My flight from Madrid to Lisbon was went fast and smoothly, except for a ‘training run’ landing – I was sitting next to a guy who obviously didn’t like flying and the landing only served to enhance his dislike! He was pretending to read the in flight magazine yet I could see his knuckles turn white while he gritted his teeth as we came towards and bounced around on the runway. I’m so glad it doesn’t faze me.
I was met at the Lisboa Airport by one of my couch surfing hosts, Andre. He had very kindly agreed to meet me and save me from dealing with public transport, for which I was extremely grateful! We went to a lookout quite near their house, and I got some great, albeit windy, views of Lisbon, including a huge bridge that looks just like the one in San Francisco. I tried the local beer called ‘Super Bock’, and found it was quiet nice, and we discussed all things Portuguese and Australian. I tried to get my tongue around the local phrases – I find Portuguese more difficult than Spanish, and reading Portuguese – forget it. They have all these little lines and squiggles above the letters (accents), that change the sound of the word completely. I could guess many Spanish words by how they were written, but not so in Portuguese. I think I eventually got the Portuguese phrase ‘Hello, my name is Belinda’ down quite well, but it took some practise!
Two things I noticed immediately about Lisbon – they have tonnes of mosaics everywhere, even covering the exterior of the houses, and they sell loaves of bread in the supermarket that have the crusts cut off. Not just the end crusts, but the four sides of each slice of bread! I thought this was hilarious, so had to take a photo, and I’m sure everyone in the supermarket thought I’d lost my mind, taking photos of bread. However, I’d never seen this before and was quite amused. What do they do with the crusts I wonder?
Andre and I picked my other host, Pedro, up from work, and he proceeded to cook a delicious fish dish for dinner – one of his specialities I heard. Most of you would know of my love for food, yet lack of desire for cooking, so I was in ‘Lisboa Heaven’ to have dinner cooked for me! These two guys were great, so funny and intelligent and they could both speak English really well so I had an easy time conversing with them.
I went to a local market the next day, and discovered just how many hills Lisbon has. Geez, one gets a workout just walking to and from work I bet! I have no idea how some girls tottered around in high heels on the cobble stone/ hilly roads and footpaths, but they did. Forget that, I’ll stick to my flat sandals thanks. I noticed that some doorways to houses were so small – Andre told me the Portuguese are not a tall race, yet these doors were really short – that some men had to duck to get in and out of their own homes! You could find almost anything at the market, and I even saw two police officers buying some goods.
Some areas of Portugal could have done with a good clean, mostly the buildings, and you could sense a slight difference in the development when compared to Spain. However, the two countries were on par with the cost of things, items in the supermarket and trains etc. I saw decorations in the street that remained from a recent festival, and it gave a nice community feel to the city. I found my way to the centre of the city, and the associated tourist shops, and managed to get myself a cheap (€2.50) country flag patch. I made my way back to the boy’s house as Andre was going to show me the ‘must see’ nearby town of Sintra in the afternoon.
I was a little perturbed by the number and frequency of men who were looking at me and staring/leering as I walked past. Comments were made and even though I couldn’t understand the words, I got the gist of it by their expressions. I’d not had this much attention an any other city and I wondered if I was wearing something wrong or too revealing – it was the same type of skirt / singlet combination I’d been wearing for the past month, and I didn’t understand why only now it was causing any issues. Unfortunately women everywhere have to put up with men and their leering, but for some reason it really rattled me in Lisbon, and I found my confidence was taking a battering. Andre assured me I wasn’t wearing anything wrong, and we concluded it was just ‘dirty Portuguese men’ (although I’ll point out that not everyone was like that, only a select few) and was most likely because I was walking around on my own, rather than with someone.
I nearly died when I saw the price of fuel, it was €1.569/L, which equals about $AU2/L!
Sintra was a tiny but very pretty little town, and I found many items made from cork. I’d never seen cork used to make things before, and it was everywhere there. Postcards, bags, bracelets, watch bands, lighter covers, you name it and it’s probably made from cork in Portugal. I was interested in getting a cork item, yet they were well above what I thought was an acceptable price so I settled instead for a beautiful bag with traditional Portuguese pictures and meanings hand woven into the fabric. The shop lady carefully explained to me in her limited English the meanings of the pictures and for only €12 I figured it was a bargain!
