A Journey to Portugal

Our original journey to Portugal had been scheduled for September 12, 2001. Because of the 9/11 tragedy, the trip was postponed indefinitely. Finally nine months later, we were off on a dream itinerary that we thought might never happen.

The town car arrived at Kennedy Airport on Monday in the late afternoon. We had allowed two hours for check-in and were pleasantly surprised to find the terminal rather quiet. After breezing through security, we found ourselves with an hour and a half to pore over reams of promotional material and our trusty Lonely Planet Guide.

The TAP flight was fully booked and hopes of a business class upgrade were soon dashed. We didn't fret long realizing that the flight to Lisbon took a mere six hours. Takeoff was delayed about 40 minutes, but the crew assured us that with a good tailwind, we would make up the time in the air. The Airbus was full to the max, so we made due with a couple of seats mid-plane.

 At first, refreshments came slowly but finally, snacks and a decent meal by US airline standards were served. After supper, which included a better than average Portuguese red wine, we tried to sleep. Our efforts were frustrated by a few of our fellow passengers who were boisterously celebrating their return to the motherland.

At 7:20am, local time we touched down in Lisbon, right on schedule. The airport was still asleep as we queued up for customs and immigration. We stood in line for about 15 minutes when we noticed that passengers with US passports were being summoned for a hassle-free passage through customs.

By 8:15 we had collected our luggage and were headed for Avis to claim our rental car. Since only one of us drove stick shift, a car with automatic transmission had been requested in advance. Unfortunately, none were available, so we had only driver on our adventure. Apparently automatic transmissions are a rarity and a hefty premium is charged for these vehicles.

  We had been warned of the aggressive Portuguese driving style. As we drove from the airport into the center of Lisbon (approx. 15 minutes), suicidal motorcyclists flew by us at dizzying speeds. Defensive driving is highly recommended.

 We arrived without incident on the Avenida da Liberdade -- Lisbon's Champs Elysee. This broad tree-lined boulevard is home to many of the major hotels and international shops of the city.

  Our hotel, the Lisboa Plaza, was centrally located just off the major thoroughfare. This pleasant 6-story boutique hotel featured a friendly and extremely helpful staff that was a harbinger of the true Portuguese hospitality that we experienced everywhere. We immediately abandoned our rental car to the bell captain and proceeded by taxicab, which were cheap and plentiful.

Our local media contacts told us that we had arrived on the eve of the St. Anthony Feast day. Huge celebrations were planned for the following day in honor of the city's patron saint

The first destination in Lisbon was the Feira de Ladra flea market that happens every Tuesday and Saturday high in the Alfama district near the Sao Jorge Castle. The winding medieval streets were chockablock with eager merchants selling everything from used clothing to 16th century porcelain tiles. These tles or azulejos are Portugal's most ubiquitous and unique decorative art. The Euro had almost reached parity with the dollar, making for easy currency conversions. It was only through sheer strength of will that we made no purchases at this impressive market. Looking back, we should have bought that super kitsch art deco nutcracker in the form of a chrome wolf with oversize jaws on a marble base. For $25, it was a steal.

The noonday sun blazed as we walked down the hill into the heart of the Alfama, one of Lisbon's oldest districts. Going back to Moorish times, the area recalls the kasbah with its maze of twisting streets. Around every corner was a perfect movie location. This has not been lost on the many filmmakers who come to shoot here.

We were told that Johnny Depp and Gerard Depardieu were on location in the Alfama recently. This neighborhood is a moviemaker's paradise, drenched in fantastic visuals with a wonderfully mysterious ambience. On every street we encountered memorable faces with character to spare.

As our walk continued, we noticed that the air was perfumed with the mouthwatering aroma of sardines being grilled on wood fires in preparation for the St Anthony's feast. Every block in the historic neighborhood was decorated with gay festoons of multicolored confetti hanging overhead. There was a palpable sense of the massive party that would follow tomorrow. Magnificent jacaranda trees were in full bloom, their vibrant purple flowers lending to the festive atmosphere.

