Finally: Portugal! Last weekend, Randi and I popped down to Lisbon to join Mike and Melissa for our first trip of 2024, and – given the comparative warmth and sunshine compared to London – treated it as a summer holiday even though all of the Portuguese locals were walking around in heavy duty coats as if it was cold. (Seriously, the receptionist at our hotel was genuinely concerned about my welfare in a short-sleeved shirt and asked her colleague to check up on my welfare/sanity the next day.) From our perspective it was lovely and sunny!
After arriving on Friday night – and admiring the efficient metro ride from the airport, naturally – we spent Saturday morning wandering through Lisbon’s gorgeous cobbled streets in the vague direction of the Alfama district. In the same vein as London’s double-decker buses, Lisbon is clearly very proud of their little yellow trams which manage to weave up and down the narrow hilly streets. Later, after coming close to passing ourselves off as Mike and Melissa to their Airbnb host, the four of us took a less magical (but still very good) modern tram to a fancy restaurant for dinner, at which I very much enjoyed my ‘private pie’ in addition to duck rice.
As an aside, we also became very fond of the ‘intern’ working at our hotel whose duties included staffing the little rooftop bar. He didn’t seem entirely comfortable with his duties – most notably asking Melissa if she wouldn’t mind opening our bottle of wine as he didn’t know how to – but he won us over with his apologetic charm and constant refrain about his difficult internship. Wisely, he was not trusted to run the hotel’s breakfast.
The next day we took the train to Sintra, a town about 45 minutes away which is a major tourist destination thanks to multiple palaces and natural parks. We were there for the hike to the Moorish Castle, originally built in the 8th and 9th centuries and later taken by the Christians during the Reconquista. It felt like the absolute perfect time to be there – great weather for exploring and beautiful views, but not so hot or crowded that it was ever uncomfortable. At one point someone behind me did complain about the lack of a railing, but I wasn’t brave enough to suggest that she take this oversight up with the Moors.
Rather than heading straight home at the end of the weekend I had already had the glorious revelation that a fair few of my colleagues at work are based in Porto, so it was of course totally legitimate for me to take the train up there on Sunday night and invite myself over to work from their office for a couple of days. Huge thanks to the team there for hosting me and generously acceding to my eccentric requests, including asking Vitor to record the Portuguese pronunciation of the letter R at the beginning of words to confirm Randi’s mind-blowing discovery of how different it is to the Spanish R. (R is a tricky letter anyway. Honestly it’s best to avoid pronouncing it at all where you can.)
My journey to Porto was incredibly smooth – both the long-distance train and the impressive Porto Metro once I arrived – and I was only momentarily thrown by the weirdness of the ticket inspection on the Portuguese railways whereby they aren’t interested in seeing your ticket at all, but rather your ID (in my case, my passport!) under which you booked. It’s a little odd that you can travel across the entire Schengen area from country to country without any border checks, and yet it’s harder to be incognito on a train from Lisbon to Porto!
I’m hesitant to say too much about Porto because I was just working from an office most of the time, and so I had to demur when eager Porto residents asked me to compare it to the capital. I was very excited when the team agreed to take me to have Francesinha for lunch: a “strange cheesy bread cheesy cheese thing” which Steve at work issued as a warning but I took as an absolute must-do. A dish native to Porto, the name means ‘little French woman’ for some reason and is clearly a hangover cure, served with chips and an optional egg. It was delicious.
On Monday night my teammates Vitor and Paulo kindly took me down to the historic centre so I could get a little flavour of the historical tourist bits, although being authentic residents they didn’t actually know the names of the famous buildings we walked past. I did love the amazing walls of the central train station, but was not as much of a fan of the scary Dom Luís I Bridge which I refused to venture very far along. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine bridge, but I was maybe starting to identify with the woman back in Sintra who wanted more railings.) After surviving the bridge we did the obvious thing while in Porto and shared some glasses of port together, which I wasn’t sure about but very much enjoyed. Perhaps this will finally move along the bottle of port which has been sitting in our kitchen ever since Beth and Stewart lifted it from a hotel room in Cambridge.
My final reflection on Portugal – other than that I loved it, and would definitely go back – is that I quickly formed a deep affection for the café owner on the route between my hotel and the office. Randi had already admired the Portuguese culture of standing together socially at the bar, sharing a morning coffee, and after coming to terms with my need for tea he seemed genuinely concerned that I wanted it ‘tomar’ – to go – in a lonely Anglo way 😉
But wait- we’re nearly a month into 2024, so let’s quickly catch-up on pre-Portugal events. Similar to last year, Randi spent New Year with Catherine and AJ in Chicago, while this time I hosted Oliver and Abi at mine for New Year’s Eve along with Sarah and Kat. Kat turns out to be a massive fireworks fan, so after watching the central London display on TV there was a sweet moment when everyone came up to our loft bedroom and took turns standing on the bed and sticking their heads out of our loft windows into the night air to try and catch a glimpse of other fireworks nearby. We also played more Cobra Paw and Bonanza, a bean-themed card game which was delightful.
After a respectful number of bottles had been drunk, and successfully convinced Oliver & Abi to stay overnight before going home in the morning, I spent most of New Year’s Day up in North London with Andy and Bonnie. After a hearty pub lunch, we enjoyed a muddy walk through Highgate Wood during which I was genuinely shocked by Bonnie’s ability to instantly recall intricate plot points from any Agatha Christie novel. Definitely a Mastermind specialist subject.
Other January adventures included a wonderful Saturday in West Hamstead with Josh, Anna and Cora (after which I accidentally stole Cora’s cat – sorry!) and the successful execution of a paid deep-clean for our flat. I mention the latter because, embarrassingly, it took so much longer than expected that the company ended up calling me with a tone of “we haven’t heard from our cleaner in hours… is she alive?”. But she did an amazing job, and our taps were so shiny that I sent Randi a photo of my face reflected in them before ordering a pizza, eating it straight from the pizza box while sitting on the floor of the living room (too terrified of touching any surfaces in case I ruined them) and then going straight to bed so that Randi could still enjoy the results of the deep clean when she arrived back the next day.
Randi and I also had an impromptu walking day one weekend through Wandsworth Common and on to Battersea Park, finishing at the reopened Battersea Power Station luxury shopping centre thing (I expect they don’t like it being called a ‘shopping centre’) which I hadn’t seen inside yet. It is very cool, although we just admired the architecture and didn’t actually buy anything. We also had a very fun pasta-based outing with Reema and Esther and have also officially started watching our next series – The Bear – so I look forward to telling you what I think about it in 2028 when we finish. (I joke: we’ll try to move faster, since Randi has a temporary Disney+ subscription just for this.)