VINTAGE DAYS IN PORTUGAL
by Melissa Burdick Harmon
The sharp click of a glass. “A sua saude,” the traditional Portuguese toast. Then that first chilly sip of one of Portugal’s vinho verdes, the sprightly young “green” wines that capture the light spirit of this lush country. Later comes the ending to a perfect meal: a smoky Aged Tawny Port, the red-brown color of autumn — rich with a comforting nutty flavor.
Travelers come to Portugal to explore its exquisite, small, manageable and history-rich cities; to walk through palaces and churches that seem to soar straight toward heaven; and to stroll along miles of sugar-white seacoast. They come for both fresh seafood and for the country’s heartier fare: crunchy roast suckling pig ... thick steaks cooked in a rich port wine sauce ... lamb braised on a turning spit. And of course, they come to experience superb wines, several of which are unique to Portugal.
The Vintage Series’ “Food and Wines of Portugal” tour offers it all — fine dining, abundant wine, and a wonderful overview of this small but intense country. It starts, as most Portuguese journeys do, in Lisbon, a city that winds up, down and around seven hills, Roman style. A city virtually ringed by water, it stands as one of the world’s loveliest capitals.
The exploration begins in Lisbon’s District of Belém (the Portuguese word for Bethlehem), set at the mouth of the Tagus River. Ironically this is where the real explorers — think Vasco da Gama — set sail in their caravels to discover the far reaches of the world. They returned laden with so many riches that Lisbon swiftly became a global capital.
The elegant white Monument of Discoveries recalls these brave men, working under Prince Henry the Navigator who encouraged Portuguese sea explorations during the 15th century. Nearby the Tower of Belém marks their departure point.
Much of the wealth that came back from those sea journeys helped build and beautify Belém, a lovely green part of the city. One legacy is the grandiose Mosteiro de Jerónimos, a monastery built in the exuberant, we-can-conquer-the-world Manueline style of architecture that arose during the grand age of exploration. The nearby Coach Museum shows off such treasures as three golden coaches made in Rome for King John V (1716), but that look like they might have served Cinderella’s fairy godmother.
Like every fairy-tale city, Lisbon is topped by a castle, the lovely Castelo de São Jorge, complete with battlements, ramparts, leafy narrow streets ... and a restaurant. Dining in the Casa De Leão, part of the former royal residence, includes the chance to sample wines and cheese from the southern Alentejo region, known for its rich, rich reds and sweet whites.
Rural Portugal lies right at Lisbon’s doorstep, making it possible to journey out into the countryside without moving hotels. Located across the Tagus, the lovely “Three Castle Region” abounds with wineries. A drive through this rural area with its vineyards, olive trees, medieval towns and tiny seaside fishing villages makes a relaxing counterpoint to an afternoon of tasting.
The José Maria da Fonseca Cellars, known for their modern production facility and for such fine red wines as Periquita (little parrot), is particularly noteworthy. Fonseca also produces some rich, honey-sweet Muscatels designed to accompany, or serve as, dessert. (As if to prove that this is a wine-growing area to be taken seriously, Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) recently made a major investment here.)
Green, breezy and forested, Sintra offers a very different climate from Lisbon, just 18 miles away. Set virtually in the midst of a granite mountain called the Serra de Sintra, the town lies close to the westernmost tip of continental Europe. Because of its rich history, the entire city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To get a feel for this magical place, visitors should stroll the narrow medieval streets, some so steep that pavement gives way to stairs.
The late 14th-century Palácio Nacional de Sintra stands on a site once occupied by Moorish kings, and remained the summer home for Portuguese royalty until a little more than a century ago. Its interior abounds with delightful details. One example: the colorful ceiling on the Sala das Pegas, where each panel depicts a chattering magpie, said to represent the gossips in court. The palace also boasts the world’s largest collection of azuleos, the traditional blue tiles that are emblematic of Portugal.
Higher up the mountain, the Palácio de Pena looks like something Bavaria’s King Ludwig or Hollywood’s Walt Disney might have created. It was, in fact, built in the 19th century under the direction of the young Queen Maria II’s German husband, who filled its rooms with treasures from all over the world. The yellow-and-pink exterior, with a vivid collision of Arabian and Victorian styles, sets the mood of mad fantasy, which permeates every corner of this bizarre but delightful building.
A drive north leads to the port-producing area of Portugal, located close to the Spanish border. The route winds past walled towns complete with the obligatory medieval castle and through quiet fishing villages, where the seafood is just a few hours removed from the ocean and the white wines are local and luscious.
