The Iberian Peninsula
The Iberian Peninsula is called the Iberian Peninsula because the Greeks called the folks who lived there in ancient times “Iberians.” Not that interesting, but important context. Technically, a small part of southern France, Andorra, and Gibraltor are also part of the Iberian Peninsula, but we didn’t go there.
We (my girlfriend and I) did, however, go to Portugal and Spain.
Something cool I learned is that Portugal is the oldest country in the world. Its borders have been consistent since the 1100s. It was ruled by the Hapsburgs, then there was a republic, followed by a revolution, then a dictator, and finally a democracy. All that was told to me during a (free) walking tour of Porto, which was my favorite city on the trip.
Porto is sort of like Florence in that it’s rustic and filled to the brim with enchanting little cobblestone streets and red staccato roofs. It’s sort of like San Francisco in that it’s extremely hilly and surrounded by valleys where they make wine (and there’s a noticeable amount of homeless).
But it’s totally unique in the sense that the people aren’t Italians or Americans, the wine is so sweet it could give you a cavity, and there’s a beautiful view of something around every corner. We spent three days exploring Porto, and it didn’t feel like enough.
Best things we did:
- Douro valley wine tour (90 euro each)
- Free city walking tour
- Bike out to the beach at Lavadores
- Dinner at A Grade by the river (Pork cheeks were on point)
- Catching the view of Porto from the Gaia side of the river
- See the landmarks: Porto Cathedral, Igreja dos Clerigos (largest granite structure in the world), and Bolsa Palace
Things we didn’t have time to do:
- Eat a franceshina (sandwich made w/ 5 different kinds of meat and melted cheese; a local delicacy)
- Visit Foz (“the Malibu of Porto”)
- Visit Serralves (contemporary art museum)
Our visit to Porto was preceded by Lisbon, where we spent the first leg of our trip. Lisbon struck me as extremely cosmopolitan and very quaint at the same time. On the one hand, you have Barrio Alto (where we stayed), which is filled with shops and restaurants. On the weekend, folks crowd the narrow cobblestone streets and party until the sun comes up (not an exaggeration). But once you walk into the surrounding neighborhoods (namely Alfama and Chiado) and wander down a cobblestone side street (note: everything in Portugal is made of cobblestones), it feels a lot more like…Porto.
I think the key difference is that Lisbon is a more international city. There are trendier stores, more languages spoken, more tourist traps, and a stronger lineup of museums. I went to the Berardo in Belem, which boasted a great array of contemporary art. Two awesome things right by the Berardo: The Tower of Belem, a surreal-looking mid-evil fortress that looks like it’s floating in the Tagus River, and Pateis de Belem, which reportedly makes the best custard tarts (a delicacy in Portugal) in all of Lisbon.
Other good stuff:
- Catching a Fado concert (sad Portugese singing that comes from sad gypsy singing)
- Partying on Pink Street
- Visting Castelo de S. Jorge (cool Moorish castle)
- Walking the city at night (Lisbon looks really cool lit up)
Stuff we didn’t have time to do:
- Go to the beaches at Cascais
- Visit the MAAT museum
- Visit Sintra (town north of Lisbon with cool castles)
We drove from Lisbon to Porto and stopped along the way in Coimbra and Aveiro. Aveiro is known as the “Venice of Portugal,” even though it only has one canal. In short, you don’t need to go there.
Coimbra, on the other hand, was worth it. It’s a college town that reportedly was the inspiration for Hogwarts (JK Rowling lived in Portugal for many years before writing Harry Potter). The University of Coimbra is situated on a large hill overlooking the Mondego river. Once again, there were charming cobblestone streets to walk down and nice views to take in.
We also got one of our best meals of the trip in Coimbra—a little nondescript cafe that served us tapas’ of cheese, meat dumplings, and bruschetta (generally speaking we didn’t find Portugal to be a “foodie” destination). The best thing about Coimbra was getting to observe the students—some of whom wear black cloaks that make them look like…wizards (apparently, it’s some kind of freshman hazing ritual, we saw it in Porto too).
Also, we heard this cool saying in Coimbra that I think helps explain Portugal to outsiders: “Porto works, Braga Prays, Coimbra studies, and Lisbon gets the money.”
Madrid is a big city. And I mean that in a bad way. For someone coming from NYC (and I mean this in the most snobbish way possible), Madrid is nothing special. Our first mistake was staying in a hostel (in Porto and Lisbon we had Airbnbs—very cheap) right next to Plaza del Sol (“Plaza of the Sun”). It’s essentially the Times Square of Madrid, and is also interestingly enough situated in nearly the exact center of the country. All of the other historical sites around Plaza del Sol are tainted by the fact that they’re within a stone’s throw of a McDonald’s, Taco Bell, or Zara. However, there is the world’s oldest restaurant nearby (“Sobrino de Botín,” which opened in 1725)—so that’s cool.
Our second mistake was not getting tickets early to go to the Prado Museum, which is known as the best museum in Spain. Instead, we went to the Sofia, which actually had Picasso’s “Guernica” on display. My favorite part of Madrid was probably staring at the Guernica for 20 minutes—it’s a very good painting. The Sofia also has a good selection of Salvador Dali’s work, including “The Infinite Masturbator,” which is one of my favorites.
Other things you might want to do:
- Thyssen Bornemisza museum (renaissance and modern art)
- Royal Palace of Madrid (1000+ rooms and yet nobody lives there)
- Debod Temple (an Egyptian Pyramid in the middle of town!)
- Flamenco show
- Bad Company bar (an “American-style” speakeasy in Madrid. Speakeasies—and cocktails—are sort of a foreign concept in Europe because they never had prohibition, so it was fun to experience a European take on an American thing)
Things we wish we didn’t do:
- Every hostel bar crawl
- Every meal beside a place called La Mi Venta, known to have the best ham in Spain (they love their ham)
- El Rastro market (a glorified flea market)
- Not staying in Malasana (a much hipper neighborhood)
Our last day we took a day trip to Toldeo (1 hour by bus)—an ancient walled city that used to be the capital of Spain before Madrid. This was just a really solid town to walk around in. It reminded me of a safer version of the Old City of Jerusalem because it was filled with Arab, Christian, and Jewish monuments. Like Coimbra, the entire city is perched upon a hill offering panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. If I was writing a novel, I’d probably rent a little apartment in Toldeo for three months and walk the streets every morning and write in the charming cafes until the sun went down. That feels like a pretty good life.
Go to the Iberian Peninsula
Especially Portugal. If I could do Spain over, I’d go to Barcelona or Sevilla. But hey, we got a $220 round trip flight by flying into and out of Madrid with a layover both ways in Lisbon. And on the flight in, we just hopped off in Lisbon instead of catching our connecting flight. You can’t beat that value.