Take it Easy Portuguese
Take it Easy Portuguese
9th September 2018
City buzz, wine country, architecture, history, great beaches... Tatyana Leonov discovers that Portugal has a lot to offer.
Undulating hills carpeted in emerald-green grass stretch as far as the eye can see, rows and rows of well-maintained vines breaking up the otherwise endless expanse of green. It’s a picture-perfect scene made all the more enchanting by a bright blue sky studded with puffy white clouds. The Douro River weaves in and out of sight, a sparkling blue waterway that coils its way through the lush valley.
Our bus driver carefully manoeuvres the spiralling road. Soon we’ll be at the base of the valley and kicking back in a cruise boat, bobbing along the river while taking in the vistas from a different outlook. Then there will be port tastings – no trip to the Douro Valley would be complete without sampling the goods.
My brother had always raved about Portugal. “Hidden in plain sight” is how he described the compact country. Finally, my husband and I booked our flights. City buzz, wine country, architecture, history and great beaches ... we were easily sold.
Lisbon is where most Portugal escapades start. We spend a few days in the capital, doing everything and not much at all. We wander along cobblestone streets, stopping at pastelarias for pastries and coffee, shopping for knick-knacks, lingering to admire monuments and mansions clad in colourful Portuguese tiles, and popping in to the odd church and fort. With so many beautiful buildings condensed into such a small area it’s easy to explore on foot. Simply by wandering along the streets you can’t help but see different eras of history.
In Bélem – about 15 minutes’ drive from the city centre – the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Bélem Tower and the nearby Jerónimos Monastery are great examples of a Portuguese architectural style known as Manueline. It’s easy to while away hours admiring the many decorative intricacies that this architectural style is renowned for. We do just that, before it’s time for a treat break.
We establish a habit in Portugal of eating at least two pastéis de nata (what we call Portuguese tarts) per day. Initially we agree one is adequate, but we soon discover that these delectable tarts are almost always offered as part of the hotel breakfast buffet spread. Of course, a second treat for morning or afternoon tea while sightseeing is an absolute necessity.
We begin this practice at a place called Pastéis de Bélem, located near Jerónimos Monastery. Famed for having the best pastéis de nata in the country – it follows a secret recipe passed down by monks – queuing is to be expected. It’s worth it.
Beyond Lisbon there’s plenty to see, with both Sintra and Cascais making for lovely day trips. Sintra’s centre is another World Heritage Site, chock- full of beautiful historical buildings, the most famous of which is the National Palace of Sintra – Portugal’s best-preserved medieval palace.
Cascais is an ideal getaway for a lazy day in the sun. There’s not much to do in this fishing hamlet, but that’s the beauty of visiting. During our outing we simply amble up and down the beachside promenade before sitting down to a long, slow lunch of freshly caught fish washed down with a glass of wine. Bliss.
Alternating action-packed days checking out bustling areas with slow ones soaking up the surrounds becomes our norm. Coimbra, the medieval capital, is now a university town and the student population spread their energetic vibe all over. The university in Coimbra is the oldest in the country and home to some magnificent building, the baroque-style Joanina Library being one of the most notable.
Porto is another destination that can’t be missed. Portugal’s second city oozes both style and edginess and it’s easy to spend long days here doing as the locals do. We dine by the Douro, eating fresh seafood and drinking local wine as we listen to the river burbling just metres away.
Of course we also explore, admiring sights such as São Bento Railway Station, with its stunning interior of blue-and-white tiles telling the story of Portugal, the minimalist Serralves Museum, and the shops and cafes of the trendy Bombarda District.
Pastéis de nata are harder to find in Porto, but we discover all kinds of other delicacies. We also add a small glass of port to our daily repertoire, finishing each evening with a toast to the experiences we’ve enjoyed that day.
When we return home, we continue this tradition until the two bottles we purchased in the Douro Valley are empty. We find pastéis de nata, but they don’t taste quite as good. And so we start to plan a return trip, one in which we will see new sights and experiences new places ... but also return back to those same cafes and wine bars to indulge in those same delicious Portuguese treats.
Tatyana Leonov travelled to Portugal as a guest of Back-Roads Touring.