Chuck and I just got back from two glorious weeks in Douro and Lisbon and cannot wait to return. Portuguese wine is so underrated (and hence soooo reasonable), the food fresh and delicious with many creative chefs, the weather sunny and dry, and the people warm and welcoming. The only mistake we made was not going to Porto on this trip. Heard great things about it from everyone we spoke to, so don’t miss it on your trip. Next Portuguese holiday will add Porto, and other wine districts.
The number one thing that made our four days in Douro was our tour guide, Douro Exclusive. It is owned and run by a husband and wife team, Ana and Marco, who are very knowledgeable of the valley, wine and the vineyards but also warm, charming, and helpful (above and beyond our tour). Loved them and cannot recommend them highly enough. Contact them and book them, don’t look any further http://www.douroexclusive.com/en/tours-douro-valley/
Some highlights of our tour:
Oh by the way, most vineyards still hire people to stomp the grapes with their! No modern machinery at these wineries.
- Our visit with a small (off the radar) producer, Quinta de Tourais, where we were hosted by the charming vintner, Fernando Coelho. We spent a good deal of time talking about the wines we tasted and he discussing his personal vision of the Douro Wine Valley. We did a barrel tasting, and Fernando also shared some of his own “stash”; special blends and liquors he makes for his own consumption. A great afternoon!
- Walking the terraced vineyards to understand the unique Douro terroir, tasting the wines, and experiencing the magnificent Ports of Quinta do Panascal. This boutique winery is considered one the top Port wine producers in the Valley. Marco opened a bottle of a Vintage (1987) Ruby Port, by the traditional method of fire, for us to enjoy in the garden.
- A relaxing boat ride with Marco and a friend down the Douro River, into a place where the road ends and all you can see are vineyards, vineyards, and more vineyards! So perfect. Marco brought a bottle of his own Tawney Port that he blends for his family. It tasted of caramel, peanut brittle, apricot, plum, raisin and walnut–all knit harmoniously together. Wish he sold this liquid gold.
Hotel Quinta do Vallado – Quinta do Vallado, built in 1716, is one of the oldest and most famous vineyards in the Douro Valley. It once belonged to the legendary Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, and still belongs to her descendants. It lies on both banks of the Corgo River, a tributary of the Douro river, near its mouth, close to the town of Peso da Régua. The small hotel on the estate has only 13 rooms, with a stunning swimming pool and Spa. Wine tastings are every day at 5 PM, and they serve a delicious dinner outside in the garden, with a wine paring for 40 or 50 Euros (includes dinner)…a real deal!
Vineyards To Visit
Portugal is a small country, but home to hundreds of native wine grapes. And one of the best red wine buys on the market. Since it is relatively unknown, and from grapes we have never heard of, it is often overlooked. But their wines can compete with the top red’s of Europe. And especially the excellent wines of Douro.
Douro has three sub-regions – the Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior – all of which get different exposure to the sun, varying amounts of rainfall and therefore produce grapes of assorted quality. When blended, the wines from these three areas benefit from and contribute to each other in a way that generates a more powerful, well-rounded wine. They even have some fields they call “field blends” and actually don’t know how many varieties are growing there, but when harvested they create some wonderful wines from these vines.
Douro started producing mainly Port for Britain but then realized the demand for dry wines and branched out to red and wine wines. Today most vineyard produce 10% white, 10% Port, and 80% red wine. We visited, and loved the vineyards below, but there are lots of top wineries for you to try!
- Quinta da Gaivosa
- Quinta de La Rosa
- Quinto do Vallado
- Quinto Nova
- Quinta do Crasto
- Quinta de Tourais
- Quinta do Panascal
- Quinta do Pessegueiro
We only went to three restaurants for dinner, eating at our hotel, Quinta do Vallado, twice. We also had three great lunches that our tour guide arranged.
- Quinta do Vallado – good food, great service and ambiance, and best wine pairing deal in town.
- Castas e Pratos – in Peso da Régua with a creative chef, in a modern setting, housed in part of the old train station. Also a wine bar, so has a long and interesting wine list.
- Taberna Jerere – also in Peso da Régua. Traditional, local restaurant with no tourists. Friendly, warm, good food, and you get to talk to the locals. Most wines were 15 – 20 Euros and pretty good!
- Cozinha Da Clara Restaurant at Quinta de La Rosa vineyard – one of my two favorite restaurants, named after their grandmother whose love of food and entertainment was legendary in the Valley. The outdoor space overlooks the valley, the grounds, and the vineyard. Lovely and tranquil. The executive chef is Pedro Cardoso and his food is divine.
- Quinta Nova Estate Restaurant – the chef develops his dishes in perfect harmony with wines of the property and pairs each course with one. He cooks with “what nature offers” selecting the best seasonable products and turning them into masterpieces. And they were, with the perfect pairings.
- DOC Restaurant – Chef Rui Paula was our other favorite. Sitting outside on the river, served the Chef’s choice and paired with DOC Douro wines of his choosing. Each dish was better than the next. And wait till your surprise ending below…it pops and sizzles!
