I do not travel comfortably without knowing how to stammer some basic phrases in the local language. Addressing this is usually easy: work the corresponding Pimsleur language course. For Portuguese, this process was surprisingly representative of the culture as a whole.
Getting the course was the first challenge. The most readily available is Brazilian Portuguese, which differs noticeably from European Portuguese (one of Shriram's colleagues described the relationship as analogous to having an Irishman and an Indian trying to communicate in English). Continental, or European, Portuguese only comes in a 10-lesson set (rather than the more comprehensive 30) and as comparatively harder to find than previous sets I've used. While waiting for it, I did 2 lessons of Brazilian Portuguese to get started (figuring the main change at that level would be pronunciation).
From the first word, Continental Portuguese (CP) bore little resemblance to the Brazilian (BP) . Pimsleur always starts with the phrase "excuse me", which in BP was given as "con liçensa". CP instead presented "descuple" (sounds like "deszcoop"). Pimsleur teaches by listening, not by reading. Had I seen the word, it would have made some sense. Hearing it, I was baffled. (Overall, this is the first language I've done through Pimsleur for which I believe seeing the words from the outset would have helped, rather than hindered, progress).
Lesson three started with a basic dialogue including the now-familiar "excuse me". Except they didn't use desculpe and expected an answer using a previously unintroduced form of "you" (when asking a question). Different voices were on the tapes. It was if the folks doing the first 2 lessons had wandered off without leaving course notes to the folks doing the rest. Several similar changes popped up throughout the lessons. We took it as a sign.
On the whole, being familiar with Spanish made picking up basic CP easier. The bit of language we learned suggested a competition between extremal factions as to how much to resemble Spanish: some words were the same sans pronunciation (CP reminds me of Russian in cadence and consonants), but those that differed did so dramatically. We used a mix of CP and Spanish words to communicate to others, and that worked fine. I had a very hard time understanding CP spoken to me though, even at the level of numbers.
Something's afoot in Portugal: shoe stores are ubiquitous. At least one store in every cluster, and often several on a block, featured shoes. Most of these were women's pumps in neutral colored patterns. (In contrast, finding water and chocolate bars was difficult.) When traveling, I often take stock of a place with the question "could I build a functional wardrobe here if my luggage disappeared in transit?". I first tried this on a long airport layover some years back: within the airport, a man going to a business meeting could replace his attire sans the underwear, while a woman could only attire herself for a golf tournament or funky artists convention (still sans underwear, but sporting a lovely designer handbag). The main market in Braga easily solved the underwear problem. Dozens of stands sported all varieties of undergarments (mostly for women, but socks were there for all). Other forms of casual clothing (tshirts, jeans) were also readily available, though shoes were harder to come by. The emphasis was clearly on undergarments though. Non-chain clothing stores in the cities favored bridal gowns (harder to find than shoes, but far easier than jackets and umbrellas). I have to assume that we never stumbled across where people do their normal shopping, even though the old city areas do still seem the centers of commercial activity. To be sure, I saw nobody going to work in a bridal gown and leopard-print pumps.
Does anybody know what time it is? Does anybody really care? Not a single hotel room our entire trip had a clock (even at the more upscale place we stayed during the conference portion of our trip). We asked for a bus schedule at a tourist office and were told it ran "every half hour" (repeated attempts at clarification yielded the same answer, and English was not the issue). We asked at our hotel for a local cinema schedule and got "movies run all day until midnight" (and the schedule was in the paper at the end of the counter). If people showed up at a full restaurant at lunchtime, they generally stood around and chatted contentedly while waiting. For a quick lunch, people seem to go to cafeteria-style places, at which they can down a 2-3 course meal in the time I took to eat a salad. Every establishment has a posted government-issue sign showing their opening hours, but these are often approximations, especially on the opening end. Sights, however, close very promptly a few minutes ahead of the posted time (particularly at churches). Buses and trains were remarkably on schedule given the casual view of time in the culture overall. There didn't seem to be enough connections with places outside Portugal to drive the time-orientation of transit, so perhaps the Portuguese just have a better developed sense of where time really matters.
