I arrived in Lisbon on 5 May, unfortunately without my wallet. It somehow fell out of my carry-on bag onto the floor under the seat in front of me on the first of two flights from Boston to Lisbon.
In the end, the airline folks found the wallet on the plane in the Azores and sent it on the next flight to Lisbon, but it meant I had to wait in the Lisbon airport for hours. My skill for finding nooks and enclaves in international airports has been honed with magnet-like precision. Camping out between the escalator divider and the back of the airport pharmacy and Skyping with friends on poached airport WiFi? Not a problem – I was born for this challenge.
It was a disappointment not to have that time to see the city on my own, but I was so relieved to have my credit cards, ID cards, cash etc. It taught me two lessons – to keep track of my things better, and to keep a stash of money, copy of my passport, and a spare credit card in my carry-on, just in case I loose everything else again.
To celebrate the wallet’s return, I treated myself to a nice dinner. With a recommendation from the front desk and an address written down on a scrap of paper, I set out to walk to the restaurant in the dwindling day’s light.
Picture windows in the discrete spot looked out over the city and I took it all in with glasses of beautiful local wines, bacalhau and the restaurant’s specialty crème Brule for dessert. I got in an argument in French with my Portuguese cab driver on the ride back to the hotel. The wine had made me feel boisterous and uninhibited enough to let the French words flow from me. We were sharing a good laugh by the time the rusty compact car rolled up the narrow street in front of the hotel.
I loved Lisbon. It is crazy, winding streets, with small shops and cafes and colorfully tiled buildings that you don’t expect to see around the next corner. It was a little chaotic and covered in graffiti and it felt gritty and real.
Traveling up the coast, I found Porto to have a vibrant party-spot atmosphere. All the big port wine distilleries along the river offer tastings and the sightseeing-slash-tasting boats go up and down the river through the center of the city. Red tiled roofs and whitewashed walls wrap narrow streets lined with balconies and a rainbow of clothes hanging out to dry on each level.
In Spain, I drove through the lush Galician countryside and wandered through the architecture of the narrow streets. Somehow it is all a bit more sterile, orderly and, not boring exactly…but just not as vivacious and unpredictable and unruly as I found Lisbon and Porto.
I visited the terminus of the famous Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) the ancient pilgrimage route that meanders down from the Pyrenees Mountains in France, through Spain, to the massive main square of Santiago de Compostela. The quadrangle, known as the Praza do Obradoiro is flanked by the voluminous cathedral, the old pilgrim’s hospital (now an elegant hotel), and Raxoi’s Palace that’s been turned into the current city hall. Even the police offices just off the square were stunning feats of engineering.
The Camino is reborn these days as a modern country ramble, cum spiritual retreat. The many possible routes ending in the main square are symbolized in the scallop shells’ grooves and scallop shells mark the Way of St. James and appear all around the city on signs pointing to the central square.
The day I was there, the square was teeming with military personnel and rugged 4-wheel drive field ambulances; for lack of a better word to describe the army green Land Rovers operating as mobile hospitals.
It turned out there was an international military race about to finish here at the cathedral and sure enough, as I chatted with some of the soldiers, the Spanish women’s team jogged into the square, in camouflage fatigues, in formation, and wearing huge backpacks that equipped them during the 200km decathlon-style race across the countryside. It was endearing to see the soldiers hugged by their male counterparts and get congratulated with big slaps on the back and ear-to-ear grins from the guys. I jumped in on the action for a photo with the men in uniform.
The stop in Spain was followed by a day at sea and then a quick visit to the Loire Valley of France where I drove alongside the river deep into the verdant countryside peppered with Chateaus and small villages.
An unexpected find, just north of France’s northern shores was the Channel Island of Sark. I found Sark to be charming, rural, green, walkable, and strewn with wildflowers, bobbing in the fresh coastal wind and bright sunlight like flecks of colorful felt caught on the green rolling landscape. Along the dirt roads that I strolled, fluffy white wool from the itchy local sheep was entangled everywhere in the wire twists in the fencing.
Watching a group of French sailors (all men) relax in the evening light out on deck of their 36’ sailboat moored inside the high walls of the harbor, I absorbed with envy the smell of fresh brewed coffee, cognac, and cigar smoke floating around the scarf entwined necks and ratty long haircuts of the crew.
Life doesn’t have to be as complicated as we make it.
My next stop will be the Arctic – where I’ll spend the summer months looking for polar bears, walrus, beluga whales and seabirds.
More to come.