This weekend was another weekend of firsts!
- 1st time in Portugal! 4th country I’ve been to! (I’m not counting Canada at age two so now I have USA, Spain, France, and Portugal.)
- 1st time I’ve ever been in a country where I know none of the language.
- 1st half-marathon I’ve completed in Europe! (3rd one overall!)
- 1st time I’ve actually traveled for a significant amount of time with other people (in contrast to going TO visit someone, going on a day trip with my group, or traveling alone).
Gotta say, they were all GREAT experiences!
My trip to Portugal started off at 11:59 pm. Lisbon is actually only 4 hours away from Sevilla by car, but the overnight bus trip was about six hours and far more economical than flying. It was a better experience than coming back from Madrid though, because the lady next to me got off at around 3 am and I had my own row so I slept a little better. We got to Lisbon around six, but because of the time change it was really 5 am! Luckily, there were taxis hanging around, so we took a taxi to our hostel, Home Hostel Lisbon. Okay, so I splurged a little bit on the hostel- I think it was about 18 euro a night. BUT, not only was it recommended by a friend, but it has also been voted best midsize hostel and 2nd best overall hostel in the WORLD! I couldn’t pass up that opportunity, especially because it was only a little bit more than I would usually pay for a hostel. And it totally deserves the title. The first of many wonderful things they did for us was let us store our luggage in their back room, take a nap in the lounge, and partake in their free breakfast even though we technically couldn’t even check in until 2pm.
After breakfast we took a tram to Belém, a neighborhood in Lisbon, to pick up our race bibs and gear. After, we wandered around and saw some Belém monuments: the Discoveries monument, the tower of Belém, and the Golden Gate bridge wanna-be. We walked around the outside of the Jerónimos Monastery but were too cheap to go in, so instead we went to the Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary art, which was free. When we started to get hungry we went straight for dessert. A pastry typical to Portugal is called a Pastel de Nata, a sort of eggy custardy creamy pastry. There is a pastry shop in Belém that has their own secret recipe, and theirs are so famous that they go by their own name- Pastéis de Belém. They were amaaazzzing. On our way back we saw locals lining up at a falafel place. We figured it’s always a good sign for a restaurant to have locals queuing up, so we got some pitas to go and ate everything in a park closeby because it was a beautiful day. In fact, I could not have asked for better vacation and running conditions. The weather was perfect all weekend!
On our way back to the hostel, we saw a few more sights (interesting fact – the president’s house in Lisbon is pink). Back towards the center of Lisbon, we sat in a main square by the river for a relaxing break. Energy restored, we returned to the hostel to check in, nap, wander a bit more, then returned back to the hostel for dinner. Here’s where I tell you two MORE amazing things about the hostel (with even more awesome things coming). When we checked into our rooms, we got a free welcome drink of Ginjinha, a typical Portuguese liquor made of sour cherries. It’s served in a shot glass, but meant to be sipped. Some people say it tastes like cherry cough syrup but I really liked it. Another cool thing about Home Hostel is mamma’s dinner. “Mamma” is the owner of the hostel, and almost every night she comes to cook Portuguese food for the people staying there (you have to sign up and pay 10 Euro, but it comes with drinks, starter, entree and desert, and the experience was worth every cent). We had pumpkin soup to start, and everyone ate some sort of beef while I ended up with a delicious dish of potatoes and mushrooms. I was the only vegetarian that night so it was cooked especially for me, aww. We actually ended up at the table with 15 Spaniards! Because it was a long weekend in Spain there were tons of Spaniards on vacation in Portugal. It was great talking to them and I actually thankful to get to speak Spanish for at least part of the weekend. The whole experience was great. I also love how friendly everyone was at the hostel, and that I got to meet people literally from all over the world! Australians on summer vacation, a girl from Finland there just because, even other Americans… staying at a hostel is truly an awesome experience.
