My Trip To Portugal, Summarized by Five Remarkable Bathroom Visits (Part I)
Casinha das Flores, our first Lisbon Hotel
(Spoiler alert… there’s actually not much to say about the bathroom situation here, it’s more to set up the rest by giving you an overall view of Lisbon. If you were super intrigued by the bathroom stories, hang with me. They’re coming, weirdo).
We arrive in Lisbon on a red-eye; Vin groggy from his Dramamine hangover, me exhausted and achy after attempting some choice sleeping positions on our 7.5-hour trans-Atlantic flight. Because I do most of my booking through the prestigious Cheapo Air, our flights lack that old-school airliner razzle-dazzle and/or basic comfort (stay tuned for Part II of this story to see what I mean). This particular plane seems really old and the space between seats is so minimal I find it difficult to breathe. But on Swiss Air, your vexing neighbors and disjointed slumber are all but forgotten once you’re stirred awake by a pretty blonde in a red hat offering mini chocolate bars.
We catch an Uber to Casinha das Flores, which feels like a cross between a traditional bed and breakfast and a slightly boutique-y hotel.
The living room was brushed with warm melted butter and two sets of French doors opened up to narrow patios lined with bursting red and pink flowers. German and Russian travelers relax on the worn leather sofas in the evenings, everyone basically ignoring one another since they don’t speak a common language. Down the hallway, a glorious 200-year old kitchen covered in light blue tiles sparks fantasies of moving to Europe and banging copper pots around a distressed cast-iron sink. There’s a hand-painted wooden table in the center of the room where traditional orange and almond cakes are veiled by vintage glass domes and four sweaty bottles offer lemon water and slightly warmed juice. This room speaks to me on a spiritual level and deserves its own movie scene.
Our accommodations are simple, functional and serve their purpose for the next three days. As Queens residents we are accustomed to constantly running into one another while trying to skirt around our belongings, so the size is really of no consequence to us. All the hotel rooms we stay in are tiny, and though it doesn’t phase us in the slightest, I wonder how non-city dwellers adjust to such shrinkage. We put our stuff away and step out to explore the city.
The streets of Lisbon are paved with flat, tiny cobblestones— black, grey and white— arranged artfully into symmetric grids, graphic figure-eights and hypnotic swirls. They are narrow and colorful and as steep as San Francisco, so men in three-wheeled tuk-tuks pedal around and around, looking for passengers to relieve. The more romantic way to move through the hills is by tram, those iconic yellow-and-white vintage cars that ring-a-ding-ding while wobbling past the sweating crowds.
Like many European cities, the buildings are very old and kind of crumbly, with decaying facades and narrow iron balconies lined with clay flower pots and laundry rippling in the breeze. But in Portugal the buildings’ colors are richer and more vibrant than you can imagine, many washed in fearless hues of yellow, salmon or pink. Others are covered in those famously graphic bits of vintage tile, chipped and scratched but still as vivid in color as the day they were hung. The ones that have completed their service are sold as souvenirs throughout flea markets in old Alfama on Saturday afternoons.
There are pastelarias on nearly every block, their storefront windows stacked with trays of tiny almond cookies and pine-nut covered tarts and flaky pastries shaped like crescent moons. Inside, long counters overflow with confections born from many shakes of cinnamon and an alarming amount of egg yolks. Apparently most of Portugal’s sweets were invented in monasteries by nuns in the 15th century, who starched their clothing with egg whites and needed to find a use for the leftovers. Like papos de ano, where egg yolks are whipped until they swell before they’re baked and boiled lightly in sugar syrup flavored with rum, vanilla, or orange peel and finally wrapped in a communion wafer. And of course, the iconic pastel de nata-- rich and decadent and sold for one euro basically everywhere, their light pastry shells cradling a dense eggy custard and the tops cracked and caramelized by a culinary torch. They’re a lot like mini creme brulees, but with a bit of crunch from the pastry shell. If you’ve never had this treat, I encourage you to seek them out because life is short and they taste like heaven.
Our first day in Lisbon is Vin’s birthday and all the drug dealers in town must have sensed a celebration because we are approached no fewer than eight times in our first 30 minutes walking around Chiado. One thing my pre-trip research did not prepare me for was how often we would be offered drugs. These men would scatter like cockroaches throughout the touristy areas, waiting for someone on vacation to creep behind and whisper, “Hashish? Marijuana? Cocaine?” My husband is straight as an arrow but looks very much like your typical American stoner, and we couldn’t get three feet without someone saying, “I got good stuff, man” before blooming his palm to show us. We always laughed at that last bit, as if quality control was the only thing preventing us from buying drugs on the street. These poor guys had no idea who they were dealing with; Americans won’t buy a sandwich without reading a review first.
This is getting lengthy and we still have a few bathrooms to visit so let me rush through this next part to give you a quick overview of our time in Lisbon:
…Brazilian street performers so joyous they make me cry, fresh shrimp suspended in pools of garlic and olive oil and tender octopus the size of my elbow, vintage sardine cans stacked like old records, having my heart broken by a few tender ballads in a dark Fado bar, the Tower of Belem, tiny shots of cherry liquor bought from a vintage kiosk and knocked back quickly in an alley, selfie sticks (so many selfie sticks), and many many more pastel de nata…
Okay, moving on.
