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An Epicurean Odyssey: The Douro Valley

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We had finally arrived at the last of the three legendary wine areas of our journey, and the least well known. Few people would name Portugal if asked what European countries are known for their wine, but wine has been produced there for four thousand years and exported as early as the 12th century AD. Those whose familiarity with Portuguese wine begins and ends with port are missing out on some of the most full-bodied and textured reds that Europe has to offer, often at at a fraction of the cost of a similar quality bottle that originated in France or Italy. There are more than a dozen wine regions in Portugal that cover pretty much the entire area of the country. My personal favorite region since our first visit to Portugal is the Alentejo in the south, but the best known wines come from the Dão region around Viseu and from the Douro Valley. In the world of travel, the Douro Valley is the most popular region because of the amazing mountainous landscape and picturesque villages that surround the serpentine Douro River.
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We had allotted ourselves less than 24 hours in the valley, which is something of a sacrilege. On the other hand, we're used to making sacrifices in order to become familiar with a wider area on our road trips. We're not done traveling by a long shot, and fortunately there's enough in northern Portugal to make a return visit more than worthwhile. There are no large cities in the Douro Valley and after much consideration I'd decided we would base ourselves in the central town of Lamego for the night. One interesting fact about Lamego is that it is considered to be the place where port wine was invented, not Porto as one might expect. We had little interest in port but Lamego had a couple of interesting sights and placed us in good position for the long list of things we wanted to accomplish in the Douro the next day before returning to Spain.

There weren't many Airbnb's available around Lamego and we ultimately chose a place calling itself Casa do Batista in the tiny village of Britiande, four miles to the south. Once we arrived at the village our GPS took us off the main road and into an area of orchards and vineyards, ultimately depositing us at the wrong house. Google Maps recognized the name but led us to a spot in the same area where there was nothing but a solid stone wall with one rusted iron door and no signs. We inquired at a couple of houses nearby and no one had heard of Casa do Batista. The host didn't respond to messages on the Airbnb app but someone answered to the phone number and we communicated in a broken Spanish/Portuguese hybrid. I tried following his directions a couple of times and got nowhere. Eventually he told me he would meet us in the village at a spot that I recognized. The person on the phone turned out to be the elderly father of our host, which may have explained some of the difficulty in communication. We followed his car back into the orchards and ended up at the exact same spot Google Maps had taken us to. Our host's father went to the rusty iron door, unlocked it, and brought us inside a walled compound.

Our annoyance at having wasted close to an hour for the simple lack of a sign or a doorbell dissipated almost instantly once we got a look at the place where we would be spending the night. It was one of the most unique, idyllic, delightful residences we've ever stayed in all our travels. The only place I could compare it to on Airbnb would be the farm we stayed at in southern Slovakia. In front of the house was a small patio completely roofed by grapevines that would have collapsed from the weight of enormous bunches of unripe wine grapes if there wasn't a trellis supporting them. The yard was an apple orchard where the fruits were also green, but edible to anyone partial to a little sourness. The house was rustic but very modern and comfortable on the interior, with a second floor balcony that had sweeping views over all the farms and orchards in the area. Adjacent the the residence was a tiny winemaking operation that was dormant as harvest season wouldn't begin until late September. It was one of those moments that reminded us why Airbnb's are worth all the minor inconveniences that come with them. No B&B or hotel could have brought us anywhere near as close to the heart and soul of the Douro Valley.
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Despite its small size, Lamego has more than its share of attractions for visitors. After settling into our Airbnb we drove directly to Santuario Nossa Senhora dos Remedios. The 18th century rococo church stands atop a steep hill from which a breathtaking 686 step staircase descends to the town. The double staircase has nine landings decorated with beautiful azulejos, intricate columns and friezes, and ornate balustrades. There are so many details in the design and so many angles from which amazing photos can be taken that one could easily spend most of a day meandering up and down the staircase. It was one of the more remarkable sights we had experienced thus far on our journey.
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Dusk was falling and we had one more stop to make before dinner. Lamego has a tiny old town on a hill in the center. At the top of the hill is the medieval castle which now consist of just a wall and a short watchtower. The best parts of visiting the castle are the narrow cobblestone streets that lead up to it and the view of the modern town and surrounding countryside from outside the wall.
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Normally I don't ask our Airbnb hosts for restaurant recommendations since we've had a few notable disasters with that approach, but something led me to go against my better instincts in Lamego. Their suggestion was o Padrinho on the outskirts of the city which didn't seem particularly well-regarded on TripAdvisor. We went for it anyway and found a huge, casual restaurant at the side of the highway that was practically full. After a short wait we were given a table and provided with one of the longest menus I've ever seen. Not only did they have pretty much every typical Portuguese dish I could have imagined, they had a large selection of exotic meats such as venison, kangaroo, and alligator. Of course these weren't local but we let our curiosity guide our appetites and ordered some of the unusual dishes as well as some typical Portuguese food and pizza for the kids. The food preparation was great and we agreed it was the best restaurant meal of the entire trip. Given the popularity of the restaurant and the quality of the food it was hard to understand why it was halfway to the bottom of the TripAdvisor list, but then again some of the best restaurants in Miami don't chart very high either. It's a good reminder that there's no perfect system for choosing a restaurant in an unfamiliar city.

