We hadn’t been on a trip in two years. I mean, who really has? Yes, we went to the hospital to have a shoulder replacement and then again to have a simple ankle surgery that turned into seven levels of hell, and to CVS pharmacy 57,903 times and oooops, sorry, we did go to the Cape for a week during both of those Covid-heavy years, but no big, pack-your-bags-so-full-you-cant-carry-them, don’t forget your power cords or transformer plugs, remember your jeans-because-no-matter- what-they-say-you’re-going-to-wear-them-the-most kind of trip. And it was sort of killing us, well, I mean, our spirits, our sense of adventurous curiosity, our hope. Well, especially me. And yes, I know this is a first world problem and in this messy, messy world, it sounds like a pretty lame-o excuse to whine about, but oh well. But really, it’s probably not just travel that I missed these past two years, it’s everything–everything normal and fun and free-flowing and interesting (like you know, TRAVEL).
Traveling is one of my most favorite things in the world (besides potato chips, or to be exact truffle potato chips, which if you haven’t had, you should stop reading and go to Eataly or Curds & Co. and buy immediately, if not sooner). To go to a new place and play Christopher Columbus is wondrous, invigorating, thrilling. Being completely overwhelmed by brand spanking newness is a little like being born again. And these past two years, I had missed it as much as I had missed LBC (LIFE BEFORE COVID).
So, my husband’s start-up was sold to a Portuguese company a year ago, which is not true, it was really two years ago, but I always seem to forget that deadly hideous Covid-intense year of 2020. Anyway, there was a conference where he was asked to speak, and we’d had boosters (him for his arthritis and me because I lied at Walgreens. The thing is, I wasn’t depriving the shot from anyone and nobody at Walgreen’s cared in the least and let me tell you, it made me feel hella better) and I in particular had been barking about needing a break from all the medical madness he’d been through, and the isolation, and the constant hand-washing, mask-wearing, virus fear, and well, we booked tickets to go to the damn conference with some time to see a country I’d never been to before, but continually hear is a beaut. And suddenly, I felt like winter had been permanently obliterated from the calendar (if only).
Off to Portugal we went and it was one of those trips where absolutely nothing went wrong and in fact, everything went right and we had a super score of 1,098,652 on the 1 to 10 scale. This is a beautiful, very hilly place, with red tiled roofs on every building that puts you square in the center of a childhood classic story book.. (And why, may I ask, people who build stuff, do we not have red tiled roofs here in the USA, instead of dull. boring rainy day black and gray? SO UNBECOMING, please contractors, pick up your game because a red roof can do a lot for a country.) Anywho, Lisbon was our first stop and grab the reigns. What a bustling city with tiled sidewalks, boasting flowers and squiggles and other odd, but tantalizing shapes that make you feel like you are maybe walking on the Candy Land game board, where possibly Queen Frostine might bump into you on her way to an outdoor dinner. There are like a billion churches (not really) and castles (really) and the national food seems to be anything swimming in the sea. This, of course, as an epic seafood hater, in fact, someone who can actually vomit at the site, and especially the smell of any kind of fish or crustacean, was not ideal, but as a life-long enemy of the sea’s seasoned, flambeed, fried, salt-cooked and grilled sea-faring fare, I just had to cast my net elsewhere and watch my husband enjoy every last flake. This was especially comical when the CEO of Peter’s company (the largest employer in Portugal) and his wife took us for dinner, for a first meet and greet and it was one those places with just-off-the-boat-pick-your-fish-which-is-so-fresh-it-still-might-be-backstroking. Uh-huh, and of course, kind of horrifying for them, because who doesn’t like any kind of seafood, except me? The owner actually left the cozy and small famed place to get me a piece of meat to eat, because, well, you just don’t disappoint the guy who owns the pharma farm. They were lovely people, and I did somehow get through the meal without actually throwing up all over the table, which was a pretty big accomplishment on my part. We also were taken by some of Peter’s new and really great colleagues to some other amazing meals at truly wonderful restaurants, where I learned two things: 1) the white wine did not make me drunk (one in the US and I’m buzzing, two and I’m dancing on the table), but did give me a nice hangover. 2) The Portugues think salads are two lettuce leaves and a tomato and that will actually feed a table of ten. (SO UNAMERICAN.)
The people, always a vitally important part of a trip, were extremely nice. And very helpful. Most everyone speaks English, but even those who did not seemed to find ways of helping to guide us to see the best of their country. While Peter had to work a fair amount, I found myself alone on the hunt for what made Lisbon such a magical place. I did miles and miles of walking everyday to uncover one of the oldest cities in Western Europe’s overwhelming beauty. During the age of discovery, Portugal was a big player in expeditions. They not only discovered new lands in South America, and Africa, they even found a new route to India, which made them one of the ruling nations of Europe, But, while Lisbon was the most prosperous trading center in Europe, trouble brewed, when in 1775, it was hit by a life-altering, insane and devastating earthquake, which destroyed everything in its wake in half of the city, and changed its history as a seafaring king. But not to worry, this place is still a winner in the beauty queen contest. Intricately tiled buildings, a stunning river, a miniature Arc de Triomphe–Arco da Rua Augusta, and smaller Golden Gate bridge–the Ponte 25 de Abril, along with the bright yellow Praco do Comercio–a main square, a Monument to the Discoveries, the no-matter-how-many-times-I-passed, astounding Santa Justa Elevator, Belem Tower and Museu Gulbenkian, are only a few of the reasons this city can charm your pants right off of your body. And I’m not even bringing up the night life, but it’s there, and it’s like that awful song by Lionel Richie, All Night Long, because yup it’s like New York on steroids.And did I mention the weather? No, I do not. Well, just think about New England’s fall days of super blue skies with no humidity and a full-on sun. 75 degrees of perfect. FOR ALL 10 DAYS. Yup, this is a place you don’t want to miss. Bucket list must.
