Obrigado Oporto: And the Rest of Perfect Portugal

Portugal is one of the hottest destinations, or so it seems to a number of my Israeli coworkers. True to their collective word, our 5 days were magnificent- leaving us only wishing we had more time. With contrasting clashes of old and new and incredible food around the corner, exploring Porto, Duoro Valley, Sintra and Lisbon brought excitement at every turn. Spanish tastes and styles blend seamlessly with reminders of other Mediterranean locales. Arabic aesthetic adorns buildings wedged together on hilly, cobblestoned streets straight out of Naples or Haifa.

My girlfriend, Sam, and I started our journey with a full day in Porto after breezing through a 4:20 AM El Al flight from Tel Aviv, followed by, a metro into the city center. After checking in to the Armazém Hotel and meeting my parents, it was straight to breakfast. Jon Stewart allegedly once quipped, “I’m Jewish, with a side of bacon” and the irony of getting our cured ham fix on Rosh Hashana was not lost on us. The energy was needed, as we then walked all across the city. A journey down to the banks of the Duoro River through the tight corners of quaint neighborhoods brought us to our first lunch destination, Adega de Sao Nicolau. The Judge can never turn down fried sardines peppered and salted, so that was the obvious choice along with grilled veal, sautéed clams and tomato rice and a really excellent white wine.

The rest of the afternoon was spent sauntering among various Port cellars, tasting as we went, of course. We visited Kroft and Kopke and learned about the process of making the sweet fortified wine. With a cozy dinner at Traça, we were prepared for the morning’s drive upmnto the Duoro Valley. The first stop Peso da Régua was nothing short of charming. Alfredo’s AirBnB was spectacular with views straight out of National Geographic (that’s an old-timey, paper, magazine to the IG crowd reading). Port wine flowed with every course at Castas e Protos. The suckling pig and roasted kid nourished our leisurely stroll down the banks of the Duoro and across the converted train bridge.

Shakshuka was the morning festivity as we prepared for another grueling day of touring port Quintas and lazily cruising the river. A restaurant with no name in Pinhão proved to be the trip’s best tomato rice and another excellent plate of Portuguese cheeses and meats. The afternoon visit at Quinta Bomfim revealed a little more commercialized side of the port industry but it was pretty neat to see a mechanical foot stamper silently crushing away. We scurried back to the boat to continue to absorb the glorious countryside views. Rows upon rows of terraced vineyards graced the hillsides, dotted with white manors like stoic, life-sized Monopoly hotels. The night was capped by a spectacular meal at Cais da Villa in Vila Real with more pig trotters and veal than one could shake a stick at. A rickety train in the morning transported Sam and me back to Porto and another 3-hour ride south to Lisbon and boy we were put to the test. Hills upon hills greeted the two of us as we trudged up to the Alfama neighborhood in the shadow of the São Jorge Castle. We walked to the lookout of Igreja e Convento da Graça and snacked on döner kebab before exploring the 12th-century Moorish castle. One viewpoint was swapped for another as we ascended the Arc du Rua Augustus. We enjoyed the rest of the downhill trip skipping past Pink Street, lying dormant with bars and strip clubs awaiting the later hours.

 

Swinging by the Taberna du Rua das Flores we made a reservation that resulted in a three-hour wait, fulfilling a friend’s wise words, “you young people love waiting in line for things.” Killing time until dinner meant strolling along the Tagus and sampling the Portuguese beer Superblock’s 4 offerings in the Time Out Magazine indoor food market.

With an appetite worked up, and lovely conversation with an Irish stag party providing the night’s entertainment, we conquered what would be one of the best meals of the trip. More sautéed clams and black pork were sampled to go along with fried goat cheese and veal short-rib to round out the perfect showing of Portuguese cuisine. Neither Sam nor I could lay off the crème brulee craving for dessert.

The next morning was dedicated to Sintra. This colorful, medieval, World Heritage Site boasts an extraordinary array of palaces, gardens, and castles with none more eye-popping than the Pena Palace. The castle, awash in maize and pink was built on an old monastery and upgraded by King Ferdinand II. It was truly a gorgeous splash of color amongst a stunning landscape backdrop with one of the best views of the trip. After tapas at Tasca de Xico and picking up pasteis de nata (a sweet, egg custard pastry), we got lost in the secret tunnels and imported arboretum of Quinta de Regaleira. It was almost too much for a half-day excursion, and it didn’t include several other sites in the historic village.

Our final night was spent getting lost on the way to Torre Belem, but we eventually reached the closed landmark in time for a beautiful sunset complete with views of the Golden Gate-esque 25 de Abril Bridge. A solid dinner at B28 reprised some of the classic foods we had come to grow fond of in such a short visit. Of course, our trip would not be complete with another café croissant mixta (ham and cheese to you and me) and cappuccino at the cute chain A Padaria Portuguesa that was a cut above the train station’s offering the day before. Both Sam and I were filled with a desire to return to as we boarded the plane, having filled out the “P” section of our favorite things. Port wine, pig, and palaces; the perfect Portugal vacation.

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