Let's go to Lisbon: how I handled grief and solo travel
Updated: Jun 30
So, I've been grappling for a while now about how to start this post, I've actually been putting off writing it . My trip to Lisbon was extremely personal for multiple reasons- everytime I travel, especially solo, I always think that it's an opportunity for self reflection. It was my first international solo trip and it was also during a period in my life where I was grieving. The day that I went to Lisbon was the day that my grandfather died. The last thing that I wanted to do was take a flight- especially to a destination that wasn't home.But in today’s post I'm going to talk candidly about how I learned to not necessarily overcome the grief but to roll with it.
Grief is something that is so personal to all of us. Some of us are lucky enough to not experience it until much later on in life. Others aren't so lucky. Losing a loved one affects us in an individual way- my grandfather had a lot of grandchildren yet I'm sure that each of us was grieving in a different way. I've spoken briefly about the grief process before, but during that time everything was still so fresh and raw that I really held in a lot of what I had to say. Truthfully, I don't think that you ever truly 'get over' the death of a loved one. Even writing this I can feel the tears swelling in my eyes. The one thing about grief is that it is transient- it comes in waves and you I suppose you just have to ride the wave. I'm learning not to fight it. One night, a few weeks after my granddad's death I was laying in bed, having had a perfectly ordinary day and I just broke down in tears. It seemed to come from nowhere, but clearly my mind and body had been surpressing this grief. The best thing to do is to let it out. Heck, my eyes started streaming when I was on the metro in paris on my daily commute whilst listening to Beyonce's new song 'Spirit'. It just goes to show that we're more in tune with our bodies than we think and that we know in ourselves when to be emotional.
Having lost friends before as I child, I didn't really understand the grieving process, as a young adult- the realisation of our mortality and the process of ageing really did hit me hard. The idea that my grandparents aren't going to be here forever. As pragmatic as I am, I found that I couldn't compartmentalise my emotions- I couldn't plan ahead or know how to deal with this. The day of my grandfather's funeral I was trying to mentally prepare myself- I didn't want to cause a scene by becoming overly emotional, I just wanted to get through the day. However, as soon as we headed to the funeral just seeing a photo of my granddad invoked a flurry of uncontrollable tears. This was after weeks or travelling and getting on with my daily life. Like I said; grief comes in waves and some days you are up and others you feel down but both feelings are totally legitimised. Like I said I don't believe that I'll ever get over losing my granddad; however I think I'm learning to cope with it a little bit more every single day.
So how did I managed to do my solo trip to Lisbon? In all honesty I have no idea how I did that trip. I really didn't want to go after hearing the news a few hours before. Both my mum and dad encouraged me to go, they told me that its what my granddad would have wanted. Besides it was only a short three day trip- what was I going to do at home? Probably cut myself off from friends and wallow in my bedroom. Now both options are totally valid, but I thought that by cooping myself in my room it would be detrimental for my mental health in the long run. However I decided, after a lot of thought to go on the trip. In retrospect, I think that I really did disassociate myself whilst I was on the trip- I was there in body but quite frankly my mind was somewhere else.
I cried the whole way through the flight- luckily I was sat on a pretty empty plane with no-one sat next to me. All I can say is that I felt a pit of emptiness- I cried until I ran on empty- there was a point where I felt I couldn't cry anymore. My eyes were puffy and swollen- like I'd had a bad allergic reaction and I had a headache from thinking and feeling so much. When we finally landed all I wanted was my bed- however I was greeted at my hostel with a shot of tequila and an invite to a pub crawl (I'd forgotten I'd booked a party hostel).
I'm not an advocate for running away from your problems; however in retrospect I do believe that the trip came at the right time for me. I had planned to make it a party weekend- being super sociable with my roommates and heading out to all of the erasmus nights/ pub crawls I could. Nonetheless, the weekend wasn't like that at all; however I do think that taking things at a slower pace was what I needed at that time.
On the first day of the trip, I woke up a little dazed and confused- I'd clearly cried myself into oblivion and had woken up in an unfamiliar setting. One philosophy that I've taken on ever since my granddad died is the fact that we only have one life. Life is so short, most of us think that tomorrow is guaranteed but it isn't. Not to make this post bleak, but within keeping with that mindset I've decided to try and embrace everything that the world throws at me. I have to take all opportunities that interest me and come my way- I didn't know when I'd be back in Lisbon and I knew more than anything that he would want me to make ether most of the trip. In a way- I made myself enjoy the trip. That weekend I was the embodiment of "fake it until you make it" philosophy-and it actually worked.
Life is so short, most of us think that tomorrow is guaranteed but it isn't.
That Friday started off bleak and grey, it had drizzled lightly and I felt that it was truly a moment of pathetic fallacy- it seemed that the weather really did reflect how I felt on the inside. Regardless, I decided that I was going to tick off most of the things on my bucket list that day. So I went to Praço do Comércio, which was conveniently situated 10 minutes walk away from my hostel. If I had to describe Lisbon in a colour, I would say yellow which is ironic considering everything around me was quilted in grey; my mood and the sky. The square is really quite breathtaking, and quite well connected to the metro lines. There's a stunning arc way and then a boardwalk in which you can see a bridge that closely resembles the Golden Gate Bridge . I decided that that day was the day I wanted to explore the Belem neighbourhood- I'd heard that nearby you could find one of the best bakeries in Lisbon.
