My brother was obsessed with the idea of going to Lyon. I hadn’t even considered it. France’s third largest city doesn’t bask in hype like Paris or Provence, but if you look closely you’ll find a culinary and cultural cornucopia in a big city that feels like a small town.
Our legs were itching for some lengthy walks after being cooped-up for a couple of weeks so we set off to explore the city. It was surprisingly easy to access most of the city on foot even though the city has great public transit and plenty of bike-share kiosks. I actually had to give away metro ticket because I couldn’t find an excuse to use it before we left. This led to some unexpected viewpoints and great photo opportunities in some of the smaller nooks around the city.
We numbed our sore feet with delicious wines and set about strategizing our meals. We were lucky that my friend Sasha had bought me the Fooding guide for my upcoming stay in Paris because it also included a small section on Lyon. We were doubly lucky that we managed to snag a table at a little restaurant called Palégrié, helmed by Guillaume Monjuré, the winner of last year’s Fooding best chef award. I have to admit that it might have been the best meal of my life when I think that the menu only cost €40. Even with a three glasses of perfectly paired wines and a coffee we still felt like we were robbing them by escaping having left under €60 each. The meal lasted about four hours from the time we arrived at 8pm but at no point did we feel impatient because a steady stream of unexpected dishes kept arriving between the main events.
The kitchen is run by two people, and the dishes were delivered by the one sommelier/waitress/hostess. This was the antithesis of a NYC establishment desperately trying to turn over tables and burn out their kitchen staff. If I lived in Lyon I would probably end up here at least once a month.
Palégrié was the only fancy meal I’ve ever walked away from feeling healthy, but that can’t be said for some of the other restaurants we visited. Pounding the pavement was necessary to help burn the countless calories consumed in Lyon’s historical bouchons.
Lyon’s traditional cuisine is as heavy as the dock workers who used to line the riverfront warehouses. We booked a lunch at one of the classic establishments in town called Le Garet. I knew I had crossed the line when a sizzling cast-iron pan of cervelles meunière (translation omitted so my vegan friends won’t disown me) was not so gently placed in front of me.
But there’s hope for those who want to try bouchon food without the necessary glutton badge. You can opt for a little place called Le Bouchon Des Filles, a newer restaurant run by a couple of women trying to put a lighter, more feminine spin on the classic working-class dishes.
In the end, four full days in Lyon allowed us to really savour the city’s beautiful parks, vibrant markets, waterfront promenades, stunning churches, cinematic museums, futuristic tunnels, and of course its gastronomic legacy. It has all the complex ingredients of the complex French society distilled into a manageable size. It’s pretty much the perfect amuse bouche to the feast that is France.
It was time for another rest. April in the Languedoc with my family was one of the few guideposts I had during this trip. Few paths could compete with the one that promised me good food, great wine, and the most familiar company I know.
After a late night flight from Porto and an overnight on a hard bench in the Paris CDG (timed perfectly with a one hour loss thanks to daylight savings time), I was on my way to Montpellier. At this point I was more excited by my parents’ gracious gift of a cushy hotel room and its accompanying gym than I was to explore a new city but I did manage to do a bit of sightseeing.
Then it was time to pick up the rental car and cruise across the rolling hills dotted with little towns that stood out like islands in a sea of grape vines. This was wine country after all, France’s largest producing region.
The rental house was in a tiny little town called Saint-Genièse-de-Fontedit where the population of things to do was only slightly more than zero. Months of bouncing between renowned cities and exotic locals immersed in a young and social backpacker culture suddenly came screeching to a halt when we drove into the drab and rainy little town with boarded up shops and one empty little working-class bar. Panic set in when I went for my first walk around town and only encountered one young person who was impatiently standing at the bus stop waiting for someone to take him somewhere more interesting.
But after the initial shock, some much-needed sleep-ins, a visit from a dear friend, the arrival of my brother, and some better weather, I readjusted to the slower pace of life that the French are famous for.
The month melted away into a blur of delicious home-cooked meals sourced from local markets and winery tastings. Any weight I had lost in Asia was regained thanks to fresh baguettes and fatty cheeses, not to mention the almost daily croissants. But would it be France without stuffing one’s face? I’m pretty confident that it was the entire point of being there.
Between meals, we embarked on daily road trips to the surrounding cities, villages, and beaches. The rental car’s GPS allowed us to cover a lot of ground while getting into relatively few fights and sometimes its time-efficient backroad routes gave us a glimpse at some pristine countryside panoramas before stopping to walk around the cozy little towns.
Eventually the small towns and cozy house became too familiar and the road started calling. My brother and I booked a train up to Lyon and Paris for a taste of French city-life, but not before a few more beaches, churches, and roman ruins. It would take me too long to describe all the places we went, and since this post is so long overdue I’m just going bombard you with pictures.
