Where to begin? How about the end…
It’s my last night in Portugal. I’m standing at a Miradouro, a viewpoint that offers sweeping panoramic views of Lisbon and beyond, right across the wide Tagus river.
It is sunset and I am looking out over the jumble of red tiled rooftops, church spires, and I’m trying to take it all in. Trying to hold onto this vision, this light, the memories of this place.
I always get nostalgic on my last night when visiting somewhere… Maybe nostalgia is not the right word… But I don’t want to let it go, yet know that these moments slip away like handfuls of water through my fingers.
I want to remember it all…The sights, the sounds, the smells, the sensations. These are the things I want to carry with me after I leave.
And so these are the things I want to convey through my images here with you now…
More than just images, I want to convey the sensory experience of Portugal.
This is a collection of snippets of experience, of sensations, that taken together will perhaps tell a story.
So let’s travel together, from this last day, to the first, and back again…
Lisbon – part one
Our first taste of Portugal.
Picked up at the airport by our Airbnb host, we are driven across the busy city, as he gives us a history lesson describing the sights as we wind through narrow streets. He stops in at a wine shop, and comes out with a bottle: Something special from his family’s vineyard far North in the famous Douro valley region. This kindness is a theme we will experience again & again from the people we meet on this trip.
Soon, we are at the first of four homes we will stay in on our visit to the country. Hungry and tired from a long overnight travel from Toronto, Canada, we don’t stay long before we venture out to find food, and begin our adventure.
Right away I am struck by the textures of the city. Cobblestone streets. Cobblestone sidewalks. Decoratively tiled walls everywhere. Ornate doorways, and ornate doorknobs. Crumbling, colourful buildings with more character than anything back where we live.
We walk along the streets, our hands running along the tiled walls, feeling the uniqueness of each square.
Around us are the sounds of new & strange birdsongs… The newness of it all is stimulating.
Over the next couple days we will explore Lisbon & discover much about this city… Ancient buildings alongside modern ones. Tiny coffees, tiny streets, and people with big hearts. I’m a little obsessed with architecture, and Lisbon does not disappoint. I discover some of the most amazing modern buildings I’ve seen in a while, right alongside others that have stood for centuries.
We discover that here in Portugal if you have a baby with you, they immediately take you to the front of the line. So at the incredible Jeronimos Monastery, we are ushered past the long line & head right in. It’s a good consolation prize for traveling overseas with a toddler. Walking towards the balcony of the church, the magical sounds of a choir grows louder as we approach. Crossing the threshold we enter into the giant, vaulted ceiling room, light from the stained glass above us streaming in, adding to the mystical atmosphere. The voices of the choir fills the space, echoing and bouncing off the ancient stone walls. I’m not a religious person, but it is a truly spiritual experience.
A short train ride from Lisbon will take you to a magical place called Sintra… Mountaintop palaces, ancient castle ruins, and fantastical gardens are just a sample of what you will find here.
We wandered through the city and down to the Quinta da Regaleira. There we explored its mystical gardens, with secret tunnels, caverns, and a hard to believe initiation well that plunges 27 metres into the ground. The decorative spiral staircase bringing you down to the dark and wet bottom. A secret passage out from there leads you through a lightless tunnel to stepping stones across a pond. Truly a fantastical place, and a delight to wander.
From these depths, we next climb high above the city, to the Castle of the Moors, an 8th century castle ruin perched atop a hill. Its ancient stone walls curve and undulate between two ridges in dramatic fashion. The wind blew strongly up there, and added to to the atmosphere of our experience, as we climbed the steps and touched the stone walls that have stood here for centuries. I imagined what life must have been like throughout the ages in this incredible place.
We take the train North. Out of the capital city, across rural landscapes… I watch as we pass fields of olive & fruit trees that line the undulating hills, rolling past farm houses & villages.
Soon, we are pulling in to Coimbra, the first capital of Portugal. A city built on a hill above the Mondega river, with a history as old as the land itself. Among other things, it is home to the country’s oldest university (founded in 1290) which is a UNESCO world heritage site. There is much to see & do here, and we will spend a few days exploring it.
