Portugal 5/23

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History, scenery, and a (tawny) port for any storm...

Lisbon's Belem Tower at sunset

Portugal is in a modern renaissance, driven by EU infrastructure investments, a competent government, and a welcoming safe atmosphere. The Douro Valley, where all real port wine is sourced, is the most beautiful place I have ever been. Miles and miles of terraced hillsides flanking the river are breathtaking. Beyond sightseeing in both Lisbon and Porto, I gained a new appreciation for tawny and vintage port wines. As my first stop on a 22 day EU adventure, I spent five days in Lisbon and three days in and around Porto. While frequent flyer and hotel points paid for most of my flights and hotels, Portugal's overall low costs made it particularly easy and enjoyable.

Wednesday May 3rd - Lisbon's riverfront


I arrived at Lisbon's airport around 3PM after a long LAX-ORD-ZHR-LIS trek. Attempting to take an Uber to my hotel, I ran into a recurring issue on this trip of not being able to find the right pickup spot. I ended up taking a taxi to the Hyatt Regency. I got an upgrade to a room with a wrap-around balcony overlooking the 25th of April bridge over the Tagus river with Lisbon's Christo Rei statue behind it (first picture below). I took a long walk along the Tagus past the Monument to Discoveries statue (second picture below) to the iconic Belem Tower (large picture above and third picture below).

Douro Valley terraced hillsides, home of everything "port"

Room with a view - Lisbon Hyatt

Monument to Discoveries

In front of Belem Tower

Elevador da Glória


Thursday May 4th - Lisbon's upper town


After a good night's rest, thankfully experiencing no jet lag, I had breakfast on my balcony featuring the addictive Pasteis be Belem custard pastries that I had picked up the night before. I activated my two-day Lisboa Card and took the 15E tram to Baixa's Rossio station where I rode the Elevador da Glória (fourth picture above) to Lisbon's upper town. From the top, I followed Rick Steve's Bairro Alto walk. Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara park offered a panoramic overlook of Lisbon with a dog park in the foreground (first picture below). There is a maze of small, steep streets in the upper town, most with quaint little cafes tucked beside the walls (second picture below). While outdoor cafes look charming in pictures, throughout this trip I was reminded that in reality every outdoor cafe equals a smelly smoker's paradise. I ate inside whenever possible. Leaving Bairro Alto, I trammed across town to the Convento do Carmo ruins. The massive convent, along with most of Lisbon, was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1755. All that is left are the walls (third picture below). I had dinner in the main square near Rossio station, then trammed back to my hotel for a port nightcap on my balcony before retiring for the night.


Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara

Bairro Alto side street cafe

Convento do Carmo ruins

Jeronimos Monastery


Friday May 5th - Sintra


I headed out at 8AM to catch the train at Rossio station for a day trip to Sintra. All the guidebooks and everyone I spoke to about Lisbon seemed to like Sintra, which is about 40 minutes northwest of Lisbon. I hated it. For me it was the definition of tourist trap - crowded train to get there, crowded long bus ride required to all of the sites, long lines everywhere, and disorganized crowd handling. The town itself is overrun by gift shops and tourist restaurants. The main site, the Disney-like Pena Palace was closed due to a strike, which I only discovered after the bus left everyone off to wait in a mile-long line in the hope that it might open sometime later. I opted to get back on the bus and tour the other sites there - the National Palace, the Moorish castle, and Quinta Regalriera, none of which were worth the time or money. By 2PM I headed to town looking for a restaurant recommended to me by a friend. It was permanently closed. I gave up and walked to the train station and headed back to Lisbon. I wouldn't go back to Sintra if they paid me. Back in Lisbon, I trammed to the Jeronimos Monastery (fourth picture above), which was worthwhile. I grabbed dinner at a sidewalk cafe and then ended my day with a nice vintage port on my balcony.


Porto's Praca da Liberdade

Wine shop words of wisdom

Quinta de la Roeda

Quinta do Bomfim


Saturday May 6th - Porto


I boarded high speed train #125 from Lisbon's Apolonia station for the three hour trip to Porto's Campanhã station around noon. I taxied to Hotel Infante Sagres where I received a room upgrade along with three different ports to try out at check-in. The hotel itself is staggering in many ways - one of the best I have ever stayed at - and free using my Hyatt points! After a quick turn-around, I walked a few blocks to the main square, Praca da Liberdade (first picture above) where I found a nice cafe for dinner. I tried my first franchesinha sandwich (translation "little French girl" - no one knows why), which is a conglomeration of everything unhealthy. Stopping at the recommended Tourica wine shop (second picture above) on my way back to the hotel, I bought a great 40 year old tawny port to enjoy over the next few evenings. My first day impressions of Porto were all positive. It is more walkable than Lisbon, with less graffiti and a casual atmosphere that pervades everything and everyone. Those initial impressions held true throughout my stay.