On the way back home we heard loud music coming from the village and remembered we had seen a stage being set up earlier in the day. Spenser had fallen asleep so Mei Ling decided to stay home with him while I drove the older kids back to town. We found the road through the village lined with parked cars and eventually had to walk several hundred meters to get back to the main square where a huge party was in progress. Most of Britiande and probably half of Lamego was packed into the small square dancing to a live band. We never found out what the occasion was but we had fun checking out the vendors and jumping around to the music until we were exhausted.

Despite our heavy agenda the following day we couldn't bring ourselves to leave the villa in the orchard. Once we were finally done lounging around the patio underneath the grapevines, o Padrinho had opened and we went back for another huge meal. It was one in the afternoon before we got back on the road. Vila Real, about half an hour to the north, was the largest city in the area and had the only daily municipal market I could find. Unfortunately by the time we arrived and found a place to park the only people left were the cleaners that were hosing the place down. Our trip hadn't been for nothing as Vila Real was also the site of the Casa de Mateus, an 18th century rococo palace originally built for a wealthy family and now in the hands of a foundation. In front of the ornate palace is an enormous reflecting pool which was unfortunately brown and murky on the day of our visit.
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The exterior of the palace was quite reminiscent of the church and staircase we had seen the previous day. There was also a winemaking operation in a couple of outbuildings, which seems to be a requirement for any freestanding structure in the Douro Valley. The gardens were very elaborate and well-kept, and exploring them was the most enjoyable part of visiting the palace. Neither of us felt that a tour of the interior was likely to be worth the time and the hassle.
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I was attempting to coordinate a late arrival in Salamanca but our hosts seemed determined to have us there by eight, which meant we had very little time to see the valley. I set a course for Pinhão which seemed to be the quintessential riverside town. Serpentine roads took us through an amazing landscape of terraced hills and finally deposited us at ground level just where the Pinhão tributary dumps into the much wider Douro River. The town was surrounded by wineries but all were now closed late on a Saturday afternoon, and the last boat cruises on the Douro had returned to shore long ago. It didn't really matter as these were all things we had already done in Bordeaux and Rioja. Instead we used our short time in Pinhão to take the winding road up to the viewpoint above the town at Miradouro de Casal de Loivos. Here we got the classic view of the S-shaped curve in the Douro that features prominently in every guidebook and website.
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I had hoped to take a northern route to Salamanca, stopping in the ancient walled town of Mirando do Douro where the river passes through a deep gorge. Unfortunately the only way we would come anywhere close to the eight PM deadline our hosts in Salamanca had set for us was to drive directly along the shortest route to the main highway, and that's what we did. I think we would have had to stay overnight in Miranda to do it justice and it was far from the only part of northern Portugal that we skimped on during this trip. Fortunately, it was clear that we left enough unfinished to justify an entire trip dedicated to northern Portugal and Galicia some time in the future, perhaps during the wine harvest. I could see doing a circle that began and ended in Porto and covered some of the territory we missed on this trip from Ourense to Coimbra. I think we could manage it in a couple of weeks, similar to the road trip we did in Sicily in 2017.
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We raced all the way to Salamanca picking up at least one automated speeding ticket to find no answer at the door of our Airbnb. The hosts didn't respond through the app either, and when called them they gave me a keycode for the front door and the location of the room key in the inside mailbox. There was no requirement for any person-to-person interaction whatsoever, and we could have arrived just as easily at any time we wanted. Why they insisted that we arrive by eight instead of just sending us the keycode through the app is something I'll never understand, but it's far from the first time something like that happened in Europe and I'm sure it won't be the last.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:31 Archived in Portugal Tagged travel blog tony lamego pinhao vila_real friedman mateus_palace Comments (2)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Aveiro and Viseu


