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An Epicurean Odyssey: Madrid and trip conclusion


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At long last we had arrived at our ultimate destination, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in Spain. I had saved Madrid for last to keep us in a state of anticipation even as we were winding down our vacation. As with most large cities, enjoyment of Madrid is a matter of individual taste. Once the initial honeymoon of sightseeing is over, the experience depends on how one interfaces with the city. The energy, the culture, the food, even the weather come into play. This would be my third visit to Madrid and I had already seen all the touristy places like Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace. I wanted to experience the modern city like a Madrileño, exploring residential neighborhoods and markets and eating like a local. Madrid was one of the forerunners of the food hall movement with the Mercado De San Miguel, which we had enjoyed on our last visit in 2014. Now there were at least three more food halls close to the center and we were determined to try all of them.

Our gamble on an Airbnb outside of the center paid off. The Salamanca neighborhood may not have been as atmospheric as Centro but street parking was relatively easy and our apartment was spacious and comfortable. It took two trips to get all our gear up to the fifth floor via the tiny elevator with a metal gate. As soon as we'd settled in, we jumped back into the car and drove to Mercado de San Ildefonso, the most promising of the new food halls I'd discovered. We found an impressive array of cuisines represented on the two floors of the establishment, with Asian and American-style food alongside the numerous Spanish offerings. The space wasn't particularly crowded but the energy was good thanks in part to an outdoor patio on the upper level as well as a stylish bar/vinoteca that offered a wide selection of wines by the glass and craft beers. We were quite happy with the results of our first dining venture in Madrid.
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An interesting development in our trip arose when my brother decided to fly over to Madrid after picking his two sons up from their nanny's home in Italy. This would make us a party of nine exploring the city, with five rambunctious kids. In the morning we decided the best option to feed everyone would be Madrid's largest market Mercado de Maravillas, in the northern neighborhood of Cuatro Caminos. Our enthusiasm was only slightly dampened when I maneuvered our car into one of the low metal posts that was placed along the curb, denting a front panel. I've damaged and even totaled enough cars in Europe that I refuse to let events like this ruin my day, but it was frustrating to have kept our car pristine across thousands of miles of driving only to damage it on the second to last day of the trip. The market was cavernous, as I'd expected, but it was immediately apparent that it wasn't at full strength. At least half the stalls were closed and some entire sections were almost abandoned. Many of the shuttered stalls had signs posted indicating they were closed for most of the month of August, the traditional summer vacation period in Madrid. This was unfortunate but on the bright side the market was so large that we were able to find several appetizing restaurants, mainly specializing in Latin American cuisine. Eventually we settled on a Peruvian stall where we had a satisfying meal of ceviche and anticuchos.
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Our next stop was the rooftop bar at the Círculo de Bellas Artes cultural center near Plaza de Cibeles. The drinks were ridiculously expensive and rather poorly made but the lounge chairs were comfortable and the views of Palacio de Cibeles and the rest of central Madrid were spectacular. Atop a nearby government building we could see two impressive black sculptures of horse-drawn chariots, or quadrigas.
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Returning to ground level we strolled west up Gran Vía, possibly Madrid's most famous avenue. The classical, ornate architecture was breathtaking but the midday sun was brutal on the wide boulevard and soon we had to retreat to a shadier location.
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El Retiro park began its existence in the 17th century as a private retreat for the royal family. While not the largest park in Madrid by a long shot, El Retiro probably is the best embodiment of the spirit of Madrid in green space. Two places in the park that shouldn't be missed are the beautiful rectangular lake, where sunbathers lounge on the steps of the marble Alfonso XII monument right at the water's edge, and the Palacio de Cristal. Unlike the similarly-named location in Porto, there is actually a Crystal Palace in El Retiro. The late 19th century structure is made almost entirely of glass set within an iron framework and now hosts contemporary art exhibitions. large_70f888b0-b927-11e9-876f-b1d4b52ad718.JPGlarge_AXAM7964.JPGlarge_IMG_3619.JPG

