I want to return to Portugal. There was a lot I didn’t see or experience. It’s a beautiful country with wonderful people. This trip was fantastic, yet weird in a way. It’s hard to say I was traveling for nine days when three of those were throwing a party. However, that multi-day party was terrific. I am so grateful we have the means to have friends from all over the globe meet and enjoy each other. As I get older, I realize how much my memory is fading, but the things that stick with me are shared meals with friends, the grateful and kind toasts, and the conversations you only make time for when traveling. It’s sharing time and space with the people you love that make a permanent imprint on my mind, and though I enjoy many other things in this world, all of that seems ephemeral compared to those moments.
Oh, we finally did try a bifana. We had it near the beach house at a cafe called Lusos Magoito in Parque de Merendas do Magoito. It’s nothing special. Our cheesesteak has nothing to worry about.
The next few days, transition this trip from a typical touring vacation to a fabulous birthday party. More friends began arriving, and we met in Magoito along the Atlantic coast. It’s about an hour from Lisbon, and it feels completely different. There are far fewer people and very few English-speaking tourists. We rented a 7-bedroom villa with a pool for all of our friends to stay in, which was lovely. The house was perched on top of the cliff overlooking the water.
The sea in Magoito is rough and probably good for surfing but not great for a leisurely swim, which makes the pool so important. Nevertheless, it was a lovely way to celebrate a birthday and a perfect way to break out of the pandemic malaise.
I won’t describe each day, but let me give some highlights. That first night we ended up at a local pizza place called Dona Azeitona, which was good. I was a little surprised at how much I liked the pizza. The chef and owner worked cruise ships and knew what he was doing as a host. I loved stuffing myself with pizza and coming back to hear the ocean while I sat outside with a glass of wine. Can life get better than that?
Food brings people together, and the next night, people decided to cook for one another. Sam and Jo walked to the fish market, others bought steaks, and everyone pitched in to make an extraordinary meal for all to enjoy. We ate and laughed under the starlight until it was very late. Eddy and Riad took the lead on the grill, which was all quite delicious. It’s funny how a kitchen can reveal your friends’ secret skills.
On Sam’s birthday, we went to Restaurante Nortada in a village south of where we were staying. It was a seafood restaurant on the sea. The food was spectacular, and we ordered more food than we should have, but every bite was sensational. The owner arranged for a birthday cake to be available for dessert. It was a dense, fudging chocolate cake that was so big we asked for it to be shared with any other patrons. Another table had a trio of people, and the woman came to our table and asked if we would be bothered if she sang fado for her friends; obviously, we were thrilled to hear her sing, so she did. Maybe, it was the gallon of Sangria I had in me, but a wave of emotion enveloped me while she sang; it was remarkable. We applauded and returned to our coffee when someone yelled, “look,” and out at sea, we saw a school of dolphins swimming by the restaurant. This is no joke. I could not have thrown a better dinner party if I was Gatsby.
Sunday was upon us before we knew it, and people started leaving before sunrise. After our last friends got in a taxi, Sam and I decided to enjoy a moment together at a small restaurant across the street from the house. Sam had his last bit of cod at Esplanada Duna Mar while we enjoyed the sound of the ocean.
The fifth in our party would arrive that afternoon, so we took advantage of the morning and took a taxi to the Belém neighborhood. We started at the Tower of Belem, the beautiful (on the outside) tower that showed off the Portuguese’s new wealth and protected the river. It is in the Manueline architectural style, but I had to look that up. I would have guessed gothic, but what do I know? I read that the inside was not very interesting, so we did not pay to go in.
We walked along the river to the Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos). It is a massive and rather imposing monument to the Portuguese empire builders.
We skipped breakfast that day and decided we needed something to eat. In Belem, the pastéis de nata is referred to as a Pastéis de Belém as they claim the pastry was invented there. The bakery that invented this pastry carries the same name, so we stopped for a coffee and a nata. Unfortunately, I found these to be rather mediocre, but Sam thought these were the best he had. I found the crust mediocre and the custard a tad cloying. At this point, the sprawling bakery and cafe is designed for tourists. There was nothing special about the pastries; they added whipped cream to my cappuccino (gross), and the fried cod balls (bolas de bacalao frito) that Jo ordered were tough and lukewarm.
After food and coffee, we finally went to the place I cared about in Belem, the Jerónimos Monastery. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site started in the 1500s by an order of militarized monks called the Military Order of Christ. The stonework is incredibly ornate, but seeing the cloisters from the courtyard is jaw-dropping. These cloisters are only two stories tall, but the entire thing seems like something from a fantasy novel.
