Photo © Rebecca Day

Isabelle on assignment in Portugal

Isabelle Abraham shares her experience as a winner of the 2019 Travel Writing Scholarship to Portugal.


Starting with a blank page, Isabelle's discovers a new perspective on travel writing as she journeys through Portugal.

Lessons in Lisbon

The blank page on my laptop glared at me as the other two scholarship winners tapped away at their keyboards. Jill and Cameron seemed to be sailing through the first task of the World Nomads travel writing workshop, while I couldn’t complete even one paragraph.

Suddenly, a chat notification appeared on the screen. It was from our mentor, Tim Neville, who was sitting across the table.  

“Are you doing ok?” the message asked kindly.

I had thought I didn’t have much to learn, yet there I was, so trapped in writer’s block that Tim practically had to craft the entire piece for me. Thankfully, with his guidance and encouraging words, the result of our second task was much less embarrassing.

In between practicing pitches, gleaning industry insights, and downing countless shots of espresso, we ventured out for a tour of the dynamic Príncipe Real neighborhood, had dinners with our friends from Visit Portugal, listened to sonorous strains of Fado music, and took a midnight walk through Lisbon’s waterfront plaza.

Just as I got used to the 'city of seven hills', four days had flown by, and we were heading off to our individual destinations.

A cobbled street with colorful decorations
On an Urban Adventures city walking tour of Príncipe Real. Image credit: Isabelle Abraham.

Awed by the Azores 

“Isn’t it something?” asked our guide as we gazed out over Vila Franca do Campo, a reflourishing town once demolished by an earthquake half a millennium ago. 

I’d almost missed this splendid scene.

My solo trip began with a two-hour flight to São Miguel, the largest island in the Azores archipelago. It also began with a bout of bronchitis, which would end up accompanying me during the following weeks. 

But ultimately, illness, fickle weather, canceled itineraries, and even US $600 airfare couldn’t put a damper on this verdant paradise and its wonderful inhabitants. By the time I boarded the plane back to the mainland, it had won my heart. And writing about it now, I realize that even the most descriptive language can’t do justice to that haven in the Atlantic.

View of a town next to the bright blue ocean
View of Villa Franco do Campo, the first capital of São Miguel in the Azores. Photo credit: Isabelle Abraham.

Sightseeing in Sintra

After a storm, delayed flight, and overpriced taxi, I arrived in Sintra – christened by one of my favorite writers in his travelogue as, “the most charming and most celebrated part of Portugal.” 

It was a whirlwind of natural and architectural delights, like the fairytale gardens of Pena Palace, where I came across a pair of swans gliding on an inky pond. They reminded me of A Mute Witness a heart-wrenching scholarship entry about a murdered swan and his grieving mate, and I wondered if my writing would ever evoke such emotion.

Though tourists swarmed the historic center during the day, once the sun set, everything became still and eerily quiet… save for a nocturnal creature calling out from deep within the woodlands. Every night, I watched the centuries-old Moors Castle light up atop the hillside, and pondered what stories the medieval fortress could tell.

The sun glistening on 2 white swans swimming in murky water
A couple of mute swans on the grounds of Pena Palace, Sintra. Photo credit: Isabelle Abraham.

Parting from Portugal 

My final moments in the country were a breathtaking blur: scrambling down to Europe’s westernmost beach, meandering through the stunning setting of a '60s Bond film, and accumulating the calories of local treats ranging from Lisbon’s pastéis de Belém to Setúbal’s tortas de Azeitão

Before I could really process it, the scholarship experience was over, and the post-travel blues hit hard as soon as I returned home. Portugal was already beginning to seem like a dream from a distant past. 

But there lies the beauty of travel writing: it allows us to revive memories of faraway lands. And when the words finally tumble out onto that blank page, fellow nomads get to experience those journeys with us.