Posted by: acooksca | 11/10/2012

Road Trip Portugal

Portugal, Convent of Christ, Tomar

The first time Portugal landed on our must-see list it was 2002. The country had recently emerged from years under an authoritarian regime and was the most backward of Western Europe. Then as now, Portugal had one of the lowest per capita incomes in the European Union. So we reasoned that daily life might still revolve around humble roots, be more traditional, more picturesque. It is also a country of tremendous history, great Port wine and one of the world’s best cheeses. I bought the books and the Michelin map but we didn’t make the trip.

This autumn we started a fresh plan with an updated Michelin map. Clearly big changes had occurred in Portugal in the intervening 10 years. EU funds allowed new auto routes to be built. From mountainside terraced vineyards along the Douro River in the east to miles of splendid coastline in the west takes just a few hours drive through rolling plains of cork oaks and olive trees. Without the destruction of the World Wars, Portugal’s gothic, medieval and Manueline (Portugal’s own highly flamboyant architectural style) monuments still rise in quiet towns just off the auto routes. And you can sleep in romantic manor houses or historic palaces and monasteries re-purposed as Pousadas (inns with modern comforts). As Jose Saramago, Portugal’s Nobel Prize winning author tells us in Journey to Portugal, a road trip lets us sample the “ancient and picturesque, seeking out sites resplendent with beauty.”

We land in the capital, Lisbon. Already there is too much to see here for just a 3 day visit. Three UNESCO World Heritage sites of palaces and monasteries in and around the capital attest to a period in the 16th century when Portugal was the wealthiest kingdom in Christendom. Taking the advice of friends who had recently been to Portugal we spend 3 days also in Porto. This is a fascinating city with a dense cluster of age-old churches and buildings that stagger up steep hills from a charismatic river port. The famed port wine houses, every one you can think of, beckon us with huge signs across the river.

As much as we enjoy these cities, we yearn to search out the smaller places in the countryside so we rent a car. Obidos is a picture perfect white washed village, filled with visitors on the Sunday we arrive. Once inside the encircling walls we follow cobbled streets to the top of the hill and walk the ramparts looking over a brooding castle. Obidos claims the best Ginga in the land, a sweet-tart cherry liqueur often taken early in the day. We oblige when offered a taste served in a chocolate cup. A bottle gets tucked into our luggage.

Portugal, Cloisters at Batalha

Portugal, Cloisters at Batalha

After an hours’ drive we are in another district and another time. The Monastery of Batalha is Portugal’s gothic masterpiece. Fine golden colored stone filigree covers the exterior while stained glass dapples the vaulted interior. Nobles and kings rest in ornate tombs. One royal chapel has massive buttresses gracefully reaching into an open sky, still unfinished after hundreds of years. The cloisters here are amazing arcades of gothic arches, almost no two alike.

Stepping even deeper into the past we find the nearby Castle of the Knights Templar on a ridge  above the bustling market town of Tomar. Portugal’s first king awarded this area to the Knights Templar who rousted the Moors from Portugal in the 12th century. Several centuries later they became the Order of the Knights of Christ and fought in the Holy crusades. In imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem they built a 16-sided rotunda church justly famous for its amazing gilt and paintings. The Convento de Christo within the castle walls has stellar examples of Manueline-style ornamentation. Its massive main door is surrounded by an opulence of stone carvings, many with a sea theme, honoring Portugal’s “age of discovery” in the 16th century which was in large part financed by this wealthy order.

Convent of Christ, Tomar

Convent of Christ, Tomar

In the fertile lands of the Alentejo east of Lisbon lies the town of Evora. Towering Roman columns stand across a plaza from the 12th century Romanesque cathedral, which rises amid the winding alleyways of the old Moorish quarter. Evora is a tourist attraction famous not only for its history and beautiful streets but as the market town for the Alentejo’s  food and wine. Several locals along our route tell us Evora is their favorite town in Portugal, particularly for the dining.

We have a recommendation for a bistro, Tasquinha do Oliveira, which serves local specialties. Carolina cooks and Manuel tends the 14-seat dining room. The first course of small plates appears without ordering: roasted octopus in divinely fragrant olive oil, mushrooms in shallot vinaigrette, unexpectedly light cod fritters, fresh crab with sweet paprika. We order main courses of roasted shoulder of lamb and tender pork loin with clams, a classic of Alentejo cuisine. The wine is so good we order another bottle. But the best is still to come; a tiny thistle rennet sheep’s milk cheese that is so liquid we spoon it from the rind. It is a perfect Azeitao, something I tasted years ago in New York and have been longing for since. It doesn’t travel well but fortunately we do and like much of what we found in Portugal, it has a unique and memorable flavor all its own.

Things to know if you go:

We found the Portuguese people welcoming and patient. English is widely spoken. Compared to the rest of Europe Portugal is a bargain. Seek out lodgings and restaurants that have high recommendations from travel writers and guide books as many establishments lack the quality expected by international travelers.

A useful guide book is Karen Brown’s Portugal, Exceptional Places to Stay & Itineraries.

Pousada at the Castle of Palmela

Pousada at the Castle of Palmela

There are 17 Pousadas (charming inns in historic buildings) in Portugal and they can make your stay very special. Each is unique, some simple and others with sumptuous surroundings and rooms, so read up on those along your route. The management company, Pestana Properties, offers compelling internet deals but you need to first sign up on-line for their free membership. View the Pousadas at:  http://www.pousadas.pt/historic-hotels-portugal/en/pages/home.aspx

Rental cars – small-ish euro diesels are peppy, get 50-60 mph and less expensive to fill up than gas models. Rent a GPS from your car company. We turned the sound off as it was always too delayed but the map function was valuable. Take the optional toll road transponder for the auto routes. You want to take auto routes between main points as they are direct with little traffic. Do not take the car until you leave Lisbon. Picking up the car at an in town location saved us $100 over picking it up at the airport and we were allowed to drop it off at the airport for no extra charge. Driving out of a town on a Sunday morning is best as there is NO one on the road until after church. Parking in Porto is also difficult so ask your hotel about garages. The garage nearest to our hotel wanted US $45 for 24 hours but with a voucher from our hotel we paid $20.

There are many lovely rural roads to explore, particularly connecting the mountain villages. The distances are small but these roads are slow. To see the great monuments base your itinerary around the UNESCO World Heritage sites: http://www.manorhouses.com/unesco/index.html

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