The week before we left was literally jam-packed with last-ditch efforts to finish up schoolwork before our two-week spring break. I hadn’t had much time to plan things to do, or really think about the trip at all. So, when it finally hit me that I was about to take off again, this time to explore Spain and Portugal, I got excited. I felt like I used to, the night before the first day of school in first and second grades (and still?), jittery and restless — sleep was out of the question.
After staring at the walls of my dark bedroom for what seemed like ages, I decided to drop the act and just get up and do some very last-minute research on Portugal. The various slideshows I flipped through and articles I read really only made me realize just how little I knew about where I would jet off to in just a few short hours — turns out Portuguese is not much like Spanish — and I think that made me that much more excited. It was my first big adventure!
I’ve found that on my most recent trips, certain artists or albums have been on heavy rotation and have thus came to help define the tone of my trip. This time, I had just rediscovered two old favorites: Sufjan Steven’s Illinoise and Devendra Banhart’s Niño Rojo. So, my mood was relaxed and thoughtful as we rode to the airport, these songs creating my own little Portugal soundtrack.
The flight went fairly easy (read: I slept the whole way).
It wasn’t until we were all waiting in line at customs that it hit me: I was an outsider. Almost everyone that surrounded us had beautiful tanned skin and shiny black hair. They were speaking a language I couldn’t remotely understand and I felt them looking at us. I’ve traveled to countries that weren’t English speaking before, but I always had my family as a buffer. I wasn’t really faced with the challenge myself, I just kind of followed my dad around and let him do the talking. But here, I was struck with the feeling head-on and was conscious of my vulnerability in that moment.
To take a taxi to the hostel, all I could do was hand the driver a printed map that had the address of the hostel marked on it. We hoped for the best, and eventually made our way there (only after walking back and forth in front of it about five times, bags and all). It was located in a multi-level apartment building, and had only a very small sign to mark its presence.
When we made it up the stairs to the lobby, a frazzled man working the front desk told us that a whole rugby team was expected later that day. Rugby boys. Thirty-five of them! Taylor, Emily and I all raised an eyebrow.
The hostel itself was incredibly nice — hardwood floors and enviably comfortable beds. After we dropped off our stuff, we made a beeline for the beach and just sucked in the sweet sea air for a few minutes before going to grab a bite to eat. Much to our dismay, it wasn’t actually as warm as we thought (hoped?) it would be, so we had to return to our hostel to bundle up a bit more and cover up our too-soon exposed limbs.
We were sitting in the lobby trying to make a plan when we met a guy from Australia. When he learned that Taylor and I were from Missouri, he asked if we had seen a lot of tornadoes. He told us (honestly) that he had always wanted to travel to Kansas to chase tornadoes in a pickup truck. Isn’t that what you guys do over there? He asked.
After trying to set him straight for a few minutes, we walked out of the door into very first encounter with the rugby boys. “Hello wims!” they said to to us (no idea if that is good or bad or what). I nervously responded with some form of “hey” back, distorted by the excitement I was trying to conceal over living in such close proximity to so many athletic and handsome British boys. Needless to say, the three of us erupted into a fit of giggles as we went off in our opposite directions.
About the city of Lisbon itself: I think that Europe, in general, knows how to do a great city, and Lisbon is no exception to that. Walking around, there existed a palpable tension between open and closed spaces. One moment, we were walking though claustrophobic, winding streets stacked high with small apartment windows ornamented with clotheslines, flowerboxes and electric lines. Then, they would suddenly give way to an amazing open square with an elaborate fountain or a breathtaking view of the city, full of people buzzing about, socializing and living. This interplay made just walking a pleasurable experience for the senses — never boring.
The city seemed markedly poorer than other areas I’ve seen. Not devastatingly so, but it was noticeable. In contrast, colorful patterned tiles and brightly-colored paints decorated many of the buildings, and the people we met on the street often responded with a smile. So, even though it seemed as if a lot of the buildings had fallen into disrepair the mood stayed happy and bright.
After getting the lay of the land and feeding ourselves, we tried to call it an early night — without much success. The evening ritual began, innocently enough, with a shower. The rugby boys made their presence known once in the co-ed bathroom, where it seemed one was vomiting and about four others were looking on and cheering. I found myself confronted with the bulking, loud and rambunctious lot of them once again coming from the shower in my pink polka-dotted nightgown, my wet hair wrapped in a towel and the day’s makeup streaked below my eyes…Needless to say, I was no longer impressed and, I’m afraid, neither were they.
Meanwhile, Taylor got ousted from her bed multiple times that night by John from Norway who had also had too much too drink and was shuffling around their bunk searching for a missing lens from his glasses. I would just like to say now, to everyone out there, that this was our favorite hostel of the trip.
