Our journey to Portugal was, to borrow from Enid Blyton, perfectly horrid. It involved two sleepless nights, sleeping on the cold ground, and various forms of transport, all public, all slow. By the time we arrived in Tavira, our first stop, I was literally shaking with exhaustion and cold. Luckily our time in this small land of bacalhau and pastel de nata (that's salted cod and Portuguese tarts) has been a perfect delight.
To save money (mostly) we decided to couchsurf all the way through Portugal- and we managed to, save two nights- and as a result, I think it is all the people we have met that will stay with us more than the places we have been.
Our first host was in Tavira, a little village on the ocean where we saw wild flamingoes feeding in the salt lakes. His name was Paulo and he welcomed us into his little home with open arms, a very comfortable couch and a chicken dinner. He was a lifeguard who loved the ocean and his town and he made us little maps and itineraries of places to visit and things to see. One day we walked six kilometres along a long deserted beach, from an anchor graveyard in the sand to Paulo's little life-guard hut; it's a fantasically exhilirating and anticipatory feeling swimming on an empty beach with storm clouds gathering in the distance. Unfortunately those storm clouds then broke and the next few days were flood-like.
Then the weather cleared, we said goodbye to our life-saving friend and tried to hitch-hike to Lagos, a town at the other end of the Algarve. We made it as far as Faro, then decided to catch the train and therefore made it to Lagos before nightfall. Lagos is an extremely touristy place but for good reason- the beaches are amazing.We were lucky enough to have one last day of "summer", and spent it swimming in crystal clear water on tiny little beaches surrounded by huge orange cliffs. Then we watched the sun go down over the Atlantic, atop a cliff. We stayed in a hostel in Lagos, our couch requests bearing no fruit, but it was definitely worth the expense. After our summery swimmy day at the beach we caught the bus out to the town of Sagres, from which it is a 6km walk to the desolately, breathtakingly windswept southwestern-most point of Europe. Atlantic waves crashing into rocks a hundred metres below you, insane fishermen perched on the very edge of the cliff hunting for the catch of the day, huge sea birds gliding on updraughts all around, and wide flat blue for miles. And Europe's most southwestern hotdog stand...
Not feeling extremely enthusiastic about a return 6km walk we tried our luck sticking out our thumbs and were surprised and delighted when, after four or 5 cars drove past, one stopped and took us all the way back to Lagos. From where we caught an afternoon bus to...
Lisbon! A picture perfect city; all cobbled lanes, old yellow trams, pastel pink and yellow and blue houses and a huge square opening out onto a harbour, from where we could see the "Golden Gate Bridge" and Rio's "big hilltop Jesus". Despite all this, and despite the abundance of pastel de natas all over the city, it wasn't a place that I wanted to live in (and this is how I determine a good city). I think this may have had something to do with the people we were couchsurfing with though, or if not the people, definitely the house. I say house...I mean tiny little bottom floor apartment with 3 tiny bedrooms and smaller kitchen and no living area that was home to seven people...and then couchsurfers. We found it a bit odd that these people hosted couchsurfers at all, what with all their minus space and all, and it wasn't until we were leaving and the man asked us for eighty euro for the 4 nights that we understood...scoundrels.
Rather than spending any more time than we had to in the apartment, we spent hours wandering around Lisbon. Up and down the hilly streets, overdosing on charm in tiny little tiled gardens, eating pastel de nata in Belem, the home of said delicious, finding aqauducts, a castle and hordes of tourists...not a bad city, not a favourite city.
After handing over 80 of our precious euros to our landlord (ahem, "host"), we sat fuming at the train station waiting for our train to the inland university town of Coimbra. We were heading into Harry Potter territory now...did you know old J.K. taught English in Porto (the 'capital of the north') and gained inspiration from a lot of the surrounding places. Like the university in Coimbra, a beautiful old stone complex on a hill above the city where tradition has students going about in black capes...sounding familiar?
Uni means students and students mean parties and our host in Coimbra was a very friendly, happy, enormous Bulgarian who loved to go out and party. So we met lots of people in Coimbra, stayed up way past our bedtimes and slept all through the mornings. To get out of the house one afternoon, after a long hard day of sleeping, we duck-spotted along an autumnal river with a Venezuelan chap called Jeremia.
We ended our time in Coimbra with a huge codfish dinner at a Portuguese house (an eternally tardy friend of our host's mother cooked), another late night that included Jenga and an impromptou oboe performance and a warm, fuzzy feeling inside from the extent of Bulgarian and Portuguese hospitality. And a vow to visit Bulgaria and all our new friends there.
In Porto, the place from which we reluctantly farewelled this lovely little country, we stayed with another Bulgarian who we met in Coimbra. Dilyana is in Porto on exchange, studying fine arts and living with another arts student from Slovenia and a plaster artist from Porto itself. So we were feeling very arty...even though the only thing we created while we were there was a chicken soup "surprise" and a chocolate fondue.
We had far too short a time in Porto, it's an exceedingly picturesque city perfect for exploring. On our first morning Dilyana and Helena took us on an impromptu little tour of the backstreets, to opshops and fabric stores, past cheap bars and cafes (students area of expertise). Past a little park that was to us a point of orientation and was to the elderly, the arts students and the local prostitutes a meeting place. Then they left us and we climbed a big tower for a panoramic view of all the red rooves, the river and the vine covered walls of the city. We dove back into Harry Potter in the Livraria Lello, an amazing bookshop that has been in business for over 100 years, has been voted one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world and was, reputatedly, inspiration for the library in Harry Potter. It's walls are lined in very old books encased in glass-faced panels and the staircase to the second floor is an Alice in Wonderland wonder...google it.
We saw the city from both sides of the river, climbed over the bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel (there is a resemblance, indeed) and were treated to another impromptu performance at another dinner we were invited to- this time it was fado, the traditional, melancholic music of Portugal. Our performer (one of the girls we were having dinner with) was a little audience shy so she turned off all the lights and sang to the open window...she was quite incredible.
And with these delicious memories we snuck onto the metro (since we were leaving we felt we need not buy a ticket...) and settled into our uber cheap, ad-riddled plane, ready to fly to Bordeaux.