From the park it was a pleasant walk west into Centro, culminating at the enormous Plaza Mayor which is almost double the size of the one in Salamanca. In the cobblestoned square we recuperated from the long walk while the kids played with giant bubbles created by a street performer.
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That evening we regrouped at Platea, Madrid's most upscale food hall which offers a selection of high end plates for diners that aren't troubled about their budget. We splurged on a large and very expensive steak, sushi, and an assortment of other dishes in the noisy, neon-illuminated main floor dining area. It was a cool experience but I would rather return to Mercado de San Ildefonso on our next visit.
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I'd discovered after our itinerary was already set that our second and last full day in Madrid was Assumption Day, a major public holiday on which markets and many other businesses would be closed. In the morning we decided to try our luck at Mercado de San Antón. The food hall was open although most of the stalls offering anything substantial were shut until late morning. We stuck around long enough to get what we needed but made a mental note for our next visit that this was more of an evening place. Afterwards we drove to Templo de Debod, an authentic ancient Egyptian temple that was disassembled, shipped to Spain, and put back together in Madrid in the 1960's as a donation from the Egyptian government. The temple now stands incongruously atop the Príncipe Pío hill, surrounded by an attractive park filled with palm trees and conifers. A musician in the park was optimistically playing "Despacito" on his clarinet despite the absence of foot traffic on the paths.
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We followed a staircase down the hill which led us practically to the gates of the Sabatini Gardens, the official garden of the Royal Palace. Although the gardens seem to complement the 18th century palace perfectly, they were constructed to replace the royal stables in the mid 20th century. The kids enjoyed themselves racing around the manicured hedges and making us chase them until we were all exhausted.
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We met my brother's family at Plaza de la Armería, between the Palace and the splendid bluish-grey Almudena Cathedral. The cathedral was only completed in 1993, although its Gothic revival architecture makes it appear much older. We got the kids some ice cream and beers for ourselves and then we had to take a long walk back through the searing afternoon heat to our car. At least we could console ourselves with more beautiful classical architecture along Calle de Bailén.
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We took custody of my brother's kids for the afternoon and brought everyone to Parque Madrid Río, on the bank of the Manzanares River. I didn't even know Madrid had a river despite several previous visits to the city. It's hard to imagine being unaware of the Seine in Paris, the Thames in London, or even the largely-ignored Tiber in Rome. Nevertheless, no tourist guides to Madrid make any mention of the Manzanares. Part of the reason for this is that the M-30 highway was constructed alongside the river in the 1970's, making it difficult to access and unpleasant for those who tried. In the early 2000's, the highway was rerouted underground and the reclaimed river bank was converted into a long chain of parks connected by bike paths. The largest section of park extends from the Puente de Toledo to the Puente de Praga, in the Arganzuela district south of the center. The park was very crowded due to the holiday with hordes of kids playing in the splash fountains and on long metal slides. The Arganzuela footbridge that crosses the Manzanares is an amazingly creative blend of form and function.
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We had to tear the kids away from the slides because we didn't want to miss the Assumption Day festivities back in Centro. The silver lining to the market closures was that there would be a parade, street food, and possibly rides for the kids as part of the holiday celebration. The problem was that I couldn't find anything official providing details of locations and times and I therefore had to rely on information I'd gleaned from message boards. Our best bet seemed to be a square called Plaza de la Paja, but once we arrived in the area many of the streets were cordoned off and traffic was extremely slow and heavy. We eventually found a parking spot a half mile away, and we were lucky to find that one amid a dense thicket of cars occupying every single possible space. We joined a stream of pedestrians headed towards the square, but instead we ran into a huge crowd at Puerta de Toledo that was obviously waiting for a parade. The kids worked their way to the front, oblivious to angry grumblings from mostly elderly locals, while Mei Ling and I resigned ourselves to catching glimpses of them through the packed crowd. All we saw of the parade was the tops of some banners passing by. We realized that some white canopies further up the road were likely food tents and decided to prioritize that over the parade.
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Once we reached our destination we found some very appetizing grilling going on. I saw a sign for gallinejas which I assumed were small grilled chickens and turned out to be chicken intestines once I received my order. Fortunately I've eaten intestines of practically every farm animal but chickens before so I had no problem completing my sweep. They were pleasantly chewy and savory.
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Somehow my brother with his kids managed to find us in the huge festival. He ordered way too many sausage rolls and then we treated the kids to cotton candy and a couple of rides before calling it a night. Although Madrid overall had been anticlimactic, it had been a satisfying ending to our long journey.
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Amazingly, it's taken me almost a full year from the end of the trip to complete my travel blog. While some memories have already started to fade, the passage of time has shaped my perspective on how this sixth major European road trip compares with the others. While I had expected most of our great experiences to revolve around food and wine, what actually stood out the most was the number of beautiful and walkable cities we discovered over the course of the month. Most of the best meals we had were at the night markets and food halls rather than at restaurants, so I combined the top ten list for food and experiences on this trip.

10. Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica in Zaragoza. Some of the best and most interesting tapas we had on the trip, all in one location.
9. Winery Airbnb in Lamego. Eating breakfast under a canopy of grapevines laden with heavy bunches of fruit is an experience I'll never forget.
8. Dune du Pilat. A natural wonder and an amazing experience for the kids.
7. Laguardia. The most enjoyable and lively of the many tiny medieval villages we visited in Spain.
6. Aqueduct of Segovia. A breathtaking structure that doesn't get the recognition it deserves among Europe's unmissable sights.
5. Bilbao. San Sebastian gets most of the tourist love in Basque Country, but this much larger city has the best architecture and character.
4. Bordeaux. A sharp contrast to the refinement of the wine region, this gritty and intriguing city is unlike anywhere else in France.
3. Dordogne night markets. Particularly at Montignac and Saint-Amand-de-Coly, these riotous celebrations of food and community are unmissable.
2. Valencia. My favorite city in Spain. A beautiful old town, amazing architecture and street art, a pleasant coastal climate, and the home of paella.
1. Porto. Possibly the most underrated city in all of Europe. Absolutely magical, beautiful, and full of energy. We will be back.

Although I expected Salamanca and Madrid to give us a huge ending to the trip, both cities proved disappointing this time around. I'm confident that the main culprit was timing, in that August is very lethargic in central Spain due to the heat and the migration of many business owners to the coasts. We enjoyed Madrid much more on our previous visit in March despite the freezing weather. There's still plenty left for us to see in central Spain, including major cities such as Valladolid and Burgos and countless alluring small towns, which means we'll be giving Madrid another shot at a better time of year. We might combine that with a return visit to Portugal during the September wine harvest, or dedicate a special trip to the area. Either way, it will have to wait until our kids are all in college which is at least thirteen years away. Definitely a back burner project. In the meantime, I expect our next visit to Spain will most likely be a Spanish language summer immersion for everyone in Valencia.

I've fallen way behind on my travel writing, in large amount due to the sheer amount of traveling we've been doing. My next project will be to write up the six week trip in China and Japan we just returned from, followed by the shorter trips to Yucatan and Uruguay we took in 2018. Stay tuned!

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:24 Archived in Spain Tagged travel madrid blog tony gran_vía templo_de_debod friedman sabatini_gardens retiro_park Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Salamanca and Segovia


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I had been looking forward to my first visit to Salamanca almost as much as I had to our return to Madrid. Despite its relatively small size, the city is legendary as a center of learning and culture in Spain. The University of Salamanca, established in 1134, is the third oldest in the Western world and dominates the center of the city. And wherever there is great literature and great art, great food seems to follow.

