Sweet Taste of Portugal

Stray from the tourist trail and experience a feast of the senses in Portugal.

My affair with the Portuguese tart lasted for three weeks, beginning the day I arrived and continuing unabated until I left.

Unable to resist the seductive allure of the pastel de nata, my wife also succumbed.

We both averaged two a day of the egg custard and flaky pastry delights, which made for 84 in total during our stay. With a bit of Aussie grit and determination, you could easily beat this.

Why did we go to Portugal? Because we hadn’t been there before, which seemed as good a reason as any, and because it was off the well-worn FranceItaly-Spain tourist trail.

Bruised and battered by global financial storms, Portugal is now officially back on its economic feet and nowhere is this more evident than in the capital Lisbon, where there’s an energy and sense of optimism that is palpable.

 

 It’s an ancient city, first settled more than 3000 years ago and largely destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1755 and then rebuilt, but its mood is youthful.

Sitting astride the Tagus River, it rests on seven hills, the narrow cobblestone streets rising steeply from the waterfront before diving and twisting their way through its suburbs.

Some find their way to the Castelo de San Jorge, a Moorish fortress where locals and tourists perch on the long silent cannons and enjoy sweeping views of the city and the river.

Lisbon is a walking city with central neighborhoods like Chiado, Bairro Alto, Baixa and Principe Real giving you a feel for its sights and sounds along with its moods and flavours.

Boutiques, bars, restaurants and shops abound and yes, virtually everyone speaks English.

Like every visitor to Lisbon, we caught the Number 28 tram, one of the 1930’s style streetcars that rattle and clang like rollercoasters through the city.

It’s an enjoyable and inexpensive way to experience the surrounds and runs through some of the more scenic sections of town.

Tarts aside, food – particularly seafood – is an essential part of a visit to Portugal.

Begin your culinary exploration of Lisbon with a visit to the Time Out Market in Cais de Sodre, a huge, hangar-like building which houses a vast array of food stands and restaurants, some of them run by the country’s best chefs. It’s a must for a lunch stop.

There are any number of excellent restaurants in the city and they’re inexpensive when compared to Australia, while the wines are outstanding and affordable. Here’s a tip: if you want to dine at an upmarket restaurant – and you should do so at least once – book before you leave home or have your hotel do it for you.

We caught the train north from Lisbon to Porto, the second largest city in Portugal and one which looms large on the tourist scene, as we discovered.

We visited towards the end of last year’s season and the crowds in this UNESCO-listed city were still significant.

That said, it’s an undeniably attractive and appealing town on the banks of the Douro River, which flows through some of Portugal’s best-known wine growing country before emptying into the Atlantic.

The views from the Ponte de Dom Luis I bridge across the river are exceptional and, like Lisbon, it beckons the walker to explore its cobblestoned streets.

At some point you will end up in Rua Santa Catarina, a 1.5km pedestrian mall where you will quickly appreciate how cheap clothes are in Portugal.

Will all that stuff you bought fit in your suitcase? Of course it will.

In the evenings, it’s blissful to sit in a riverside bar and enjoy a bottle of vinho verde, the green or “young” wine of the region, and watch the tourist boats as they leave for their sunset cruises to the mouth of the Douro.

Cross the river and the far bank is lined with port wine cellars offering tastings while rabelos, the boats once used to transport casks of wine from up-river, bob at the quayside.

Like most visitors, we took a day trip up the Douro River valley to the vineyard country but, frankly, we’d struggle to recommend it.

It takes a full day with the return trip by train and there are, I think, better ways of spending a day than gazing at trellised hillsides.

From Porto, we escaped the crowds and caught a train south to Coimbra, a charming university town halfway to Lisbon where black-caped students wander its medieval streets.

Founded by the Romans, it was once the Portuguese capital and is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe, the buildings of which tower over the town. Catch a cab to the university, do a guided tour and then take your time making your way down through the narrow streets that wind down the hillside. Stop for a glass of ginjinha, the local and fiercely alcoholic cherry liquor.

In the evening take in a fado concert, the mournful style of traditional singing which is a trademark of the country.

There’s more to see in Portugal, much more, and it’s worthy of being on any traveller’s wish list.

The Portuguese have a saying – o que não mata, engorda. It means “what doesn’t kill you fattens you up.” After 84 pastel de natas, we’d have to agree.