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.

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“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.

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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. 

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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.

An Open Letter to Friends Made Abroad

It’s been said that airports see more tearful goodbyes and joyous reunions than anywhere else in the world. All over the Internet, videos of airport proposals, soldiers returning from combat tours and pictures of flowers, handmade signs and embraces can be found, showing the happiness of greeting a friend or loved one from a time away. 

Leaving, however, is a different story. Saying goodbye is never an easy thing to do, and travellers know this to be true more than anyone. We’ve all been there, leaving for the airport, luggage in hand and a sorrowful goodbye imminent. Hugs from hometown friends after another all too short visit, with a quick “See you at Christmas” that seems all too far away. Saying goodbye to friends and family that have been a part of your life for years and decades is enough to make even the most stoic among us feel that all too familiar lump in the throat as you round through Airport security and out of sight. As emotional as these moments can be, they are understandable. Leaving behind those that are closest to you to jet set off on another adventure is expected to be emotional. 

As the world has become increasingly traveller-friendly, with solo backpackers filling the many hostels scattered throughout any given city during all times of the year, and with increasingly flexible airfare, trains and car share services, travel has not only become about exploring the world, but meeting people from all over along the way. Hostels have changed dramatically from the barren youth hostels of our parent’s generation. What used to be a bed and a locker to store your valuables has been transformed into a lifestyle akin to living in a university dorm. Spacious common areas, organized events and so-called family dinners have completely revolutionized the social interactions of young people abroad. 

It is not uncommon to walk into a hostel common area and see people who met just mere hours or days before chatting, laughing and story-telling as if they have been friends for a lifetime. A funny thing happens to people when they are exposed to this environment; they become humans again. In a world where it has become increasingly difficult to meet people without the use of social media apps and the like, backpacking through hostels has become a refreshingly pleasant way to make new friends. 

I wrote in a previous article about how the joy in travelling is often found in the impact meeting people from around the world has on one’s own life. Time and time again I have found myself looking back over my shoulder after a goodbye with a new friend in a hostel, an airport or a train station, feeling like I’ve left a little part of myself behind, even after a few short days together. In constrast, these goodbyes should not yield the emotional response that the family goodbyes do, yet each time they still impact me more than I expect. 

When you travel, these little pieces get scattered along the way, mixed together with the contributions of others to leave a trail of shared experiences and adventures. Some contributions may fade faster than others, and to some your memory may have just been a footnote part of a larger chapter. For some, you will be part of their book, woven in and out of stories spanning across from beginning to end. Without all of these pieces, the story being told would never be as vibrant, full or quite as worth the read.

These memories, no matter how long or short they may be, leave a permanent ink on the page. A goodbye to a new friend, often with plans to meet up at another time in another country still can be a tough pill to swallow. When I think back to the memories from my own story, the museums, walking tours and church visits have often already begun to fade from memory short of the brief notes made in my journal. The people, however, remain as clear as the day I met them. When someone is engrained in a memory that made you feel something, that is when they have become a part of you. 

Certain parts of the world will always have their sites to see, and travellers will be drawn to them. London has Big Ben, Paris has the Louvre, Sydney has the harbour bridge and my hometown has Niagara Falls. These sites and experiences will always make up the framework of the story. They are the crib notes, the outline that starts the process. The colour, the emotion and the feeling that makes the story worth reading and worth telling lies within the part of the book that can’t be taken from a travel guide. 

Those parts of the story are written while dancing the night away in the nightlife of Portugal with a dozen people you met just that morning. It is written in the hole-in-the-wall Czech restaurant where you had the best meal of your life with two new Aussie mates you made when you offered them a beer in the hostel and it is written on a hostel rooftop in Milan where you turned up with a bottle of wine and a deck of cards and left with a lifelong friend.

We as travellers share a common goal. To write the best story possible, that will be cherished, re-read and forever remembered. Even the worst pitfalls of missed flights, broken phones and lost passports will eventually fade into memory as the moments that took hold of our hearts remain engrained on the page. The goodbyes will always be bittersweet and reunions as they come will be eagerly anticipated. As my own story continues to be written, to my friends near and far, old and new, that have helped to fill my pages with memories that can never be replicated I say thank you. 

Wherever we end up in our adventures, there will always be a spot on the couch for that quick stop in town, a cold beer in the fridge ready to be cheers’d and a new story to be written along the way. Whether I was a footnote, a page or a chapter in your story, thank you for being a part of mine.