Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Discovering Portugal - An Overview


Discovering Portugal 

An Overview

September 2013



Lisa & I standing above the Pintas vineyard overlooking one of the best site in the Douro Valley

Earlier this month we made our most recent trip to Europe. Our destination was Portugal to see the cities of Porto and Lisbon, as well as the wine regions of the Douro Valley and Alentejo. We decided on Portugal for a few reasons, initially we were drawn to the fact there are many new hotels focused specifically on wine tourism. Another reason was the relative affordability. Even with the Euro exchange rate higher than the Greenback, the relative affordability of the country was very favorable. Traveling to Portugal from New Jersey gave us the option to fly to and from either Porto or Lisbon. This allowed us to efficiently move to each destination without having to waste time going back to our starting place to fly home. That being said we flew to Porto, took the train to the Douro Valley, drove to Alentejo and drove again to our departure city of Lisbon.


The Abandonado vineyard at Alves de Sousa in the Douro Valley

Before planning for this trip, when I thought of Portugal, like I am sure many other wine enthusiasts do, I think immediately of Port wines. I am here to tell you that Portugal from a wine perspective is so much more than just Port wine. The Port wines are  fantastic, but the real discovery is in the amazing variety and high quality of the table wines. The really good stuff is available in the USA, but you have to seek it out. It’s not a hard search, just use wine-searcher.com if your local shop does not carry what you want. If all else fails there are many charming Douro or Alentejo regional wines that are a steal around $10-15. This series of writings on our journey through Portugal will help the reader discover many of these table wines as well as uncover new Port wines.


Part I – Porto


The Ponte Dona Maria (constructed by Gustave Eifel) connecting Porto to Villa Nova de Gaia

We flew overnight on a Friday so we would land on Saturday morning and enjoy the entire day with no further travel. We booked a tour guide for the first 3 parts of our trip and I can’t recommend more to do the same if you ever travel to Portugal. Miguel Leal, the CEO and founder of ML Private Tours, was our guide and met us at the gate when we arrived. Like any gentleman he took Lisa’s bags and led us to his sharp and sleek Audi A5 four door luxury sedan which would be our ride for the next 6 days. Little did we know at the time that Miguel would be a great new friend by the end of those 6 days.


The sun setting over Porto from our balcony at the Yeatman in Villa Nova de Gaia

We made our way through the main parts of Porto, visiting or driving by many of the sights in town and along the Douro River which led to the Atlantic Ocean not far down river and easily in sight. We took in many of the beautiful views as the banks of the Douro River rise gradually to higher elevations over the river in Porto. On the north side of the river is Vila Nova de Gaia where the Port lodges are located and where our fantastic hotel, The Yeatman, is located. But first, we stopped just across the road at the Port lodge Taylor Fladgate. There we enjoyed a tour and a private VIP tasting of all of the serious Port wines, including the much hyped 2011 vintage port. I would have liked another day or two to visit more Port lodges, but more importantly to enjoy the fantastic Yeatman hotel.


The decanter shaped infinity pool at The Yeatman, the Ponte Dona Maria and Porto in the background


Part II – The Douro Valley

Above the Douro river looking west towards Pinhoa, the heart of the Douro Valley

The following day on Sunday morning we hopped on a train headed to the Douro Valley. Our stop was in Regua 2 hours east, but you can take the train further up valley past the sleepy town of Pinhao, which is the heart of the Douro Valley. The train itself rides along the Douro River after about an hour allowing for beautiful views of the rolling hills, vineyards, and picturesque villages perched on top of the hills.


The Hotel at Quinta do Vallado (right), our home base for our stay in the Douro Valley

When we arrived in Regua, we grabbed a taxi to our home for the next 3 days at the Hotel at Quinta do Vallado. We checked in quickly and made our way to the wine tour scheduled for that late morning. Later in the afternoon we made our way to Pinhao for a boat cruise up the Douro River where we saw the true beauty and splendor of the Douro Valley from the river. We made our way a few miles up-river, sipping Port, taking pictures and absorbing the gorgeous scenery the whole way. Later that evening we enjoyed a spectacular meal at DOC. There we sampled a wide variety of Portuguese wines that were paired with each course of our testing menu that was locally sourced and influenced.


