What 10 Cities Would You Choose?

A week ago I spoke in front of a small gathering about my 10 Cities project at the Secret Kingdoms, a recently opened English-language bookstore here in Madrid. It was a surprisingly brisk hour (for me, at least) in which I shared a few favorite stories from that decade of my life and read some of my writing, including an excerpt from Yahweh’s Children.

At the end of my talk, there was a Q&A where the audience asked a number of interesting questions about my travels and the motivations for my choices. Even though I’ve answered questions about 10 Cities for well over a decade now, there were still some fresh inquiries, which were a fun challenge to tackle on the spot.

One of the most common questions I get is, of course, “How did you choose your 10 cities?” With the half dozen interviews and articles I’ve done, and the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with friends and strangers over the years, I’ve answered that question countless times (short answer: mostly, circumstances decided for me). But, I realized the other day, never once have I turned the question on the inquisitor to ask, “What 10 cities would you choose?”

So, I’m doing it now. Whether you’re a new reader or you’ve been on this journey with me since the early days, I want to know, what 10 cities would you have picked if you were doing this project? You can stick to the same limitations I was under and select ones from your home country, or you can just pick any 10 cities throughout the world. You do you. The only firm rule is, in this hypothetical, you will live in each city for 1 year exactly, and none of them can be your hometown (sorry New Yorkers).

Feel free to answer in the comments, or on Facebook, or Twitter, or simply write it on a piece of paper, bury it, and have your grandkids digs it up in 100 years.

I’m fascinated to know what you come up with.

Seattle, Washington (in panorama)

Cadiz, Spain

Another Spanish city checked off. This time, Cadiz.

After a sweltering summer in Madrid, we took our first break from the Spanish capital since our May trip to Greece and Italy to visit one of Spain’s many southern beach towns: El Palmar de Vejer in the region of Andalusia.

While being the most populous autonomous community in the country, home to Seville, Málaga, and Granada (to name a few of its better-known cities) Andalusia has historically been one of the nation’s poorest regions. Interesting tidbit: The Catalonia Independence movement is partially rooted in the wealthier Catalans resenting their taxes subsidizing the poorer Andalusians. But, hey, whatcha gonna do? We live in a society.

On Saturday morning, we took a train to the city of Cadiz, which is also the name of the province that includes El Palmar and numerous other beach communities. There we spent the weekend before bussing it to El Palmar Monday morning.

In many ways, Cadiz resembles the other Spanish southern beach cities I’ve visited, including Valencia and Málaga. There are the requisite cathedrals and churches towering around every corner; citrus trees of various colors and sizes abound along both the ornate and unremarkable city blocks; seafood is plentiful (especially fried); and outside the tourist sections, drinks are a steal.

But Cadiz, Spain has its own unique charms and I do say, I think it’s one of the prettiest I’ve visited in the country. I’ll let the photos speak for me, but between Playa de La Caleta, Parque Genovés, and Jardines de Alameda Apodaca (with its towering, winding ficus trees), it’s one of the most charmingly designed seafronts in Spain. (As always, click on any photos in the galleries to see them bigger.)

El Palmar de Vejer, Spain

After two days in Cadiz, we boarded an early morning bus and rode roughly an hour and a half east to El Palmar. There we had rented an apartment just across the street from the beach, at one end of what could generously be called “the city strip.” El Palmar de Vejer is a pretty quintessential beach town, which means most of the development happens along the road that runs parallel with the beach. Traverse more than a couple blocks back from the seafront and the area reveals itself to be a very literal desert.

Fine for us, because our plan for our five-day stay was to sit on the beach, read our books, swim occasionally, and play a whole lot of cards over drinks.

Which is not to suggest there’s nothing to do there. There are surf schools every other building and opportunities to ride horses and do other activities. But after a long, hot summer, we wanted less activity, not more. There were plenty of other tourists there to keep the surf schools occupied, mostly from Germany. I heard more German that week than English or Spanish.