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I had originally wanted to drive all the way south to Coimbra, but our decision to include Valencia and the Dordogne forced me to shave a day from Portugal and the distances became impractical. As an alternative I chose to spend one night in Aveiro, also known as the Venice of Portugal due to its canals. It was less than an hour's drive from Porto so we arrived in the early afternoon and had plenty of time to explore. It was too early to check in to the Airbnb so we headed to the downtown area adjacent to the main canal. The area was busy and energetic with a strong vibe of domestic tourism, most of it likely originating from Porto and Lisbon. The buildings had an ornate, classical appearance and many had tiled facades, but without the antiquated patina we had become accustomed to in Porto.The most elaborate of the buildings is the Casa Major Pessoa, currently the home of an art museum and a tea house.
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There happened to be a crafts fair going on at the waterside and we browsed the stalls, some of which had very high quality ceramics and entertaining toys. We also found a place to try the local specialty, ovos moles, which consists of egg yolk and sugar within a wafer casing. It was an interesting thing to try but none of us particularly cared for it.
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Venice of Portugal may have been a stretch, considering there was really only one canal that passed through the town, but they made the most of it with pretty pedestrian bridges and colorful gondolas that seemed to be constantly crammed with tourists.
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Our Airbnb was in a perfect location on the most picturesque square in the center of town.
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We spent the early evening exploring the old town on either side of the canal. Most of the tourists and restaurants were clustered into a tiny area north of the canal, but some of the prettiest buildings and streets were on the nearly-deserted southern side. At the end of our walk we saw a building along the canal that seemed very busy. Inside we found a movie theater and a food court. It was definitely more fast food than food hall, but it was a great opportunity to feed the kids and we took advantage of it. Later we found some more interesting food for ourselves at a crowded restaurant in the old quarter.
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In the morning we checked out the two markets in town. The fish market was totally dead for some reason and the produce market wasn't much better. We'd already explored every street in Aveiro the night before so we decided to head for the beach town of Costa Nova on the Atlantic coast. The tiny town occupies a segment of the strip of land between the ocean and a short intracoastal waterway called the Aveiro Lagoon. Costa Nova is famous for the brightly-striped "haystack" houses that face the lagoon side of the town.
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We had much better luck with the fish market in Costa Nova. It was small but bustling and there was a large variety of fish and mollusks. Everyone's favorite was the wriggly eels and each kid got their chance to stick a finger into the slithery pile.
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The produce market was likewise small but very local and authentic. We were relieved not to have missed out on a market experience as Friday is usually one of the better days.
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Our seafood appetites had been whetted by the market and we hunted around for the most authentic restaurant we could find. The town was so small that all the restaurants were completely tourist-oriented. We found a place that was decent if overpriced, but not on a par with the best seafood we've had in Europe. We tried the fried eels, but they were so greasy and bony that we were barely able to finish our portion.
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The logical place for a midday stop was Viseu, a mid-sized city inland city with a reputation for elegance and historic character. The old town turned out to be a great stroll through cobblestone pedestrian streets and atmospheric squares. Best of all we seemed to have left virtually all tourism behind us at the coast.
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After an ice cream break we walked up to the top of the hill that the old town straddles. Here we found an expansive plaza which was flanked by two of Viseu's architectural treasures, the Igreja da Misericórdia (Church of Mercy) and the formidable cathedral. The church had a beautiful and unusual rococo facade, while the walls of the cathedral looked as solid and impenetrable as a fortress. The north side of the plaza was unobstructed and afforded views over the modern town and the countryside.
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On the way back down the hill we walked along the narrow commercial alley Rua Direita which dates back to Roman times. Back at the car we saw some interesting Portuguese street art, a highly anatomic rendition of a heart constricted by a string.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 10:54 Archived in Portugal Tagged travel blog tony aveiro viseu friedman Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Porto


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It had been four and a half years since our previous visit to Portugal, and in a way we were completing a circle. Lisbon was where we had kicked off our first European road trip, the journey where we had learned how much we could see and accomplish even with two small children. Now we had three with us and even our youngest was older and more demanding than Cleo had been on that first trip. Could we have even imagined traveling the way we do now at the beginning of that first adventure in 2014? I doubt it.

Lisbon wasn't one of the highlights of that itinerary, which also included the great cities of Andalusia as well as much of Morocco. It's sometimes hard to explain why certain cities that are lauded by others fall flat for us. Paris, Vienna and Chicago are other examples. Lisbon had its charms but aside from the Alfama area we didn't find much that captivated us during our four day stay. Because of that experience we were able to keep our expectations for Porto in check even though the city looked like it had a lot to offer.

