If you are considering traveling during Independent Learning Week, I highly recommend going to Portugal. Portugal has personality: the culture is vibrant; the natural vistas are breath-taking; and the streets have so much history. Portugal’s charm is varied but vast – whether you go to the urban wonderland of Lisbon, or the earthly paradise known as the Algarve, the cobblestone streets and colourful tiles smile and the sun will wink as it sets into the sea. It’s as if every piece of the scenery is nodding at you when you walk past. That’s how personal Portugal feels – and it will put a constant smile on your face.
Lisbon is the second oldest capital of Europe. Many of the buildings are falling apart, with chipping paint and boarded-up windows. But the paint is still vibrant shades of yellow, pink, red, and green, and the windows are intricately decorated. It feels “lived-in,” with a sense of the history that has taken place there. The city is set on seven hills, and the white stucco houses with their red terracotta roofs sit beautifully against the rolling green slopes. You can take the trams around the city’s meandering streets. Hop off when you spot a picturesque restaurant in a dim lit alley serving fresh seafood, or when you smell the sweet treats at a quaint pastry shop. (Be sure to try Pastel de Nata, a creamy flaky custard tart.) Accommodation is relatively inexpensive.You can stay in the centre of the city – Rossio Square – in a 5 star hotel for 100 euros, and the hostels are apparently the nicest in Europe!
I highly recommend just wandering around the streets, as it is very safe. When I ventured off the beaten track, the sights were even more beautiful. I recommend visiting the São Jorge Castle, a fortification that overlooks the historic city; the Jardim Botânico, a hidden garden in the heart of the city; the Praça do Comércio, a square on the waterfront surrounded by monumental architecture; the Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, with a huge collection of Picasso, Dalí, Pollock, and more; the Jerónimos Monastery, a magnificent, Late Gothic style monastery with magnificent sculptures and stained glass; and the Belém Tower, a stark white medieval defensive tower, that sits on the bank of the Tagus river.
About forty minutes from Lisbon has to be the most mystical place I’ve ever seen: Sintra. Sintra is cast in mystery, as a dense fog, obscures the rest of the world. The castles, like Castelo dos Mouros, look otherworldly in their mountain settings. The most impressive palace is the Pena Palace. Its architecture is an amalgamation of Romanesque, Neo-Gothic, Neo-Islamic, Neo-Manueline, Romanticism, and Neo-Renaissance styles, producing one strange looking building with contrasting patterns, colours, and materials. It was the summer residence of the royal family and “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” Lord Byron praised the palace as the most amazing in Europe. Truly romantic, its eclectic design features are a real fairy tale.
My favorite part of Sintra was the Quinta da Regaleira, an estate with a romantic palace, a chapel, a park with grottoes, fountains, lakes, and wells. The land consists of a myriad of footpaths and an enigmatic system of hidden tunnels and underground caves. There is a well called the Initiation Well, which mixes Gothic, Moorish, Egyptian, and Renaissance architectural features. It was not used for water collection; instead, it was for secretive initiation rituals. Up the well is a circular stairwell with symbolic carvings and a series of arches covered in luscious green vines. You will be swept up in enigma, sent off on a terrific escape into a magical, surreal realm.
If you are looking for a beach vacation, to relax in the midst of deadlines, the Algarve is ideal. You can lie out under the sun; go exploring the caves and grottoes; take a boat ride out to the archipelagos to see the hot springs, rich with minerals for facials; go to water pools; or explore the towns of Albufeira, Lagos, and Faro, to enjoy great shops, gorgeous churches and buildings covered in flowers. There is also kayaking, snorkeling, diving and hiking. Lagos has especially beautiful coastline cliff sides with countless hiking trails and mountain biking routes. The islands are formed from volcanic activity, exposing ancient rock layers, which creates rare hues of colors and odd rock formation shapes. Most of the beaches are white sands melding into the turquoise sea and fading into deep blue, but some of the beaches are black sands fusing into emerald green waters.
The Algarve is a sanctuary. One of the cliffs in Lagos is called “The End of the World,” because of travellers who thought it really was the end of a square earth. All you can see is the Atlantic Ocean spreading out, seemingly infinitely, and the sun setting into the horizon line. Set up camp, have a picnic before sunset and dessert after dark. There are no other lights but the constellations, so you can count the shooting stars, with the sound of the waves to put you to sleep. Alternatively, if you are up for a party, the nightlife in the Algarve is also great. The town Albufeira is best, the parties go on all night long. But it is the endless vistas, that make southern Portugal so sublime.
This article is really an ode to Portugal. The country offers so much – the cityscapes will charm you and the landscapes will stun you. For me, random cafes felt like home and unknown streets felt familiar yet inexplicably new, as if my mind and body had always longed for this place. I hope I have convinced you to book a flight. Independent Learning Week is nearly here, and you know where to head!