Friday, April 29, 2011

Porto, Pinhao, Coimbra, Lisbon, and Sintra (Portugal)

One of the fantastic things about living in Europe is public holidays! In Spain, schools take a break for Semana Santa (or Holy Week, the week before Easter) so we headed to Portugal for a much appreciated vacation.

Both Portugal and port wine get their names from the ancient city of Porto (aka Oporto). The city runs pretty steeply down to the river Douro, and many of the buildings have colorful tilework facades or azueljo-style painted tile murals. Of course, tasting the fine wine is an important part of visiting, and there are many port lodges an easy walk across the river to Vila Nova de Gaia. Be a little careful in your sampling, since port does have a higher percentage of alcohol than table wine. You could easily talk yourself into trying one of longer-aged tawny ports, and a mere taste of the 150-year-old port (the vines survived Phylloxera) could set you back 100 euros! Hopping on one of the day cruises upriver to Pinhao, we idly watched the vineyards on the hillsides pass by. Rich was also excited about going through the locks in the canal system even when we got doused by a water stream from one of the guillotine doors!

Coimbra is another - equally steep - ancient city, and its heart is the university. On campus, we were lucky to sit in on a concert of fado, Portugal's traditional way of singing the blues. The Coimbra version involves men (students or alumni) singing serenades, and call us traitors, but we actually prefered it to Spanish flamenco. It helped that the concert was in the belly of a gorgeous old library, complete with its own colony of bats to keep down the bookworms and a prison, for when those serenades get really rowdy!?!

Lisboa (aka Lisbon) had more expanses of black-and-white mosaic sidewalks that we had seen all over Portugal (and reminded us of Rio de Janeiro). We caught the famous Tram 28, which was a rickety topsy turvy ride up and down narrow streets of the city's hills. We wandered around the neighborhoods of gritty Alfama and hipster Barrio Alto. Rich and I spent a rainy day in the city's aquarium, Oceanario, which maintains its tanks in an interlocking open ocean.

Sintra was the highlight of our trip to Portugal. An easy day trip outside of Lisboa, the town has palaces and castles hidden among the trees on the steepest slopes yet. We visited the Pena National Palace, which looks so whimsical and hodgepodge outside, it could almost be Disney even though actual royalty lived there. But the best part of Sintra was scaling the ramparts of the Castle of the Moors. My Spanish teacher had ecstatically described it as "totally Lord of the Rings!" I have to admit that it was a pretty fitting description, especially with the mists and the fog rolling in and the sides dropping away with huge boulders and thick forests below. It was a fortress worthy of any fanboy or Arthurian legend.

Of course, I can't end a post about a trip without mentioning the food. Unfortunately, not much inspired me in Portugal. Maybe my opinions suffer from living in foodie Barcelona. Mostly, we ate a lot of grilled meats and chips/fries. The Portuguese do seem to have a special relationship with breadcrumbs though... a pile on the side with grilled meat (like farofa in Brasil), under the meat mashed together like stuffing, as a base for a casserole with shrimp, and layered with a light pudding for parfait desert. Many pastelarias in Portugal boast "convent sweets (nuns stuck in a convent had to make money somehow)," an abundance of eggy or custardy pastries that may include cinnamon, marzipan, or chantilly cream. Finally, bars and restaurants all over Portugal advertised francesinhas, a heart attack to rival an English breakfast. One specimen I had consisted of the following layers: white bread, slice of ham, layer of hot dogs, 1 chorizo-style spicy sausage, a patty maybe of ground veal or pork origin, a thin beefsteak, another slice of white bread, and a fried egg on top. Fries bobbing up and down in the spicy gravy that drowns the lot come optional. Knife and fork necessary.

No comments:

Post a Comment