We tried some traditional Portuguese tarts, which were very good, and apparently the Portuguese pastries are craved by those who travel outside their country – with the belief that no one makes pastries as good as they do! I will stick my neck out and say that in Australia you can get tarts and pastries that are very similar, but I think that’s because of our multi-cultural influence. In fact I think we have excellent food choices in Australia, for the same reasons, and apart from the Spanish tapas, I’d not come across any food in Europe that I couldn’t think of a similar item we have available at home. I laughed when I saw boomerangs for sale in the tourist shops, with ‘traditional’ dot paintings on them, and watched in amazement while workmen fixed a footpath by hand, with the little cobble stones in keeping with the surrounding paths.
After another special home made dinner by Pedro we headed out for a few drinks. Drinking on the streets is ok in Portugal, and people often buy a drink from one bar and socialise outside while heading to the next bar – with a drink in one hand and cigarette in the other. I was asking around to see if any bars had – or knew of – Angostura Bitters to make the drink ‘lemon, lime and bitters’, or as I like it LLB and Gin! One bartender had heard of it but didn’t have it in his current bar, so I settled for a scotch instead.
I went to the beach in Cascais for my last day in Lisbon, and met up with a guy from the couch surfing website who was keen to visit Australia. We talked about all things Australian, and compared our two countries. The financial crisis that Portugal is in, and the knowledge that their country will likely follow in the footsteps of Greece was explained to me, and I found it difficult to fathom living in a country knowing it can not support you. The foreseeable future for all Portuguese people is gloomy and even those in Government jobs are not guaranteed of keeping their jobs. I heard later on that the Government will be taking a large percentage of everyone’s Christmas bonuses this year, and there will be many other financial cutbacks and losses.
The standard wage for a good job in Portugal is €1000 – €1200 per month, which is equal in Australian dollars to $1300 – $1600 per month. People live off this amount. Yes the cost of living is less than ours, but remember this amount is also for full time work in a good job, which can take years to get to. Initially many people start earning €800 per month, or $AU1050. Those not working full time or earning the highest rate live off less. And the Government is going to eliminate those jobs and/or take some of what you earn. These figures are applicable to police officers in Portugal as well as other Government and private sector employees.
As is the case for most places I visit, I didn’t have enough time to see everything, and would have liked to visit Belem, St George’s Castle and have a better look around the city – however, these places are on my list for next time. I said a sad farewell to Andre and Pedro and headed for the next stop on my list – the University city of Coimbra.
Coimbra, pronounced ‘Qwimbra’, is about half way between Lisbon and Porto in Portugal, and I arrived by bus in 30 degree heat. Using my digital photo of Google Maps, I headed south from the bus terminal towards the address of my couch surfing host and found a post office on the way. I wanted to send off another parcel of presents to lighten my backpack, and figured Portugal would be the cheapest country to send it from, before I reached France and Switzerland. The post office I came across was the most similar to Australian post offices that I’d seen, they had books and other goods for sale, along with boxes and parcels to send goods in. I took a number, like at the deli at home, and enjoyed my wait in the air conditioning. The lady at the counter was most helpful and friendly, probably because of her desire to visit Australia which she wistfully stated after discovering where I was from. I squeezed 1.960kg into the box, and was happy with the €14 it cost (including the box) to send it to Scotland to collect before returning home.
With a two kilogram lighter backpack I was happier to trudge the distance through the hilly city to the address on my sticky-note. Upon arriving however, I was shocked to discover my couch surfing host lived in a ‘Republica House’ – a well known student house, known for all the wrong reasons. It was a multi-story town house of sorts, with four levels and six bedrooms tangled in with two bathrooms, a kitchen and living room. Apparently they’d had a birthday party there the night before, which they were blaming for the mess that was everywhere, and also for the bleary eyed looks everyone had. I was introduced to everyone I met as ‘the couch surfer’ and I counted about fifteen people as we moved through the rooms. Climbing the rickety narrow stairs I was glad to reach the top floor, only to have to force my mouth closed when I glanced in the ‘kitchen’ – if one could call it that. The long table was piled high with food encrusted plates and bowls, pots and pans that needed a good scrubbing and numerous bottles that previously held a alcohol of any variety you could think of. Graffiti covered the walls, and I don’t believe the floor had ever been cleaned in any way, shape or form. I shuddered to think what animals called that kitchen their home, and was beginning to think I’d mis-read the host’s profile on the website.
