So, when I left my legion of followers last time, Eli and I were driving into Portugal. That first day, September 14th, we drove past the border, from Sevilla toward Faro, into the Algarve. It was cloudy and cool, and you could smell the salt in the air. My phone stopped working immediately, though the woman who sold me the data plan in the airport assured me that would absolutely not happen. I didn’t get a new plan until Lisbon. This caused a lot of challenging work-arounds to Google Map directions, which Eli didn’t mind but made me super-nervous, especially at night.
The first night (end of day #10) we stayed at an apartment that was part of a white-washed adobe complex of buildings. We missed it several times (no Google maps!) and couldn’t call the Airbnb owner, because no phone service. We got there eventually, though. It was quite rustic, very simple. We drove to the beach, had some fish at the restaurant at the edge, but I didn’t have a great time. It didn’t feel exactly right, somehow; I didn’t have the right equipment, like an umbrella and a beach towel. I was hot. I slept well that night, though, after a nice dinner in Tavira, and the next morning, with some directions from the very friendly and garrulous apartment owner, we headed west.
Gilao River, in Tavira
View from my window
Sunset on the way to dinner
Day #11, there’s only one story. Our first full day exploring Portugal was fantastic, but the best part of all came when we arrived at our last-minute Airbnb booking. We had planned to wing it all the way to Lisbon in terms of accommodations, and boy did we luck out. We ended up way high in the hills above Lagos, almost to the very southwest tip of Portugal. This place was called Casa Joia, and rather than buildings (other than the //Dutch owners’ opulent home), it was made up of tents. But not just any tents – glamping tents, up on platforms, surrounded by almond and olive trees and flowering plants of all sorts. Placid, friendly dogs roamed the area, and the beds and sheets were worthy of the Ritz Carlton. A picnic table on the veranda was laid with a blue and white tablecloth, and dishes, silverware, a coffeemaker etc. were all supplied. The bathroom was a bit of a hike and I admit I was glad (a) that I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night to pee, for once, and (b) that I had brought a cover-up for the beach that doubled as a bathrobe. The owners had a salt-water pool that we were invited to use, and I did. It was all just so cool. The next morning we ate breakfast that we prepared from food we bought in Lagos, plus some fresh figs and honey that our host from the day before had given us as a gift. A feast, and a truly fantastic experience.
The bed … what a lovely sleep
Eli made friends with the dog, as always
So this is what almonds look like!
Breakfast of champions
Day #12, we start heading north. We saw some beautiful coastline on this drive, but the best thing, really, about this day was lunch. We went to a town called Odeceixe, reached by driving down an incredibly steep, winding road lined with whitewashed houses painted with mainly pastel-colored strips around the doors. It went on and on, until I really thought we were going to plunge right into the sea. Instead, we finally came to the bottom and proceeded to eat one of the best lunches of the whole trip. Gazing out on the vista, we devoured sea bass, roasted padrone peppers, and squid. Satiated, we walked around a little, and then climbed back in the car and drove out of the town back to the main road in literally 3 minutes. I just cannot understand how this was possible. It took us 20 minutes to drive down there, or more, and then in practically a blink of the eye, we were back on the main highway. It is a complete mystery to me. I’ll always remember those peppers, though.
One of the many stunningly beautiful beaches along the coast
Eli takes in the view
This is the furthest west point of Portugal
Demolished the sea bass
Those peppers … heaven
Day #13, September 17th, was one of the nicest days ever, for one reason – Praia do Pego, otherwise known as one of the best beaches I’ve ever been to. We had bought beach towels along the way, and suntan lotion – we were ready. We made our way down the very long, and in places alarmingly sideways-slanted boardwalk, to a quiet, secluded and absolutely gorgeous white sand beach with folding lounge chairs, umbrellas with hooks hanging off them, and a little table, and the bluest, clearest ocean imaginable. It’s been a long time since I enjoyed a beach, and possibly that may have been in fact the last time – if so, thank god. I was so relaxed it was incredible. I went in the water (though I did not swim like Eli did!), and didn’t even mind being in my wet, gritty swimsuit the rest of the day. We stopped in some tiny town, the name of which I do not remember, ate at a local place, and I drank what I thought was plain apple juice but turned out to be alcoholic. As we headed toward Lisbon, I was very happy.
