For the Love of Cod
If you’re a codfish, keep Portugal off your bucket list.
If you don’t, you will inevitably end up as a terrine, a chip, in a soup, baked on a plate, even in a cheese dip with eggs. The Portuguese love their cod.
Portugal is not Spain. Yes, of course we know that, which is why we’re here in Portugal. But, Neanderthals that we are, we assumed there were many cultural similarities.
We came assuming late dinners (11:00 p.m.), like Barcelona. And we assumed our “menu Spanish” would come in handy to help us navigate the Portuguese language.
Our general rule of thumb is not to try to see the whole country in one trip, but Portugal looks small on a map, so we thought we’d combine a few parts of the country. Our trip included Lisbon and the Alentejo region, near Evora, for some incredible bicycling. We also knew we needed to head north for a day or two in Porto, and the wine region of the Douro Valley. The pictures and descriptions had us convinced we had to see the Douro Valley—at least we weren’t wrong about that.
We started in Lisbon, flying in over the rooftops of the old city to the nearby airport.
Lisbon is what we would call a two-day, borderline three-day town, although many people we met there were on day four or five. I guess we make terrible tourists, but if you stay that long, you have to make day trips to at least Sintra (a picturesque spot with the hills and castle) or Cascais (a smallish coastal town known for its seafood).
Lisbon is the oldest city in Western Europe. Who would have known? Julius Caesar, the Celts, the Moors, the Crusaders, they’ve all been here. And it has the warmest winters of any city in Europe. The 16th century was its heyday, when it was the hub of international trade and the beginning of the Portuguese traveling and discovering the world. (There’s your history lesson.)
The old city is quite charming, with church after cathedral after church, and the hills make a formidable opponent (but you can work off the eat and drink).
To stay in Lisbon, the best choices are the old city/Jewish quarter, Alfama, if you like getting lost in the history and winding streets. It’s the oldest district that somewhat survived the 1755 earthquake that you will see references to all around the small country (30,000 – 40,000 of 200,000 were killed and 85% of city structures were destroyed).
If you want a hip and happening neighborhood, try Bairro Alto. It’s got a concentration of cool shops, some of the city’s best restaurants, and nightclubs.
If you’re used to teeny tiny European rooms, go for the fairly priced Memmo Alfama. It has one of the best rooftops, with an amazing city view (if you can look away from the hideous giant cruise ships that pull into the river in the morning).
If you want to feel like royalty, reserve a suite with a balcony at Palacete Chafariz D’el Rei, down the hill closest to the river in Alfama. The 1909 mansion-turned-hotel is a tourist attraction, and you will be widely photographed while drinking wine on the terrace . A bit pricey for Lisbon, although completely special.
Eating in Lisbon
What’s the best part about eating Portuguese food for two weeks? Ending in Lisbon and discovering that Michelin two-star chef Jose Avillez has a pizza place. Yes, pizza. And, yes, it’s fantastic. The idea of pizza after nearly two weeks of Portuguese food was so appealing at this point, in fact, that we were actually waiting at the door at 12:30 for it to open.
Lisbon is the city of Jose Avillez. If you are a Michelin, long-meal-snob type foodie, he has his mothership, Belcanto. If you’re like us and you love great food, but not long meals, you’ll prefer, well, any of his others. These include Cantinho do Avillez, the aforementioned Pizzaria Lisboa, Bairro do Avillez (his mini Eataly, with several concepts and experiences under one roof),
A few others not to miss? Restaurante Bonjardim for the spit roasted chicken and fries. It’s in a more touristy area, but the outdoor seating is a treat. One of our favorites in Alfama was St. Antonio de Alfama on a small square
where you can watch the everyday life of Lisbon dwellers, including playing kids and walking dogs. The outdoor patio and tapas menu are musts.
For a great collection of Portuguese chefs, products and and food, don’t miss Mercado da Ribeira (Ribeira Market). It’s one of the best stops for lunch or a snack, beer and wine any time of the day.
Many people say that Porto isn’t really worth a stop. Not true. It is undergoing bit of a design and restaurant surge that gives an edge to its history and beauty, and it’s become an internationally known city for architects/architecture (with two Pritzker Prize-winning architects in the city, and many buildings acclaimed for their notable design, like the Rem Kohlhaas-designed Casa da Musica). I wouldn’t stay more than two days (even one night was just fine), but the city has some great features.
The trains are not as frequent and fast as in France (of course, they also aren’t on strike as much as in France), but it was still quite convenient to take the train from Lisboa Oriente to Porto. It’s also a great jumping-off or ending point after the Douro Valley.
It’s worth a walk up to the cathedral, especially through the neighborhoods, to see the view of the city and the water (and, of course, the Cathedral). It’s all easily done in one day.
There are a few fun hotel options. 1872 River House is quirky and special. Located right on the water, your indoor space gives you a great portal to the small pathway of people walking by and the city at the riverside.
Eating in Porto
Bacalhau surprisingly translates to “codfish,” but it’s also the name of a great little indoor outdoor spot on the river right next to 1872 River House. And, yes, Jose Avillez has his ubiquitous Portuguese presence here, with his Cantinho do Avillez. It has regional differences from his Lisbon spots, but is one of the best in town.
The newly opened Oficina, from chef Marco Gomes, is also a great choice.
