|Subject: Circling Northern Portugal#May 2004|
Hi, Ziners, friends, and colleagues,
We are back a few days from a 15-day trip around Portugal. Herewith, before the memories fade and the rest of life takes over, some vignettes, images, impressions, and facts about the trip.
First, however, we should note that we made this visit with lifetime friends, Ferd and Clare Boyce of Seattle, whom we met as young marrieds in our twenties in the early 1960s while in the Army in Munich, Germany#back before Vietnam just after the Berlin Wall was built. Luckily, we are the kind of folks who see each other every 3- 5 years and take but 30 seconds to reconnect, and we did exactly that on this trip.
IN A NUTSHELL, many friends had told us before we left that we'd enjoy Portugal; there is quite a positive "buzz" about the place. They were all correct; we had a great time.
We hope the below notes are informative and useful for fellow Ziners, friends, and colleagues:
*** THE DOMINANT, ENDURING IMAGE: Medieval castles and medieval walled cities on hills and mountaintops. Drive an hour or two, stop, do a 360, and almost always espy a castle and/or walled town on a hilltop, not to mention monasteries or churches. If you don't like castles, don't go to Portugal. (We grew up on the Prince Valiant comic strip and will climb any castle our knees will allow.)
*** HISTORY, HISTORY, HISTORY. This little country produced Henry the Navigator, who established the principles of navigation on the seas and developed an effective way of sailing against the wind (used in Portugal's frail but hardy caravels). With this knowledge, Magellan was the first to go around the world; and Portuguese established the first major Western colonies in India and Africa, not to mention Brazil. Portugal was allied with Britain for centuries against Spain (hence British influence and names in the port wine industry and elsewhere).
Evidence of history survives from pre-historic Paleolithic tribes; Roman provincial times; Moorish domination for centuries; their expulsion by an early Christian king from northern Portugal (clearly a major factor in the nation's psyche); a long-term Fascist dictator (Salazar) in the early-mid-20th century; to its modern status as a member of NATO and the European Union. Foz Coa (in the northeast, an hour's drive south of Braganza) has the largest set of Paleolithic wall engravings in the world with thousands of carvings over dozens of miles of a remote valley, now a national park.
(Reserve ahead for the guided tours by jeep, the only way they let you in, with trips available in the early morning and late afternoon. We didn't know this#the park is just being developed and the guidebooks have little info on it#and we missed seeing the actual site but got to see good pix of and materials on it#including a very good booklet in English#at the park's headquarters.)
>From all this history, there remain structures and ruins from Roman forums and aqueducts to those medieval castles and walled towns to medieval, Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque churches and other public buildings (fascinating as always to see one style on top of another in the same building).
*** ITINERARY: We didn't "do" the trendy Algarve, the Portuguese extension of the French and Spanish Riviera. Instead, we did a 15- day clockwise circuit of the north, from Lisbon along the coast to Oporto, inland paralleling the deep, steep valley of the Douro River with its port wine vineyards, to walled and castled (!) Braganza in the far northeast, then southwards not far from the Spanish border to the much better known walled city (!) of Evora with its Roman forum ruin, and back to Lisbon. We were two nights each in Lisbon and Oporto and Braganza, three in Pinhao in the Douro (more on this below). The rest were one-nighters.
Braganza was billed in the guidebooks and other info sources (see below) as something of a wild outpost in a remote, rural north. In fact, it was an attractive, growing small city, sprucing up its medieval attractions, which were, as the books said, "a perfectly preserved medieval castle and walled town" stunningly viewed from the dining room of the Pousada (state-run hotel) on a nearby hill.
o Walking and climbing around all those castles, medieval streets, cathedrals, vineyards, and so on.
o Experiencing Manuel de Sampayo Pimented Azervado Graca (I think i got all that right), the 69-year-old owner, host, and jovial raconteur of the Casa de Casal de Loivos (LOY-vosh), a restored town- house dating from 1158 AD with six small guest rooms. He delights in taking visitors through the private quarters of the house, which are filled with paintings, relics, and antiques from his family's past, including the family tree, which starts in 972 AD! The house is perched on the brow of a mountain in the tiny village of Casal de Loivos high above the larger (but still small) riverside town of Pinhao (Pin-YA-oh) in the mid-Douro vineyard region. It presides over a view Manuel is proud to say that a BBC travelogue declared as one of the half dozen best in the world (it may well be). It is reached via a heart-stopping switchback road up from Pinhao.
