Porto and Lisbon

Portugese Road Sign

** von René Chinquapin **

I’d visited Porto and Lisbon once before, in 1967, during the Salazar dictatorship. Like Ireland back then, I found Portugal mired in the past, its people despairing and poverty-stricken.

          In the Fall of 2018 I visited once again.

          I began by contacting Servas Hosts in Lisbon, to little avail. It seems that Air B&B has dislodged Servas for many hosts, for life in Portugal is still hard and the Portuguese need the extra income AirBnB affords. Visiting Portugal is affordable for us, but through the introduction of the Euro life tehre has become horrifically expensive for the Portuguese themselves whose salaries have lagged way behind. One Lisbon Servas hostess tried to fit me in between paying guests but it didn’t work out. Another Servas fellow kept juggling me from one date to another. Most did not respond at all.

          I eventually ended up renting an Air BnB room where it turned out I could not sleep at all for all the noise in the street below. Not only was there much shouting and yelling in the streets below, but the garbage and recycling was crashingly collected  four times every night, one for paper, one for bottles, etc. I then spent the following three weeks dealing with the bedbugs I picked up in what I can only call a disorderly, dingy, cold, down-and-out fourth-floor walkup apartment with exposed electrical switch boxes.         

          I did spend three nights with that Servas guy juggling Air BnB visitors. I also had to sleep on his lumpy, short couch in his disorderly, dirty living room, often overwhelmed by his huge, extremely friendly dog; forget comfort, forget privacy. I had to share the impossibly tiny, disorganized kitchen with his renters and the terrace was screaming loud with dozens and dozens of screeching songbirds and their poop. It was a mess, to say the least.

          My host’s life was so full that the little time he spent with me I had to share him with innumerable WhatsApp friends and admirers. He was a great guy, whom I liked and respected, and he kindly invited me to come and stay with him again. But he also warned me to write many months in advance so that he could somehow squeeze me in.

          Outside Lisbon I had better luck. I stayed with three lovely Servas hostesses west of town who do not receive so many requests. Each of them was single and struggling, financially and with family difficulties. One’s house was being painted — all the furniture was heaped in a corner of the living room. They appreciated my company and support, two of them remaining in contact with me by email afterwards — the human contact was satisfying, as is usually the case with Servas. And I got to see how, behind a facade of modernity and functionality, most Portuguese continue to live hard, hard lives, radically different from life in cushy Austria.

          It was the same story in Porto, where only one of the hosts I contacted responded. She wrote back that she was so overwhelmed that I could only stay one night and that she had only assented to my visit because I had written that I am a cat person.

          Basically, it seems, visiting Porto with Servas is pretty much out of the question.

          In Porto as in Lisbon, I ended up renting an Air BnB room pretty far out of town where a few surprises awaited me. I learned upon arrival that the host was not staying there during my stay at all and had given one of his legal clients permission to use his bedroom. Not the host but a neighbor opened the place up for me and showed me my room. That night a total stranger slept in the room next to me. Next day, the apartment door lock broke. For the entire stay I had to leave the apartment door unlocked when I went out to explore town.

          Paying for an Air BnB alternative to staying with a Servas host can be, in Lisbon and Porto, well, challenging. Even staying with Servas hosts can be difficult as well, despite their best intentions and efforts. Life is hard there.

          With much effort and travail I did get to visit these two wonderful cities; I did get to enjoy great museums; I did get to spend a warm, late-fall afternoon listening to the waves beat on the beach. I don’t regret my visits, but I returned to Vienna exhausted and glad to still still during the Winter.

          Something that I’d like to share with readers of this piece is that Portugal has lost not only its far-flung empire since I was there last, it has lost its industry and agriculture as well, leaving it nearly entirely dependent on tourism. The central areas of Porto and Lisbon were simply mobbed with French, Italian, German and British tourists. Streets too were full of whizzing tuk-tuks, tiny open taxis resembling what one sees in Asia — one nearly ran me over.

Portugese Church

          Portugal now resembles what Florence, Paris and Amsterdam have been these fifty years, namely, such strong tourist magnets that during the tourist season, masses of tourists, not locals, throng the downtowns of these cities. The plus side of all this is all the Portuguese I spoke with spoke English well, better than the Italians and French.

          The big downside for me, this time, anyway, is that seemed to me that  these tourists seemed to have no interest in relating to other tourists. We were all on parallel tracks, so to speak, each seeking the same experiences promised in every guidebook. I felt quite lonely in the crowds of gawking tourists, mostly couples there for few days of romance.

          Should you wish to visit Porto and or Lisbon, I sorrowfully suggest that you do not do so with Servas, nor with an affordable AirBnB room, but that you pay whatever it takes to stay in a perhaps sterile but comfortable, clean, vermin-free, secure hotel room or more expensive AirBnB. Moreover, I would book a long time in advance.

          Porto and Lisbon are wonderful cities with a great deal to offer. The Portuguese are great folks, well-informed, generous and open-minded. The problem visiting their country is that you will surely find yourself elbowed everywhere by eager, less-than-friendly fellow tourists there a few days to consume the Portugal Experience.

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