Each morning, we arose for sunrise (which wasn’t until 8:20ish, so it wasn’t too bad), and each evening we returned to the beach to watch the sunset. Helen was brave enough to get in the water a few mornings for a sea view of the emerging sun, but even with her love of cold-water swimming, she didn’t stay in long. (I stuck to quick dips in the afternoon when I could count on the sun to thaw my frozen limbs once I was out.)

We took long walks on the beach, ate most of our meals at the various bars and cafes that lined Paseo Marítimo, and made a few feline friends, including one who joined us for a sunset viewing. And, of course, Helen swam in a half dozen swimming suits while I took pictures.

We did get out of El Palmar one day, walking down the impressively long (and windy) beach to Zahora, another local beach town. There we had noontime drinks by the beach before lunch. After eating, we realized we were too hot (and I too drunk) to walk back in the midday sun. Unfortunately, we quickly found out that no taxis would come by to take us back. Walking was our only choice.

We struck out along the road back to El Palmar in the scorching sun with the seemingly hopeless plan to hitchhike. This may surprise some readers, but I have never actually successfully hitchhiked before. So, it was a great relief (and surprise) when a Portuguese/Argentinian couple picked us up and drove us back to our rental.

The couple owns Verde Agua, so if you’re ever in the north of Portugal and need a nice place to stay, check out their establishment.

Back to Cadiz, Spain

After five days in El Palmar, we needed to catch a bus back to Cadiz. A tip for anyone who is going to visit El Palmar. You need to pick up the bus from the same stop where you’ll be dropped off. Expect the bus to be up to 30 minutes later than the schedule states, and when you get to the first stop at the station in Conil de la Frontera, you’ll likely have to switch buses to continue on.

Back in Cadiz, we had one more night to enjoy walking about the city. I’ve said it before, the walkability of European cities is a huge selling point, and one that only a small handful of American cities comes close to replicating. Cadiz isn’t a particularly large ciudad (just over 115,000 residents and falling), but it has plenty to occupy a couple weekends.

As we enjoyed a few pre-dinner drinks in the Plaza de la Catedral (where the massive Catedral de Cadiz stands), we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by a crowd. It turned out that we had chosen to spend our last night in Cadiz during the Festividad de Nuestra Señora del Rosario (Our Lady of the Rosary; alternatively, Virgin of the Rosary), one of the countless region-specific Catholic holidays that occur throughout the year.

As with most such festivals, there was a procession of elaborately dressed priests, choir boys, and a marching band, along with the requisite bling-festooned floats. We broke away from the crowds to have dinner, after which we came across the procession once again, this time in the Plaza de San Juan de Dios. It was all very…religious.

If you choose to visit Cadiz, I can’t recommend highly enough staying at Pensión España, which is ideally situated, well priced, and very clean, albeit no frills. It’s also just around the corner from Plaza de San Juan de Dios and the delightfully indulgent (if a bit Instagrammed out) El Café de Ana.

While it might not be high on the list of must-see cities in Spain, if you get the opportunity, a visit to Cadiz is well worth your time. And visit El Palmar, too; if for nothing else, for the sunrises/sets alone. Just make sure to put some rocks in your pockets or the Levante winds will carry you away.

P.S. If you’re in Madrid on Wednesday night, October 19, I’ll be speaking about 10 Cities/10 Years and more at the Secret Kingdoms in the Barrio de las Letras. Get tickets here.

Newsweek: My Turn

Hello new visitors. It’s quite possible you’ve found this site because of the Newsweek article. If you haven’t already read it, I recently wrote about 10 Cities/10 Years for Newsweek’s “My Turn” feature, which is a space for people to share their unique life experiences. In the article, I discuss the details of the project, what I learned about myself through doing it, and what I learned about America in general.