To the beach
Really – could it be better?
On the way out, we spied these birds atop a line …
We arrived in Lisbon and began exploring that very night (after a long and welcome hot shower). We were able to settle in nicely, since we would be staying in this apartment in the historic Belem district for a few days. My old friend Malcolm, Eli’s godfather, was due to arrive the next day.
So day #14 was my last full day with Eli. We spent a lot of it wandering around, but the highlight of the day was the tile museum, Museu Nacional do Azulejo. This was one of our favorite museums, not just for the beautiful tiles, but for the Moorish architecture, the courtyards and arches, and the lovely courtyard where we had lunch. My story is not about the museum (though there’s a few photos below, because it was so pretty), but about the adventure we had picking Malcolm up at the airport.
We strolled out to our little rental car in plenty of time, got in, turned the key, and … nothing. Not even a crank. We just looked at each other – what to do? We knew that all the taxi drivers were about to go on strike the next morning, when Eli’s flight was scheduled very early (they stayed on strike the entire rest of the trip – refusing to drive in protest of Uber, which made little sense to me since it just pushed people to use Uber more, since they couldn’t get a taxi). Well, right then, the main thing was to get to the airport, so off we went in a taxi, had a lovely reunion. Eli and Malcolm finally met as adults. We tried to go to dinner at a highly recommended restaurant, but after looking everywhere, we finally realized – it was closed. Sigh … we just went somewhere else, where the food was nothing special, but it was so nice to spend time together.
Close-up of a tile mural detail
Lisbon from above
Godfather and godson meet for adults for the first time
Upon our return to the apartment, I embarked on an insane chain of phone calls (thank god I had gotten a new phone plan the day before) to the rental company, bouncing between Spain and Portugal, trying to arrange to have someone come. Finally I thought it was all arranged – someone would come at 6:00 am and give us a jump. At 5:00 am the phone rang and some guy in Spain was asking if the truck was there. I’m like – I don’t know! I’m in bed! He forgot about the time difference (Portugal is one hour later) which I found strange, considering his proximity and profession. At 6:00 am Eli and I both dragged ourselves downstairs, the truck did come, but … the battery needed way more than a jump. It was dead and needed to be replaced. We started freaking out at this point – taxis on strike, plane leaving, non-refundable fare, omg …
The truck driver promised that someone would come later that morning and replace the battery, which they did, and then gave Eli a ride to the airport. I mean – who does that? This was Portugal; at the airport, the Customs guy pulled Eli aside and said “Is this saffron you’ve got here?” Eli, thinking he was about to get in trouble, hesitated but then fessed up, yes, it was saffron he got in Spain. The Customs official then spent 10 minutes sharing recipes. What could have been a really difficult situation was resolved through the kindness of Portuguese strangers. As for me, I went back to sleep.
The culprit – a Fiat. Fix it again, Tomaso.
That day, #18, was spent exploring Lisbon with Malcolm. In the evening, for the first time, I was driving. Lisbon is pretty challenging for foreign drivers; lots of fast-moving traffic, honking and gesturing drivers, round-abouts, and very curvy, small and erratic streets. It was a bit of an adventure, but though there were a few dicey moments (more on that later, in another town – a truly scary experience!), I made it to Alfama, the oldest area of Lisbon and a hotbed of clubs and fado, a traditional Portuguese music that is often very emotional, plaintive and beautiful. Here’s a very nice example of a song I’ve loved for a long time, by Ana Moura: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mo5Ty8TJuOg. Give it a listen, you won’t regret it.
