Exploring Portugal

I’d like to go away every  six months at minimum. Trade the everyday hustle for some tranquility. Unfortunately, that’s not always attainable. A whole year can sometimes go by without any real escape, that’s almost what happened with my long anticipated trip to Europe. It wasn’t till November, pretty late in the year that I found a window to slip away from ongoing projects.

Destination was Portugal and the travel plan, simple. Arrive in Lisbon, stay 4-5days, then go to any city within a five-hour drive worth exploring. Thanks to Airbnb, adventure triumphs details. Finding accommodation has never been easier, hence the play it by air type plans.

Portugal is a country rich in culture. You feel it the moment you leave the airport and set foot on the cobblestones. There’s much to say about my experience, but to avoid writing a lengthy post, I’ll feed y’all timbits.

Gear disclosure: I wanted to travel light so I brought three very light lenses. 95% of the images were shot with a Nikon 28mm AIS F2.8 and Nikon 135mm AIS F2.8. The remaining 5% were shot with a Tamron 90mm Macro F2.8

First things first after landing, I switched out the sim card in my phone. This is crucial when exploring a new city, because you’ll need Google Maps and 24-7 Internet access. I got a 2GB data plan for 15 euros from Meo, one of the big telecom providers. Connected to the web, getting lost was no longer a concern; I was free to roam the streets. I also brought a USB power bank so I never had to worry about my phone dying.

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Lets start with food. These people mean the ‘fresh’ in fresh produce. Food in restaurants tasted fresh, veggies, meat, fish and so on. Something I did not expect is how much they eat Bacalhau (salted codfish). I’m surprised this place is not crawling with Jamaicans. Almost every restaurant’s got Bacalhau on the menu prepared in a variety of ways. It was also served in the plane on our flight home, so I think it’s safe to say salted codfish is official here.

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Beer and Wine is cheap! It cost just as much to have a beer or wine with your meal to water. I’m guessing dudes here must have no issues going on a hundred dates to get the girl. She wants a glass of wine? Sure! She can have the whole bottle, and it will only cost about six to eight euros. Besides food and wine, household items are pricey. At least to me when I do the conversion to Canadian dollars in my head.

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You can have alcohol in public places. Yes sir, you can read that New York Bestseller at the park, drinking your alcoholic beverage. I enjoyed a cold beer watching 007 at the movies. You may be thinking – alcohol on the streets…..what! People must be walking around totally trashed! Not at all. Through my entire stay, I never witnessed locals drunk on the street mumbling gibberish. I think that’s impressive, considering alcohol is cheap and the law permits you to drink in public. I went clubbing and watched the people on the street with drinks in their hands, the loud groups were usually tourists. I wonder if people in Toronto will be as well behaved if we had similar laws.

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They love pastry. There’s a pastry shop at every coin toss. Made me wonder how shop owners with the same business, near each other can still make money. I became a pastry-head within days, it’s convenient when grabbing a bite in-between meals. At first I thought these pastry shops were targeting tourists, but no, they are everywhere! I saw as many pastry shops deep in town as in touristy places. So I think its definitely a part of the culture.

