"PORTUGAL" by Elaine Little

Women, have you thought about travelling alone to Portugal but have just not found the courage yet? Four years ago I became single for the first time in about thirty years and I am only now beginning to fly. By fly I mean: soar with the birds, spread my wings, dance when I want to, sing although I shouldn’t and laugh ‘till I can’t stop. Travel is a hobby I thought I would have to forego since I no longer had a companion. “Others do! Why can’t I? “, I thought. “ Because you would be terrified, that’s why,” I told myself. A few jaunts away from home with friends evoked an emerging courage in my character; I became anxious to explore this newfound courage but anxious has two meanings to me - nervousness and willingness and that is exactly how I view my courage exploration – with trepidation but anticipation to try anyway. To step outside my comfort zone. One tiny trial led to another until a very dear friend and I booked a tour of Portugal. “So”, said I, “That will be comfortable. A wonderful friend to share the experience with and a safe tour of a small country guided by Trafalgar Tours. “Let’s push the envelope, make this a personal challenge.” I stepped far out of my comfort zone by asking David, my travel agent, to book my departure 5 days in advance of the tour. I’d spend those days alone in Europe, alone in Portugal, alone in Lisbon with not a word of Portuguese in my vocabulary. Readers, I have never been one to do anything on my own. I really did not realize what a princess I was until I had to fend for myself when my marriage broke up. This may seem like a small step to some of you independent women but for me, it was a huge, ginormous, giant leap of faith in myself. I’m elated. Here is how my few days went:

British Airways flew me to Heathrow where I changed terminals in that enormous airport without a glitch and then I flew to Lisbon. My luggage and I arrived on the same flight and the Lisbon airport has many signs in English… So far, very good. (BA is a much nicer airline to fly with than some that I have been on in the past. The seats were comfortable and the headrest was intelligently designed to prevent me from head bobbing myself right into the aisle.) I decided to get a taxi to my prearranged hotel rather than figure out public transportation at 10 o’clock at night but then it dawned on me that I had never haled a taxi in my life. Now, how hard can that be? Well, none of the drivers were making eye contact with me - and there were plenty of taxis - but they were all picking up passengers where a young man in uniform was standing. Rather than buck tradition I joined his customer group only to find that I had to buy a taxi voucher before he would get me a ride. Yes, it cost a few extra Euro but it was a hassle free means to be on my way, which was what I really wanted after such a long flight. The hotel my agent had recommended was in the mid price range, was not right in old Lisbon but was well located, clean, quiet AND they had been, thank God, expecting me. I went into that little room and right to bed for a good night’s sleep. Well, that was the intention. The bed was hard, the pillow flat, the room hot and the TV spoke gibberish. But sleep finally came and so did 5:30 am when I was wide-awake and raring to get started on my adventure.

I suppose you all know that European bathrooms sport bidets. I recalled Crocodile Dundee thought it was just the right size to wash ones feet. My bathroom was efficient which is a tactful decorating term for small. Balancing toiletries on the pedestal sink inevitably meant that I would send some item over the edge whilst reaching for the next useful item. They did not fall on the marble floor; my bidet caught each item, every day. My toothbrush, mascara, contact lens, hairbrush…Useful piece of plumbing! AND you know that little towel provided near the bidet?…bigger than a face cloth, smaller than a hand towel? They don’t provide facecloths in Portugal. Sure hope it had been sterilized. So I began to appreciate my useful bidet and the efficiency of this little room especially one evening after walking miles over cobblestones. I tried Dundee’s idea and soaked a foot in the warm water of the bidet, washed my face with the bidets towel, brushed my teeth and combed my hair having fished the brush out of the bidet by then. All without moving one inch. Very efficient use of time and space! I do feel smug when I multi task!