Anyway, I was determined to hear fado sung while in Lisbon, and Malcolm and I got reservations at famous place called “Club Luso.” We ate a huge dinner and listened to 5 different singers. The first guy was very handsome, he had a kind of light opera style. The second guy was short and also handsome, but in a very different way. Much more authentic in his style; I thought he was the best. Later came a much older woman who apparently was famous in her youth, but very much past her prime, sadly. Her voice was gone, but she still had a lot of style. The last singer was a young woman, excellent singer, but I thought she did not have the depth of spirit of the other performer I liked. Anyway it was quite the range and we really enjoyed it. Definitely a tourist spot, but no regrets. I don’t have any photos, but here’s a funny shot I took during the day to send to Eli on a topic he harassed me about non-stop the entire trip. That’s why I’m laughing.
Yes, Eli, I can read a map!
The next day (#19) Malcolm and I headed north, toward Porto. Our Airbnb host there recommended that we stop in Obidos on the way up, and we were quite glad we followed that recommendation! Obidos is a classic Portuguese fortified town, with a medieval castle looming over narrow, cobblestone streets. We decided to have lunch at a small restaurant we discovered just outside the town walls and once we got inside, did not regret it – the streets and restaurants there were thronged with tourists. We walked up above the main streets for a while, explored a few shops, and we were on our way. I like traveling with Malcolm for this reason – we have about the same tolerance for crowds and tourism, which is to say, we don’t hate it for short periods, but we run out of patience at about the same time and easily agree to move on.
Our delightful lunch at Obidos
Can you spot the strawberry?
Malc on a typical street above the main road
My interest in patterns continues
We continued up the coast to Tomar, where we spent the night and went to the most stunningly beautiful historic site I saw in all of Portugal, which is saying quite a bit. On this day #20, Malcolm and I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on a long walkstreet filled with restaurants, shops and people out strolling – so common all through Spain and Portugal, and such a jarring contrast to U.S. cities – and headed up to the Convento de Cristo, a World Heritage site, built as headquarters for the Pope’s secretive Knights Templar in 1160. We hadn’t necessarily aimed to to go there, it was just in the town and we had time before we headed north again for Porto.
So, I’ve got another story for this day, but I cannot resist at least sharing some photos from that visit. The place was not thronged, easy to stroll around and take in the abundant beauty and history. It was so big and complicated inside that we got lost inside a few times but eventually found our way out and headed for Coimbra, en route to Porto, for a late lunch. And here is the disastrous but ultimately triumphant driving story! But first, Tomar and the Convent of Christ:
Malc at breakfast
Typical Portuguese breakfast
Me at the walk up to Tomar
The story with Coimbra, a large university town, is this. We wanted to go a particular place for lunch that was highly recommended, and we used Google Maps to get there. That was the big mistake. I don’t entirely blame Google, because those hilly, narrow streets are devilish, but what a disaster this was. First, we got lost more than a few times, and as seemed to be common in both Spain and Portugal, each time we had to travel several miles and negotiate at least two freeways and one huge turn-around to get back. Going around the block seems to be an impossibility in these places. Luckily Malcolm and I found this kind of amusing … Eli, not so much.
Finally, we ended up on what we thought was the right street. It was an extremely narrow, extremely steep uphill cobbled road that we followed dutifully, and when we got to the top, the restaurant was nowhere in sight. We were faced with two impossible choices. 1 – we could continue downhill on the road, going the wrong way on a one-way street, or 2 – we could back down the hill we just came up. Those were the only choices – turning around was simply not possible. I sat there frozen for a good 3 or 4 minutes, and then finally made a decision – down the one-way street. I knew I could never back down the road without demolishing both my car and most of the cars parked along the side.