With the aid of my trusty earplugs, I was eventually able to sleep — even with the ever-present chorus of rugby boys hooting and Norwegian man thrashing about and shouting in foreign languages in his drunken stupor. Taylor wasn’t so lucky nor do I think she found it so amusing.
Day 2: our first full one in Portugal.
We decided to go on a free walking tour of the city, with handsome Gonçalo as our tour guide. He gave us the tour in English and Spanish, for a woman visiting from Madrid — here began the trend of most everyone knowing at least two languages and making us feel very inadequate. Afterwards, Emily was feeling sick, so Taylor and I grabbed some lunch and headed towards a large castle we saw up in the distance.
The castle was fabulous. I had a lot of fun imagining medieval people running around through the narrow passageways and stately courtyards. Our long, uphill walk was rewarded by some incredible views of the city.
We got back to the hostel later that night and squeezed into the lounge area stuffed with rugby boys to have a glass of wine and talk over the day. A girl from our room, Jasmine (from Sweden who studies in Madrid), asked us if we wanted to have dinner with her and her friends that night. We cooked pizzas together in the hostel kitchen and talked, after the owner of the hostel’s mother was done with the dinner she offered guests each night. Here, we got more precious Missouri impressions from abroad: One of her friends informed us that Missouri was the state with the lowest average IQ (still haven’t confirmed this to be true).
Jasmine is studying urban planning, and talked a lot about the issues she sees with city development (too many cars, not enough nice, green gathering spaces). I don’t know if it was the subject or her enthusiasm, but she definitely piqued my interest. If only I could have a million different careers…We really liked her, and Emily exchanged numbers with her so we could all try to meet up again once we got to Madrid.
Day 3: Sintra
Based on a few recommendations from tourists and locals, we decided to get an early start and day trip to Sintra, a small town about an hour’s train ride northwest of Lisbon.
Before exploring the town, we decided to grab a quick bite to eat in a little café across from the train station. Here, we met David who was from Boston, but was currently working in Madrid. He was our companion for the rest of the day.
Our first stop was the Pena National Palace, a dreamy edifice atop a hill overlooking Sintra. It was surrounded by Pena Park, a surreal paradise only appropriate for the extravagance of the castle it enveloped.
Next, we continued a few minutes down the hill to the Castelo dos Mouros, which we viewed only from the outside.
Then, we took the bus down the hill and back up another to the arabesque Monserrate Estate. It seemed almost modest after the Pena Palace, but yet so elaborate — all colorful tiles and mural-filled ceilings. Maybe the best part was how it was so perfectly perched atop a dreamy hill. We all left contemplating how we could raise enough money to buy the place…still working on that one.
The whole day passed much like a dream — a dream we quickly snapped out of as we miraculously caught the last bus down the (windy, bumpy) hill to catch our train back to Lisbon.
At dinner we decided we all wanted to try to see some Fado, the traditional music of Portugal. Lucky for us, soon after we set out on our mission, we happened upon some beautiful music emanating from behind a closed black door. We asked the bouncer at the door if we could go inside and in response, he motioned for us to be quiet — he would have to check. He disappeared inside as we all glanced at each other, unsure of what was going on. After a few minutes, he came out and ushered us in to the last table in the small and cozy room dining room of a hidden restaurant.
We sat at what he called “the artist’s table,” which was where the performers had stashed their belongings. We sat in their seats, their coats hanging on the back of our chairs. We ordered a pitcher of the best Sangria we’d ever had and settled in. A beautiful older woman was singing in a warm, deep tone that seemed to reach every corner of that room. Two guitarists accompanied her. Though we couldn’t understand the language, her emotion came through loud and clear — giving me chills. The patrons were still and hushed, moving only to take a sip of a drink or a drag of a cigarette. We sat amazed and happy with our Sangria as she performed a few songs.
Afterwards, the man who seemed to be the owner of the restaurant picked up the pace with a few lighthearted songs including “La Cucaracha,” dancing and goofing around the whole while and inviting everyone else to do the same. He started a string of other musicians hopping up from their chairs around the room to give it a go. Each one was seemingly better than the last and their sincerity talent really struck us all, I think.
We left fairly late (to our standards), but David was just getting ready to start the night. Despite his suggestion to go to a few other bars, we regretfully had to part ways. The next day, an early flight to Madrid awaited us. As we packed our bags that night, we wistfully regretted not budgeting more time for Lisbon. It was a great start to the trip.
Coming soon (promise): the tales of our adventures in Spain.
Teaser: it will include salsa dancing, lots of Picasso and an Italian man named Fabio.