• Emily McDonnell

#2: Lisbon, leisurely

It dawned on me while in Portugal’s capital this weekend - when I found myself swarmed by stressed tourists, cameras at the ready, being pushed around in a queue for sweet treats at Pastéis de Belém - that I’m guilty of “moment collecting”, of making sure I get the most of my precious holiday by not missing any of the must-see sights. But here’s the rub: I wouldn’t actively choose to stand in line to catch a glimpse of a cathedral or trudge an hour across the city for a seat in the coolest bar in order to unwind back at home. So why would I do something this energy-draining on a trip designed to be stress-relieving? 

Cue my second weekly adventure: travel slower.

Slow travel is an up-and-coming movement, based on the principles of slow food. The idea is simply to explore at a leisurely pace, and dive deeper into the culture around you.

Luckily for this adventure, I was staying in one of the city’s lesser-known areas, Santos, which - my host assured me - is still a hotspot for locals.

After offloading my bag, it took some self-control to stop myself from firing up the Lonely Planet website, bookmarking sights, and rushing out the door. Instead, I poured myself a glass of locally-produced wine and hoisted myself onto my apartment’s window frame to watch life unfold in the square below me, so I could get a feel for the culture I was stepping into. 

I saw a group of three old men, hunched over, playing board games and sipping beer, alternating between laughter and serious strategic thought. I watched a man so engulfed in his book that steam stopped rising from the surface of his coffee. I witnessed a group of teenagers - backpacks hoisted high - running for the bus, jostling for first place in the unspoken race. And I gazed as the sun glistened on Lisbon’s iconic tiled buildings, while cranes whirled overhead and overcrowded trams transported commuters home for the weekend. Lisbon was showing itself to me, I just had to pay attention. 

This would be a weekend devoted to the senses. I strolled through the streets in the quiet districts of Lapa and Alcântara, choosing the paths that looked most interesting. I stopped in front of buildings I liked, exclaimed in excitement when I saw the ocean, and followed the whims of my stomach. I breathed in sea air and bathed my face in the sun. My body and mind were unified and present.

The thing about creating sensory-driven experiences is that they are far more powerful than getting a quick photo at the most hipster coffee shop in town. For instance, my chest still feels full and warm at the recollection of sitting on a wall, sipping wine and watching the sun set behind Torre de Belem. During the time I watched the sky turn from blue to orange to purple to red as is descended over the mesmeric waves that danced below our feet, dozens of tourists came to claim their perfect holiday snap, posing endless next to me. Instead of worrying about how my hair looked in the breeze, I let a feeling of utter contentment wash over me (though perhaps that was the wine…). I left after an hour, only because my body begged for food.

The slow travel magic worked: my lazy meandering got me wondering about the history and culture of the city, and I felt compelled to find our more. For instance:

  • The Torre de Belem, built in the 1500s, was the ceremonial gate to Lisbon, and was where explorers embarked to travel the world. Can you imagine what it was like to sail out into the unknown, not knowing if you’d ever return? I can’t remember the last time I did something brave. I tried to imagine navigating using only the stars, travelling across oceans harnessing only the wind, and eating stale ship rations. It’s something I cannot comprehend. 

  • The beauty of Lisbon’s tiled streets struck me: greens, blues and yellows glimmer throughout the city. On talking to an azulejos (the official name of the painted tiles) manufacturer, I discover that they are inspired by the Moorish empire’s use of them in Seville. A former Portuguese king transported the idea back to Portugal and integrated this artwork into the local architecture. 

  • I found myself jostling for pastry at Pastéis de Belém because I wanted to know why pastéis de nata are Portugal’s national treat. It transpires they were first made by monks at the Jerónimos Monastery over 300 years ago, and sold to the public to raise extra funds for the monastery’s upkeep. Pastéis de Belém, located a few doors along from the monastery, creates and serves this historic and secret recipe.

I might not have done much, but I experienced a lot, and these few sensory experiences are far more valuable than a completed checklist of surface-level moments. 

Viver uma viagem longa e lenta

(I hope that translates to “long live slow travel”, DeepL, I trust you.)

Slow travel trips and tricks

1. Don’t do too much

Have one or two “must-dos” each day - they can absolutely be tourist hotspots if that’s what you’re interested in, I still wanted to eat Pastel de Belem - but then be open to seeing what happens. Perhaps you’re in the mood for a long walk, or perhaps you’d rather settle down in a cosy cafe with a book. Give yourself some flexibility and freedom - remember, holidays aren’t meant to be stressful!

2. Ask for advice

There’s a high chance your community have been where you’re going. Ask for their highlights because the tips they share will be the things that were overwhelmingly positive. I got some exceptional restaurant recommendations and spent a really enjoyable afternoon in the modern art museum thanks to friends.

3. Get lost more

One of the most overused sentences of all time is “take the road less travelled”, but there’s a reason for it. I’ve found quaint coffee shops and charming restaurants by veering away from main streets and turning down roads that look interesting, plus it always pays to follow the sound of chatter in local language, you’ll rarely be disappointed by the places you find.

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