Rating Lisbon and Portugal

SUMMARY

Dec 2021 + Jan 2022. Our first travel-life stop. (Winter/Omicron/Two Dogs/AirBnB in Lisbon’s Lapa neighborhood at 2K/month—top of our budget). Day trips via public transport: Praia de Carcavelos, Praia de Sao Pedro do Estroril, Sintra, Evora, Belem. 10-day, self-guided, country-wide tour via rental car: Peniche, Nazare, Praia de Rei Cortico, Obidos, Coimbra, Porto, Peneda-Geres National Park, Lagos, Praia de Dona Ana. 

OVERALL

General observations: Portugal in winter is much warmer and sunnier than Boston, which was 90% of what we were looking for. The trees are still blooming, the grass is green, the temps average in the 60s (F). Lisbon seemed very safe; our neighborhood very quiet. Note that Lisbon may not be the best choice for the mobility challenged — unless you plan to Uber and Tuk-Tuk everywhere, stairs and hills are unavoidable and it’s not uncommon to have to walk up 6-8 stories every two blocks. You’ll also need to be in good shape to walk the castle walls or get on the roof of a city tower. “Handicapped accessible” doesn’t seem to be a thing here. Portugal is a Café Society with a lot of outdoor seating — very nice during a pandemic (!), but expect to have a smoker sitting at the table next to you. Nobody walks their food — we saw no one eating an apple or pastry while walking, nobody walking with a cup of coffee. Very unlike the States, in Portugal everyone sits at a table or stands at the counter and and there is no rush to leave, no one shoo-ing you out or asking if you need anything else. Do yourself a favor and do the same — take your time sipping an espresso or a vinho tinto and watch the world go by. The Portuguese have a very high vaccination rate (another reason it was the perfect first stop for us) and for the most part people seemed to follow the polite rules of life, driving, and society. The exception: people seem to park wherever there’s the slightest opening, even if that means they’re parking in the bus lane or across the sidewalk. Similarly, people don’t move out of your way when you’re walking down the sidewalks — they’ll park themselves in the middle of the walkway to have a chat and expect others to go around them. Portugal has *very* accessible monuments and natural wonders (Lagos cliff walks, national parks, beaches) that are WELL worth a visit. There is a lot of construction in the city — every other block or so we saw debris from apartment building gut jobs spilling into the road. As such, Lisbon may be cheaper than most of the EU right now, but we don’t expect that to continue. For us, six weeks in Lisbon felt a little too long. It’s a sprawling, busy, noisy, indifferent city which isn’t great for dogs, or vitally exciting to visit beyond the main attractions. Rating: C

CHRISTMAS (in a pandemic)

Christmas was very subdued by US standards, but we don’t think it was only because of COVID. Portuguese families didn’t put up their trees, lights, or window decorations until mid December and we didn’t hear many Christmas carols while walking through Porto or Lisbon (not even from most shops). Apartment-dwellers sometimes hang a baby Jesus flag over their balconies; we also saw a few stuffed Santas clinging to the walls as if they were going to climb in the windows (appropriate, as there are no chimneys!). These were our favorite home decorations. Municipalities hang light displays over streets or in central squares; these are all more like art installations than individual strings of lights and they provide an interesting contrast to the very old buildings. Rating: N/A, it’s too hard to judge the seasonal festivities during the pandemic as most celebrations and group events (fireworks, music) were cancelled this year.

FOOD

We had read rave reviews about Portuguese cooking, but unfortunately our high expectations were not met. Granted, we were living in Portugal and mainly cooking our dinners at home, not eating at expensive restaurants as you might do on vacation. Most small cafés have a kitchen and provide lunch meals, even if they look very small and show no sign that regular meals are available. A typical Lisboetas’ breakfast (7-11) is pastry with an espresso, perhaps also a glass of wine or beer, and often a smoke. Lunch (2-4, otherwise know as 1400 – 1600) features the cheap Pratos do dia menu (6-11 euro), which usually includes a meat or fish entrée, French fries, white rice and a beverage (6 oz beer or glass of wine, for us!).  If you get a salad, it’s basic lettuce with tomato and white onion. We often felt that the meat entrée was last night’s dinner leftovers. Dinner is late (8-11ish – 2000-2300). We shopped at markets and cooked most of our dinners, which worked out well as we found grocery prices to be about half of those in Massachusetts. Red and white wines (2-6 euros) are excellent. We weren’t super impressed with the port, but that’s likely because fortified wines just aren’t to our liking in general. We definitely recommend Vinho Verde (the young, slightly bubbly wine) — it’s tasty, cheap, and you can’t get it anywhere else. In our opinion, the national delicacy Bacalhau — dried salted cod rehydrated with milk and butter and baked — tastes like tuna casserole (i.e., not something we’d ever think of as special). We like fish, but didn’t find their fish any fresher or tastier than fish we purchased on the US coasts. Overall we found the Portuguese diet — as judged from eating at cafes for breakfast and lunch — leaves a lot to be desired.  It’s dehydrating (espresso! alcohol!); high in sugar and carbs (pastries! fries!), and they serve almost no nutritious vegetables. As for meat, we bought steak in many different restaurants and supermarkets, but did not taste or prepare one that was half as good as a cheap London broil from a US market or steak from a US chain restaurant.  We even had a butcher cut us fillets off a larger chunk of cow — if someone was getting the prime cut, it definitely wasn’t us. It all lacked taste. We did really enjoy picking up Take-Away grilled chicken from the Churrasqueira in our neighborhood, but we did have to watch out for all the weird small bones we’d find in unexpected places. It was almost like the chicken was randomly hacked into bits by a drunk madwoman wielding a cleaver! The beer was OK; it took us some time to find a local beer that we liked (Bohemia) and only in the Algarve did we find a big IPA selection. We found the categorization of goods in the market to be really strange — items were not where we were used to seeing them and the organization didn’t seem to make much sense. The TP is shit, paper towels are shit. Overall: you can eat cheaply, but we didn’t find the diet nutritious or delicious. Rating: C. Also, our home cooked meals were consistently better and healthier than anything we found eating out.

