The past 10 days in Portugal have been a real gift. Jeanette came all the way from Grand Rapids to visit with me, which I was (and still am) incredibly grateful for. We saw 4 cities: Lisboa, Porto, Pinhão and Gração.
In Lisbon we walked around a handful of the oldest neighborhoods: Barrio Alto, Chiado, Alfama and Mouraria, and paused at the top of a hill with a view.
We wandered up and down the steep streets of Lisbon’s City Center.
The weather was warm, 65 and sunny, so I was celebrating a day without socks in my Chacos, but the Portuguese were ice-skating in the central plaza by the sea!
For New Year’s Eve we rented bikes and went to the pier where we watched huge waves crash into concrete and erupt like Old Faithful.
Then we went Port wine tasting at Cálem, a famous Port winery, and saw live Fado. We put on our party hats and welcomed the New Year in style.
After Porto, we headed to Pinhão, the heart of the Douro Valley and the world’s oldest demarcated wine region, and spent the day Port wine tasting at 3 family run, generational quintas (vineyards).
On our way to the quintas, we drove along 27km (17 miles) of world-class road. The stretch of N-222 from Peso da Régua to Pinhão was awarded Best Road in the World, because of its spectacular views of terraced hills above and the River Douro below, and we hung in there for all 93 bends of it!!!
I enjoyed learning about the history and process of making Port wine, which is intended to be consumed as an aperitif or as a digestive, but never with dinner unless you’re hoping to get drunk. Port wine has an average of 18-22% ABV and is very sweet because of its short fermentation process (2 to 3 days).
There are many stories as to how Port was discovered, but they all agree that it was discovered by accident. The goal was to preserve the wine in a way that would survive the extremes of salty sea air and warm temperatures as it traveled overseas. The unexpected answer, stopping the fermentation process a bit earlier, meant that most of the sugar remained sugar.
At Quinta do Bomfim, they only harvest 3,000 kg/hectare of grapes per year, which makes them the lowest producer of grapes in the entire world. Most vineyards hope to produce double that, at around 7,000 kg/hectare. Yet, this is precisely why they make great wine. Their smallness, the dry climate, and their geographical location, protected by a mountain range to the west which keeps colder weather away, makes the wine some of the best in the world. Additionally, the soil of the Douro Valley consists of 70% slate which keeps the soil cool during the day and releases heat throughout the night, regulating the temperature for stability and steady growth.
Last year, the World’s Best Vintage Port (2011) came from Bomfim’s terraced vineyard and we were lucky enough to taste it!
We had an incredible time and the day was absolutely gorgeous. As if Port tasting at 3 different vineyards wasn’t enough, I learned over lunch that ordering wine in Portugal means that you always get a full bottle. There is no such thing as “a glass”.
After our fill of Port wine, we said goodbye to the Douro Valley and took a bus to Gração, which is at the heart of the Serra do Bussaco National Forest. This was our view form the Eco Villa we stayed in.
In this small village, with a population of 50, people don’t grow food for profit, they grow it to survive. The streets are narrow, hardly big enough for 1 small car to pass through without getting all scratched up, orange trees grow everywhere, olive trees divide quintas and grape vines hang on terraces above every street and cling to the hills of backyards.
During our last night in Lisbon, we ventured into the oldest barrio (neighborhood), Mouraria–the spiritual birthplace of Fado–and into the house of the very first Fadista, Maria da Severa.
Fado (meaning fate) is unique to Portugal. The songs express sadness, longing, love, passion and life. It is said that the melancholic sounds and memories of the Moorish people still haunt the hearts of fadistas today. Both men and women sing and soloists are always accompanied by a Portuguese guitar.
After the first set of songs the female fadista came over and sat down at our table. She wanted to know where we were from and was surprised to see us there since, she said, this wasn’t a touristy place. Of course, I thought to myself, this is precisely why I’ve chosen to come here.
The music was moving and soulful and we couldn’t have chosen a better way to spend our last night.
On the way home we were drawn up a set of steep stairs in a narrow passageway where a fairly large group was gathered around a dozen voices singing ancient, sacred chants. Perhaps it was in honor of Three Kings Day. We didn’t ask what the occasion was because we didn’t need to. We reveled in yet another happenstance moment.
Two nights ago I took an overnight bus to Málaga, Spain where I will be staying with a family for the month. The weather has been gorgeous, 70s and sunny, and I can’t help but run to the beach every morning. The mountains are my backyard and the sea, as well as the sunrise, is my front yard.
As of right now, my camera is still broken but I’m sure that pictures wouldn’t do this place justice anyways.
More about Spain later. For now, I only want to soak up the sun and settle into the Spanish way of life, which requires a bit of surrendering. And of course, a lot of savoring; the Spanish do this so well.