Tomatoes in Portugal!
A Mix of Cultural Antiquity, Ultra Modern Convenience, Fresh Fish & Helpful Gentle People
By Sandi Durell
Bordering Spain, on the Atlantic Ocean, is the small country of Portugal, Europe’s oldest nation famous for port wine and one of the largest producers of cork products, as well as azulejos (bright colored decorative tiles). When my friend Judy and I decided this was to be our travel destination, she went full steam ahead. Always wonderful to have a BF who loves research and delving into where to stay, what to see – making our initial travel plans a cinch, but leaving enough leeway to make on the spot decisions once we were there. And the Euro goes a long way in Portugal!
We traveled by plane, train, bus, tramway, trolley, taxis, not to mention Uber (much less than a taxi, quick and timely). . . all readily available. We left in the evening, on TAP (Air Portugal), non-stop (about 7 hours) from Newark Airport, arriving at the unlikely hour of 5:30 am the next morning to the Hotel Mundial (4-star) . . . a good choice in the Baixa District (flat walking – many plazas, grand avenues and boulevards), and right near the Trolley stop. We were saving ourselves for all the real walking ahead, up and down hills on uneven terrain and cobblestone streets.
But back to the amusing picture before us at Hotel Mundial . . . a lobby filled with sleeping guests on every chair and couch, all waiting for the check-in hour at noon. We left our luggage and found a nearby café for some early morning cappuccino, returning a couple of hours later to find the lobby still packed with snoring, sleeping guests. As we wandered into back room areas, lo and behold, there were two huge empty couches that we immediately commandeered for some rest until we were ready to check into our rooms. So much for arriving early morning, unless you book a room for the day prior to your arrival to avoid what I’m describing.
But, let’s get to the heart and soul of what Lisbon holds. Lots of wonderful historic churches, forts and museums in neoclassical style, cafes sprinkled in every nook and cranny, restaurants and shopping (Avenida da Liberdade). The Elevador Santa Justa is a must see and if you don’t mind waiting a couple of hours on the busy summer lines of tourists you can take the lift up one of the steepest hills in Lisbon to admire the view. There is also the Gloria funicular. A small metro system runs thru Lisbon as well. But we much preferred the Trolley (more fun than a Hop-On, Hop-Off bus).
At night the city comes alive in the Barrio Alto district (an upwards climb), with its music, fado cafes, many restaurants and vibrant array of locals and visitors. With three days to spend in Lisbon, we planned a variety of sightseeing. We got on a tram one day that took us to the Belem district, a popular district on the water, filled with small museums and where the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (only one of the 22 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Portugal) is located and from which Vasco da Gama set sail for India in 1497. We visited a beautiful carved memorial monument along with the original Tower of Belem, a fortress defending the River Tejo, opened in 1520. A most exciting afternoon was spent in Lisbon’s oldest area, the Alfama district. . . a winding maze of cobblestone streets, alleys and steps, with many a museum at the base of the towering Moorish castle. Bougainvillea trees, shops, and fado clubs line the streets, one of which we visited late the following evening to hear the heart rending, passionate songs of love and loss in the country known as the land of poets.
Next day, we were on a bus for about an hour to the charming, small storybook town of Óbidos – ‘The Wedding City’ . . . uphill/downhill, cobblestoned streets and whitewashed homes; another UNESCO site, filled with various festivals throughout the year. It’s actually just one main street of shops and cafes, very picturesque, where we tasted ginginha (Portugese cherry brandy). Worth the time for a delightful day trip!
Early morning we were on our way via Oriente train station for our 2 hour + ride (comfort class) to Porto. With some angst behind us: (short story: Judy had already purchased our comfort class train tickets months in advance but when we were about to board, were told the system doesn’t recognize the company from which we purchased those tickets so we better get on the longer than expected ticket line to purchase new ones, in any class, if we were to board the train. It was a heart beating rush to the platform with only minutes to spare. As it turned out, when we got to the train (schlepping all our luggage) our names were already in the computer system (said the conductor in comfort class) as we fought our way onto the train . . . a case of the right hand not knowing what the left one was doing.
