Sunday, November 11, 2012

Portugal: Impressions

My in-laws, who come to visit us every year as long as nothing more important comes along (ie. if any of my sisters-in-law are pregnant, no visit), decided they were sick of Germany after a few trips here.  This year they proposed that we meet somewhere else in Europe.  Several ideas were tossed around, but my husband and I lobbied hard for Portugal.  We have been wanting to go there pretty much the whole time we've been in Europe, but the timing has never been right.  (Summer is right out considering our lack of love for hot weather, and in the winter we always had some other thing going on.)  They were a little resistant at first, or maybe they were just messing with us, but in the end they decided to go with it - the Portugal trip finally happened!!  It was worth the wait.  Actually it would be worth not waiting too.  I guess it's probably always worth it. :)

I'll talk about general impressions of Portugal here, then I'll post my usual travelogue-with-photo-album stuff in forthcoming posts!

First and foremost!  The food!  So much seafood.  The standard restaurant menu had two sections: MEAT and FISH.  No pasta section, rice section, vegetarian section...and you can forget the vegetables for the most part!  Dishes often came with only a starch side and no salad or other vegetable. 

Almost everything we ate was excellent, though we struck out a couple of times.  If you're a fish-eater, it's all about the fish. The Portuguese have lots of fresh seafood to work with and they know exactly how to cook it right!  All the meat dishes we had were great, too.  There's quite a bit of variety although you won't see turkey much like you do in Germany.  (Which is fine with me, I think there's too much turkey around here.)  We did see ox, kid (as in goat), partridge, and quail, some of them regularly.

Pretty much all the bread we ate was excellent - really soft and moist, be it white or whole grain.  I think the bread experience was better than I've had in any other country.  (In comparison with Germany it's just different, not necessarily better.)

And the PASTRIES!!!  The Portuguese seem to love sugar. Sugar packets are extra large and your hot drink comes with two of them instead of one.  The cakes and pastries are actually sweet when you think they will be sweet.  I've actually trained myself over the years in Germany out of getting unfamiliar types of cakes because the dryness and lack of sweetness often disappoint me.  In one bakery my mother-in-law picked a piece of something that looked to me like the epitome of German Disappointment Cake - gorgeous chocolate cake with white stuff on it and some cherries.  We all traded bites and her cake was nothing like I expected - it was amazing. So was what I got.  I also discovered a new thing called chocolate salami which I guess is originally Italian, but was all over Portugal and totally amazing.  I'm going to learn to make that.  Then there are the famous pasteis de nata, little custard tarts which don't look like much but are delicious.  There were so many different things at the pastry bakeries....we never had time to even try them all. Argh, now I'm hungry.

At restaurants, there were usually several appetizers brought to the table when we sat down.  This is easy to get annoyed about - the tempation to eat something you didn't order and will have to pay for if you eat it - but it was surprisingly easy to get into the swing of it.  If you expect that sitting at a restaurant means they're going to assume you're in for some bread and olives, then you start actually kind of wanting the bread and olives.  And still wanting them days after you've left...

Many of the dishes are made for two - sometimes you can specify if you want them for just one person, but sometimes two is the only option. It was fun to have this reminder to eat a bit more family-style, and made it easy for us all to try everything ordered.

And on the topic of olives...we bought some at a market one day.  The guy shoveled so many into the baggie - way more than we wanted - that we ended up not eating all of them by the end of the trip and had to toss the rest.  Then he handed us the bag and said, "Sixty cents." (In Portuguese.) SIXTY CENTS.  SIXTY CENTS!!!!  Today we went to buy olives in Heidelberg and, for an amount of olives that was only a quarter or third what we bought in Portugal, we paid FIVE EURO.  Which leads me to the next topic....

Our original decision to go to Portugal was made in our first year here - actually, in the first couple of months I think. We saw a show on TV comparing the prices in Euro countries, and it showed Portugal as being WAY cheaper than the other countries.  What's not to love about that?  This totally bore out, although I hear it used to be cheaper.  The prices we paid for food every single day would have been absolute bargain basement in Germany.  Actually, I think the prices would have been impossible in Germany.  Salaries must be pretty low in Portugal to match these prices. We often had an order of two hot drinks and 2-3 pastries, which would end up around 2.50 Euro.

