Portugal: The Country Next to Spain
I went to Portugal not because I always wanted to go there but because I ran out of the new regions to go to in Europe and there was an amazing Turkish Airlines deal. You could get your round-trip ticket to Lisbon from Istanbul for 100 Euros including taxes. I should warn you, this is not going to be one of those stories where you never have any interest in going to a certain place but then end up falling in love with the place once you go. I did not fall in love with Portugal. Well, I don’t necessarily have to fall in love with or even like a place to name it as a satisfying or a successful travel experience. When a travel experience leaves behind an idea in me or allows me to create an opinion, I will then call it a very unique experience. It can be and it sometimes is but those ideas or opinions do not have to be in the form of some geographical or geopolitical or a cultural understanding or appreciation, it can be related to anything, to any topic and to anyone including myself. Portugal was one of the rare places that did not do it for me. Do not get me wrong – I still had a good time there but the feeling that Portugal left in me was no where close to being unique or even memorable.
I flew into Lisbon where I also stayed for few days and then traveled up to North with an overnight stop in Coimbra before making it to Porto as my final stop. Among the three cities that I had a chance to visit in Portugal, Lisbon was my favourite. The weather was quite nice and the city had a nice vibe. I mostly used my legs for transportation purposes in Lisbon but the city has a good metro system as well. Although it is a hilly city and quite famous for that – it is possible to rent bikes to ride on the coastal bike path, which takes you up to Jeronimos Monastery from the center of Lisbon. There are many restaurants along the way as well, which looked like ideal places to spend a sunny afternoon and where you can find almost any mainstream cuisine in addition to many Portuguese options. Jeronimos Monastery is located in Belem neighborhood, which also hosts some additional sites such as Berardo Museum. I loved the architecture of the monastery dominated by arches and it was nice to visit the adjacent church during a Sunday mess.
Coimbra: Biblioteca Joanina
After three nights in Lisbon, I took a train up to Coimbra (the ride takes around two hours). The reason why I went to Coimbra was to visit Biblioteca Joanina like most of the other travelers including Coimbra in their Portugal itinerary. My initial introduction to Biblioteca Joanina was actually in a photography exhibition in Istanbul about three years ago where the photos from the Turkish photographer Ahmet Ertug`s book called the Temples of Knowledge were showcased. It was the most beautiful library that I ever had a chance to visit. Its grandeur perfectly matched the title of Ahmet Ertug`s book.
Porto, oh the rainy Porto – at least during my entire four days there. If I say that those who like Madrid will prefer Lisbon over Porto and those who like Barcelona will prefer Porto over Lisbon, it would probably be a pretty good enough introduction to what kind of vibe Porto has. Its touristy spots were so touristy that it no longer held any magic. Some cities are pretty good at keeping the balance between that touristy and local feeling where even the touristy places bear some element of localness. For me, a great example of this is the difference between Rome and Paris. Those two are probably the two most touristic destinations in the World. However, Rome is entirely overtaken by the tourists and the industry associated with it whereas Paris is still imposing its own rules and the way of living on you. Therefore – you, as a tourist, still feel like a foreigner even at the most touristy neighborhoods. On the opposite, Rome creates that superficial atmosphere where you feel so embraced by the city and cannot feel the slightest level of intimidation, a felling which in my view necessary to make you respect the city and adjust yourself accordingly. So to me Porto was Rome. It was Barcelona. It was not Paris or Madrid.
Well, I sure got some nice things to say about Porto as well. Feeling over touristy does not entirely kill a place, it just makes it less likable. One nice thing about Porto was the number of the book stores spread all around the city. The frequency of bookstores in Porto can only be compared with the frequency of Starbucks stores in Seattle. Most of the bookstores were located in old buildings and had a very picturesque atmosphere. One of Porto`s nicest restaurants is called Restaurante Book. This restaurant, which used to be a book store, still uses the bookshelves as the main decoration item. However, if you want to check out a real book store but not a restaurant, the beautiful Livraria Lello is the place to go. It is all wooden inside and the stairs located right in the center of the store allow you to enjoy its beauty from above. I should, however, add that Livraria Lello is packed with the tourists nearly at all hours but going right after the opening hour, which is 9.30 am, may help you to avoid at least part of the crowd.
One thing that struck me about this beautiful book store was the limited selection of the English translation of the books written by Portuguese authors. You also had to look hard to find those books un-showingly stuck under the stairs. It was also the case for Jose Saramago`s books, their Nobel winning author, whose book was even made into a movie featuring quite famous American actors. This did not look as a good selling or promoting strategy to me. Usually, if a non-english speaking country has worldwide famous authors, the English versions of their books will be flashed out in the book stores and especially in the touristy ones. As an example, I am for many different reasons happy that English versions of Orhan Pamuk`s books are usually within closer reach than their Turkish versions in Istanbul book stores. If you enjoy checking out the book stores during your travels, there is this great website, which lists the book stores available in each city.