A new place has touched my heart and her name is Portugal. An old European soul, she remains unspoiled with raw beauty and a depth of cultural influence. I wasn’t surprised as I’d heard so many wonderful things about this country that I had to experience it for myself.
So taken with her old-world charm, an immediate seduction took hold. Like eating a very fine dark chocolate, and the warmth that flows through your body, leaving you craving more. Yes, this place deserves more than the 10 days we would spend in her company.
To get an overview of Portugal, my mom and I chose to take a Viking cruise down the Douro River. We started our exploration in Lisbon, which we just barely touched in a day, then headed to Porto, on the Douro, where our ship was docked. Rio Douro means “river of gold” because its water looks like gold when reflecting the sun. At the mouth of the river, the Douro flows between two Portuguese cities: Porto on one side and Vila Nova de Gaia on the other. Our ship, the Hemming, was actually docked on Gaia, providing spectacular views of Porto, a city that emerged in the 4th century.
My eyes gazed in wonder at the panorama of Porto, pronounced “Purtu” by the Portuguese. Dots of sunflower yellow, Dutch blue and deep salmon stack up high on the water’s edge, praying to the Douro on which shore they lie. High above peek ancient churches, museums and monuments calling me to step inside the city and indulge my curiosity. I feel like I am entering a fairy tale time warp and about to discover something magical and mystical in this city of old. The feeling is so strong that I am wondering if the locals would be going about their daily activities in 16th century costume.
Tight, winding cobblestone streets weave through the city, showcasing stunning tile work around every corner. The abundance of glazed, ceramic tiles or azulejos, were a main lure for visiting Portugal. I learned that the tile work was influenced by the Moors, who initiated the art form to Spain and Portugal. It quickly took hold as a way to cover up blank walls and provide insulation, not to mention to bring a touch of opulence. Now entire buildings are dressed in the traditional blue and white patterned tiles, interspersed with houses tiled in yellow, green and red azulejos. The entire city looks like one big painting, telling her story with art as her passion.
Small, local shops sell bacalhau, a Portuguese favorite of dried and salted cod, linens, azulejos, port wine and cork products. I never realized the many products made from cork that come from southern Portugal. The bark from the cork oak tree is carefully removed by certified harvesters then processed to make it soft and spongy. The finished product resembles fine leather. The water-resistant and fire-proof cork “leather” is used to make gorgeous purses, shoes, flooring, wall insulation, fabric, even surfboards! Of course, the main cork production is in cork stoppers. Warm and friendly shop keepers engage me in conversation, their soft accents almost a mixture of French and Spanish.
Music is born into Portugal’s blood and Fado is its music of choice. Many bars and cafes offer evenings of Fado, a folk music that is usually melancholy. A singer expresses her laments as a guitar or mandolin accompanies her or him. It is hauntingly beautiful. Here is a song from Trovadores Oportuna, a group we enjoyed listening to: Fado music by Trovadores Oportuna
Always in search of the local eats, I discovered the favorite morning and mid-afternoon pastry. It is Pastel de Natal, an egg yolk based custard baked in a puff pastry crust. The dense three to four bite pastries are sweet and creamy lightened by the crunchy butter crust. They are usually served warm and are particularly tasty with a coffee. The windows of the many sweet shops were bulging with decadent Christmas cakes, fruitcake and even giant meringues. All begging to be taken home to be enjoyed for the holidays.
I dream of returning; to dig deeper into Portugal’s roots, to feel the uneven cobblestones beneath my feet, to taste the briny shellfish, to engage the people and learn the stories of their lives and mostly to relax into her easy-going pace as I sip an espresso and watch the world go by.
Ciao for now,
P.S. Just last week I discovered that on Parts Unknown Anthony Bourdain visited Porto. The show aired on June 25, 2017. Take a look if you want to dive deeper into this city of stories, art and history. Here are his field notes and links to his show. Parts Unknown Porto