We stayed three nights, touring the area, taking a boat trip on the Douro, and gazing at that view. The meals were pedestrian, the wine outstanding, the dinner conversation with other guests from other countries stimulatating, and Manuel's stories compelling. One of those many stories was how Frank Carlucci as US ambassador foiled a communist takeover of Portugal after Salazar's death (Manuel has been "in politics" and knew Carlucci). (Manuel bears an uncanny resemblance to a friend and sometime client of mine. That client, if my recollection is correct, has Scottish roots, as does Manuel on his mother's side. This will require some checking as to whether the client knows of a Portuguese branch of his family!)
o One surprise to at least some of us were the decorative, architectural tiles we saw everywhere. They are usually blue and white and are used in small to huge frescoes in churches, railway stations, other public buildings and places, depicting religious or historic events at often great scale (expelling the Moors, for instance) or just pretty scenes of the life of the time. (Often on or in castles, of course.)
o In the university town of Coimbre, students sang and caroused in the streets beneath our hotel windows until 6 am, celebrating the break between formal classes and final exams (to start in a week or so). And the next day, in the campus quadrangle on the town's heights, three of them, resplendent in their black student cloaks, sheepishly admitted being in that celebration and went on to chat animatedly and at length with us.
o In Lisbon, the Gulbenkian Museum, a gift from an Armenian oil magnate of the early and mid-1900s to Portugal, which had hosted him and his family for many years. He was immensely rich, possessed of impeccable taste in art, and his personal collection is now housed in what is one of the world's great museums. It is not a huge collection#requiring a half-day's time to examine#but it has outstanding examples of art of all kinds from seemingly every major and some minor cultures from every historic epoch from pre-history to the Impressionists. To my Western eyes the most impressive were the unfamiliar carpets, wall hangings and ceramics from the Islamic world, as well as similar items from Japan and China. But you can walk by seemingly every major European painter, too. Stunning!
o On our last night, one of our Travelzine correspondents (a software management consultant) and his MD wife joined us for dinner in the glistening, modern sector of Lisbon located on and around the 1998 World Expo site in the shadow of the daringly designed 14-km- long bridge across the Teja River estuary. It was a three-hour conversation on politics, economics, language, food, and all things Portuguese with a couple of intelligent, educated 40ish professionals with full command of English. As such it was a welcome contrast to the antiquities we'd been immersed in, reminding us that Portugal was a modern country that had been admitted to the EU as a backward nation after decades of dictatorship but was catching up fast.
We noted that we'd experienced the Portuguese as open, friendly, and forthcoming people and found absolutely no anti-Americanism because of Iraq. They said that Portugal was pro-American but worried about the events surrounding Iraq, which we discussed. We noted, too, that the economic development agencies must be working with the towns with medieval castles and walls to put the utilities underground, get the TV antennas and satellite discs off the roofs, repave the old medieval streets with new cobblestones (or rest the old ones), install appropriate streetlights and street furniture, etc. We saw such construction everywhere and thought the economy looked healthy.
They said that the Portuguese economy had no big firms and few high technology firms, but that young people were no longer leaving the country to seek satisfying careers, which was a good sign. They noted, too, the weight of history on Portugal, with many people saying fatalistically that Portugal was a major power in the past but what can a little country on the edge of Europe do these days that is significant? That, we all felt, is an attitude the country must surpass.
*** FOOD: This is basically a peasant cuisine, meat or fish with both potatoes and rice, usually roasted and underseasoned (we found ourselves always asking for salt and pepper) and served in truly HUGE portions. Fish predominates, especially cod, the national dish (some restaurants have a different variant every day). (I grew up in New England and had my fill of cod then. One can do whatever one wants or can to it; it is still to me tasteless and boring and I rarely eat it on purpose. Others of us, however, enjoyed it when well prepared.) In any event, there are other, tastier fish, a great national clam dish, roast pork, lamb, goat (terrific), veal, and game (wild boar especially). There are stews of beans and meat that are rich and flavorful (my wife and I ordered one to share for lunch and it could have served six people!).
Breakfast is a buffet of juice, good coffee, rolls, ham, sausage, and cheese as well as eggs and boiled (believe it or not) bacon (that British influence again). The main meal is at lunch, though big dinners are common, too.
Peasant food or not, the traditional cuisine can be prepared and served with sophistication if one finds the better restaurants, and with our planning and the advice we received, we did. Memorable meals#grilled "kid," noisettes of veal, and dorada (a charcoal grilled fish) at Praca Velha in Castelo Branco; roast "kid" at Nariz do Vinho Tinto and roast leg of lamb at Tasquinha de Adelaide, both in Lisbon; pork and veal cutlets and veal chop at La Em in Braganza, among others.
In a different class was "Bull and Bear" in the tonier outskirts of Oporto near the stock exchange where a local chef was elevating traditional Portuguese cuisine to "elegance" (his term, and we agreed) and interspersing it with Sushi and such. He waited on us and prepared a truly memorable, world-class tasting menu with excellent Portuguese wines and ports.
(This nouvelle version of traditional cuisine doesn't seem to have much of a local audience yet, nor does international cuisine in general. Even sophisticated hosts tried to steer us away from restaurants with reputations for nouvelle or international cuisine#"a lot of money for not that much food," they'd say as we thought of the gargantuan portions we'd received in traditional restaurants. We'd recommend concentrating on the traditional cuisine, which of course is one reason for going there, but do persevere a couple of times if you like and hear of something more nouvelle/international.)