On to Porto, we were welcomed by the same stunning sort of beauty that put my mouth into a permanent O shape in Lisbon. Maybe it’s because there are no particularly tall buildings, and so each structure really stands out with those darn lovely red roofs, but again, we’re talking about feeling like you are walking in a postcard and that somebody might throw you in a mailbox any minute. We stayed in a very ritzy hotel overlooking the city which was devoted entirely to wine. The fact that this hotel wasn’t shaped like a bottle of vino, surprised me because everything else about it was all about the drinking, the making and the origin stories of wine. Of course, Porto happens to be world famous for it’s Port, but coming in second is wine. Again, Peter was still in work mode, so it was up to me to get the scoop on this stunning city. With only a few days here, i had to work hard, putting in loads of miles to get to the heart of this place, where the historical center was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, back in 1996, a very big deal. While the city is Portugal’s second largest, it wasn’t always as important or tourist-attracting as it is today. Port wine production began in the Duro River region during the 13th century, which is when Porto began growing as an economic power in the homeland. During the 15th to the 17th century. Prince Henry the Navigator was one of the leading historical personalities credited for the initiation of Portugal’s becoming a great sea trade force in Europe. Porto became one of the largest shipyards of the country, not to mention the early 18th century saw the Duoro wine region boom, which played an important role in the development of the Port wine trade. Lots of architectural gems were also built during the18th century, the most famous, and certainly the tallest is the intricate and detail-laden Clerigos Tower, which of course, I didn’t realize you needed tickets to get into, and so missed! Anyway, we ate some gorgeous food, one meal in a large restaurant with dozens and dozens of large wine kegs behind glass. The Douro is dotted with boats of all sizes and the bridge, the Ponte De Luis I bridge has an upper (with a train in the center) and lower walking path to take you from the town of Guia to the main city of Porto. It’s pretty spectacular and there are also a couple of trams floating through the sky, too. Winding, hilly streets are everywhere. A Tuk Tuk ride took us through the center of town with Maria, since Peter hadn’t had a chance to see much due to his work schedule. These golf cart-like small transportation vehicles can be very basic, or decked out like a bride and are traversing all the roads to show off the city’s sites. They’re really a lot of fun and teach you a bushel in a short amount of time.
Lastly, we were lucky enough to go to the seaside Cascais–a classic small city on a beach, or rather multiple beaches, just 30 minutes from Lisbon. We don’t so much have beaches here in the US that are part of cities, but that’s exactly what Cascais is all about. It began as a fishing village (which it still very much is) grew to protect Portugal by sea until 1580 when the Spanish came in and took over until 1640, then the major earthquake came down and tore up the city, which was rebuilt all the way through the late 1900’s. King D. Luis decided to take a vacation there in the late 1800’s. And once that occurred, boom, it became a vacay vibe for the rich and famous. Sports like fishing and sailing, canoeing and tennis became popular in Portugal and Cascais was a perfect place for them.
We were near the main part of town in a swanky hotel on the water, as well as close to all the historical sites, but the further we drove away from the downtown area, the more the beaches change from calm and serene to an all out Northern California surfer’s wet dream. We did have an amazing guide drive us not only to the Western most point in Europe–very cool and a beach front that had not just oversized dunes, but also amazingly large and unusual rock. But the tour de force, was the hilly and all out charming town of Sintra, where we were treated to a complete tour of one of the most amazing sites I’ve ever seen–The National Palace of Pena. Carlos, our smarty pants guide who used to the a press agent for a big soccer team, but got tired of it and became a travel guide, knew everything about this magical, Disney-esque (apparently part of it was actually used to create the famous Disney castle) palace. Note: a castle is part of the military and a palace is part of royalty. Never knew that! Anyway, this building is made from seven years of artistry and imagination (I don’t know what kind of drugs this King was doing, but something) that King Ferdinand II designed and had implemented. We are talking wack-a-doodle colors, minute details everywhere you turn and stories galore. This was one of those places that left me wordless. I kept repeating the same thing, like a dull cartoon character with no language–“I can’t believe this place.” But really, I couldn’t. For me, this was one of the highlights of the whole trip. Yes, a castle, oooops, I mean palace, in the sky blew my Portugues-site seeing doors off. Also, there are like a billion acres around this cray cray palace to hike and picnic, too. And the town of Sintra looked to be one of those places I would like to stay in and explore next time I visit this extraordinary country.
And then it was time to go home. Usually the worst part, but flying first class was a vacation all its own. Gratitude as big as the entire country of Portugal for this sunny and interesting getaway. It gave me energy (although the five hour time difference did give me a good case of jet lag) and reminded me of all the cool and beautiful things there are in the world, which the pandemic did a very good job of helping us forget about. Good news–they’re still there!