Old Monastery #2
And some very empty beaches…
I visited Porto because it was cheaper to fly out of than Lisbon. I may never visit Porto again because I’m worried I’ve used up all the luck the city can offer me. I got off the train with no expectations and stumbled into one of the better weekends of my trip thanks to chance encounters with friendly strangers, close calls with dramatic weather, and a whole lot of fortified wine.
Porto is famous for being the home of Port, the sweet fortified wine that your favourite British professor probably drank before lecture. I think the city should be renowned for a lot more than its booze.
First of all, its train station is gorgeous. The tile work in the main entrance is composed of over twenty thousand hand painted tiles and took eleven years to finish. It’s the first piece of Porto that I saw and it certainly set the tone.
Then there’s all the other tiles scattered around the city. Oh so many tiles! I’d developed a crush on Lisbon’s urban aesthetic but then I saw Porto’s gritty walls contrasted with such colourful tiles and it was love, especially when the buildings wore the residents’ wet laundry around their windows.
And of course there’s food. Porto has its fair share of markets and traditional fare, but what set it apart for me were its northern delicacies. The most famous example being the francesinha, an artery clogger that could go toe to toe with the best of them, and its little brothers the bolinhos (deep fried salt cod fritters) and cachorrinhos (the Porto hot dog).
Oh, and did I mention it could hold its own in a Panorama battle with Lisbon?
Secondly, I’ll just go ahead and say it’s a “lucky” city, at least for me. Whether it was returning to the hostel mere seconds before an unexpected torrential downpour, bumping into a hostel-mate on the street who directed us to a top-tier port tasting and tour that started in a few minutes, or just casually arriving at the platform to catch an airport-bound train that I thought was more regular than thirty minutes, luck just kept on giving.
Last but not least, luck saw to it that I bumped into some other hostel-mates on the street with the same mission as me that morning: coffee and pastries. It didn’t take long after joining forces to realize that I’d made some genuinely great people. The quartet of US-born English teachers are working in Madrid and constantly on the lookout for seat sales that lead them to good food and great sights. When Jennifer told me she’d compiled a food list and was keen on checking off as many Portuguese dishes as possible, I knew I’d be tagging along with them. Thankfully she wrote a great blog post about some shared plates and adventures so I can cut this one short and just post pictures.
It’s pretty hard to visit Lisbon and not take a day trip out to Sintra. When chatting around the hostel it was not a matter of “if” but “when.” I went on the day where four other dorm-mates agreed to my ambitious plan of buying the day pass to tackle Sintra, Cabo da Roca, and Cascais all in the same day. We made a wake-up pact to ensure our early departure and dismiss any guilt around making a bunch of noise early in the morning.
Catching a train was easy (they leave every 20 minutes) and the day passes even gave us free use of the bus which was much more enjoyable than climbing the steep hills up to our first destination, the Palácio da Pena.
Sintra was a traditional summer getaway for Portuguese nobles. Nestled high in the mountains, the cool breezes were a welcome relief from the stifling heat of the city. I, however, was not there in the summer and didn’t appreciate the wailing gales coming off the Atlantic, especially considering that I had yet to acclimatize to the European chill after months in the sweltering tropics.
We found refuge in the castle’s stunning interiors where elaborate furniture and ornaments were on display. Sometimes I’d pop out for shots of the castle exterior or its panoramic views, but mainly I was happy staring at old chandeliers and ornamental furnishings.
We briefly strolled through the castle gardens but our hearts (or rather stomachs) were set on warm pastries. Sintra is the birthplace of its own little gems. Our first stop was Sapa, the bakery where queijadas originated before moving on to Piriquita for its travesseiros. Both were decent, but nowhere close to the pastel de nata.
Rejuvenated by the pastries and caffeine, we visited the the Quinta da Regaleira and sought-out its famous underground passages and mystical well whose stairs lead up from the proverbial pits of hell into the light of heaven.
Alas, the heaven we climbed up to was cold and rainy so we set our sights on Cabo da Roca and hopped on a bus which was then driven at breakneck speeds on windy mountain roads by a maniacal driver who seemed oblivious to the fact that half of us were standing up and holding on for dear lives. (Maybe we never climbed out of the well?)
The journey paid off with the stunning sunset light illuminating the western-most point of continental Europe and its barren landscape sculpted by the fury of the Atlantic winds. We all had some fun being pummelled by its force and were lucky enough to catch the last bus to Cascais.
But by the time we got to Cascais the sun had set and all we cared about was finding real food in a warm restaurant before getting on a train back to our warm showers and suddenly luxurious dorm bunks.