Onto the lounge room, and the deluge of empty bottles continued, amongst a few bowls with scissors, and overflowing ash trays. There was an assortment of chairs and couches crammed amongst broken furniture, overflowing bookshelves, ornaments, street signs, bongs, guitars, lamps and lampshades, heaters and fans, sleeping bags, assorted works of art and items of clothing. In the centre of the room was a mattress covered in a layer of dog hair, with the perpetrator resting on the said mattress, his head between his hind legs feverishly licking his balls. Hesitating a guess and asked where I was meant to sleep that night and was answered with a wave of the hand and a tired ‘On that mattress I guess’. Yes, that mattress the dog was sitting on was what he pointed to. Really? You’ve accepted my request to stay at your house while I see your city and the best you can come up with is a dirty mattress dumped in the middle of your overcrowded lounge room in your filthy house? Ay yay yay.
While contemplating if I was just being overly sensitive, and having come from the lovely host house of Andre and Pedro in Lisbon, I tried to decide what to do. I met a nice girl from Denmark, Julie, who was also staying there that night, and she spoke English so I confided my dislike of the place to her and she offered me the bed she’d been allocated to sleep in that night and she’d sleep on the couch. I agreed to this because by this stage there were about eight people in the lounge room and all except for me and Julie were smoking. In the house, in the room I was in. I was going to die if I slept there that night. Julie showed me the room I could sleep in, but first we had to wake up someone else who had decided to sleep there in the meantime. Ahhh, I didn’t know these people, and even though they were nice in allowing us to ‘stay’ they made no effort to make that stay comfortable or homley…
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much that night. I spent the next hour deciding if I preferred to sleep in the (almost clean) armchair in the room, or in the bed on sheets I’m sure hadn’t been changed in a long time. I opted for the bed while gritting my teeth and shuddering at the thought of what exactly I was sleeping on. I then had to decide what to wear – I didn’t want to wear my pjs because they’d get ‘contaminated’ and have to be put back in my bag with my other clothes, yet there was no way I was not going to wear clothes in that bed. Ewww. Best not to think about the finer details I tried to tell myself, and just keep my skin clean – I can worry about my clothes later. I was also not sure that I’d be alone all night so I slept with one eye open as the saying goes.
Julie and I left in the morning, and she went to the train station to head further south, while I checked into a hostel I’d found. The hostel had clean sheets and a bed that was allocated to me, so it felt like heaven! I had a shower and washed away the grime of the night before.
As things would have it, I met two nice guys at the hostel, Pieter from Brussels and Marty from Ireland. Pieter and I got along so well he invited me to stay at his house when I get to Brussels in a few weeks, and I eagerly took him up on the offer. It’s nice to meet up with people you’ve met earlier in your travels, and especially sane, intelligent and interesting ones. Pieter spoke Spanish, along with Dutch and a little bit of German and French, and was on his way to Sevilla in Spain to attend a Flamenco course. Once again I was envious of the multiple languages he spoke and was excited he was heading back to Spain. Interestingly his sister is living in Spain with her Australian boyfriend – talk about a small world.
I had a lazy day the following day and booked flights back to Madrid (and Madrid to London) at the end of July. I hadn’t yet booked my transport from Brussels to London and managed to find an extra four days to re-visit Madrid and the guy I’d met there just the week before. I was keen to get back to Spain and figured I might as well seeing as I was so close anyway, and I’d be able to get my Spanish-English dictionary a little earlier than waiting until I returned home.
