20 Days in Portugal
I’ve been dreaming about traveling to Portugal for years. I bought my first Lonely Planet guide right after I left my job in 2018. We visited Italy first, then circumstances kept us from going to Portugal in the fall of 2019 and I hoped for 2020. We all know what happened then.
Last fall, we felt like it might be a good time to travel to Europe. We’d been on a couple of post-pandemic trips by then, a few days’ getaway to Anderson Valley wine country and trips to visit family, but not a real vacation. We toyed with some ideas – a quick trip to London to visit old haunts, a European river cruise since we thought they might be on sale, a bike ride on the Adriatic coast of Italy.
Finally Mark said, why don’t we just go to Portugal? Isn’t that where you want to go? I googled it and learned that at the time that Portugal was one of the most vaccinated countries in the world. Far more than our own Northern California county. It was settled.
I had been dreaming for years about doing a bike trip with Portugal’s Best Cycling, a company I had found when I first started looking for travel ideas, so we booked that tour first and planned everything else around it. We knew we wanted to taste port in Porto and that we had to make a (sort of) pilgrimage to Fatima. We also felt we needed to spend at least three nights on the way back through Lisbon so we would have enough time to find a COVID test to go home. That turned out to be the easiest part of our trip – you could get a rapid test at virtually any pharmacy and even at trailers in the park and get your results in an hour.
We made our decision and booked most everything within a couple of weeks. We booked our flights and we were happy to find pretty reasonable prices for flights right from Sacramento. It had been a while since we had done a trip this long and last minute, but it worked out fine. Hotels were generally available and inexpensive, and we were able to book trains and buses once we arrived.
Navigating COVID Entry Requirements
We cross-referenced a lot of different websites to figure out what we needed, but probably got the most out of Reddit/travel, the AirFrance booking tool, and a first-hand account from Rick Steves Europe’s Cameron Hewitt.
The official Portugal site was a little unclear whether or not a test was required to enter at that time, but we decided to get them anyway. At the time, the US was requiring a negative COVID test to come back home, so I bought some Abbott at-home tests that promised they’d meet the requirements just in case. We got plastic holders to keep our vaccine cards safe. I bought some better disposable masks. We found and bought travel insurance that covered us in case of quarantine. And we were on our way.
I thought we’d have to carry our vaccine cards everywhere but they only checked them before we checked in for our flights. We had filled out some COVID forms for France and Portugal before we left, but no one asked for them. We filled out a similar one on our flight from Paris via the flight attendants. No one ever asked for our tests, but for us it was worth it to get it, even if just to know we were not sick before we left home.
When we got there, Portugal had just re-opened a lot of restaurants, museums and sporting venues at the beginning of October. So we were arriving just as things were starting to get back to normal and the locals were still adjusting.
The way it turned out, we zig-zagged down and up the country, back and forth to Lisbon, and skipped the Algarve, which is fine since we really aren’t beach people. We spent more time traveling than I would have liked, but we kept to our rule of no less than two nights in any one place.
Portugal is about the size of Indiana, so our longest trip on the train was about 5 hours, from Evora to Porto, a pleasant journey with a stop in Lisbon to change to the fast train. Trains and buses were easy to book online in English and we used the CP (Comboios de Portugal) train app for all our tickets. Ubers were plentiful in Lisbon and Porto and cheap. Some were so cheap we tipped more than the fare.
Most everyone in the cities spoke English, and we adjusted to hearing the language and learned a few words. I was used to hearing Brazilian Portuguese so I was caught off guard by the “sh” and “zh” sounds – at first we thought people were speaking Russian. Now I realize that when I hear those sounds in California they are probably speaking Portuguese.
We loved our 20 days in Portugal; we had delicious food, almost perfect weather and learned a lot about Portuguese history and culture. I read a book about the explorers and we saw the incredible opulence of the Portuguese kings and queens in their palaces, cathedrals and universities they created in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Everywhere we stayed we were welcomed and treated like family. It’s an adventure I’d highly recommend to any traveler.
Traveling to Portugal today should be even easier now since COVID restrictions have eased. Of course we all know how quickly that can change, so make sure you check current conditions before you book.
Stay tuned for our first stop – Lisbon.