Porto on the Douro

My last trip to Portugal was in 1988 as a newly married traveller in our VW Combi! We drove vast miles, lived on NZ$25 a day, stayed along the beautiful Algarve coast and explored Lisbon and Sintra. Fast forward to 2016 and it was a 3-day getaway to the historically important city of Porto (aka Oporto) at the mouth of the Douro river. The second largest city in Portugal, its charm lies in the bustling riverside and winding streets of the old town, not to mention the traditional Port Wine Cellars along the riverside.

A 2.5-hour Ezyjet flight from Gatwick to Porto and then an easy train ride from the airport into the 19th century São Bento Railway Station finds you in the middle of the old town, just up the hill from the Port. The metro runs every 20 minutes on weekdays (approx. every 30 on weekends) and the ride is only 2.45 which includes the rechargeable card. The mosaic work at the railway station is breathtaking and the number of tourists there just for the mosaics is incredible! Over 20,000 Azulegjo glazed blue and white ceramic tiles depicting the stories from Portugal’s history, cover almost every surface.

Famous for its history of Port wine production, it was a given that we would visit some of the most famous and historic Port production houses on the riverside. First stop was the Croft cellar, located in Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite side of the river and over the Dom Luis Bridge. One of the most distinguished of all Port houses and founded in 1588, it is the oldest firm still active today as a Port wine producer.  We took a guided tour of the cellar (€10) and learnt a great deal about the industry and Porto’s history, amidst the musky smells and aromas of oak barrels and fermenting grapes.  There was the obligatory tasting which is included in your entry price and we sampled one of their new products – a dark pink port rosé, recommended served chilled.  There was a fascinating explanation of the markings on the barrels.  Each one is handmade and therefore uniquely sized.  The number at the top of the barrel denotes the “modern” litre-age, while the numbers within the “X” at the bottom right represent the ancient Moorish system of calculating the capacity and volume of the barrel according to how many jugs a woman could carry on her head (the old system of transportation).

Porto is a relatively easy walking town if you have some fitness, although there are a few gentle hills down to the port.  Our accommodation was around 10 minutes walk from the Port which gave us a chance to work off the famous custard tarts (Pasteis de nata) which Mo had a love affair with! Typically, fish features on many menus and we were lucky to find a table at a cafe along the Ribeira where we whiled away a couple of hours eating grilled sardines, enjoying a couple of cool glasses of Vinho Verde and people-watching in the sun.

The streets of Porto are relatively clean and safe, the people friendly and English is generally spoken in the main tourist areas.  It’s not the cheapest Portuguese city however still one of its most charming and interesting.  Do wear sensible shoes because many of the streets of the old town are still cobbled and after a couple of Vinho Verde, you may need to watch your step!

Happy travelling – Liz 🙂

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An Afternoon in Alfama (Lisbon)

There’s something truly magical about wandering the streets of the Alfama in the late afternoon, that stretch out lazily along the slope between Sāo Jorge Castle and the Tagus River. While the locals are busy inside with lunch or an afternoon nap, tourists will share the semi-deserted streets with ragged lines of damp laundry slung across alleyways and small dogs running in between half-opened doorways. No two streets are the same in this barrio and I loved the surprise of what might be just around the corner – fado-inspired graffiti, pastel-coloured houses, intricately carved doorways, tiny hole-in-the-wall shops selling everything from handmade baskets to salted cod and sardines. The possibilities were endless! One of my favourite local quirks (which can be seen all over Lisbon) are the multicoloured decorations that are strung throughout the city for various saints’ days and local celebrations – there always appeared to be something going on, just don’t ask me what!

