Of course, anyone thinking of showing up somewhere without a plan, and with all the expectations that come with a once-in-a-lifetime trip like this had better have a good destination in mind and I, for once in my life, did not. So, we tore a new sheet from the legal pad and started making a list. We wanted a quick and easy flight, local hangouts over bucket-list landmarks, a favorable exchange rate, good food and wine, abundant culture, and a warm, engaging, and multi-lingual populace. Having been to Portugal once before, I quickly recognized that this was where all our signs were pointing. Having settled on Portugal, we outlined a route and looked for a contact in each place we planned to stop.
Porto: A City of Contrast
Porto has a little of everything you come to Portugal hoping for, all in close proximity, making it very accessible and a great first stop for travelers to get their bearings. From the top of the Torre dos Clérigos you can gaze out across the tile rooftops of the 2,000 year-old city whose rich history as a commercial port dates back to the Phoenicians, and includes the explorations of Henry the Navigator and the birth of the port wine trade. In the heart of town, sandwiched between the gorgeous São Bento train station and the lively Ribeira, near the birthplace of Prince Henry and the stunning neoclassical Palácio da Bolsa, InPátio Guest House (www.inpatio.pt) lies off the main street in a quiet courtyard. Owners Fernando and Olga opened their six rooms just last year, after undergoing two years of renovations to usher in the modern amenities that make this 19th century building feel so simple, comfortable and elegant. Each room features a modern design theme inspired by a traditional Portuguese building material - cork, stone and tile to name a few - and all come with Fernando and Olga’s careful touches, a glass of port on the bedside table, strong WiFi and even heated bathroom floors.
From here it’s just a few blocks to the waterfront, where Guest House Douro (www.guesthousedouro.com) offers views from the Ferdinand wall overlooking barco rabelos drifting on their moorings, and the bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel that spans the Douro River to neighboring Vila Nova de Gaia. Guest House Douro has been around since 1996, and is well loved for its ideal location, but the rave reviews are always for Joao and Carmen, the husband-and-wife management team who make each and every guest feel like an old friend. Joao only surfaces in the morning, getting up before dawn to prepare every guest a personal breakfast spread that falls into the category of art. Carmen is ever-present and always at-the-ready to offer a recommendation, make phone call or provide a glass of wine to get your day on track.
The Douro: Not to be Ignored
After spending a couple days on foot in Porto, we rented a car and followed the river east into the Alto Douro wine region, stopping at Quinta de la Rosa (www.quintadelarosa.com). The fall harvest was just getting underway and we were lucky to find a charming room available in the old family house with a balcony view of the Douro and terraced vineyards on the opposite bank. Quinta de la Rosa has been owned by the Bergqvist family since 1906, and their history permeates the wooden floors and beautiful furnishings of the old house. Apart from the family jewels, this is a thoroughly modern estate. In the 1980’s it became one of the first in the Douro to commercially produce table wine in addition to grapes for port production, making it one of the few places visitors can watch the entire process from start to finish. Last year, Quinta de La Rosa underwent a total refurbishment of their production facilities under the guidance of Sofia Bernqvist and her rising star winemaker Jorge Moreira, adding an additional seven guest rooms in the process. Port grapes are still stomped the old-fashioned way, and guests are invited to participate during harvest season.
The sleepy town of Pinhão lies just a kilometer from the estate and offers a handful of traditional or upscale dinner options. In the afternoon, stop for a bite at Taberna do Rio, a cozy tasting room where you can sample local fare and choose from a great selection of wines from La Rosa and other vineyards in the region.
One thing I cannot recommend highly enough is taking to the water for a sailing cruise with Paulo, owner of Anima Durius (www.animadurius.pt). With two sailboats available for rent with or without a skipper for as little as 35 Euros per person for a two-hour jaunt, and full day itineraries also available, there is simply no better way to take in this singularly unique landscape than from a fiberglass deck with a glass of port in-hand. From the water you can clearly see each estate you pass up-close, their names either standing Hollywood-style atop the terraces or printed against the sprawling cellar walls. With a little help from Paulo, it is also possible to discern the relative age of a vine based on planting methods. Back at La Rosa, you can add to your newfound knowledge with a tour of the production facility and tasting, then continue your studies by the pool with reasonably priced bottles of the estate’s award-winning ports and wines kept stocked in your room.
On my last trip to Lisbon, I stayed at the Sheraton and toured most of the major attractions in a press convoy. On this trip, we wanted to approach the city differently, and so we enlisted the help of Teresa Albarran, a local tour guide and proprietor of a stunning guesthouse that had caught out eye. With her help, we zeroed in on a few neighborhoods and let ourselves discover what magic they held by persistence and chance. Our home base was Casa das Merceeiras (www.casadasmerceeiras.com), an 18th century carriage house on a hidden side street in the heart of the city. Teresa bought the property years ago after falling in love with the vaulted wafer-brick ceiling and made it a passion project, splitting the building into two self-contained apartments and carefully curating them with attractive architectural salvage pieces - and everything else a couple could wish for. When we arrived there was wine and gooey cheese in the fridge, fresh-baked bread and fruit on the counter, a list of restaurant recommendations that brought us to the most enjoyable meal of our lives. (For seafood lovers, Cervejaria Ramiro (Av. Almirante Reis 1) is just one of those special places. No matter how tourist-accessible it has become, it will never lose its authenticity or stray from what it is - a simple beer hall that serves the best shellfish in the city.)
In the end, we were able to find exactly the kind of experience we had hoped for, and discovered something truly special about Portugal in the process. All over the country, people spurred on by passion and the economic woes of recent years are turning their individual tastes and talents to tourism, rolling the dice on small enterprises that invite guests to come and share an experience that is both personal and luxurious, the life you might have dreamed of, but couldn’t have imagined.
TAP Portugal (www.flytap.com), offers the shortest transatlantic crossing of any carrier and conveniently offers direct flights from Newark and Miami to both Porto and Lisbon. This meant that we could fly into Porto in under eight hours, stay for as long as we wanted and then work our way south along the coast and fly home from Lisbon. Essentially, we were free to explore the entire country without ever having to backtrack.
Go to www.visitportugal.com/en