Lisbon, Portugal: It was the Little Things

Dare I say you’ve not seen Lisbon until you’ve seen the inside of  one of the city’s slightly dirty, poorly lit emergency rooms, taking in the gawks of other patients as you shake like a crack fiend. I digress. Besides, this comes later. It was our fourth day of our Portugal road trip when the Swedes and I arrived in Lisbon. I was in love. This city is like the San Francisco of Europe, complete with old cable cars, an abundance of sea food, and painfully steep hills. Each one completely worth it for the gorgeous views they rendered.

Aside from the aesthetic appeal, the first clue-in to my inevitable love of this city was the people. The first Portuguese we met were those of the Alfama Patio Hostel. This hostel was a winner; it had an upstairs deck with an ocean view, a cocktail bar by night, an honor system refrigerator of snacks, beer and sangria, and of course a splendid staff who were just generally great to talk to.  Seek out this magical place of stay if you ever find yourself in Lisbon.

The good people of Alfama recommended the best pastry joint in Lisbon. Living with the intense sweet tooth that I have, I had already researched and learned that Portugal is big on their pastries and breakfast treats. That being said, this place blew my mind. We took a quick train outside of downtown Lisbon to Pastéis de Belém (or Little Cakes of Bethlehem). We entered the large building adorned with traditional Portuguese blue and white tiles and were sorry to see there was no seating available. Then we spotted a sign saying there was more seating in the back. Also full. Another sign and another room. Also full. Yet another sign leading to an enormous ballroom sized space of tables and we snagged a large one right in the middle of the chaos.

The treats began. We tried Bolanchicha de Bom Sucesso, actual pasteis de Belém, vanilla Napoleons, cinnamon cake and more. After just a couple bites, it was clear why the pastry shop-meets-restaurant was jam-packed with pastry connoisseurs and the committed regulars.

We walked off our food comas in a nearby botanical garden. It was there, this second day in Lisbon that I began to feel as though something just wasn’t right. I used the restroom and what felt like a potential urinary tract infection was coming on. The next day I was googling how to say, “infection” in Portuguese on my phone to get some kind of holistic remedy at a local pharmacy. After popping about a million cranberry tablets, it didn’t seem to be getting worse, but certainly not better. I continued to tour and see the sights and generally go about as planned (all the while chugging copious amounts of water).

Our last night in Lisbon, we tried not to make too crazy of an evening as we were driving all the way back to Granada, Spain the following morning. So we stayed in our delightful hostel and partook in a huge bar-be-cue and listened to the sounds of our flamboyant and social D.J., “El Matador.” All seemed fairly well.

About an hour into my sleep that night, I awoke at 1:30 a.m. wanting to die. The infection had kicked in full force and I needed to deal with it immediately. Not wanting to wake my travel mates who were driving very early the following day, I snuck out into the computer area of the hostel and began googling yet again.


Search: Nearest hospital. Search: How to say “infection,” “antibiotics,” and, “receipts for insurance claim” in Portuguese.  Search: Cab company phone number.

Of course, in my peak of pain, I was gifted with the sweetest cab driver of my life. He spoke Spanish so we communicated just fine and he educated me on the holiday and the massive street parties flooding all of Lisbon. It was the day of San Antonio, the patron saint of marriage. All of the young women would pray to San Antonio, then get dressed up and go out and impress their boyfriends, hoping for a proposal. Not the kind of musing I wanted to do at 2:00 a.m. with the most painful infection of my life. Cute holiday, though.

The hospital was hardly better. The only English-speaker there was the man at the front desk, who kindly walked me through the process, but couldn’t hold my hand all the way to the various emergency rooms I went to. Once I got a wristband with my name on it and a date stamp, I freaked out. There was no way I was staying the night there. After three more hours of shaking in pain, embarrassing myself with broken Portuguese, misunderstood Spanish and English, and a frigid nurse with more promptness than Mussolini’s trains, I was granted a doctor who seemed to give a damn.


“Infecção,” he said. Which I gathered meant, “infection.” He pointed to a number by the results of my urine sample. 1,650 somethings. Suddenly he spread his arms out wide and said, “Muito ruim!”

“Muy grande?” I asked.

“Si! Graaaande!”

After figuring out I had an infection that could potentially have me hospitalized if I had waited any longer, he sent me off with a prescription for an antibiotic and a painkiller, both costing a total of 4,30€ (or about $5.00). Gotta love socialized healthcare.

Decadent pastries. An ostentatious D.J. Breath-taking views. And a solid four hours in the emergency room. Yet still, I love Lisbon.

Laura Fennell Written by:

Laura Fennell was born and raised in the Greater Los Angeles Area but relocated to San Francisco at her first chance, which ended up being university. She studies Comparative World Literature and Spanish at San Francisco State University but is currently studying abroad in Spain. After growing up in a largely Spanish-speaking city and waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant, her bilingualism was not only encouraged, but pretty much inevitable. She's a little more than obsessed with Latin-American and Spanish literature and poetry. Laura has kept a journal since the 3rd grade and has written poetry for nearly as long. She was an editor for her high school yearbook, which only furthered her compulsive need to document everything. She likes to run, drink upwards of 5 cups of tea a day, and if you loan her a book, you’re going to get it back with her blue notes in the margin every time. (Sorry.) A dream of hers is to one day live internationally. Aside from seeing much of the United States, Laura has traveled to Costa Rica, Spain, The Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium, England, Italy, Portugal, Norway and Sweden.