We returned a few days ago from a 15-day trip to Portugal and Italy, during which time I was carrying a mini-art supply store with emphasis on watercolor paints. I only took them out once, on the riverbank in Porto. (In general, I confined my ambitions to pencil sketches, which familiarized me with the cityscapes I have been working on in different media after returning home.) My intentions to do more were good but we were literally always on the move: touring historic monasteries, having a cappuccino on the Parco do Comercio in Lisbon, visiting little stores in the Alfama district, exploring the Castle of St. George in Lisbon or the Pena Palace in Sintra, taking a tour of the ancient library in Coimbra, visiting the bookstore in Porto where J,K. Rowling got her inspiration to write the Harry Potter series, taking the funicular down from the heights of the fashionable Chiado district in Lisbon, and exploring the seaside area of Cascais, including the Boca do Inferno (Mouth of Hell). People from all over the world had the same idea; there were many tourists from Asia, Germany, Italy, and Spain, but in general the crowds were less than they are in the summer months.
Suffice it to say there is much to see in Portugal (and Italy, of course), so sitting for the requisite time to do a watercolor was not at the top of the list (admittedly) this time. There is much to cover, and if you enjoy walking, you can simply walk to many of the most interesting sights. There is a lot of history to learn, beautiful tiles to admire, great food to eat and wine to drink, different port wine to taste, markets to explore, and lots of steep cobblestone streets to climb. Another spectacular “mirador”–or lookout–was always right around the corner–unexpectedly opening up into a flat piece of terrain just when you needed a break–and here one could sit, have a drink (or a snack) and gaze at the view, enjoy the breezes, and listen to live music. There are kiosks everywhere where one can buy a beer, wine, or a port, and sit and watch the light change over the expanse of the Tagus River as the sun slides over the western horizon. Shops filled with bags, shoes, hats, placemats and other items made out of cork were everywhere, but usually the quality was good. The ubiquitous T-shirts were noticeably higher in quality that equivalent T-shirts usually available here due to their high-quality cotton content. For those who are thinking of going, I’d also recommend the Oceanarium in Lisbon and the Gulbenkian Foundation Museum. (There are many inexpensive options for places to stay in Portugal—safe, well-located, and even charming–as well as more expensive places to suit every taste, and public transportation, including inter-city trains, is a bargain.)
The light was almost always perfect for painting, with the flows of tourists manageable in September. It is a must for a repeat visit. (Our visit to Sardinia had just as special light and very different features, including turquoise seas, and windswept cliffs in a raw sienna hue reflecting the bright sunlight from far away. Really spectacular for the artist, the hiker, and the nature-lover, as well as people who love to sail.)
There is at least one excellent art supply store in Lisbon and it is located next to a fine arts university in Chiado. Online ordering has not yet taken off in Portugal, at least not as much as in the U.S., so the quality of the wares–especially textiles, baby clothes, ceramics, wood, wines and foods, as well as some stationery paper products–were noticeably good. For those who have the time and opportunity to get away and get different perspectives on our present, Portugal is a great choice.