Tag Archives: Portugal

PortuGALS – Douro Valley

18 Oct

Our final leg of our journey took us to the Duoro Valley, Portugal’s wine making region. The Douro Valley is a fairly underrated tourist destination in Portugal, but in recent years it has gained in popularity among wine enthusiasts and romantics, the ideal final stop on Emily and my honeymoon. We chose to go there after reading Frank Bruni’s account of never ending days of food and wine in a spectacular setting.  Through Conde Nast Traveller we found recommendations on accommodations, and chose to stay at the Casa do Vilarinho de Sao Romao (a name I continuously failed to pronounce properly) which is a small little villa high in the hills of the Duoro Valley.

It was nearly a day long journey to Casa do Vilarinho de Sao Romao from Lisbon, but since I love the Portuguese train system I really didn’t mind. We purchased our tickets from Lisbon to Porto and 20 minutes before the train was scheduled to depart we each bought  a Magnum, Europe’s answer to Haagen Daaz, and found a comfy spot on the train. 5 minutes before the train left the station, two older men asked us to move our seats and we thought nothing of it…we happily obliged them and relocated. As we approached subsequent stops people kept asking us to move until finally we realized there were assigned seats and Emily and I were seated on opposite sides of the train.

Ooops, language barrier! We spent the rest of the ride apart.

Our next train from Porto to Pinhao luckily did not have assigned seats and we were reunited for some of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen. Deep into the Douro Valley at the tail end of our journey, this man who looked exactly like Donald Rumsfeld approached us and taught us about the history of the region. The cliff notes version is that the area is very old and the Port wine is very delicious. But please check it out in person!

 

Douro Valley

 

 

By the time we reached Pinhao and got into a cab it was almost 8pm, and we arrived at Casa do Vilarinho de Sao Romao around 9pm starving and smelling like sour grapes. Cristina had offered to make dinner for us in her emails, but once there she suggested we walk 3 miles in the dark to Sabrosa, the nearest town, to grab a bite to eat…strange. Luckily one of her staff was driving into town and she dropped off at the only open restaurant for dinner. After a scrumptious meal of prawns, veal and ample local wine, we took a taxi back and crashed.

The next day we took a tour of one of the many local vineyards Quinta do Portal and saw their new factory and sampled many varietals of Port and Muscatel wines. We learned that during years when the grape is very good, the Port producers join together and declare that year to be a LBV – a late bottle vintage. When choosing your Port wine (as I often do…), try to choose a bottle of LBV, no matter the year it is likely to be exceptional!

 

Port barrels at the Quinta do Portal vineyard

 

After our vineyard tour, we had to walk to Sabrosa to get cash since Cristina informed us after our arrival that she did not take credit cards…again, strange. We followed the map she gave us the night before when she suggested we walk there for dinner, and thank goodness we were able to get a ride…the path was treacherous! Her instructions included such clear directives as “ignore the yellow house,” “turn up the second steep hill not the first,” and “beware of the rabid dog.” We literally walked down a steep path through vineyards, fjorded two streams, and hiked up a steep hill, a journey that took at least two hours and would have guaranteed a broken ankle had we attempted it the night before.

 

Pit stop on our hike to refresh with some grapes. We were dehydrated!

Once in Sabrosa we were exhausted and starving, unfortunately everything was closed and we had to quench our thirst with two Coca-Colas, looking more American than ever. After we hit up the ATM we took a taxi back to the Casa and chilled at the pool for the rest of the day. Apparently there is only one taxi driver in town and so despite my constant mispronouncing of Casa do Vilarinho de Sao Romao, he knew the route since he had taken us there the night before (and was hurt when we did not immediately recognize him.) We ate dinner at the Casa and had a relaxing night watching German celebrity shows including a program called, “Formerly Hot” that was quite entertaining (Britney Spears was #1).

The next day we packed up and made the reverse commute on the trains back to Lisbon. Once in Lisbon we stowed our things at a hostel and went to the Lisboan version of the meatpacking district for a trendy dinner and some dancing on a fake beach to 80s classics. We danced all night and left for our flight at dawn, sadly saying goodbye to Portugal.

Two final thoughts:

1. I created a twitter list of Portugese happennings prior to our arrival and it was quite helpful. Check out Spiffy Niffy’s Portugal list

2. Several of our mishaps could have been avoided if we had rented a car. I would recommend renting a vehicle in Sintra and the Duoro Valley, although we managed without one and had some great stories to tell (and blog posts to write) as a result.

3. I should have mentioned this in a previous post, but the bath towels offered in all of our accommodations throughout the country were the biggest towels of my life, despite the fact that most of the country was petite. As a tall person the large towels were a constant luxury and an incentive to revisit the country. Whoever sponsored the gigantic towel initiative is a tourism genius!

Part 1 – Lisbon and Sintra

Part 2 – Cascais

 

PortuGALs – Cascais

15 Oct

When we were planning our trip, everyone kept saying you HAVE to go to the Algarve, it is the most beautiful beach area in the world. You just HAVE to!! Well, we didn’t.

Instead we chose to go to a beach town close to Lisbon so that later on in our trip we could go up north to the Duoro wine region.  Cascais is a beach town about 45 minutes by train (gosh I just love the Portuguese train system) that in recent years has become more popular with tourists.  Among the hotel options are larger resorts, hostels which Emily described as, “4 year old bedrooms rented out by families,” and a few boutique hotels. For boutique hotels I love searching Tablet’s inventory of gorgeous design hotels, click here to become a member.

