This first of three Exploring Porgutal travel blog posts was 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. A few years later, I’d say the idea blossomed. For the recorded interviews only, look for On The Wine Road Podcast on your favorite platform.
Exploring Portugal, Drinking Wine Part – 1 features my interview with
Carlos de Jesus of Amorim Cork.
My wife Meredith and I decided to explore Portugal in late spring, 2020. Well, that didn’t happen. But when the world was opening up, and flights were available again, we dove back into our plans to travel in October and November of 2021.
Fortunately for us, Portugal had just begun receiving travelers and they were thrilled to see new faces.
As we expected, lodging, restaurants, and 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.
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, which helped us avoid overdoing it.
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 July 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 onto 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 Portuguese region along three walls of wine bottles – an unexpected discovery that we took full advantage of! Later, we came across the second location in Porto.
We 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.
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 provided 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.
I could create a full post on our day trip 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 majestic castles, royal palaces, historic structures, and mansions. And then there’s the Quinta da Regaleira. Its dazzling architecture and grounds are “conducive 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!
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 from 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 a 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, 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.
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 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!
To our delight, a half block from the cathedral 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!).
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 historic University of Coimbra high above the city. It’s among the oldest continuously operated universities in the world! At night, it’s stunning.
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 a 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 mesmerizing as it reverberated through the historic architecture.
Click here to see and hear it for yourself.
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 laboratories. 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 have an average life span of 200 years.
Here’s my compelling conversation with Carlos about the extreme efforts Amorim undertakes in their mission to achieve perfection and 100 percent sustainability.
The Benefits of Taking the Road Less Traveled…
It caught my eye so we backed up and decided to follow the “rota.” We drove a ways wondering if we missed a turn, then finally a park like setting with a few buildings appeard. To our delight, it was a tasting room in an old, yet ornate 1920s train station. We became friendly with these two ladies, grape grower Adrianna Faria and her winemaking friend, Margaria Matos.
Adriana turned us on the these wines, which included the gripping, tannic Baga. However, the winemaker managed to calm down the tannins, yet would be best with food. The wines of Bairrada feature rich, deeply colored red wines. Aside from Baga, these also include varieties like Touriga Nacional, Castelão and a few others. The whites are often made with Loureiro, Verdelho, ad Alvarinho. I image Margarida’s own M&M sparkling, Espumante Bruto, contains some, if not all those varieties. We enjoyed the wines and the ladies, who were an unexpected plesasure to meet.
Adrianna and I have been following each other on Instagram! (@jdwineroad)
In Exploring Portugal, Drinking Wine Part 2 we make our way to the Douro River Valley with its majestic terraced hillside vineyards.