An e-mail had suggested that I should make a day-trip out to Obidos. I’d heard there was a chocolate festival going on in a nearby town during the days I was in town. When I figured out that the chocolate festival was in Obidos, it was kind of a no-brainer.
Obidos is only about 80km away and busses run on a semi-regular basis for less than €8, so I made my way to the bus station fantasizing about an old medieval town made of chocolate.
In the end, the chocolate festival was disappointing due to a noticeable lack of free samples and very little to do given the fact that we had to pay to get in, but walking-off the calories along the old city walls ended up being far more enjoyable than stuffing my face with mediocre chocolate anyways.
At least the chocolate festival gave me the excuse I needed to visit this beautiful medieval town and for that I’m grateful. The town is a perfect size for a day-trip since you can pretty much see all of it in a few hours and there are plenty of shops and cafes to enjoy. Hopefully these pictures will give you the excuse you need to visit even without the promise of sweet indulgences.
There are two reasons that you’ll be urged to visit the suburb of Belém.
The first is that it is home to several of Lisbon’s museums, which are all free on Sunday mornings. Never one to pass on free culture, I hopped on a tram to see the famous Jerónimos Monastery and Belém Tower only to realize that the free admission comes at the price of being surrounded by all the other cheapskates lining up with you.
The second and most likely motive is that it’s the home of the famous pastel de nata, that sweet egg custard held in a flaky pastry shell that Portugal and some of its former colonies have become known for. Pastéis De Belém is said to have started selling these treats in 1837 after the liberal movement closed down all the religious institutions and the monks who had been expelled from the monastery down the street had to start selling their perfected pastries.
The place always has huge lineups, but it moves fast and assures that you are getting an egg tart that is straight out of the oven. I can confidently state that they were the best egg tarts I’ve had in my entire life, and I say “they” because one is definitely not enough.
But there’s something you might miss between Belem and Lisbon if you’re not careful. It’s called LX Factory and it was one of my favourite things in the city. This abandoned industrial site was reclaimed by a group of ambitious artists, architects, and designers who converted the old factories and warehouses into boutiques, concert venues, restaurants, galleries, studios, shared workplaces, and of course a giant library with a resident mad scientist who lives upstairs.
Lisbon reminds me of the cute girl in high school who everyone had a crush on but no one dated because they worried that if she became too popular she’d lose the essence of what made her so desirable. I’m not even sure I should post this because she might realize how popular she could be and start prettying herself up for richer suitors as did her friends, Paris and London. She’s unpretentious, she exudes a balanced aura of underground edginess and refined beauty, she likes niche music played in cool bars, and she bakes the tastiest desserts.
A warning: you will be tempted to eat pastries every time your stomach starts to rumble. The famous pastéis de natas are everywhere and you’ll rationalize it by saying, “this will just tide me over until I find a real restaurant.” It’s a dangerous lie. What’s worse, you’ll want to wash it down with ginja, a sour cherry liqueur served in a chocolate cup that you can then eat. You’ll be enticed by every listing in The Purple Foodie’s dessert-heavy “Eating In Lisbon” list. Your taste buds will be happy but your stomach will hate you.
Your blood sugar levels will look like a rollercoaster unless you save room for some of the more protein-rich savoury treats like grilled pork sandwiches (bifanas), cured ham (jamón), salt cod friters (croquete de bacalhau), or the must-try seafood rice (arroz de marisco).
If eating-in is a viable option, you’ll find plenty of fresh produce to at the markets and you’ll also be able to get acquainted to one of my new favourite Portuguese delicacies: preserved fish. I always considered canned fish to be a utilitarian source of protein until I chanced-upon a tin of canned tuna with chickpeas on sale at a local market. What was originally part of a budget-conscious hostel dinner led to a spending-spree at Loja De Conservas, a store dedicated entirely to tinned fish from Portugal. This place will change the way you feel about canned sardines, I promise.
The good news is that you’ll be able to work-off these calories trudging up Lisbon’s steep cobblestone roads. It’s called the city of seven hills for a reason! Bring a good pair of walking shoes because what looks like a short jaunt between neighborhoods on a map may end up being closer to the hike you did last summer. Sure there are some funiculars but they’re expensive and frankly I’d rather spend the money on a tasty treat that I just bought myself for all the calories I burned walking up the hill. The hills and stairs also force you to slow down and appreciate the little details like the intricate tile facades that cover most buildings.
You’ll probably end up climbing up to the castle at some point and the entrance fee does pay-off with some stellar panoramic views of the city, but unlike other cities whose birds-eye-views come with a price tag, Lisbon provides plenty of free lookouts that allow you to admire this shy beauty from afar (and hopefully on a full stomach).