It was an honor to write for the feature and I’m quite pleased how the article came out. You can read it here:

‘I Lived In 10 U.S. Cities in 10 Years—Here’s What I Learned About America’

An excerpt:

City living is a great way to be reminded that America is uniquely complex, that there are millions of Republicans in “blue” America and millions of Democrats in “red” America. One of the silliest notions I’ve ever heard is that there is a “Real America.” According to many politicians, because I grew up in a town of less than 80,000 people, I’m from “Real America.” This concept, that “Real America” exists in the heartlands of the country, outside of our main metropolises, led me to wonder: What does that make the over 15 million Americans I lived among, in big cities, from 2005 to 2015?

After Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, I heard frequently about the “liberal bubble,” but that never fit with the country I experienced. In the cities I lived in—many considered liberal strongholds—I met all kinds of people whose views fit more neatly in the “conservative” box. There was the transgender woman in New York who adamantly defended the U.S. government’s use of torture on terrorism suspects after 9/11. There was the co-worker in Nashville who assumed, because I am an atheist, that I “sacrificed” children—her interpretation of abortion. For that matter, there were all the residents of so-called liberal cities who went to church every Sunday. I encountered all types of political and religious views over my 10 years; rarely did they fit in an easy category.

If you’d like more background on what exactly the 10 Cities project was (and continues to be), there’s always the About section. If you want to read some stories from the road, you can check out “The Book” section (scroll down and start with the Prologue). You can also check out other Press coverage. Or just take a look around the site; you may stumble across something I’ve totally forgotten I wrote.

Whether you’re a regular reader of this site, someone who used to be a regular reader and is just checking in, or someone who came across 10 Cities/10 Years because of the Newsweek article, I’d love to hear your thoughts: on the article, on the project, on life, on the 1962 Chicago Cubs, whatever. Leave a comment, show some love.

Cheers from Madrid,

L

P.S. Anyone who is interested in keeping up with my ongoing adventures, including my life in Spain and future publications, can add your email address over on the righthand side.

P.P.S. If you live in Madrid or are going to be in the city in mid-October, I’ll be doing a talk about the project and my writing at The Secret Kingdoms, a recently opened English-language bookstore in Barrios de las Letras. Get tickets here.

Fiestas de la Paloma

This last Saturday, Helen and I, along with her parents, headed to the third night of Las Fiestas Virgen de la Paloma, one of Madrid’s most popular local festivals and essentially the biggest party of August.

My first experience of the Fiestas de la Paloma was back in 2018, when Helen and I accidentally stumbled upon it not realizing what weekend it was. The festival, from August 11 to August 15, builds to one of Spain’s main national holidays, the Assumption of Mary (or Assumption Day). Being a majority Catholic country, celebrations of Mary (Marian feast days) take a central role in Spanish society, even if day-to-day religious practice is majorly on the wane. They usually involve parades, religious plays, and Mass.

While Saint Isidro is officially the patron saint of Madrid, the Virgin de la Paloma (Virgin of the Dove) occupies a similar, albeit unofficial role for Madrileños (citizens of Madrid). As such, the Paloma festivals are essential the city’s biggest block party and not-quite-end-of-summer celebration.

The festivities takes place in Barrio de La Latina, among Madrid’s most active and developed neighborhoods (it makes my own Puerta del Angel look positively sleepy). Situated around Plaza de la Paja, the festival stretches past the Royal Basilica of Saint Francis the Great and to the Church of the Virgen de la Paloma. At that second church, there is a famous image of the Virgin Mary over its altar, from which the church and the festivals derive their name.

Real Basílica de San Francisco el Grande

While La Paloma is ostensibly Catholic, the parties themselves aren’t particularly religious. Mostly, they’re an excuse for locals and visitors to drink beer, eat various grilled meats (lots of roasted full pigs on display), try their hand at carnival games, and watch traditional music and dance performances, like the El Chotis, a Madrileño folk dance that’s origins go back to Polka. At night, there are also concerts on a mainstage to show off various local performers, from flamenco to rock.