The biggest disappointment about Porto was our unsuccessful quest to buy port glasses with the thumbprint designed by master Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza. Could not find them. Anywhere. I went back to the hotel and ordered on Amazon. How romantic.
So, one may assume port is made in Porto. Not so much, at least not any more. It’s actually made in the Douro Valley, even though all the big billboards lining the riverbanks in Porto suggest otherwise.
Driving to Douro Valley from Porto, there’s a long tunnel on the newly finished highway.
When you get to the other side of the tunnel, the dramatic beauty begins.
The most popular cities in the Valley are Pinhao, Regua, and Lamego, in that order. Pinhao is the hub of the wine region in the most dramatically beautiful part of the Valley. But if you stay in the city itself, you’ll miss waking up to the view of the terraced vineyards and the river below—so try staying at one of the Quintas that offer rooms, like Quinta Nova. If you don’t stay, at least go for a magnificent lunch.
If you want luxury, there’s no place better than the Six Senses, just outside of Regua.
It’s a hotel experience you won’t soon forget (although you may want to block out the part where you sign the bill). From there, you can mountain bike, kayak, or take a helicopter tour to see a great part of the whole valley. And you’ll be introduced to the Douro Valley wines and ports that are hard to come by in the US.
The hotel is beautiful. It was an estate house that’s been renovated and added on to, with one of the best vantage points over the river. The bar, wine library, and restaurant are simply places you want to hang out and not leave (unusual for us).
And talk about a room with a view.
It’s only an hour east of Lisbon and two others south of the Douro Valley, but Alentejo is completely different terrain. The Douro is green and lush and terraced, and the hills are high. Alentejo is known for rolling pastoral countryside with cork trees, olive trees, and vineyards, and its farms with steers, sheep, bull-fighting bulls, turkeys and regular cows.
The thing about this region is that it would be hard to imagine liking it from a car or bus. The countryside isn’t really beautiful until you get out and get in it. To that end, there are many bike tour and rental companies, even for electric assist bikes, so you can smell the air, talk to the cows, sheep, turkeys, and black pigs, and see how the cork trees are harvested. Did you know it takes 7-8 years to re-grow the cork?
The city that punctuates this area is Evora. All the rest of the surrounding cities emphasize function over beauty. Evora has a 16th century aqueduct running through the town, some incredible winding streets, and beautiful churches.
And don’t miss a visit to Cartuxa Winery to learn and taste the wines from the region. It’s the only winery not to miss.
Our most memorable food experiences in the country were in this region, finding family-owned small restaurants and staying off the tourist track. The mom-and-pop restaurant in Montemor was probably one of the most memorable food experiences we’ve ever had. We found it on a way-off-the-beaten-path side street with a view of the city’s famous castle.
An older couple owned and operated it: The wife cooked and brought out dish after dish, and the husband served and (without any English) introduced us to some of the region’s best wines. We will forever remember everything, from the soft cheese, the olive oil, and the herb-and-bread-cooked mushrooms to the chicken kebabs and grilled octopus.
Hotel recommendations in this region depend upon the experience you want. L ’And Winery and Hotel in the shadow of Montemor gives a more rural, luxury experience in close proximity to town.
Imani Country House near Valverde is a charming, quirky farm converted into country hotel. It gives you the chance to eat outside under the stars, listening to the owls and birds, and to feed apples to the donkeys in the morning. (It’s also close to the one of the more famous dolman sites, or mini-Stonehenge, that litter the region Almendres.)
In Evora, THE hotel is M’ Ar De Ar Hotel, right inside the wall and close to the aqueduct.
Food and Wine
Portugal is known for its famous black pigs. The poor guys are semi-wild, but they can only eat acorns. If you like pork, or sausage/charcuterie, it’s fantastic.
Traditional dishes in Porto include bacalau (cod, big surprise), tripe, and the Francesinha, a sandwich made with bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça, fresh sausage like chipolata, steak or roast meat, and covered with melted cheese and a hot, thick tomato-and-beer sauce, served with French fries. Yes, it has all that. We tried it, and I now call it the Frankenmonster.
In Alentejo, there is a lot of pork, seafood, fritas, and bread. The food is heavy everywhere. It’s hearty, rustic, and flavorful, and the portions are huge. If you order tomato soup, don’t expect a bowl. Expect a giant pot with veggies, bread, and a full fish that could feed five people. Now think of traditional Thanksgiving stuffing. Then imagine it with twice the calories, twice the weight and ingredients, and served in about a three-pound portion. That’s a standard side dish. As are fried potatoes—with everything. And, bread, bread, bread with olive oil, soft cheese, butter, you name it. I think the objective is to make you feel when you leave the table that you’ve swallowed a barrel full of cement. The people are generous, enthusiastic, welcoming, charming, and hospitable. And they love to feed you.
There is nothing better than sitting in the moonlight under the Evora aquaduct enjoying that hospitality.
The wine was a surprise. Portugal doesn’t really export, so you have the opportunity to drink some amazing and incredibly different wines. The wines throughout the country are almost all mutts and blends of a variety of grapes—and not varietals we know. Grapes like Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Castelao, Touriga Franca.
The wines in Douro were lighter and a bit more elegant. The wines in Alentejo were bigger, more robust, and somewhat fruitier. And they harvest them at night because of the heat.
Best part about Portugal?
Apparently you didn’t read the above 🙂