Imagine finding yourself waking up in a fairy-tale world, having a drink at a bar in Manhattan the night before, now you're in a colorful place of magic and legend. It’s a place that time has not so much forgotten, but more that the place itself and its inhabitants have chosen to forget time. The land is lush with green forests. Moss coats every tree and nestles in between every stony crevice. Pink pronounces itself prominently in unexpected ways; in the sky, on the streets and sidewalks (all hand placed polished stones), even the President's house is pink. Bright splashes of a mustard yellow adorn the houses, trains, palaces, and buses, while Mediterranean blues on the buildings and in the sky appear to remind you the ocean is nearby. The air smells sweet nearly everywhere, like sugar caramelizing in the distance, even if there isn’t a bakery nearby. They're a proud people with thick accents and a nostalgia for a heroic era of discovery and adventure in their blood. It’s possible to imagine a reality where this place wouldn’t exist today without that age that connected Europe to the rest of the world by sea. The one word to sum up Portugal: magic.
Everything seems slowed down, timeless, longing for a past and unconcerned about the future. Portugal feels overlooked by the very globalization the Portuguese explorers initiated in way back in the 13th century. Neglected by the present day international financial markets, the prosperity they once enjoyed is mythical and visible in the remnants of the magnificent palaces and Gothic monasteries. It becomes difficult not to daydream about the prominent role this very Catholic kingdom once played in the early development of the modern world. It is now a relatively poor country by Europe’s standards, money for food and travel goes far. Today, their main exports are olives, some wines, and a few other agricultural products. Not exactly the center of the world's economy anymore.
The people that live here are happy, carefree and in no hurry because their days don’t pass at a normal pace compared to cultures beyond. They can sit patiently in (some would say) pointless traffic caused by a conversation between a delivery van driver chatting with his friend, blocking a narrow, one-way stone street barely big enough for a single car to fit through. "There is no hurry, we’ll get there when we get there," I can imagine them thinking.
It is here, on my first morning in Lisbon, where I found myself wandering up a steep hill in the middle of the older part of the city. It's adorned with a castle, Castelo de Sao Jorge, extensively renovated in the 14th century. The royal castle was the setting for the reception by King Manuel I welcoming Vasco da Gama upon his return from discovering the sea route to India in 1498 to give some context. An old fortress still carrying on as the guardian of the evolving civilization below, not having accepted the reality that its services are no longer required. As I tried to navigate the spiderweb of medieval streets to the top, I came across a pair of stray dogs looking for food. The three of us accompanied each other upwards with the sound of a guitar floating on the air from ahead. Entering a sunny clearing where nature had began its slow reclamation of ruined houses, a man sat on a crumbling wall and played absolutely beautiful music. It was similar to Spanish style guitar however distinctly Portuguese. Without knowing the lyrics it felt like his message was “don’t worry, life’s beautiful”. The warm melody was mesmerizing as the stray dogs chased each other through the long weeds while a yellow butterfly darted overhead, as if it was summoned by the musician. The Portuguese are not “worry free,” they are “sitting under a banana tree”. (Estar a sombra da bananeira.)
I just sat and began to cry, overwhelmed with emotion that this scene invoked in me. The feeling was, confidence and happiness. I knew without a doubt that I had arrived at the first part of my life changing journey and reflected on the decision to do this. The commitment it took and the challenge of putting a previous life on pause, it all felt so right. No more looking back, only living in the moment, appreciating each experience to best of my ability and looking ahead to the unexpected, keeping an open mind.
Portugal is one of those places that can’t be described to others, where the pictures don’t do it justice, it can only be experienced. It wasn’t so much the things I saw as it was the combined experience of the flourishing forests, delicious food, ancient fortresses and genuine friends made. Sintra and Arrábida, both 40 minutes outside Lisbon by car are filled with enough picturesque landscapes and cultural heritage for exploring that could take weeks. Local knowledge is a must, and you definitely need to find Duarte! He’s got his own tour company now called "Keep it Local" and he’s the best guide to navigate the tight twisting mountain roads and reveal Portugal’s biggest secrets. He’s more than willing to share his home’s beauty and delicious dishes with you. Best octopus I’ve ever had! 3 days was not nearly enough time. I want to return at the end of my journey and can’t recommend Lisbon highly enough.