You don’t have to worry about gaining weight in this city of seven hills as you are always climbing up or coming down from one of these steep view points. And what amazing views of the city there are, from all perspectives. Better yet, can drink in all of them! There are little bars everywhere, with rooftop bars extremely popular (including one on top of a car park).
Music is very popular in Lisbon, especially Fado, a sort of sad bluesy style. We didn’t love it but you have to go at least once to listen to it. But there are all sorts of music venues and concerts so google it before you go and enjoy the sounds of the city.
The food is really wonderful and we enjoyed many great meals. We loved eating lunch in the Marcado de Ribeira, having afternoon cocktails in one of the lovely roof top bars, and dinner in multiple unforgettable restaurants. And of course we never went a day without a Pasteis de Nata, one of the favorite sweets of Lisbon. It’s a custard cream tart that are sold everywhere and are quite good (even for this person who doesn’t usually like sweets). The ones in Belem are the original and you should check them out, though there are usually very long lines.
- Marcado de Ribeira – purchased by Time Out, they have turned it into a culinary mecca. It houses 24 restaurants (the majority from the top chefs in the city), 8 bars, a dozen shops and a high-end music venue, all with the very best in Lisbon. It is also home to some of the city’s best known (and longest-running) market vendors of meat, fish, fruit and flowers.
- Loco – Michelin 1 star, and known to have the edgiest and boldest chef in Lisbon, Alexandre Silva. Walking in I saw a modern but inviting space, small number of tables, a massive open kitchen, and the chef delivering and explaining the dishes at the tables. You have two choices for dinner, a 14 or 18 course (very small so no worries about being too full to finish them all). We chose the 18 “moments” with the wine pairing and put ourselves in the chef’s hands. I can’t even describe how delicious each dish was, all I can say is that it was one of the best meals I have ever eaten.
- Alma – Another Michelin 1 star, but what a different experience from Loco. The impression is made from the moment you arrive and cannot get in the locked door. Had to go next door to an apartment building and ask their doorman if he knew the secret…you have to ring a small, unmarked, bell and then get scrutinized (who are you, do you have a reservation…) before they will open the door more than a crack. And the night proceeded on the same note. Pretentious, stiff, and definitely not worth the price (much more expensive than Loco but not anywhere near as creative). Pass on this one.
- Sea Me – This would be our local, go to restaurant if we lived in Lisbon. After one visit we cancelled another nights reservation and came back again. We have great radar when it comes to bartenders, so when we walked into the restaurant and observed the bartender, we immediately asked the hostess if we could eat at the bar instead of the table we reserved. And we were right on, Luis was a blast. It is, of course, a seafood restaurant, where you pick out your fish from the fish market and they cook it anyway you like. But when I told Luis I preferred lots of small tastes, he refused to let me order and kept bringing me one amazing dish after another. And when we came back the second night we got hugs from the hostess and special drinks waiting for us from Luis. I could go back to Lisbon just to eat here.
- Largo – located in the cloisters of the former Convento da Igreja dos Martires, the space is interesting and comfortable. Chef Miguel Castro e Silva can really cook and he does a marvelous twist on traditional Portuguese dishes. The service was friendly and helpful, the menu a la carte and we enjoyed every bit of the food. Loved the delicious crackers served when you sat down and the waiter made sure I never ran out. The shrimp appetizer was unforgettable, and no disappointments with the main and dessert.
One word of caution, don’t speak Spanish to the locals, they get quite offended believing you might not know their native language is Portuguese. Everyone speaks English so there are no issues communicating. Portuguese is a difficult language to learn, but at least practice one word, Obrigado(a), thank you. It is Obrigado if the person saying it is male, and Obrigada if the person is female. This way everyone will be happy that you know you are in Portugal and not Spain!
DAY TRIPS FROM LISBON
We only did one day trip out of Lisbon visiting Sintra and Cascais, but if you have time, would recommend you spend a day in Cascais sunning yourself on the lovely beach and eating fresh seafood overlooking the ocean.
Go early! The town get overrun with tourists starting are around 10:30 when the tour buses start arriving. But it is a charming town and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visit the Vila Palace, or National Palace of Sintra, the best preserved medieval royal residence in Portugal. It encompassed a wonderful mix of architectural styles. Then head into the historic center and up the hill to the Quinta da Regaleira. This palace, with 5 floors, and a large estate with famous gardens. The gardens have numerous symbols which refer to the Masons, the Knights Templar, alchemy…with lakes, fountains, grottos, caves and secret tunnels. We spent quite a bit of time strolling these grounds. You can also explore the Pena Palace, the Moorish Castle or Monserrate Palace and gardens.
This lovely fishing town is situated about an hour outside Lisbon and is one of the regions most popular holiday destinations. The town is a elegant blend of 19th century architecture and traditional Portuguese charm. The area is filled with family owned restaurants, side walk cafes, and great bars. A great get-away to spend the day sunning yourself and just relaxing at one of the local cafes.