A fair warning to anyone planning future visits to any Spanish festivals: If you want to eat, show up early. Spain is a country of exact timings, and the only thing more rigid than dinnertime (22:00) is lunchtime (14:00). If you go for dinner at the standard time, expect to wait in line for 30 minutes, easy. On the plus side, if you’re even 10 minutes early, your wait will be cut in half.

(This is a general rule for eating in Madrid any day of the year. If you don’t have a reservation and want to get a table for lunch, show up at 13:45 and you’ll be all good.)

The Return of the Festivals of the Virgin of Paloma

In 2020, las Fiestas de la Paloma were canceled due to COVID-19. Still reeling from the ongoing pandemic, 2021 brought the return of the festivals, but in a very restricted manner. There were strict capacity limits for most of the events, even outdoors.

So, seeing the bustling, mostly unmasked crowds at the festival this year really drove it home: Madrid, and probably Spain in general, has officially entered the post-COVID era. That’s not to say COVID is gone (it never will be), or even that people should stop caring about COVID (I’d expect at least a mini-surge in winter). But people definitely have stopped caring.

To be fair, at 86% of the population, Spain does have one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe (and the world). Though the country was pummeled by the first few rounds of COVID, life in Spain has mostly felt like it’s been back to “normal” for a while now. But this weekend at La Paloma was the first time it was so in my face.

We were among the unmasked cohorts; there were maybe a handful of attendees wearing masks. In Madrid, mascaras are only required on public transportation and in pharmacies. Perhaps that’s a mistake; maybe the long-term effects of COVID will prove masking should’ve been a permanent part of our lives. But, hey, no one ever accused humanity of being farsighted.

(I realize for many Americans, the idea that any COVID precautions would still be in effect sounds insane.)

For now, at least, it really does feel like we’ve truly entered the post-COVID era. Not an era where COVID doesn’t exist, but an era where the hospitals aren’t overwhelmed, vaccines are readily available, and serious cases are few and far between. Famous last words? Guess we’ll see.

Fiestas de la Paloma 2022

If the last 2 years has reinforced anything, it’s that we live in uncertain times. It’s a frequent topic of conversation, the fact that lifestyles that were once taken for granted are no longer the norm. It’s not just the pandemic. The Great Recession and its ripple effects, the rapid technological advancements, the widening global reach of culture, all of it has wildly reshaped what it means to live, even just from a generation ago.

So, it’s interesting to walk through something like the Fiestas de la Paloma and see the vestiges of the past still holding on. The elderly chotis dancers were doing their part, performing their routines in classical attire. And there were younger people helping out, too, like the 20-something-year-old girls wearing manila shawls and traditional dresses.

The purpose of the various Spanish festivals is to continually reinforce the ever-fraying threads that connect the past and the present. Many Madrileños will return to La Paloma year after year, growing up with it from childhood to adulthood to parenthood, bringing their own offspring to an event that makes some concessions to the changing world but largely remains the same. They’ll come because it doesn’t change.

Likewise, posts like this by writers like me are meant to be evergreen, something that aims for the first page of search results when someone googles “Fiestas de la Paloma Madrid”. A good travel blog (which 10 Cities/10 Years is categorically not) is always looking for that perennial hit post, and that means writing about these kinds of static cultural events.

But, how static is it, really? The festivals themselves are relatively new, having grown out of the religious processions surrounding Assumption Day; the Paloma Festivals only started at the end of the 20th century. So, while it’s now a mainstay of Madrid culture, it’s a relative baby in terms of Spanish tradition. What will La Paloma look like in the future; in the unknowable 2023, and the unimaginable 2053?

Spain is a country that is notoriously slow to embrace change, but it feels like all of us are being carried on an unstoppable wave to a foreign future (and not just because sea levels are rising). So, will I be returning to the Fiestas de la Paloma in 30 years, or will we have all evacuated the city to escape the fire-breathing lava monsters that rise up out of the heat-scorched Earth? It’s really anyone’s guess.

