Country of Illusion

In keeping with tradition, I instantly had it bad for Portugal. After only a few hours of aimlessly exploring Lisbon’s narrow, hilly streets, I was head over heels. I had no real agenda during my three days in Lisbon, and so spent the first following my whims, which largely amounted to chasing whatever music I heard. This led me to dim cafes where acoustic guitars strummed soulful fado, and the sounds of a clarinet performing a bluesy version of  “Mr Sandman” led me to the top of a hill with a huge castle and a view of the entire city. Around every corner I found something new to charm or surprise me, and there was a timeless quality to the city, as if nothing had changed in 500 years except for the street art, serving to bring the buildings reluctantly into the present.

Beautiful Lisbon
Oh Lisbon, you charmer.

Art near the harbor.
Art near the harbor.

At last I followed a live bands of hip local youths past kids playing soccer, women gossiping over their laundry lines and men clucking to their caged parakeets until we reached one of the cities many plazas. I ordered a Super Bock and sat overlooking the pastel houses and terra cotta rooftops sloping towards the river, a cubist’s dream come to life. As the wind herded grey rain clouds across the sky while a string quartet began competing for attention in the plaza below, a handful of elderly couples began swing dancing in a different plaza across the way. By the time I found my way back to my hostel, stopping along the way for a pastel de nata, I knew it was love.

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Barrio Alto

The next two days involved more wandering and frequently getting lost, as the map I had seemed to not match at all with the actual streets. Undeterred, I happily made my way up and down the city’s many hills, hugging the buildings every time a car squeezed past. I stopped for breakfast at Praca de D Pedro IV, where the storefronts reminded me of how I pictured 1920’s Paris, although the tiling on the buildings lent them an Arabic feel. While eavesdropping over my pastries and espresso I became besotted with Portuguese, allowing it to climb the rankings in my mind as the most beautiful of all the languages.

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Lisbon continued to inspire, every street seemed like a little poem created just for me. At one point while walking I peered down what I thought was a deserted alleyway and found a pair of clowns waving back at me. At another juncture I stumbled upon a demolished building, where an artist had ‘planted’ plastic flowers, making them appear to grow and cover the ruins entirely. I spent an afternoon exploring Barrio Alto, avoiding the famous late night party scene in favor of sleep. Another day I visited the Belem District, stopping by the beautifully designed Bernardo Museum of Contemporary Art, pleasantly surprised by how many big-name artists were exhibited, and visited the waterfront to climb the Belem Tower. I ended my last night at the Praza do Comercio to watch the sunset, enjoying the misty views of the 25 de Abril bridge as the marble of the plaza glowed gold.

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Welcome to Sintra
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Quinta da Regaleira, the bottom of the Initiation Well

I also managed to squeeze in a day trip from Lisbon, to the seaside town of Sintra. I set off early to catch the train, riding up the coast in a light rain. I spent the first part of the day clambering up a mountain where since 5000bc there has been civilization, to visit a Moorish castle. I didn’t want to pay the admission fee when all was said and done, but it was a beautiful and challenging hike, and I was still able to visit the guard’s houses outside and play around on the castle walls. I returned to the city center to refresh myself with an espresso and a quejada at Piriquita Cafe before walking out to see Quinta da Regaleira, an estate built by an eccentric millionaire in the early 20th century. It might sound stupid but seeing pictures of the grounds a few years ago was the reason I first became interested in Portugal, and it did not disappoint. I was entirely obsessed and spent several happy hours wandering around the gardens, scheming about creating my own park one day (once I become obscenely rich, obviously). It reminded me of Gaudi’s famous Park Güell in Barcelona, except wackier and amped up, with secret underground passageways, towers leading to nowhere, and hidden grottoes.

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The trip ended trip with a visit down to the southern tip of Portugal (just to see how it feels), where I loved the stripped cliffs, aloe plants, rust colored earth and clear turquoise waters of Lagos. Even though it was late October, the water was still warm enough to swim, and so I spent my day walking along the cliffs, scrambling down for a dip whenever the pull of the sea became too strong to resist. Waves had eaten away at the cliffs, creating arches and coves and islands, and the men fishing on the ledges seemed precariously placed, making me very nervous about what would happen if they nabbed a big one. Towards the end of the day I spied a nudie beach from the overhang above, decided why not, and enjoyed a blissful few hours sunning myself and splashing about, until the rising tide and setting sun made it necessary to head back. After a day in the waves I spent 5 euros on a half piri piri chicken from a divey looking place near my hostel, and I swear it was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, and reason enough to return for another visit one day.

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