Semana Santa – Holy Week – is the week from “Palm Sunday” to “Easter.” During this week in Spain, you will find essentially all academies and numerous other businesses closed. Many people either head back to their hometowns or take a trip. For myself and the various expats I know here, the latter was the preferred option.
My good friend (and former roommate), Calla, and I booked eight days in Spain’s neighbor on the Iberian peninsula, Portugal. Part of booking a Semana Santa trip – especially when booking a little late – is scrounging for what deals can still be found and adapting your travel schedule to the cheapest flights and hostel rates.
We found our flights to Portugal through Iberian (always a good choice) and for hopping around within Portugal, we booked Ryanair (do not do this; avoid, avoid). Our four (!) different hostels were found through Booking.com which resulted in some mixed results. Pro tip: Make sure you’ve scrolled past the front-loaded positive reviews to get a fuller picture of your accommodations.
Our initial destination was national capital, Lisbon (Lisboa). We arrived without any specific itinerary, instead opting for my preferred method of traveling: making it up as I go. On our first morning, after making it to our hostel after midnight, we met up with my current Madrid roommate, Casey, for a free walking tour. I would highly recommend, if only because after the tour I had a much firmer grasp on the layout of the city.
The tour, led by Luis, lasted three hours, and followed a circuitous, slithering path that stayed contained to the city center and the most heavily trafficked tourists spots. Luis helpfully explained that, since Portugal had decriminalized all drugs, we could expect to be propositioned quite openly for weed and other narcotics (we were).
The tour took us by a number of the important sights and literary monuments of the ancient city, including Livraria Bertrand, certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest bookstore in the world still in operation.
I’m generally not one for tours or group activities (or groups, for that matter), but as a way of getting my bearings on the first day in a new city while also getting a succinct history of Portugal, I’m glad we decided to participate. Plus, it was free – with a heavily suggested tip for Luis (I’d recommend 5€). When the tour ended around 2 in the afternoon, we had arrived at the waterfront, in view of the spectacular Arco da Rua Augusta.
Meeting more Madrid-based expats later, our first night in Lisbon was spent exploring Alfama, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Lisbon, famous for its confounding winding streets and the numerous restaurants that offer Fado performances during dinner. Fado is a traditional Portuguese form of musical performance heavy on sad tales of lost love and heartbreak. Though we could hear the strands of Fado streaming through the streets of Lisbon, we unfortunately never got around to stopping for a proper performance. We did, however, try Ginja, a sweet liqueur that’s been a Portuguese mainstay for over two centuries (of course we made time for an alcoholic tradition).
There are countless Sintra day tours offering any variety of sightseeing packages, but despite Luis’ halfhearted effort to sell us on one, Casey, Calla, and I opted to make the journey on our own (for better and worse). For five euros, we bought tickets for an hour train ride to the city famous for its numerous castles and spectacular views.
Sintra, a village overflowing with charm, is planted in the midst of mountains and history. No descriptions would do as much justice as a few pictures, so enjoy:
After wandering around aimlessly for some time, we paid for a bus ticket to take us up the mountain roads so we could explore some of the castles. We should have been paying better attention, though, because after riding the bus for an hour, we found that we had done a full loop and were back where we started. Sheepishly, we stayed in our seats and went back up again. Worth it.
Each castle has its own price for viewing, and we weren’t trying to blow all our funds, so we picked one; a good one: Castelo dos Mouros (The Moors Castle). Built of stones and towering high into the sky, it can be a bit vertigo-inducing, but just grip the wall tightly and take the climb. You’ll appreciate the views.
Despite storm clouds threatening us most of the day, the rain held off for us, only falling once we had returned to the city square for a late lunch. In fact, I’d say our whole trip was characterized by lucky weather. Rain was in the forecast for essentially all eight days, but it rarely interfered with our activities (other than making for some gray photo backdrops).
Pastéis de Belém
Before Casey could leave Lisbon the next day, we had one last stop we had to make: Belém. Located on the western edge of Lisbon as the city inches towards the Atlantic Ocean, this district is known for having the one, true Pastel de Nata – an egg tart pastry (a description that doesn’t do it justice). Supposedly only three people know the original recipe.
The place to get them is at Pastéis de Belém, located on the Rua da Belém. Upon entering, the renowned restaurant gave me flashbacks to the famous Café du Monde in New Orleans. Just as that shop is known for its beignets, Belém is where you go if you want authentic Pastel de Nata. You can get similar tarts throughout Portugal, but like Highlanders, there can be only one.
When we arrived, there was a long line out the door (another similarity to Café du Monde), but Casey had been clued in by the manager at her hostel that we could slip through the line and go straight inside for a table. We still waited in a short line, but it only took us ten minutes to be sat. Unlike du Monde, there is a full menu of food and pastry options to choose from, but if you’re not getting the Nata, why did you even get out of bed?
Now, what everyone wants to know: are these pastries worth the hype? Well, put quite simply, they are delicious, unquestionably. Are they the greatest things I’ve ever tasted? I wouldn’t go that far, but I would definitely make it a point of going back to Pastéis de Belém the next time I’m in Lisbon.
Of course, some will wonder if getting a Nata in Belém is really necessary if other shops sell them, too. To that, I’d say: unequivocally, yes. I had actually tried a similar tart earlier that very morning at a café just outside my hostel and it wasn’t even in the same category.
If you’re a pastry devotee, there’s no reason to settle, Pastéis de Belém is a 30 minute detour outside of the city center. Make the effort. (Also, if you’re a pastry devotee, you’ve made some weird choices in life, but you do you.)
After we parted ways with Casey, Calla and I returned to our hostel. This was our second hostel (the reason for the change is a long, uninteresting story), and a definite upgrade, even though it was further outside the city center.
Our first hostel was a mistake. Overbooked and poorly designed, it had only two single-occupancy bathrooms for some 30 guests. Sure, the loud-whispering, drunk bunkmates who were a few steps short of reaching third base in a room of eight people were annoying, but that’s just part and parcel of hostel life; the bathroom situation, though, that was unacceptable.
Following our night’s stay in the less crowded and far less grunt-filled hostel, Calla and I had to catch a flight to Porto for the second leg of our trip. But that’s a full post in itself, so you’ll have to come back next week if you want to meet this cool dude:
Until next week, Adeus!