I don’t know a lot about St. Jerome. He always seemed like a weird ascetic that was super uptight about sex. Probably most of those early Christian saints were weirdos, but who knows? I do like the painting Saint Jerome in the Wilderness by Da Vinci. I saw it at the Vatican many years ago, but the fact that it is unfinished interests me more than the subject at hand.
After the monastery, we returned to the apartment to take a quick nap and meet our friend Riad. After he settled in, we decided to explore more of our neighborhood. We thought we would check out the Botanical Garden but stopped at a nearby park called Jardim do Príncipe Real for a drink at one of the outdoor tables. It was very lovely in that way a European park almost always is. We introduced everyone to our new favorite drink, porto & tonic, and spent some time catching up with one another. When we left this neighborhood park, the botanical gardens were closed, so we headed to Edward VII Park. This is the city’s central park, with a significant slope, so you get a fantastic view of Lisbon from the park’s far end. Lisbon had a book festival in the park, so there were countless stalls of books for sale. We found a vendor selling Ginjinha out of edible chocolate shot glasses and got a round. I don’t find Ginjinha that interesting, but a chocolate shot glass improves it. This is the optimal way of serving this booze.
We had reservations at a restaurant called A Cozinha – Sr. Lisboa, which may have been our best meal during the entire trip. It’s a small restaurant with a cool and eclectic vibe. The best way to describe it would be Portuguese tapas. We ordered almost everything on the menu. There was a crispy shrimp dish that was heavenly.
During dinner, we learned that Sam’s cousin and her husband had arrived in Lisbon and were eating dinner near our apartment. We met them at the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara cafe for a drink before we all headed off to sleep. On our way from the restaurant, Jo and I jumped on the Glória funicular, a streetcar that goes up the hill. It doesn’t take long, it’s sort of a tourist thing, but it certainly saves you from walking up the hill.
This was when our trip started to change; new people entered the vacation. We rented a 3-bedroom apartment near the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara. This is a famous overlook where you can see the entire city from the Bairro Alto neighborhood. The apartment was really well situated and was cute as a button. It was perfect for our limited time in the city.
My sister, Holly, arrived in Lisbon about the same time we were getting up for the day. Sam and I went for a walk in the neighborhood to find a coffee. Holly met us at a coffee shop (called Dramatico) straight from the airport. After we dropped off her bags and she got ready, we decided to walk and see the city. Lisbon is crowded with tourists, which makes it feel alive, but it keeps you moving because you always feel like you are seeing something new. It feels modern and well-planned, with enormous boulevards and some pedestrian-only streets. Still, tourism has taken over much of that, often making the restaurants feel cheap and overpriced. After walking for the money, we found an excellent place for lunch at Floresta das Escadinhas. We feasted on grilled sardines and vinho verde. It was a great way to explore Lisbon with Holly and Samer.
On our way back to the apartment, we stopped and tried the local liquor called ginjinha. It’s made from cherries and certainly an acquired taste; two very well-known shops sell it by the shot glass. One is called A Ginjinha, and the other is Ginjinha Sem Rival. You can even ask to have the liquor-soaked cherries in your glass. It’s certainly not bad, but it is not a flavor I need to seek out.
We returned to the apartment for a quick nap and to wait for our friend Jo to arrive. Sam and I went to the park at Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara to meet Jo. We thought it would be easier than asking for a taxi to find our Airbnb. The park is undoubtedly made for a younger crowd, and there seems to be quite a bit of booze being sold unofficially. There are guys with boxed wine on a folding table. It’s pretty incredible. We opted for the women with a slightly more official stand selling piña coladas in hollowed-out pineapples.
While we waited, liberation wrapped up as folly befell Sam. When Jo arrived, we got off the bench to meet him and take him to our Airbnb. Lo and behold, Sam left his cell phone on the bench, and by the time we discovered it was missing, it was nowhere to be found. We tracked it to another neighborhood but decided not to call the cops. We could barely order grilled sardines correctly; we were going to talk to cops about a missing phone? Nonsense. Of course, I am writing, so I’ll refer to the phone as missing, but Sam still refers to it as stolen. Sam didn’t have a phone for the rest of the trip, and though it caused some stress, I think it let him unplug and enjoy the moment.
Once Sam gave up on the phone, we decided to make the most of the day. We did a self-guided tour that ended at the St. George’s Castle (Castelo de S. Jorge). This is a huge 11th-century castle in the middle of Lisbon. It sports breathtaking views and is a great place to watch the sunset. They sell beer, so it’s all very relaxing.
Now it is entirely a museum. It is wildly impressive and one of the few castles I’ve been to where it reminds you that these were defensive buildings that were not some magic kingdom on the inside. It’s difficult to imagine how miserable life could have been for a peasant when living on the grounds of one of these castles.