Portugal, Part 2: Porto (& back to Lisbon)

We return, now, to the second and final leg of my trip to Portugal, which involved two days in the northern city of Porto, and a return to Lisbon.

First, though, a brief aside:

Ryanair

There are worse airlines than Ryanair. So I’ve been told. Ryanair’s reputation has been trash for so long that it was inevitable they would make some minor improvements and allow one of the other discount airlines to slip below them. But, being the second or third biggest turd in the pile doesn’t make you a Snickers bar.

Look, discount airlines exist to sell cheap tickets for the bare minimum of luxuries (i.e. none), and that’s fine. Greyhound buses can be excruciating means of transportation, but I know what I’m paying for when I buy the ticket. With Ryanair, though, on top of offering no amenities, they find every possible way to charge you more once you’re in the airport.

RyanairOne of their sliest, sleaziest techniques is charging a printing fee if a ticket isn’t pre-printed before the gate. No, it’s not a massive ordeal to print a ticket, but a) it is inconvenient when literally every other airline has adapted to 21st century digital tickets, and b) people of modest means (i.e. their customer base) likely don’t own a printer. It’s essentially a “poor tax” and like all such fees, it can seem like a minor quibble, but it penalizes the least well-off.

Another one of their less than reputable techniques is making their maximum sized carry-on luggage slightly smaller than the industry standard (55 centimeters instead of 56). Again, a seemingly insignificant difference, but one with a massive 53€ fee for owning luggage that almost every other airline accepts. And as my travel partner, Calla, and I learned, quite unhappily, they don’t make exceptions.

In summary, screw Ryanair.

From the Banks of the Douro

Porto

Other than that aggravation, visiting Porto (Oporto) was quite possibly the highlight of the trip for me. Two weeks ago, I posted some of my first impression photos of the city; check them out to get a sense of the grandeur. When people – or, at least, I – imagine charming European cities, it’s places like Porto we are conjuring.

Mixing vibrant, classical architecture with intoxicating riverside views and, of course, excellent wine, Porto charms effortlessly; even the city’s dilapidated areas still exude a historic dignity. Like many European cities, Porto has known better economic times, and perhaps that is why it felt so welcoming to visitors.

As was our routine throughout the trip, Calla and I were guided by the recommendations of others, and the one culinary must-have everyone was in agreement on was the Francesinha.

Francesinha
A decidedly not vegan-friendly meal.

Ostensibly a sandwich, this Porto original stuffs various hams and sausages between two pieces of white bread covered by melted cheese and gravy; often (but not always) an over-easy egg rests on top. This is a fork and knife affair, to be sure. To reiterate, it’s meat, cheese, bread and gravy: how hasn’t this become a standard in every American diner?

There are many places you can get a Francesinha in Porto, but just as there are only a few places to get an “authentic” Pastel de Nata in Lisbon, we were told to seek out the Café Santiago for the real deal.

Our waitress, like most of the people we interacted with in Portugal, spoke English well, which was good since the only word of Portuguese I know (that isn’t the same as Spanish) is “obrigado” (thank you). She was very excited to learn my surname as it was hers as well, and she took to calling us “cousins” (though, she was perhaps disappointed when I admitted I knew very little of my family’s Portuguese roots).

Guindalense Pana

After lunch, Calla and I explored Porto by foot, eventually coming to the Dom Luís I Bridge, which spans the Douro River. Heavily trafficked by pedestrians, this two-level bridge connecting the city center of Porto to the more suburban Vila Nova de Gaia provides mesmerizing views of the city. 

From the Bridge

At night, we reconnected with our friends from Madrid for drinks and dinner. It was a Saturday night and the city was abuzz with tourists and revelers. We patronized a few bars and even a Jazz Club on only its second night of business, but for me, the most diverting aspects of Porto at night were its gently lit streets and, at times, almost ghostly pathways inhabited by stray cats.

