When people ask me which is my favorite of the countries I've visited so far, I never hesitate. Although I have yet to visit a country that I haven't liked, and there are several standouts, one country, so far, is the clear favorite.
It's Portugal. And it all started six years ago today.
I had already spent a few days in Madrid on the Iberian Capitals trip, and had a great time in Spain. But I flew into Lisbon on the morning of February 8, 2015, and by the end of the evening, I knew this was my kind of town.
After checking into my hostel, I walked down to the Praca do Comercio public square on the riverfront, then took the trolley to the Discoveries Monument (Padrao dos Descobrimentos) to watch the sunset on the Tagus River. I then returned to the hostel for dinner and joined a few of my fellow travelers to see a Fado musical performance.
I was hooked. And that was before I took a day trip to see the castles of Sintra, and before I explored the history, art and panoramic views of the Alfama District.
There's just something so unassumingly charming about Portugal. It's a relatively small country (roughly the size of Maine), but it has a lengthy history and a proud record of world exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries. Today, at least according to Wikipedia, it's among the world leaders in moral freedom (2nd), peacefulness (3rd), democracy (7th), press freedom (10th), stability (14th), social progress (21st) and prosperity (27th). Not bad, eh?
But as a tourist, it is the country's friendliness, authenticity and laid-back atmosphere that really spoke to me. Portugal is not going to try and awe you with an Eiffel Tower, a Burj Khalifa, impressive skyscrapers or glitzy bright lights. It is exactly what it is, and there's something extremely comforting about that.
That was just the first impression. Three years later, I returned to Portugal for a few days at the end of my Morocco tour. This time, I based myself in Porto, the country's second-largest city, beautifully perched along the banks of the Duoro River. Again, I found a fascinating but approachable city with impressive history and culture... and the world's best Port wine. Even a day trip to Aveiro, the so-called 'Venice of Portugal', turned out to be an enjoyable day in a quirky little town that is definitely NOT Venice.
But let me tell you a story that demonstrates what sets Portugal apart for me:
On that second trip to Portugal, I had some, um, "stomach issues" that I probably brought back from Morocco. On my last night of the trip, back in Lisbon, I wandered into a small grocery store looking for some sort of OTC medication that might make the long flight back to the States a little more bearable. After scanning the aisles unsuccessfully, I asked the clerk if there was anything in the store that would help settle my stomach. After apologizing for not having anything for me, the clerk started conversing with the elderly woman behind me in line in Portuguese.
"She says stay here. She has something at home."
Leaving her groceries on the counter, she exits the store. Less than five minutes later, she comes back and hands me a plastic bag with a few antacid tabs and the Portuguese version of Imodium. Despite my insistences, she refused to take any money from me.
That, my friends, is Portugal to me. And while the country is not on this year's hot list, there will be future visits. There are still other parts of the country to discover, and as I begin approaching retirement age, there may even be a few scouting trips to explore the possibility of spending my golden years on the other side of the Atlantic.
For now, the Duolingo app is set to Portuguese.