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The central area of Porto is actually a twin city, with Porto on the north side of the Douro River and Vila Nova de Gaia on the south side. Most of the antiquated neighborhoods and tourist attractions are in Porto, but Gaia has the port wineries, the Cais de Gaia riverfront area, and the area's best beaches. Our Airbnb was in Gaia right underneath the Dom Luís I bridge that traverses the Douro and connects the centers of the two parts of the city. We encounter some kind of logistical difficulty arriving at Airbnb's in Europe about three out of every four times. Sometimes the location doesn't match up with our GPS or Google Maps, sometimes there's no number on the door, and sometimes local parking is simply impossible. In Gaia our GPS kept guiding us to the traffic circle at the lower level of the bridge and our Airbnb clearly wasn't there. Eventually we ignored the GPS and took the road that went to the upper level of the southern bank. Going back down on the other side we finally spotted the name of our street and soon located our building. There was no parking on the steep, winding street but our host helped me reverse into a terraced patio with just enough room for the car. The only problem was that the left and right wheels of the car had to be on two different narrow steps. I made it without scraping the undercarriage or slipping off a stair but I knew as soon as I turned off the ignition that I wouldn't be moving the car until we left Porto.

Our Airbnb had some of the most enthusiastic reviews I'd ever seen on the site and once we were inside it was clear why. The apartment was modern and artfully decorated, and the building was directly under the upper span of the bridge. We had awesome views of the bridge and the Douro River from the apartment, and we were just a minute's walk from the entrances to either of the two decks of the bridge.
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Once we were settled we followed the street the rest of the way back down to the traffic circle we had just repeatedly visited when we were looking for the apartment. Now that we were on foot it was much easier to appreciate the awesome iron bridge, which was designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel and whose appearance is reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower. A unique feature of the bridge is that there is a lower deck that carries vehicular traffic between the river banks and an upper deck far above that carries the metro between the urban centers of each half of the city. Pedestrians can cross on either deck. Between the two decks is an enormous arch that at the time of the bridge's construction was the largest of its kind in the world. The banks of the Douro rise very steeply on either side so the city truly exists on two levels near the river. On the Gaia side there is a cable car to take pedestrians between the two levels and on the Porto side there is a funicular. Once we were on the Porto side we encountered a very energetic team of percussionists banging out tribal rhythms on an array of plastic containers to an enthusiastic crowd.
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Most of the dinner action on the Porto bank appeared to be in the Cais da Ribeira area to the west of the bridge, but it was clearly a very touristy scene. We decided to try our luck to the east in hopes of finding more authentic local cuisine for our first night in Portugal. The foot traffic thinned out very quickly and we had to walk a lot further than we realized to reach our chosen restaurant. Once we arrived, we were informed of an hour wait for a table. We weren't excited to go back all the way we had come but then I noticed a wine cask propping the front door open. Could we use that as a table? The staff shrugged and brought over a couple of chairs. The meal proved to be rather undistinguished Portuguese tapas, but getting fed at all had been a minor victory. After dinner we crossed back to Gaia and walked east along the Cais de Gaia riverfront esplanade. The area was still quite busy with pedestrians and souvenir sellers, and of all things we passed by a Korean cultural show on an outdoor stage.

Eventually we reached Mercado Beira Rio, one of Porto's two food halls. We found some diverse international flavors to complement the heavy Portuguese dishes we'd consumed for dinner, but it wasn't one of the more inspiring food halls we'd visited in Europe. Although we hadn't explored far beyond the immediate environs of the bridge, we felt like we'd given ourselves a good introduction to Porto and went to sleep excited about our full city exploration we had planned for the next day.

