’t make it to our 21 hour layover in Portugal with us), I was sucking in oxygen like it was going out of style.
When we made it to the entrance of Pena, I had personally accepted death like five times. We arrived just a few minutes after the castle officially opened, and I was shocked by the number of tourists already lined up to buy tickets, especially in the March off-season. The hike up to Pena was a serious of more unfortunate inclines, at which point I seriously contemplated burning my backpack and crawling the rest of the way. By the time we made it up to the castle grounds, I was so overwhelmed by the palace before me that I completely tuned out my burning body and focused on exploring every part of the beautiful structure.
Just like the Moorish Castle, there was’t a part of the Pena Palace that had been barricaded to visitors, which made exploring the castle grounds unbelievably exciting. The views from the castle perimeter supposedly gave unbeatable views of the city and ocean, though the foggy morning obstructed our sight. Personally, I thought the fog made everything more mystic and thus way cooler, so I’m not complaining. The backside of the castle was my favorite. Archways looked down onto the vegetation below, the clouds hovering below us. Since we were pressed for time, we didn’t visit the inside of Pena, thought I am sure it would have been just as breathtaking.
We called up our buddy Pedro again and asked for a ride to the last sight on our list. When he came to snag us from the Pena grounds, we asked to see the famous Sintra Well,
But Pedro said he’d be worried we would miss our flight if he took us there. We heeded to his advice- he had, after all, been the most invaluable tool during our mini-tip. Rather than take the Metro to the airport and risk getting lost or hung up, we asked Pedro to take us and he gladly agreed. Gosh, what a guy. Pedro was the man. Go to Sintra and taxi around with Pedro. You won’t regret it.
When we made it to the Lisbon airport, we were overcome with a sense of thankfulness that we had the opportunity to explore Portugal during our long layover. If you ever have the option to take a flight with a 20+ hour layover and have a good spirit of adventure, I highly recommend you take it. Our layover gave Meg and I a way to see a new country at no extra flight cost, and boy, was I impressed with Portugal. I know without a shadow of a doubt that I’ll return to Portugal again in the future, though for much longer than 21 hours next time.
And just like that, my whirlwind spring break came to a close. Every second has been and will remain oh so cherished. I am so thankful for friends who share my spirit of adventure and for parents who have poured into my soul by allowing me such amazing opportunities. I cannot put into words how much traveling has shaped my heart an mind. I am truly the person I am because of experiences like these. I encourage you that you take every opportunity- big or small- to go and explore.
all the love,