Although we had been in and out of South Africa many times, especially during the last nine years, leaving this time was different. We were going with no intention of returning, but to build a new life overseas in Portugal.
The trip did not start well; either my nerves or the chicken dinner on the flight from Johannesburg to Dubai gave me the worst stomach cramps I’ve ever had! Fortunately, this cramped discomfort was short-lived and had calmed down by the second leg flight from Dubai to Lisbon.
Travel requirements at this time were still vague. So, added to our three vaccination immunity, we had PCR Covid tests before leaving, with waiting for these results definitely adding to our pre-flight tension!
Our First Stop was Lisbon
Roger, our long-time friend and travel buddy, met us at the airport. Our plan for the first six weeks was two days in Lisbon, two weeks in Sesimbra and a month somewhere else in Portugal. For Roger it was a holiday, whereas for us it was the first stage of our permanent move.
I had battled to find suitable (reasonable price and location) accommodation in Lisbon. As one’s life becomes just one day after another, it’s easy to forget that school and public holidays control many people’s lives! And this was Easter week. In spite of this, we found accommodation at Happily Ever Lisbon. A spacious and comfortable two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment close to the airport and the Telheiras metro line.
Dinner on our first night was our new town arrival fallback: tuna pasta and a glass or two of wine. With an Aldi supermarket a short walk (about 1.3k’s) away, we bought all we needed for dinner and breakfast the following day. As we did our first shop It took me back to the days of our RTW trip! New products, new language, baffling labels and another "out of my comfort zone" experience.
In the morning, we walked to the nearby metro station and took the train into Lisbon. We emerged from the underground into streets thronging with tourists. Immediately noticing that this was the meeting place for at least four or five different street walking tours. As we are ardent fans of these it was something to remember for our next visit.
Instead, Roger, our tour guide for the day, had decided that we’d do a city bus tour with the Yellow Bus company - Modern tour.
It was an absorbing, eye-opening introduction to living to Portugal. Immediately noticeable was the stark, side-by-side contrast of run-down ruins, immaculate historic buildings and bright modern structures. At this early stage of our visit, we were unaware that this is the face of many Portuguese towns and cities.
Around lunchtime we enjoyed a pleasant walk down the promenade and stopped for a coffee and our first pasteis de nata in Portugal. Both were delicious and welcoming.
The bus tour included a free tram ride. So at the conclusion, led on by Roger, we climbed onto a tram, but this was the wrong one. Instead of returning to the start, we ended up at the end of this tram line somewhere in Lisbon! We had been here before with Roger as a guide! So unphazed, we consulted our trusty Google Maps, which directed us on a shortish walk to the Rato metro. From here with only station change we were home.
Travel tip: Access to Google maps is a crucial reason to have an internet connection in a new or strange country.
My Initial Impressions of Portugal
Over our years of travel, I have learned to go to new places with anticipation rather than expectation. This way, I’m never disappointed.
Lisbon is a mix of the old and the new, the modern and the ancient. The vibrant new and the crumbling old. From our short stay, we got the impression that the suburbs are very liveable and the few encounters we had with locals were highly positive.
My lasting memory of Lisbon will be the kilometre after kilometre of cobbled, inlaid patterned pavements. With these pavements complemented by the multi-coloured and patterned tiled walls. Leaving me in awe of the many, painstaking man-hours that would have gone into these creations.
From Lisbon, we took an Uber to Sesimbra. We had a pile of luggage and could not face heaving this on and off buses and trains.
Sesimbra is a seaside town about 40 kilometres south of Lisbon. Fronted by a sand beach, the town stretches along the bay for about two kilometres. At the centre is the old town with steep hills and narrow cobbled streets. In complete contrast this quaint centre is flanked by garish, unattractive concrete apartments and hotel blocks.
Like in Lisbon, there is a stark difference between the pristine, renovated, remodelled units and the next door, run-down decaying ruins.
Here we experienced the European meaning of ‘small accommodation’. With the old town filled with these tiny apartments - our two-bedroomed plus sitting area, kitchen and bathroom unit was all of 40M2! Despite being crowded and having to hang our washing outside, it was delightful.
In these areas property prices are relatively high and, I suspect, often hopeful.
Things we Did and Tried.
We took the steep walk up to the Castle overlooking the town. Daily we ran or walked along the promenade and out over the breakwater. On another day we took a short hike up the mountain towards Setúbal.
When we first walked along the promenade, I saw that every waterfront menu advertised "Choco e Batatas Fritas". Intrigued by what the "choco" was like I had to try it. I now know that choco is cuttlefish. The serving looked appetising but after chewing my way through a plateful concluded that it is like a tough calamari. For me, certainly not worth the inflated promenade price! And, on second thought, not worth any price!
Our daily coffee shop visits featured the deliciously addictive coffee and one of the many pastry delights.
Travel tip: The beachfront restaurants (like most towns around the world) are not worth the location view premium. Step a few blocks away and you will find the real value for money.
The one noticeable feature of Sesimbra is the screeching gulls. Active through the day and night shattering the lazy seaside town tranquillity. Their cries reminded me of the incessant cockerels in the Philippines or the raucous Hadeda ibises in South Africa.
We did a few trips to Setúbal which is the largest city in the area. We made our first trip the day after arriving with one primary aim - to get our internet connections working (remember my Travel Tip).
Taking the regular bus from Sesimbra the first village you pass is Santana, followed by several more small villages on the way. Sections of the road on the route are only a few millimetres wider than the bus. With buses travelling in both directions, this develops into some hairsbreadth moments as the drivers deftly manoeuvre their buses past each other.
Our Vodafone destination at the Alegro Mall was a few kilometres walk from the final bus stop at the Centro Hospital. In wandering about in the area we found another typical city. Again characterised by a mixture of well-maintained and attractive buildings interspersed with neglected derelict structures and old factorries.
The highlight of our sightseeing was the Mercado do Livramento. It is a fresh produce and fish market situated in a stunning building. Rows and rows of stalls selling every kind of fish you can think of (and more!). Colourful vegetables and fruit, nuts, cheese, bread and pastries, with the wine and spirits, create a sensory overload.
Flanked by coffee shops, the shopping experience here is unique.
The Wine Town of Azeitāo
Another worthwhile day trip is to Azeitão. It is well-situated, 30 minutes from Lisbon and 20 minutes from the beach and borders the Parque Natural da Arrabida.
True to form, it is a mixture of quaint charming old town flanked by new apartments and townhouse complexes.
Here we spent a few hours at Bacalhôa Wine Estate, where for EUR9 per person, we visited the Palacio da Bacalhôa finishing off with an enjoyable wine tasting session.
My impression was that it is a appealing town. But from the few estate agents we saw, property here is not cheap, its premium property prices typical of many wine towns worldwide.
My Observations after Two Weeks Living in Portugal