Porto was our first sizable, walkable city since Bilbao. In the morning we walked up the road to the top of the southern bank of the Douro where there are amazing views over the Douro and the northern riverbank.
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The viewpoint was just steps away from the entrance to the upper deck of the Dom Luis bridge. From the bridge the views were even more spectacular. It was fascinating to see the city spill down the steep banks on either side of the river where some of the busiest commercial activity was right at the water's edge. I had been impressed by the interaction of Bilbao with the Nervion, but I realized that we were seeing something here that was on a completely different level.
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Once over the bridge and on Porto's upper level we headed in the direction of the municipal market. On the way there we encountered the breathtaking Church of Saint Ildefonso. The visual impact of this small baroque church comes form the thousands of blue and white azulejo tiles that were added to the facade in 1932. The azulejo is a design feature that is emblematic of Portuguese architecture and some of the best displays are in Porto.
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From the church we set off down the wildly congested pedestrian thoroughfare Rua da Santa Catarina. The street was reminiscent of the similarly-named Rue Sainte-Catherine in Bordeaux but even more crowded and frenetic. At the corner where we turned towards the market was another paragon of azulejo decoration, the Capela das Almas.
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The Mercado do Bolhão was opened more than a hundred years ago and has acquired a reputation for being dilapidated and outdated, which would have been selling points for us as long as the stalls were laden with fresh and interesting produce and the energy level was high. Unfortunately Porto picked the year of our visit to finally initiate a long-awaited restoration of the building and the market was now relocated to the basement of a shopping center around a block away. As soon as we took the escalator downstairs I knew we were going to be disappointed. The produce and the vendors may have been the same, but the fluorescent lighting and modern display counters were more reminiscent of a supermarket than the loud, gritty markets we prefer to frequent.
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One unique feature of the market that we hadn't seen before was the port kiosks. They were very generous with the pours to the point where we had to turn down the last glass we had paid for. Mei Ling's not a fan of sweet wine and I knew I was still going to have to carry the kids when they needed to nap.
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There were a few restaurants in another area of the basement and we had a surprisingly good meal with a lot of fresh seafood. Spenser disappeared under the table for a few minutes and we realized too late that he had been scribbling on his chair with his crayons. The restaurant proprietor walked by and handed Spenser a damp washcloth with a stern look on his face, and Spenser painstakingly scrubbed off every mark he had made.
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At the center of old Porto is the most recognizable landmark of the city. The Clérigos Tower is visible from practically anywhere in Porto thanks to its height and its placement at the summit of a hill. On the way there we walked through some of the most beautiful parts of the old town, stopping in at an amazing wine store whose proprietor watched our kids warily as they peered at the selections.
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Clérigos Tower is the Baroque belltower of a long, narrow church that hardly anyone notices behind it. The tower looked very familiar although we'd never been to Porto before, which confused me until I realized it was almost identical to the belltower of the Zaragoza Cathedral. On the north side of the church was an exquisite little park overlying a subterranean shopping center, and on the south side there was a long row of charming, antiquated townhouses with colorful and contrasting facades.
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There was a long line to enter the tower which I normally would have passed by without a second thought, but Porto was a particularly beautiful city that I wanted to see from above. We waited on the line for about half an hour only to find when we got inside that we wouldn't be allowed to ascend for another four hours after buying our tickets. As we left we informed the people on the lengthening line of that fact, a courtesy we wished someone had extended to us. Fortunately there are ways to see the view without buying tickets and waiting for hours.

As we slowly meandered westward through the city center there were many more treats for the eye. The twin churches of Igreja do Carmo and Igreja dos Carmelitas are separated by a very thin building that only exists to satisfy a technical requirement that the priests and nuns not be housed under the same roof. Igreja do Carmo has a much more elaborate Baroque facade and a breathtaking azulejo mural on the side.
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By now I was carrying the kids on my back in shifts. We had foregone the strollers for more flexibility in moving around the city but that meant the most rigorous test of my aging physique I'd had since we started our travels. By the time we arrived at Jardins do Palácio de Cristal Ian had already finished his nap and I was carrying Spenser. Thus far I was holding up pretty well but it was hard to ignore the relentless pressure of the mei tai straps on my shoulders. The name of the park makes it almost impossible to pass up, although the Crystal Palace exhibition hall that gave the park its name was demolished in 1952. In its place stands an odd-looking domed stadium that locals have affectionately christened "the UFO". Fortunately the gardens remain in pristine condition, tumbling downward along the upper part of the northern bank of the Douro with views of the river and Gaia. I unloaded Spenser into Mei Ling's arms and she waited at the upper level while I explored the grounds with Cleo and Ian. Much to the kids' delight there were more peacocks than people in the elegant gardens.
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From here we had a long walk back to the Dom Luis bridge and it was finally Cleo's turn to nap on my back. The break at the gardens had relieved my shoulders enough to put up with the heaviest weight of the day. The descent to Cais da Ribeira took us past a view point from which we had still another perspective of Porto's jumbled yet enchanting cityscape. The steep streets we descended to the riverside old town were lined with classical, colorful Portuguese townhouses and busy cafes.
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Once down at the Douro we decided to take the water taxi to Cais de Gaia, which the kids loved and gave us a unique view of the arch of the Dom Luis bridge. From here we took the Teleférico de Gaia cable car back up to Jardim do Morro close to where we had begun the day.
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We hadn't gone all the way up to the garden in the morning but I was glad we had a second chance to see it in the afternoon. If anything the views of Porto were even better than they had been from the walkway below, and the small garden was quite beautifully landscaped. It seemed like a favorite place for locals and tourists alike to stretch out and watch the sunset.
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This had been our most rewarding city walk of the trip, and probably the best since Budapest two years earlier. I wasn't expecting Porto to be the most interesting stop of the entire journey, but there was no question in our minds after just one day that it is possibly the most underrated city in all of Europe. We used our last evening in Porto to visit the other food hall in town, Mercado de Bom Sucesso. Rather than move the car from our precious and precarious parking spot we caught an Uber from the traffic circle in front of the bridge. Bom Sucesso was fairly far from the river in the residential area of Boavista. The long drive through relatively featureless modern neighborhoods was a reminder that most of the time what we see in the touristic center of major European cities is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the true expanse of the metropolis. Even out here we were still relatively close to the center of the conurbation of Porto and its suburbs, which has a population of almost two million.

