Restaurants & Bars 5

Portugal Trip

Tom Brown | Apr 15, 200211:51 AM

Plan was one night in Lisbon to rest up, then hit the road for a few days in Porto, a night at a Pousada in the Douro, a drive back down to the little town of Evora, and then back over to round off the trip in Lisbon.

Plane landed in Lisbon at around 4PM on Saturday. Arrival went smoothly and customs there was probably the easiest and quickest I’ve ever experienced. Picked up the rental car, a few maps and directions to the hotel. (Best Western Altis Park Hotel, Av. Eng. Arantes e Oleveira 9, Lisboa; 351-21-842-42-00; www.travelweb.com) Fortunately it was on a main drag just a few minutes from the airport. This was a nice modern hotel. At the hotel we asked the bellhop for a recommendation for dinner, someplace authentic and non-touristy.

He mentioned Restaurante D’Avis (Rua do Grilo 96/98, Lisboa) and this couldn’t have been a better choice. It was the perfect introduction to Portuguese cuisine. A beautiful little place, wonderful antique decorations and art on the walls with terrific food. We were there around 7:30, which made us early and therefore the place was empty. We sat down to appetizer plates of sausages, olives, bread and cheese and were handed menus. Nobody spoke English, we spoke no Portuguese. Out came the guidebooks and dictionaries to try and figure out the menu. Seems it had local specialties from several regions of the country, north to south. We were somewhat successful with the translations, the pork with onions turned out to really be pork with clams, but what the heck, it was all really really good. We also delved headfirst into the beer and wine of the country.

Throughout the trip we preferred SuperBock to the Sagres beer, unless it was Sagres Preta (dark) beer. The white wines were found to be relatively simple, crisp, tasty and refreshing. Kind of like Sauvignon Blanc. All were cheap (under 10 Euros a bottle) but the more expensive ones were slightly better than the cheaper ones. Red wine was all over the map, with several restaurants having bottles over 100 Euros and many down around 5 Euros. I really found that you get what you pay for with the reds, the cheaper ones were not that enjoyable, but once you approached 20 Euros (in the restaurant) they were much better. Restaurant wine price mark-up seemed to be pretty standard: double retail, which I discovered after perusing a few wine shops during the week and noting prices.

The next day had us heading to Porto. While preparing for this trip I had heard that driving in Portugal was miserable and dangerous. I have driven in Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, England, Scotland and Ireland. In my opinion, driving in Portugal was no worse or more dangerous than any of these other countries. The superhighways are big, beautiful and fast. Seems that other drivers either want to go faster than you (lots of breaking the speed limit) or slower than you, so you are constantly changing lanes. Off the big roads, the roads are tiny, twisty and slow. Standard Europe. Driving in the towns and cities is plagued by one way roads; roads so tiny you have to fold the rear view mirrors against the car to avoid hitting them on buildings; dead ends and incredible amounts of traffic. Getting lost or stuck is really easy. Once again, standard Europe. Park the car and use public transportation or cabs once you are where you are going. But don’t fear driving in Portugal anymore than you do anywhere else in Europe.

On the way to Porto we stopped in Coimbra for a lunch break. In the center of town was a nice Italian place in the park on the river. European style pizza sure can be great! Walked around the university district (it’s a college town) and the central pedestrian shopping mall. Pretty little town.

We arrived in Porto, checked in, and hit the streets to see what was around. (Hotel Mercure Batalha, Praca da Batalha 116, Porto; 351-22-200-05-71; http://porto.nethotels.com/mercure_ba...) This was the hardest hotel to find as it wasn’t close to the freeway. It was a very nice modern hotel. For me this was a very exciting place to be because of my interest in Port wine. We headed down to the river as the sun was setting and saw all the Port Lodges (wineries) on the other side in Vila Nova de Gaia. We were there just as they were turning on the lights on their big signs. What a time to be walking on the Douro river in Porto. As we strolled we checked menus on the river front restaurants, thinking about dinner. We ran into a British couple that suggested we try Casa Mariazinha (Rua Belomonte 2/4, Porto) across from the Hotel Da Bolsa. They gave it glowing reviews and told us a little of what we were in for. It sounded so good we ran to the address in hopes that we would still find a table that evening.

