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Friday, June 27

multi-city trip to Portugal

Hope you’re ready for lots of trip reports because they’re coming. I am on a mission to write and share about the trips we’ve done, in a short time. Mind you, some are old because I’ve been procrastinating, busy, busy procrastinating.

Our late winter, early spring trip was to Portugal. We’d plan to start in Porto, drive our way down to Lisbon and then drive up the coast back to Porto. Porto is a wine town with plenty of port. It has port cellars because in 18th century producers grew grapes in the Duoro Valley (Pinhao), made port onsite and transported it to the cellars in Porto on river for aging.

Due to our delayed flight, we arrived to the bed & breakfast, The White Box, at 1 am. The room was on the top floor in an attic with a skylight, normally that’s a bonus, however due to constant downpour we barely slept the first night. (The husband and I big fans for thunderstorms, rain and sleeping through dull weather but we were extremely tired that night and couldn’t get much sleep due to the rain.) The next morning we spoke with our b&b host about the weather forecast and she agreed it was gloom (and doom) and the rain wasn’t stopping. Our B&B host said this winter has been unusual in that it’s rained nonstop. Although it rains in February, it’s intermittently. We left grey German weather for grey Portugal weather.

Post breakfast, we reevaluated our schedule and considered an early trip home. Then we agreed we would stay and make the best of our time.

Without a guide or guidebook we wondered around the city on our own. Porto is hilly with few memorable sights including Ponte de Dom (bridge) and the Cathedral. Porto is scattered with tiles on the streets and in public areas. We could’ve easily spent two whole days in Porto but the weather kept us mostly indoors or away from the sights.

For lunch we had two restaurants on our list but couldn’t find either of them and ended up at a no-name place in a small strip mall. The husband ordered a sandwich, Francesinha, while I ordered the daily special. When our food arrived, we realized we should’ve shared the sandwich because it was a hefty portion. The sandwich was ham, grilled veal, melted cheese and a special sauce. The sauce tasted similar to tomato soup and béchamel sauce in one with a touch of hot pepper, cayenne. Although each component was tasty, the sauce made the sandwich a hit. I asked the server if my soup was caldo verde, (Portuguese vegetable soup with potatoes and cabbage or greens) and she said it wasn’t. It was greens cooked in a creamy broth and the greens weren’t overcooked and limpy even after long- cooking in broth. I’d say it was caldo verde and very good. My main dish was Baccalao (salted cod) topped with breadcrumbs and a side of vegetables. The cod was fresh and appetizing but the crumbs and vegetables were not.

Other than sight see Porto, we managed to get a tasting of port at Taylor’s. They offer 3 tastings in the price: dry white that drink like an aperitif, LBV (?) and a 10 year port. In addition to the 3, we bought a tasting of 20 year port. Both the aperitif and LBV was surprising good, above our anticipation. Better yet the husband joked we like cheap wine; that might be true but we like what we like.

We spent couple hours at our cozy bed & breakfast. For dinner we called a taxi to PapaVinhos, highly recommended from a friend. There we ordered pate, tuna salad with mayo, onions and capers. I liked it because I always like that combination but the husband didn’t care for it. For dinner we shared clams in garlic sauce & grilled octopus served with greens and potatoes. Clams cooked in garlic sauce. The chef used generous amounts of garlic and olive oil which is always. While the seafood was perfectly seasoned, the potatoes and greens were not salted. The restaurant host was extremely friendly and suggested a wonderful white wine to pair with dinner; his service made our dinner unforgettable. He even ordered a taxi for us.

Both our host and the B&B were wonderful. The b&B is a gem, our room 6 was spacious and felt like spending time in a friend’s luxurious guest room. The room is in the attic so be prepared to climb some narrow stairs. The host serves freshly baked cakes daily. The host helped us with our day planning to sightsee Porto.

Off to Coimbra, a historic university town on a hill. The architecture is the reason to visit. Most buildings are still being used for classes and offices. We couldn’t get audio for a self guided tour at the university because the office was on a lunch break from 12- 2. And unfortunately the cathedral was closed when we visited.

We found O Serenata and stopped in to find locals eating lunch. I got grilled squid with potatoes, spinach and black eyed peas and he ordered fish with salad. His main dish came with a legume soup which was good but under seasoned. My squid was overdone but the black eyed peas tasted like grandma made them and a winner. His fish was oily and bland, worst yet the salad greens still had dirt on them.

Initially we left Porto with Lisbon as the end destination in mind but due to the gorgeous sunny weather, we stopped in Coimbra for a stop. With or without the guide and tours, Coimbra was worth the short visit.

The distance from Porto to Lisbon is doable in an afternoon, with or without a stop.

After checking into our bed & breakfast/hostel, we headed to dinner in Lisbon at Solar dos Presuntos. The restaurant was extremely busy and didn’t have tables for guests that didn’t make reservations. The host made a makeshift table for us, by the door. Adequate but it was rather awkward and noisy. We were hurriedly asked to order and we picked garlic shrimp and Lamprey escabeche. Lamprey is a fish that looks like a snake. The escabeche was thinly sliced and served cold. It tastes like dark meaty fish. The shrimp were good but not extraordinary. The service was lackluster, the prices high and the locals were treated much more favorably than the tourists. We chose Solar because of the reviews and recommendations from local bloggers and were disappointed. Blasphemy, I know. I’d say save your money for somewhere else.

That night, hungry for more food we stopped in at Prego Sandwiches. Prego is a steak or veal sandwich that’s gained popularity in Lisbon and normally eaten after a hefty seafood meal. Prego Sandwiches is running on that theme and offers 6- 8 sandwiches. We shared a Marialva with traditional bacon and mustard. They offer beer and wine at the bar. The atmosphere is comfortable while the interior is modern (attracts the hipster crowd). The sandwich was acceptable but the meat was medium well, borderline well done. I’d give Prego a try again, with local beer and a sandwich. Next time, I would ask the server to cook the meat a little less, medium rare or medium.

