And like the 1960s hit song by Peter, Paul and Mary, we’re leaving on a jet plane in just a couple of hours, traveling from Denver International Airport to Humberto Delgado Airport in Lisbon, Portugal, accompanied by a high degree of anticipation and more than a wee bit of trepidation about our seven week, self-guided tour of Portugal and southern Spain.
Although we love to travel, we’re rookies when it comes to international trips. We’ve done the prep work, and ready or not, it’s time to dive in. The areas that feel most fuzzy are communication (we speak very little Spanish and even less Portuguese) and road/street navigation without a mobile phone data plan. We’ve been assured that both will be fine, so we’re hoping for the best and will keep you posted on our successes as well as mishaps and lessons learned.
Our reservations for the 50 day trip include 14 Airbnb’s and three hotels, plus three car rentals, two flights, one day with a private driver, and an undetermined number of train, bus, taxi and Uber rides to transfer from place to place. That’s a lot of moving around, so we challenged ourselves to pack light – one carry on suitcase and a backpack each. And mission accomplished, although only time will tell if we can survive with the clothes we brought, or if there will be one or more shopping trips along the way.
Why Portugal and Spain?
Between last December when we booked our airline tickets until now, folks have asked how we chose Portugal and Spain as travel destinations. Bucket list? Nope. Been there before and desire to return? Negative. Visiting family or friends? Não. We don’t have a compelling reason to visit.
Our decision began with googling “places to visit in April and May” and noticing that Portugal consistently appeared in the search results. It seemed like an OK choice that would fit within both our budget and our anxiety level about international travel (reference second paragraph above). Then we ran into an old friend who had just returned from a short trip to Portugal and raved about the experience.
So that was that – we booked roundtrip tickets from Denver to Lisbon and started researching places to visit and things to do. Originally planning to spend the entire seven weeks in Portugal, we were persuaded to add southern Spain to the itinerary after visiting with new friends Linda and Erich during our January trip to Vero Beach. Here’s a map showing the places we will visit, beginning and ending in Lisbon.
And now here we are, getting ready for the red-eye flight from Denver to Frankfurt, followed by a shorter jaunt tomorrow from Frankfurt to Lisbon. Let the adventure begin!
First 24 Hours in Lisbon
The Lufthansa flights to Lisbon are uneventful, and we arrive at Humberto Delgado Airport around 4:00 in the afternoon, or 16:00 if you’re a local. We call our Airbnb host to give him a heads up, then jump in a cab for the 15 minute ride to our home away from home for the next seven days. Our apartment is in the Graça district, which is a working class neighborhood in the historic part of town – close to, but not in the heart of where the tourists stay. After our host David orients us to the (quite nice) apartment and the local area, we’re on our own.
Just a block away (straight uphill) is a major street filled with shops of every sort, including a couple of small grocery stores. Since the kitchen cabinets contain no edible provisions, we make our way to the Pingo Doce, which is packed with people who apparently have no food at home either.
Not surprisingly, we turn in early and are pleasantly surprised to get a decent night’s sleep. The next morning we look at each other and wonder aloud: “What do we do now?” It’s sunny but cold and windy, plus the weather forecast is for rain later in the day accompanied by gale force winds. We look at a map of our immediate surroundings and worry we’ll never find our way back if we venture very far on foot.
Plus the coffeemaker in the apartment isn’t working (more about that later), so we’re caffeine-deprived as well as seriously jet-lagged. We make a modest plan to walk to Castelo de São Jorge, which is a major attraction and only 1.7 km from our place. Surely we can get there (and back) successfully using our offline maps and navigation apps!
We don’t have to go far to find coffee, as there’s a little shop at the top of the hill just a block away. Feeling newly energized and confident, we fire up Maps.me and head toward the castle. Some time later, we get a nagging feeling that something is amiss. Our navigation isn’t working properly (full disclosure – it could be user error), and we’re pretty sure we’re going in the wrong direction. We retrace our steps (more or less) and eventually stumble across a directional sign for the castle and a horde of tourists headed that way. We have arrived!