Hungry and a slightly jet-lagged, we stumbled into a humble snack bar where we dined on the delicious grilled sardines and tasty caldo verde, a broth of shredded cabbage and potato. The tab for two came to a miniscule $6, although we did not order wine, which was also very reasonably priced.

We began to realize that Portugal is a time capsule where the old Europe that has all but disappeared from the other more prosperous members of the EEC is still alive and easily accessible.

Hurrying back to the hotel, we met our guide, the omniscient Maria Caldeira who had been sent by the Lisbon Tourist Board. Since we had only 24 hours in the capital, she had been assigned the Herculean task of condensing the history, geography, and culture of this great city into an intense four-hour tour.

The highpoint of this whirlwind excursion was the Belem district where we visited the magnificent Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. Built in 1502 to commemorate Vasco da Gama's discovery of a sea route to India, the great structure is perhaps the finest example of the flamboyant Portuguese brand of Renaissance-Gothic architecture called Manueline. The opulent age of discovery and the vast wealth generated by the spice trade were evident in the rich gilding and detail of this architectural masterpiece.

We took a break from history at the famous Antiga Confeitaria de Belem where we sampled the traditional  "pasteis de nata'"a baked confection that ranks among the most delicious custard pastries ever tasted. The ancient recipe is needless to say top secret

Our city tour ended back in the Alfama where our guide told us that most of the district was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1755. She pointed out that Lisbon lies in a quake zone not unlike San Francisco and that seismic events are always possible.

We took our first and last Lisbon supper al fresco in Alfama, marveling at the freshness of the wood grilled squid and tomato salad, not to mention the wonderful breads. It dawned on us that the cuisine of Portugal is a handmade artesanal affair where  "slow food” is the rule rather than the exception.

We walked slowly back to our digs, sorry that we would miss tomorrows St. Anthony's feast and knowing that we must return to this vibrant city in the near future.

Sleeping off any remaining jet lag, we awoke to a glorious day. Our hosts for today’s excursion from JP Wines were Vasco Penha Garcia, winemaker and Bernardo Gouvea marketing director. Both men were young, personable and seemed genuinely passionate about the potential of the Portuguese wine industry.

They explained that for too many years the world's image of their country's wine had been dominated by venerable Port and widely popular sparkling rose. These two men were here to educate us on the many other outstanding wines of Portugal that were not widely known outside of the country.

We exited Lisbon with ease and drove for about an hour into the countryside near Bombarial arriving at Solar dos Loridos. At this lovingly restored 19th century manor house, JP produced a magnificent sparkling wine. The property was a combination museum and winemaking facility with fabulous antiques, eye-popping modern art and state of the art vintaculture. The manicured grounds commanded a panoramic view of the surrounding hills and vineyards. The "Loridos" sparkler was impressive, rivaling many vintage champagnes we've tasted recently.

Our host Vasco was not only an accomplished winemaker but also a serious gourmet. We lunched extravagantly at Lagar, a terrific local restaurant where the owner's wife was the chef. She prepared a feast that included local shrimp, beef and fish followed by regional cheeses, fruit and topped off with Cuban cigars.

Fortunately for us, Vasco took the wheel and we visited another JP Vinhos property, the beautiful Quinta de Bacalhoa. This historical manor house was built on a lake and featured more priceless antiques and azulejos, the aforementioned tile work.

At days end, we toured the main JP winemaking facility in Azeitao where we tasted the wide spectrum of their wines. We were most impressed by a gigantic red called Bacalhoa.

For supper Vasco chose a relocated family style restaurant in Pamela featuring a large outdoor wood-burning grill. We enjoyed another simple but delicious meal of grilled dourado, sardines, squid and wonderfully fresh salads washed down with a hearty red "vinho da casa" or house wine.