The first day in Lisbon was a wash out, literally. It rained all day and we were wet and cold going from one place to another. About that rain…. goodness. We had breakfast in bed because the husband surprised me, for the heck of it. He is a keeper! Then we walked to Metro, bought the 24 hour metro pass for 6 Euros/person + 0.50 cent for the card. The card can be renewed. Public transportation was cheap in Portugal. Most importantly, it’s convenient and the locals use it as well.

Even with the rain, we went to Castello San Jorge and didn’t go inside because the English tour was offered in the morning and we’d missed it. Instead we walked to National Pantheon. The museum houses Vasco de Gama monument and history of important Portuguese figures. We learned Portugal was under a dictatorship until 1974, shocking. And Antonio Spínola was instrumental in bringing down the government.

After the museum we went to Bon Jardim for lunch. This is the place to get piri piri chicken and maybe some sides. For two people the owner, I believe, suggested a whole chicken to share. The chicken is marinated in the piri piri sauce and roasted on a rotisserie. The chicken is life changing and Bon Jardim deserves a visit. Not only is the chicken flavorful, it’s spicy with a good kick and each table has the piri piri sauce to add to each bite. Add at your own risk because it is extremely spicy but addictive. With a half bottle of wine, we were happy. The restaurant is a modest and attracts the (mostly blue collar) locals and some tourists while the service is thoughtful. Come here for the chicken and leave happy and full.

Post lunch was good time to head back and relax at the room. We headed to Cervejaria Ramiro; it’s a beer house and came highly recommended. Anthony Bourdain visited with his show and I was nervous if it was overrun with tourists. We arrived at 6:30, earlier than the typical Portuguese dinner time, 8:30- 9pm. After our beer order the older gentleman that was our server brought an iPad with all the seafood and fish available for the day. We started with shrimp. Then we ordered oysters on the half shell. The shrimp were steamed and sea salted. The oysters were briny, salty and fresh. Both the shrimp and oysters were ordered by other tables and thankfully we had as well because they were fantastic. Then a plate of tiger prawns; they were halved, grilled and brushed with butter. This was a first for us and we were happy to try them here. Others ordered crab and goose barnacles; during crab and barnacle season try them at Cervejaria Ramiro. Both are pricy so be prepared to spend some cash. We finished our dinner with a steak prego, as dessert, like Anthony Bourdain recommended. Yes, that’s right steak sandwich for dessert; when in Portugal…. The steak was marinated in oil and garlic, cooked rare – medium rare, sliced and served in a bun. The sandwich was served with some garlic. It was life altering, better than the prego from Prego.

The food at Ramiro arrived promptly. The older gentleman looked like he’s been working there for decades and is attentive with all his guests; our beers were refilled regularly. Even with TV exposure Ramiro hasn’t lost its traditional beer house touch and serves memorable food. Fresh seafood comes with a price and a hefty one at that but we nonetheless insist on having a meal here.

We had a schedule for the next full day in Lisbon. First, Jerónimos Monastery is a 20- 30 minute bus ride from Lisbon. It was built in 15th century and is now a UNESCO site. Kings and queens used the monastery as a meditation place. Audio guide tour is essential to understand the history and architecture. The monastery has a church which is included in the tour. The layout is open with a courtyard in the middle. Monastery feels spacious while the church is enclosed and dark.

The Belém pastry, Pastel de Nata, was first created by the monks from the monastery and have become famous for their delectable. We agreed it was fine. Many say the Belém pastry is a must; if you’re in the area try it but it’s not worth the trip.

Before heading back north in our car, we headed to the tile museum in Lisbon. It houses pieces from 18th, 19th and 20th century, Arabic & Spanish influence, the history and evolution of tile making. Due to an earthquake most of the city was destroyed, including renowned tiles. Lisbon panorama on the top floor reveals the city, in tiles, from before the quake. In addition to the museum many stations and city sidewalks display tile work evidence Portuguese love of tile art.

Sintra is a small town 20- 30 kilometers from Lisbon. It is one of the only places we visited that has many castles in a small area. The drive is easy but trains take tourists from the city to Sintra regularly. After wondering around the main drag to find a lunch spot we decided on Restaurant Bristol. Sintra’s proximity to the ocean would warrant unforgettable seafood/fish meals but due to the ongoing downpours the fisherman didn’t fish because of high seas. The server at Bristol suggested a fresh fish and baccalau (salt cod) gratin. I opted for grilled squid and the husband for gratin. The squid was perfectly grilled and delicious. The gratin was shredded potatoes with salt cod and spices; it tasted of American potato hash. This lunch could’ve easily gone the other way since the restaurant seems like a tourist trap but overall the food was good.

For dessert we circled Sintra multiple times to learn Sapa, a bakery, is closer to the train station. Sapa is known for queijadas, local pastry, filled with brown sugar and crispy exterior. The exterior can be best described as a wonton shell that’s fried or baked. The filling is brown sugar that’s broiled in the oven. I enjoyed queijadas but the husband found it too sweet.

With a full stomach we headed to Pena Palace which also took a long time to find. After circling the town and the back roads (our GPS had an incorrect address), we arrived. With our luck that’s also when the rain started to come down. Once the tickets are purchased there are two options: hike to the entrance or drive the rental car to the nearest parking lot. We opted for the latter. The palace is brightly colored and accented with tiles in certain areas. The exterior is more beautiful than the interior. The palace surrounds a large park that’s worth a stroll, if it isn’t raining cats and dogs.

Thus far a decent trip other than the rain. Obidos and northern coastal cities in the next post.

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