I first really read about Portugal in 2006. I had a gift certificate – they give those out at Christmas – to Indigo. If you’re reading this in 2030, Indigo was a chain of bookstores and a meeting place for the fake-sophisticated that was erased by the Internet and Amazon.
(In case Amazon is something wildly different in 16 years, I’m not talking about the jungle in South America. And in case that jungle is gone, well… I’ll move on.)
For some reason, the country captivated me. And I shouldn’t say, for some reason. I was always imagining myself relocating at some point in the future, because I was 18 then and the future was actually the future – it was in front of me, not behind me or right on top of me like it is now. Texas, New Mexico, California, anywhere.
But Portugal. It looked like a cheaper Italy. It looked old and beautiful and sort of undiscovered. And when I told other people about it – when I said, “Man, the one place in the world I’d love to visit is Portugal” – they’d look at me like, “Why?”
And that only made me want it more.
(Like when you discovered the Arctic Monkeys before your friends. Like when you just knew Russell Wilson would win a Super Bowl with Seattle before he fell to the third round.)
They’d suggest New York instead. Maybe London. And because I was living in Ontario, there was no shortage of pull from the Irish or Polish or Italians, either.
Nobody seemed to care about Portugal. Except me.
I finally went in 2009, and I went by myself. I saw Porto. I lived in Braga – way up north – for 10 days, and I took little day trips to Barcelos. I built a house with Habitat near Braga, too, enjoying cheap chocolate mix powder mixes and ugly coffee at 10:30 every morning, just down the hill from the construction site. And then at lunch, we had soup and slashed meat and juice. I’m sure the locals who prepared it for us thought it was gross and easy and nothing special, but that’s what made it unique. And making it unique does make it special.
I caught a ride down south with a married couple, stopping at Coimbra on the first day. Then, Obidos on the second – an actually magical little medieval town with a castle at the top. Not just any castle, but a castle you could stay in. Sleep in, bone in, drink in. You could walk around the fortress’s walls and look over the valley below it, and then go suck back your dinner in some underground-ish restaurant that couldn’t find more than 20 people, including the cook.
I finally got to Lisbon. Jesus, it’s beautiful. And I don’t believe in God, so yes… I just took hIS name in vain.
But a lot of people in Portugal believe in God, and have believed in God. That’s made the country better today, more beautiful today. More worth your cash today. More historic. Anyone can admit that. No matter what you think of the Church, you have to admit that churches are terrific. They’re grand and metallic and royal.
Lisbon has the Castle, the Sao Jorge. It has the Tower of Belem and Europe’s biggest aquarium. It has the greatest nightlife in the world, the best cheese in the world (but France won’t admit that, will it?) and – if you’re in the right mood and you’re just happy enough – the best damn wine in the world, too.
But Lisbon has people. Better yet, it has Portuguese people.
They’re friendly and loving. They’re taken back just by the thought you might had taken your own time to fly there and, right now, spend some money there. They’re grateful for everything, almost to a fault.
Lisbon doesn’t just have sights. It also has neighbourhoods. Like the Alfama and the Baixa Avenida and the Bairro Alto. The Chiado. It has history, and it has its own history.
I went down south next, of course. I did the frat boy thing. It was moronic, I’m sure, but fantastically and easily moronic. The Rising Cock is a hostel that markets itself through hedonism. There is perhaps an air of that, but only if you’re hedonistic. In my experience, a hostel gives you the chance to feel that way, but your inhibitions are your inhibitions. You can get into a lot more trouble on the streets of the Bairro Alto at 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday night than you can in Lagos, near the beach or in that picturesque, white-washed surfer town.
The Rising Cock is an institution, much like The Pink Palace in Corfu or Kabul in Barcelona. There’s a burger joint just next to, called Nah Nah Bar. There are clubs and booze barrels all over town, like Three Monkeys and Inside Out. If you want to drink, you can. If you want to have sex, you’ll more than likely have an opportunity. If you’re not too picky. (But isn’t that like everywhere, I guess?)
Portugal was in my eye for four years. I’ve been back there since – in 2012 – and it’s still in my throat.
I went there with every chance to be disappointed. I left there fulfilled.
I had travelled through and to Europe before, so it’s not like I had never seen nothing. But when you lost your virginity, I’ll bet it wasn’t that great. Because you didn’t know how to do it yet. And travelling’s no different… Portugal wasn’t my first time. No, but it was my first great time.
I will always love it for that. It will always have a special place in my heart.
Every first does.