Nearly a week into my Portuguese travels, I am convinced of two things. One, Portugal is a country best enjoyed by car. Two, Portugal is best a country enjoyed.
On my second day in Lisbon, my Couchsurfing hosts and I chased the sunset along the granite coast, driving through increasingly posh, and beautiful, suburbs where tan bodies gleamed in beach coves, green parks and umbrellaed cafes. My hosts, recently relocated Hungarians, had spent a month driving around the country, stopping in at whatever little village or beach enticed them. As we curved down the coastline, in pursuit of their favorite sunset spot, they told that Portugal was best explored by car. Infrequent and/or nonexistant bus service cuts you off from a lot of the country, they told me; cars mean the usual freedom from timetables, but also a better glimpse into Portugal. I stared out the window, at the pinkening sky and grey sheets of cliff, and nodded—I certainly wouldn´t be feasting on that sight if it weren´t for my hosts´car. Of course, traveling solo, renting a car was far out of my budget, but I lamented my inability to see more of the country, to get off the beaten path and into the dying villages the speckle the green countryside.
But as we climbed out of the car and scurried along the rocks just in time to snap photos and sigh at the insane beauty of it all, another thing occured to me: the Portuguese know how to enjoy life. They don´t initially bowl you over with siestas and late-night partying like their neighbor; coming from a night in Seville, Lisbon actually felt a little tame. While the Spanish are a bit more flamboyant in their lust from life, the Portuguese have a subtler, but equally infectious, approach to living it up: they´ve got the beaches. And the pastelerias. And futbol and fado and seafood and port. And all of it´s twinged with this hint of melancholy that really gets under your skin.
The theories converged and cemented today, as I treked off to Obios. The medieval village wasn´t initally on my itinerary, but two Portuguese guys and my hosts assured me it was the most beautiful town in Portugal, that I had to go there. An expensive touristy place to sleep, I booked a hostel in a nearby beachtown, filled with shirtless, sunbleached Austrialian surferboys. As they tossed their towels over their shoulders and headed out a day in the waves, I walked to the bus station. And waited.
The bus ran every two hours and, when it came, made a winding route through narrow streets, stopping at what felt like every crossroad. I got to Obios and, well, was a little underwhelmed. It was pretty, had a castle and cobbled streets and lots of stores selling lace and ginja, cherry liqeuor. I wandered amid the elderly tourists and billowing bougainvillea, half-heartedly snapping photos of the lush rambling countryside and gold-dripping cathedrals. Meh.
I´d been thinking about trying to make it over to another village, only about 30 km away. It sounded even more boring, but was home to a medieval monastery with a gruesome history—gruesome in the way Quentin Tarantino meant when he wrote the line, “I´m gonna get medieval on your ass.” Murals depicted scenes of the monastery´s founder ripping out and eating the hearts of the people who murdered his forbidden beloved, while making memebers of the court kiss her decomposing hand—metal enough to put Lords of Chaos to shame.
But, alas, the bus to Alcobaça only ran once every three hours, and would put me in town only an hour before the monastery closed. I debated: wait around in pretty-but-dull Obios for the bus and try to squeeze in one more sight, or head back to my hostel and do like the Portuguese: hit the beach. I´ll let you guess what won out.
Freshly shaved and bikini-clad, I took my crappy travel towel and joined the fat old men and tattered fishing boats along the gentle coast. The water was cold at first, but soon I was breast-stroking and wave-hopping with the best of em. I´ve been told the Portuguese love their beaches and escape to them at every available opportunity—and now I can see why. Rockless and clear enough that I could see my feet, it felt pretty heavenly. I stretched out in the sand, soaked up some sun, and stopped for an ice-cream cone on my way back.
I may not be making it out to the remote hilltop villages, and I may be spending hours twittling my thumbs at bus stations, but I´m starting to get the hang of this Portuguese living thing. And you know, it´s not so bad.