I live for the big “Wow”.  Every time I jump on a train, plane or bus heading to a new country I want to be knocked off my feet by something I have never seen before.  Something that moves me emotionally.  A waterfall, a painting, a cathedral… something… anything…  I’m not picky… just WOW me please.

So Portugal… I can’t say that any single thing in Portugal that Wow-ed me.  Instead, it was the entire country that blew me away.  And it was totally unexpected.  Yeah, I had heard that Portugal was cool, but travelers says that about a lot of different countries.  For me, my journey to Portugal was an add-on.  An afterthought.  I planned a trip to Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Spain and Italy, but I was long on the total number of days I had scheduled for the trip.  I had some extra time.  So… why not Portugal?  It was an easy plane flight from Fez, my last stop in Morocco.  I figured ten days should do it.  I booked myself a handful of Pensions (B&B’s).  I figured I could probably jump from city to city using trains and buses, so I didn’t bother with airline reservations.  I was right.  Portugal has a great rail system with high speed trains connecting the major cities.  My journey through Portugal took me to four cities; Lisbon, Cascais, Coimbra and Porto.

In Lisbon I stayed at Largo da Sé Guest House, a modern pension with a great location, descent breakfast, nice furnishings, good wifi and a helpful staff.  I also liked the comfortable reading room just off the main entrance.  Lisbon is built on seven hills, like Rome.  It reminded me of San Francisco, but with more hills that block the visitor from seeing the entire city in one shot.  Instead, different neighborhoods are revealed as you travel through the city across each of the hills.  The enormous central square is ringed with majestic early 19th-20th century buildings and outdoor restaurants covered with square, white umbrellas.  Located on the edge of the city down by the river’s edge are multiple excellent museums.  The city features a “Golden Gate” style bridge that stretches across the Tagus river and 16th century castle fortresses built to protect the city from foreign invaders.  It was in Lisbon that I first heard Fado, a passionate Portuguese music invented by male university students wanting to get laid by the young women in town.  What Flamenco is to dance, Fado is to music.  I love Fado.  I love Lisbon.  You can see Lisbon in three days, but I would suggest five days if possible.  There is plenty to see and the food is great.

Cascais was a day trip for me.  When you buy a hop-on, hop-off bus ticket for multiple days, they throw in a half day trip to Cascais, which is about 45 minutes up the coast from Lisbon.  It’s well worth the visit.  It reminded me a little of Monte Carlo or Carmel; a place where the rich hang out.  Lots of boutique shops and restaurants. There are some really cool houses dotting the coastline with breathtaking ocean views.  There are plenty of hotels in Cascais, but I felt like the bus tour was enough to see the city.

In Coimbra I stayed at the Residencial Moeda, a pension in the old town at the base of the hill on which the university was built.  Location was good.  The room was okay in size, but filled with too much furniture.  Breakfast was mediocre.  No wifi (Boo. Hiss.) Even though it had a few negatives, the price was great.  All in all, a good value.  The highlight of the city is defiantly the University of Coimbra.  Built on top of a steep hill, the university has stunning views of the city and surrounding countryside.  The architecture of the old library and clock tower is impressive.  Don’t miss the Museum of Fado and make sure you take in a performance.  Book early in the day as they usually sell out the evening performances. Lace your shoes tight and wear double socks.  You are going to be walking a lot if you go to Coimbra.  It’s worth the blisters.  Coimbra can be seen in one long day and an evening, so bookcase your stay with a two night stay over.

My final and best stop was Porto in the northern end of Portugal.  I stayed at Álvares Cabral Guest House. A bit off the beaten track, but within walking distance of the main square it’s a nice pension in a historic building with a good breakfast and very helpful owners that like to share their leftover bottles of port (the really good stuff) and visit with foreigners during the early afternoon and evening.  It has good wifi, except for the bottom floor suite.  Like Lisbon, Porto is built on multiple hills with a large river snaking its way through the city.  New and old bridges connect the shores of the river and cross deep ravines.  Like Lisbon, Porto has a picturesque central square lined with majestic 19th century buildings and outdoor, umbrella-covered restaurants.  Porto is the birthplace of Port wine. The city has over a dozen winery tours all of which feature tastings of both red and white port.  I drank a lot of port.  Yum!  Sandman winery has a nice tour and tasting.  (BTW, Portugal’s wine industry has really stepped up their game when it comes to non-port wines.  I had some tasty red and white wines that could hold their own against other high quality european wines and I have become a big fan of everyday Portuguese table wine.)  Porto is also the birthplace of Harry Potter.  Okay, maybe not the birthplace, but R.K. Rowling lived in Porto for ten years.  It is rumored that Lello & Irmão Bookstore with its neo-gothic façade and featuring a winding double staircase inspired Rowling’s description of the Hogwart’s library.  For years, Rowlings drank her morning coffee on the second floor balcony while browsing through the bookstore’s offerings.   You can visit Porto in three to five days or… you can stay a lifetime. It is a magical city that will not let you go.

Portugal was such a surprise. It’s like Spain, but about twenty to thirty percent cheaper so you can stay longer for the same price.  The food and wine great. The music is awesome. The Portuguese are laid-back and happy to see you spend your money in their country.  Put it on your travel list.    Right now.  Put it on your list… in ink!