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I just Spent Three Weeks in Portugal, and this is what I learned

My family and I went on a three-week exploration of Portugal in the Summer of 2021. A year before, that would not have been a very remarkable statement, but when we went on this trip to see family and to spend some time together, it was still unusual. All of us were vaccinated and although we faced various logistical hurdles, it was well worth it.

We spent three weeks exploring the Alentejo. We saw Roman ruins, fighting bulls, horses, ruined castles, ancient towns, massive cork forests, Atlantic beaches, olive groves, wineries — and met so many kind people.

The Alentejo was the perfect place to escape to for a unique, safe experience. There is so much hiking, open spaces, and so many uncrowded beaches;  it makes up 30% of Portugal and is home to 5% of the country’s population. That seemed just right.

At the time of our visit, Portugal just passed the US in vaccination rates, and was on track to have 80% of the country fully vaccinated by Fall. As of this writing, restrictions are expected to relax further by October.

Air Travel

I first booked late in the preceding winter, and over the next three months we saw flights change some six times due to cancelations and schedule updates. 

Getting the required PCR tests to enter the country was straightforward but pricey. (There are cheaper mail-in tests, and more options will likely become available.)  

We flew Delta Air Lines from the US via Amsterdam. Service to Europe was just restarting, and the Delta check in agent told us our PCR tests were "the wrong ones.” Luckily the staff in the clinic at Boston’s Logan Airport explained that the airline’s agent was wrong, and we were able to check in. As more flights are scheduled to go to Europe, this confusion will lessen, but be sure to double-check that you have the right tests for all the countries you’ll enter.

The flight was rather full, but passengers were very respectful, and all wore masks. Getting around Lisbon airport was pretty easy, and the car rental process was easy and automated. We were on the road quickly, and off to the Alentejo.

The People

During out visit Portugal had safety rules in place. Masks were worn indoors, and in busy outdoor areas.  Most shops limited the number of people at a time, and while indoor dining was allowed, all wait staff wore masks. (An aside: a recent poll found that more than 90% of all Portuguese want to be vaccinated, and more than 70% feel that masks should be required.) As vaccination rates rise, measures will be scaled back.  We appreciated the clear and very visible commitment to the collective good we saw among the Portuguese – it made us feel safer that we had for a long time during the pandemic.

We stayed in smaller towns and rural inns and we skipped Lisbon, heading straight to the Évora area, where we found everything open, and uncrowded. At one point, we had the Cathedral of Évora nearly all to ourselves. We did find that booking a table in advance at popular eateries was a good idea — not because of crowds, but because of safety protocols in place. 

We also found that the hotels we visited gladly accepted our CDC vaccination cards. We saw that many had rapid tests ready for guests who had not planned in advance. All the inns and rentals where we stayed at had enhanced cleaning, hand sanitizer on offer, and easy check in processes.

So, the good news is that Portugal remains Portugal: Friendly, restful, and welcoming!

One of many examples was the older man who walked us to an eatery we could not find in Arraiolos. And there was the potter who was proud of reviving a centuries-old tradition, the chef whose food was an extension of his view on life and the inn owner whose art defines his farm.

Roads were open, as were museums, churches and monuments. Prices were quite fair, and cancellation policies were generous. We felt welcome, safe, warm, and happy. And one thing is for sure, the people of the Alentejo somehow are able to remember something about life that others have forgotten. We will be back.

* Jayme H. Simões is a travel blogger on Portugal. He grew up in Chicago but spent summers exploring Portugal with his family.

** The pandemic continues to shape travel plans, so as always, be sure to check  this webiste www.visitportugal.pt for any new guidelines.

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