Travel Perks in Portugal

Inner voices are a nuisance. Like some tiresome nanny, mine keeps whining about the dangers of pastry overload. I’m sure it just said: “A moment in the mouth, a lifetime on the hips.” But it won’t win this argument.

For travel writers, sampling local food specialties is part of the job. So to ignore the Antiga Confeitaria in Belém, Lisbon’s ancient maritime suburb, would be criminal. Decorated in blue and white azulejo tiles, this bakery/cafe is a shrine to the world’s most heavenly custard tarts—Pastéis de Belém.

Famed throughout Portugal, these are pastries with history. Originally made by monks, the secret recipe of eggs, cream, sugar and pastry was passed to the Confeitaria in 1837.

You can buy Pastéis de Belém to take away, but first sample one in the cafe. Baked until crispy brown on top, they come served warm. And don’t feel guilty about sprinkling them with cinnamon and icing sugar—that’s what you’re supposed to do.

Limiting myself to one pastel (pasteis is the plural) was tortuous. But Lisbon’s traditional bakeries have enough exquisite breads, cakes and pastries to send anyone’s inner voice into nagging overdrive.

I’ve already had an encounter with Pão de Deus—God’s Bread. A brioche-like sweet roll, it comes topped with moist coconut flakes. Locals eat it with cheese as a snack. There are almond pastries, walnut cakes, strange chocolate cakes that resemble salami. Whatever damage this week does to my waistline, writing a story on sweet-toothed Lisbon won’t be a problem…

Years ago, I used to daydream about never having to work again. That doesn’t happen any more. When you’re doing something you love, it’s pleasure—not work. Sure, travel writing is a job, but it never feels like one.

Wherever I go on assignment, I usually manage to include the kind of things that vacationers do. The difference is, I get paid to indulge my passions for pastries, art, music, nightlife and wandering around places steeped in bygones. Portugal’s shabby-chic capital certainly has plenty of those.

There are clattering trams, iron funiculars and a castle-topped old Moorish neighborhood that tumbles down cobbled street hills. In the little taverns of the Bairro Alto district, fado singers wail out songs of loss and lament. There are boho bars, literary cafes and tiled beer halls where the waiters almost look old enough to have sailed with Portugal’s illustrious explorer, Vasco da Gama.

Before hunting down custard tarts, I saw da Gama’s tomb in the sumptuous Jeronimos monastery. The stone carvings here are the most incredible I’ve ever seen. Intricate as lace-work, most are themed on the sea: anchors, shells, pearls, strings of seaweed, even sea monsters.

But I must go—I have a date with a sunset. Lisbon has a number of lofty viewing terraces—there’s a glorious one called “the Gates of the Sun.” With its vista of palm trees, terracotta roofs and the river Tagus estuary, it’s the perfect spot to have a glass of chilled vinho verde wine, nibble a cheese pastry, and watch the sun go down.

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