This question stops me in my tracks each time I hear it upon my return from one of my “magical” adventures – as my day job co-workers refer to them. Trying to summarize a two-week experience driving over 1,600 kilometers around most of Portugal (not to mention learning to deal with differences in my own thought process due to my injury at the same time) into a concise reply seems utterly challenging at first. It’s now a little over two weeks since coming home and I feel like I’m just now starting to develop a succinct description of exactly how my trip was.
The short answer is; it was great and all of our travel plans played out remarkably smooth (I've never had a trip run this smooth - seriously, it was a downright relaxing adventure). For those who remain curious I'll go on to share the two features in particular which stand out the most because I didn’t expect either of them; the intriguing extremes in infrastructure and the plethora of fairy tale landscapes.
Intriguing Infrastructure Extremes
While I was aware of the challenges Portugal has had (and still does) with their economy, seeing those challenges manifest themselves in the varying states of infrastructure all around the country was fascinating. In the areas and regions we traveled, there tended to be three different states of infrastructure;
- Old, sometimes very old, stone homes and buildings in various states of decay. Some were simply overgrown with trees and shrubbery bursting out of the long gone roof. While others seemed to just barely be held together with makeshift fixes to house the very poor or were claimed by squatters.
- Beautiful, immaculately kept, modern and old style buildings with Azulejo tile murals and other cultural or historic details. It’s hard to understand exactly how these homes, many painted white with a bold trim, are kept so sparkling. Even the yards were all carefully manicured and tastefully designed. This would describe each of the AirBnB’s we stayed in throughout the trip.
- Lonely, unfinished infrastructure projects in the process of being taken back by nature. We saw countless development projects clearly started years ago and never finished – apartment buildings partially constructed and parking garages now covered in graffiti and wild grass. One rural highway we drove, between Seia and Évora, had a number of partially finished overpasses in various states of development without any roads going to them on either side.
Overall, the variety of infrastructure made our exploration of Portugal just that much more interesting and did plenty to prompt our imaginations of what the stories behind some of these extremes must be.
Fairy Tale Landscapes
Unbeknownst to most people, except those who knew me well during high school and college, I was (and still am to a lesser degree) quite the Lord of the Rings nerd. It’s one of only three fiction series I’ve found interest in as an adult (the others are the Earthsea trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia). These books take my imagination to beautiful landscapes filled with mysterious events and I have a particular affinity for seeking out places around this earth where I can find those same types landscapes in reality.
Portugal has these fairy tale landscapes in spades. All across the country my imagination was running wild with scenes I never imagined to be real. As the LotR nerd I am, I spotted several places which just about matched the scenes in the film series that had to be faked and filmed on a set.
Some of the places which stand out the most where the rocky points around Castro Laborerio, the wildflower covered hills above the town of Germil, and the western side of Serra da Estrela. Adding to the fairy tale like nature of all these locations was the fact that during our explorations we were often the only people around. There’s really no better way to get your imagination pumping than finding yourself alone, far up a dirt road, at a closed up stone chapel with an empty outdoor pulpit.
For anyone else out there who loves places that make their imagination run wild – Portugal is for you. Especially, what I like to call the “other” Portugal, the one you won’t find written about in any of the major guidebooks (but that’s a topic for another post). It’s the one you find from exploring on your own away from the hot spots of Lisbon, Sintra, and Lagos.
A Special Announcement:
I've finally found inspiration for a monthly newsletter and the first edition will go out on October 15th! In it you'll find a note from me, a little bit about what I've been up to around the web, as well as my picks for the best creative travel content out there on the web at the moment.
What makes this different from the monthly round-up post I used to do? The competition is stiffer and it's multimedia style. I'll be sharing four creative and wanderlust inspiring pieces each month; one video, one podcast episode, one written piece, and one photography based piece. If this sounds like something you'd be interested in receiving in your inbox each month, I do hope you'll sign up below!