Castelo de São Jorge
The castle site perched high on a hillside overlooking the Tagus River and the city of Lisbon was used for defensive purposes for hundreds of years prior to construction of the castle between 1000 and 1100 A.D. during a period of Moorish occupation. The castle and city of Lisbon were liberated from Moorish rule in 1147 by Alfonso Henriques, who later became the first king of Portugal.
The castle served as the royal palace for the next several hundred years until Portugal became part of the Spanish Crown in the late 16th century, when it was converted to military barracks. After Portugal regained its independence some sixty years later, the castle site continued to be used primarily for military purposes until it was heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1755 and fell into further disrepair from neglect.
The castle was designated as a National Monument in 1910. Excavation and restoration efforts began in the 1920s, which eventually led to its availability to the general public. Today it is one of Lisbon’s most popular “must do” tourist attractions.
The guide books caution that ticket lines can be long in the summer, but our wait is only about 10 minutes. Once inside, we spend about two hours wandering through and outside the castle walls and visiting the permanent exhibit of super old artifacts.
The views of the surrounding area are breathtaking and photo-worthy.
We’re pleased with the experience and recommend a visit if you are in Portugal.
Other Highlights from Our First 24 Hours
We meander on the way back to the apartment from the castle, somewhat naively hoping we are headed in the right direction. Along the way, we visit the Church Santa Cruz do Castela.
We enjoy a nice lunch at a small café close to our apartment. Since it’s still relatively early, we head back down the hill in search of the closest tourist information center, which Google says is a 1.7 km walk to the Praça do Comércio near the riverfront. Once again, we are challenged to find it. Offline Google maps don’t provide turn-by-turn directions for walking, only for driving, so we improvise and eventually reach our destination.
The tourist information center isn’t all that helpful either, but we find interesting sights nearby. The large yellow buildings shown in the photos below were constructed following a devastating earthquake in 1755 that destroyed most of the city. The new facilities housed government activities supporting maritime trade. The large equestrian statue in the middle of the square depicts King José I. Today the area serves as a major hub for public transportation.
The church in the photo below is the Lisbon Cathedral.
Finally, here are a few other photos from our first day venturing out into the city. My favorite is the public urinal, which thankfully isn’t being used when we pass by. And FYI, the “Museum of Beer” isn’t really – it’s just a bar.
It’s been a good day! The torrential rains didn’t materialize, and we gained just a wee bit of confidence about our ability to navigate the streets of Lisbon.
Observations and Challenges
Here’s a short list of things we notice during our first few hours:
- The trees and shrubs are fully leafed out, and many plants are blooming – looks like spring!
- It’s chillier than we expected (highs in the 50s) – cloudy skies and gusty winds make it seem even colder, although I’m not sure it warrants the down coats and winter scarves that many people are wearing.
- Lisbon is very hilly – we’ll feel the effects tomorrow.
- In our part of Lisbon, everything is tiny – the streets, the sidewalks, the shops, and the cars.
- On major streets, there is a designated lane shared by buses, taxis and bicycles. Yikes! We haven’t seen many people on bikes.
- There is an abundance of graffiti on buildings. So much that we wonder if it’s intentional.
And now for our two major challenges so far: 1) coffee and 2) navigation.
The apartment is equipped with a Nespresso machine that uses coffee pods, similar to a Keurig. We are delighted to find a couple boxes of pods in the cabinets, thinking we are set. In the morning, however, we can’t figure out how to get the pods into the machine (yes, really!). It appears that the mechanism needs to slide out a bit further, so we wonder if it’s jammed. After at least 45 minutes of extensive internet research, Bill has the “aha” moment and figures out that the pods that fit our machine are ever-so-slightly smaller than the ones we have. So now our task before tomorrow is to find coffee pods that will work.
We are also perplexed about finding a navigation solution. Using data on our mobile phones isn’t an affordable option, and the downloaded maps from Google and Maps.me aren’t working as we had hoped. We’ll try again tomorrow and see if we have better luck . . .
Stay tuned for more!