Riding completely solo for the first time I’d been in Europe, I was both nervous and excited. First destination was Porto; and my first impressions were that it possessed the rawest beauty of any city I’d ever seen. I stayed in Alma Porto Hostel (€13/night) and it would have been a fantastic experience if anyone in my room had spoken English. Instead I spent the next few days entirely in my own company, which while extremely therapeutic, made me realise how much I love talking and laughing, and having someone to share moments with (even if it’s someone I don’t know very well!).
Porto was a combination between Cinque Terre (Italy) and Dubrovnik (Croatia). Bathroom tiles decorate the exterior of most buildings, and the streets are all either ridiculously narrow and cobble-stoned, or wide and open lined by trees. Stray cats and flies are plentiful, as were Cristiano Ronaldo football shirts. I was fortunate in that whilst I was there it was the Porto Wine Festival, therefore I spent my first afternoon basking in the sun on the riverside, sangria in hand and happy as can be.
The following morning I set off for the beach; being 9km away I thought I’d better catch the bus down. After enjoying some sunshine, and exploring the city park (Parque Da Cidade) – which really was more like a jungle/overgrown golf course, I stumbled across a game of beach volleyball; Brazil were playing Italy in what turned out to be a warmup game for the University World Championships. Never one to say no to a bit of live sport, I found myself occupied for the rest of the afternoon, and must have glided home on cloud nine, because the next thing I knew, I was back at the hostel.
Pet hate: the people in hostels who set their alarms half an hour early so they can press snooze half a dozen times – successfully waking everyone else in the room in the process. The girl above me did this, which resulted in me getting up, showering, packing and eating breakfast (she still hadn’t gotten up) and leaving slightly early to catch my bus to Peniche. Unbeknownst to me, I had to bus all the way to Lisbon (4 hours), change, and then bus 2 hours back to get to Peniche. I got off, literally in the middle of nowhere with my backpack and the sun beating down on me. With no map or Wifi, and after encountering three different people – none of whom spoke a drop of English, I was just about to give up and siesta at the park, when I spotted an Information Centre sign glimmering in the distance. I thought that perhaps it was a mirage, but further investigation proved me wrong, and not long after I found myself at West Hostel, which has my recommendation 110%. The hostel only slept 16, and by the end of my few days there I had formed a newfound family, feasted on copious amounts of delicious seafood, eaten my first spaghetti bolognaise since being in Europe (despite living in Italy!), and visited ‘Super Tubos’ – the beach that is home to the world’s biggest wave. I left Peniche sun kissed, happy and on a high; trippin’ down the coast with my new found Australian mates in their rental car, merrily on our way to Lisbon.
Friends, friends and more friends! Within moments of arriving at my hostel (Lookout Lisbon – big, spacious, clean, good breakfast, location and nice staff) I was mistaken for a Dutch girl, and the Australian girl next to me was asked if she was from the Czech Republic. From that moment on Emma and I were firm friends, later to be joined by Arielle, from Los Angeles and Hannah, from Germany. Famous in Portugal is the ‘Pastel de nata’ – little custard pastries, and a little shop 6km down the road was rumoured to sell the best in the whole country. So the next morning Emma and I walked along the waterfront past the Ponte 25 de Abril (similar to Golden Gate Bridge – one of the many similarities between Lisbon and San Francisco, others including yellow trams, and the mint green and black taxis), the Padrao dos Descobrimentos (huge monument with people carved into it), a Christ the Redeemer statue across the river, and the Torre de Belem to finally reach “Antiga Confeitaria de Belem (est. 1837)”. We knew that we had arrived by the long queue of people in the street. At first glance the place looked small, however through each doorway was another room, and it turns out the place was huge.
That evening we met up with the Aussie boys and Asti (a Swiss friend from Peniche) and climbed the Castello de Sao Jorge to watch the sunset, before heading to the Mercado Food Court “Time Out” on Avenida Vinte e Quatro de Julho. Set in a huge warehouse, the food court offered a wide range of gourmet food from different ethnicities, including pork suckling, burgers, waffles, and all things Asian. Feeling deliciously full we all headed across to Bairro Alto (home to the nightlife) where everyone drinks on the streets outside the bars, and there is twinkling lights and tinsel all around, to have a few drinks before heading home.
The next day I set out on a day trip to Sintra (€2 train), which felt very much like something out of a fairy-tale. From palaces to castles to manors (surrounded by rolling green countryside), and a historical old town I spent the day exploring, soaking up the ancient beauty of the place. On my way back I stopped to buy a custard tart, and instead left with another traditional pastry ‘travesseiros’ (almond and egg). On my last day in Lisbon, Arielle and I headed to Cascais (€5 return, 40 minute train) which is a seaside town and beach, but was ridiculously crowded, so we walked along the pier to the beach at Estoril (also home to Europe’s biggest casino).
I did find paradise in Portugal. From the friendly people and the beautiful language, to the delicious food and cheap drinks, the sandy beaches, vibrant culture and the wonderfully cheap price of it all, I loved everything about it, and am already looking forward to the day I go back. The only downside was that the water was COLD; I was literally the only one on the whole beach who wasn’t wearing a wetsuit (it is the Atlantic Ocean after all) and I definitely got a few strange looks for it!