I had ignorantly thought of the Iberian nation as the jealous little brother of Spain. I used to imagine it looked, sounded and tasted just like its neighbor but with a funny accent and a smaller bite to the wallet.
To say I was wrong would be the understatement of the year.
Portugal is home to heart wrenching Fado music, sweet Port wine and the most beautiful tiled buildings I’ve ever seen in my life. I can still see skyline draped behind a glass of vintage Niepoort and the elongated “s” in words like vamos(h). It was love at first sight and sound. Much like my hometown, Detroit, there are areas that are dilapidated and not quite picturesque. There are streets where the charming white cobblestone becomes cumbersome as they unhinge from the ground beneath you. There are buildings with hand painted tiles cracking and chipping to the point that they could be considered dangerous.
But it’s beautiful. Really Beautiful.
It might even be possible that more people speak English here than in Catalonia. And word to the wise, do not try to speak Spanish here unless you actually are a native speaker and do not know a word of English. It’s a little impolite.
We were lucky enough to see the two most visited cities in the country, that also happen to be rivals — Porto and Lisbon.
In Porto, we learned the Inquisition origins of my favorite Portuguese dish, alheira, and visited the bookstore lauded to be one of the most beautiful shops in the world. Missing the morning tour we had planned on turned out to be a blessing when we decided to climb the Clérigos tower. Not being a regular fan of climbing endless medieval stairs, I must admit this was one of the best parts of the trip. The structure boasts the most beautiful aerial view of the city and it does not dissappoint! And thankfully, great physical effort deserves great libations. We quickly learned why it only takes one glass of vinho do porto wine to send you into bliss…ethanol and methanol make a good team. And when the average meal costs only five euros, no wonder JK Rowling wanted to live here…
In Lisbon, our excitement grew exponentially. Big cities always make my eyes grow wide and this one was no different. Above all else, Lisbon has the best chestnuts I’ve ever tasted in my life. Ever. Hands down. And my family makes them every year. They are one of my favorite Mediterranean staples. Trust me, eat them in Portugal. They use something that looks like a North African tagine with two handles to roast them in and a pulverized salt that coats the shell and makes them appear white. Fantastic. I bought a second serving. (And a third.)
I’ve tried to find an adequate explanation of their technique online, but to no avail. Ahh, oh well…assim é a vida. Maybe the mystery is part of its allure.
Rest assured, we did more than just snack in this beautiful city…tram rides, castle explorations, and ginjinha tastings took up most of the day. That night, we walked quizzically down hilly streets and dark alleys until we finally found Tasco do Chico in famed Bairro Alto. The bar had come recommended to us as a great place to listen to local music by many Lisboetas. In the crowded, smoky bar, we didn’t notice anything at first. No stage, no central focal point, no music. Finally, I saw a guitarist just before a woman came to dim the lights. With my history of classical music and vocal performance, I was nothing short of amazed. This was some of the most beautiful music I had ever heard. This was the reason I began singing so long ago.
After three songs, the lights came back on and the crowd whistled. It was truly emotive and truly art.
Our last day was nothing short of somber. Vowing to return and learn portuguese, we sadly departed the country with the momentary satisfaction of knowing we had seen all the customary tourist sites and tasted almost every national delicacy, but still we wanted more.
Portugal is such an enchanting place, they even have a word to describe missing it. Saudade. It means a deep state of nostalgia and longing.