My favorite photo of the trip taken with an iPhone above the Pintas Vineyard in the Douro Valley

The next morning we rose early for a full day of wine and jaw-dropping vineyard tours starting at Wine & Soul, Quinta do Portal for lunch, and then finally at the gorgeous Quinta do Crasto to finish the days’ wine festivities. On our last full day we enjoyed the wines of Van Zeller and Quinta Vale D. Maria in the morning, tasting their exceptional wines and getting a tour of their facilities. For lunch we stopped at the amazing Castas e Pratos in Regua on our way to our afternoon appointment at Alves de Sousa where we had a phenomenal tour of the Alves de Sousa vineyards, visiting the vineyards high above the valley floor. After the tour we tasted through their exceptional wines. Later that evening we had dinner back at Quinta do Crasto with a selection of some of their best wines with our friends Miguel and Andrea of Quinta do Crasto. What an unforgettable 3 days, we were already panning our trip back!

In the infinity pool at the fantastic Quinta do Crasto before dinner there at the Quinta on our last evening in the Douro 


Part III – Alentejo

The vineyards at Herdade do Esporao in Alentejo

Sad to leave the Douro but excited for Alentejo, we departed Wednesday morning heading south and then east to Alentejo in the far southeast part of the country. We cut the drive in half with a stop at Fatima for lunch. Fatima is famous for 2 things. The first being a holy site of the Roman Catholic Church where 3 local children witnessed revelations of the Virgin Mary’s spirit in 1917. The second is Tia Alice, a local restaurant serving some of the country’s best versions of classical Portuguese dishes like Acorda.


Lunch at Tia Alice in Fatima

We arrived at our wine hotel L’and and were ready for some pool time to relax the remainder of the afternoon and then the early evening in our spacious skysuite. We later had dinner at L’and and had a delicious and relaxing meal.


The beautiful new wine hotel L'and was our home in Alentejo.

The following Thursday morning we rose early to make our way to wine and vineyard tours at Cartuxa and Esporao where we also had a spectacular lunch. Later that evening we had my favorite regional dinner at Sao Rosas in Estromez. 





Part IV – Lisbon


High above Lisbon from the Castelo de Sao Jorge
Friday morning we rose early one more time to make our way west to our last stop in Lisbon. On our way to Lisbon we stopped in the Setabul wine region to tour the wine cellars and wine making facilities at Jose Maria de Fonseca, make cheese at a local cheese producer, and enjoy a fantastic lunch at a local spot serving a mixed grill mix of meats, fish and vegetables.

The original family home at the winery Jose Maria de Fonseca in Setabul.

In Lisbon we parted ways with our good friend and guide Miguel. Miguel is a consummate professional, a passionate Portuguese who loves his country, a fantastic guide and a great companion on the road. The trip would definitely not have been as good without him and his expertise. We had a private tour at almost every location we stopped at with our own interpreter (where needed, which was not much in the north), how can one ask for anything better?


The 25 de Abril Bridge spanning the Tejo river from Lisbon, with Jesus overlooking from Almada south of Lisbon.

Lisbon was great, but not what I was expecting. I was expecting a city that was cleaner and more elegant, though it is very cosmopolitan with a certain charm that is very European. It is a gritty city plastered with graffiti in the midst of a strangling rate of unemployment amidst this latest stage of the great global recession. There are however many beautiful pockets of the city. The Alfama district where Fado, the musical soul of the city, calls home was a beautiful part of the city. Small and delicious restaurants are tucked into random nooks in the streets and alleys. In Lisbon there are many of your standard museums and monuments, as well as a huge castle at the highest point of the city, a look-alike of the Golden Gate Bride of San Francisco, as well as a giant Jesus statue like the one in Rio de Janeiro. We saw most of these in passing or on foot and enjoyed our remaining days in Lisbon before we flew home. We ate our way through some of the best restaurants in Lisbon such as Assintura, Alma, and 100 Maneiras.


Padr√£o dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) in Belem, Portugal.

We enjoyed our journey of discovery in Portugal and can’t wait to get back. We want to head deeper into the Douro, stay longer in Port, and maybe check out other wine regions like the Dao, Vinho Verde or the island of Madeira. We also want to head back to Alentejo for a longer stay and then hit the southern coast beaches.

I can’t recommend Portugal more if you are looking to get to Europe, not only for its value or because of the great wine and food, but for the warm and friendly people that make this a special place to visit and make new friends.



A bientot!



-Tom


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