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PORTUGAL Spring 1999 (3)

Return to the Douro

Amarante

Ligia arrived right on time at 10:00 hrs. We decided to go to Aveiro, on the coast, before heading up to Porto and then east to the Douro region.

On the way to Aveiro, we visited Costa Nova. This riverfront gem is a fine place, with rows of unique, vividly striped houses plus architectural designs from around the world. The Mercado Costa Nova is primarily a seafood market, where the wives of the fishermen sell the days' catch. But my attention, true to form, was riveted on the awesome displays of breads.

Aveiro is called the Venice of Portugal because of its many canals. The center of the town is quite pretty; colorful boats are parked in the canal running through it. The architecture is a blend of old and new in this rapidly growing, prosperous area, which is surrounded by industry. We found ourselves stopped by a procession of trucks; it seems we had encountered a not uncommon truck festival. While we waited for the traffic to move again, we admired the beautiful white train station decorated with blue tiles.

As we were passing through Vila de Estarreja, we ran into slow traffic because, to our delight, a fair was in progress. Women in their traditional, colorful costumes were selling produce, handicrafts and home cooked foods. Costumed children were merrily dancing while nearby a man was demonstrating how to shoe a horse. Booths were set up all over where wonderful smelling foods were being cooked and sold (outrageously large portions at very low prices) to the assembled townspeople who sat on benches at tables set up all over the square. A whole pig was slowly roasting over an open fire while thick slices were being carved for the folks in the waiting line. It was torture working our way through this eating orgy. Did I mention the huge breads and delicate pastries? One lady did insist on cutting a few chunks off her honey wheat bread for us to taste and she was so delighted when we indicated our approval.

Espinho is a splendid seaside town within commuting distance of Porto. It's also a popular get-away spot with a picturesque esplanade along the waterfront.

The fishing village of Matosinhos, just outside Porto, was our destination for lunch. This is the place for fish fresh from the water and Grill O Xarroco, rua Herois de Franca 507, is the place to prepare it for you. Fortunately, Ligia had called ahead for reservations. The place was packed, filled with families on this lovely, sunny Sunday.

A fabulous fish, feast it was! Carapau are tiny, sweet fish that are lightly battered and fried and popped into your mouth whole. Well, I did say popped into YOUR mouth whole! We prefer to remove the heads, thank you very much. Oh, those fantastic sardines again! These were grilled perfectly crisp and the inside was firm and tasty. These first two delicacies really got us into it and the grilled sargo, a firm, delicious, white fish was the exquisite main course. We have experienced some delicious potato preparations in this country, but today we had small white potatoes that had been grilled in olive oil, garlic and coriander, which could become habit-forming, served alongside steamed fresh carrots and turnip greens. Vinho verde was the perfect choice for our wine.

As we drove east on the northern side of the Douro winding around the mountain roads we again had the thrill of viewing this relentless beauty. We had wanted to visit Amarante but the roads leading into the town were clogged because there was a fair in progress. We decided we would check it out the next day, on our return to Porto. Passing through Vila Real, we stopped at the roadside stand of Cesario da Rocha Martins and bought a few pieces of his handcrafted black pottery for which the area is well known. The adorable small village of Sabrosa sits high above Pinhao, overlooking the magical contours of the landscape. Pinhao sits on the south bank of the Douro in an idyllic location. As we descended, the river sparkled in the sunlight and looked like a gigantic mirror. It's curves at this point are in harmony with the landscape rising high all around it; the impact of the terraced vineyards sweeping down, up and sideways in varying shades of green is spellbinding.

We crossed the bridge over the Douro from north to south, passing through Pinhao. Again, we climbed high above the town to the one street village, Vale de Mendiz, a plateau jutting out and totally surrounded by vineyard-covered mountains and valleys with views of the river far below. At the end of the street at the tip of the plateau is the Sandeman guesthouse, Casa Santa Clara. Ligia had made arrangements for us to overnight there.to top of page
This old home has been totally refurbished for the purpose of opening it to the public in the future. Our experience with
Sandeman, from their facility in Gaia to this guesthouse, is that whatever they do, is done with style and refinement and in superb taste. A lovely, happy couple, Jose Luis and Angelina, care for the house. As we drove up, Jose Luis came running out with a happy face and a hearty welcome. He made the luggage disappear as Ligia led us around the property introducing us to the setting around us.

The guestrooms are delightfully decorated with marvelous old and antique furnishings. The ensuite bathrooms are up-to-date, fully equipped and thoughtfully supplied with cozy terry robes. The restoration has retained the original character of the old house but takes advantage of modern comforts and conveniences. Before dinner, we relaxed in the first floor sitting room; a crackling fire warmed the chilled evening mountain air as we sipped our spritzers, chilled white port with tonic water and lemon slices. There is a large screen TV, but we just wanted to get lost in our own thoughts and relive our experiences of this marvelous day.

Angelina is an accomplished chef who prepares and serves memorable meals for the fortunate guests. You can make meal arrangements when making your room reservations. Angelina beckoned us to come to dinner and led us to a huge dining room, with a very large dining table at which the three of us were seated comfortably at one end. Piping hot vegetable soup was a perfect beginning, followed by a fabulous rendition of duck and rice. Tender, lean pieces of duck and small pieces of ham are cooked in a clay casserole along with rice and herbs, the result of which is an exquisite comfort meal. The mixed salad was composed of vegetables grown in their own garden and the luscious bakes apples for dessert brought a huge smile to Linda's face. With the meal, we had a very delicious full-bodied wine from Sandeman which had not yet been offered to the market. And no meal is complete in Portugal, particularly at the Sandeman guesthouse, without a bit of port. The 20 year old tawny was the ultimate closer to a wonderful meal and day.