After a very full day, we arrived at the Pousada de Pamela, a medieval hilltop fortress converted to a four star hotel. This was our first experience with "pousadas", the government run system of upscale inns located in converted castles, convents and monasteries. The restoration and conversion at Pamela was impressive with ethereal strains of Gregorian chant music playing through the ancient hallways. As we drifted off to sleep in our comfortable room, we had been magically transported into a past that is very much alive and accessible to the lucky traveler in Portugal.

We got an early start for Sintra, about an hour northwest of Lisbon on the portagem or toll-road. After exiting the highway, we began to climb the lush serra de Sintra to the "centro historico" of the town. Almost immediately we were charmed by one of the most romantic Portuguese destinations.

We checked into the fabled Lawrence Hotel where our suite lived up to its name, "bella vista.” The view overlooked the Paco Real or Sintra National Palace and looked upward to the ruins of a Moorish castle. We were completely captivated by the Lawrence as was fellow guest Lord Byron who waxed rhapsodic, likening Sintra to glorious Eden.

Our guide Susanna Lopes of the Sintra Tourist Board led us up the mountain to the Pena National Palace. The Disney-esque castle, built in 1840, was the summer home of the doomed Portuguese royal family who spent their final night here when they were deposed in 1910. Everything was just as they left it complete with fabulous furniture designed by Monsieur Eiffel and china by King Ferdinand himself.

We lunched formally at the grand Tacho Real Restaurant, a family owned gastronomic gem. The food, presentation and service here was peerless. We adored the rich Caldeirada (seafood stew). Dessert featured Sintra’s famous queijadas (sweet cheese cakes) and travesseiros (almond pastries) both of which were delectable.

After lunch, we toured the fairy-tale Quinta de Regaleira built in the early 20th century for a Brazilian mining magnate in a pseudo- Manueline style. The magnificently landscaped grounds were undergoing an extensive renovation and included a mystical initiation well that tied deeply into Masonic lore and spiritualism.

On weekends in July and August, we learned that Sintra is packed with visitors from Lisbon seeking cooler climes. If ever there was a perfect spot for a romantic liaison or honeymoon, this mega-charming town is it.

We awoke to the sound of church bells and reluctantly hit the highway for a three-hour drive to Estremos in the heart of the Alto Alentejo region. As we drove west from Lisbon, we noted Portugal’s widely varied topography with many microclimates that enable the production of so many different types of wine.

Our first impression of the Alentejo was a land of rolling plains and extremely dry summer heat, reminiscent of California's Napa and Sonoma valleys. There was a feeling of emptiness and wide-open space as we passed large agricultural estates dotted with vineyards, olive groves and cork trees. This vast region makes up about a third of Portugal, producing an impressive array of agricultural products as well as magnificent marble that rivals Italy.

It was high noon when we arrived in Estremos at the winery of Joao Portugal Ramos. The charismatic Mr. Ramos is one of the country's leading winemakers, who arrived in the Alentejo more than twenty years ago. From an aristocratic Lisbon family, he brought innovative vintacultural methods to the region, focusing on varietals and producing world-class wines. His land holdings in the area continue to grow, and he is a powerful spokesman and promoter of the Portuguese wine industry and its potential.

After a tour of his ultra-modern production facility, Mr. Ramos invited us to his gracious home to view the World Cup soccer match between Portugal and South Korea. All activities ceased as we gathered round the TV with his wife and children to watch the unfortunate trouncing of the Portuguese team.

When the match ended and composure was regained, we lunched on artichokes au gratin and succulent wild partridge that our host, an avid hunter, had bagged during the previous hunting season. Mr. Ramos mentioned that he expected a visit from the Wine Spectator's Robert Parker, who he said had compared his best wines to 1st cru Bordeaux. As we took our leave, we were asked to return to the vineyard tomorrow for a skeet shooting match and luncheon.

