It’s not that I wasn’t expecting much from Portugal, I just had no idea what to expect from this little country on the edge of Europe. Friends that had already visited raved about Lisbon, but they couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was about Portugal that made it just feel so…good. Maybe it was the plethora of delectable pastries, or their national specialty, port, but really it was something more than gastronomic seduction. The Portuguese people were genuinely nice, even though they’re constantly bombarded by annoyingly jaded tourists like us and often viewed as just “that country next to Spain.” Well, it’s anything but.
We (gasp) actually paid for a tour on our first day in Lisbon. The name of the company alone, We Hate Tourism Tours, lured me in, and we were able to see the nearby beach towns of Sintra and Cascais in a van decked out in awesome stickers, with frequent pastry stops and minimal guidance. Kind of like the anti-tour tour of the Lisbon peninsula.
At our first stop in Sintra, we began our torrid affair with Portuguese pastries. These queijadas de Sintra are exclusive to the handful of little cafés in Sintra, and taste like an extra gooey snickerdoodle snuggled in a crisp shell. Cinnamony, custardy, crunchy. So, basically the best thing ever. I wish I had just filled my backpack with those little guys. Later on, we sampled (ok, gorged on) the pastry local to the Belém area, from a shop famous for its queijadas de nata, or cream tarts. Sprinkle some cinnamon and powdered sugar on top, and you’re addicted for life. For the rest of the weekend, we really applied ourselves and committed to finding the best pastries in Lisbon. After extensive research and unfaltering dedication, we concluded that the best pastries were those from the first day. Yes, we sacrificed ourselves for the betterment of baked goods. You’re welcome.
Other than stuffing our faces on the tour, we visited the Sintra National Palace then explored the grounds of an amazing estate, the Quinta da Regaleira, an amazing, romantic palace with even more impressive gardens–winding paths, secret underground tunnels and dungeons, grottoes, tennis courts for some regal playtime, and the customary fountains and unnecessary but interesting structures like lookout towers. Essentially, it was an aristocrats’ playground, now a playground for hyperactive, pastry-fueled tourists like us.
We also visited the western-most point of Europe, where the scenery looked uncannily like California’s central coast.
Later that night, based on a suggestion from our tour guide, we tried out a locals’ favorite restaurant with authentic Portuguese fare. Ended up being a little bit too authentic, with every dish drowning in butter and every animal staring at us from the plate/hanging kebab. I’ll stick to baked goods from now on.
Although guides, books, and locals told us to get to the Feira da Ladra Market (Thieves Market) as soon as it opened at 6:30 am, we lazily arrived at around 10:00, to just about the same knick knacks and trinkets for sale. Late bird gets the worm, too, suckas! A traditional flea market with offerings from artisan crafts to bizarre goods (Barbara Streisand tapes? Vintage Ken dolls? Mannequin body parts? Got ’em all!), we wandered for a few hours and scored some great jewelry and I bought a sophisticated poncho. It’s potato sack chic.
To get back to our hostel, we wandered through the labyrinthine Alfama district, using the trolley tracks as our guide. This area of Lisbon is really, really, really old. Descriptive, I know. Some buildings were constructed as early as the 12th century! I think dinosaurs were around at that time. The narrow streets wind through crumbling, but brightly painted, alleyways, full of enticing smells guiding us to our next pastry investigation site.
When we made it back to our beautiful hostel, that would deserve four stars if hostels were rated, I plopped down in the most comfortable bed I’ve had yet, in the nicest room I’ve stayed in yet. Every room at Living Loung Hostel was commissioned by a different local artist or design agency, so each is unique and impeccably designed. Every inch place was seriously awesome, from Taschen books on the vintage coffee table to the recycled water-bottle chandelier in our room. Oh, and homemade crepes all morning? Can I become a permanent resident?
Sunday contradicted the gloomy, drizzly forecast and surprised us with a sunny day. Hopped on a train, and 30 minutes later we were in the “Monaco of Portugal,” Cascais, where the bikes are free, the beaches are pure, and the gelato is devastatingly delicious. We rode some clunkers along the coast to Guincho Beach, famous for surfing but the conditions were not ideal in November, sadly. Some clouds rolled in after our beach picnic, and then all of a sudden there was a DOUBLE RAINBOW ALL THE WAY ACROSS THE SKY!! So bright. So vivid.
I really can’t imagine a more gastronomically and culturally fulfilling trip with some of my favoritest girls in the whole wide world; the only downside is that now I am addicted to yet another type of baked good. I guess it could be worse.