After a very fine buffet breakfast in the hotel (included in the room rate) I put my courage in my pocket, shoes on my feet and down I went to the lobby to ask how to get into the old town area of Lisbon. Ride the subway, I was told. Oh, no! It’s nearby, it’s only a short ride, it’s hassle free. Of course, I’ve never been on a subway alone before nor had I been the one to purchase the tickets when I did ride on them. No worries, with the universal language of shrugging, frowning and looking bewildered, I got help. He pointed, gestured and directed in a perfectly understandable non-verbal manner and then I was on my way. Well almost. I put the ticket into the access gate machine upside down, backwards or in some such errant manner which brought the rush-hour line up to a halt behind me. A friendly, patient person directed my hand so that the ticket entered the slot correctly. Now I was on my way! It was so nice to feel that the Portuguese people were not into the tizzy of rushing about and that they still had the courtesy to be helpful and to smile at me. Too bad we could not have conversed though; perhaps somebody would have told me to keep that access ticket that I would need to exit the subway. I wonder what would have become of me if my clothing hadn’t been kind enough to pocket this necessary bit of potential litter. Perhaps I’d be in the underground moleing about in the dark for days! By the way, the subway was spotless! The waiting area tunnel walls are tiled in shiny white or the traditional blue and white and the waiting areas were very well lit. . A few times young men offered me their seat. Chivalry is apparently thriving in Portugal.

Ahh, daylight in the heart and soul of Lisbon, known as Lisboa to the locals. Where, I wondered, was I and where should I start touring? The perfect beginning was the cathedral I was standing in front of. As I opened the huge wooden door the resonance of hymns among the gothic architectural features filled my heart with the weight of the sound. I stayed for half of the mass even thought I am not Catholic, in fact I’m not a church goer anywhere, but I am a lover of beauty. This little cathedral, sparingly attended by praying locals who smiled at me and shook my hand in greeting, enveloped me with its warmth, sound and beauty. I prayed for safety and a positive life experience. I was on my way to being a lone tourist in a big, FRIENDLY European city.

Tour book in hand, off I started with a smile in my heart, to discover the streets of Lisbon on a self-guided walk. Dedicatedly following my book’s suggestion I headed for the Barrio Alto neighborhood, which is a maze of cobbled streets, lined with medieval, vertical homes. A little girl of about ten was playing with a ball alone in one of the narrow streets She smiled at me as I approached and said, “Have a nice day” as I passed. Her use of English stopped me in my tracks. “How come you speak English?” I asked. I had to repeat the question slower but, nevertheless, she told me that she was learning in school. Children at home never speak to strangers anymore. They don’t even make eye contact with strangers. It was so nostalgic to see a child amusing herself sans the aid of modern electronics and to see her beaming smile, hear her friendly voice. I started to really notice during the next few days that I was receiving many smiles, meeting many an eye. At home I would have been inclined to seek a mirror to see if my face was on upside-down or something. It seems that the people of Portugal enjoy the presence of others and are just plain, old fashioned, friendly.

Scenically, I saw so many cobbled streets with intricate mosaic designs that I became used to them and started to take them for granted. The pride of workmanship and resulting aesthetics deserves so much more. Imagine decorating the road, the walks! Everywhere! Whilst on this topic let me tell you about the shoe fashion. It seems like the majority of women were wearing shoes with spiked heels and very, I mean very, pointed toes. (How do they get through security with those things?? They could commit murder with one swift kick!) The cobble is mostly made of small square lime stones that does not have grout in between leaving a gap just the perfect size to grab a heel, wrench the shoe right off your foot and cause all sorts of personal injury. But did I see anybody (other than myself) suffering from this fall from grace? No. These dainty-feet have an uncanny knack to walk a normal walk while placing their heel on the safe part of the stone. Perhaps it’s a genetic talent? Anyway, back to the sights…tile art adorns many building facades. In the 1700s, when Lisboa was rebuilt after a huge earthquake, buildings had to be replaced quickly. The resulting designs were plainer than their predecessors were but not without their own statements of drama. Tile art, intricate iron balconies, gargoyles, plaster art surrounding windows, iron signs are all indicators of the pride of home that is evident in Portugal. Each building attaches to the one beside and each one has very little frontage. City living is very vertical. I found out that the road level floor is “0” which explained why my hotel room on the second floor was referred to as being on the 1st floor. The exterior of homes tells a story about the interior location of important rooms. Floor 0 tends to have very little exterior embellishments - that is the entry hall. Floor 1 has very elaborate iron railings, the windows are framed to the best of the builder’s financial ability with all sorts of curlicues, plaster relief, tile or what have you - the floor guests would visit. Floor 2 is plainer than floor 1 but appealing and complementary - it is used only by family members and so on up the décor changes. Architecture in Lisbon varies from the intricate Manuline, classic Gothic, very plain plaster, a little bit of tile trim to the entire encasement of traditional handpainted blue and while tiles. The whole city is presided over by the remains of St. George’s Castle high on a nearby hill. Bougainvillea in red or bright pink is prevalent, as are masses of blue morning glory. Density of housing is very close preventing people from having a garden plot but there sure is nothing preventing them form setting out lots of flowerpots and window boxes. The weather was in the 30s Celsius everyday (late September); the sky was as blue as possible. Add a bit of tap water (which is drinkable and tastes quite good) and flowers seem to thrive. The laundry hanging out of almost every home adds to the colourful landscape too. The roads were litter free but graffiti is a defacing problem that is hopefully being addressed.