The next morning we woke up and after breakfast went grocery shopping. We decided to buy groceries for lunch and dinner to save money, and to make sure what we ate the day before the race would agree with us. Next, we went on a “free” (tip based) walking tour of the famous Alfama neighborhood, the oldest district in Lisbon. We saw a ton in 3 hours and our guide was great. We also got a little insight into the Portuguese language, which drove me crazy all weekend! Weirdly enough, I can almost read in Portuguese, because the words are really similar to Spanish. However, spoken, it sounds completely different. It actually reminded me of an Eastern European language or something… Because of this, when Spanish tourists come, the Portuguese understand them better than the Spaniards understand the Portuguese, although they say if both parties speak slowly enough they can communicate. I just stuck with English, although I made sure to learn a few basics such as “obrigada” for “thank you.” The most beautiful and interesting Portuguese word we learned was “saudade,” a word that has no direct translation in any other language but, “it describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic or deeply melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing will never return.” Interestingly enough, our guide described the Portuguese as an oddly pessimistic people. You can see this in the raw emotion of the music genre “fado.” I wish I could’ve heard fado live, but we didn’t really go out at night so I had to settle for recordings. It is truly beautiful. Here’s a taste:
The rest of the night was pretty relaxed, filled with homemade pasta and a movie in the hostel living room. We made sure to get to bed early enough because the next morning was race day! I definitely didn’t PR, clocking in at about a 2:11. But on the plus side, the whole race was actually really easy, especially because I ended up running the whole time with one of the girls I came with and therefore had someone to talk to and be motivated by. The weird thing I’ve noticed about exercise culture in Europe is that fewer people exercise, but the ones that do are crazy about it. By this, I mean you are either an athlete, or you just don’t exercise at all. Most of the people signed up for this race were there to race. The idea of doing a half marathon “just because” doesn’t really exist here, and as a consequence, I felt like one of the last ones to finish! Objectively I knew that my time wasn’t slow and that if I had ran a 2:11 in DC there would be tons of people behind me, but it was kind of disheartening to see volunteers basically breaking down the course behind me. Oh well. The lovely people at Home Hostel let us go back and shower even after checking out (I told you I would obsess about them again because they are just that great), and I parted ways with my travel buddies before checking in to my new 6 Euro hostel (pinching pennies a bit, I know, but I want to last the year).
I napped and walked around a little more, but I didn’t really have anything else to see in Lisbon at that point (the museums I would have liked to visit were all closed) so I just hung around and went to bed early. The next morning, I set out for Sintra, a town about 45 minutes from Lisbon full of castles, mansions, and beautiful scenery. Sintra came highly recommended by everyone I talked to that had been to Lisbon. The first thing I did was totally waste my money on the National Palace of Sintra, a royal palace from the middle ages that was fairly unimpressive unless you are a Portuguese history buff, which I most certainly am not. This put me in sort of a bad mood, as my money and time in Portugal were both running out. Fortunately the day was completely redeemed when I followed the advice of our walking tour guide and went to the Quinta da Regaleira. The Quinta is an old estate that was constructed for a wealthy merchant family by architect Luigi Manini. The estate and gardens are believed to hide symbols related to secret beliefs and societies such as alchemy, Masonry, the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians. Wandering around the area, especially the gardens, was an almost other worldly, mysterious experience. It wasn’t unbelievably crowded so I found myself alone quite often, walking through narrow pathways and stumbling upon intricate constructions in far corners of the estate. The gardens even have secret tunnels! I definitely felt like I was in some sort of fantasy land.
Shortly thereafter I made the horrible decision to hike to see the Moor’s castle instead of taking the bus. The hike wasn’t really objectively difficult, and the views were beautiful, but my legs were a little bit sore from the race and I was generally pretty tired. By the time I got there, I was a little pissed to keep parting with my rapidly disappearing money and getting mentally ready to go home – I was burnt out. I do regret my attitude, mostly because I decided I didn’t want to walk to or pay for the National Palace of Pena, which I learned is apparently a must-see in Sintra. I ended up getting back to Lisbon earlier than expected and hung out at the bus stop for a few hours… not the best use of my time.
Overall, though, I had an incredible time in Portugal. The girls I traveled with were amazing! We got along so well and it really did make the trip. It’s totally true that your travel partners can change your experience. With them, I got in a perfect blend of relaxing for the race and doing touristy things and felt like the weekend overall was a great success.