60 under 30 #5: Portugal

Off the beaten path.

It doesn’t mean necessarily to go where no one has gone before – not everyone can be Captain Kirk – but to go where most people don’t. Sometimes it means going where the locals are and sometimes it just means skipping the tourist attractions in search of something a bit more authentic.

If you key in the word “travel” on Google you will end up with an endless result of “Top 50 beaches to visit” or “Can’t miss sites to visit in Berlin” and more city and country guides then you could imagine. These guides inevitably feed into the open top bus driven, audio guided, fanny pack wearing tourism industry that generates an absolutely whopping 9.8% of the world’s GDP which equates to roughly 1 in 11 jobs worldwide.

Going off the beaten path is, by its very definition, among the minority. While 9.3 million people are lining up for the Louvre annually, there are a small percentage of travellers out there who are intent on finding something more. As you can imagine, as previously unexplored areas get discovered, slowly but surely the tourists move in. Many travellers will tell you that In many cases this has proven that to go off the beaten path is something that has to be earned, it is no longer as simple as walking a few miles down the beach to the lesser inhabited stretches. If it is that easy, you can assume it has been done before.

But what if it that isn’t necessarily true? What if it was possible to explore the same areas as the tourists but find hidden gems among the signs advertising “authentic” local cuisine and expensive day trips. Every city has locals that have their favourite restaurants, bars and ways to spend their days not at work. I grew up fifteen minutes from Niagara Falls, one of the biggest tourist attractions in Canada, and I can tell you I was not spending my weekends eating at T.G.I.Friday’s on Clifton Hill.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the best way to find out where the local hotspots are is from a local. What does take some creativity is figuring out how to find a local that can show you. Enter these guys. We Hate Tourism Tours are an outfit of locals in Lisbon founded on the very idea of an off the beaten path experience. They offer a variety of tours ranging from having one of their guides actually cook you an authentic Portuguese lunch in their home to customized tours of Lisbon and the surrounding area catered to suit.

The first time I visited Lisbon a year ago, I missed out on getting to check out the world famous surf of the Atlantic coast so this time around I was determined to test out my skills on the waves. The tour we (we being myself and two friends from back home Chloe and Marty) decided to check out after Marty found the company online was the Lisbon Surf Experience. We liked what we read about the philosophy of the company and after a few e-mails back and forth we were all booked.

The tour met early in Rossio Square in the heart of Lisbon, and having done several organized tours previously I was pleasantly surprised to find that out tour group would consist of only ourselves and two others plus our guide. Pedro, a local from across the bay in Caparica where our tour would be headed turned up and immediately we knew we were in for a good day.  Piling into the van, the obvious culture of the company became evident. The back ofthe driver’s seat had printed on it “The driver sucks but this van is cool”. Right from the get go we got a sense that not only was the company true to it’s idea but it was easy to tell that Pedro truly enjoyed showing us his city.

“The driver sucks but this van is cool”

Most surf lessons out of Lisbon take you north of the city to Cascais, a well known tourist area and full of surf schools. Our day however was to begin to the south of Lisbon just outside the beach town of Caparica. Anyone who has visited the Iberian peninsula can attest to the fact that the locals are not typically early risers. This was made abundantly clear as we rolled up in our van to the beach around 9:00 to find it completely deserted with the exception of the locals running the surf school we would be participating in. Our experience was all the more authentic as our lesson was occasionally required to be translated from Portuguese to English by Pedro if our instructors words and charades-esque demonstrations didn’t quite get the point across.

In no time at all we were in the salty Atlantic getting battered by the ocean as we learned the hard way what a breaking wave does to an unattended surfboard. Eventually we pushed past the break and out into the swells where we were afforded a break from the struggling and allowed to relax for a short while. Now the true test came. The three-step motion from flat on your stomach to standing and riding a wave seemed so easy on land, yet somehow when you are attempting the same feat on a crashing wave one’s brain has a tendency to revert into state akin to a deer in the headlights. After a few attempts each, all three of us managed to ride at least one not-so-spectacular wave nearly all the way in without falling off. Considering this a success, the time called for a cold beer.

Our “we caught at least one wave” surfer pose

It was at this point that the true benefit of a tour such as ours was made abundantly clear. Pedro had taken the time to get to know us a bit and instead of a set itinerary, he was able to suggest a few options for the afternoon. Perhaps it was the vast amount of salt water we had ingested, but food was very much a priority. It was decided that we would venture back into the town of Caparica to dine at a local favourite called A Merendeira. The restaurant serves up a delightful special of stone over baked bread filled with chorizo alongside a local soup of the name Caldo Verde. I can’t say I’ve ever had a Portuguese meal that I didn’t like but this one was especially delicious.

The afternoon consisted of a drive down the beach road to a small fisherman’s village where we explored the small side streets that zigzagged in among the houses and enjoyed a glass of the famous Portuguese “vinho verde” graciously provided by our guide as we lounged on a beach on the edge of town. With the exception of a few locals, we had the beach almost entirely to ourselves. Here we were on one of the nicest beaches we had ever set foot on, with not another tourist in sight. In those moments, it is impossible to feel anything but relaxed and I must say I had one of the most serene naps of my life. 

