A taste of Portugal
I’m writing my first article of the year on travel as I truly believe that’s what one should work for and spend on. For me, it’s the fond memories and experiences that enrich my life and live on forever rather than materialistic possessions. So what do I recommend as your next holiday destination? Portugal it is!
After spending Christmas in southern Italy, we ended 2019 with a week in gorgeous Portugal. As it was winter, we skipped the Atlantic beaches, which are a must-do in summer, and enjoyed the vibrant cities of Lisbon and Porto. For me, exploring a country’s history and culture is not through its museums and sightseeing tours, but with the local culinary traditions and wine.
Lisbon is a city where you just want to put on your walking shoes and walk, walk, walk. Built over seven hills, the ascending and descending streets, hidden lanes and viewpoints (miradouros) are absolute gems. Do not even try to drive in the city or bother with cabs and Ubers as most streets are one-way and it does get congested and complicated. Enjoy navigating your way around with characteristic trams, uphill funiculars and an efficient bus network.
The Portuguese were one of the first sea navigators in history, with Vasco da Gama being the most famous one. History buffs will enjoy learning more about Goa and the Western Indian coast as a Portuguese colony and the discovery and trade of spices by the Portuguese from their point of view.
Spend half a day in the district of Belem where the tower and statues have stories to tell of these historic voyages. Top it all off with some pasteis de natas, or Portuguese custard tarts from the famous bakery, Pasteis de Belem. If this one is too crowded, fret not, as they have many branches across the city. These delicious tarts are a traditional pastry found in all cafes and bakeries with each one claiming theirs to be the best! A light filo pastry tart is filled with a creamy eggy custard filling and baked to perfection!
For a special lunch in Belem, I highly recommend Vela Latina. It’s an elegant restaurant with beautiful waterside views serving modern Portuguese and European cuisine and some of the best local wines. Talking of Portuguese food, fish is the backbone of the cuisine here. In particular, cod or bacalaus, which is fished in the surrounding seas. Octopus is also a regular feature on local menus.
If you have little kids who complain about walking, give them a treat and enjoy some indoor family time at the gorgeous oceanarium right by the river. It’s a real masterpiece with the rarest of sea creatures. Right next door are the cable cars which offer sweeping views of the city and beyond.
Lisbon is one of the nightlife capitals in Europe and the Portuguese really know how to live it up. Save some energy to go bar hopping in the labyrinth of Bairo Alto and Chiado neighbourhoods. Small cosy tapas bars are hidden away in the mosaic-tiled walls with the crowds spilling over into the street.
Typical tapas to order would be a mix of cold salads made with some of the best olive oils and lots of lemon and herbs. Pasteis de bacalhau, or cod fish croquettes, are a traditional signature dish which pair really well with a glass of the local Chardonnay.
Talking of wines, I was pleasantly surprised by the Portuguese wines. Internationally, the wine market is dominated by produce from other countries. We enjoyed some beautiful Chardonnays, sangiovese and delicate reds at extremely reasonable prices and brought plenty back as well!
In terms of food, I particularly enjoyed the bacalhau a bras during this trip. It’s a typical warm dish made with shredded cod, scrambled eggs and grated potatoes and served with a black olive tapenade. I plan to try making this here with some beckti, which would be the closest local substitute for the firm fleshy cod. The local risotto, or seafood rice stew, is a must-try. It’s a hearty soupy dish slow-cooked with tomatoes, seafood broth, fresh seafood and rice. It may be simple to look at, but is filled with bags of flavour.
Spend the rest of your time in Lisbon taking in the intricate Portuguese architecture and admiring the artistic patterned tiles on the buildings and churches. You can clearly see the similarity in the designs of the churches with those in the old Portuguese colony of Goa and parts of Kerala.
Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and less crowded and touristy than Lisbon. A quieter relaxed destination which has so much character of its own. It is famous for its port wine industry and hence, its name! I recommend taking the fast train from Lisbon rather than driving as once you hit the narrow uphill roads of the city, dealing with a car and parking is not a great idea.
The mighty river Douro runs through the city and divides it into two parts. You can just walk across the Ponte Luis 1 bridge to the other side, known as Vila Nova de Gaia, and enjoy the views from there.
Pick an Airbnb apartment or a hotel slightly away from the absolute centre of Porto if you want to enjoy the local life and not be right in the midst of tourist traps. Like Lisbon, this town is also built over hills, thus providing plenty of view points to enjoy. Believe me, this is where you want to be at the hour of sunset!
Start the day with a Portuguese-style coffee and a custard tart at a local cafe while walking down to the river. Get onto one of the boat tours and enjoy the views of the city as you sail by, while the mischievous seagulls amuse you with their antics.
The promenade is a lively area of cafes, restaurants and street artistes. Towards the evening, head to the quaint Rue de Flores and indulge in a special dinner or drinks in one the many posh restaurants there. Enjoy an after-dinner stroll through the bustling Avenida dos Aliados in the heart of the city. We were here for the New Year’s Eve countdown celebration, which was epic!
On Day Two, walk over to Vila Nova de Gaia — the district on the other side of the bridge — and go on a port wine-tasting spree. You can pick from the several wineries dotted around, with each one competing on their offers. Make sure to walk further inside as that is where all the good ones are hidden away.
We took the cable car ride here and got some free wine-tasting tickets along with it. So look out for such offers. The Blini, Vinum and Barao Fladgate wineries have great restaurants if you want to throw in a nice lunch, but make sure you book ahead! If you are done with Portuguese food and need a change (like we did), I recommend the Italian (kid-friendly) restaurant, San Martino by the riverside.
While every place in the world is beautiful, it is the people that make a place. The Portuguese are a happy and friendly bunch and very proud of their heritage. I loved the casual and light-hearted buzz you feel everywhere. There is so much more to explore in the countryside and other towns of Portugal. I definitely need to return soon for more!
Calcutta girl Natasha Celmi is a culinary specialist and food stylist based in Bangalore. Reach her on Instagram at cucinamiabynatasha or www.cucinamiabynatasha.com. YouTube channel: Cucina Mia by Natasha