Like many of you, I too have been daydreaming about the day I can finally hop on a plane and go far away. Whether the time comes this fall or early 2021, I’ll be celebrating all the same.
My boyfriend Kyle and I were planning our very first big trip together: Portugal, 2020. That evening of March 25 – when we would have boarded our flight – we spent resting our feet in front of my television screen staring at a Youtube-simulated beach scene drinking Pinot Grigio. “We’ve arrived!” our Instagram stories cheerily announced, before camera panned to my disappointed face.
I still find myself replaying the real thing in my mind, almost everyday. How I’d return from Portugal with my journal filled with scribbled notes and passing stories. My fingers eager to return to the keyboard, allowing the memories to formulate my travel tales. After talking to Kyle about it, he presented a unique idea. Why not still do it?
So, I went ahead and created our very own pre-Portugal story, thanks to our shared Excel list of things to see and do and my Lonely Planet Guidebook. This will be divided between two posts – the first will describe our first four days in Lisbon as planned, and the second will cover two nights in Porto.
Once our travel dreams return to fruition, I expect a journal full of notes so I can finally write about the real thing. It’d be interesting to compare both versions, observe any similarities and contrasts, the dichotomy of expectation versus reality. Did we see the same places? Do the same things? What did we do differently? What surprised us or geared us off course?
Obviously, the real story will hold more gravitas filled with lived, meaningful moments. But the most striking observation – a valuable lesson from my creative writing course – will be the differences in emotion, tone and style in writing based on real experiences.
So, let’s just put our dreamer caps on and pretend life was normal. Our flight taxied down the runway on the evening of March 25 at Pearson Airport and landed in Lisbon 7 hours later.
We left the cloudy damp weather and light snow and flew into clear, sunny skies. At around noon Portugal time, we arrived at our accommodation and checked in with ease.
We booked a hybrid guesthouse-boutique-hotel, something locally owned. A rustic and bohemian house, it was located Bairro Alto, around central-west Lisbon, a neighbourhood dotted with graffiti and streets aligned with quirky bars and restaurants. The place welcomed us with bright colours – furnishings of yellow, baby blue and taupe – with family portraits adorning blemished white walls. Our room had two twin beds with an open window onto the street, the wind rippling through the curtains.
Following 7 hours of sitting, I allowed the blood to flow by powering up my leg muscles up and down the hilly, cobblestone streets. Months of yoga and boxing toned the calves pretty nicely just in time. As we climbed, Kyle took out his phone camera and asked me to pose in front of pastel-coloured buildings, underneath the tram’s cable wires. He snapped a picture for his first Instagram story.
Throughout the afternoon, we took our time looking sparingly our map, strolling like locals down busy streets – pretending as though we knew our way. Meanwhile, the clanging sounds of the cable cars whooshed past slowly as though a hand was gently pulling them uphill.
Lisbon was walkable enough that from one moment, we were venturing south to window shop in Baixa and through the upscale Chiado, followed by a quick sneak peek at the infamous and historic Alfama. Before dinner, we used Google Maps to find as many nearby lookout points as two hours could enable us – the Basilicia De Estrela, Jardim do Torel or Miradouro da Senhora do Monte.
I felt weary and my eyelids grew heavy during dinnertime. The sun was setting but vibrantly lit up the city’s red roofs. We found a place listed in my guidebook called Café de Gargarem for a subdued atmosphere and a glass of wine. We cozied up to the wall, made entirely of window panes and admired the sweeping view of our home for the next four days.
We rose around 8 a.m. and shuffled down the spiral steps for breakfast. Resting on the kitchen counter was an assortment of fruits, toast, eggs, jam with hot coffee and a waffle press. Today was our designated “alt day.” Here’s how it worked: our trek began at the hotel lobby by asking the concierge, “What is the weirdest or most interesting place in Lisbon that you’d recommend?” Based on their response, this was our next destination. Consequently, we planned to ask the same question to the next person – whether a barista, bartender, librarian or maybe an eavesdropper – and so forth. But stepping back, it would be impossible to accurately encapsulate this experience until it really happens.
Instead, today’s itinerary took us through Lisbon’s oddest and edgiest attractions as researched through Atlas Obscura. By 10 a.m., we were craving another cup of brew. My preparations always involved creating a list of local cafés in each city before every single trip. I knew about one special place that generated lots of buzz – and it’s called Buzz Lisboeta. Resting by the River Tagus, Buzz Lisboeta was burrowed within a shipyard surrounded by containers. But the dining room itself was nestled into a repurposed transit bus.
The bus remained still as we climbed aboard. Made of plush red leather, the seats faced one another divided by smooth wooden tables. This was one “bus ride” that no one wanted to end. We had a second cup and a scone each.
Conveniently, the next spot on our list was just a few blocks north. Ler Devagar was considered one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores. Upon entering, our eyes scanned the floor-to-ceiling walls of books with metal walkways and stairways hanging askew. A model of a female cyclist hung suspended in the centre, her arms and legs moving about like pinwheels. I could hear the metal grinds from below and the clunking of people’s footsteps. It was like a circus fun house for book lovers.
We made a quick detour to Jerónimos Monastery, one of Lisbon’s most popular historic sites. It was the former monastery of the Order of Saint Jerome and spanned over 100 years in construction, which started around 1501. Its magnificence was marked with Renaissance themes incorporating architectural styles of maritime elements and objects discovered from naval expeditions. We quickly scanned the outdoors as lineups wrapped around the walls and the price of admission was quite steep.
I was feeling hungry once again and was ready to satisfy one long-awaited craving – those infamous pastel de natas. After a search on Google Maps we located a bakery around the corner and purchased a giant bag of 10 for 18 Euros. I’ve tasted them before at a Portuguese baker near my Mom’s house, and was content to let the custard’s smooth, butteriness rest on my tongue before devouring three in a row.
