Pleasantly surprised in Portugal

Wow. Portugal. What a pleasant surprise. You always hear about Portugal and think about it as just that tiny sliver of a country hanging off the edge of Spain and it’s always difficult to associate it with anything significant. What is Portuguese food? What is Portuguese culture? What is there to do in Portugal? Well, I can now safely report that I learned a bit  about Portugal after finishing the 780 km Camino walk across Spain. Most of it I should have known before!

A Portuguese chicken. That's pretty Portuguese, right?
A Portuguese chicken. That’s pretty Portuguese, right?

I entered Portugal from the north and ended up in Porto where I rented a superb AirBnB at a bargain price of around $50. Upon arriving at the main bus terminal, it was time to figure out the subway ticketing system and this was where I encountered Portuguese friendliness for the first time. A young lady noticed Susan and I were looking around with blank faces trying to figure out which ticket to buy to which station. The young lady hesitated slightly and asked if we needed help. Of course we did! She basically told us which station to get off at, which ticket to buy and which platform we needed. It seemed a little odd at the time as people aren’t usually so eager to help in most cities, but I came to understand that this sort of friendliness was par for the course in Portugal.

Every time I got out the big paper map our AirBnB host gave us, someone would inevitably stop and assist with directions. The same would go when we entered a cafe or restaurant — everyone was extremely friendly.

Of course, there are also a bunch of cool things to see in Portugal. In Porto it’s mainly architectural with a great seaside whereas in Lisbon it includes other stuff like the Belem area, food and historical stuff. Actually, they’re very similar in that regard. Food, architecture, history… Favourites of mine?

Pasteis de Nata

Pasteis de Belem - the best in Portugal?
Pasteis de Belem – the best in Portugal?

These things are what we know as Portuguese Tarts… But it’d be silly to call them that when you’re in Portugal — they’d be just called tarts right? Anyway, very nice in most places I tried. My favourite wasn’t actually at the most famous place, Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon, but I think that’s just a personal thing. Most people rave about those at Pasteis de Belem and they are very good. Best thing to do? Try find your own personal favourite by eating multiple pieces per day!

Seaside in Porto

The moody Porto seaside
The moody Porto seaside

The Porto seaside is quite similar to most seasides around the world, but on the day I visited it was particularly moody. This made it great for a walk along the breakwater out to the lighthouse — big waves, lots of fishermen and plenty of people getting drenched by rogue waves. Made my day. A short tram ride on an old tram from the centre of town.

Pork Roll

The pork sandwich from Casa Guedes
The pork sandwich from Casa Guedes

The pork roll at Casa Guedes in Porto is a bit of a secret really. It’s not on the tourist circuit thankfully, so we were the only foreigners having a snack at the time. The pork is melt in your mouth, the cheese is already gooey and the whole thing is about a million calories. As we all know, the more calories, the better it tastes. This pork roll was probably the best I’ve ever had.

Portuguese Tiles

Even this woman and the cat next door love tiled buidings
Even this woman and the cat next door love tiled buidings

I don’t know a lot about the history of Portuguese tiles, but they do a pretty good job of them. I took heaps of photos of the tiles over the course of my time in Portugal as I just couldn’t get enough of them. The best thing is that they’re not afraid to decorate the outside of whole buildings with them. Anywhere else it would look crappy and old fashioned — in Portugal it’s pretty cool.

And that sums up Portgual as a whole really. Old fashioned, but cool. I enjoyed the people, the food and the general atmosphere in Portugal more than Spain and more than almost any other European country. Yes, it’s a big call! But Portugal just clicked with me. Maybe it was the food. Maybe it was the low prices. Maybe it was the people. Whatever it was, Portugal is OK by me.

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