With its rich history, delicious food and friendly people, it is no surprise that Portugal was near the top of our travel list for quite some time. It was a great transition place for us as we wrapped up the South America leg of “The Great Expedition” post-Antarctica and headed towards this next section that’s a mix of Europe, North Africa and Middle East.
We crossed the country from north to south, visiting a few of the main cities along the way.
Perhaps most famous for its excellent wine, Porto, as the name says, is a port city in northern Portugal. We spent most of our time here wandering the narrow alleys of the Ribeira neighborhood or sitting along the Douro River and looking at the old city.
Typical Portuguese architecture was present everywhere in the form of beautiful colorful buildings as well as stunning ceramic tile work that covered the city. There is really nothing more Portuguese than blue tile facades. The Chapel Almas de Santa Catarina was a great example.
Eating was also a favorite activity of ours in Porto (and pretty much most places in the world). We made sure to try many of the local dishes. Bacalhau, or cod, cooked all ways was a staple. Portuguese-style tapas, that also includes the famous and delicious jamon iberico – Iberian black pig ham, though in Portugal it’s specifically Alentejano.
One dish we had never heard of before originating in Porto was francesinha, a sandwich packed with different meats (ham, sausage, roast beef), then covered in melted cheese and gravy. Yum.
Lisbon, like Porto, is another port city built on the hills of the river, this time along the Tagus. Thus we were never far from a view of the sea. A lot of squares and parks were essentially overlooks where one could linger and soak in the view, all the activity below, and the sea breeze. Similarly, elevators were a common occurrence in the city. We have never entered an elevator on one street, then exited five floors later on a different street – so interesting!
Getting lost in the narrow alleys of Alfama was very fun and such an European experience. In the age of GPS and Googlemaps, it’s rare to be in a city and feel like you’re discovering hidden nooks and crannies. Despite the narrow alleys, old trams still run along with its modern counterparts. One of our favorite memories in Lisbon was a decked out Christmas tram! Fully decorated, Santa driving, an elf in the back, and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” blasting from the speakers. Feliz Natal!
Forte São Jorge
Atop one of the highest hills in the city, Forte São Jorge was an interesting historical site. Dating back from the 1st century BC, the fort has been occupied by many different civilizations from Phoenicians to Carthaginians, from Romans to Moors, until the Portuguese took over. Since then it has also served many different purposes from Royal Palace to military barracks to a museum. The fort also had panoramic views of Lisbon and we made sure to enjoy it before the rain came in.
It’s almost impossible to come to Portugal and not be reminded of its influence in the Age of Discovery. Portugal was a powerhouse in the navigations that started in the 15th century and some of the greatest names in history come from Portugal, like Vasco da Gama or Pedro Álvares Cabral, the latter known for the occupancy of Brazil.
A monument in the neighborhood of Belém celebrates the Portuguese explorers. Further down from the monument, the Tower of Belém was a symbol of the gateway to Portugal and the rest of the world. Many ships leaving for the Orient in search for new trade partners and land left from here.
It was also in the Belém neighborhood where we had our original Portuguese egg tart – Pasteis de Belém. We have had many of those in old Portuguese colonies, like Macau or Brazil, but none of them compared to the real deal. Sweet and egg-y, surrounded by crisp buttery pastry. It was too easy to keep popping these one by one.
The only downside of visiting Portugal during December was less than ideal weather during our time in Lisbon due to all the winter rain every day. We will have to come back for all the castles in Sintra in the future!
Since we visited Portugal during winter time, the Algarve was a nice reprieve from the cold and rain. We just spent time in Lagos, but I imagine the entire Algarve region is equally vacation-worthy.
By far the best part was exploring the coastline along the Atlantic Ocean. Jagged rocks rose sharply from the blue-green waters. The cliffs and rock formations reminded us of some of the beaches in California, but on an even bigger scale.
We hiked along the trail from the tip of Ponta da Piedade back to the city, with breathtaking views all along the way. Many grottos and pinnacles dotted the coastline, while steep cliffs dropped straight to a hidden beach. We often had the trail to ourselves and it was such a treat to be able to take our time and soak in the sun.
Portugal vs. Brazil
This subheading sounds like a soccer match announcement, which both countries are fanatics for, but in this case it refers to similarities and differences that I found while traveling in Portugal.
One of the obvious similarities is the language. Both countries speak Portuguese, although quite differently. The pronunciation, accent and vocabulary can be quite different at times and despite being a native Brazilian Portuguese speaker, I sometimes struggled to understand what people were saying. I got used to it fairly quickly and was able to understand people much better by the end of our stay.
In the past, Brazil was highly influenced by Portuguese culture and cuisine. So I was actually quite surprised to see the complete opposite happening nowadays. While traveling through the country, I often heard Brazilian songs on the radio, saw Brazilian celebrities featured on TV, and even Brazilian books on store shelves and Brazilian dishes served at restaurants. With over 20x Portugal’s population, it makes sense that Brazilian content dominates in the Lusophone world.
One aspect where the two countries are worlds apart is the infrastructure. Portugal was much more developed than Brazil with a higher level of public services and their reliability – from roads to public transportation to the postal service. All with a lower level of bureaucracy. I also felt much safer in Portugal than Brazil, which was a big plus.
For me, Portugal felt like a more developed and “better” version of the current Brazil I know today. With all the resources Brazil has, maybe someday it will even surpass Portugal. Either way, I found it very interesting to get a first-hand experience of the country that shaped the place where I grew up.