From here we drove about 10 km to the beautiful Pousada de Arraioles. At this lovingly restored 16th century convent/hotel, we lolled away the late afternoon poolside and finally repaired to our comfortably air conditioned rooms, delightfully ensconced in Portuguese history again.

The next day was typically sunny and very warm as we made our way back to the Joao Portugal Ramos Vineyard. We arrived to find a full on skeet shooting party in progress. The participants were for the most part of the ruling class, practicing their marksmanship for the upcoming hunting season. The Alentejo is a hunter’s paradise with large populations of game birds like partridge and quail as well as wild boar and deer. The match had corporate sponsorship from a Japanese SUV manufacturer and several magazines like "Calibre 12", devoted to the Portuguese hunting subculture.

When the contest ended, we repaired to a grand reception at the winery hosted by Mr. Ramos. Once again we feasted on partridge, local fruits and vegetables and decadently rich homemade strawberry ice cream.

At the banquet, we were fortunate to meet a delightful couple who were to become our friends, guides, and goodwill ambassadors to the Alentejo region. Paula Mendia and Luis Valadares had both left careers in the corporate sector to pursue their individual muses, Mr.Valadares as a sculptor and Ms. Mendia as a horticulturalist and farmer. Mr. Valadares was born and raised in nearby Borba and his companion was a transplant from Lisbon. In the midst of the restoration of a historic home in Estremos, they provided invaluable insights into all aspects of Alentejan culture and beyond warm Portuguese hospitality.

After the feast, we left our new friends and drove a few kilometers to our next destination the Casa de Peixinhos, a turismo de habitacao or guesthouse in the picturesque marble town of Vila Vicosa. This 17th century manor house remained in the family of our host D. Jose Passanha. Unlike the elaborately renovated and redesigned pousadas, this stately home was pretty much intact, decorated with original antique furniture and family heirlooms. The lovely walled grounds were surrounded by a fragrant lemon grove filled with ripe fruit and reminded us of a location from a Sergio Leone spaghetti western (filmed in nearby Spain).

When the blazing sun finally set, we were reunited with our new friends Paula and Luis. They insisted that we join them for a wonderfully simple dinner of locally raised lamb and pork at the excellent restaurant, A Talha, in nearby Borba. During the meal, the couple explained that the culinary heritage of the poor Alentejo region depended heavily on long slow marination of meats and the generous use of the many herbs grown here. The result is a transcendent peasant cuisine perfectly complimented by the big red wines of the region.

After supper, we adjourned to a local outdoor cafe where we sipped the potent local moonshine. As the mood mellowed, Luis regaled us with bloodcurdling tales of his youth as a soldier-tracker in the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique, during that country's war for independence. This perfect evening ended at a festival in the village square celebrating the town's medieval heritage with a jousting tournament and swordplay.

When Sunday dawned, we moved within Vila Vicosa to the splendid Pousada de Joao IV. Centrally located next to the Palace of the Dukes, this was the former Convent of Chagas de Cristo. The rooms were lavishly detailed and themed, with all amenities, in ironic contrast to the stark monastic life of its former residents. We spent the lazy hot afternoon lounging at the refreshing pool with Luis and Paula.

On Monday we drove a half hour south to the idyllic Convento de Sao Paulo. This former 14th century monastery is nestled on a picturesque hillside, perfectly positioned for meditation on the verdant valley below. We dropped off our baggage and marveled at the phenomenal collection of 17th century frescos and tiles that adorn this privately owned 4 star museum hotel.

Without further ado, we were off on an hours drive south to the Herdade de Esporao in Reguengos de Monsaras. The winemaker at this large estate is a congenial Australian named David. He came to the region about twenty years ago, married a Portuguese women, and set about making fine wines using modern Australian vintacultural methods. The winemaking takes place in a modern facility that was undergoing new construction to separate the white wine production from the red. We were duly impressed by the 2000 trincadeira, a muscular red varietal.

