This first of three podcast blog posts were inspired by an invitation I received a few years ago from Turismo de Portugal asking if I would write a blog about the country. It’s not what I usually do but it planted a seed. For additional reasons we chose to visit Portugal which led to this combination of podcast recordings, our travel story and images. I hope it inspires exploration, spontaneity, and not always following the beaten path.

Exploring Portugal, Drinking Wine Part – 1  features my interview with
Carlos de Jesus of Amorim Cork at the end of the blog.

My wife Meredith and I decided to explore Portugal in late spring, 2020. As we began making plans, COVID locked in on the globe removing our ability to travel and gather. A year later, the world was slowly opening up, our flights were still available, so we dove back into our plans to travel in October and November of 2021.

Fortunately for us, Portugal had just begun receiving travelers. We learned they were thrilled to see new faces.

As we expected, lodging, restaurants, even car rental, were quite affordable. We wanted to get a real feel for Portugal and the people, so we planned our route with the intent to see as much of the country as we could within 12 days (14 counting travel).

If I say so myself, we did an awesome job planning our schedule. We balanced short jaunts and stays in lesser known places with quality exploring time in Lisbon, Pinhão in the Douro River Valley, and Porto to avoid wearing ourselves out.

map of our route

Source: Google Maps

And this is how it played out….  

Lisbon – Lisboa wine region

We wanted to stay near Lisbon’s older areas of Barrio Alta and Alfama so we chose Hotel Lisboa. It was just off the main corridor, Avenue de Liberdade. It was a perfect location. The hotel was modern and fairly small, yet offered an extensive breakfast (referring to it as a “continental” breakfast wouldn’t do it justice!)  The hotel offered a car service to pick us up at the airport which was greatly appreciated. The local driver shared helpful details during the 20 minute ride.

Just around the corner from the hotel and down a few blocks we found Sr. Lisboa. We were anxious to dive into the local fare. They offered Portuguese versions of Spanish tapas, which hit the spot. It was like a country diner with excellent food and the crew made it even more enjoyable.

In front of Hotel Lisboa

Exploring Portugal

 

In July of 2021, I was invited to join an international online event sponsored by Wines of Portugal. Rather serendipitous, I thought. The moderator was the Portugal Wine Ambassador to the U.S., Eugenio Jardim. The event featured interviews with winemakers from various regions, a couple of which made it on to our itinerary. As we ventured through Lisbon we came across the Praça do Comércio, a large public square on the coast. Along the western row of buildings was the Wines of Portugal tasting room. It featured wines from every Portugese region along three walls of wine bottles – an unexpected discovery which we took full advantage of! Later, we came across the second location in Porto.

The Wines of Portugal tasting room

 

We really enjoyed walking around the Alfama neighborhood, one of Lisbon’s oldest areas, lined with shops, cafes, and convenient historic trams. If you go, try to catch Tram 28, which carries tourists and locals on the most popular route. My sweet tooth couldn’t resist the local pastry, Pastéis de Nata.

Exploring PortugalThe popular Tram 28 in the Alfama district

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historic Rossio Railway Station, circa 1890

Historic Rossio Railway Station, circa 1890

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you go to Lisbon, or any other foreign city for that matter, try to set up a dinner or a tour through the WithLocals website, or something similar. You can choose a variety of tours or experiences with local residents. You’ll learn much about the country’s culture and their favorite things to do. It’s certainly worthwhile. We decided on the home dinner experience and chose Isabel. She offered multiple courses that included fried salted cod balls, fruit and vegetable items, and a local delicacy, black pork. Isabel also provide a selection of cheeses and two wines. She turned us on to Porta da Ravessa white wine, and the red Vila de Frades, both produced in the large Alentejo wine region east of Lisboa and Tejo. Isabel was a delight to spend time with, and her dog was pleasant and chill…sleeping at my feet while we ate.

Dinner with Isabel from WithLocals

Exploring Portugal

This vinho branco was an ideal starter wine. The blend of Roupeiro, Fernão-Pires, Arinto was light and fresh, and a bargain at 2.49 Euros!

A very nice red blend of Aragonez (Tempranillo), Trincadeira & Alicante Bouschet. It paired very well with the black pork.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could create a full post on the day trip we took to Sintra, but I’ll provide a short synopsis. Sintra is located on the Portuguese Riviera. A 45-minute train ride drops you into the magical, wonderous mountainous region with magestic castles, royal palaces, historic structures and mansions. And then there’s the Quinta da Regaleira. Its dazzling archecture and grounds are “condusive to the contemplation of the beautiful and the sublime.” To avoid the tourist groups and lines we chose a zippy way to tour Sintra – the electric Twizy from Go2Sintra Eco Tours. It’s a kick!