Accomodations were also a pretty good deal relative to other European cities.  In Lisbon we paid under 100 Euro a night for a two-bedroom apartment right in the Alfama.  It could have been cheaper.  I am a bit of a grump about the price of accomodations pretty much anywhere.

As for transit prices...

Lisbon was the only city where we ended up using public transit. You can get a pass to use any tram, bus, or metro (subway) for 5 Euro for the entire day!  Cabs are also super cheap.  From the Alfama to the airport it was about the same price as a cab from the Bismarckplatz to the Hauptbahnhof (which is a very short ride indeed). 

We rented a car for most of the trip.  Using the roads is a bit pricey, although we don't know what it ended up being.  We got a toll pass which automatically counted up our tolls and we were supposed to get the bill later.  Often we saw the price when the beep of a new count sounded, and it was usually several Euro.  As a result the major roads (all toll) are pretty quiet, but the back roads more crowded.  There was definitely some tailgating behavior but it didn't seem worse than in other European countries.

So nice.  I think we met one mean nutter the whole time, and he didn't have all his marbles so has an excuse.  People gave us directions without us even asking for them - multiple times.  When my husband was sick one morning and looked it, multiple people stopped to see if he was okay. 

There was an obvious sense of community in the places we visited, with the possible exception of Estremoz.  People socialized in public, in the streets, hung out in their doorways or hung out their windows, always kept an eye on what was going on in public spaces - staying involved, kids played in the streets.  We regularly saw women in public wearing house dresses and vests, the likes of which I haven't seen in ages except on maids.  It all seems very quaint from the shut-in American perspective. I wonder if this kind of life is just fading out more slowly in the places we visited, or if it can hang on even through the modern trend toward emphasis on individual instead of community.

On that note, life in general seemed more public.  Laundry is hung out, not hidden inside.  Satellites are right on the front of the building, not hidden somewhere to make it look nicer.  Empty pots and clothespin holders sat out clearly visible on balconies.  Imperfections in houses were fixed up imperfectly - non-matching tiles, ugly metal walls. It was obvious at every moment that people were living there and didn't care if that was obvious, unlike the sterility in a perfectly clean German town or an empty-lawned American suburb.  Sometimes this was a good thing - there was no feeling of being somewhere a bit too good, a bit fake.  Sometimes it went a little too far.  One of the main smells in Portugal is that of cat poop, from all the cats living in houses that have been left to ruin.

So, these nice people will work with you if you know just English (limited helpfulness), German (useless), and a tiny smattering of French/Spanish/Italian (French seemed most helpful). But if you have a chance to just learn hi/bye, please/thanks, "I'd like...", foods, "where is?", right/left, and numbers, you should do it before going.  People often did not speak English and were often rather shocked that neither of us spoke any Romance language with fluency.  Knowing Romance languages at our crappy level was immensely helpful for reading road signs, warnings, and that sort of thing.  Food menus were a bit harder.  And reading Romance languages is different from hearing or speaking them!

Man, it's really common there that you can't take photos in places.  Really annoying...not just for me, but for the employees whose jobs have become nothing but screaming "NO PHOTOS" the entire day.

Overall, loved it.  We would definitely like to go again, be it a few more days in Porto/on the Douro, some time in the Minho, back in Lisbon, or on to new areas like the Algarve.  I think we'd go at this time of year again or in the spring, as it didn't seem too full of tourists and the temperatures were very agreeable.  Maybe we'd go slightly more high-season for a Douro trip, as many places were already shut down for the off-season.  My husband's parents were slightly less enamoured of everything (though they still liked it more than they expected), so it may not be the right destination for mid-American boomer suburbanites.  For us it was, as my husband described it, "a cheap Italy" - a lot of the things you go to Italy for without the high prices, and without an extremely-advanced tourist industry that leaves you feeling ripped off.  But his parents might have been more comfortable with said advanced tourist industry, since it involves more standardized hotels, English-speaking waiters, and catering to non-locals (in other words, comfort for non-locals).  As always, it pays to know what kind of tourist you are.

Up next: Porto diary and photos!


  1. "German Disappointment Cake"! Love it. Living here, I've just kind of gotten used to the idea that maybe food just isn't all that important. Then I visit France or read the David Lebowitz (sp?) blog.

  2. oh lord, the FOOD SECTION of this post! i want to eat ALL THE THINGS.


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