GETTING AROUND

The trains, trams, and buses are inexpensive, very good, clean, run more-or-less on schedule, and are more-or-less dog-friendly. We did have one rude conductor berate us — first because the dogs were not muzzled (even though we had previously seen plenty of dogs on the train, NONE of whom were muzzled), and then for not knowing Portuguese. Driving on the main toll highways is excellent (for signage and pavement), except that plenty of drivers go very fast (30+ kilometers over the speed limit) compared to the general flow. They also pass you as if you are a pylon on an alpine run, even if there are no other cars around. (Our theory is that because the city roads are so small, everybody is feeling their Mario Andretti when they get to a highway). Tolls were very expensive — over 10 days, driving only from Lisbon to Porto then down to Lagos and back to Lisbon, we were hit with over 61 euros in tolls. And another 15 euros to rent the transponder. In the city, narrow cobblestone streets accentuate the go-kart feel and amplify the sound of cars gunning their engines on every straight-away. Walking with dogs around Lisbon was an adventure in guessing if the cars will actually stop as we cross the road. It often seems like a game of chicken — the drivers are watching to see if we really are going to cross and we’re looking to see if they’ll stop in time. Rating: C

DOG LIFE

We had no problem finding an AirBnB that allowed our dogs. And as previously mentioned, transportation is mostly dog-friendly. The beaches are very dog friendly. Cafes and restaurants are happy to seat you outside with your dogs, and dog-friendly quiosques with outdoor seating in parks and city squares abound and are perfect spots to enjoy a snack with an espresso and/or wine and beer. Unfortunately, Lisbon’s city sidewalks are a little too dog friendly — in addition to dodging scooters, pedestrians, and randomly-parked cars, the sidewalks are full of dog shit. We asked a local dog owner if it was a cultural thing: he said it was not customary, was something he was ashamed of his countrymen for, and, moreover, that dog owners who leave their droppings can get fined. We’re not sure we believed him, and regardless, the fact is you need to watch where you walk. So much so that you spend more time looking at the sidewalk than at the city sights all around you. There are also very few green spaces to take your dog in Lisbon (it took us a month to find a good walking circuit in our neighborhood) and the dog parks are small, and few and far between. In addition, we found many non-neutered male dogs at dog parks; while not often overtly aggressive toward our dogs, they did want to establish themselves as alphas and that does not often sit well with our admittedly crotchety older male dog.  However, many dog owners see an open park and let Fido roam free regardless.  Rating: D (for dogshit). B for accessibility.

MONUMENTS AND CASTLES

We love how accessible the attractions are: there are no railings or gated areas along narrow, harrowingly-steep castle walls — if you fall off, it’s your problem. Most attractions are wide open and you can find yourself on a church roof or tower with an amazing view, or behind an altar at a monastery, an experience that you can’t believe you were allowed to do. Very little is roped off — even the zoo animals have minimalist enclosures and you can get right up and close to the animals. Portugal has lots of open space and pristine beaches, with so many walkways to view it all from that appear planned especially for people to enjoy, with a multitude of benches to sit on, trash cans aplenty, and almost always a bar, cafe, or restaurant so you can sit and sip in the view! The beaches are dog-friendly and kid-friendly. We loved that there were bars or cafes in pretty much every scenic location or viewpoint. Even many modern bridges and roadway overpasses seem designed for form as well as function. Rating: A

PEOPLE

We’ve found the people of Lisbon mostly involved in their own lives. Friendly(ish) to talk with, but not warm or indulgent or interested in getting to know you. Most speak English enough to get by. Our Portuguese is not all that great, but we’ve tried to make the effort and have not really been rewarded, let alone acknowledged. Unfortunately, though we’ve attempted to become part of the culture by swimming at a local club, practicing piano at a local music studio, and talking with uber drivers, waiters, waitresses, people at surf shops, in the street, and at the dog parks, neither of us really feel like we’ve made any kind of connection with local residents. Rating: D 

Overall Portugal: C

Would we go back? Maybe to spend a winter in The Algarve, perhaps in Sagres which seemed to have a bit of a younger, hipper, happier vibe. 

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