Exploring Portugal

The night before we left Lisbon we searched for a bar or restaurant that offered live fado music. It’s the country’s mournful folk music about the sea, losing loved ones, struggles of the poor, and it can nearly bring a tear to one’s eye. Due to the slow recovery of the pandemic there were no live performances in the area; however, luck was on our side. As we wandered and searched, we came across Fado & Wine. There was no one in the place, but Fado filled the air. Shelves of wine were on every wall. Finally, a young woman came in. After discussion of what we liked in wine, she provided a couple of options. I fell in love with the 2010 São Domingos Garrafeira from the Bairrada region. (Remember that region, it comes up again.) She also served us some tasty tapas, then left us alone to enjoy the music and delectable wine and fare. She returned to let us try other libations she thought we’d enjoy, one of which was Ginja wild cherry liqueur. It was fantastic! Such long lasting, intense flavor.

Meredith enjoying tapas and wine in Fado and Wine

Meredith enjoying her gooey entrada.

Exploring Portugal

This bold blend of Touriga Nacional, Merlot and Cabernet featured floral and spicy notes, and blanketed the my tongue with red and dark fruit, with a touch of toast and spice. Delicious!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Évora – Alentejo wine region

After two and a half days in Lisbon, we rented a Peugeot SUV and headed east to the ancient walled city of Évora. It’s also the capital of the Alentejo region. A larger town has since grown around the walled city but the interior has maintained its historic character. In the city’s center stands the ancient Roman Temple of Évora (also called the Temple of Diana). Nearby, whitewashed houses surround the Cathedral of Évora. It’s the largest medieval cathedral in Portugal. The massive Gothic structure was built between 1186 and 1250. Not far is the must-see skeleton adorned Chapel of Bones. It’s as fascinating as it is creepy. All four walls were completed with the bones from the dead of the 17th century. The Franciscan monks believed the use of their bones guaranteed the absolution of their sins while providing a site of contemplation for the living. Those zealous Franciscans!

ancient Roman Temple of Évora

The ancient Roman Temple of Évora, also called the Temple of Diana

Igreja de São Francisco dating from the 12th century

The Franciscan Gothic and baroque Igreja de São Francisco dating from the 12 century

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The creepy but fascinating Chapel of Bones

The Chapel of Bones

Exploring Portugal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To our delight, a half block from the catherdral was the Rota Dos Vinhos-Alentejo, which means Alentejo Wine Route. The tasting room offered a good number of wines from the region. Helena poured us a couple of whites and two reds. Grape varieties included Bical, Grand Noir, and the region’s traditional Aragonez, Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet, Castelão and Antão Vaz (a new one for me!). 

Exploring PortugalRota Dos Vinhos-Alentejo tasting room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coimbra – Bairrada wine region

You know how sometimes you see a photo and you say to yourself, “I would love to see that in person”? That’s how I felt when I saw this photo of the University of Coimbra high above the city. It’s among the oldest universities in continuous operation in the world! At night, it’s stunning.

The historic University of Coimbra

Fortunately, we found the Hotel Oslo Coimbra with a rooftop terrace, and a room facing the university. Established in 1290, the university moved locations a few times, and in 1597 it ended up in Coimbra at the Alcaçova Palace, previously owned by the Royal Family. On the drizzly evening following our dinner of Portuguese-inspired pizza, we walked the parkways along the rows of shops. There, next to the Igreja de Santa Cruz, was a cafe and we stopped in for a drink. What luck, Fado de Coimbra was performing. The sound was mezmerizing as it reverberated through the historic architecture.

Click here to see and hear it for yourself.

Exploring PortugalIgreja de Santa Cruz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mozelos – Amorim Cork

In the months leading up to our original travel plans, I had been in touch with the Director of Marketing and Communications for Amorim Cork, Carlos De Jesus. Traveling from Coimbra to Mozelos, Amorim was a 1-hour 40-minute trip. While the rain varied in intensity, the freeways were easy to travel through the mountains and valleys. We met up with Carlos at their headquarters and production facility. What an experience! We spent nearly two hours touring the production area and labratories. Cork is one of the most useful materials on earth. As Amorim states, cork oak forests “contribute to climate regulation, are a driving force for sustainability development, and play a crucial role in the world’s ecological balance.” Also, harvesting cork bark does not harm the oak trees, which has an average life span 200 years.

image of harvested cork bark

Piles of harvested cork tree bark

Interviewing the Director of Marking at Amorim Cork, Carlos de Jesus

 

 

 

 

 

Amorim cork's huge facility

Part of Amorim’s huge facility

Cork punched out from the bark traditional way, by hand and leg pump.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring Portugal

Shaped cork in various levels of quality

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s my compelling converation with Carlos about the extreme efforts Amorim undertakes in their mission to achieve perfection and 100 percent sustainability.

 

 

In Part 2 we make our way to the Douro River Valley with its majestic hillside vineyards.