I wanted to visit Porto in Portugal for two reasons – firstly, Port wine is made there, and secondly, it is close to France and the flight to Paris was too cheap to refuse. I left the Coimbra hostel with Pieter and Marty and we headed to the train station to go our separate ways. The boys were heading south, and I was going north to Porto, keen to try their Port Wine. Given that the train tickets and timetables were difficult to figure out, I wasn’t sure exactly when I was due to arrive in Porto, so at every stop the train made I’d frantically scour the platform looking for the station name. Luckily Porto was major stop, and although we arrived earlier than I figured we would, I managed to get off at the correct location.
I am determined to see how easy or difficult we make it for travellers in Melbourne to get hold of a city map and directions of where to go next. Some cities here are great, yet some are atrocious, and when you arrive in a new place the last thing you want to struggle with is finding how to get to your accommodation. Luckily this station had an information office of sorts, and the lady gave me a map and told me my current ticket was still valid to use on the local train to get to the city centre.
Feeling like some exercise, I decided to walk to the hostel. The directions on my map took me through the main square in Porto, with some huge old buildings, and along the way I saw many spires. Porto for me was characterised by the numerous churches and spires that were everywhere I went. I eventually reached the street in which the hostel was located, although it was at the other end of 400 houses. Thankfully the street was downhill, which I slowly walked, only to find a notice on the door of the hostel advising me that check in was to be conducted at #213 – halfway back up the bloody hill! What choice did I have except to retrace my steps and check in. Then it was back down the hill, up four flights of stairs and I could finally put my backpack down. I have no idea why I bought such a big backpack all those years ago when I was travelling up the East Coast of Australia, however it is too big for me now. I could easily do with one that is 10L smaller and still take everything I need. If anyone is in the market for a 75L backpack still in good condition, and well travelled, let me know.
Eager to do some Port Wine tastings, I took the tourist trail down to the river and arrived at the Ponte Luis Bridge by lunch time the next day. Of the information booklets I’d collected, I had marked the wineries that conducted ‘free’ tastings, and headed for those. Well ‘free’ doesn’t actually mean free in these cases. Sure, it is free to enter the winery and sit down, but they will charge you €2 per tasting – yes, that is about $2.70 per wine you want to try. Forget it, I’m not paying the equivalent of a bottle just to try five different ones. Although I’d already sat down and talked to the staff I thanked them, said I wasn’t going to pay for each tasting, and got up and left. Onto the next one. I couldn’t find it. There were signs pointing in the general direction, yet the main gate was closed and I didn’t see any ‘tourist’ entrance welcoming me and my euros. The next one I came across had tours on offer (in English because I was the only one in there) for €2.50 and you got to taste two port wines after the tour. I paid for it and was joined by a Canadian couple and two other girls from Australia.
Although the tour was mildly interesting, all we wanted were the tastings, and I think the guide knew this so he went through the motions until we reached the ‘sit down and enjoy the two free tastings – that we’ve chosen for you – before you buy an overpriced bottle’ room. I must say, I was unimpressed. The guide told us they add brandy to their port wines, and I could taste it. I don’t know if we do the same in Australia, but surely not. Why do you need to add brandy to what is already a good product? I got to try their white port, which was particularly brandy like, and their standard port which was not as good as some I’ve had at home. Disappointing.
I decided to try one more winery, and this one was actually free. Free to enter, and free to taste one port wine – of their choice. While waiting for the free tour – so I could try the second free port – I saw a guy sitting on his own so went to talk to him. Markus was from Sweden, and was in Porto for a work conference – he worked for Ikea. He’d arrived a day earlier than his workmates, so he could see a bit of Porto and try their port wines. We paid to taste their ‘pink’ port, which was the best tasting by far, and interestingly it was served over ice. We exchanged email addresses in the chance of meeting up when I get to Copenhagen in two weeks, as he if often in Copenhagen for work. Ikea are big in Europe, nearly all the hostels I’ve stayed in are stocked full of Ikea furniture, bedding and towels, and most of the Couch Surfing homes I’ve stayed in also have Ikea labels around the place.
I was keen to fly to Paris the next day and went to bed early to try and get a decent sleep after the previous night of a noisy, full hostel with people arriving at all hours of the night.
Photos of Portugal can be seen here, enter ‘europe’ if asked for a password.