To The Light

Our second day in Porto was Easter Sunday, which seriously hampered our ability to find lunch. Calla and I wandered for upwards of an hour and a half before we finally settled on a restaurant directly across the street from Café Santiago (itself closed for the holiday).

Suitably fed, we allowed ourselves to get a little lost, crossing the Douro not on the Dom Luís, but by the Ponte Infante Dom Henrique, the less pedestrian-friendly bridge. Our aimless wanderings eventually brought us to a seaside cliff and to a series of stairways and passages that led to a row of burnt out and decimated buildings that once must have boasted the best views in the entire area.

 

 

After our detour, we returned to the waterfront to drink port wine at a riverside café. That was the plan, at least, but the server seemed to have a hard time remembering two drinks. After 20 minutes, we vacated our table having received 50% of our order.

That evening, back at the Yes! Porto hostel, we dined on a purportedly authentic Portuguese fish-based dinner with a group of fellow travelers from the U.S., Canada, Bulgaria, and elsewhere. Hostel living has its downsides (snorers, louder talkers, people humping each other three feet from your head), but it also helps you feel connected to the world of travelers, like a slight stream feeding into a roaring river.

Before leaving Porto, we had one other recommendation to track down: the Prego. Not, in fact, a pregnant lady, the Prego is another Porto must-have sandwich, this one consisting simply of succinctly steak and melting cheese on a roll. The cheese is optional, and like the Francesinha, an egg is a not uncommon part of the recipe, but we were told that the best Prego was found at Venham Mais 5, and after tasting a little bit of heaven there, I’d consider their steak-and-cheese only version the standard.

Inside the Arco

Lisbon (Again)

We returned to Lisbon with two days before our flight back to Madrid and a few more items on our to-do list. First up was finding one of the best views in the city at Miradouro de Nossa Senhora do Monte. We were informed by both our walking guide, Luis, and the manager of the Travellers House where we were staying, that even though Castelo de Sao Jorge draws the most tourists, the view from “Our Lady of the Hill” was just as good, and free (plus, it includes a view of the castle).

We made the trek through the winding roads and up the hill to be greeted by spectacular views, as advertised, but also by gusting winds that could have likely carried us out over the city if we had skipped breakfast.

Lisbon View (Our Lady)Before we could leave Lisbon, I had one final stop on my list: Restaurante Ponto Final.

Located on the banks of the Tagus River, reaching the restaurant and idyllic viewing spot requires a short ferry ride to Almada, across the river from Lisbon. After exiting the ferry, head west along the water by the pop culture-infused street art that decorates the cement pathway. At first it’ll seem like you’re walking to nowhere, but eventually you’ll come around a corner and see your destination.

 

Resaurante Ponto Final

At this point, I wasn’t hungry, I simply wanted to enjoy a glass of wine along the water while looking out over the city I would be leaving in less than 12 hours.

Self Ponto Final 2

With the day fading, we walked back to the ferry. We had just a few hours until we needed to head to the airport for an uneventful (albeit, a tad delayed) return flight on Iberian.

It was just after midnight, Thursday morning, when we landed in Madrid, having left the previous Tuesday night. In the course of our travels, we drank our respective weights in wine and beer, enjoyed a smorgasbord of Portuguese cuisine, and stood in quiet appreciation of some of Portugal’s most inspiring views. We also didn’t kill each other; a successful trip by all standards.

Porto Sepia

I look forward to going back someday soon.

Portugal, Part 1: Lisbon & Sintra

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.

Rua Augusta (Arco)

Portugal

Flight Ry

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.

 

Lisbon Rooftops

LISBON

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.

 

Tour Guide
Luis’ 10 Min History of Portugal

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).

 

Bertrand

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. 

 

Calla and Casey Fountain
Calla and Casey

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.

 

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).

Quinta da Regaleira

SINTRA

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.

Moorish Views

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.

Sintra Pana

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?

Pastel de NataPasteis De Belem

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.) 

Street Car.jpg

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:

Bird's Eye View

Until next week, Adeus!