Have you ever ordered coffee in Europe without remembering that olive skinned people have really, really thick hair? – everywhere? It’s probably from the coffee! That expresso is so thick and so bitter I practically have to sweep the stripped teeth enamel off the tabletop before eating and I can almost literally feel hair sprouting where it ought not to grow. While sitting near Rossiao Square at a sidewalk café I tried to order coffee that would be served in a large cup. It wasn’t expresso and was in a cup and saucer but it was still pretty strong. A kind man sitting nearby passed me a note written in English. The note said try galao next time. It is served in a glass, is half-cold milk and half coffee, luke warm and not necessitating a handle on a mug. Considering that the weather was very warm everyday it was the perfect Portuguese coffee compromise for me. And the note-man was not threatening so we had a nice conversation in English.

The world is a small place in some ways. Famous people’s names turn up in the most unexpected places. Eiffel’s prominence in Portugal was a surprise. One of his students designed the outdoor Elevator de Santa Justa in Lisbon and the similarities of the Parisian landmark ironwork is very evident. Eiffel himself designed and saw to the erection of a bridge across the Duro River in Oporto. It was that bridge that earned him the respect and honour to build the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

I’m not usually a shopper but I am genetically woman enough to be lured by on sale signs. That meant that every store was casting lures! Everything was on sale and, oh, the cloths and the shoes! Portugal is a great source of leather products and the shoe prices were very tempting. I could have done some extreme damage but managed to restrain myself to three pairs. The first pair being totally flat with non-skid soles so that the shoe gripping cobblestones would pick on the dainty-feets and leave me in tact.

But it’s the sights and how I got along that I should be telling you about. There is so much to say! I had such a wonderful time no matter where I went or what I was doing. People spoke to me; they were courteous and kind. Oh, the waiters. Here is a big difference that I’m grateful somebody explained. Once seated, you could be there a very long time before receiving a menu or what you might consider service. You are being served. You are left alone to contemplate life until you ask for a menu. Once your meal is done you are left to digest or contemplate more life for the rest of the day if you want to. You’ll have to ask for the check if you are ready to be on your way. A patron is a guest as long as they wish to be. There is none of the bums rush out the door treatment so that they can fill the table with the next customer. Quite civilized really, once you get the hang of it.

Horses are my passion. I ride several times a week. I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was when I found out that I could see the Lusitanian horses of the Portuguese Riding School perform at the Palacio de Qualuz. I was on the edge of my seat for an hour watching the best dressage I have ever seen. Better than the Olympics. The precision of the execution of very intricate moves was so precise that any error would have caused a crash with fellow performers. Never did they come close to that. The rider’s aids were completely invisible. The horses appeared to know exactly what to do and when to do it but, being a rider, I know how much communication must transfer from rider to horse and how well the horsemanship must be to achieve what I witnessed. Breathtaking!!!

There is so much to describe and so much more I could share about Portugal. During my few days alone I rode in a taxi, tram, bus, a train to Sintra, funicular and the subway. I, even I, did not have any problem getting around. Let me sum it all by saying, “Go to Portugal”. There is enough diversity in that tiny country to keep anybody interested in the landscape, the history (whoever thought there would be so many Roman ruins), the food, the wine, the Port. Portugal is only a tiny bit bigger than Vancouver Island yet has a population of ten and a half million. The landscape changes drastically within very few miles, which makes for fabulous sightseeing. I thank my very special travel companion for his wise choice of destination and can’t wait for my next journey and adventure.

By Elaine Little