As the sun set, we thought we would find a restaurant on the walk back. This proved to be exceptionally difficult. Lisbon is one of the most popular tourist destinations globally, and if you want to eat at a good place, you need a reservation. Anything that looked hip, tasty, and not infinitely expensive was impossible to get into for dinner. If a restaurant had been mentioned in a book, blog, or tv show, the waits were hours long. This was very frustrating. We stumbled into a restaurant called Lisboa à Noite near our Airbnb. It was a stuffy, white tablecloth seafood restaurant, but honestly, it was delicious. The food was terrific, and the ambiance was a bit old fashion. They still had a dessert cart. It was a nice way to celebrate Holly and Jo’s arrival in Portugal.
The header image in this post is not mine. I got it from Dirk Olbertz.
We woke up early to take a regional train from Porto to the Duoro Valley. It is here that the grapes for port are grown. We stored our bags at the Campanhã train station and grabbed a small breakfast from the onsite corporate cafe. Unfortunately, the place was understaffed, and commuters rushed to get their baked goods and coffee. Sam got to the register and ordered the avocado toast being promoted above the counter. Never have I seen a worker and the remaining queue of people more annoyed by that order. Now a worker had to go smash an avocado and smear it on toast. It was funny for us, but likely not for the Portuguese.
The train took about 2 hours from Porto to the town of Regua. We hired a guide for the day. Antonio Rodrigues is a local and was fantastic from start to finish. I highly recommend him. Our first stop was a pleasant cruise on the Duoro River. We picked up the boat in Pinhão, and the landscape was stunning.
When we finished, we went to the Quinta da Roêda, where Croft Port is made. Croft is a famous port winery. Antonio had previously worked there, so he knew a lot about port wine. While at the winery, we joined a few other groups for the official tour. The tour’s design is such that first, you get the education, and second, you get a tasting. Antonio got us to the winery a bit earlier than the other groups, so he arranged for us to have a port wine cocktail on the veranda while we waited. DISCOVERY! Port and tonic over ice is absolutely delicious and will likely become a new summertime cocktail. I loved it.
The tour was good, but I’ve done wine tours in many places over the years. At some point, I could probably recite the phylloxera plague speech that all European winemakers give. After the tour, the entire group returned to the veranda for a tasting. I did not realize we’d get a premium experience when booking with Antonio. Sam and I got our own table with more ports and a cheese plate just for us. It was funny because we were sitting amongst these tourists and receiving special treatment. I, for one, was not embarrassed.
We left the Croft winery for the small town of Sabrosa. We were going to have lunch and taste port at Casa dos Barros. The Duoro Valley is beautiful, and the drive between any 2 points is breathtaking. At one point, Antonio pulled the car over for us to get out and take a look from the top of one of the mountain roads. While we were snapping photos and enjoying the view, we turned to return to the car, and Antonio surprised us with a glass of port wine and a pasteis de nata! His family does some small port wine production, but the system is highly regulated, so they do not sell it commercially. The wine we were tasting was from his farm, which was terrific. We enjoyed it and brought an unlabeled bottle back to the United States. Antonio is a great guide, and this little flourish added to the entire experience.
Casa dos Barros is a hotel, winery, and restaurant. I don’t want to say it is a tourist trap, but it is designed for tourists. It’s a beautiful old building, with a garden, and a good tour after lunch. The meal is traditional Portuguese food that I do not remember very well. Sam had a salt code and potato dish, and I had beef. It was good, and we got to try some non-port wine from the region. They were nice and it was a nice break from the port wine.
We finished lunch and did a small tasting in the cellar with another group. We met an older Lebanese couple who tried to hire Antonio, but we had booked first. We chuckled about this with them, but I felt pleasantly vindicated for my advance planning. Antonio drove us back to Regua, where we waited for the train to return to Porto. I hadn’t noticed how charming the Regua train station was when we first got there; it’s small but has a cafe that serves small glasses of beer, wine, sandwiches, etc., while you wait for your train. It feels distinctly European. We were stuffed and a bit day drunk, so we refrained from anything. We boarded the train and promptly fell asleep until we returned to Porto.
We had tickets on the Portuguese high-speed line from the station we returned to, so we had little to do but wait for the train. I heard there was a place that sold the Portuguese bifana sandwich near the train station, but it was closed when we arrived. We got a table at a place that had coal-roasted chicken. It was called Eusébio dos Frangos, and it was delicious. This was probably one of our cheapest and most delicious meals. We had grilled chicken, fries, salad, and rice, for less than 12 euros. Incredible.
We eventually boarded our train for Lisbon. The trip was about 3 hours, and we both got a bit nauseous on it. Also, the train shakes a bit at its top speed, giving it an unsteady feeling. That, plus a stomach swimming in booze and greasy chicken, made for a bit of a long journey, so we were happy to get to our Airbnb in Lisbon when we did.