What a place. This was not a typical Portuguese restaurant menu. It is run by Antonio and his wife Neide (the chef). She is classically trained, and handles the kitchen with an assistant and he runs the dining room. There were seats for 12. We arrive at 7:45 and were the last allowed in that the evening (Lucky us!). Antonio began to explain to us that he did not have a menu, they just cooked what ever was fresh that day in the markets. We were to get a 7 course meal, that would be served with appropriate wines for each course. We would not know the dishes until they arrived at our table, a surprise. This turned out to be a little white lie, because they invited us into the kitchen to watch them at work and thus spoiled the surprise for a course or two. But it also meant that each party in the restaurant experienced different meals, so that seeing the next table over served didn’t spoil the surprise for your table. Service was a little slow as each course was prepared individually for each party in the restaurant. In the end we were there till 12:30; but we loved every minute of it. Antonio was great fun to talk with (only he knew English) and even drove us back to our hotel after dinner. (We were the last to leave, as we were the last to arrive). Not necessarily traditional Portuguese, but a fantastic meal.

The next day we started with a trip across the river to tour the Taylor, Fladgate and Yeatman Lodge. The tour was a interesting but very short, say 15 or 20 minutes. Just a quick explanation of the different kinds of port and a visit to the aging barrels. It was followed with a tasting of a white port and an LBV port. Nice time but not special. The view from their terrace was terrific. We spent the rest of the day walking around; did some more tasting at some of the other lodges; took a boat ride; crossed back over the river and walked around seeing the sights of Porto.

That night had us eating at Chez Lapin (Rua dos Canastreiros 40, Porto). This was right on the waterfront; and a typical Portuguese restaurant. It was also very good, though more crowded and touristy than the first night, due to its location. The pork done in the special house style was the knockout. It came literally swimming in olive oil along with potatoes and onions and was outstanding.

The next day had us back in the car and heading out up the Douro valley. I’ve been to Napa, I’ve been to Tuscany, neither prepared me for the wonder of the Douro. I never could imagine so many square miles of vineyards. As far as the eye can see, as far as you can drive all day, vine after vine after vine. It’s amazing to me that they have enough people to harvest it all. (Remember, it’s a valley! Really, really steep hills. Most of the work has to be done by hand.) Really incredible countryside, you have to see it to understand. We stopped in the town of Pinhao for lunch at the Restaurant and Hotel Douro (Largo da Estacao, Pinhao). Once again this was another excellent traditional meal. Right across the street was a beautiful little train station, covered in the traditional tile art of the area.

Not far from Pinhao we took the vineyard tour at the Fonseca vineyard, Quinta do Panascal. This is a beautiful property. They hand you a tape player and a map, and you walk through it (shows just how hilly the area is) and it explains all aspects of port production and how much work goes into the production of Port. It is also very informative about the different kinds of Port wine etc. etc. It too was followed with a tasting of their white port and Bin 27 Vintage Character ruby port. This property was unusual in that you could just drive up. Most vineyards require reservations to be made in advance to visit them.

From there we headed up to the town of Alijo. Along the way we passed many more vineyards of big name Port houses, such as Quinto do Noval. We chose Alijo because we wanted to stay in a Pousada, (a government run hotel, usually in a really nice older building, see http://www.manorhouses.com/) and my wife chose the Pousada do Barao de Forrester in Alijo (5070-031, Alijo; 351-259-959467). This was a very nice place, with a very good restaurant. It was also the most expensive room of the trip. This was our fanciest traditional meal, by far. Alijo itself, however, wasn’t the best town of the trip.

The next day we wound our way back down to Evora (helpful hint: use the major highway, it’s farther than it looks on the small roads). Evora is a small old town, where the original ancient city walls still stand, as well as some structures from Roman times. It is a nice touristy type town to visit. Cathedrals, Castles and Museums – typical European tourist stuff. Seems like every town has them. For dinner here we took our guide books recommendation, backed up with a recommendation from our hotel clerk. Restaurante Conzinha de Sto. Humberto (Rua da Moeda 39, Evora). Unfortunately, this one did not live up to the hype. The dishes we ordered had potential but the execution was off, meat was tough, etc.; just didn’t come out as nice as we would have hoped. On the other hand, it did have a few unusual dishes on the menu that we didn’t see anywhere else.