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Thanks to our late arrival on Saturday we didn't have time for anything except a quick al fresco dinner close to our Airbnb. On Sunday morning the municipal market was closed so we set off on our exploration of the old town. In Salamanca the sights are clustered within a very small area. Just north of our Airbnb was Plaza Mayor, one of the most well-regarded main squares in Spain. Early on a Sunday morning the square was pretty but largely deserted. We fueled up for the morning at an atmospheric tapas bar with a friendly staff.
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La Casa de las Conchas is a 15th century mansion whose facade is decorated with hundreds of scallop shell forms, symbolic of the Order of Santiago of which the homeowner was a knight. The building is now a public library, and behind it are the twin belltowers of the baroque La Clerecía church.
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A short walk south of La Casa de las Conchas is the Salamanca Cathedral, which is actually two joined cathedrals. When the Gothic new cathedral was constructed in the 16th century, it was built adjacent to the much smaller Romanesque old cathedral and actually leans on it for support. Later on, Baroque elements were added to the new cathedral. Although to cathedral is beautiful and majestic, what seems to fascinate visitors the most is the figure of an astronaut that is carved into the facade. Many people have chosen to believe that this carving demonstrates some kind of supernatural premonition of the 16th century masons who constructed the facade, despite the fact that it is well-established that the figure was placed there during a restoration in 1992.
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We walked around the university area in search of an imposing medieval campus but there was nothing to be seen on the order of an Oxford or even a Princeton. All we found was a collection of relatively featureless stone buildings that did little to convey the weight of nearly nine centuries of higher learning. Behind the cathedral is a small but immaculate garden called Huerto de Calixto y Melba which overlooks the River Tormes at the base of the hill. The upper reaches of the new cathedral are visible above the trees in the garden.
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The final sight on our walk through the center of Salamanca was the Convent of San Esteban. The ornate facade of this Dominican monastery is notable for its ornate Plateresque style. Soon after that, we had returned to our starting point in the center of the old town.
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At this point I was scratching my head. I had expected to spend the entire day exploring the highly-anticipated town of Salamanca but we seemed to have covered all the interesting buildings and streets by noon. Perhaps I should have been warned that I had overestimated the city by the fact that the tourist guides all seemed to agree the most fascinating detail of Salamanca was the astronaut carving on the cathedral. Fortunately we had the car and I had a great back-up plan. Just an hour southwest of Salamanca is the Sierra de Francia. Within this mountainous region are several medieval villages that have maintained their historic character thanks to their relative isolation. A relaxing drive over hilly regional highways brought us to Las Batuecas-Sierra de Francia Natural Park as the children slept peacefully in the back. We stopped for lunch at La Alberca, the largest and most touristed town in Sierra de Francia. We ate in the idyllic setting of the main square, surrounded by half-timbered houses with impressive floral displays on their balconies.
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Probably the most unique village in the area is Mogarraz, which clings to a steep hillside not far from La Alberca. In recent years the tiny town with just a couple of cobblestone streets has become well-known for hundreds of portraits that adorn the walls of the stone and half-timbered houses. The portraits were painted within the last decade by local artist Florencio Maillo, who based them on photos of town denizens that were taken for identity cards in the 1960's. The portraits were intended to be a temporary exhibition, but the residents enjoyed them so much they have requested that they remain hanging permanently. On the Sunday we visited, one would never know that Mogarraz has now been firmly enshrined on the tourist map. There was only one other car in the parking lot above the town and it was an easy task to find deserted sections of the main street to take our photos. Afterwards it was time to reward the kids with ice cream for their perseverance exploring the villages and then return to Salamanca.
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For dinner we decided to change things up by eating outside the old town. It was a fairly long walk north to Calle Van Dyck, which was reputed to have Salamanca's highest concentration of tapas bars. It was interesting to see the sudden and complete disappearance of older buildings once we crossed Avenida de Mirat into the modern town. We found ourselves in an area that was devoid of character and rather gritty. The tapas street was a far cry from Calle Laurel in Logroño. There was only a smattering of restaurants without much atmosphere, and hardly anyone on the sidewalk. Fortunately the place we finally chose provided a decent meal, but not a memorable dining experience such as we'd had elsewhere in Spain. Before tucking in for the night we returned to Plaza Mayor to see the brilliantly-illuminated facades and enjoy the growing energy. The square was far busier in the evening than it had been when we had eaten there early in the day.
