This holiday I am doing differently … this holiday I will not leave the desert of Abu Dhabi in a trail of dust as soon as school lets out … this holiday I will give myself time to prepare … time to think … time to spend with myself. I am embarking on this holiday alone … I will go where I please, see what I like, be on my own schedule … I will not feel responsible to or for anyone traveling with me … I will not need to ask the opinion of others or the desires, likes or dislikes of anyone save myself. I am going to Portugal – where I will wander streets, find cozy cafes, people watch, hope to meet locals or fellow travelers, work on a foreign language … and write …
With all of this in mind, I leave the desert in the wee hours of the morning two days after school lets out. I leave after I have had time to say farewell to friends who have already departed for their holidays and to spend time with my cat. I arrive at the airport before dawn in time to meet a chauffeur from my car rental to take my car for service while I am away. On the plane I sit with a Portuguese woman who is visiting home for the holidays – she lives in Abu Dhabi working with the environmental municipality …we talk about life in the desert and how different things there are .. we talk about her work & I learn more than I really want to know about the water quality of this country in which I am living. We take lunch together during our layover in Paris, and continue on to Lisbon. At the airport, we exchange numbers and say our farewells.
I catch a cab to the flat I have rented and it is well after dark when the taxi driver drops me at a corner saying he can’t get into the neighborhood where my flat is. At the bottom of a hill he tells me, through miming, to walk up a while then go right … lugging my bags and completely unsure of where to go, I begin the walk. After wandering a bit on the narrow cobblestone streets, I arrive at a corner that i recognize from the pictures and I hear my name from above. Joana is lovely.. she has lamps lit, windows open, a small space heater on, and candles burning. She gives me maps & suggestions of places I should see in Lisbon, as I have arrived with no information about the area…. I don’t even know the tipping etiquette of the Portuguese! (turns out it’s the average 10%)
I quickly unpack, wash my face, change out of my travel clothes, and head out … after all,. it’s Saturday night in barrio alto – a very busy pub district in Lisbon. Walking the streets, I quickly decide this area is a maze – the streets are extremely narrow (so much so that some are impassible for cars), cobblestone, lined with 3 – 4 story tall buildings. The narrow streets and tall buildings give the effect of a true maze – you can’t see beyond the street that you are on, there is no getting a feeling for where you are by looking into the distance or around the corner – it’s too narrow. After a good meander around, I decide I may end up lost – after all, it is dark and I have no idea of where I am and have neglected to bring one of Joana’s maps with me – so I decide to stop for dinner at a little spot close to my flat.
I go in to the tiny restaurant where two very friendly Portuguese servers greet me. The menu is entirely in Portuguese, so I am at the waiter’s mercy – he brings me grilled pork fillets, bread, cheese, rice, and red wine. I think I am in love.
In the morning I wake early and decide I will go to a book talk that Joana told me about. I plug the address of the café into my phone & head out. The café is on the other side of town – the walk takes me through several neighborhoods and shopping centers, it takes me through downtown, and past many squares and monuments, as well as down a beautiful promenade where locals have set up a flea market-type shopping area. After several wrong turns that lead up and down endless stairs and through narrow alleyways, I find the place I am looking for. The café is owned by a biking enthusiast and is an adorable combination of biking supplies, delicious freshly prepared foods, and amazing coffee. Here I meet and chat with several locals, including Joana. The author of the book is an American who is living in Paris. She is a young free-lance writer and I am inspired by her. After a leisurely morning of coffee, delightful Portuguese pastries, and good conversation, I head back towards my Lisbon home. The map app on my phone doesn’t recognize the address of my flat, so I attempt to retrace my steps… needless to say, I end up hopelessly lost on the streets of Lisbon. This is just fine with me …. I slow down and take my time, enjoying the sights of the beautiful Portuguese people, the lovely winding streets, and the incredible and random street art. I spend hours wandering hilly side streets and alleyways, up and down what seems a million sets of stairs … it is simply beautiful. Until I realize my phone is almost out of charge & I am still completely lost! I remember I did bring one of Joana’s maps … I break it out & ask for directions – 30 minutes later I’m safely back in my flat with terribly aching calves.
It’s December and cool … it’s the low season for Lisbon’s tourist industry, which I don’t think is booming any time of year. Lisbon appears to be a hidden jewel. A good friend of mine says Portugal is her favorite European country – I can see why… the people are beautiful, friendly, and welcoming, without being overbearing; the city of Lisbon is a charming land of the past where the easiest mode of transport is a streetcar. Lisbon is a large city, complete with the big city sounds & smells of cars, emergency vehicles, public transport, pan-handlers, the constant murmur of people chatting … but it is so much more – or, really, so much less. Lisbon looks as if it were cut from the pages of a history book. It is a city of endless meandering streets, charming old buildings in various states of disrepair; it is full of French style architecture and public squares, parks, and monuments. On the outskirts of the city one can spend days wandering the ancient castles and beautiful gardens of Sintra. You can go to the edge of the earth at the western most point in Europe – Cabo da Roca (Cape Roca) where you will be literally blown away by the wind and phenominal view. Time is certainly not of the essence in Lisbon, as people linger over pastries, coffee, and wine. The sound of Portuguese wafting through the air makes for an incredibly romantic atmosphere.
My trip to Portugal is scheduled to include Lisbon, Porto, and the Algarve region. After just a few days in Lisbon, I realize I cannot leave. I have not seen enough of this magical city. I change my reservations and stay the full time in Lisbon, vowing to return to Portugal to see Porto to the north and the Algarve to the south.
Portugal was an amazing treat for me … traveling alone, I spent my days doing some of my favorite things – wandering sweet city streets, talking to people, and finding hidden back alley cafes, and pondering.