We slept soundly on the firm mattress and awoke to the music of barnyard animals and birds. I couldn't wait to get outdoors and enjoy the glory of the early morning sun and fresh air and the sights and sounds surrounding us. It was breathtaking and I was ready to move-in for a long stay. Before long, Angellina called us in for breakfast consisting of fresh squeezed orange juice, toast with homemade quince jam and orange marmalade, luscious cheese and another homemade delight, an orange sponge cake. I suggested to Linda that it would be a good idea to take Angelina home, a sentiment she echoed.

We zipped down to the Pinhao dock and boarded the old, red, outboard fireman's boat and proceeded west in the middle of the river enjoying this brand new perspective of the Douro landscape. Landing at Sandman's Quinto da Vau (wine estate), we took an invigorating hike up through the tiered vineyards, wild flowers and fruit trees, while watching the winding river below grow smaller.to top of page
The lodge, where the staff is housed and the vinification process takes place, is a fine old structure that some day will be restored and remodeled to accommodate guests. There are many such wine lodges in the area which have been converted into wonderful accommodations.

Vineyards are graded A-F and this one has an A-rating. The quantity of grapes of each grade, for port wine production, is limited by law. The balance of the production is used for other wines.

Ligia had told us about a bakery, Padaria Pastelaria, in the Favaios region, not far from the guesthouse, that is famous for its Bola, a bread that is stuffed with assorted meats seasoned with olive oil and herbs and baked in a large rectangular pan. It seems that it isn't available until later in the afternoon. When we arrived at the guesthouse, Jose Luis ran out to tell us that they were making one especially for us so off we went to be there when it came out of the oven. The bakery's old ovens had seen better days so they recently moved to a new location with huge new ovens, fueled in the old style, by wood.

The dough, consisting of flour, yeast, water and salt, is mixed mechanically for forty minutes and then hand kneaded into shape. While we were waiting, we sampled the bread, which was dense and chewy with a crunchy crust, as we sipped the famous muscatel for which Favaios is most famous.

There's a big stone table outside the guest house on the edge of the property overlooking the sweeping valleys below and here we sat, enjoying the Bola (worth traveling for) along with smoked sausage and an outstanding smoked pork loin along with a refreshing spritzer. Leaving this tranquility was not easy but Angelina beckoned us into the dining room where our lunch awaited us. She had marinated the pork in port wine and herbs and roasted it to perfection. She also served us grilled sausages and melt-in-the-mouth, light and fluffy bolinhos, cod fish cakes. The Sandeman red wine, a 1996 Terracos do Douro, was heaven. In 1991 late bottled vintage port went perfectly with huge sweet strawberries begging to be dipped in the bowl of melted chocolate. Have we died and gone to heaven? We regretfully had to leave this comfy place and the sweet Angelina and Jose Luis - until next time.

At the entrance to the village is the Museu dos Lagares, created by Sandeman to demonstrate the history of port wine making. Lagares are the round stone tanks in which the grapes were crushed by foot. Groups of men with their arms around each others' shoulders would tread the fruit over and over to the sound of the concertina. Two large lagares in the museum provide the introduction to the short, comprehensive and fun tour that we found extremely worthwhile.

Pinhao is famous for its geographic location at the very center of all this spectacular beauty, its blue and yellow tiled train station and now for the new four star Vintage House hotel. It's at the site of an old quinta at the river's edge. The old house, lodges and gardens have been refurbished preserving the traditional Douro style while providing up-to-date, luxurious facilites. All the rooms and public areas look out over the river and the surrounding vineyards. The wide terrace front and swimming pool sit above the river. This is certainly a lovely alternative to the guest house option.

Between Regua and Mesao Frio, we visited the Pousada Solar da Rede. A long, tree-lined roadway leads to the transformed Manor House - which is sheer elegance. There are also cottages on the property, which have been converted to lodgings. Beautiful gardens and river views complete the picture.

Amarante

Our last stop before Porto was Amarante, a sweet old town on the banks of a rushing river. Along the main street the restaurants and cafes on the river side have patios over the river, which provide a most romantic experience. A stunning stone bridge leads to the center, which is dominated by a large Cathedral with a very striking interior design and cloister. Walkways, paddle boats and eateries provide a lively environment along the river. Amarante is definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.

After checking in at our Hotel Infante de Sagres for our last night in Portugal, we headed down to the Ribeira and the restaurant D. Tonho. Located one floor up in one of the old buildings on the river front, the interior has been designed in a clean, simple, contemporary fashion with large stone walls and a wood floor. We passed on most of the appetizers they automatically bring to the table and had only the chicken salad with potatoes and peas, which was scrumptious. The three of us shared an excellent arroz de marisco, rice with tons of shrimps, mussels and clams and a 1997 white Bairrada from Quinta de Pedraluites.

Once again we leave Portugal with the joy one feels from remarkable friendships and experiences.

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