Porto to Lisbon, Portugal

10 years ago, despite spending five weeks in Spain, I had so much going on with all of Silvia and Óscar’s recommendations, and so many friends to visit elsewhere, that I never had a chance to get to Portugal. Six years ago, the original idea of my Silk Road trip was to go from one ocean to the other, from Hong Kong’s Pacific to Portugal’s Atlantic, by land. I had so much fun in the middle that I ran out of time by Austria. So there’s some motivation to address some unfinished business!

But let’s just cut to the chase here: this portion of the trip was completely overshadowed by the Azores. I had a fine enough time in mainland Portugal, but having experienced so many emotional reunions and seen everything I already wanted to, my head was already elsewhere. Unseasonably frequent rain also didn’t help. But there had to have been something more to explain the general sense of disconnect I felt despite being in an objectively compelling place.

Porto is a beautiful city, and I exhausted myself over three days walking up and down the steep cobblestone streets. And at all hours, especially around sunset, the Luis I Bridge is full of people dodging the frequently passing streetcars, all justifiably for a gorgeous panoramic view of the old town of Porto, the Douro River, and neighbouring Gaia on the other side.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a visit to Porto without some vinho do Porto: port wine. While I forwent a trip to the actual wine region in the nearby Douro Valley, I opted for some tastings amongst the cellars and wine shops in Gaia. As delicious as it was, sweet and heavy like a dessert, I found that I preferred the regional white and “green” wines (vinho verde) instead, the latter being a lightly carbonated wine. Much more casually drinkable!

Long tired of visiting churches ad infinitum — even if they’re historic or gorgeous, they really do blur together — I narrowed things down to churches with a twist. In Porto, that was the Clerigos Church…which stood out not so much for the church but for its tower, the top of which looked out over all the rooftops in the old city. And hey, I did technically visit another little chapel in town, one which got turned into a cozy bar! On a whim, I decided to take a day trip by train to Braga, Portugal’s third-largest city after Porto, to visit Bom Jesus do Monte, a giant version of the terraced staircase church grounds I saw in the Azores.

Being inland, Braga has a completely different feel to Porto. It’s got its own historic centre as well, much smaller in scope and without the dramatic hillside, riverside, or oceanside scenery. But while Porto felt quite crowded with tourists, Braga was much more low-key, with plenty of open public spaces and more regular local life.

I moved onto Lisbon, a 4.5 hour regular train ride away from Porto, for the remaining week until my flight home. With very mixed weather across the country, it made no sense for me to split my time, head further south to the coast then double back, so going into Lisbon, I knew I had a lot more time than I would have preferred. But hey, it’s hardly something to complain about, since most people would dream for a week in Lisbon!

I treated every clear day that arrived like it would be the last: on my first day, I think I walked to at least five different miradouros, to get a chance to see the city under blue skies and sunshine, overlooking the ocean. The fact that nearly all the sidewalks are tiled like mosaics rather than paved is a marvel. The streets themselves are famously photogenic, and from first impression, all the historic districts — in particular Alfama, Chiado, Bairro Alto, and Rossio — were buzzing with activity day and night, full of people dodging streetcars. I spent an hour in the evening just sitting at a kiosk in a plaza, green wine in hand, taking in the warm weather and energy of a Saturday night.

My luck continued, and the weather held out some more for day trips to Sintra and Cascais, the well-trodden tourist trail. While they’re some of the most crowded places I’ve travelled to in years, they’re well-trodden for good reason. Sintra’s got many castles like the Moorish one dating back to the 800s and the garishly Lego-like former monastery Pena Palace from the 1800s: like it or not, it’s never uninteresting. Cascais has a laid-back town centre full of vacation homes and a lovely seaside walk that passes many surfer-friendly beaches, but it’s also the first stop to get to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe, an extremely windy cliffside that drops almost straight down to some stunning beaches.

With the rest of my days full of decidedly mixed weather, I stayed in the city and went for more neighbourhoods recommended to me as a visitor: Cais do Sodre, recently named one of the “coolest” cities in the world; LxFactory, a former industrial area now gentrified into a hip, artsy market, and Parque das Nacões, a new neighbourhood of weird sculptures, modern architecture, and a giant mall. Combined with the historical districts from earlier, there’s true variety in photogenic Lisbon, and lots of genuinely cool things I saw. I even had some fantastic meals and drinks, and some excellent spontaneous company chatting with other tourist patrons sitting around me on multiple occasions.

And yet… Something still felt a little off to me. In most places I went in the centers of Lisbon and Porto, more people were speaking English than Portuguese. All the cool restaurants? Few to no locals, and some even with signage entirely in English. Historical neighbourhoods? More Airbnbs than locals, judging by open windows and the constant presence of rolling luggage. Those famous funiculars and streetcars? Now more for Instagram than for genuine utility. Most former routes save for the ones passing tourist areas have been replaced by buses. (Besides, streetcars in traffic are rarely a good idea for a timely commute, especially when they get stuck behind an idling delivery vehicle or an accident.) Residential areas? I walk into a chill-looking cafe…and the clientele are mainly English-speaking residents. Lots of Brits and Americans. There’s nothing wrong with foreigners — and I’m one of them — but in all these buzzy areas, where were all the locals?