At the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Nova (built in the 1300s) we walked the ancient courtyard with no one else around…The only sounds are our footsteps on the well worn stones, chirping birds, and Gregorian music, played from hidden speakers and filling the open space, transporting us back in time… So many places we’d visit were overrun with tourists, but Coimbra was a nice change, and sometimes, like this, we would be the only one’s around.
In this lovely city, one of my fondest memories was while we were enjoying a meal at an outdoor table in the courtyard near the Sé Velha church. We watched as our little toddler cautiously approached an older gentleman, and took a seat next to him on the steps of a doorway. Neither of them could understand one another, but it was clear that they both in that moment brought happiness into each other’s lives.
Coimbra is one of the places that really captured my heart. A compact city to visit, you can easily walk anywhere, yet still find so much to see over a few days. Rain showers here made for dramatic skies, and magical light.
The rain was our companion in Porto, chasing us as we discovered some of it’s iconic sights…The Sâo Bento train station, with it’s decoratively tiled lobby, the Clérigos Church and its iconic tower, the Livraria Lello bookstore & its famous staircase….Even the most beautiful McDonald’s restaurant in the world. Really! Housed within a historic 1930’s art deco building, The McDonald’s Imperial was renovated to keep some of the original features like the stained glass, and chandeliers.
We also were lucky to connect with Bruno Garcez, another photographer who had helped us plan our visit to this city. He met with us along the Rua Das Flores a busy & beautiful street lined with shops, and we made our way down to the waterfront and Porto’s famous Ribeira. Here we looked across the Douro river at the port wine cellars, and the historic Rabelo boats that once carried the wine in wooden barrels from up the Douro valley.
We couldn’t leave the city without a sample, and so Bruno brought us to a bar where we sipped the delicious & sweet port wine, and enjoyed the warmth it gave us on the cool rainy day.
The warmth of the drink was only matched by the warmth of his welcoming generosity that day. It was a shame our visit was so brief, but that is just the way it goes with travels sometimes.
From the North to South we would travel by train. Landing on the Southern Coast of Portugal, in Lagos, with the ocean air, and warm sunshine greeting us.
And here, it is the smell of orange blossoms that captivate me…So powerful and beautiful it is almost unbelievable. Walking down the street to our home, the delicious fragrance is the first thing that greets us, from a stand of trees in a courtyard across from the Airbnb, I could follow it blindfolded.
And here it is the sound of seagulls that I can’t forget. Ever present, flying over the old city, and perched on top of the houses, their plaintiff cries almost like the cries of a baby… We would enjoy sitting on our rooftop patio at dusk, sipping Portuguese wine, watching & listening to them in the fading light.
I’ll never forget the twinkling sunlight reflecting on the sea as we hike along the Ponta da Piedade in Lagos…High along a jagged shoreline of cliffs, sea caves, and crumbling islands of rock… The twisting trails would lead to viewpoints with sheer dropoffs to the water below, or to winding staircases that brought us down to tiny sheltered beaches where the waves would roll in and massage the sand and stones at our feet.
From Lagos we rented a car for a couple days & drove out to the West Coast of the Algarve. Here we explored the beaches along the most Western point of Europe, where the winds were wild, and everywhere you looked was a surfer’s paradise. I would definitely had enjoyed a longer stay in this Southern part of Portugal. I envied the surfers, with boards on the roofs of their vans, following the sea swells along this coastline of almost endless beaches and perfect waves. It is my motivation to return.
In fact, I would return the very next day to the beaches, & experience one of the most pleasant moments of this trip for me. It was on the morning of my 44th birthday, and as I sat on a surfboard gently floating on the cool waves off the Algarve Coast, a warm rain began to fall. The droplets were splashing all around me in the ocean, touching the skin of my face, and in that moment I was not caring about anything in the world, but just enjoying the sensation. I didn’t care if I caught another wave, it was the perfect moment, and the perfect way to celebrate the start of a new year of my life.
Lisbon – part two
In Lisbon, there is a tour you can do where they blindfold you, and walk you through the Alfama district. This is a historic part of the city, made up of a labyrinth of narrow streets, alleys, and staircases. The point of the tour is to use your other senses, touch, smell, hearing. We often rely on our eyes to gather most memories of a place, but this idea truly appeals to me. I find myself often focusing on the sounds around me, or the smells…sitting silently, trying to collect more than just visual memories.