Finally relaxing on the train watching some beautiful scenery go by helped us to calm down and we arrived at Estação de São Bento in Porto, one of the most beautiful train stations I’ve ever seen, covered in exquisite blue and white tile scenes up to the ceilings. Taxi to our Porto Nautico Apartments raised our anxiety levels again, as we traveled up and down hills, approaching rua du Almada 472. The outside of the building was a newly tiled and refurbished 4 story building, alongside some pretty downtrodden looking structures. But when we entered. . . here was a 9.4 rated apartment space where we each had our own beautifully appointed apartments, terraces and gorgeous rooftop pool with city views. Truly a find . . . thank you Judy! Walk downhill a bit and we were in the center of everything, including restaurants, churches, shops galore, and another favorite Trolley stop.
It was in Porto where we spent four nights, immediately making our way to the Douro River or Ribeira (yet another UNESCO Heritage site) surrounded by the remains of medieval walls, forts, Baroque churches and Neoclassical buildings, encircled by green mountains; the waterfront lined with restaurants and cafes, brimmed with a buzz and vibrant life. Of course, we took the traditional short tourist boat ride on the Duoro (which everyone says not to do), leading up to a much more extensive one later on.
We were told to lose ourselves wandering the small streets and alleyways of Porto, which we did, finding small treasures of unusual items everywhere. Food you ask? It doesn’t really matter where you choose to eat, as the freshly caught fish from the sea is on your plate grilled to perfection, lovingly provided by attentive servers. The vegetables are fresh, the traditional potatoes and tomatoes of the region the best we’ve eaten. Attention to preparation is a highlight even in the smallest of places and meals are inexpensive (dinner for two, with wine, salad, main course. . . usually $30-$40). Unless you’re seeking fancy hotel restaurants or Michelin Star (which neither of us were interested in), we ate like queens, partaking of flavors that were new and exciting and finding little haunts on side streets everywhere. Tapas are a favorite everywhere.
But we were yet to try the really traditional Portugese dishes: grilled sardines and bachalhau d bras (made in a copper skillet, prepared with mashed potatoes, codfish, black olives and always a boiled (sunnyside) egg on top, a sort of pie that is char-grilled). It was our duty to try them.
We took a train to Pinhão one morning for a day tour of Quinta do Bomfin Winery where we not only got an education (below ground where vintage barrels are stored) in how Port and other wines are made, but about the Symington family who has run this vineyard, plus 26 others in the Douro Valley, since 1882, with links to many generations beginning in the 17th century to the very beginnings of the history of Port, and eventually developing their trademark DOC wines. Terraced plantings and harvesting are attended to by locals in the region. Things are now so scientifically computerized that they actually know the exact date of the next harvest.
We tasted three different kinds of Ports and then walked (?) to the Vintage House, a lovely hotel with restaurant on the River where we enjoyed one of our highlight meals of this 10 day trip, delicately, elegantly served by knowledgeable wait staff. With plenty of time, so we thought, we just made it onto an old-style Rabelo boat (pre booked) for a two – hour cruise through the Douro Valley beneath the green mountainous terraced plantings of the vineyards and gorgeous estates. . . a fulfilling, memorable day.
So much to see and do in Porto, beautiful beaches everywhere, bridges galore on the Douro, craft fairs filled with unusual and unique handmade items, jewelry; more delicious food experiences. And now it was time to partake of the freshest of fish . . . so we Ubered our way to the docks where the boats came in every morning. . . a busy area lined with restaurant after restaurant indoors and outdoors. But we decided to try a side street which wasn’t as hectic and suddenly found ourselves in ‘Mama’s’ hands where she showed us into her back garden and waiters began bringing food before we ordered. . . salad, cod balls, delicious Portugese rolls (did I mention these breads. . . everywhere we went, yummy rolls) and a bottle of wine to drink as we pleased and pay only for what we drank. Then came the big moment; grilled sardines and although we attempted to communicate that we only wanted 3 or 4 to taste, out came a tray of a dozen or more. Oh dear! Well, sorry to report, we are not sardine lovers but what came next, a fresh large sea bass, grilled with garlic and olive oil, deboned and served with potatoes and fresh vegetables . . . perfection! We thought we’d gone to heaven. A leisurely lunch and another highlight meal for about $44 complete for two including ¾ of a bottle of the wine. Thank you Mama!