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Alfama is Lisbon’s oldest quarter and finds its origins in the Moorish domination of the Iberian Peninsula (its name come from the Arabic Al-Hamma, which means hot springs or baths). Despite its prominence in medieval Portugal and its location as some of Portugal’s most prominent buildings, Alfama has long been known as a neighbourhood of sailors, dockworkers and fishermen, which has given it a somewhat “gritty” reputation in the past few centuries. Like the Triana district in Seville, which claims flamenco as its own, the Alfama has become strongly associated with fado, the melancholic but hauntingly beautiful national music of Portugal. Fado-houses as they are known, are dotted throughout the district’s tiny streets and range from performances with elaborate four-course meals to casual, spontaneous street performances. There are plenty of venues to choose from – we had heard that Clube do Fado and Casa de Linhares were two of the best dinner-fado venues in Alfama, so with only one night left, we decided to try the latter and settled in for a full three-course meal of rustic Portuguese food and plenty of reserve port to wash it down afterwards. Each course was accompanied by a fado performance ranging from desperately expressive to threateningly loud and verbose. One quirk of the evening was that for every round of drinks you order, a fado performance will follow – so if you want to stay until the early hours of the morning, prepare your stomach!

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One of the best views of the Tagus river is the Santa Lucia lookout point (Rua do Limoeiro, Alfama), which you will pass on your way up to the castle from Baixa or which lies in the tram 28 route. This Romanesque terrace is covered in grape vines and bougainvillaea flowers that wind themselves up the stone pillars and are framed by the typical blue and white hand-painted tiles you can see in public spaces throughout Portugal. Better yet, it’s open 24 hours, so if you’d rather catch a sunset or a sunrise, you can turn up when you want.

Finally, the Moorish Sāo Jorge Castle (Castelo de Sāo Jorge) is certainly worth a visit. As one of the main tourist sites in Lisbon, this fortified structure dominates the city’s skyline, as it has since it was built by Muslim Berber forces in the 10th century. The castle’s courtyard provides a breathtaking view of the Baixa neighbourhood and the Tagus River. The current entry costs are €8.50/€5.00/€20.00 adult/child/family and the castle is open from 09:00 to 21:00 (peak) or 9:00 to 18:00 (low). I would recommend either walking up from Baixa (remember to take a bottle of water with you!) or taking the number 28 tram. Unfortunately, the castle is not very accessible via public transport for people with limited mobility but taxis are relatively cheap and able to drive you straight to the main entrance.

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Happy Travelling, Moey xx

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Lunchtime in Lisbon

Cervejaria Ramiro
Av. Almirante Reis nº1 – H / 1150-007 Lisboa, Portugal

                                  Opening Hours: 12:00 – 00:30 – Closed on Mondays

Seafood * Garlic * Bread.  These three ingredients are the culinary mainstay of one of Lisbon’s most loved Cervejarias and without a doubt one of the most frantic dining experiences I’ve had this side of South-East Asia. Don’t let the 80s interior or simple trestle tables fool you! While you might find yourself intimately rubbing elbows with your neighbour, Cervejaria Ramiro is everything you want for your seafood: fresh (as in alive 30 seconds prior to serving), covered in garlic, lemon and fresh herbs and washed down with generous glasses of the local beer. The clams were a personal favourite but there is something here for every seafood lover.

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In typical Iberian fashion, the waiters here (as in many places throughout the peninsula) take their job very seriously and have turned service into a finely-tuned act. They won’t write down your orders and seem to have a knack for knowing the moment your plate (or glass) will be empty. There’s a lot of waving and yelling and because I can’t speak a word of Portuguese (perhaps for the better) this just adds to the pace of this place.

You can’t (really) book in advance, so expect to queue for at least 20-30 minutes with a quirky mix of well-heeled locals and in-the-know tourists. But I promise you that it is well worth the wait. Prices are a bit more than the local average but it’s definitely worth every extra escudo – and the beer only comes in at a cool 2 per glass, if that’s any consolation!

Afterwards, if you’re feeling heady from all the garlic fumes and softer around the edges thanks to the beer, lunch is best followed by a long, lazy walk through the Alfama – the oldest barrio in Lisbon and the only part of the city to survive the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake…but more on that later, bom apetite!

Happy travelling, Moey xx

Go to Lisbon in 100 Bites official website: http://www.lisbonfoodguide.com/ for the best eats and tips when eating in Lisbon.

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