I'm not a deeply religious person, I'd say I'm more spiritual than anything, however most f my trips end up gravitating around cathedrals and churches. I supposes that a lot of what Europe was about; it comes part and parcel with the history. I decided to visit the Monastery dos Jeronimos. I think I was feeling emotionally sensitive during this time period and I was extremely susceptible to bursting into tears at any given moment- which looking back was always triggered in places of worship. I had to let myself go through the motions and cry if I needed to; even in front of strangers. But the most reassuring thing was, no-one every approached me about it, they never laughed or commented- I was allowed to let it out. This happened at the monastery- it was the first of many emotional wobbles that I'd have during the trip. Each time I cried, I did feel better and it felt like I was letting go of the emptiness I had felt. Of course not everyone is a 'crier' and thats fine too. As long as you don't repress your feelings then I think that it’s better to get them out.
Despite the tears, I, surprisingly, had fun that day; I visited the Museum of Modern and Contemporary art which isI really enjoyed- they had some offbeat yet interesting exhibitions. I also visited the Tower of Belem, which is a huge fortification- once you climb up the tower you can get stunning views. I also taste tested the famous Pasteis de Belem. They are kind of like custard tart- apparently the monks used to make them, but now there seen as a symbol of Lisbon. I have to say, the best way to enjoy one of these pastries is to find a nice quiet spot in the sun. They are honestly some of the best pastries I've ever tasted (special tip, add some brown sugar or cinnamon on the top- trust me it will blow your mind). That evening I took myself out to dinner, something that I'm still getting accustomed to- I actually found it nice to sit with my book and glass of wine and watch people dine together. I picked a vegan restaurant (Organi Chiado) which was close by to the hostel and I was not disappointed. The food was really good and well priced and it was an intimate space but not too much to make me feel like an odd one out.
Day 2: I'd booked onto a Sandeman's walking tour. Now, I've praised these tours before and I was not disappointed with this one. Our guide was so fun and genuinely interested in the history of Portugal. He was from the Algarve and he gave us such obscure and interesting information about hidden areas and how to avoid tourist traps. I really appreciated the time that he took with us and I do suggest that you follow this instgram (which I'll leave a link to) because he takes wonderful photos which are really quirky are are reminiscent of ‘art house‘ type vibes.
I also decided to wander that day, seeing as many viewpoints as possible. It felt nice not having a rigid itinerary. At points I actually forgot that I was grieving; I'd kind of burrowed myself into a different headspace. At other time, the emotions would flood back, but like I said before they do come in waves. I spent the rest of that day wandering the hills of Lisbon and seeking viewpoints (which are not too hard to find). One thing I loved the most about Lisbon was the fact that it seemed at every point that you turned you could see amazing views of the whole city. You could stumble upon an alcove and then find yourself staring along the coast. Another must see that I would 100% recommend is the "Feira da Ladra" its an antiques flea market and you can find EVERYTHING- books, pots and pans, jewellery and VHS tapes. I love rummaging through these types of street markets, its kind of like digging for treasure. If you look hard enough you're bound to stumble upon some goodies (and I found the most beautiful pair of earrings). For dinner that night I tried bacalhau (cod) which is a typical portugese dish. I made a rookie mistake and went seeking for a place that served ONLY bacalhau (a big no). It was called A casa do Bacalhau and whilst the food was good it was extremely (eye- watering) expensive. Plus, I had to wait 35 minutes for them to cook my fish (but at least I know that it was fresh).
Day 3: That day I decided to ride the number 28 tram which heads up to the city.These are older rickety looking trams- at times I felt a little unsafe as we headed up the steep and sloping hills, however it was such a fun and inexpensive thing to do. I took the line to the very end and ended up in the Graça neighbourhood and again I found a beautiful garden and some amazing street art. The views from the Miradouro was phenomenal- I was super lucky to have visited on a weekend with clear blue skies. I then walked back down the hill to soak in the views again and I met up with my friend Sophie, who has been in Lisbon for a year on her year abroad. We sat in the sun and had caipirinhas and basked in the sun next to the port. I met Sophie almost 5 years ago when we were both doing work experience in translation, it was so nice to meet up again and also hear about someone else's year abroad experience.
That afternoon it reached the mid 30s and I was DYING in the heat. Sophie recommend that I take the train to the nearby town of Cascais which is a beach resort. I could do with a bit of R&R so I decided to take the short journey and of course the beach was crammed with people who all had the same idea as me. Nonetheless I really enjoyed the day and I was so glad that I could cool off a little in the sea.
My flight was that evening and whilst the trip had be emotionally charged and difficult, it enabled me to recalibrate and to take time for myself. Of course the thought of my grandad was omnipresent in my mind throughout that weekend but I tried to do the trip in memory of him; I know the he would never have forgiven me if I hadn't gone. Sometimes we have to confront our fears head on, I didn't want to be left alone, in my head worrying and fretting. This trip to Lisbon really helped me to see that the world goes on and we have to enjoy every moment that we can, whilst we still can.
"Life is short
Time is fast
So enjoy every moment as it comes"
I'm not sure who said that quote, let me know in the comments if you do. Whoever they are, they're 100% right- life is for living!