Luncheon was served at the vineyard's Restaurant under the supervision of renowned chef Julia who also operates superb restaurants in Lisbon and other places  We happily tucked into a terrific meal that featured a feisty Portuguese style gazpacho, classic bacalau (baked salt cod), flavorful braised lamb, topped off with refreshing fruit sorbets and honey infused local pastries. The Herdade de Esporao also produces world-class olive oil.

Back at the convent, we met our friends Luis and Paula who whisked us off to catch the sunset at nearby Monsaraz. This is one of Portugal's most famous fortified hill towns that has recently applied to become a Unesco World Heritage Site. As we sipped a noble "Reguengos" wine and ate the local specialty of pork and clams at the charming Santiago Restaurant, we toasted our friends for insisting on this not to be missed side trip. After supper, we walked the battlements of the ancient castle and watched the full moon rise, feeling like overfed Knight Templars.

In the morning, we drove 45 minutes to Evora, the capital of the Alentejo region. This ancient city that dates back to pre-Roman times has also been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. The walled old town has a very well preserved Roman temple and boasts more monuments and architectural landmarks than any Portuguese city except Lisbon. After a noonday walking tour, we checked into the compact and well-located Albergaria do Calvario just within the walls of the old city.

A magnificent lunch was served at the restaurant Luar de Janeiro.  Here we feasted on numerous regional delicacies like hearty shark soup, shrimp salad, fresh ham, marinated octopus, and piquant roast goat.

Our two days in Evora were spent blissfully wandering the serpentine streets of the old town, shopping for local ceramic marvels, and soaking up the rich history that this wondrous city exudes. Evora is also home to a major university, with a plethora of cultural events that keep the visitor constantly stimulated.

The final stop on our odyssey was the great city of Porto, commercial center of the country .We motored at high speed from Evora to Porto in about five hours. Traffic was light and we were again amazed by the varied geological and topographic features of this magical land that whizzed by.

We checked into the luxurious Porto Palacio and were pleased to find a well-equipped health club to work off some of the excesses of our culinary debauchery.

The focus of our stay in Porto was Expovinis 2002, a huge wine fair showcasing the burgeoning Portuguese wine industry. After a dizzying round of tastings, we were drawn to the booth of Vinhos Douro Superior where we met the winemaker Joao Silva E Sousa and his associate Joao Matos. These two young men helped to put the somewhat daunting Expovinis in perspective, explaining that Portuguese wines had for too long lived in the shadow of well endowed French, Italian and Spanish producers. Largely because of economic considerations, Portugal had lagged behind in promotion and marketing of its wines. The two Joaos expressed hope for big changes on the horizon that would bring Portugal to its rightful place as a great wine-producing nation.

At the expo, we were also fortunate to meet one of the great men of the port wine trade, Bruce Duncan Guimaraens. The recently retired Mr. Guimaraens had gained fame as the head of the esteemed Fonseca port house that his great, great grandfather founded in the 18th century. He graciously invited us to tour the Fonseca lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia. Unfortunately, we were unable to honor his invitation because of time constraints and prior obligations.

By night, the two Joaos brought us into the medieval heart of Porto. We took our last supper in Portugal at their favorite restaurant, the rustic Solar do Patio that featured the excellent wines of Vinous Douro Superior. The chef/owner Antonio Silva prepared a memorable meal that included blica, a phallic local sausage (the butt of several off color jokes) served with super sweet pineapple from the Azores and the entree, a well marinated roast beef from a secret family recipe.

Afterward we walked the atmospheric riverfront and viewed the landmark bridges and port-wine lodges that lined the opposite bank of the Douro River. The city pulsed with excitement in anticipation of tomorrow's St. Joao festival that alas we would miss.

 As preparations were made to board our flight home, we realized that we had fallen deeply in love with Portugal. This gentle seduction was accomplished by the magnificent wines, glorious food and most of all by the warmth and generous spirit of its people. These are people who dine late and dance later in a land of festivals where the feast never ends. We hope to return soon and often.