*** WINE: Ah! Forget Mateus, the rose in the squat bottle that we all used for holding candles in college. (Our Loivos host Manuel said, "Go visit the chateau and especially the gardens, but don't bother drinking the wine.") He was right; the gardens were impressive and Portugal produces other wines that are very fine indeed and probably don't get imported much into the US. Planalto, a Sancerre-like white comes to mind, as does a red we had at dinner that was one of the best we've ever had anywhere anytime. It was like a great cabernet sauvignon.
But, of course, Portugal means port wine and we visited the "caves" (cellars or wineries) of Graham, one of the seven major producers lined up on the south shore of the Douro opposite Oporto (Sandeman and Taylor are perhaps more familiar names and are there, too). Later we toured the vineyards of Fonseca up in the Douro valley. Both Graham and Fonseca had informative English-language tours (as do others).
The three port grape varieties are grown in the intense heat (as much as 120 degrees F) of summer on the steeply terraced vineyards lining the Douro and its tributaries. The terraces are so steep that often only one or two rows of vines are on them. In the fall the grapes are harvested by hand, stomped by foot (still the best way, they maintain), fermented, casked, and transported to Oporto to the caves for blending and further casking for as much as 40 years. In the past, the new wine was transported by picturesque river boats on a river then untamed; nowadays, those boats transport tourists and the wine travels by truck#and the river is placid from dams and locks.
The heat of the growing season concentrates the natural sugars in the grapes, which fermentation turns into alcohol. A clear Cognac is added to the fermentation at a certain point to stop the fermentation process and balance out the alcohol with the residual sugar. Then the wine is blended and aged in oak. The result is several grades and types of port. One major category comprises the red or sweet ports (like the familiar but middling ruby port as opposed to the elegant vintage red ports from specific years), usually used as dessert wines. The other major category comprises the older, more complex character of tawny wines aged at length in small oak barrels (prolonged contact with oak changes the color and flavor) and used either for aperitifs or dessert. We sampled a lot and brought some home, of course.
*** LANGUAGE: English prevalent almost everywhere, certainly in all our hotels. Many restaurants have English menus. But many don't and it is worth having a phrasebook, especially one with menu terms. The Portuguese love it when you make even the most rudimentary attempts at saying something in their language#Ola, Por Favor, Obrigada, Nao, Sim, Bom Dia, Perdao,0ptimo#(hello, please, thank you, no, yes, good day, pardon me, fine or excellent#). Toilette and WC are pretty universally understood.
*** TRAVEL: We flew via TAP, the Portuguese airline with cheaper fares and food that was even poorer than average airline's. On the ground, we rented a Volvo station wagon from Hertz in Lisbon that I, six feet six inches tall, could fit in to share driving. It was a diesel but sprightly and fun to drive. Portuguese roads are varied. There are magnificent superhighways with seemingly somewhat tighter turns and steeper grades than US superhighway standards allow and a nominal 120 km/75 mph speed limit (often not observed), good secondary roads, and a lot of tertiary roads that are narrow and winding and not always in great shape. The superhighways often have tolls.
*** PLANNING RESOURCES AND CONSIDERATIONS: We used the Travelzine, of course; NY Times travel downloads (great first-person articles from the Sunday Travel section with sights to see, restaurants, hotels, etc.); Fodor's and Michelin and Rick Spears guidebooks; purchased maps; and a Portuguese travel phrase book.
The most valuable? Two individuals from Travelzine, that Lisbon software consultant we had a GTG with and an American author completing a book on Fado, the soulful national singing genre, whose recommendations on what to see, where to stay, and were to eat were faultless. We planned intensely and had only one disappointment (a bad hotel meal at Coimbre's reputedly best restaurant in a dowager hotel).
The hours of business, however, can also be a disappointment. Portugal still has the siesta in mid-day. Some attractions are open all day and into the evening, but many are only open from 9-12:30, closed for a long lunch and whatever from 12:30 to 2, and then reopen from 2-5 or later. Some are closed on Mondays. Mondays and that mid- day lull can mean missing something if you're there and they're not and your schedule means you have to move on. We missed some castles, churches, museums, and the famous Conimbriga Roman ruins because of this (though we did see the small, fine Conimbriga museum). There was much to see, and between the siestas and our need sometimes to move on, we had to make choices and miss some things. But we also saw a whole lot, too, and our days were always full. Indeed, there was so much to see and do that, quite literally, we could do the same itinerary all over again for the same time and never repeat seeing the same attraction a second time if we didn't want to.
We did the trip in early May, both to beat the heat and the hordes of tourists that come later; it was a cooler than normal early May (we were told) and we only used one of the three swimming pools we encountered in our various hotels, Pousadas, and Casas.
(One other caution: Portuguese clothing sizes run at least one size smaller than US sizes, meaning the attractive souvenir XXL T-shirts I bought were XL or even L and had to be given away#a disappointment. But there are ample other and more elegant souvenirs to be had.)
We hope this is informative and useful for fellow Ziners and friends and colleagues planning a similar journey. Portugal is indeed a great place to visit! Happy to answer any questions you may have.
Basil (and Eunice) Whiting, Brooklyn, NY, May 2004