Spending the last few days of our trip to Portugal in this area, we delighted in doing nothing but wandering with no particular destination. Blossoming citrus trees, cafés, and artisans were everywhere. We could turn a corner & discover tilemakers, art galleries, potters, or clothing designers, tucked into the smallest spaces, each with their own beautiful & unique creations.
Sometimes we’d detour down a staircase to find laneways brimming with potted plants, and the iconic lines of laundry, flapping in the wind like the wings of the ever present pigeons… Cats, and old women smiling from windows & doorways.
And the light…everywhere we went, the light was magic. Whether we were gazing out at midday from a castle wall high above city, or watching the fading sunlight reflecting off ancient walls, the light in Portugal never disappointed. Even on the overcast rainy days… The wet stones & red tiles glistened with a beauty and vibrance that has to be experienced firsthand to truly appreciate.
And so finally, back to the last night here…
I find myself standing at the Miradouro, looking out over the city, with the sound of a classical guitar being played behind me at the base of the Igreja da Graça…The music mingling with the sounds of the birds… Their beautiful melodies drifting down out of the trees…I sit in stillness, watching, listening. The music, the birds, the chatter of friendly voices in many languages, and the hum of the city below. It is another perfect moment.
The sun is slowly setting over the city skyline, and I have that sad feeling of knowing that this magical adventure is coming to an end…
Finally the sun disappears beyond the city, twinkling out for what feels like anything but just another day.
I walk over to the terrace bar & decide to have a taste of the famous Ginjinha, a liqueur made from ginja berries (sour cherry). I strike up a conversation with a fellow next to me, David, from Cape Verde. He is a musician, and is about to start playing for the thinning crowd. I order a second drink for him, and as we share it we talk about following our passions, and doing what we love. It is a good chat, and a good way to end my time here. As I leave he plays a song for me…’Saudade’.
It is an auspicious choice, as saudade essentially means the love that remains after someone is gone. It is the memory of places, of experiences, & feelings. It is a deep nostalgic longing.
He couldn’t haven chosen a more appropriate song in this moment… and as I make my way back to the apartment the sounds of the music slowly fades, like the sun, and my time in this wonderful country…
I am a Fuji mirrorless shooter & for this trip, I brought a Fuji XT2, (and XT1, which my girlfriend used), and 3 Fuji lenses: The 16mm 1.4, 35mm f2, & 56mm 1.2. Because it is a crop sensor, the equivalent focal length of these lenses are 24mm, 52mm, & 84mm. Most often I either had the 16, or 35 on my camera, as I tend to shoot wider when traveling, to capture more environmental shots.
Along with (too many) spare batteries & memory cards, I also had a 4TB WD MyPassport Wifi v2 hard drive to backup my images. This little drive is great, as it has an SD card slot built in, and so you can set it up to automatically backup your photos & videos automatically when you insert a card into the drive. So as well as keeping the original SD cards, I had a backup of all my images on the drive. It has other great features too: It works as a battery backup for your devices (phones, etc). It also has an app to view the content on the drive, allowing you to review your images, even in RAW format, and transfer them to your phone or other device if you want to share them to social media from there. You can even load other content onto the drive, so if you feel like you need to bring a movie or something to watch, you can stream it from the drive to your phone. Pretty cool.
I carried a very small Promaster tripod on this trip, and a couple B&W ND filters (3 stop & 6 stop) because I knew I would want to do some long exposures of the ocean once we were in the Algarve region. I chose the circular NDs as they were compact, and relatively affordable while still producing great results. Stacking them I could get 9 stops, for some longer exposures.
The tripod is small enough that I could just throw it into my backpack for the few times I brought it out.
Speaking of backpacks, I used the same bag I have been traveling with for years… A Herschel ‘Little America’ backpack, with a padded camera insert in the bottom. It is practical, allows me to toss some extra gear in the top half, and looks good too, without screaming ‘camera bag’. I have a blog post about how I put it together HERE: DIY Camera Backpack