Lao Tzu wrote that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” but that first step may not always be perfect. My journey to Lisbon, Portugal began with a few gross missteps.
After learning that I made a booking mistake - that I would be flying into Portugal a day earlier than my travel companion - I had little time to act. At 3:30 P.M. on Thursday I hastily threw together a backpack of my belongings, double-checking my passport and I.D. were present. I jumped in my pre-ordered Street Car, which came 5 minutes later than the desired time of 4 P.M.. Due to the lateness, I missed my train by a minute and had to buy another ticket to King’s Cross for 37 pound. From King’s Cross I hopped on the Underground to Heathrow and skimmed through security to make it to my plane right before departure. Collapsing in my seat was the sweetest joy in the world.
After hours of soaring through the night sky, we touched down in the Lisbon airport right before midnight. Next to me on the plane sat a couple from Sintra, and they gladly directed me to Metro station. Shaken from last-minute realizations and weary from worrying, I thanked them, purchased a one-way ticket, and got on the subway.
Each city is a hive of buzzing bees, but each hive provides a distinct flavor of honey. Lisbon met me with night skies and empty subway cars full of red plastic seats with purple cushioning. I rode the red line to Alameda before switching to the green line that carried me to Rossio, as instructed, and watched through the smudged windows. Every announcement on the train reminded me of Texas, my home; the five years of Spanish taken at school as well as casually at my house provided me with at least a ground plan of what was being said. Each stop along the way had its distinct flair, as each one was its own work of art - Oriente housed the mural of an epic battle of comic book characters underwater, while others held rough drafts of running rabbits and caricatures of Portuguese authors and musicians. Though my mind fogged with fatigue, each slowing down of the subway train gave me an incentive to peek out and see what wonder was coming up.
At Rossio I hopped out and emerged from the underground. No one walked the streets around me, but outside of my vision the city was surely alive. Wails and chatter burst disembodied from where I could not see and made the large square seem a place inhabited only by ghosts. This was disorienting to say the least, and I had no idea which street branching off from the square held my hostel.
Rumbling broke the night as a tarnished yellow garbage truck swung around a corner and into the square. A skinny man in a bright vest hopped off the back of the truck and began to collect trash the restaurants set out for the nightly collection. He must have sensed my fright, my futile attempt to look like some practiced city-dweller with a map clenched in my fist, and called out to ask me if I was lost. Admitting I was, I conversed with him in Spanish as he reassured me and showed me the way, away from this Praca da Figueira to my hostel. Indeed travelling alone can be scary, but the kindness of strangers appears in unusual places.
After checking in and falling into bed, I congratulated myself on getting to Lisbon alone. Sleep caught up with me fast enough, and soon turned into another day.
I woke early and dressed before going down to the hostel kitchen. There breakfast was being made, and I shared in crepes which I topped with Nutella and honey before strolling about Lisbon. Pointless wandering is a hobby of mine, to see the sky brightened with the familiarity of day, to wander past statues and fountains and shopping centers. I began my ascent up a hill to see where it would go, and soon found the city shot up this incline. I passed the out-branching of a dog park and kept trekking up the hill, passing a garden, a graffitied wall sprayed with fat purple flowers, and several buildings decorated with blue and white ceramic tiles. At the summit I reached the outlook which provided a view of all of Lisbon - breathtaking. White-sided buildings topped with clay roofs, all stacked and scattered in magnificent scramble. Once I’d seen the view from the summit, I descended and went to the Rossio station to meet Nate as he came into the city.
After picking up Nate and dropping off his stuff at the hostel, we went to grab lunch, which consisted of an open-faced sardine & pepper sandwich with rum. We then sauntered to Santini, one of the best ice cream places in Lisbon. I ordered two scoops of a flavor called Radio Comercial, which was a combination of purple passion fruit, lime & orange zest, and bits of raspberry. How excellent it was, to wander the streets of Lisbon, around fountains, flower booths and street performers, all while eating ice cream that tasted like fireworks.
We jumped on the Metro after this and raced to the Lisbon Oceanarium to get there before the closing time at 8. Nate and I arrived just before the ticket office closed, and we hurried inside. Walking around the main aquarium full of sharks, manta rays, sunfish, barracuda, etc., we got to see otters, penguins, puffins, and other beautiful sea creatures. My favorite part of the aquarium was the deep-sea area, where jellyfish floated through the blackness bathed with purple light and the spider crabs crept like dog-sized pale orange insects up the walls. There’s something about being in an aquarium that fills one with peace - a lightness, a forgetfulness of petty troubles and a turning to the awe and appreciation of something bigger. We should all visit an aquarium more often.
The next morning, Nate & I took a train to Sintra, a small and beautiful town in the pine forest of Serra de Sintra. On every edge of this town is a remnant of a castle, such as the Moorish Castle sitting on top of the hill overlooking Sintra, and in Sintra’s winding streets you can see white spires rising out of the forest. We made our 20 minute walk through the bustling town, past an enclave carved out of the side of a cliff dominated by a waterfall and graffitied with heaps of hearts, and made it to Quinta da Regaleira.
Quinta da Regaleira is a 20th century estate made up of a romantic palace and chapel and sprawling tropical grounds with lakes, grottoes, wells, fountains, and numerous statues. To give a bit of history, this land was owned by the Viscountess of Regaleira before being sold off in 1892 to Carvalho Monteiro, known as “Monteiro the Millionaire.” Monteiro and his Italian architect Manini built many of the features of Quinta da Regaleira, including the house, and Monteiro made sure to include in the estate symbols of the Knights Templar, the Masons, and dark alchemy, all which fell within his ideologies. On the death of Monteiro, the Quinta da Regaleira was purchased by Waldemar d’Orey as a summer residence for his family and then bought in 1987 by a Japanese businessman. The local government reclaimed Quinta da Regaleira in 1997 and it opened to the public in 1998.
