Portugal – Escape to the Atlantic Coast

Belem Tower, perhaps the best known sight in Lisbon, if not all of Portugal.

Dublin around the time of the Ides of March is a perilous place to be, packed with tourists and locals eager for an excuse to party and imbibe a beer or two. Getting from one end of O’Connell St to the other can take up most of St. Patrick’s Day if you’re unwary. Most years, I stay at home while the parade’s on or make the most of the long weekend in quieter gatherings with friends. This time I took myself out of the country entirely and spent five days in Portugal instead.

This isn’t a thorough description of what I did on that trip. If you want that, you can check it out here: Portugal 2018 What it is is a brief run through the best parts of the trip, which took in two cities, lots of walking, and nearly as much in the way of custard tarts. I’m not sure how well the latter two balanced out in the end, but I hadn’t put on any weight by the time I came back.

First up on the trip was Lisbon. Largely flattened in the terrible earthquake of 1755 and rebuilt to the design of the Marques de Pombal, it’s an exercise in contrasts. The broad estuary of the Tagus river almost makes it a seaside city, but Lisbon itself has been built across seven hills, notably steeper than the more famous seven hills of Rome, and the rebuilt zones of broad avenues laid out in grid patterns lie cheek by jowl with streets that twist to follow the hillside curves and older parts of the city that survived the quake and still have their narrow alleys and narrower houses. There’s a lot to see here, but Lisbon sprawls widely across the north bank of the Tagus, and it’s far from ideal for walking – not that I didn’t give it my best shot. Luckily, the metro, buses, and trams combine to make getting around a stressless experience, and with outlying areas like Belem having some of the best sights and the hilltop Parque Florestal de Monsanto having some of the best walking routes, you’ll want to make the effort.

Porto was my other city stop. Towards the north of Portugal, it straddles the narrower and lazier Douro river, but its’ western edges touch on the wild Atlantic Ocean, and the squalls of wind and rain keep the weather uncertain. Smaller and more intimate than Lisbon, it’s more fun to explore and more plausible for a walker capable of handling the hills that rise on either side of the river. Porto of course is also the home of port wine, made from grapes grown upriver in the Douro valley, and the southern riverbank is dotted with wineries who’ll be all too happy to show you around and let you sample their offerings once you pay the tour fee. If Porto has a favourite architecture, it’s the baroque, with its gilding and decoration dotting every corner, whether it be in churches or in the Livraria Lello bookshop, with its swooping staircase. There’s also the option to take a tour upriver, and while I didn’t get the chance to do that this time, I’d be interested in taking the option next time I’m in the city.

Two cities and no chance to see the countryside between them, other than through the windows of a high-speed train or from high above in the airplane home. I managed to walk and run a lot of both of them though, and to recompense me for my effort, both cities had good food and drink to offer. The prize on this front had to go to Portugal’s famous pasteis de nata, custard tarts with scorched toppings, of which I had well north of a dozen in the five days I was in the country. I would have had more too, but I was trying to control myself. Which, now that I think about it, was not necessarily the best approach to taking a holiday. Ah well, all the more reason to return one day.

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