An afternoon stop at the Palace Hotel of Buçaco, a 19th-century version of exotic, swirling Manueline architecture, rewards enthusiasts with a 200,000-bottle wine collection that includes fine Buçaco wines made and available only there. A pre-dinner tasting includes a comprehensive lecture on the whole spectrum of Portuguese wines, from port to Madeira, muscatel to vinho verde, and many other fine reds and whites in between.
Coimbra, in the still relatively untouched Beiras region of Portugal, began as a Roman settlement, was a center for Muslim culture under the Moors, and then became the seat of royalty (before Lisbon grabbed that honor). In addition, it has been home to a major university since 1290. Today’s students, still sporting traditional capes, bring youth and life to the ancient campus. A tour that includes the glorious wood carving in the university’s baroque library is not to be missed; another must-see is the 12th-century Sé Velha, or Old Cathedral, as solid and strong as a fortress.
Oporto is Portugal’s second-largest city and the heart of its port-producing region. (Locals brag that it is also the country’s financial center; the folks in Lisbon beg to disagree.) Just as Lisbon, with its white buildings, broad boulevards and bright light, is all about the sea, Oporto, built on a steep hillside, is all about the Douro River in the valley below. Darker, more crowded, more European-looking than Lisbon, Oporto offers a separate but equal charm.
Port lovers will, of course, immediately be drawn to Villa Nova de Gaia, actually a suburb on the Douro’s south bank. It is hard to miss. Giant signs shouting “Sandeman,” “Cockburn,” “Ferreira,” “Taylor,” grab your eye from almost anywhere in town.
More than a dozen big port producers — all with equally massive banners — maintain lodges (or adegas) along the river, and offer tours and tastings. However, the lodges primarily function as a place for the port to mature and be bottled before it is shipped out to be sold. At one time, the new wine floated in on romantic-looking barges (a couple of which are still moored in the river). But today, port makes its journey from the quintas (wine estates) in the Douro Valley by truck.
Oporto makes a great place to explore on foot. Its major landmark, the lacy and lovely Luís I Bridge, was designed by Gustav Eiffel, and looks so similar to his Parisian tower that you can easily recognize its creator without being told. A tour of the stock exchange is a must because of its exquisite Arab ballroom; and the Church of São Francísco merits a visit because of its gilded, elaborately carved wood interior. Travelers with more modern concerns can stroll past the English-language school where J.K. Rowling taught when she began to write a book about a kid named Harry Potter.
Some of the loveliest rural areas in all of Europe surround Oporto. A drive out to the village of Amarante, its centuries-old houses marching up the steep hills on either side of the River Tamega, gives travelers a chance to taste some of the best of the region’s vinho verdes.
Those looking for love might want to dash into Igreja de São Gonçalo, where touching the statue of a saint tucked away to the left of the altar is said to guarantee a wedding. The poor saint’s face is but a shadow of what it once was, its features worn away by those with lonely hearts.
The region offers several other delightful towns including Guimarães, birthplace of the country’s first king; Ponte de Lima, famous for its Roman bridge; and Viana do Castelo, where lovely folk art can be found.
Of course, this is also the area where the world’s finest port can be tasted and purchased. Click the glass again. “A sua saude,” a toast to your health … and perhaps a toast to pretty little Portugal as well.
The Vintage Series™ takes a fun, relaxed approach to furthering the knowledge of amateur oenophiles and foodies in destinations around the world.“The Food and Wines of Portugal,” a nine-day, seven-night journey, starts at $2,399 per person (double occupancy) including round-trip economy-class air from New York; 2005 departures run from March through November. The Vintage Series™ is part of Group IST, a leading provider of specialty travel, including religious tours, small ship and barge programs, and customized group travel. Tel.: 800-833-2111; Website: www.thevintageseries.com.
OF CASTLES AND WINE — Travel Tips
• Here’s some essential “wine” Portuguese: branco is white; doce is sweet; espumante means sparkling; generoso identifies a sweet and highly powerful dessert wine; meio seco means medium dry; reserva refers to a particularly fine wine, or a vintage; seco means dry; tinto equals red; velho signifies aged; vinho da mesa refers to a table wine; vinho da casa equals house wine; and vinho do porto is, of course, port.
• Travelers should save their limited carry-on space for wines that can only be found in Portugal. Before their trips, people should research what Portuguese wines can be purchased either in their local wine shops or on the Internet.
• Highly recommended: a late-night visit to one of Portugal’s fabled fado clubs to hear the bluesy, haunting music that had its beginnings in Africa and made the journey to Portugal during colonial times. The clubs are smoky and dark, the music doesn’t begin until after 10, but it is an experience not to be missed.
• While comfortable, rubber-soled walking shoes are a travel truism, they are truly
essential in Portugal, especially when navigating the steep streets of Oporto and the equally challenging hills of Lisbon.