Dave and Cathy's Family Blog

August 31, 2018

A Magical Trip to Portugal and Spain

Filed under: 2018 Portugal & Spain — dave9169 @ 6:16 pm

The Plan

All trips begin with an idea or catalyst of some sort. For me, it is my old high school friend Derek. I have not seen him in years — 9 to be exact. The last time I saw him was in Sweden where he was trying to adjust to the life of an expat living abroad with his family. This time, Derek is alone in Spain, a country I visited twice in my twenties. He is there to do his penance, as he likes to call it, living the life of an artist, painting, sculpting, and going through his own personal process of recovering and reclaiming his identity. There is more to it than this, but that is his story to tell.     

Derek tells me he has this beautiful 4-bedroom apartment he is renting from one of his art patrons and that it would be nice to see me again. It would be great to see you to, you say to him on a video chat and with that I begin figuring out how to make it happen — when to take the time off work, what AirBnB to stay in, how many days to go for, what else to see. I decide on a trip that will take me to Portugal and conclude in Spain with a week+ stay with Derek in León. I am hoping to also see another expat in Lisbon, Juan, one of my cousin’s best friends and someone I met at my cousin’s wedding 3 years ago in South Beach. Juan has been living in Lisbon for around three years making a living as a language coach. He is excited to hear about my plans, and hopes he will be in town when I come through so that he can show me around. There is an energy to this planning process and I am already getting the sense that this trip is going to be magical.

First Stop, Madrid

My flight out of Los Angeles is delayed by six hours which means I won’t be arriving in Madrid at 2:40 as planned. I am a little worried that the new arrival time of 8:40 means I may not get to meet with my brother inlaw’s brother, Sergio, who agreed to meet me in Madrid for some drinks and a bite to eat during my one-night stop over before heading to Lisbon, Portugal on my own the following morning. Luckily, the new arrival time actually ends up working better for Sergio and I am pleasantly surprised when I check into the hotel and then hear Sergio’s familiar voice behind me as he arrives just a minute or two after I do. It was a long 12 hour flight, but seeing Sergio, I quickly forget about the annoying flight delay and the fact that I have to wake up early to catch another plane in the morning. I am reenergized by his presence so I check in quickly and we are both out the door by 9:00 PM to find a tapas bar where I can hear his story.

Sergio, has only been in Spain for about 2-3 months. His wife is Spanish, he is Chilean. The two of them decided to move to Spain so that they could have a better quality of life. What this means in practice is 5-6 weeks of vacation time per year, free healthcare, and a university education that is practically free as well. His wife’s parents also live here which means that from time to time they can rely on them to look after their baby daughter. It’s only been a few months, but Sergio confesses that it’s been great so far and he finds the Spanish people super friendly and inviting. I agree as so far the few people I have encountered in Spain — taxi driver, hotel concierge, and the lady who keeps bringing me drinks and tapas and agrees to take our picture to commemorate the occasion — have all treated me with a warmth that makes me feel right at home in this foreign land.

I only get to spend a few hours with Sergio, but our conversation is good, and I feel like I’ve gotten to know him even better than when I met him at my brother inlaw’s house many years ago. I also realize how wonderful it is to be greeted by a friend when you first arrive in a new country. There is magic in that experience and not feeling alone. I give Sergio a big hug, wish him well, and thank him for his kindness.

Onto Lisbon

It turns out my friend Juan will not be in Lisbon after all because of a coaching gig in Poland. I’m a little bummed but okay and prepared for the news because he let me know early on that him being in town would be a “game day” decision. I also don’t feel abandoned because Juan still sends me online messages to let me know what to see, do, and eat. He is like my virtual travel partner guiding me to the right areas to visit and making me feel at ease about being on my own.

And the fact is, I am not alone for long. In the airport, I start talking to the woman in line next to me. Her name is Melissa. She is from Indiana, but has been living in Madrid for the last 5 years, and before that it was Germany. She is on possibly her 10th trip to Lisbon because she loves it there so much. She begins to tell me all about it and the two of us agree to have lunch there after we both check in to our respective AirBnBs. 