So you want a large or extra large coffee? For-ge-ra-bou-it. The coffee cups are tiny, so tiny I would order 3-4 coffees in one sitting. The idea of take out coffee is foreign to these folks. They don’t buy coffee and walk around drinking it. They order a coffee, sit and savor the beverage. Unless you find a Starbucks, forget about the big take out coffee cups we are used to. And when I did find a Starbucks, my jaw dropped at the price of a venti coffee…..not good! If you see anyone drinking Starbucks there, that’s a tourist badge nine out of ten times. The locals aint paying that kinda money for coffee. At one Starbucks, I tried getting a shot of the price-board and was immediately stopped by the workers. They explained the owners don’t permit customers taking photos of the price-board. Uhhhh….very suspect, wouldn’t you agree? They obviously don’t want the word spreading. I pressed the shutter as I was lowering my camera and got this one shot.
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They do intermissions at the movie theatre. Half way through the 007 movie, it stopped and the word “Intervalo” came on screen. People got up to use the washroom, buy more snacks and beer, or simply stretch their legs. In Toronto I’ve seen intermissions observed at plays, but never at the movies. We are way too sales-driven to let something like intermissions cut into profits.
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The highways are awesome, but a lot of the residential streets are narrow. On top of that, people park on one side of these tiny streets. I was scared most of the time despite over a decade of driving experience. There are hills everywhere and I can promise you’ll be caught in traffic on one. About 80% of the cars have manual transmissions, my rental – a Volkswagen Up was manual too. Driving up narrow steep streets, with a manual transmission, in traffic, can be very unsettling. You can rent an automatic transmission, but it will cost you a whole lot more. So if your stick shifting is sticky, you should definitely get the lazy man car. And if you are an SUV person, be warned. I can’t imagine living here and owning a big car. There are plenty of streets you simply won’t have access to. You’ll constantly have to park somewhere and walk to your destination. It’s no surprise compact cars rule the roads there.
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The subways are clean, advanced and simply rock! To be frank, the whole public transit system impressed me. Some days, we parked the rental and only used public transport. We got a twenty-four hour pass, which cost about 6.50 Euros per person. Cell phones also work underground in the subway. I remember doing a double take the first time I saw people chatting on their phones. Then I looked at mine and noticed I had all bars, a full connection. First I thought wow, wicked! Why don’t we have this back home? But the more I rode the subway and listened to some loud conversations, the excitement simmered off. Maybe it’s not a bad thing we don’t have signal underground in Toronto. Imagine going to work and hearing all sorts of chatter in the morning. Not cool if you plan on getting some shuteye before your stop.
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They have a unique sense of fashion. People dress with more individual style and imagination. Color combinations and patterns are a bit more out there, on the adventurous side. Another interesting thing I picked up is young girls still have an innocence to them. They look cool but without the overly tight, short clothing. Unlike Toronto where I frequently see young girls with bums literally hanging out their shorts. On the flip side, I did notice more early teen smokers. Like smoking is still considered cool and rebellious. And to my surprise, it’s allowed in some indoor places. I remember telling a guy dancing next to me at the club….. dude, your cigarette smoke is choking me, could you please take it outside? He just smiled, moved two steps away and kept dancing. How sweet. Like a two-step distance between us is supposed to help this situation. I looked around and noticed he wasn’t the only one smoking. That’s when I clued in, it’s allowed 🙁

Here’s a serious tip. If you have knee problems, exploring Portugal on foot is not for you. The layout of the land is such that you’ll constantly be walking uphill. The people, even senior citizens, climb fleets of stairs and steep roads with reasonable ease. That’s what they’ve known their whole lives and are accustomed to it. An outsider will find it challenging to do the same without breaking some serious sweat. I got a daily workout!

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Portugal like much of Europe is a mesh of the old and new. The new offering comfort and functionality, the old giving it all character. Buildings look dated from the outside, but most have modern finishes inside. However modern the interior, you’ll notice little details that’s a glimpse of the past. Things like doorknobs, locks, handles, stone and woodcarvings. They also like bright ceramic tiles with busy patterns for exterior finishes. Check out the photo of this key to an apartment we stayed in. When’s the last time you saw a key like that hanging off a buddy’s key chain in Toronto?

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I kept seeing these mobile-kiosks on the street and became curious on what they were selling. Eventually, I walked up to get a closer look. The lady didn’t speak any English so it was up to me to draw my own conclusions. Whatever she was making, I could see they were fresh. She roasted them right there in a charcoal oven rigged onto a tricycle. Yes, I know its ill advised to eat street food, especially on vacation. But when it comes to food, there’s not much I won’t try. Relax, it’s fully cooked so I should be fine – I kept telling myself. I gave her 2.50 euros, she put a dozen of these ‘things’ in a rolled up piece of white paper, leaned over and handed it to me. I peeled the shell off one and took a bite. Interesting. Familiar. Yummmm. Reminded me of roasted yam. I bought more that evening and the following day. From asking around, I learned it’s roasted chestnuts. Yup, simple roasted chestnuts. I also learned not to buy them in tourist areas. You get a dozen for 2.50 euros there, while further in town you can get eighteen chestnuts for 1.00 euro. Quite the hustle eh. Oh well, don’t hate the players, hate the game. They played me for a sucka like four times before I caught on. In summary, when you see neatly dressed people strolling, and they have black fingers, don’t be quick to question their personal hygiene. Chances are they just snacked on roasted chestnuts.

