There were certainly things that I expected to see and experience while traveling in Portugal ---- seafood, beaches, old churches -- but, for every expectation fulfilled, a surprise cropped up.
I started my trip in Oporto in the North. Oporto is the home of Port wine, which is sweet, potent, and highly alcoholic. White Port, Red Port and Rawny Port, a personal favorite, are all made in the Douro region. I learned on my many tours of the Port caves across the Douro River in the Vila Nova de Gaia suburb that it was the English that brought the process to the region. This seemed more or less logical, but my mind was nearly blown when I first confronted green wine.
I had never heard of Vinhos Verdes, but I took to it immediately. Made of young grapes, slightly sparking, and intended to be tart, Verdes is the answer to every problem.
Transportation strike? Vinhos Verdes. Can't find a hotel? Vinhos Verdes. The sun is too hot? Vinhos Verdes. Let's just say that green wine played a big role in keeping me relaxed as I floated through this sumptuous country.
To avoid being an alcoholic, it is best to pair your green wine with something delicious from the sea. As a non-meat eater, Portugal was high on my list for its plethora of fresh, readily available seafood choices. Lobster, crab, shrimp, clams, and the imperative grilled sardines and Bacalhau/salted cod. Of course, no brainer. I expected this. But barnacles? I had never heard of eating barnacles before and didn't even really know that there was any meat in them to speak of. Yet, Goose Barnacles are something of a delicacy in Portugal and are eaten like crab claws in that you pry them open and suck out the salty, plump, and tasty meat. When ordered, they come by the big plate full and it is fun to pry and pull for your reward of succulent bites. That is some dinner party!
With wine, food and nature deeply woven into my trip, only one more thing would make it complete: the arts. Like every other country in the world, I expected to discover Portugal's painters, musicians and authors and knew that it had a rich history of artists. What I didn't expect is that there are a few art forms specific only to Portugal.
In my last post, I cooed about the romantic and passionate trapping of Fado, the Portuguese folk music. Another artistic revelation was the slightly-comical, slightly manic Manueline decorative, architectural style, called Manuelino, the oddest confluence of shapes and forms I have ever seen. Everything but the titanic is featured in this specifically Portuguese style of adorning churches and monuments. The Portuguese answer to the Renaissance, Manuelino architecture is named after Maneul I, who ushered in the style beginning in the 1490s to reflect the country's nautical power. Thus, elements of the sea such as shells, barnacles and boat rope mix with religious symbols in a robust hodgepodge of sculptural and ornamental reliefs that leave an over-the-top, bombastic impression, making certain that the viewer knows of Portugal's connection the sea.
Portugal stretches out along the Atlantic like a lazy cat and the Algarve tip on the western coast is home to rugged, unspoiled, little visited (at least when I was there in early June) playas complete with free-form land masses jutting out and dotting the landscape assuring that you are visually never bored. What I didn't expect was that just inland of this unending, picture perfect landscape was another topography just a beautiful. With its soft, undulating mountains and valleys, dense with plants and wildlife specific only to this region, the sweet Monchique Mountain range is like a fairytale land of butterflies and perfect vistas. I was lucky to stumble upon the superb Alternativtour, a local eco-tour company, and was guided through my hikes by its owner, the highly knowledgeable Lucio Feio, who educated me on the flowers, herbs, birds and Monchique itself. Dedicated to preserving the region and sustainable travel, I wouldn't hike, bike, rock climb or canoe in this plush and cozy region with anyone else.
There are many, many other wonderful things to discover in Portugal including the mesmerizing Igreja de Sao Francisco and the incredibly detailed train station tiles, which tell the story of transportation in Portugal, in Oporto, the incredible once-palace university in Coimbra, the mysterious and magical Sintra, and the darling little walled-off Medieval city of Obidos, offered as a precious gift from the poet king Dinis to his wife, Isabella of Aragon. I told you this was the land of fairytales!
Any guidebook will talk about all of these wonders, along with the Moorish influence throughout the country and hotel suggestions. And i would be remiss if I didn't mention my wonderful, little, three star hotel, Lisboa Tejo, with its incredibly friendly staff, perfect free breakfast and prime location in the heart of Lisbon. However, my fifth and final delight to finish off my personal list of surprises as I roamed from town to town is the Portuguese themselves; a people filled with warmth and passion, seemingly much more mellow than their Spanish counterparts, who befriended me on this dreamy trip to the most Western part of continental Europe.