Melissa is cool. I meet her close to Time Out Market and walk over there to see if maybe we can do lunch there in this huge hangar like place with dozens of walk up counters offering all kinds of seafood – cod, sardines, oysters, octopus, squid – and drink. It’s an amazing place, but the crowd and noise get to us and we both agree we’d like a nice quiet place where we can hear each other. Melissa says she usually just uses her intuition to find a good place to eat, but this time she is using her app to help us find a restaurant she believes looks very promising. Cool, my first quest. On our way to the restaurant we talk about things to see, why she likes Portugal so much, and her plans to meet up with a friend and spend a week at the beautiful beaches up north. We seem to be walking for a much longer time than I thought we would be and we are both really hungry. This is why I don’t normally look for places confesses Melissa as she realizes we’ve both been walking almost 30 minutes, but her app shows we are close, which motivates us to keep going. The place we are looking for offers a fixed menu with an appetizer, drinks, main entree and dessert. We manage to find the place only to discover the “fixed menu” is no longer being served. We peruse the a la carte items and aren’t that impressed so we leave and use the intuition method which leads us to a place just few yards away.

Luckily, the new place offers the fixed menu, and the food ends up being decent family style fare that we devour with generous helpings of wine and bread. For the remaining few hours after that, we meander through the city, Melissa takes a picture of me by the steep street with the yellow trolly car, we enjoy a couple of drinks at the Praca do Comercio, and I learn about Melissa’s desire to live in Lisbon one day. I tell her about my friend Juan, the language coach. She says she can totally imagine herself doing that so after we say our good byes, I connect her with Juan and hope that somehow this plays a small part in helping this new friend find her own magic by realizing her dream. 

Sintra, Caiscais and Bairro Alto

On my second day in Portugal, I book a trip to Sintra/Cascais with Lisbon Riders. It is an all day event with an 8:30 AM meet up time. In front of the Armani outlet store, I first meet Jaqueline from South Africa, and later my tour guide, Rita, and the others who will join me on this adventure – a Chinese family from Vancouver, and a mom and her teenage daughter from Chicago. This will be my crew for the next 8 hours as we make our way out of Lisbon and onto Sintra, a national park that houses the royal Pena palace, which will be one of the main sites we explore. 

Rita is great. She’s in her early 30s and now doing the tour guide things pretty much full time. She used to have a desk job but now can’t imagine going back to that life. She gives us the the historical facts regarding the construction of the palace which was completed in the 19th century. The architecture is a mix of at least 5 different styles including Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic and Neo-Renaissance and was completed during the Romantic period. The Romanticism is also reflected in the park which is mean to look natural, but only through carefully cultivating it by hand to look that way. Her English is also really good, and I enjoy the interesting way in which almost every other sentence is finished with an “okay,” a characteristic I also observed from my AirBnB host, Ricardo. It’s just their friendly way of making sure we are following the story, okay? 😉 

And like all really good tour guides, Rita is quick to bond with people and make them feel at ease. Within an hour or two all of us are joking around with each other like old friends. I find out the 86-year old Chinese grandma is quite a character. She tells me about her life. How she was a dressmaker for many years, working 10+ hour days. She says she still works part time today and does many things around her house, has many friends and is still strong. She puts her hand out to show me that even at this age her hands are steady and do not shake. She has four sons and many grandchildren. I ask her what the name of her shy teenage grand daughter is and she can’t quite remember it so she goes up to her and says “hey you, what is your name?” and begins to laugh. What a great spirit she has and I hope that if I get to be her same age, I am also the same way.

After the palace visit, Rita takes us to a small town next to the old royal palace. The highlights here are getting two of the most famous pastries in Portugal at Piriquitas bakery. The pastries are call the queijoda and travesseiros and they are delicious with coffee or tea. We also use this time to have lunch and try out another staple in Portugal, the bifana meat sandwich, which we order along with the Chinese family and Jaqueline. 