Blessed are the spice traders, for they made sure that Portugal has at least encountered foreign foods, even if it rarely adopts them. Almost all Portuguese restaurants offer the "typical" menu with the same headings: soup, fish, and meat (fish is sometimes divided into fish and shellfish). Sign boards carry two sections: fish specials and meat specials. Salads, vegetables, pastas, and rice are generally not on offer. The lack of restaurants featuring food from other cultures was surprising. The dearth of pizzarias was astounding. As vegetarians, we assume that we can always pizza our way through a trip in the western world if necessary. Technically, this appears true in Portugal, though it can take some amount of searching to find the one pizzaria in a medium-sized town or city. Even Indian food, which influenced early Portuguese economic success, was far rarer than we'd hoped. Food gave the strongest evidence of Portugal's isolation from the rest of the world. The crowds at the vegetarian restaurants we did find illustrated that even the Portuguese are getting hungry for broader options. The veggie places (listed under "recommendations" below) were uniformly outstanding, many specializing in all-you-can-eat buffets of salads, entrees, and sides; the others generally offered a choice of one of two daily plates. (All were also quite vegan-friendly.) If you plan to visit Portugal with a mixed group of vegetarians and non-vegetarians, though, plan to swap off who gets to eat at each meal. The rare pizza or Indian restaurant offer the only reliable hope of dining together.
Dueling banjos: Coimbra was plastered with lovely concert posters showing a mandolin and suggesting two shows: one the day we arrived at a place we couldn't identify, and another the next night at a theater in town. Our hotel staff found no info on the former. Enjoying the challenge, we eventually found a plausible spot and a student who confirmed correlation with the poster. Instead of mandolins, though, we found a stage setting up for a loud rock-style concert. Blaming our language skills, we settled on going the next night. Curtain opens to a large group of students playing lively traditional music on an assortment of string instruments. Then out come two people with microphones and cue cards. We got none of the text of the 5-10 minute speech that followed, but the enumeration of place names and cheering from around the auditorium suggested that we had in fact landed at a inter-collegiate "tunna" band competition. The groups were generally quite good and the atmosphere lively. Furthermore, we got insight into student life that we couldn't have found elsewhere. Particularly noticeable was the "jumping chant": someone in the audience would shout a particular phrase, then all the students would begin jumping up and down and singing along (rather like making a bride and groom kiss by clinking glasses in the USA). We never figured it out. We did, however, finally get that the previous night's "performance" was actually the undergrad party for all of the bands participating in the event. No wonder the student we asked looked so confused when we tried to inquire whether we'd in fact found the event on the poster.
Let the music pray: Musical culture generally seemed more subdued than I'd expected. I tend to associate Iberian and Hispanic cultures with music in the streets, but we rarely encountered as much as a sidewalk performer. Personal digital music players were nonexistent. The preference for American music took the cake though. Restaurants loved Elton John. They couldn't hold a candle in the wind to the music at the university chapel in Coimbra though: in low tones as befits a chapel came the unmistakable strains of Hotel California (from the cleaner's quarters). I still haven't decided whether that or the vigorous vacuuming at two other Coimbra churches were the bigger auditory surprise.
Recommendations: we visited Braga (4 days), Amarante (1 night), Porto (2 partial days), Coimbra (3 days), and Lisbon (2 days). Amarante had a picturesque bridge, but Vila Real had more tempting squares and other areas to wander around for a couple of hours, so we would have stayed in Vila Real instead as a starting point for exploring the Duoro valley. In Lisbon, we stayed at the Insulara Residential, featuring amazingly helpful staff (and very reasonably priced for the location in the heart of the old city). The Bracara Augusta in Braga was lovely and seems exceptionally good value in the off-season.
For vegetarians: In Braga, both Anjo Verde (Large Praça Velha 21) and Gusto Superior (Praça Mouzinho de Albuquerque, 29) offer multiple entrees of the day; O Alfacinha (Rua D. Gonçalo Pereira, 75) has a single-plate of the day for lunch; Rangoli offers veg and non-veg Indian. In Lisbon, check out Terra (Rua da Palmeira, 15 near Príncipe Real), Jardim dos Sentidos (R. Mãe de Água, 3 near Praça da Alegria) or Green Pepper (Av. José Malhoa 14 B), both of which offer all you-can-eat, all-veg buffets; Everest Montanha (Calçada do Garcia 15 near Rossio) offers Tibetian/Indian food for veg and non-veg. In Coimbra, Menu Verde (R. de Olivença 9 2nd floor in the Galerias Topázio, close to the Coimbra parque train station) offers cafeteria-style veg food (closed for dinner). The Hotel Astoria (which we didn't eat at) has two veg options on the menu. In Porto, O Vegetariano (R. de Camões, 339) is another cafeteria-style all-veg spot.