Bathroom Visit #1: Lisbon, the hotel where we eat our breakfast each morning
We are served a buffet breakfast of salty ham and triangles of mild white cheese along with an assortment of thick yogurts and flavorless cereals (and some very mediocre coffee If I’m being honest ) in an adjacent 400-year-old hotel that is basically an antique urban mansion decorated to my exact taste. The guests eat in a set of adjoining parlour rooms, connected to a main living area with large French doors that have been pushed wide open to invite in a mellow breeze and some lovely late morning sunlight. In the corner, a man is playing French classics on an antique piano while cherubic European children in tidy Zara separates smile and giggle while gathering at his feet. Every time I fret about the world feeling like a bleak, sadistic, tyrannical thunderdome I try to remind myself that it’s also the venue for gentle and beautiful moments like this.
We are just about ready to hit the streets for the day, except I must make a trip to the bathroom because that it where I spend three-quarters of my life. Anyone who knows me well is familiar with my spiteful bladder, which is about the size of a pine nut and always getting in my way of a good time. The powder room in this place is predictably beautiful and in perfectly worn antique condition. There’s a clawfoot tub and a white ceramic sink with shapely knobs, real wooden walls and some black and white tiling that is so great it makes me consider redoing my entire house and wardrobe. Oddly, the bulk of the vintage commode is constructed from wood, while the bowl is divided into two compartments, so that whatever is deposited into the top portion elegantly drifts down to the bottom and is cleverly concealed.
I do what I do best (and often!) while enjoying the accommodations. I live in a home without a bathtub, so I always enjoy the sight of one as they are a symbol of self-care and utter relaxation. Once the task is complete, however, I start to panic as I realize that this toilet is purely decorative because there is no possible way to flush it. My heart starts to race and my brow begins to furrow as I come to grips with the fact that I just pished in a fancy bedpan glued to a wall. I pull down my skirt and move across the room to sit on the side of the clawfoot tub and mull over my options. I reflect on the David Sedaris essay where he is faced with the unthinkable and briefly considers throwing poop out a window.
Just when my underarms begin to go completely damp, I spy a beacon of hope across the room— two disportionate golden nipples nearly camouflaged by the wooden wall. I push one and turn the other, and am rewarded with a whisper-quiet but effective swirl and evacuation.
As I exit the room, I make sure to open the door super wide and snap a photograph with my cell phone so that if anyone has been clocking how much time I spent in there they’ll think I’m just a decor enthusiast and not a dope American who can’t flush a toilet.
Bathroom Visit #2 (through 10, really): Our Bed & Breakfast in Sintra, Portugal
The town of Sintra is a charming and magical whistle-stop in the foothills of the Sintra mountains a short 45 minutes outside of Lisbon, where Portuguese royals kept massive pastel-colored estates, ornate mansions and lush secret gardens. These villas are intricately designed and beautiful beyond description but I wouldn’t know much about them since I spent the majority of our 18 hours in Sintra with my head in the toilet.
I ate more shellfish and octopus than advisable during our time in Portugal, but it was surprisingly some oily tourist-trap pizza that took me out. Our bed and breakfast was thankfully adorable, and had a more comfortable bed and a much bigger bathroom floor than our other hotels, which I felt grateful for. Thankfully things eased up a few hours before we were catching a four-hour train to Porto, or I’d have had more remarkable bathroom trips to report here.
Bathroom Visit #3: A VERY mediocre coffee shop in Porto
I loved pretty much everything about Portugal except for the coffee, which is a real shame since I can carve out an entire day’s itinerary around a good latte. Dissatisfied with my first cup of the day, I forced Vin to google a respectable alternative so we ducked around the crowds on the narrow streets and ended up in what was basically the Portuguese knockoff of Starbucks. This cup was equally blah and seriously huge, and I predictably had to urinate three sips in because my bladder is waging a quiet war against all other parts of me, including and especially my soul. There were three bathrooms in the back, all labeled WC on the door, and they were only accessible via punchcode. I struggled with the first two doors, but eventually made it through the third. I raced toward the commode and shut the inner door behind me.
The flush was so loud I never heard the outer door open again, and when I emerged to wash my hands, came face to face with a tall man in a nice hat standing over the urinal. He looked me straight in the eye and very confidently whipped out his euro-peen.
Bathroom Visit #4: Our final hotel in Lisbon, last night in Portugal
We stayed in a proper hotel in lieu of an airbnb for our last night in Lisbon and it was a pretty decent place with the weirdest bathroom we’ve ever seen. The entire room was mirrored so you couldn’t shower without giving yourself a full-frontal peep show, and the bathtub was set about two feet from the bed, separated by a pane of glass. There was a privacy screen you could pull up or down to give your accompanied guest the liberty of deciding whether or not they’d like to observe you on the toilet.
I think a lot of travelers would enjoy a set-up like this as it offers a host of unique and super-specific foreplay options, but after nearly 17 years together, my husband and I are most turned on by the safe and predictable comfort of a properly shut door. As it was, the minute I pulled down the screen and turned on the shower, Vin commented that he could see my silhouette as I washed my hair and shaved my legs. I briefly considered recreating Jennifer Beals’ scene from Flashdance where she sprays herself with water while bending over a dining room chair, but I didn’t pack my legwarmers and Vin was too distracted by his cell phone to really appreciate the gesture. What a feeling.
Check in tomorrow for Part II, where I convince you to save up those Delta Sky Miles because UNITED IS STILL THE WORST.