The next stop on the tour takes us to a parking lot that leads to a beautiful fishing village perched upon a precipice with a dramatic backdrop of strong ocean waves and cavernous cliffs that seem to line up along this section of the coastline. Here we take our time soaking in the scenery and then I suggest we take a group picture, which ends up coming out great thanks to the teenager’s selfie stick. The teenager also shows us all how to air drop the picture right onto our phones so that we don’t have to use up any data. We all make sure to share the picture with each other and then get back in the van to continue the tour. 

On the way to Cascais we stop at Cabo Da Roca, the western most point of continental Europe, which features the same rocky cliffs and coastline. It is a beautiful but very exposed spot, which we all feel in the form of a cold sea breeze at the cliff’s edge. 

In Cascais, the weather is back to hot again. This little resort town features nice sandy beaches that are super tranquil. In fact, the ocean looks more like a lake here, a dramatic transition as our van leaves the exposed windswept western coast and proceeds to the protected southern coastline that goes toward the river. Cascais is a nice little town full of restaurants, small shops and places to stay. It also features many beaches full of sunbathers with nothing more on their mind than relaxing and enjoying another day in the water and sun. We take this opportunity to sample a gelato from Santini’s, the perfect treat for this warm and balmy day.

The tour ends right back at the meeting point from where we started, in front of an Armani outlet store. We linger for a while with the others not wanting to say good bye. The grandmother makes the first move by giving Rita a big warm hug, providing a fitting end to the day. Before we leave we ask Rita for advice on where to eat. The first option she suggests is closed so we jump on the metro and make our way back to the Praca do Comercio from where I begin my trek up slope toward the Castelo Sao Jorge, a castle I visited on my first day right after saying good bye to Melissa. The place I am searching for and eventually find is Maria da Mouraria located in a small square not too far from the castle. Here I partake in my third alcoholic beverage of the day. My first two were Ginjinha, a sweet liquor served in a small edible chocolate cup, and port, both specialties of Portugal. For tonight however, I go with the Spanish cousin, sangria, and pair that with fresh dorado (the entire fish) broiled to perfection, potatoes and a salad comprised of lettuce, tomatoes, and a few slivers of red onions in s simple vinaigrette dressing. A perfect way to end the evening.

But when I get back to the AirBnB, I decide I must also go see Bairro Alto. Why not, right? I have nothing else to do and the night is still young at 11:00 PM. Bairro Alto reminds me of Mardi Gras minus the strange costumes. The cobblestone streets are narrow, some of the passageways are deserted, but turn a corner and the scene changes quickly, a mass of humanity, drinking, laughing and occasionally erupting into spontaneous chanting or singing. I feel a little out of place without a drink in my hands here, so I join the locals in a drink, toast my good fortune to be on this trip, and bow out a little early so I can catch the last metro back to my place at 1:00 AM. It’s been a full day. 

Baixa/Chiado, Belem, Alfama and Cacihas

On my last day, I meet the girl with the blue umbrella, the enchanting Elena Bicu. She is a tour guide recommended to me by Juan. I’ve been in touch with her via chat since before the trip and am glad to at last meet her in person and have her take us on a two-hour tour of the historic Baixa/Chiado quarter of Lisbon. She is full of energy and good humor. She is a Romanian who fell in love with Lisbon four years ago and decided to stay. She speaks English, Portuguese, Spanish Romanian, and some French. Elena makes sure we huddle in a circle while she is talking. She says she does not like to talk to empty space. She engages us all and makes us describe ourselves in one word. It is a nice exercise that bonds the group, a couple from Australia, another couple from Germany, a fellow Romanian gal, and myself.

Elena is full of facts about the city and how the city was rebuilt after the devastating 1755 earthquake that destroyed half the city. The earthquake is estimated to have been around 9.0 on the Richter scale, and to have lasted approximately 9 minutes. I have experienced earthquakes in California, but that scale and length is hard to fathom. I can’t imagine anything left standing after something of that magnitude. She tells us the story of how the leaders rebuilt the city, and how masons built much of it using the geometrical shapes, patterns and symbols they are known for. For example, the city lamps are all adorned by the two crows on a ship symbol, something I hadn’t noticed until she pointed it out. Through Elena I learn the people and places behind the city as well as the when, why and how.   

