Gathered Thoughts From a Trip to Portugal

It only took me half a year to get there, but last week, I finally made my way down south to Galicia’s long-lost cousin, Portugal. For Semana Santa or Holy Week celebrations, I got a whole week off of school, so I had the opportunity to do the country justice rather than a brief, whirlwind weekend trip. Early Thursday morning, I caught the regional train down to Vigo in southwest Galicia, where I made a transfer to the direct “La Celta” service between Vigo, Spain, and Porto, Portugal. Two nights in Porto led to four nights in Lisbon the capital, where I made daytrips to the monumental neighborhood of Belém and Romantic-era retreat of Sintra.

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As per usual, there will be the expected travelogue-style posts about my time in Portugal to come, but for now, I’m sticking with tradition and doing a little write-up on some musing and reflections I had while in Spain’s neighbor to the southwest.
  • As odd as it sounds, I spoke the Galician language for the first time while in Portugal. Galician and Portugal were once the same language in the Middle Ages, and are still extremely similar today but have distinct vocabularies and very distinct accents. Still, I had mixed success getting my message across in Galician: some people understood me no problem, others replied in Spanish or English, and others were utterly confused.

  • I’ve been able to understand spoken Galician no problem for months now but have always fallen back on Castilian Spanish when speaking with teachers at my school, restaurant servers, cashiers, etc. I think being forced to speak some combination of Galician-Portuguese in Portugal was the jump-start I needed to feel comfortable speaking the language on a regular basis.
  • Something that really struck me about Portuguese was how often I caught myself thinking I was hearing American English in passing; the accent is quite nasal, there’s lots of SHs and ZHs, and plenty of the Ls are of the “dark” L variety (think “bill” and “ball”).

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  • A brief primer on (European) Portuguese pronunciation:
    1. Es and Os at the ends of words are raised to Is and Us; so leite (“milk”) is said like “LAY-tee” [ˈlej.tɨ] and the city of Porto is pronounced like “POUR-too” [ˈpoɾ.tu].
    2. When S and Z sounds come at the ends of syllables, they’re palatalized or turned into SHs and ZHs; so pastel (“pastry”) is said like “pash-TELL” [pɐʃˈtɛɫ] and the city of Lisboa is pronounced like “leezh-BO-ah” [liʒˈboɐ].
    3. Vowels are nasalized when they have the tilde ~ over them or when they come before an M or an N: so maçã (“apple”) is said like “mah-SAHNG” [mɐ.ˈsɐ̃] and sempre (“always”) is pronounced like “SAYNG-pree” [ˈsẽ.pɾɨ].
  • I loved the streetscapes of Portugal. So many roads throughout the historic quarters still bear pairs of tram rails and are crowned with a net of electrical wires above, meaning pictures of the cathedral, for example, almost always are crossed by a grid of power lines. Although only half a dozen trolleys still run in Porto or Lisbon, the cities have left the existing infrastructure as-is—a wise, future-proof decision.

  • Like my trips to France, Morocco, and Italy, a week or so wasn’t enough for me to feel “finished” with the country…I need to return again someday! I’d love to come back next year to explore more of Lisbon’s unique neighborhoods, the university town of Coimbra, the Baroque gem of Braga, and the place where the Portuguese nation was born, Guimarães.
  • I’m slightly synaesthetic, and for me Portugal has always been a, uh, yellow country—sunny and hazy and warm. All three expectations were met during this far-from-cloudy Holy Week, but the country was far less dreamy or magical than I had imagined. This in no way detracted from the beautiful, crumbling neglect of tiled Porto or the attraction of grand Lisbon.

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  • Portugal gave off similar vibes to its southern European sister to the east, Italy, what with all the Baroque architecture, grand colorful buildings, and general charming dilapidation, but compared to Italy, the atmosphere felt more laid-back and less snobby.
  • I’ve almost only ever seen aerial photos of Porto from friends on Facebook—like from lookout points, church towers, or bridges—and wasn’t ever really enthralled with what I saw. But I love-love-loved Porto on the ground, from six feet up: most houses aren’t necessarily as ship-shape as those in the old town of Sevilla, for example, but their ornate, often hand-painted azulejos or tiles give them a quiet dignity and contrast wonderfully with the crumbling paint and plaster.

  • Coffee was SO much better here than in Spain; this is probably because most cafés in Spain use a mix of regular and torrefacto beans that really mess with the flavor (and my bowels/bladder/general well-being). I often relished the simple pleasure of sipping a rich, iridescent shot of espresso (uma bica) as a mid-morning or early-afternoon break from sightseeing.
  • Pastries were better in Portugal, too. I couldn’t get enough of the pastéis de nata—little tiny custard-filled pies with flaky crusts—as well as the bolas de Berlim—jelly donuts dusted with sugar and filled with custard.
  • Despite feeling all too comfortable in a Portuguese café or bakery, I felt really lost in a restaurant. I had no idea what to order, when to have lunch or dinner, or how much things should cost. Part of the problem was the language barrier (chicken is pollo in Spanish, polo in Galician and…frango in Portuguese), but a lot of it was just being so used to eating in Spain where I get a 10€ all-inclusive daily set menu for lunch and then nibble here and there for dinner at night.
  • But despite the differences, I was never too far from some good cured ham. Jamón in Spain—presunto in Portugal. Learn it, love it, live it.

  • In Spain, you pronounce Wi-Fi as “gwee-fee,” but in Portugal you say it just like in English: “Wai-Fai.” You just can’t assume you know how to say something!
  • After a year being away from springtime Andalucía, I finally found orange trees in bloom again and drank deeply in the wonderful aroma of the azahar or orange blossom. Called flores de laranjeira (“orange tree flowers”) in Portuguese, I found some on the south side of Lisbon’s cathedral and on its hilltop castle. Simply the best.
  • Not having cellphone service was refreshing but at the same time it was extremely frustrating when trying to coordinate travel/dinner plans with new acquaintances. How did we ever live without them?

  • Portugal has no shortage of affordable, high-quality hostels. I stayed at Tattva Design Hostel in Porto for a mere 15€ a night and it was the BEST hostel I have stayed at anywhere in all my travels. I’ve heard similar reviews from people who have stayed elsewhere in the country—major props to the Portuguese tourism industry!
  • Portugal was just different enough from Spain to feel foreign and push me out of my comfort zone, yet still eerily similar as a southern European/Iberian nation that I wasn’t disoriented or stressed out.

If you’ve been to Portugal before, what were your initial impressions of the country? Can any linguistic-y person who speaks Portuguese confirm or deny my comments about the language? Join the discussion below!

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