The Recollection Diaries: Portugal

My recollection

Strongest memory: South of Porto lies a quaint little university town, fondly known by all as Coimbra. We were using this mostly as an access point to cross the border back into Spain, however we were both interested in seeing what small town Portugal had to offer. Besides visiting the university, it seems that one of the most popular activities to do in Coimbra is to visit the famous gardens. Well, Andy and I don’t mind a walk, so off to the gardens we went. We stopped short when we learnt there was an entry fee though – since when do we pay for gardens?! Our touristing tends to be pretty low cost and when gardens charge a fee, we usually just head elsewhere. On this particular day however, we thought we’d check them out. The fee was small (€3 I think), so after parting with our loose change we headed on in. We were given a map, on which we located all of our personal points of interest. We needn’t have bothered; there wasn’t much to navigate. The gardens were neglected, overgrown and literally a shambles. The panoramic views of Coimbra were merely glimpses of rooftops through the foliage. The bamboo forest stretched all of 10 metres. It was a stretch to call the under watered swamps ponds. We couldn’t believe it! It became a competition to see who could actually take the best photo of these gardens. While there were some pretty spots to be found, no way should it have featured as one of the top things to do in the area (and don’t even get me started on the fact they were charging for it!).   

Memorable meal: Restaurant Ciudad. I will forever remember this place fondly. It was so delicious that we ended up eating here not once, but twice. The first night, we noted that the restaurant was certainly locally owned, our server was cute and jolly both at the same time, the prices were cheap and the portions were out of this world. We didn’t tip often in Europe, but we certainly tipped here. The grilled pork pieces sound simple but were honestly out of this world. The next night, our order was more refined: we tried a few different things, saved ourselves some money (as we didn’t need to order quite so much) and basically became best friends with our server by the time we left. He even waved at us out the window when we were down the street! 

Best activity: From hiking to Lagos’ various beaches, kayaking around the rock formations, doing a brewery crawl in Lisbon and port tastings in Porto, there were so many fun activities in Portugal and all of these I would definitely do again. I think as a first time visitor to Lagos, seeing the beaches from a perspective of a boat and having the chance to kayak through the rock formations was pretty special. The natural scenery is unreal, it’s just a bit of a shame that it is inundated with tourists. I suspect that the rock formations won’t be there forever though, so I’m very glad we got to see them when we did. Spoiler: despite the beautiful colour of the ocean, it’s definitely colder than it looks! 

Favourite place: At heart, I am very simple to please. Sunshine and good food will keep me happy for a very long time! Lagos fit this bill extremely well. With a large expat population, we were submerged in a city of great food options and there were so many to choose from every single meal. With expats comes raised prices though, so it was a constant struggle of trying to save money versus trying everything on the menu! Obviously Lagos is sun-soaked, with glorious beaches and cool, turquoise water. As mentioned above, the water was a little nippy, but this just made the whole experience so much more refreshing! 

Unforgettable sight: The postcard perfect view of Porto’s riverside, as seen from the other side – preferably as one sits on a glass of port in the late afternoon sun. The magnificent colours of the asymmetrical, century old houses; the Portugese flag undoubtedly flapping somewhere in the wind and the array of boats bobbing in the water. It is truly a magical sight and hands down one of my favourite views in the whole of Europe. 

Andy’s recollection

Strongest memory: Lagos was an attractive seaside town with really nice beaches and cool local businesses. It’s a shame, then, that my main memory is stopping in at a bar on a sunny afternoon to watch what should have been two historic sporting events, and walking out doubly disappointed. We packed in with a crowd of mostly British expats to watch (on adjacent screens) both the Wimbledon final (Federer vs Djokovic) and the Cricket World Cup final (New Zealand v England). Both were excruciatingly close to my preferred result – Federer managing to lose despite holding two match points, and the Black Caps managing to lose an arbitrary tiebreaker contest (a better decider would have been the simple fact that the Black Caps had lost fewer wickets in the first 50 overs, but whatever). I guess a mark in Portugal’s favour is that our surroundings, once we had left the bar, were sufficiently pleasant to lift my dreary mood within hours.

Memorable meal: The meal so nice we had it twice! For the entire trip, we were always looking to make our food dollars go further, and in Porto we may have found the perfect combination of flavour and value. And in the most unlikely of places too. Just around the corner from our (brilliant) accommodation, up some stairs and overlooking a petrol station, was Restaurant Ciudad. A traditional, cafeteria-esque family joint that served incredible grilled meats, roast vegetables, and sauteed greens. For an incredibly low price (perhaps just the lack of tourist-inflation) we were served a banquet-sized spread of meat and three veg. To a pair of travellers that had gone hungry from time to time, it was nothing short of fantastic. When discussions began for the venue of the next nights meal, there was no argument from either of us – we went right back to Ciudad and were welcomed with open arms by our familiar friendly waiter.

Best activity: My favourite pastime in Portugal was our afternoon spent on the southern bank of the Douro River, tasting the icon of the city – port wine. We didn’t have much luck with our plan to walk into assorted wineries and be served immediately (most places were either far too expensive or didn’t have a tasting slot for hours), so we ended up tasting on the patio of an unaffiliated merchant that served a collection of ports from the surrounding producers. This was a good thing in retrospect, as it allowed us to taste the wines outside, looking back at the iconic riverside downtown of Porto, and at our own pace.

Favourite place: Lisbon. I was surprised by how immediately at ease I was in Lisbon, instantly seeing it  as a city that was large, beautiful and relaxed. We had plenty of food and drink spots that we were excited to try out, so it was very easy to pass the days well-fuelled and excited to venture onwards. A great afternoon was spent out in the fledgling craft beer district (which, as previously stated in this Recollection Series, was not always as easy to find in Europe as we had expected), as well as another really fun afternoon walking along the waterfront to Belem for custard tarts and then Lime scootering back.

Unforgettable sight: I paused a long time to think for this one. I’m getting the impression that our time in Portugal was not particularly marked by staggering sights. The two that come to mind are views of cities – the first being Lisbon as viewed from the hills of Alfama, and the second being the small city of Coimbra as viewed from across the river, the city’s dominating hilltop crowned by the famous university buildings. The latter was also the source of one of our funnier stories from our time in Portugal – in which we paid actual money to enter a garden for its supposed “panoramic” views of the city, only to walk to the viewpoint and find that the growth of the trees had completely ruled out any hope of a panorama many years before.

 

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