The hotel (Albergaria solar de Monfalim, Largo da Misericordia 1, Evora; 351-66-750000; http://www.monfalimtur.pt) had the most character of any we were in and was also the cheapest. However, when you are in a 400 year old building with 100 year old plumbing, you have to make allowances for some of the smells.

After a night in Evora and a morning of shopping, it was back to Lisbon. We found our hotel (Hotel Veneza, Av. Da Liberdade 189, Lisboa; 351-21-352-26-18; http://lisbon.nethotels.com/veneza) around 2:30 are were starving. The desk clerk pointed us to Marispueira Santa Maria (Trav. Do Enviado de Inglaterra 1-D/E/F, Lisboa) which was just around the corner. Another very traditional restaurant, with the bonus of lots of seafood items on the menu. Pretty good for a hungry crowd. Also the hotel was easy to find, on a main drag not too far from the freeway. It had more character than the first two but not as much as the one in Evora.

Two other restaurants that I took note of in Lisbon: Casa Nostra (Tv. Do Poco da Cidade 60, Lisboa) which is Italian, and Restaurante Jaipur (Rua da Gloria 6-A, Lisboa) which is
Indian and Italian. Both of these were very good as breaks from traditional Portuguese food. After a while it seems that all the menus start to look the same, the same sausages, same Pork and clams etc. etc. There were other restaurants that I didn’t take note of. Not that they weren’t any good, just that they are everywhere. It seemed that every 3rd door on the street was a Mom & Pop restaurant. We ate in several more than I’ve listed here and most were very good. A couple of lunches were at Cafeteria’s. One was near the Tower of Belem in Lisbon and the other in a highway rest area. Not the greatest food, but a good light lunch and a way to see a different part of the culinary culture.

Lunch hours can be anywhere from 11 to 4 (or an even wider range), but dinner never starts before 7:30. Locals don’t seem to hit them until 9 or so. The traditional cuisine is heavy on seafood, pork and beef; with some veal, duck, chicken and rabbit. Meals are mostly meat and potatoes (or rice) with little vegetables, and those you get are boiled to death. Salads were popular, as was vegetable soup. Lots of olive oil. Meals usually begin with appetizers consisting of sausage, olives, bread and cheese, but may also include seafood or mushroom cold salads and cut up chunks of omelet’s. And then you are supposed to order your own food! It is possible to eat a lot in this country, as the menu is the same for both lunch and dinner.

Our hotel breakfasts were pretty standard European. Cold cuts, bread, cheese, fruit, pastries. Occasionally hot items such as eggs, bacon and sausage. However, I would say that the breakfasts weren’t as nice as some that I have had in other countries (of course this may have just been our choice of hotels too). Pastry shops and bakeries are everywhere, so that is also an option for breakfast.

On weekdays, stores close from 12-2 for lunch and then at 7 or 8 o’clock. Saturdays they close for good at 12 or 1 and Sundays are not open at all. Of course, I’m talking your local mom & pop store here, not anything touristy or a part of a chain; these would have more accessible hours.

Finding someone who speaks English is 50/50, even in Lisbon. In the small towns, it’s even harder. Fortunately, pointing and grunting and head nods is about all you need to do to shop or order food. Numbers can be written down, which works very well, as would be expected. For taxi’s, it is helpful to have a map you can point to or an written address you can show.

In general, Portugal is cheap!!! Especially when it comes to food, taxi’s, wine, and beer.

Lisbon, Porto etc. were all wonderful cities for walking around. Go exploring, walk up side streets, see pedestrian areas, notice the old buildings, the cobblestones everywhere, the little shops, the butchers, the bars, the restaurants and bakers. I just love the sense of history from being amongst all the old buildings. Obviously they have their tourist attractions and we did many of them. See the cathedrals and museums. Check out the castles. There is something for the art & history lover in almost every European town and city and Portugal is no exception.

