I first smelled the smoke during the drive to Alcobaça. We were headed inland, taillights to Nazare and its worlds-largest-waves, when that first acrid whiff I find to be so intoxicating snuffed out the lingering scent of sea air. Later, I downshifted to first and piloted the car up the meandering, olive-lined alleys to the castle town of Ourem, pondering the oddity of a world in which fire can overtake water. The smoke intensified. While reading poolside at our pousada, I could feel the ashen clouds floating across the valley, the smoke on the crystalline water, delicately smothering my book and body as it perfumed my hair with wildfire aromatics. Peering over the wall of the hilltop village we saw a ridgeline on fire across the valley. A wall of smoke hung just above the horizon, masking the burning garnet in gray gauze.
Long Waits and Late Nights in Lisbon
Though a friend tipped me off to the presence of wildfires burning in the Portuguese countryside several weeks before our trip, the only smoke encountered in the capital city was that of the cigarette variety. Despite an abundance of signage announcing the country’s new tougher, anti-smoking ordinances, ashtrays were nearly as common as houseflies. The presence of cigarette smoke was jarring – I often go months without encountering any at home – but the flies were far more annoying. As was the waiting.
We stepped off our overnight flight to Lisbon and joined a crowd the likes I’ve which I’ve seldom seen outside of Seahawks games. A single line of people serpentined back and forth though dozens of hairpins, crossed the terminal from end to end, and eventually (thankfully after we had gotten on it) extended up the stairs and back toward the gates. Well over a thousand people queued to pass through an immigration checkpoint manned by just three agents. Over a thousand tired, anxious travelers stood in orderly fashion wondering what crimes they committed in a prior life to deserve such hell. I may have preferred an encounter with the Langoliers than so much humanity in so little space.
The clock soon struck nine and another half dozen agents took their positions. Time to get through immigration: 1:45. We encountered a similar crush of people three days later, upon returning to the airport to pick up our rental car. Understaffed? A victim of its own popularity? Yes and yes. But also friendly. I’ll still take it over Newark.
Having not spent enough of our first day in Lisbon waiting in line, we dropped our bags at our hotel and promptly walked downtown to join the throngs in line for the famed Tram #28. The electric trams of route 28 travel through the hilly, graffiti-covered Alfama district of Lisbon, passing the city’s castle and other major sights. That it was over 100 degrees out and there was no shade didn’t matter. That the only people on line were tourists didn’t register.
Our travel skills were as rusty as the trolley tracks we waited alongside and whether it was the heat, the sleep-deprivation, or sheer laziness, we stood in the searing heat for over an hour waiting for the so-called “Tourist Tram.” And when the tram finally banged and clanged its way up and around a few hills in an ugly, littered, battered neighborhood, that layer of rust we’ve accumulated since returning home was knocked free and we alighted at the first stop we could. What were we thinking?
If asked to sum up our time in Portugal, I would describe it as a ten-day pub crawl broken up by long drives in the mountains, some nice meals, and a few side-trips to gawk at architectural marvels of centuries past. And in this regard, we were almost thankful for the heat as it made the Sagres and Super Bock – Portugal’s answer to the ubiquitous light lager that plagues every country – somewhat palatable. Our three nights in Lisbon went by quickly. A trip to Belem to see the glorious Monasteiro dos Jeronimos and the hip LX Factory enclave on day two; a train ride to Sintra (Portugal’s less glitzy answer to Versailles) on day three.
The highlight of our time in Lisbon was spent eating and drinking. A late meal of tapas in the Bairro Alto neighborhood preceded a marvelous time spent listening to Fado with three new friends we shared a table with. Kristin had done her homework and learned of a hole-in-the-wall Fado club named A Tasca do Chico where many Fado singers have gotten their start. Singers drop in and perform in the darkened pub that sits no more than thirty while two guitarists – one on a Portuguese twelve-stringer and another on a Spanish six-string – provide accompaniment. Fado is folk music best sang loud and passionately. It’s about heartbreak and loss, and this will be evident to you with or without a friendly Lisboan artist buying you beers. Think of it as Flamenco without the dancing. Two performers this night stole the show. The last of which, a young, petite woman in stiletto heels, tights, and a breezy blouse could not be topped. We saw no reason to stay beyond her 2am performance.
One challenge you might have in visiting Portugal is that there are limited dining options available on Sundays. In this country that takes eating late to a level that even Italians would question, most restaurants shutter after lunch on Sundays. This is where talking to a local can really come in handy. We were directed to an admittedly trendy restaurant in the Chiado neighborhood called Sacramento. Wandering in without a reservation, we weren’t sat until nearly 11pm, but the meal was worth the wait. Tourists and locals blend in this swanky establishment for modern takes on Portuguese classics and a rather stellar wine selection.
The night ended with my asking for the bill in such near-perfect Portuguese, complete with accent, that the server did a double-take. Her flattery led to a twenty-minute chat about language which I’ll spare you, except to encourage you to make an effort to go beyond ola and obrigato when you visit.
Walking the High Mountains of Estrella
The Audi A1, a car every bit as virile as the two-buck steak sauce that shares its name, barely fit through the stone archway leading up the cobbled streets to our pousada in Ourem. After three days of touring and imbibing in Lisbon, a brief stop at Buddha Eden (the most WTF thing of all the WTF things) and a lunchtime tour of the magnificent monastery in Alcobaca, I was thrilled to park the car and settle into two nights of eating well and doing nothing.
