Guys, I am in a fight with a roll of wallpaper. There is a tiny area of my kitchen that needs to be wallpapered...less than 50 square feet total, and tonight I thought "I'm going to just get that done. Cross it off the list!" But it did not go well. My wallpaper really wants to bubble and pucker and get all wavy instead of being nice and flat and crisp. So you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to write another travel post. Take that, wallpaper.
After college, Dan played professional basketball in Europe for six years. His first season was in Portugal, and when I graduated from college in December I joined him for the rest of the year. Portugal is always a place that I recommend people visit in Europe, for the following (very well-organized) reasons:
1. The Portuguese are the friendliest Europeans I have met. Most of the country speaks great English (and will happily do so, unlike the begrudging English conversation you'll get in France).
2. Portugal is a very poor country, so traveling there is really affordable. You'll get the European experience (great food, beautiful scenery, awesome history) but on a much smaller budget than other Western European countries.
3. Brazilian steak houses are everywhere, and they are delicious. So good. So cheap.
4. The country is small and easily traveled by car or train. You can easily fit two or three destinations in less than ten days and not spend your whole trip driving between spots.
On the second point, I will say that living in Portugal was a little bit...interesting. Our power frequently went out without warning. We didn't have an address because the street that we lived on didn't have a name (this made it hard to receive mail, which was a problem when I accidentally sent my passport home with my parents after they visited us). Natural gas isn't piped to the houses, so you have to have gas cans for cooking and hot water...the problem there is that you can't have both at the same time, it's either the stove or the shower. I was afraid to move the gas line from one to the other (because of the very real threat that I would blow up the house) so when Dan left for away games I would have to choose between hot water and a working kitchen. It was an adventure. But, as a visitor, none of these things will affect you (the hotels function just fine, with food and hot water) so don't let that be a deterrent. Here are my can't-miss highlights from the country.
You can't go wrong with the city that invented port wine. Not only is this city beautiful and extremely walkable, but it is filled with port caves that offer tours and tastings. Some of them even offer chocolate pairings! Be still, my heart. You can catch regional trains into and out of Porto easily if you don't want to spend the night (we lived about an hour south of here and it was a two euro train ride to get in to the city). Walk down to the river, have lunch at one of the cafes on the water, tour a port cave and taste some wine, and then shop at one of the many souvenir shops tucked in to every alley. Watch the sunset from the boardwalk before you head home for the night. Buy many bottles of port to enjoy on your trip, and to take home with you.
The Bussaco Palace Hotel
Portugal has a lot of great castles hidden away in random cities--relics from its heyday as a major world power. One of my favorites is the Bussaco Palace Hotel--you need a car to get here, but it's a great half-day stop on your way between Porto and whatever is next--you can even stay overnight at the hotel if you want to! It's gorgeous, and free to tour.
The Algarve Region
In the south of Portugal is the Algarve region, where you'll find the beach towns and all the fun that comes along with that. I found that people down here don't speak English as readily as they did in the north (though that could be different now, we lived here in 2009) but they're very used to tourists and you won't have any trouble making your way around. We loved exploring the beaches--one morning some fishermen pulled their boat up on the sand and started unloading their catch, after first displaying it to the crowd that gathered, which was incredible. The seafood we ate here was also amazing, and we found a few more castles to explore, which made Dan a very happy camper.
I would recommend renting a car for your visit, but you could get by for a large portion of it by train if you wanted to. Don't worry, you don't have to drive on the opposite side of the road in Portugal.
Because it's too funny not to share, this is the car the basketball team provided to Dan when he arrived (mind you, Dan is 6'9" and this car is...also about 6'9" from headlights to tail lights). We affectionately referred to it as the "Vagos-mobile" (Vagos was the town we lived in and the team Dan played for--that's their branding all over the fuchsia and teal twingo, which could not have been newer than 1987). By the end of the season this car only had three of its intended five shifting gears, which the team deemed to be more than enough. That tag line on the bottom says "because life is a competition!" and we were clearly not winning.
One place we didn't spend much time in is Lisbon--I always flew in and out of that airport, but we didn't really spend time exploring the city so I can't speak to what it has to offer. If you're thinking about a European vacation, I highly recommend Portugal! With oil prices as low as they are now, it's a great time to snag a plane ticket. We just booked a trip to Belize for next November, so I'm already daydreaming about that constantly.