It was recommended to me that the best way to see the Alfama district of Lisbon is to hop the 28 tram and ride it around; marveling at how it gets through the tiny twisty streets. Well, that didn’t work for us. We got the unexpected treat of having the 28 jump the tracks and derail as it failed to negotiate one twisty spot. Fortunately no one was hurt and property damage was minimal; but that was exciting for a moment! Thus we were stranded in the Alfama district and saw the rest of it on foot. Imagine the traffic jam with an entire tram line blocked, as well as the road it was on. The tiny, one way streets can be a nightmare under normal conditions.

Now so far I have said very little about that which took me to Portugal in the first place, namely, Port. We definitely drank a lot of it. Every night before bed, whether in the hotel bar or somewhere else, we could be found with a glass or two in hand. As for bringing it home -- great deals, there aren’t. There are some deals – at the lodges themselves in Vila Nova de Gaia. But they aren’t necessarily good enough to go through the trouble of getting it home. But, if you must buy some on your trip, buy it there, right from the producer (with one exception I’ll get to later), the stores can’t match their prices.

In general, when it comes to vintage port, what you see in the stores is the less well known brands. The big names (Taylor, Fonseca etc.) must all sell out pretty quickly on release. I saw lots and lots of brands that I had never heard of. Also, there was very little older vintage in the stores. Mostly 1985 and more recent. (Mostly the lodges themselves had older stuff, and not all of them.)

Prices are all over the map too. For example, there is a lot of Barros Colheita around. One that caught my eye early on was the 1937 Colheita. I tracked its price in every store I saw it in. It ranged from 300 to 780 Euros. Most stores had it around 420. That’s an incredible range, in my opinion. Evora had the store with the cheapest price. My guess is the small towns are better to shop in than the cities, if saving money is your goal.

Something that shocked me at first was that every bottle was standing upright, in every store! Even old ones with a quarter inch of dust on them. I just couldn’t believe it. Didn’t they care about the wine? Finally I found a shopkeeper that spoke English and asked about it. He answered that they rotate the stock. The stores are too small to lay the bottles down (true, takes up more shelf space) so they stand one bottle up of each type and keep the rest in the back. Then every so often they change bottles, so that it gets laid back down. He said most stores rotated the stock once a month, but of course, he did it weekly. (This of course, doesn’t answer the question of the heat in the summer, when wine is on the shelf. Didn’t ask about that. Bottom line – I’d look at an old bottle very carefully in any Portuguese wine store.)

The one other thing about Port I want to mention is the Solar do Vinho do Porto. There are two of them, one in Lisbon and one in Porto (Rua de Sao Pedro de Alcantara 45, Lisboa and Rua de Entre-Quintas 220, Porto -- in the Museu Romantico). They are run by the Port Institute, which is the governing body over the port industry. Basically, they are Port drinking lounges. Very casual, very comfortable, cozy atmosphere. Big cushy chairs, the smoking lounge type look and feel. And they typically have 150 different ports available to drink on any night. All but vintage is available by the glass, with vintage by the bottle. We went to the one in Lisbon. It was never full, which surprised me with seating only for 30 or so (means it wasn’t that smoky either, which was nice). If you so desired, you could buy any port they had by the bottle to take with you. What a wonderful experience to try different ports. Prices are pretty reasonable too, both for glasses and for bottles.

The only disappointment about the Solar was with the vintage ports, but that was all of my own doing. When I first read about them, about the 150 different ports of all types and years, I had visions of be able to taste by the glass 30 or 50 year old vintage ports. Obviously, imagination and reality often diverge. From a pragmatic point of view, it would be awful wasteful and expensive to serve vintage by the glass since it goes bad so quickly once opened. Similar to the stores, most of the brands are lesser known, and most of the vintages are newer than 1985. But even so, 40 year tawny is a pretty nice drink, regardless of who makes it. A visit to a Solar is a must for any port lover.

All in all it was a very fun country. I will be going back.

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