The attraction of Quinta da Regaleira that interested me most - as well as many other tourists - is the Initiation Well. After wandering the grounds for a while, Nate & I walked across rocks emerging from a mossy lake into a cavern under a waterfall. This cave was a lot longer than we thought, and tunneled under most of the estate straight to the bottom of the Initiation Well. Just to clarify, there are two wells of this kind on the estate, and they are both known as “Inverted Towers” because neither of these were used as wells but for initiation rights. The well we did not enter - known as the “Unfinished Well” - contains architecture outlines by Masonic principles while the well we did enter contains references to the Knights Templar and nine platforms, which are rumored to be a calling-back to Dante’s nine circles of Hell, nine sections of Purgatory, and nine skies of Paradise.
Nate & I ascended the spiral stairs, which were only wide enough to fit two people shoulder-to-shoulder. This is enough to dizzy anyone as they ascend to the pool of light above that indicates the sky. Eventually, we burst out the top and exited the well through a secret door, a slab of stone that spun on a center axis if you pushed a corner of it. If this place didn’t make me feel like I was in Uncharted, I don’t know what will.
One can truly see why Quinta da Regaleira was a summer residence, a place hinting at adventure and secrets, old towers and castles peeping through the pines and tropical trees. I experienced a sensation I’d felt occasionally before while I was there, but only at Quinta da Regaleira could I begin to describe it. Sometimes you get the feeling that you are destined to be in a certain place, as if you’re experiencing deja vu. It’s like you’ve dreamt it before, but if you seek to recall that dream it will only draw away from you. This is what I felt in Sintra, in the chiming of church bells and the wind rushing through the tall pines along the sides of the mountains. I do not know if destiny is real, or if we’re just all following our own seething personal desires, but I know in that moment, I was destined to be in Quinta da Regaleira.
Later that day we returned to Lisbon via train and decided to stop off at a taco place a Harlaxton alum had recommended we visit: Pistola & Corazon Taqueria. We took the Metro down to that section of town and then spent 30 cold minutes searching until at last we found the little place. A bookcase took up an entire wall, filled with volumes from America and Mexico as well as jars and knick-knacks of all kinds, and the bar was backed by a wall of corrugated metal painted red. Nate & I seated ourselves and ordered a cocktail called Te Crees Muy Muy - ironically enough, considering what happened later on - which consisted of passion fruit, vanilla, tequila reposado, and lemon. To imagine what this tasted like, you have to think of a very sweet, frothy lemon cream soda, minus the carbonation. It was delicious.
Next came the food. I was craving something spicy, so I ordered tingas de res - 3 tacos of shredded beef in guajillo tomato sauce, garlic, & other spices and served with onions and cilantro on corn tortillas. The waitress warned me this was spicy, but I nodded my understanding and ordered a horchata - rice milk & cinnamon - as well just in case it was as hot as she promised. I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and have been eating a range of Mexican food since I was little. I could handle the heat, my poor brain thought. So when the waitress brought our tacos, I ladled on the hottest sauce, lifted the first taco, and took a big bite.
I pause here to call you back to the cocktail I’d previously consumed. The phrase “te crees muy muy” does not mean “you think very very” or “you think you’re very very.” This is a slang phrase that was probably trying to warn me of my present actions. “Te crees muy muy” means - in more casual terms, “You think you’re all that” / “You think you’re a badass.” And so Julia did.
And so she was wrong.
The first bite was fine, until I swallowed and the spices were in my throat. Then I was the equivalent of a fire-breathing dragon. My first instinct was to ration my horchata out so I didn’t drink it down all at once. When that didn’t work, I just kept shoveling the spicy tacos into my mouth, to try to give my mouth something else to do other than focus on the pain.
For the sake of my pride, I tried to keep looking cool, but that’s a bit hard with the sensation of a hundred suns exploding on your tongue. I asked Nate to order another horchata, because I would just look like a wheezing embodiment of teary desperation if I asked, and then the worst possible thing in the world happened.
“Of course,” Nate said, apparently assuming I was done with the horchata in front of me. I watched, as if in slow motion, as Nate picked up the horchata we shared and put the glass to his lips. I swore a warped version of “Ave Maria” played as the cold, rice milk goodness trickled down the glass and Nate consumed the last life-giving swallow. My heart clenched, my eyes narrowed, and I was so blind with pain that I cannot recall the scathing words that rolled off my lips. But know this - hell hath no fury like a woman who has eaten agony-inducing tacos and Nate has drunk her last gulp of horchata.
Nate apologized and went to the waitress to order me another horchata before running to the bathroom because of his bladder’s pressing needs. I finished the tacos and cradled my new glass of ambrosia, sipping it through the straw to recover as my face fluctuated between waves of numbness and burning. Nate came back a bit sooner than expected, only to explain in a low voice that he could not use the facilities because two people were having quite a “private moment” in the bathroom upstairs and screamed at him to get out when he entered. After a final horchata to soothe my burning to a low flame, we walked back to the Metro. And that was how our last night in Portugal ended, me with a high coming down from the pain and Nate with a desperate need to pee.
Portugal wasn’t what I thought it would be, but it was amazing, honestly the best place I’ve been to thus far. Though it was a relief to get back to Harlaxton after that long flight back, I’ll never forget the adventures I had there.
Written by Julia Toney