On a recent work trip to Europe I took advantage of a few free days in the middle to travel somewhere I hadn’t been before. When choosing a destination, my criteria was that it must have good wine, exciting food and be easy on the wallet. Portugal is not a country that has ever really been on my radar, but it’s been popping up in conversation a lot lately so after some consideration I booked flights.
It took little effort to convince my friend Anton to fly in from the grey and rainy Netherlands to join me for a sun-soaked long weekend in Iberia. I think I speak for both of us when I say that we were both expecting a quaint and typically mediterranean getaway – pleasant, sunny but not particularly distinct from Spain or France. In short – our presumptions were wrong, and it was utterly unique its own right. In images and words, these are my reasons why:
1. The tile game is LIT
From the moment you step off the train at São Bento station, you’re immersed in a world of gorgeously intricate tile facades (azulejo). Porto itself is pretty much an open-air tile museum – they’re everywhere you look, and make you wonder why they don’t make buildings this beautiful and colourful back home. What’s more, the tiles really speak to Porto’s rich history as one of the most important trade centres of the past two millennia.
2. The wine is both amazing and cheap
While I was on the train from Lisbon to Porto (less than three hours; lovely), Anton’s flight to Porto was canceled due to striking French air traffic controllers.He had to hop on a later one and it cost him a small fortune, so his only request was that I had wine ready and waiting at the Airbnb. I ventured out to find the nearest supermarket and was downright shocked by the wine prices. Most of the bottles were in the € 1.5 – € 3.00 range, so I felt quite posh to pick a €4.50 bottle of Alentejo White. It was delicious, as were all of the other (cheap!) wines we quaffed on the trip. I still feel like I don’t have much of a grip on Portuguese wines as they have about a gajillion grape varieties and teeny tiny sub-regions, so I did the opposite of what I would normally do and mostly let fate pick my wines. Honestly, I was not disappointed. The reds I tasted were simple but good, and the whites from the Douro balanced and simply sublime. I’ll talk about Port itself in another post, but that was super interesting to taste in its birthplace.
3. The dining is rooted in tradition with a modern twist
I thought Portugal was going to be one giant Nando’s factory but again, my preconceptions were wrong (and that probably just speaks to my ignorance as ‘Portuguese’ peri-peri chicken originated in Angola and Mozambique). The most delicious thing I ate in Portugal was octopus that had been marinated in Port, orange rind and herbs at a sweet little restaurant called Tasca Caseira. It looked quite dodgy on the plate so I’m not sharing a picture, but probably one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. Just trust me on this. Other food highlights were overflowing plates of Padrón peppers and those little custard tarts (ubiquitous). It’s a foodie place – I don’t think you can go too wrong.
4. You can drink Porto Tónico by the river all day
White Port met tonic and they lived happily ever after. Porto Tónico is a summer cocktail made in heaven and the perfect thing to drink while passing a lazy afternoon alongside the Douro river. It’s also a refreshing way to experience Port, which for me is more of a winter drop.
5. (Good) Fado music will make you cry
There’s Fado and then there’s Fado. But what is Fado? Let me tell you. Fado is a Portuguese music genre that originated in Lisbon in the early 1800s. The songs are mostly about being wretched and stuck out at sea without your significant other etc. Fado singers in Lisbon are famous for hassling naive tourists into their restaurants. This is the first type of Fado (which I haven’t experienced and probably don’t want to). Then there is the Fado of a tiny, family-run restaurant with 15 tables that’s fully booked, but they have one opening for the following night. You take the table at Casa da Mariquinhas, and the next evening you are captivated by the wrenchingly emotional singing of Paulo, who then clears your table when he’s done belting his heart out. You shed a tear over your espetada while Paulo’s mother takes up her turn to sing, which is abruptly dried when Paulo tries covertly to sell you his CD. Nice try Paulo, maybe next time if you throw in a free bottle of Douro Branco.
Overall, Porto feels like a bit of a time warp, but modern where it matters. I hope it always manages to hang onto the charm, grit and character that now make it one of my favourite European destinations.
Keep an eye out for my next posts on Port wine and train tripping in the Douro Valley.