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They are not all about business. Balancing work and life is taken seriously, something we North Americans may describe as too lax. On Sunday, more than half the stores I passed were closed. I’m talking retail stores. In Toronto, Sunday like Saturday is an important day for retail stores. People pickup extra shifts on weekends, never mind closing. They also eat dinner early, restaurants close around 9pm everyday. Except for tourist areas, you’ll be lucky to find a restaurant serving dinner past 9pm. The kitchen closes but you can still order snacks and drinks. We (girlfriend and I) searched in vain for a late dinner. We ended up settling for sandwiches and beer that evening. But check it out, we had two big sandwiches, one with Bacalhau and the other with beef. Including the beer, our bill came up to 6.70 euros! Now that’s my kind of town 🙂

Be extra careful at the gas station. I was careful and still managed to fill my rental with the wrong fuel. The car died minutes later on the highway and was towed. It still hurts thinking of the 500 euros I paid for the repair. How I wish I took the extra insurance but like many folks, I convinced myself I didn’t need it. The full coverage was something like 14 euros a day. I had the car for ten days, so 140 euros. It may not seem like a lot, but compared to the 180 euros for the rental, then it feels overpriced. I’m just glad the incidence happened on our last day of the trip. Otherwise, it would have been harder to forget and could have ruined the fun.

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Portugal was a major port for African slaves back in the day, so there’s no shortage of black people there. Which is why I was surprised at the stares we got in shops and restaurants. My girlfriend concluded it has to be one of two things. Either black folks don’t visit the places we were drawn to, or it was my camera and tripod causing the attention. It was weird and borderline uncomfortable to see peoples’ eyes lock on us for long moments.

I’ll always remember the morning I first had the roasted chestnuts. There was thick fog in the air that impaired visibility. I remember passing a Square filled with people. The fog turned them into moving shapes that faded, like a scene from a horror film. It was creepy and beautiful. There was a strip of restaurants by the water and I noticed a boat dock. The fog started to clear but I was able to capture it dragging my shutter. These ended up being my favourite shots.

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Here’s the balcony view of a beach house we stayed in. I was out there one morning and noticed these guys. Think they completed the working at heights safety training? Uhmmm….I think not. The scene made me chuckle and shake my head.
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This bookstore in Porto has been around since early 1900. When we looked it up online, it was like a 40mins walk from our Airbnb apartment, so we hit the road. Getting there, we realized entry isn’t free. It’s around 6 euros per person to get in, and if you buy a book, the fee is deducted from the cost of the book. They have this funky structure across the street where the tickets are sold.
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Here’s the catch. There’s hardly any book in English below 15 euros. So in our case, our 12 euros discount fell short of buying anything, let alone something interesting. We were a bit disappointed but not in the least upset. Being in the bookstore, experiencing such a beautiful and historic space was well worth it.
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I went to boarding school for six years. The first year was a nightmare because I had five sets of seniors above me to serve. Things got better by year three, at least by then I had two sets of juniors I could reassign chores given to me by seniors. In year six, school was like living in a hotel, there were five sets of students I was senior to. Lying in bed, I could assign one to pickup my food from the kitchen, another to wash my uniform, and another to polish my sandals. We checked out one of the oldest universities in Portugal and I’m not sure what was happening here, but it reminded me of boarding school. Looks to me like junior students being punished by some seniors.
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See how we have garbage pickup and recycling pickup days? They use a different system. They put bottles for recycling in these containers placed in several spots in every neighborhood. I saw people walk up and empty bags of bottles in them. Right off the top of my head, I could see one clear benefit for the pickup trucks. It cancels out driving to every street and stopping at every home for a pickup. Which in turn saves the city money spent on wages, trucks maintenance and gas. That said, I wonder how paper and other recyclable items are collected.
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I’ll wrap things up now. Every vacation ends. Besides the rental car hiccup, it was a great time. There’s much to see and experience in Portugal. I left out the tourist sites and attractions we experienced on purpose. However, I can confirm the articles you’ve read online about them are for real. Some sites like the Church of St. Anthony are breath taking. We only drove as far as Porto, staying a day or two in small towns along the way. Airbnb was our primary booking agent, we had no issues finding places to crash at reasonable rates. We hope to return in the near future, and this time, with better walking shoes. Here are some more photos, enjoy 🙂

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