I came across the Farol Design Hotel and I began pressuring Emily to stay there thrice daily. I knew the hotel was perfect for a mid-trip indulgence since it was right on the water with a slick design and filled with amenities, the only problem was it was a bit pricey.  When Emily finally relented I realized I had made a mistake and given her a rate that was only for two or more stays, when we were only going to be there for one night. Crushed I decided to email the hotel and see what I could do. After I begged the manager to let us stay there for a reduced rate because “we are two American girls looking to have fun”, (literally that is what I wrote) he relented and we stayed there on the cheap!

Once we arrived at the hotel I realized I would have given my left foot to stay there, it was so gorgeous. We basically laid out by the pool all day, playing scrabble and working on our tans.

View of Cascais from the Farol pool

Man fishing on the rocks, right off Farol pool

Scrabble and cocktails by the pool

Farol pool at dusk

After our day of basically doing nothing, we decided to head into town for dinner. There was a free outdoor music festival going on and after dinner we listened a popular Brazilian band perform. The best part of the trip into town was our stop at the famous Santini gelateria that our friend Victor from Lisbon gave us the “scoop” on. So many delicious flavors it was hard to make a decision that when I finally ordered I just asked the server to make a recommendation, he gave me raspberry and honeydew, so delicious!

Enjoying our gelato

All in all Cascais was an amazing stop, mostly because the Farol was insane and my skin turned the color of burnt cinnamon ice cream. As my sister always says, “tanning is the only currency on vacation” and I thoroughly ascribe to that mantra.  I would highly recommend stopping in Cascais if you only have a week in Portugal as we did and you want to get a little beach time in. Stay tuned for part 3 of our trip!

Part 1 – Lisbon and Sintra

Part 3 – Douro Valley

PortuGALs – Lisbon and Sintra

12 Oct

I have been wanting to go on a big vacation abroad for some time, but for whatever reason my international vacations have kept getting derailed at the last minute. This summer I was determined to go somewhere new, adventurous and off the beaten path and roped Emily, one of my best friends, into joining me. We initially planned on going to Morocco and almost booked our tickets before realizing that it was going to be Ramadan during our trip. Seeking to avoid an SATC2-esque disaster (which, shockingly I still have not seen) we decided to switch locales.

As the date of our August departure approached and with no destination in sight, we solicited friends and family for suggestions. Finally one afternoon we got together and made a very organized spreadsheet of all the places we wanted to go, and then eschewed all that planning to go to Portugal on a whim even though neither of us had done any research. The flight was leaving at the right time for the right price…it was as simple as that! Overall the trip was incredible and I strongly recommend going to Portugal over the usual European destinations of France, Italy and Spain.

Highlights from Lisboa

We arrived in Lisbon at 8 in the morning and thanks to some heavy pharmaceuticals I was well rested and ready to explore the city. We checked into our hotel, the fabulous Hotel Lisboa Plaza, which was conveniently located in the center of the city so we could explore sights and get around easily. The staff was so friendly and accommodating…they even gave us postcards and mailed them for us!

First we walked around the Alfama district which is very old and cobble stone-y, I can’t say much more than that since we chose not to pay for a castle tour which is the main highlight of the area. Instead we just moseyed around the narrow streets and took in the views, which were lovely.

Old tiled buildings in the Alfama

 

After walking around the Alfama to get our bearings and get into the Portuguese spirit, we had a light lunch and then headed to Belem district for some museums. We went to the Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art which had a really intense Andy Warhol experimental video installation, and an exhibit similar to a children’s funhouse which was amazing.

Doesn't the funhouse look fun?!

We then went to the Jardin de Belem, a former monastery with  a beautiful garden and church.

Jardin Belem

Inside the church

Vaulted ceilings

That night we headed to the Barrio Alto, the an area with tons of bars and places to eat and hang out. We walked around until we found a suitable place that looked popular and yummy to have dinner. There were very few hosts or hostesses at the restaurants in Portugal, instead we learned you had to jockey for position among the other patrons to get the head waiter’s attention and beg for a seat. Once we got the hang of this we were seated but it took many attempts and bruises to my ego before I pushed my way into being seated.

Finally seated for dinner in the Barrio Alto

Day trip to Sintra

Our second day in Lisbon we actually spent in Sintra, an ancient town less than an hour train ride away. Sintra has several Moorish and Europen castles and is so high up in the mountains that much of our day was spent among the clouds. Lord Byron referred to Sintra as “glorious Eden” and with the breathtaking views I can see why. There are several tour buses that take passengers up the mountain to the major attractions, but we decided to take a taxi to the top and work our way down since we wanted to go on our own pace. This proved to be a pretty boneheaded move since almost everyone had their own car or was part of a bus tour…we saw no one else walking down this cold wet mountain in sandals, but you live and you learn and we made it down in one piece!

The castles offered spectacular views and were such a thrill to climb, although due to the rain I was terrified I was going to wipe out and plunge to my death. I preferred the Moorish castle which had been there since the 1400s instead of the European style castle.

Taking a break climbing the Moorish Castle

View of the European Castle from the Moorish Castle

After our hike down the mountain in Sintra, we returned to Lisbon for the night. We went to a restaurant that I forgot the name of sadly, but the chef was having a private party and invited us to join in celebrating his birthday. Another patron (Victor!) offered to drive us home and gave us a few pointers for the next leg of our trip in Cascais.

Part 2 – Cascais

Part 3 – Douro Valley

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