BeMadrid is a Madrid-based exchange student community that organizes cultural events in Madrid as well as excursions throughout Spain and neighboring countries. During the week of Semana Santa, Spain's spring break, BeMadrid ran a bus tour from Madrid to Portugal. Through InterExchange, I was easily able to connect with other English teachers interested in this trip and a whole bunch of us went! We spent one night in Porto, one in Coimbra and two in Lisbon. Through this bus tour I was able to gain a sense of Portuguese culture, see iconic Portuguese sights and meet a lot of great people.
The bus ride was six hours across western Spain to finally reach the coast of Portugal. First stop, Porto! Porto is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The sparkling River Douro stretches along Porto's coast, straddled by six bridges. Porto is the only city in Europe with that many bridges! The houses are painted bright colors, topped with orange roofs, and many buildings are covered with hand-painted tiles. Porto certainly feels like a magical place and I was not surprised when I learned that JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter there. The university girls in Portugal wear long black capes and the students have wild initiation rituals like being blindfolded and fed pig fat. Salazar Slytherin was in fact inspired by António Salazar, the infamous virtual dictator of Portugal who ruled from 1932 to 1968.
We took a walking tour of Porto and its neighboring city, Gaia. We visited the seventeenth century Convent of Saint Francis Francis of Assisi that acted as a lifelong prison for disobedient women and the nearby church whose ceilings and walls are painted with gold from South America. The tour took us across the Ponte Luís I bridge, over the River Duoro and to a bodega where we sampled Portugal's most famous export, port! The next day we climbed 240 steps to the top of the Clérigos Church tower to see a spectacular view of Porto, a sea of bright orange rooftops.
Our BeMadrid bus took us down Portugal's coast to Lisbon, Europe's second-oldest capital. During our walking tour of Lisbon, we learned of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 that occurred on the Day of the Dead. Much of Lisbon's population fled to the sea and was washed away by a tsunami. Most of Lisbon was destroyed and had to be rebuilt. We then visited the magnificent Castle of São Jorge, a tenth century Moorish castle atop a citadel overlooking Lisbon. From there can be heard peacocks crowing from a nearby tree.
The next morning we visited Sintra, a town near Lisbon where there are many castles and palaces. We climbed to the Palace Pena, a nineteenth-century palace decorated in Victorian era splendor and painted yellow and pink.
A quick detour was taken to Cabo da Roca, a cape that is the westernmost point of continental Europe with a beautiful view of the Atlantic Ocean.
Fado, the folk music in Portugal, is very different than the fiery Spanish flamenco. It is pensive yet heartening and reflective of a people who are characterized by the Portuguese word, saudade, meaning severe nostalgia or a deep melancholic longing. We were lucky enough to hear live fado music over dinner and sangria. It was beautiful!
The best part of traveling with BeMadrid was the chance to spend time with people from all over the world. On our tour were people not only from Spain, but from Germany, Turkey, Mexico, Italy, the United Kingdom and elsewhere! And we had a great time together laughing, eating, dancing and enjoying Portugal. I now have more friends to spend time with in Madrid!