Sunday May 7th - Douro Valley - Beautiful home of everything "port"


The Douro Valley is about 90 minutes east of Porto and is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world. I interviewed and arranged months ahead of time for a driver for the whole day who knew wine and could get me into port places (Quintas) that were remarkable. My driver, Victor Pinto +351 913 972 736, Olapinto@gmail.com) did an excellent job on all fronts and I highly recommend him to anyone traveling to Porto. The drive to the Douro Valley was easy on Portugal's excellent roadways. Entering the valley, the scenery is overwhelming. My humble pictures can't begin to do it justice. Technically, the valley stretches over 300 miles all the way into Spain, but the concentration of the best Quintas is within 40 miles of the little city of Pinhao. I visited three Quintas: de La Roeda, do Bomfim, and da Gricha, dodging the useless tours and enjoying long customized and varied tastings hosted by their senior staff. The views from each Quinta are in the third and fourth pictures above and the first picture below. Although the Douro Valley has several Michelin star restaurants, I opted for a quicker and simpler lunch mid-day on the balcony at O Escritor (Writer's Place) where the owner (second picture below) served the food and his wife is the chef. After returning to Porto, I did another walk around the main square and decided to skip dinner in favor of port, dark chocolate, and custard croissants in the hotel.


What I learned about tasting ports: 1) At all of the Quintas the senior staff frowned on doing any kind of chocolate with ports. Ports of all types pair best with sweet foods with an egg base, like custard, cheesecake, rich dairy, etc. That was a surprise to me, 2) Don't waste time on LBVs (late bottled vintage) or ruby ports when tawny and vintage ports are not much more money - at least in Portugal, and 3) The best way to taste ports is to ignore any pre-determined flights and instead order three or four glasses of something to focus on that will illustrate a contrast. Glasses of port are short pours anyway, so it's not like drinking three or four glasses of wine, even with the higher alcohol level (ports are 19% to 21% versus regular wines at 12% to 16%). For example, I did different vintages of vintage ports, different ages of tawny ports, and same age / vintage of tawny ports versus vintage ports.


Quinta da Gricha

O Escritor restaurant with owner

Rua da Fabrica near University


Sao Bento train station interior


Monday May 8th - Porto and Guia walks


I headed out on foot Monday morning to do Rick Steve's upper and lower town Porto walks and then cross the Dom Luis bridge into Guia to enjoy the famous port houses. Porto has very steep hills, not unlike San Francisco, but starting at the top made the walks work. The university area was teaming with people. Just off of the main quad was Rua da Fabrica (third picture above), with a series of narrow alleyways dating back to when tobacco was king. Continuing downhill, the crowded Sao Bento train station is an art gallery unto itself (fourth picture above). Farther downhill, I passed the Stock Exchange building, which does not exchange any stocks, with it's Henry the Navigator statue out front (first picture below). Henry was born in Porto. At the bottom of the walk, the Plaza de Ribeira promenade (second picture below) was filled with people, outdoor restaurants and tour boats. I walked across the bridge and hiked up the steep hill to the surprisingly large World of Wines complex where I did a long, relaxing tasting of Taylor's 10, 30 and 50 year old tawny ports (third picture below). After a snack at their outdoor restaurant, I did a 40 year old Taylor's tawny for another contrast. Back down the hill by the river, I tasted a 30 year old tawny port at Kopke's, but the service was so slow that I stopped with just one. I had dinner with a great view of Porto (fourth picture below) at Ar de Rio restaurant on the bank of the the Douro on the Guia side. A wonderful last day in Porto.


Tuesday & Wednesday May 9th and 10th - Unexpectedly in Lisbon again


I caught my first flight, OPO-LIS, on my way to Madeira on time in the morning, and that was when my travel plans broke down. At Lisbon's airport every flight to and from Madeira was canceled. I waited all day trying to get a flight with no progress. It turned out that Madeira was having a bad wind event that was not expected to end for five days. At 9PM I called to cancel my Madeira driver and hotel and hustled to the premier desk to try to figure out my best course of action. This is an example of why I travel, even on a long trip like this, with only carry-on luggage. The first question the premiere desk asked is, "Do you have luggage?". If I had luggage, it would be buried deep in their system on the next flight to Madeira. With the flexibility of carry-on, they comped me for dinner and one night at the wonderful Corinthia Hotel Lisbon and booked me on another flight on the 11th from Lisbon to my next stop in Nice. It ended up costing me 95€ for the change, but it salvaged what could have been a worse problem - being stuck in Madeira for who knows how long. I moved back to the Hyatt Regency for the night of the 10th so that I could use points. I spent Wednesday walking central Lisbon, enjoying hole-in-the-wall cafes for lunch and dinner and getting ready for my next stop on the French Riviera.


Stock Exchange & Henry statue

Plaza de Ribeira & Dom Luis bridge

Taylor's tawny ports 10, 30. & 50 y/o

Guia Ar de Rio cafe - Porto view

Home Up Austria & Czech Rep. 5/01 Belgium 12/01 Benelux 5/12 Berlin & London 12/98 Bologna, Parma & Milan 5/23 Central Europe by rail 8/10 Cologne & The Rhine 9/02 Düsseldorf & Kempen 3/12 French Riviera 5/23 Frankfurt 12/02 Greece 1/03 Greece 11/06 Ireland 3/01 Italy 4/00 Italy & Zurich 8/09 Florence & Tuscany 5/23 Netherlands 12/00 Paris 9/95 40th Birthday Paris & Burgundy 2/12 Poland 10/13 Portugal 5/23 Scotland 8/02 Spain 8/03

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