MAY 15, 2023  ·  1441 WORDS

First thing I noticed when I got to Lisbon is the ubiquitous presence of blue tiles. These blue tiles, or "Azulejos" as they are known locally, derive their name from the Arabic word for "polished stone". They were intended to protect the walls from heat and moisture but soon became a popular decorative element.

The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 required the reconstruction of the city. With that, the tiles became incredibly more exuberant and depeicted scenes to bolster the Portuguese way of life. They were used as a canvas to showcase Portugal's military prowess, to preach the Catholic faith, and to depeict scenes of poverty and social justice. Recently, the azulejos have been used as a medium to depict commentary on climate change and equal rights. Now these tiles are part of the cultural heritage and they are simply beautiful.

Lisbon feels very similar to San Francisco. Both cities sprawl across seven hills, offer cable car rides, have experienced devastating earthquakes in their histories, and boast stunning views of a bay. To top it all off, Lisbon even has its own doppelganger of the Golden Gate Bridge. Besides the iconic red color, the Ponte 25 de Abril also shares a similar length and an Earthquare-conscious design with the Golden Gate Bridge. Interestingly, the bridge on the Tagus river was actually built by a company called 'American Bridge Company' the same folks who constructed the Bay Bridge in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you look past the color, the bridge actually bears a closer resemblance to the Bay Bridge rather than the Golden Gate. Note the shape of the gaps between the main arches. Golden Gate has a square shape while both Bay Bridge and Ponte 25 de Abril display a diamond shape made by crossing metals.

Later in the day, I ate dinner at the Timeout market before heading into the lively Barrio Alto neighbourhood. The energy in the area was infectious and it was in fact very difficult to go to sleep with the noises carrying on until about 5 AM. Actually, on an early morning run, I noticed quite a few people calling it a night, rounding off with their last beers.

As the day rolled on, I made my way to the Belem district of the city. There, standing tall, was the Padrão dos Descobrimentos or the Monument of the Discoveries. Erected to commemorate the Portuguese age of exploration during the 15th and 16th centuries, it was a tribute to those who dared to venture into the unknown using their advanced navigation skills. I was taught about Vasco Da Gama, third in line on the monument, at school because he was the first European explorer to reach India by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope. I must admit, it was a bit disconcerting seeing a glorified image of a figure who, according to my textbook, was responsible for spreading diseases, religious intolerance, and overall devastation among the local populations. I'm curious to read about his portrayl in the Portuguese textbooks.

The 'Pasteis de Belem', a delicious egg custard tart pastry, is one must-have item on every Portugal travel list. A little like the difference between 'photocopiers' and 'Xerox'[1], 'Pasteis de Belem' specifically refers to those baked at this renowned pastry shop, while 'Pastel de Nata' is the broader term for this dessert. Even with a seemingly long queue, you'll find it moves at a brisk pace. It is certainly worth the wait.

While Pastel de Nata may not be as widely recognized as popular desserts like Gelato or Doughnuts, it has gained global appeal. Its delicious taste certainly contributes to its growing popularity, but influences from colonialism and globalisation have also played a part. Beyond Portugal, Pastel de Nata has found appreciation in former Portuguese colonies like Brazil, Macau, and Goa. An example of its global reach is its presence on the menus of KFC in Hong Kong, introduced via its proximity to Macau. It is fascinating to observe the effects of globalization in action, with an American company offering a Portuguese dessert, on its menu in Asia.

The next day, I took my first surfing lesson at the Praia do Castelo beach. This beach is truly beautiful, and the sand is so fine it feels as though it melts under your feet. As for the surf lesson, I fell multiple times and was entirely out of breath from just carrying the board back into the ocean against the waves. However, when I managed to catch a wave, it was amazing! The stance felt a bit unnatural at first, but I could feel myself improving with each attempt. I certainly want to try surfing again!

A few minutes away from Lisbon lies the beautiful town of Sintra, renowned for its castles. This place was a favored summer retreat for the royalty, who had a habit of bringing back seeds from unique trees during their overseas travels. That's why Sintra has a mix of trees you might not expect, such as Sequoia trees from California and Palm trees from the Caribbean.

An interesting thing about the Sintra National Palace is the unique blend of architectural styles reflected in the windows. I don't know the first thing about architecture, but as you can see in the image below, each window is designed distinctly. According to the guide, this diversity reflects the influence of various cultures and periods on the palace's architecture[2].

There's an abundance of shops selling cork-based items in the area. Interestingly, Portugal is responsible for supplying over half of the world's cork[3]. Generally, sustainable cork practices are followed as only the bark is used and the tree is left unharmed. However, it's worth noting that a cork tree generally needs to be about 25 years old before its bark can be harvested for the first time. After the initial harvest, the tree's bark can be harvested every 9 to 12 years.

Pena Palace is another recommended spot in Sintra. One of its most unique elements is the Triton Gateway, inspired by the Greek god of the sea. It certainly leaves a lasting impression, to say the least.

For lunch, I enjoyed a delightful spread of black pork loin, grilled octopus, duck rice, and green wine, which I was told embodies a traditional Portuguese meal. If you find yourself in Sintra, make sure to check out Taverna dos Trovadores for a memorable meal.

In my limited experience, it was evident that Portuguese culture embraces a leisurely and relaxed pace when it comes to meals. Dinners typically begin at 8 PM or even later. It's a delightful experience to indulge in occasionally, although I'm not sure if I could adjust to such a schedule on a regular basis.

The next stop was Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe.

Another striking red lighthouse stands in Nazaré, a beautiful coastal town known for its colossal waves featured in the show 100 Foot Wave. The incredible waves in Nazaré, particularly during winter, stem from swells generated by powerful storms in the Atlantic Ocean. As these swells approach the coast, they encounter the Nazaré Canyon and the Nazaré Submarine Canyon, which act as natural amplifiers. These canyons, estimated to have depths exceeding 5,000 meters, magnify the energy of the incoming swells. Similar to compressing a water hose, this amplification increases the pressure, propelling the waves to heights that can surpass 30+ meters or 100+ feet. It's a remarkable phenomenon where the raw power of the Atlantic Ocean converges with the unique geography of Nazaré, resulting in the formation of captivating waves.

The rest of my time in Portugal included visiting Óbidos, spending a day in Porto, and exploring wineries in the Duoro Valley renowned for their production of Port wine. Collectively, these experiences made for a truly memorable trip.