As we slowly made our way down, people tromping up the hill kept gesturing that we were going the wrong way. Yeah, I know that, tell me something helpful. If I could just get to the bottom and back onto a normal street … but no. Remember those walking streets and plazas that I love so much? That’s what this road led into, with no way out. I just didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and Malcolm wisely kept quiet. I mean, his English upper lip twitched a little, but he didn’t actually say anything. Well, he didn’t really have to. Again I took a deep breath and started driving through the crowds. It was kind of funny, actually – no one seemed all that concerned or upset about it. The seas just sort of parted. Way, way far away I could see what I thought was a main thoroughfare, and I headed toward it, praying every meter of the way that nothing terrible would happen. When a policeman came running toward me, I felt my prayers had not been answered. He began speaking in rapid Portuguese to me, and I answered in English, of course, giving my words all the expression I possibly could. “I know, I KNOW I should not be here, I am so SO SORRY, please, just tell me how to get out!” Something in my frantic tone must have gotten through to him, because no ticket, no yelling, just a resigned sigh and pointing toward the road. Guess my prayers were answered after all.
We hit the road, stubbornly traced our way back, parked on the street, and walked to the restaurant. Which was no longer serving much because it was so late in the day, but the waiter was very nice and we managed. It seemed like not eating there would negate all we went through. It was a long walk to/from the car, too. Of course as we walked we passed a huge parking lot right next to the restaurant.
Due to the trauma of this experience, not too many photos were taken in Coimbra, but here is just one that shows what a nice city is is, driving issues notwithstanding.
The hill directly across from the hill of my nightmares.
So, at the end of this very full day, we arrived in Porto. We stayed there, in a modern flat that was nothing special from an architectural point of view, but very spacious, comfortable and well-situated above the river and bridges the city is so famous for. We were there for 3 days before Malcolm headed home to England and I drove to Spain to return to Tbilisi from Madrid. These last days are a blur of tours and meals and enjoyment; I don’t think I can separate them out day-by-day, so for this last bit I will just focus on the two main stories of our Porto experience – never mind which day it was!
The first story – food. The whole 4 days we just ate and ate, so much delicious food and wine. Also we drank way too much coffee and ate many a pastal de nata. We found a favorite local restaurant and had dinner there twice, the only foreigners in the place, which was stuffed to overflowing with families and locals who clearly ate there all the time. I’m sad I didn’t take a photo of the epic food there – I’ll never forget our shared reaction to a seafood extravaganza that was easily enough to feed 6 people, served proudly to one very pleased woman, who shockingly pretty much ate the whole thing. With bread. Here’s a sample from a few other meals:
Typical walk-street stuffed from beginning to end with restaurants
Ah, those lunches ….
Ah, those brunches …
Wine-tasting in the Douro Valley
Next story – the river. Specifically, the Douro River, which begins in the Douro Valley as a wide, glistening snake winding its way through steep hills terraced with wine grapevines, all the way down to Porto, where it narrows as it empties into the sea. The Douro Valley is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, and our day there was just sublime. In this case, pictures speak much louder than words. Feast your eyes:
The river dominated the city as well. We bought tourist bus tickets and didn’t regret it for a minute – spent a good part of one day driving from one end of the city to the other, lounging on the top deck and drinking in the views. Lots of restaurants and stores on both banks, museums, lots of port manufacturers and warehouses, and some spectacularly gold-encrusted cathedrals. But it was the river that really held our attention, for the old, beautiful houses and castles, the bridges – both old and new, one built by the architect Gustave Eiffel, of the Eiffel Tower – and the cleanness of the water. Young boys dove off the bridge a couple of times a day for money, and more than a few hours were idled away people-watching and drinking coffee along the banks.
A less well-known area of town, captured from the bus
The Eiffel Bridge
A snapshot of apartments along the bank
The view from the balcony of our Airbnb
I am so happy to be here!
One of my favorite houses, for the color
Those two themes will always be my main memory of Porto, along with the friendliness and warmth of the people. Which could be said for Portugal as a whole. As I said – a revelation.
