Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Why I often think of Portugal, but not Paris

Paris, or any over-hyped tourist destination for that matter, is expensive, crowded, and has often left me wondering, “But what was so great about this place?” Portugal is different. Granted, Paris is a city and Portugal is a country, but that is not the point. Portugal, despite its breathtaking beauty, azure seas and quaint alleys, is strangely a less noisy tourist place. I see more people traveling France, Switzerland and Amsterdam than Portugal (I admit, I have a biased sample, consisting mostly of people of Indian origin whom I know).

So what reminded me of Portugal today? Well, the fact that North America is in the throes of winter right now, and I have missed the sun. Every day, I am at least 3 kilo heavier, winter coat, layers of warm clothing, snow boots and all.

I was floored when I first started researching about Portugal and saw the pictures. Its sheer beauty mesmerized me. Coastal Portugal has some amazing views of the Atlantic. With the little fishing villages, the churches, the bell towers, the castles, the palaces and the winding streets, Portugal has history written all over it. The view of the bay from Lisbon is amazing. Summer is super hot (I have never been there in the winter). And if you haven’t seen the westernmost point of continental Europe, you must, absolutely! It happens to be located in Portugal.

Despite its beauty, Portugal is quite inexpensive (like Croatia, Greece, and other southern European countries). I love the challenge of traveling on a shoestring budget, living in hostels, walking or taking the public transport, and finding cheap eating options. Penurious traveling is a skill I picked up due to many years of being a poor graduate student. I am less likely to be splurging at a fancy restaurant, a glass of wine in hand. What penurious travel does (other than save you money) is connect you to the backpacker crowd, people who take time off their work, short-term or long-term, and travel all over the world. Such people make the most interesting conversations.

In Portugal, you will find wholesome meals for a couple of Euros. Public transportation within the city and train networks between cities is excellent. Buying a multiple day city pass takes you further along in terms of getting around and seeing the places of interest. The Oriente train station in Lisbon is beautiful! Within-city commute is very well-planned and easy to figure out. The bus and metro services in Lisbon is great. I took a train to Sintra at 4:30 am, and it was right on time. The trains are clean, comfortable, and very reliable. The yellow trams in Lisbon take you around the city and cover most of the touristy places. And the one-day or multiple-day pass allows you to take the bus, tram, or metro. Do ride the tram # 28.

The best thing about Portugal was, I could just take a map and venture out on my own. Unless you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, there is nothing unsafe. As a woman on my own, not once did I feel uncomfortable. The metro and trains ply until late hours and the touristy places are crowded. In comparison, parts of Italy had felt somewhat unsafe. Most people understand functional English in Portugal, unlike Sicily where I got around using sign language most of the time. Portugal is not Switzerland, New York, or Paris, which makes it all the more endearing. You can safely skip the hyped-destination travel crowd. Yash Chopra movies might have popularized Switzerland for the Indians, and the same goes for Paris or New York City, but I would rather skip the crowd at the Niagara Falls or the long queues for the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Portugal felt more under-explored, local, and like home for me. Talking of elevators, do not miss the elevators, lifts, and funiculars that take you up and give you a panoramic view of Lisbon.

And if you are even remotely interested in photography, Portugal will never disappoint you. Portugal is vibrant, colorful, cosmopolitan, and yet rustic in a beautiful way. The banks of the Douro river in Porto is lined with colorful flags and quaint houses with balconies. You would see colorful clothes drying off in the sun, and winding streets with old houses lining the cityscape. You will love the orange-tiled rooftop houses, and the bright contrast it makes with the blueness of the oceans. You would love the bridges of Porto, the trams of Lisbon, the palaces of Sintra, and the colorful fisherman villages by the Atlantic. The city of Porto is a photographer’s delight, especially the part of the city by the riverfront, or the view of the city from the numerous bridges.

I write and take pictures to travel twice. Hopefully, Portugal will happen again.


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