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In the morning we only had the municipal market left to see, but it was largely a disappointment. Partly because it was a Monday, the market clearly wasn't at full strength and there was little in the way of foot traffic. Also, it seemed Salamanca was suffering from the same syndrome that affects Madrid in August where the locals abandon the city for the coastal areas. Many of the stalls looked like they were closed down for much more than a weekend. Perhaps that explained the lack of energy in the Salamanca's streets and restaurants as well. We left Salamanca somewhat underwhelmed but hopeful that we would find a more vibrant city if we ever return in the spring or fall when the university is in full session.
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We had a busy day on the road that would culminate with our arrival in Madrid. We deviated northward to see two medieval castles, La Mota and Coca. La Mota is a relatively modern reconstruction of a medieval fortress that had fallen almost completely into ruin by the early 20th century. The walls were surfaced in neat lines of brick separated by thick layers of mortar, giving the castle a pinkish, shimmering appearance.
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We arrived at Coca Castle during the mid-day closure which did not trouble us as we were eager to press on to Segovia. Coca's brick exterior was remarkably similar to that of La Mota, leading me to think that La Mota's restoration was probably based on the appearance of Coca although La Mota was originally constructed centuries earlier.
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Segovia is a small town that sits in an area of Castile y León that is reminiscent of American flyover country. We were surrounded by large brown fields of recent harvested grain that looked like they had been burned by the merciless sun. Trees were sparse. Segovia itself, however, has been blessed with a bounty of unique and majestic buildings that makes it a worthwhile destination for a traveler. Foremost among these is the Aqueduct of Segovia, which along with the Pont du Gard in France is considered one of the most impressive Roman aqueducts still in existence. The aqueduct occupies one end of the expansive Plaza Azoguejo, which makes it visible for quite some distance as one approached from the west. Up close, the dimensions of the structure are breathtaking and it is hard to believe from its excellent preservation that it was constructed almost two thousand years ago. Having visited the Pont du Gard as well, I feel that the Aqueduct of Segovia is more visually impressive because of its urban location and its composition of unmortared granite blocks. In fact, I can comfortably say that it is probably the most splendid remnant of Roman civilization I have ever encountered including the Coliseum of Rome. We found it hard to tear ourselves away from this colossal beauty and explore the rest of the town.
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Although Segovia is substantially smaller than Salamanca, it has a much larger historic area. The small modern neighborhoods occupy the eastern fringes of the town like afterthoughts. Between the aqueduct and the Segovia Cathedral there was no shortage of interesting narrow streets, some with intriguing views over the lower levels of the town.
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There's no shortage of majestic cathedrals in Spain but I found Segovia's version to be one of the most appealing. The enormous Gothic structure dominates the expansive Plaza Mayor with a seemingly endless array of ornate spires spaced around the multi-level exterior.
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From the cathedral it's just a short walk further west to the Alcázar. The stunning medieval fortress grows out of top of a steep cliff with a river gorge on either side. The facade is an imposing rectangular block topped by an array of turrets that looks like the model for the rook in chess. The Gothic steeples that top the lower turrets at the corners of the fortress are reminiscent of La Cité de Carcassonne. Inside the castle were plenty of relics of medieval warfare for the kids to frolic on.
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I took the two older kids up the steep staircase to the top of the central tower, from which we had amazing views of the cathedral and the surrounding countryside.
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We could have happily spent more time in Segovia, but once again we had to meet our Airbnb host in person in Madrid and we couldn't arrive too late. Surprisingly we had found much more worth seeing in our midday stop in Segovia than we had over a two-day stay in Salamanca. Regretfully we saddled up for the last leg of our month-long European road trip.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:32 Archived in Spain Tagged travel segovia blog tony salamanca friedman la_alberca mogarraz Comments (0)

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)

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