April 16, 2009 - Posted by Erin in Travels in Europe

Completely underrated, in fact. I had zero expectations for Portugal, so I was super pleasantly surprised to fall in love with the charming city of Lisbon.

The first thing we encountered upon our arrival to the city was the Golden Gate-like 25th of April bridge. It was built after the Golden Gate and by the same construction company (apparently modeled after the Bay Bridge – go figure). Crossing the bridge was quite the metaphor though – little did I know that I would be entering such a gem of a city, that coincidentally shares a million other wonderful things in common with SF.

The first afternoon we ventured out in the city of Lisbon to check out the Castle of Sao Jorge. On the way there, walking through the streets my senses were ambushed by the fresh, yummy smelling air. It seemed that no matter where I went, the air just smelled lovely – like something delicious was always in the oven. The buildings were absolutely gorgeous, and trees and foliage were abundant. I discovered on our walk a couple of other things this city has in common with SF – big hills and lots of bone-chilling wind (not something that I miss so fondly).

After meandering around the castle grounds and watching the sunset, we headed to dinner at a Portuguese restaurant where the traditional “fados” are sung. Fados are sad, yet beautifully romantic songs. During our meal various singers came out and sang the songs to live music.

The next day we journeyed through the city, visiting the various tourist stops. Unfortunately, over the course of the day I got increasingly sick with some sort of cold or flu, and ended up needing to head home and get rest for the remainder of the day. It was fine though – we had a room on the 18th floor of our hotel with a stunning view, so at least I was able to enjoy the city to some extent.

The next day we headed out to the small village of Sintra, where we walked through its small hilly streets and then visited the relatively modern Pena National Palace – modern because it was only built in the 19th century. The city itself was gorgeous – fully of charming houses and blossoming flowers. The hill where the Palace is located reminded me a great deal of Muir Woods with its mossy covered trees and ferns everywhere. There were even eucalyptus trees! This place even smelled like home!

From there, we headed out to Cascais to visit the beach. It wasn’t exactly ideal beach weather, but it was beautiful nonetheless to sit by the water at a terraza and have a drink while listening to the waves crash. The weather again reminding me so much of home – you know, it’s cloudy one minute and freezing cold, but sunny the next minute and totally t-shirt weather.

The next day we headed to a few more tourists stops, including the Belem tower, where many of Portugal’s famous discoverers departed. It was also there that we sat down to enjoy some of Portugal’s finest pastries – notably, these yummy little pastries called natas.

I had expected Portugal to be a lot more like Spain, but was so amazed to find out that it has such a unique, wonderful personality of its own. I found the architecture to be quite different (in a good way), the landscape to be totally unique (and reminiscent of home), and the culture to be very distinct as well. I was most shocked by the fact that probably at least half, if not more, of the restaurants and bars that we visited prohibited smoking. The abundance of smoking in Spain has become quite an issue for me (not just because it’s gross – and let’s be honest, inconsiderate – but because it makes my clothes stink, and worst of all because it makes my sinusitis go haywire). Everyone in Spain tells me that it wouldn’t be possible to prohibit people from smoking…..and yet, just a few hours away in Portugal, people seem to be perfectly accepting. Hmmmm. All I know is that between the fresh, delicious smelling air, and the lack of smoke exposure, that my lungs and clothes were so thankful.

It’s really hard to capture my impressions of Portugal and the city of Lisbon since they depend so much on so many small subtle factors – from the hilly, cobbled streets to the clean air – but it’s fair to say that it wasn’t what I expected and I was pleasantly surprised. Lisbon was a lovely city – I look forward to getting to know the country better during future visits.