Mercado de Bom Sucesso was a big improvement over Mercado Beira Rio from the previous night and well worth the trip out of the center. The food hall was spacious and the individual stalls were much more like miniature restaurants than food trucks. We complemented our seafood and jamón with grilled meat from a sit-down steakhouse on the upper level. After the dinner it was easy to get another Uber back to the Airbnb.
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Downtown Porto is about four miles inland from the mouth of the Douro and the west coast of Portugal and there are several interesting suburbs closer to the shoreline. In the morning we packed up and drove to Foz do Douro, an affluent coastal neighborhood with its own daily market. When we arrived at the market the area was so quiet we thought we were in the wrong location until we found the entrance. The market was very modern and looked more like it belonged in Scandinavia or San Francisco than it did in Portugal. There were barely a handful of customers and most of the vendors were just beginning to open their stalls. Fortunately one restaurant was already open for lunch and we took the edge off our hunger with sandwiches and bean stew.
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We were still eager to try one of the grilled fish restaurants that the area was famous for. People at the market told us we would find them a few blocks away at the beach but when we drove down there we didn't see anything at all. In fact, the oceanside promenade was practically deserted and the neighborhood was fairly commercial and unattractive. Later I realized that we should have driven further north to the town of Matosinhos which is famous for seafood restaurants. Fortunately our strikeout in Foz do Douro didn't matter because we ended up getting exactly what we were looking for in Afurada, a fishing village just west of Gaia on the southern bank of the Douro. We had no trouble at all locating the sidewalk seafood barbecues in this colorful residential neighborhood with cobblestone streets. We picked the busiest place and soon were washing down the grilled seafood we had craved with cold Portuguese beer. The coup de grace was a crème brûlée that was caramelized at the table with a hot iron from the barbecue. It was the perfect ending to an amazing city experience that had surpassed all expectations. I would never have imagined that in an itinerary that included Valencia, Bordeaux, and Bilbao that Porto would prove to be the most impressive and memorable city that we encountered.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 11:44 Archived in Portugal Tagged travel porto blog tony friedman bolhão clérigos Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Evora and return to Lisbon

