Isn’t it strange that the European country nearest to the United States is Portugal, yet most Americans get to England, France and Italy long before they ever think to visit this grooviest of countries? It’s all the more puzzling to me after spending eight days in Portugal with my wife Sandy and discovering cuisine, weather, history, natural beauty and hospitality equal or superior to the rest of the continent.
Granted, Portugal has seen a lot of investment since it’s entry to the Eurozone circa 1999. The roads and airports are better. Tourism is improving. And the economy is no longer in critical condition. Still, I have to assume the grilled octopus and Douro Valley wines have been delicious and the people have been attractive and friendly for centuries. And I’ve been missing it. No more.
Here’s a sample tab (in euros worth about $1.12) for two bodacious glasses of vino tinto and a garlicky bruschetta in a bustling Porto cafe.
Let’s start with the food. Like Spain and Italy, Portugal has mastered the art of tasty, salty pig parts like chorizo, but seafood is where it’s at. Stunningly fresh, simply prepared and ubiquitous, the sardines, mackerel, dorado, tuna, clams, octopus, lobster are done perfectly. The value is stupifying. Lunch for two with wine and a sweet treat and coffee usually rings up under 20 dollars. Dinner, not much more.
You could spent months or years studying the varietals and microclimates that make Portugese wine world-class. Or you can just ask for red, white or rose and know you’re going to like it. Standards are high.
If the Portugese didn’t have such an illustrious past, they could be forgiven for feeling a little dissed by the world. For centuries before Brittania ruled the waves, Portugal was a mighty empire. Portugese explorers armed with state of the art navigation skills colonized lands from Macau to Mozambique to Brazil. (I wish Brazil started with an ‘M’). In 1494, the Pope negotiated a deal that basically divvied up Asia, Africa and the New World between Portugal and Spain.
One could easily spend a full week exploring the amazing history and architecture of Lisbon which kept reminding us of San Francisco at every turn. There’s even a min- Golden Gate Bridge and adorable cable cars. Lisbon, like SF is built on seven hills. There are also gorgeous beaches to the immediate north and south of the Capital. The Atlantic water is still chilly in June, but I went swimming anyway while Sandy made sure my life insurance situation was up to date and went shopping.
Google Palace de Pena in the town of Sintra for details, but this town and it’s several palaces and forts about 45 minutes outside Lisbon is a mind blower.
From Lisbon, we rented a car and this happened.
But we made it up to Porto, Portugal’s 2nd city for two nights. Splendid. Then drove east along the Douro River Valley through the country’s fabled wine region. We stayed at Quinta De Ermida, one of dozens of working wineries that host guests in historic homes and screw up their sense of price/value with amazingly inexpensive and wonderful food, wine and accommodations.
Finally a shout out to Francisco Marcos and his wife Beverly who split their time between Portugal and Tampa and treated us like visiting royalty. Francisco and Beverly live on the coast between Lisbon and Porto and shared their love of the natural and cultural richness of Portugal.
Final notes: There are no direct flights to Lisbon from Tampa yet, but it’s only about 6 hours from Boston or New York. A little longer from Miami. Most everyone speaks English. Driving is a breeze. Weather is beautiful except in mid-late summer when it can get very hot. Didn’t even get to the Algarve in the south of Portugal. Next time. And there will be a next time.