Lest anyone should think that all of my trips were comical debacles, I would like to unequivocally say: not exactly. Has something absurd and ridiculous happened to me on every vacation? Yes, yes it has. Has it ruined every vacation? Not even close (just the one). Interestingly enough, the most disastrous trip of the past half century was followed by the most lovely, gentle, and perfect one two years later.
Coincidentally, right around that time my mom saw a documentary about Portugal, and was raving about their tiled streets. Acknowledging that these alleged tiled streets was the one thing I have been missing in my life was the first step. The second was to search for locations that were not billed, in the standard timeshare parlance, as those where “a car is needed to enjoy the area”. (Personally, I do not think a car is ever needed to enjoy “the area”. It is needed to get you to a different area you may or may not enjoy.)
In 1999, my knowledge of Portugal was limited to the Age of Explorers. Its modern history was a non-event. I have not even heard of the Carnation Revolution of 1974, coming as it did so close on the heels of the death of Georges Pompidou, which made an infinitely greater impression on me at the time. But, I read that Portugal is warm in March (true!), and that there is a couple of small towns on the direct train line to Lisbon, one of which, Cascais, had a studio available. And so we went.
Let me get the bad things out of the way. First, my mother foisted a giant travel guide on us. Eyewitness Travel Guides, while very colorful and pretty, are pointless for daily travel. You are basically carrying a brick around. It also contained the most useless restaurant recommendations, for needlessly overpriced and flavorless food which you would be hard pressed to find in Portugal, but the writers of this book did. (Good news–Já Sei in Belém, charging more escudos per “gamba” than most other places charge for an entire meal, is closed now. Feeling vindicated!)
Second, getting to Belém from Lisbon by train is strangely complicated. A couple of times, when we were riding home to Cascais, the train would stop in Belém—but when we actually decided to get out, to see the famous tower, the Jerónimos Monastery, and the monument to the explorers, it would not. It took several false starts riding past it and finally walking back from the next stop before we finally achieved this goal.
Finally, I was thrown out of a casino in Estoril. For some reason, European casinos do not allow cameras. This is still true—we could not enter a single casino in Monte Carlo, either, when we were there three years ago. Apparently it is a privacy issue. So whatever, I had to leave while spouse wandered around inside this famous casino (apparently the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale”. It was too amazing an opportunity for him to join me in disgrace outside, and surprisingly, I hold no grudge against him. But I was not happy with the casino administration and avenged myself by not taking any photos of it outside either. So there.
But these are minor hiccups. The only real regret I have from that trip is that in the pre-digital age, I did not take enough photos. Two rolls, while impressive for just a week in those days, seem woefully inadequate now. Chief regret is not having any photographic memory of the magical evenings in the hotel’s restaurant, enjoying “bebida do dia” and the music of Miguel Santos. I hope he became rich and at least locally famous—he deserved it…
It was warm and sunny and did not rain once. It was affordable, even to us. The food, once we went off-book, was delicious, especially to a seafood lover like me, and even a plate full of smoked herring with eyes still staring at me was an adventure. The architectural monuments were breathtaking. It was easy to get around, both to the train station in Cascais from where we made our way to Portugal, and further afield, to Sintra. And my shoes did not try to kill me.
This is still the gold standard of vacations for us. I have subsequently wondered if it was largely being at the right place at the right time, having no expectations and simply enjoying everything that the place offered. After the disaster that was the First Spanish Trip [The First Spanish Trip – Old Lady Writing], it was almost too much to expect something normal. But the stars aligned, and it was a treat for every sense. The view from our window: The famed tiled streets: Lisbon, magnificent yet still approachable: Picturesque Sintra: Fascinating museums, including the jewel that is the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian: .
We fell in love—and stayed away for 17 years for fear of disillusionment, in case lightning does not strike twice.
From Wikipedia: Casino Royale was inspired by certain incidents that took place during Fleming’s wartime career at the Naval Intelligence Division (NID), or by events of which he was aware. On a trip to Portugal, en route to the United States, Fleming and the NID Director, Admiral Godfrey, went to the Estoril Casino. Because of Portugal’s neutral status, Estoril’s population had been swelled by spies and agents from the warring regimes.
 And none of it was port. We literally spent a week in Portugal and did not try any port. That was kind of weird.
 There was also the delightful surprise of the European Figure Skating Championship taking place at the same time—and being televised in its entirety on Portuguese TV. How perfect is that?
 Spoiler alert: it does.