Portugal’s network of pousadas – historical buildings of significance transformed into inns of varying degrees of luxury – provides travelers with a unique opportunity to pillow up someplace unusual. The pousada in Ourem, where we stayed, was a 15th century hospital located quite literally in the shadow of a medieval castle. And for two nights it was our home, complete with half-board. Though a festival would be taking place the following week, the hilltop village of Ourem was deserted. The cobblestone alleys, the castle ruins, and the cafes were ours and ours alone. And while the other guests of the inn day-tripped to Fatima and other nearby towns of note, we enjoyed the quiet of the smoke-scented village and read by the pool and rested. For I knew we had a long day barreling down on us.
I also knew better than to ask the hotel clerk in the mountain village of Manteigas about the routes we were planning to hike, but I did anyway. Locals, particularly those who may be inconvenienced by the trouble you get yourself in, will always try to steer to you to the safest option no matter how hard you try to convince them of your credentials. Boring! Thanks to a very helpful GPS-enabled map app and available trail descriptions and maps, I was able to narrow our day of hiking in Serra da Estrella Nature Park down to three options. The clerk confirmed that yes, the route I wanted to do – the only one with the 5-star difficulty rating — was the most scenic, but it was also overgrown, very hard to follow, and just two weeks ago an Italian couple staying at his hotel had to be rescued. He tried his best to steer me onto other shorter routes that held little interest, not realizing he was only increasing my desire with each word of warning. He also made the mistake of doubting Kristin’s abilities.
The twisty, cliffside drive to the trailhead – and ensuing race back down six hours later – were the highlights of the day. Those hours in between, spent hiking the Central Massif Route, were a tangle of slow-going searches for rock cairns and barely-visible trail blazes under a hundred-degree sun.
With the car parked at the highest point in mainland Portugal (the Azore Islands boast the country’s highest elevation), we followed the map out onto a rock-litter scrubland some 6,000 feet above sea level. There wasn’t a tree taller than myself as far as I could see. Nor was there any significant evidence of a trail. We followed the GPS track as best we could, stepping around cowpies and scampering down boulders, periodically encountering remnants of a trail here, a rock cairn there. We were making progress and eventually came to a trail sign. The route we wanted descended into a wide glacial valley from once-upon-a-time and down we went.
The scenery wasn’t really all that spectacular (though I admit it’s hard to impress those of us lucky to call the Pacific Northwest our backyard) but the route-finding difficulty lived up to the clerk’s warning. And though the jumble of rocks and bushes may not have been tall enough to provide respite from the searing sun, they were certainly tall enough to hide the cairns and blazes.
The wildfires in this part of Portugal were to the north of us – out of sight and out of smell – but they were on our minds all the same. We weren’t so much hiking as we were swimming across a hillside of knee-high grass as dry as a Hindenburg-era newspaper impaled on a saguaro cactus. Down, down we went, ever so slowly into the valley, trying our best not to slip on the grass. Trying so hard to stay on the rocks for traction, all the while wondering if sneakers-upon-granite could produce a spark. I tumbled once, rolling sideways off the ledge of a rock, fortunately landing on two uninjured feet, straddling a shrub. I heard the camera draped around my neck clink off a rock as I rolled and immediately panicked. One spark would be all it took.
There was a lake in the distance but zero chance of reaching it before a fire would overtake us. I put the camera in my backpack and distracted myself by wondering if the trekking poles we left at home could cause a spark.
We eventually crossed a broad grazing land at the far end of the valley and though the route was supposed to continue up and over the shoulder of a mountain, we could find no evidence of it doing so. After several back-and-forth searches for cairns and footprints, we had had enough. The highlights were behind us and the trail was far too much hassle with too little reward. So we followed a connector trail down a very steep hillside to one of the most popular routes in the park – the Glacier Route. The 17 km route led from the upper trailhead down to the village of Manteigas where we were staying, roughly paralleling the wonderfully windy road we drove up. And though we were able to hitchhike a little of the way back to the car, we ultimately found ourselves walking several miles along the side of the road to the car.
The thirteen miles we hiked took nearly six hours. The beer and ice cream at the summit restaurant almost made it worth it. The drive back down certainly did.
We slept soundly that night despite live music echoing off our hotel until 2am for the second night in a row. Though it was a weekday, it was the culmination of a two-week Catholic celebration of the Lady of Grace (Lady of Miracles, some say). The prior night we watched as thousands of devotees marched in a candlelit procession through the streets of Manteigas as four women carried a large statue through town. An orchestra and live rock band played through the night as festival goers enjoyed plentiful meat, wine, and beer for token prices.
Sipping Our Way Along the Douro
Portugal didn’t find its way into our basket of travel dreams because we wanted to see Lisbon or go hiking in the mountains, as fun as those things were. Nor do we have any interest in joining the throngs of sun worshipers in Algarve. No, it landed in the basket because many years ago I viewed a travel show about wine that culminated with a segment on Porto and the famed vineyards of the Douro River Valley. If I was to return to Portugal in the future, I would spend the entire time in the Douro.
The Douro River spills into the Atlantic at Porto, only the second largest city in Portugal, but certainly the most photogenic. And the river that flows past its hilly, multi-colored structures, pours out of a massive network of terraced vineyards where dozens of grape varieties are grown, turned into wine, and shipped throughout the world. To visit the Douro is to be both awed by the scenery and overwhelmed by the options of wine tastings. And though September is harvest time and the busiest tourist season of the year for the vineyards and cellars of the Douro, the crowds were manageable.
And so we spent our final days sipping port, enjoying the view from the villa-turned-guesthouse we booked in Mesao Frio, and watching the river flow by. In Porto, we wandered the alleys and streets, shopped at a street market, attended a free outdoor concert with the Portuguese Philharmonic Orchestra, walked the surfer’s beach and ate grilled sardines, drank more wine and port than we care to admit, and fell in love with a city that was every bit as beautiful as it seemed on the small screen all those years ago. A city I probably won’t return to in this life, but one I’ll remember fondly all the same.