The last stop of the day was a personal favourite. No matter where I visit I feel the need to find a high point to get a proper view of the area I am exploring. Pedro did not disappoint as our van turned a corner and suddenly we were on top of the world. Here we were, truly off the beaten path as we had a view that most tourists would kill for, all to ourselves. After a half hour to revel in the beautiful sight before us and reflect on what a great day was had experiencing the area as only a local could, we loaded back up into the van one last time and headed back to Lisbon. Along the way Pedro provided numerous recommendations for places to eat, bars to visit and lesser known sights to see. Although I ran out of time on this visit, I made sure to note each one, knowing I would be back to check them out. 

Panoramic view of Caparica from the last stop of the tour

Portugal is a country that I have fallen in love with, and I would recommend a visit to any person travelling through Europe. The people are some of the friendliest in the world, the food is to die for and from the beaches of the Algarve, to the surf of the Atlantic coast and all the way up to the wine country surrounding Porto, there is something for anyone and everyone. But once you’ve tried a pasteis de nata, sipped a bit of port wine and danced the night away in Bairro Alto, put down the guide book and take a step off the beaten path.

You won’t be disappointed.

From Portugal to Spain, days 3, 4 and 5 in Lisbon/Madrid

“Make for yourself a life you don’t need a vacation from.”

I recently stumbled upon an article online that discussed this very sentence. I don’t think I could put into words a better way to describe what I want out of life. The past few days have merely reinforced this. The article looked at how our society, especially North America, appears to have our priorities out of line. The example it used was a short story about a business man who stumbles across a man in a fishing village while on vacation. The fisherman catches enough fish early each day to support his family, and spends the rest of the day with his children playing and spending time with his wife. The business man asks the man why he did not spend more time fishing so he could make more money. He goes on about a business plan about how the fisherman could expand his business and become rich. At the end of the story, the businessman finishes by saying once the fisherman had built up his empire he could spend every day relaxing with his wife and kids in a small village somewhere without any worries. The fisherman then replies, “that’s already what I’m doing, I don’t need a fortune for it.” That’s really the kicker, isn’t it. We get fed this idea that if we suck it up and be unhappy, it will eventually pay off when we have enough money to be happy.

The article went on to discuss how happiness in your life can come from different parts, such as doing what you love to do instead of settling for something safe, surrounding yourself with the people who make you a better person and leaving those who drag you down behind. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to sell the idea that we can all just bugger off and live on a beach for the rest of our lives. But there is certainly more to life than the 9-5 office job cycle that so many of us get stuck in. I spent 4 years and upwards of $100 000 to get my engineering degree because it was what I truly wanted to do. I worked hard, and found joy in it despite the difficulty because it made me happy to be doing it. I surrounded myself with people I truly loved being around and now have hundreds of memories to show for it. What this made me realize is that despite being scant broke, completing a degree that at some points was actual rocket science, I still managed to find joy in it. Why the fuck can’t I do that for the rest of my life too.

On the scale of my life, this trip is likely just a footnote, a box full of pictures that I will look back on in 20 years and remember travelling though beautiful cities with my friends. But the joy I find in wandering through a new city, meeting people from other countries and my own and not having a care in the world is not something easily forgotten.

Right, the trip. The reason I actually write here. My last post left off back in Lisbon on my birthday before a night out in the city. We had a bit of a messy night out with an Aussie and a Brit, and then spent my actual birthday on the beach outside of Lisbon. Let’s just say I’ve had worse birthdays. That night we went to an authentic Portuguese restaurant off the beaten path that Shawyan’s parents had stumbled upon in the city a few weeks earlier when they were in the city. A delicious meal of sea bass, salmon and chorizo was followed by a night out in Bairro Alto, a section of town where the bars are small and the party literally pours out into the streets. After a few pints we headed back to prepare for our flight to Madrid the next day. We flew out late in the day on Tuesday and arrived at our hostel in Madrid around 7 p.m. after doing battle with the city’s expansive Metro. After a quick nap and dinner we met up in the common room of our hostel for the nightly pub crawl. Although quite touristy, these pub crawls tend to be an excellent way to meet people. As is typical in Spain, the night lasted early into the morning, dancing and drinking away until I eventually found myself wandering the streets of Madrid and getting quite lost. I must say, if sitting on the steps of a beautiful cathedral, in a beautiful city with a beautiful Australian girl chatting about life, travelling and living abroad until the sun comes up isn’t happiness, I don’t know what is.

Our second day in Madrid began slowly, as you might imagine going to sleep at 7 a.m. leads to a less than productive morning. Shawyan, Stephen and I spent the afternoon strolling through the city, stopping a bars here or there to have a bite to eat or drink a pint. It was a wonderfully relaxing day, eventually returning to have a siesta before our last night. Not wanting to be a third wheel on Shawyan and Stephen’s wonderfully romantic night together involving a stroll through the park and tapas at a local bar, I went out for tapas and drinks with the aforementioned Australian girl, her friend and a guy from Peru that we had also met the night before. Yet another night spent exploring the city, bar hopping and general meandering about later and our time in Madrid was over. As I write this I am sitting in a hostel bar in Barcelona at a table that just over 15 months ago I was sitting at with Jonny, Chris and Alex enjoying a drink. Barcelona, I missed you.