She concludes the tour with an awesome quote by Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, which goes like this:

Life is what we make of it. Travel is the traveler. What we see is not what we see, but who we are.

After the tour is over, Elena says she is grabbing lunch and lets us know we are all welcome to join her. A few of us take her up on the offer, and get the delightful treat of spending more time with a truly superb host and someone I think we will all remember for years to come. And if you are ever in Portugal, make sure to look Elena up as she has her own tour company called Elena Bicu Travels which you can access via Facebook.

After the tour, I get on a train to Belem where I am on another quest to see the Jerónimos Monastery and also sample the famous pastel de Belem, a pastry you can only get here by standing in a really long line. The good news is the line moves fast and the pastries are delicious. In addition to the Monastery, Belem is also home to a huge aquarium, Berrardo museum, a large tower that you can climb to get a panoramic view of the city, and all the boats on the river passing under Portugal’s own Golden Gate bridge.

Since time is short, I don’t spend too much time in Belem so that I can make it back to Lisbon and take a ferry to Cacihas, the little town people go to so that they can then take a bus to the Cristo statue on top of the mountain across the bay. The purpose of my ferry ride is not to get to the statue however. It’s just to get a view of the city from the water and also see the statue a little closer in the process. And also to rest a little in the process since it’s been a pretty active day already and dusk is approaching just in time for a quick jaunt to the famous Fado district of Alfama.

Alfama is a romantic place at dusk. Super narrow streets with lots of little places you can sit down in and listen to Fado, what I like to call the Portuguese version of Flamenco, typically these slow, melancholy songs with passionate vocals full of emotion and longing. Sometimes the powerful delivery of the vocals can be a little too much, but on my way back to my AirBnB my Uber driver tells me that the younger generation is doing some nice things with Fado, including integrating softer and subtler vocals into their songs. I didn’t get to hear much of that, but based on our conversation, it sounds like Fado is evolving with the times and is definitely a musical art form that continues to thrive in modern day Portugal. It is also makes a great goodbye soundtrack before leaving such a beautiful place.

A Reunion With Derek

Now I’m going to shift gears a bit and change into the past tense because while telling a story in the present tense can be fun, it can also lead to much longer exposition and if I continue at this rate, I’ll never finish this blog post ;). As I mentioned at the beginning of this story, Derek was the impetus for this trip. The two of us have known each other since high school. To give a little more context, the two of us probably spent hundreds of hours together in our teens surfing, chasing girls, watching movies, and philosophizing on the meaning of life. He was also the best man at my wedding and over the years we’ve accumulated enough dirt on each other to annihilate our personal reputations tenfold ;).

For one reason or another however, perhaps because he lives so far away, we had not physically seen each other in 9 years. That all changed in León, Spain. From the moment Derek picked me up at the train station, we were inseparable. Among the things we did together on this bromance adventure were the following:

  • Cooking — Derek made an Italian pasta meal while I made a Chilean Cazuela
  • Shopping — both grocery shopping and shopping for clothes at Zara’s 
  • Drinking — beer, wine, margaritas, Ron De Jeremy rum
  • Watching movies — Sideways, Midnight in Paris, and all 3 Hangover movies leading to us reciting lots of lines from Mr. Chow, including “Toodle loo Mfers,” “But did you die?” and “Read a book or something.”
  • Bar hopping
  • Dancing with the natives 😉
  • Walking in the park
  • Sightseeing various museums and cathedrals, including the famous Pulchra Leonina gothic Cathedral. We giggled like school boys when one of the tour guides told us we were standing in the Tower of the Cock (some things never change)
  • Snapped hundreds of pictures
  • Made new friends
  • Laughed our asses off
  • Discussed the deep as well as the baser (but perhaps more fun) topics of life
  • Created art — painting and poetry

Imagine completely checking out for a week and not worrying about work or family — just living completely in the present and enjoying the spontaneity of life as it comes your way. Good food, hard belly aching laughs, and getting a chance to do whatever the F you want. That was our time in León. In one of our deeper conversations, Derek mentioned that if you can answer yes to two questions before you die, then you’ve lived a good life or your life was worth living (Derek, correct me if I’m wrong here). The questions are: 1) have you experienced joy? and 2) have you given joy to others? Just in the week we spent together, I believe we can both positively say yes to both those questions. 