We spent more time wandering and sight-seeing, visiting the Fundacon Serrvales, a contemporary museum surrounded by beautiful sculpture gardens, the inside filled with extreme contemporary socio-political art, exhibits ever changing. I can say that the most outstanding exhibit was by young children who attend art classes and build their own visions of artistic realities.
We finally partook of bachalau d bras (pretty good) and even found a really good Italian pizza restaurant nearby our apartments (thin crust, delicate and delicious) when we tired of all that fish.
Yet to come was our final destination Cascais which necessitated a train ride back to Lisbon, where we were picked up by a very on-time and well run private transfer company, Suntransfers, that drove us to Cascais where we arrived at the Eurostars Hotel overlooking the sea, close to centro and beaches, but out of the line of fire of noise and tourists. For 3 or 4 Euro, we made our way back and forth to town for sight seeing and to wander the small streets. Our individual rooms overlooked the long walking path that ran along the more quiet beach area near us and we discovered a wonderful restaurant just down the street that we visited twice.
As an aside, each of our hotels provided voluminous buffet breakfasts with multi varieties of choices.
Our adventure was almost over and without notice, an old chronic injury stopped me in my tracks as my lower back and leg went out and I could barely walk or stand, the pain quite severe. I know it was exacerbated by walking on the uneven terrain. The very caring deskman, John, immediately suggested I go to the local private CUF Hospital. They called a taxi that took me (and Judy) to emergency where I was seen by the Doctor who had his nurse translate (as he didn’t speak much English). I was to have a CT Scan and a 20 minute drip of meds consisting of a painkiller, anti-inflammatory and analgesic for some immediate relief. Alas, the relief was not immediate but I was given a prescription to fill at a specific Farmacia, our next stop. Noticeable was an extremely kind, helpful and caring hospital staff . . . from the intake to the tech who administered the CT Scan. I received a copy of my CT Scan on a disk and away we went to get meds. Now, please note that coming into a foreign hospital in Portugal, you must leave a credit card with a $500 deposit as initial payment which actually approximates what all this cost. If you have any knowledge about CT Scan costs here in the States, you can understand my amazement. It continued when I filled the Rx for three different medications that totaled under 20 Euro. Judy was at my side every minute as I hobbled around, leaning on her.
I called my spine doctor in NY from Portugal who, luckily, had an appointment waiting for me the day after I returned. But in the meantime, we still had one more day to experience and even though I was in pain and hobbling around, I wasn’t going to miss Jump-In Tours with our adorable driver/guide Gio to the hilltop town of Sintra (UNESCO site) to see the outstanding palaces, especially the famous Palacio de Pena (where Judy trekked – in our one and only downpour) and I stayed in the car taking in the flavor and history. Sintra is the place where Portugese royalty summered and where countless writers like Lord Byron were inspired. Every hairpin turn reveals another gorgeous palace and breathtaking scenery; the area is known for its mystical powers. We topped off the afternoon at the seashore with Gio finding us a place for lunch outdoors and where we fleetingly got to meet his Grandfather with whom he lived all his life in Sintra – – a magnificent village that should be on anyone’s itinerary in Portugal.
Well, I’m healing just fine, in physical therapy and back in the loop of my everyday business of theater and cabaret. Lots of catch up as new shows open. Judy and I look forward to reliving our glorious experiences and memories of Portugal as we sort through all our photos and share them.
Portugal: a top recommended destination!
Sandi Durell, Publisher/Editor/Critic