The Magic + Lessons of Portugal
Sometimes the best travel adventures are planned under the most random of circumstances. Portugal was born on a lazy afternoon, sleeping in and not rushing towards any errand or meeting. Perhaps all trips should be planned in such rest and relaxation....!
I very much consider myself an outdoors traveler. If there are mountains, trees, and hiking trails nearby, I am always going to have an amazing time. Portugal, however, struck me as more of a city adventure; and I wasn't sure if I wanted to spend my time or money on something that can often feel like a concrete jungle. I was very wrong, and so glad for it.
Portugal has a charm that's unlike a lot of other European cities. Yes, there's concrete everywhere, but even it feels like it carries a deep energy within it. We spend the day we arrived simply wandering the streets; being carried away by the odd romance of cobblestone-lined alleys and colorful apartment buildings. I'll forever laugh at the memory of underwear hanging on the line between two apartments, and my friend's deeply-weird, longing desire to take a picture of it :)
At times, Lisbon felt like remnants of Italy's famous cities, where love for people and food intermingled, and were never quite seen as separate. Other times, Lisbon felt like Spain's more quiet, subtle cousin. But I can say with certainty that I felt at peace in Portugal. Stumbling over directions and our poor attempt at Portuguese, it felt like our time there was starting in the first chapter of "Eat, Pray, Love." Portugal is definitely a mix of both eating and loving, at the same time. I think when I experience romantic countries and languages, this idea presents itself more acutely each time: love is love. People here express it freely and passionately, whether they're eating pasta or making love. There's something about how that expression of love is carried so effortlessly across all aspects of any given day. And I liked that! I liked that love was an undercurrent beneath all of Lisbon, and well into the country's marrow, itself.
But the food! I'm pretty sure that North America got it wrong about how we nurture ourselves via food. Each time I go to Europe, all I want to do is eat :) The minute I step off the plane, my stomach shifts and morphs into this bottomless pit, standing ready at the service of any appetizer, platter, drink, and dessert. There is no guilt, far from it! There are only seconds, and walks through the alleys and streets, through throngs of people and shops and flickering lights, only to hop from one restaurant to the other - filling our bellies, as if the food will surely disappear soon. This is the way that I love to eat. With passion, with love, with a delicacy so sweet, that it's a movement of art to simply stand witness to.
There is a shop in Belem, a Lisbon neighborhood, that makes traditional, famous Portugal pastries. "Pasteis de Belem" is a small puff pastry that is actually and quite literally, a religious experience. There are no words with which I'll even attempt to describe what it tastes like. You'll just have to take my word for it, and go taste it for yourself.
As rich as Lisbon is, we wanted to use our week's time to truly explore as much of Portugal as possible. This meant many hostel changes, lugging giant suitcases up alleys that are not meant for giant suitcases (or stairs); and bus rides where some of us (me) lost phones...
Regardless, every shitty situation is a funny and sweet memory later on. When I think back on arriving at our hostel in Porto, and hanging up my smelly socks to dry on the open window, I both cringe and smile at this memory. When I think how many belly laughs I enjoyed with my friend, and how many jokes will forever remain seared into my brain, I am beyond grateful for every inconvenience or sleepless night. This is truly the backbone of travel!
If you do anything in Porto (pictured above), do this: grab a table outside, order some wine and cheese, and just melt into this activity of eating and drinking. It's an art. It's a spiritual coming undone, from all the stress and baggage you may have taken with you on travel; to anything weighing you down back home, or even in that moment in life. In wine and cheese, all worries melt away. Of this, I am sure. This is coming from someone who can't even process cheese anymore; so I took a suicidal leap of faith by ingesting as much cheese as I could, because "Life goes on!" felt like a powerful statement of surrender at the time. I'm happy to say I never regretted one bite (or later, fart).
Porto is magical. All of Portugal is, but Porto has a golden charm that just draws you into love, passion, joy, and believing that you're exactly where you're supposed to be - even if that doesn't always mean anything at the time.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the above picture of an exquisitely ornate bookstore - Livraria Lella. This is the same bookstore that was used in one of the Harry Potter books during movie filming!! I could live here. Honestly. It is always jam-packed with people, trying to take pictures of the stairs. But beneath the tourist bustle, this is a glorious place! There are thousands of books, in many different languages, in many different categories. Each title and genre pull you away from the lull of tourist chatter, to the deep confines of literary mystery, just waiting to be plucked from the shelves. If you do anything else in Porto but eat and drink, also come here!
The last adventure of Portugal was Nazare - a coastal town famously known as the place with the largest waves in the world. I was beyond excited to visit this beach. I was itching at the hope to catch a swell rising from the depths in what I've only ever seen in Youtube videos. Sadly enough, not only did I lose my phone and the ability to capture any of this; but the waves that day were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps Divine timing, who knows...
What I do know is that I was so upset at losing my phone, that I stood at the water's edge and screamed into the great beyond, spilling out all of my anger and frustration into the sea depths that were more powerful than I could imagine. It felt great. It was therapeutic. With this release came a chance to simply sit on the beach and ponder about all of the other baggage we may have been holding onto. In our "Eat, Pray, Love" chapter, this was the prayer. It wasn't in the mountains, where I'm used to going. It wasn't around trees. It was on a beach known for its waves - without them - on the sand, and in the depths of a cleansing patch of ocean. And it was beautiful. You'll just have to take my word for it.
In fact, believe me that all of Portugal was magical. Between the messiness that is travel sometimes, we trudge and nudge our way to special places, so that we can see them, take pictures of their breathtaking visages, and share them with friends online. But when that "power" is taken away, and the Universe gobbles up your phone forever, you're left to take in this beautiful world with the only camera that's ever mattered - your eyes. For that hard lesson, I am eternally grateful. For Portugal and my memories there, I am grateful even more. Changed. Filled to the brim with experience and humility. As it should be.