We hopped on the subway to the outskirts of Alfama towards our next destination, one that Kyle had eagerly anticipated: The Doll Hospital. “Totally cursed, but so tempting” as noted on our spreadsheet. This wasn’t your typical museum of oddities or anything from a haunted walk. Here is an excerpt from their website:
“Established in 1830 in Lisbon’s bustling Praça da Figueiria, it’s considered the oldest surviving doll hospital that continues to operate from its original location. Here, dolls of all kinds – plastic, porcelain, metal, wool and fabric – will receive a new lease on life. The waiting list runs around four months and those in need of care paint a somewhat macabre picture: chipped faces, fractured arms, gaping ruby-stained lips, and missing eyes.”
By 6 p.m., we had one final place to visit. Just a few blocks west from here was Pavilhao Chines, equal parts bar, museum and curiosity shop and hidden in an old former grocery store. Patrons had to find a secret red door and ring the bell to enter. A beaming bartender greeted us and led us downstairs. Because we arrived near opening time, we snatched an upholstered booth that was surrounded by cabinets of vintage toys, trains and much more. We sat munching on bacalhau and sipping beer underneath the low lighting of crystal chandeliers. As I scanned the bar, I saw porcelain figurines, helmets, military regalia and even a British Palace guard mannequin sitting in the corner with a stern frown poking out of his black hat.
We felt as though today’s alternative edge took its toll, and we were ready to turn in by 9:30 p.m. I closed my eyes, envisioning a cracked visage and starry blue eyes from the dolls lined up on rows of shelves above my head. I was also reminded somehow of two dolls in my grandparents’ living room. One of them had curly blond hair bursting forth from her white bonnet, watching me equivocally.
Today was our designated field trip to Sintra. About an hour northwest of Lisbon by train, it’s home to a plethora of historical landmarks like the Manueline Sintra National Palace and the colourful Pena Palace.
I packed a bag of natas and ate two on the train. We arrived at 11:30 a.m. and immediately settled ourselves in with some casual window shopping. I could see both palaces sculpted into the Sintra Mountains, towering over city’s orange-tinted roofs. Thankful for my shoes despite the sweat, I led Kyle towards the National Palace by foot. Up ahead, I noticed the palace’s white conical chimneys poking out into the ocean-blue sky. The edifice itself was white and ornately painted with gold edges around mullioned windows. As a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, the palace was the best-preserved medieval royal residence in Portugal.
We decided to forego a guided interior tour for timing and budgeting reasons, taking comfort in admiring the exterior and writing our thoughts in pocketbooks. Our hungry stomachs gave in and we stopped at a café for more coffee and sandwiches. Eventually, we bypassed the 15 minute wait for a bus for a 45 minute stroll, passing through Sintra once again.
Pena Palace on the other hand, reminded me of my visit to Neuschwanstein. Saturated with bright red, yellow and grey, this Romanticist castle dates back to 1838 occupied by King Ferdinand II as a summer mansion for the royal family.
While encircling the palace, I noticed that beneath our feet and its foundations laid sheer rock. There were two gateways – one of which had a drawbridge – as well as an old convent and a clock tower. Directly in front of the chapel was the Arches Yard, adorned with Moorish arches. As we climbed back downhill towards the train station, I took one last look. Rather unexpectedly, my mind likened the palace to a life-size model of a 3D puzzle. I remembered this being a hobby of my brother’s one time, and he built a castles that looked remarkably like this.
Rather than relaxation day, we chose to wheel about Lisbon on our final day.
After taking the Metro to Cais do Sodre, we were met with a tepid coastal breeze. An array of white rental bikes sat directly in front of the station. After logging in and unlocking the bikes, the both of us walked the first 100 metres to get accustomed.
I remained a few metres behind Kyle, his longer legs giving him a minor boost. We trailed the bike path along Av. Brasilia, running parallel to the highway. The bike was easy to navigate, despite a few scrapes as my feet occasionally slipped off the pedals. The afternoon sun blared directly in our eyes, but I was fortunate to have sunglasses. My thighs were burning up again, my breath quickening. The city seemed eerily quiet as my ears tuned into the river to my left and ephemeral chimes of cheery voices on my right.
We finished our tour at Belém Tower, a lone 16th-century limestone fortification on the banks of the Tagus. Belém served as the embarkation point for Portuguese sailors, a recognizable symbol in Lisbon of Europe’s Age of Exploration.
As required for every trip – I stopped at a nearby café for my bag of beans to take home. We hopped back on the Metro to Alfama for that much needed “end-of-trip” relaxation.
It was time for the fancy dinner we highly anticipated. I changed into a floral romper and Kyle put on my favourite shirt and we raced back to Alfama to A Travessa do Fado. We shared a dish of clams in butter sauce before our main dishes. I filled up on a filet of salmon marinated in chilis served on a bed of rice while Kyle ordered a 12 ounce steak with potatoes. I could feel the heat from the chilis firing up inside my mouth and my throat as I politely tried to suppress coughs. I washed it down with red wine, which paired oddly well with the spice. One of the best parts was the after dinner fado.
In the corner stood a woman wearing a simple black gown accompanied by an older man holding a pear-shaped guitar, strumming gingerly. The woman’s voice was crooning, and we turned our heads to watch in complete silence. It was common courteousy to have undivided attention for performing fadoists – not a peep from the lips or a ping of a phone was imperative. From the nights we spent in Toronto holed up in a snowstorm, listening to Amalia Rodrigues – playing a CD I had found from Amazon – dancing and drinking Port wine, to this moment put a smile on my face.
The music reached all street corners of Alfama, through the ears of passersby, vendors, maybe tram operators too. And it filled my ears even as I laid down to go to sleep.