Portugal’s gained a ton of buzz in recent times as a hotspot for both tourism and digital nomads. Understandably so: relative to the rest of Europe, things are quite cheap for a high standard of living, and there’s more people able to speak and understand English. But with such an influx of foreigners, prices are being pushed up, and locals are also being pushed out of previously affordable neighbourhoods. What’s cheap for us isn’t cheap for the Portuguese: while a quality restaurant meal with drinks might cost €20 and gas is at €2/L, the average salary is just south of €30,000 per year. The country’s new digital nomad visa, among other foreigner-friendly policies, has also brought a large number of long-term residents who often work remotely for foreign companies, seldom contributing significantly to the tax base or learning the local language.

And so everywhere I went, while I had fun, I kept feeling a twinge of…guilt maybe? Wherever I travel, I love seeing locals enjoy themselves amongst the tourists. It’s not to say that there aren’t any locals anywhere of course, and I did walk some much more local neighbourhoods, but those had less to do and were a bit further out. (This also applies to the town of Setúbal, an hour away by train. It had a sleepy, local feel, a nice fish market and another hilltop fort, but little else especially in the rain.)

But in all the famous areas that I got to enjoy, the local presence and language felt very diminished. (Or did I just go to all the wrong places?) At times, I felt like I was in some theme park version of Portugal rather than a living country. Even in working-class Chinese and Indian immigrant neighbourhoods in Porto and Lisbon, I found quite a few businesses with only English signage and staff unable to speak Portuguese. While it’s great for Portugal to be so open to outsiders and to bolster their own economy with tourism and immigration, there’s probably a better way to do so while preserving their unique character and culture.

For us visitors, it’s not our problem and it’s one that’s very easy to look past, given that it only makes things more convenient. (On that last point — I even heard from someone about their friend who’s lived in Lisbon for 20 years without learning to read or speak Portuguese.) For me specifically though… It was enough of a distraction that I decided to turn my attention elsewhere.

While I skipped the big famous monastery in Belém, its seaside tower and tiled rose compass are icons of the colonial history of Portugal. And everywhere you go in the city, streets are named after former colonies: Rua da Guiné-Bissau, da Ilha de São Tomé, de Angola, do Brasil, do Timor-Leste…

Obviously, that era did plenty of damage, and more than one former Portuguese colony will tell you that the Portuguese weren’t very good at anything beyond plundering resources, but a lasting legacy is the many disparate populations brought under the Portuguese cultural umbrella. Lisbon feels like one of the most racially-diverse places I’ve ever been, with plenty of skin colours represented. Walking into a low-key bakery or restaurant as a visibly Asian person ordering in Portuguese with a weird/bad Brazilian accent, nobody once batted an eye or treated me like an outsider. Maybe they thought I was from Macau.

Granted, in contrast to other former colonies, there seems to be scant representation of Macau in Lisbon, save for a Rua de Macau. I spent a long afternoon almost entirely alone in the Macau Museum, which also served more as a museum of Portuguese colonial history and its establishment of Macau as an intermediary of trade between the rest of China, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Portuguese Goa in India, which itself was a connection point to southern Africa. To Europe, they brought over tea, spices, silver, and porcelain, which converged stylistically with the Islamic-origin azulejo (glazed tile work) still seen all over Portugal and Spain.

I sought out and found only a single restaurant in all of Lisbon serving Macanese food, which was absolutely delicious and a genuine fusion of ingredients and spices: my dish in particular had Malay, Indo-Portuguese, southern African, and of course Chinese influences. In a Mozambican restaurant I went to the following night, similar influences led to wildly different yet also delicious results. They even offered their own take on bebinca, the same dessert I had at the Macanese restaurant!

I only wish I had the chance to explore more lusophone cuisines, many of which have little presence in Canada: this idea sadly came to me a little bit late in the week. Portuguese cuisine itself is fine (and the pastéis de nata exceptional, as I averaged more than one of those divine custardy tarts a day), but staying traditional, it seems to carry little influence from their former realms. On the other hand, it was a treat to travel the world through food, under a lusophone perspective of cultural cross-pollination. That characteristic alone makes Lisbon uniquely distinct from other world cities of its stature.

After spending two trips looking backwards this year, my 10-year curiosities have been satiated. But as I was reminded through food in Lisbon…there’s still a whole world out there. Whether or not I vibe with a place, there’s always something new to learn and appreciate. I don’t know where the next 10 years will take me yet, but I’ve certainly gotten some new ideas!

Leave a Reply