I've always noted how flat and featureless the landscape of Spain appears from the major highways, but this was particularly apparent in the western region of Extremadura. This is probably Spain's least visited region as well, the home of cities with familiar names such as Mérida and Cáceres that did not evoke any particular images. The highway skirted even the smallest towns with a wide margin so we didn't get any sense of Extremadura besides the unremarkable flatlands, but we made a mental note that one day we should return. For the present, we'd decided that our best bet for an overnight stop was the Portuguese town of Evora, a full five hour drive from Madrid.
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Far from the Atlantic coast, Evora is off the map of international tourism but it was a welcome discovery for us. The historic center of the small town is filled with character and also boasts a very well-preserved Roman temple. We arrived in the evening and had a hearty Portuguese dinner which was most memorable for our first bottle of Alentejo wine. Evora is at the heart of the Alentejo wine country, far less well-known abroad than the Douro and Dao but in my opinion equally deserving of recognition. The deep red wine provided an immediate pleasurable astringency at the first sip coupled with a long, savory finish. In the morning we explored the compact center which was almost completely devoid of tourists.
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The Temple of Diana occupies a splendid position in the center of a cobblestone square, incongruously surrounded by a park and traditional Portuguese whitewashed facades. Oddly enough there's no real reason to think the temple has anything to do with the goddess Diana. It was built to honor the Roman Emperor Augustus as a god and the association with Diana is an invention by a local priest in the 17th century.
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One of Evora's more macabre sights is the Capela dos Ossos, a Franciscan chapel whose walls are covered by thousands of human skulls and long bones. This is the only ossuary in Portugal, although there are a few others scattered around Europe including the famous Catacombs of Paris. It seems the motivation of these bone churches is to remind the visitor of the fleeting nature of life, but I would have been satisfied with a simple inscription to that effect.
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We returned to Lisbon on somewhat different terms than our first arrival. We now had navigation to keep us safely on the main roads until we reached our destination, and we were staying in an Airbnb instead of a hotel. Our choice paid off, as we had more space in the apartment as well as a working kitchen for about half the price that we had paid for our hotel. Since that trip we have rarely stayed in a hotel in Europe, and never in the United States. On our first evening back in Lisbon we only had time for a quick dinner and a ride up the short funicular called Elevador da Glória for the views over the city from Bairro Alto.
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We had one final day in Lisbon which we began with a visit to the municipal market to gather ingredients for a final home-cooked meal. Afterwards we took a short drive to the town of Sintra on the outskirts of Lisbon. The town is famous for a large number of ornate castles and palaces in a variety of styles that are located within walking distance of each other. The center is quite lovely in its own right with tall, antiquated townhouses clustered together on the hillside and the beautiful castles peeking through the trees above.
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We made a brief stop at the Sintra National Palace, a medieval edifice that is now a museum. The highlight was the breathtaking Sala dos Brasões whose walls are covered in perfectly-preserved azulejos. The domed ceiling is no less magnificent with seventy-two coats of arms of Portuguese noble families presented in panels of gilded woodwork.
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We only had a couple of hours so we focused our attention on the Quinta da Regaleira. Although the castle appears ancient and Gothic it was actually constructed in the early 20th century in a mixture of architectural styles. The exterior gives an impression somewhere between a fairy tale and a nightmare, thanks to the mysterious former owner's fascination with alchemy and secret societies.
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Quinta da Regaleira has extensive grounds that are filled with miniature castles, gardens, tunnels and pools. Some of the tunnels and caves are quite creepy and I probably wouldn't want to undertake an exploration of the estate after dark.
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Before returning to Lisbon we got a late lunch at a restaurant on a quiet side street which had an unusual way of presenting their seafood brochette.
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We were still too full to start cooking once we got back to Lisbon so we took a stroll down one of the tiled pedestrian streets in Baixa towards the river. A crowd had gathered to watch a few people dancing to the beat of a street drummer. Someone began blowing a horn in time to the drum, a few others began singing, and suddenly the crowd erupted into a spontaneous dance party that lasted for several minutes. Cleo was really excited by the scene and was pulling Mei Ling into the center of it, although she was terrified when one tall fellow bent down to dance with her. Then it was over as quickly as it had begun and we continued back on our route.
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A short distance further we found ourselves at the most well-known place in Lisbon that we had missed on our first visit. A triumphal arch heralds the entrance into Praça do Comércio, an expansive square lined with government office buildings in the shape of a U. The open side of the U faces the water. The ground floor of the buildings was dedicated to restaurants and cafes which weren't particularly busy on this chilly winter night. In the center of the square is a monument of King José I mounted on his horse. The steps around the monument were mostly occupied by drinkers oblivious to the strong smell of urine. Cleo found herself a balloon and occupied herself chasing it around the square while I followed close behind to make sure she didn't stray to close to the noxious monument steps.
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We had an early flight back to Miami and hauled ourselves out of bed at the crack of dawn to bundle the bags and sleeping kids into the car for one final drive to the airport. As we passed through Lisbon's silent, deserted streets I couldn't believe that we'd pulled off everything we had planned with only minor inconveniences. We had been pretty lucky along the way, especially with some of the navigational blunders and almost being separated when the train stopped in Marrakech. The success of the road trip opened up a whole new world for us in Europe of small towns and out-of-the-way places that would be unreachable with public transportation. In the five years since then we've repeated the feat five more times, with each adventure more ambitious than the last.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:57 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: The Algarve