The city of León is more than 2,000 years old and it is one of the big destinations on the Camino de Santiago, a 500+ mile trip Catholics pilgrims undertake as a holy rite of passage, beginning in France and ending at seaside town of Santiago where pilgrims collect a seashell to show they have made the journey. We saw many of these pilgrims walking through León and when we did it was usually from the vantage point of a comfortable table with a beer in hand we could hold up to toast to them and cheer them on — yeah, we’re really sweet that way ;). León is also deemed a UNESCO world heritage location. It’s truly a beautiful, yet cozy place and we got to know it really well during our time together.

For Derek, my visit also meant that we could go to places and restaurants he had wanted to visit because now he had someone with him who could speak the language and let him know what he was ordering or translate for him on occasion like when we would talk to bar patrons, shopkeepers, restaurant workers or tour guides. Knowing the language in a country can give you a connection with people that you simply can’t have otherwise. And talking to people was something that I was more than happy to do as we South Americans get treated as a bit of a novelty since our Spanish has its own unique accent. It’s like when Americans travel to Britain or vice versa — you automatically become special (in a good way).    

One place I did not have to do any translating was Mongogos, an American, LA style rock/food bar owned by a New York transplant named Mike. This was a place that Derek had walked by dozens of times but had never entered. When I read the specials on the chalkboard menu and realized all the items had a Tex/Mex leaning, including Margaritas, I told Derek we should go in. That led to us eating some great burritos and learning about the owner (Mike), whom we hooked up with the very next night. The short of it is that Mike married a Spanish woman 21 years ago and followed her to Spain where he opened Mongogo’s which is still going strong. Derek actually hit it off really well with Mike, which led him to make a painting for Mike and that got us on the free drink list, including some shots of a very dubious rum I spotted on this back wall called Ron De Jeremy. So from that point forward, Mike’s became our first stop on our nightly outings to the local bar scene. Our average go to bed time during our week together was typically 4:00 AM, although we did take a break from alcohol on two of our days just so we could pace ourselves and last all week — we’re not stupid.

Although the bar scene is open all week, the weekend is still the most happening time as the places get more patrons and people begin dancing to the latin pop rock and American pop they play. Derek and I partook in those dancing festivities with gusto and that is all I will say on the matter. 

Our Artist Retreat

The place Derek was renting is a 4-bedroom apartment tastefully decorated by his friend Rosa. This is where Derek has been doing his art for the last few months before he goes back to Sweden. For me it was cool to be exposed to his process, which I documented in the series of photos above. I was so inspired by it all thatI ended up writing 3 poems during my stay, including one about a magical thing that happens in the public park every evening in León, titled “The Crabs of León.” Here’s my collection of poems from the trip if you’re interested:

Derek also ended up painting a portrait of me, which he had waiting for me in my room when I arrived — that’s one of the benefits of having a friend who is an artist. I am currently in the process of getting it framed so I can hang it somewhere. 

The only drawback of this time together, was that it was very hard to leave. When Derek dropped me off at the train station, it was all I could do to keep it together. And when you feel things that deeply, you know you’ve had a magical trip. 

Thanks for a great time my friend and filling up my joy cup to the brim.

Now what are we doing for our 50th? 😉


  1. AWESOME David, sounds like you had a blast! As we get older, we learn that its the people and the memories we create with them that matter in life (that and our health), not the job, or car or things we accumulate!!!

    Comment by Glen deWolf — September 11, 2018 @ 7:52 pm

  2. So true uncle Glen. Glad you enjoyed the post!

    Comment by dave9169 — September 11, 2018 @ 8:35 pm

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