The next day, September 26th, Malcolm and I said a slightly tearful goodbye – each time we do, truthfully we don’t know when we will see each other again, if ever – and off I headed back to Madrid in my little car, about a 6-hour drive.When our driver to the Douro Valley heard this plan, he was just shocked. Literally, he was kind of speechless – he just couldn’t believe that an old lady such as myself would make a drive like that alone. I was laughing pretty hard – I told him, I’m from Los Angeles, we drive that far on a daily basis!
I was actually a bit nervous, as it is in fact a long drive – about 350 miles – but only a little. I stopped for a final cafe con leche and pastal de nata in a little town right at the Portugal/Spain border, and from there headed to Segovia. I followed directions, got lost a few times as usual, but the highway was pretty well marked. Naturally my Portuguese phone plan quit the minute I passed the border, so no Google Maps – thank god for those signs. When I finally got off at the indicated exit, I drove for many miles through empty, dusty flatlands, and I was getting kind of worried when, suddenly, Segovia just rose up out of the horizon and stunned me with its beauty.
I actually had a number of adventures in Segovia, most of them involving getting lost, haha, but the story of the day was my evening adventure. I checked into the rather deluxe hotel where I had booked a room for my very last night of the trip. It was actually a huge hassle to check in, to park, to manage the whole thing, and I was kind of unhappy by the time I finally got to my room. I decided to walk up the steep hill above me to see if I could find a little cafe, or restaurant, or even just a little store … but as I slowly made my way uphill, it was so quiet and deserted. Hardly anyone on the streets,
The streets of old Segovia at dusk
Maybe it was because I had been sitting in the car most of the day, or maybe I just needed to work off some of that negative energy, but for some reason, I just kept walking, heading uphill. I passed a beautiful stone cathedral with hardly anyone there.
I kept going, but was just about to turn back, resigned to eating in the hotel restaurant or just going to sleep early, when, suddenly, the little road led into a giant plaza that was buzzing with restaurants, people, shops, music … I had arrived at the famous Plaza Mayor. This photo is not mine, but it’s a lot better than any one I took, so with a bow to the unknown Chinese photographer:
Beyond the plaza itself, there were – of course – several walk streets. As I walked around, I could hear music down toward the end, and the street became thronged with people out strolling for the evening. People of every age, dressed in bright colors, arm-in-arm, talking and smiling. I ached to think of the empty, sterile sidewalks of American cities where cars hurtle down 3 or 4 lane highways alongside* as I looked at the vibrant life around me, and missed the crazy sidewalks of Tbilisi at the same time, though the fact that everyone was considerate and didn’t walk four abreast so as to deliberately block the sidewalk was kinda nice. Ah, Tbilisi, I love you so much.
I sat down on a bench to rest and listen to a busker for a few minutes. There was an older man sitting there also, and he spoke to me in Spanish – I was so regretful I could not communicate with him. I asked him if he spoke any English, and he just gave a small regretful smile and shrugged. For some reason I think he was the father of the busker.
It turned out to be a lovely last evening. The next morning, I rose to this scene outside my hotel window:
As I drove toward the airport, the meadows surrounding the highway were filled with golden grass, waving in the wind. I felt they were waving goodbye to me, ridiculous as that sounds – and so unlike me! But what a trip it was. And for once, I didn’t get lost once, made it straight to the airport, returned the car without too much trouble – they did refuse to pay for the new battery, saying I had to resolve it with the Portuguese company (sent by them, of course). So, yeah, that wasn’t gonna happen and after a little fit was pitched, I was refunded. In cash. Then a tortuous process of finding out where my flight gate was, a long, long shuttle ride to the infamous Terminal 4 where Eli landed, a long walk to the gate, an aching back and then the long flight home, with a stop in Riga.
After my back surgery, I honestly thought my lifelong dream of visiting Spain and Portugal was dead. The fact that I turned out to be wrong is one of the best things that ever happened to me. I may never return – after all, it took me 64 years to get there the first time – but it will always live in my memory.
*And I regret to report that the 15-150 corridor, which I now drive every day from Durham to Chapel Hill for work, is exactly that.