We didn't want to spend too much time driving so we scheduled an overnight stop on the Atlantic coast before proceeding to the Algarve. Not far out of Lisbon we stopped at a farmers market in any tiny town off the highway that I had discovered in my research. After touring the stalls we had a lunch of grilled meat in a pop-up churrasqueria. It was a great beginning to a road adventure.
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Vila Nova De Milfontes is a popular coastal vacation spot for Lisbon natives, although it's not really on the international tourism radar. It's best known for beaches so we pretty much had the small town to ourselves in February. We stayed in a small bed and breakfast which only had a couple of other guests. It was run by an elderly couple who were enchanted with Cleo. Their adult children and grandson were over in the evening when we arrived and Cleo was able to try out his toys.
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By the time we mustered the energy to walk to dinner it was already dark. We had a hearty and delicious dinner at the town's best restaurant, Tasco da Celso. In the morning we ate our fill of the delightful breakfast that was waiting for us and then took our leave. By the light of day it was easy to see the town's attraction to city dwellers. The narrow lanes were lined with picturesque whitewashed houses with colorful trim.
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We continued our drive down the inland highway until we reached Sagres, the town at the southwest corner of Spain. We didn't stop in town but proceeded to the end of Cabo de Sagres, one of those places that has an end-of-the-world feel to it due to its desolation against the backdrop of a seemingly infinite ocean. Due to the high winds nothing grows at the tip of the cape except scrub and the only sign of civilization is a tiny abandoned fort. There wasn't much to do there except celebrate having arrived at the only well-defined corner of Europe.
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We were now in the part of Portugal known as the Algarve. The region encompasses the entire southern coast of Portugal and has become one of the most popular vacation areas for tourists from the British Isles and Northern Europe, many of whom have returned there permanently in retirement. The coast is largely over-developed with inexpensive vacation apartments and extensive beaches so we kept to the larger towns where we would have more opportunities to experience authentic Portuguese food and culture.
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We spent our first night in the Algarve in Lagos, not far east of Sagres. Lagos is one of the larger cities in the area so it was a natural choice since our only desires were a good dinner and an atmospheric town center. Our hotel was sprawling and beautifully landscaped with tropical vegetation. We had dinner in a small seafood restaurant that seemed to be the top choice in Lagos, as it was absolutely jam-packed. Once we had recovered from the stress of parking in the narrow streets and wedging the strollers into the crowded restaurant we were able to appreciate the warm atmosphere and open kitchen. Here we had the best version of cataplana of our trip. Cataplana is Portugal's answer to bouillabaisse, a seafood stew slow-cooked in a hinged metal pot. Cataplanas are traditionally seafood but the technique can be used for meat as well. In the morning we strolled around the pretty but somnolent town center for a while before resuming our journey eastward.
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We made a brief stop in the coastal town of Olhão for lunch. This relatively large fishing port has beautiful cobblestone plazas and rows of antiquated buildings with chipped tile facades and Moorish stylings.
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For those of us who aren't traveling just for beaches and fruity drinks, Tavira is the prize of the Algarve. The town is set back a couple of miles from the ocean, along the banks of the River Gilão, and is best known for its picturesque old town and the ruins of a hilltop castle. Our hotel was one of the most beautiful we had ever stayed in, a sprawling estate of classic whitewashed Portuguese buildings with fresh blue trim. Paths led out to intriguing gardens with a circular above-ground pool and a grove of orange trees.
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For dinner we drove to Santa Luzia, a fishing village on the bank of the inland waterway that forms the Ilha de Taveira sandbar. Santa Luzia is famous for the many seafood restaurants that line the avenue along the waterfront, all of them specializing in octopus. Our waiter spoke excellent English, which was a rarity in Portugal, and helped guide us through the many different preparations of octopus that were featured on the menu. We love octopus so it wasn't a problem for us to try several of them. Aside from the deliciousness of the food, what took us aback was the generosity of the portions. In the United States it's common for an octopus dish to include just one tentacle but here it felt like we consumed the equivalent of two entire cephalopods.

As in Lagos, the antiquated town center was blissfully free of tourists but here there was much more to see. There was a promenade on either side of the Gilão with a Roman-style bridge connecting the two sides of the city. The town center was a maze of narrow cobblestone alleys filled with mysterious churches and somber stone buildings.
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We encountered more travelers as we ascended the steep hill to the Castelo. On the way we were rewarded with a terrace with views over the red roofs of the town as well as the iconic clock tower of the Church of Santa Maria do Castelo. The ruins of the castle were enjoyable to stroll through with a bright and colorful garden in the remains of the courtyard.
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We would have liked to have stayed one more night in that beautiful hotel but our trip was only beginning and we still had much ground to cover. I would finally be returning to Spain after thirteen years, now with my own family with whom I could share its wonders.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:27 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

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