LAND OF PLEA­SURE

Richard Holmes ex­plores Por­tu­gal

South African Garden and Home - - Contents -

think it was the evening light sparkling on the wa­ters of the broad Ta­gus River es­tu­ary, the golden sun­shine glanc­ing into the deep al­ley­ways of the Alfama, me­dieval lanes akimbo. Then again, it could have been the at­trac­tive cob­bled squares filled with buskers, and the lively buzz of a city yet to ex­pe­ri­ence the crowds of high sum­mer.

What­ever it was, stand­ing above a sea of terracotta roofs along­side the Ro­man gates to the old city, it was hard to imag­ine a love­lier place than Lis­bon in the heady days of spring.

Por­tu­gal’s tourism in­dus­try is en­joy­ing a re­vival, and South African trav­ellers have been quick to catch on to the rich her­itage, fine food and won­der­ful wines the western edge of Europe has to of­fer. It’s a fair bet you’ll start your trav­els in Lis­bon, as charm­ing a cap­i­tal as you could ask for. As time was in short sup­ply on my visit, a four-hour tour on an elec­tric tuk-tuk was an ideal whis­tle-stop in­tro­duc­tion to the city.

To the west, the lively streets of the Bairro Alto are famed for their nightlife and great bars. In the east, the her­itage

Idis­trict of Alfama is ut­terly charm­ing. With wind­ing al­ley­ways, cosy restau­rants, fado bars and leafy squares, it’s lit­tle won­der tourists spend plenty of time here. For shop­ping, it’s the Chi­ado dis­trict you want, with both chic bou­tiques and in­ter­na­tional brands. And do make time for the Ber­trand Book­shop on Rua Gar­ret: es­tab­lished in 1732, it’s of­fi­cially the world’s old­est book­store.

Then there’s the more for­mal grid of the Baixa and the grand Praça do Ros­sio. From here, the palm-lined boule­vard of Avenida da Liber­dade stretches north, while the pedes­tri­anised Rua Au­gusto makes a bee­line south to the Ta­gus, and more im­pres­sive water­front pub­lic spa­ces.

But, I’d come to Por­tu­gal to learn more about the coun­try’s his­toric cork in­dus­try, so in the morn­ing, we hit the road east. Out past vine­yards, and sur­pris­ingly, acres of rice pad­dies as we headed across the Ta­gus.

Por­tu­gal is home to one-third of the world’s cork forests, and the trees have grown wild here for thou­sands of years. Quer­cus suber is revered across the coun­try: it’s Por­tu­gal’s na­tional tree, and cut­ting one down is il­le­gal. The oaks are also key to the coun­try’s fa­mous cork in­dus­try, with the thick bark stripped, dried and pro­cessed into ev­ery­thing from world-class wine stop­pers to shoes, f loor­ing and in­su­la­tion in the aero­space in­dus­try. These remarkable forests lined the road­side as we left the cork trees of Coruche be­hind.

While I was tempted to drive south and dis­cover the upand-com­ing prov­ince of Alen­tejo – a fer­tile re­gion of wheat fields, forests and some of the finest beaches in Europe, we were headed north for a date with some port. Por­tu­gal has 28 wine re­gions, and hun­dreds of indige­nous cul­ti­vars you’ve likely never heard of, but few are as iconic as the port pro­duc­ers of the Douro Val­ley.

This is the largest tract of moun­tain vine­yard on Earth, and the Douro’s 45 000 hectares of steeply ter­raced vines are a remarkable sight. Some of these ter­races date back nearly

350 years, built painstak­ingly by hand to cre­ate an in­cred­i­ble lat­tice of sin­u­ous con­tour­ing vine­yards.

There are dozens of winer­ies spread across the Douro, from small fam­ily op­er­a­tions to large cor­po­rate es­tates. And yet, sur­pris­ingly, the wines made in the Douro don’t stay here for long. For cen­turies, af­ter vini­fi­ca­tion, the bar­rels have been sent to the sea­side town of Porto for age­ing, bot­tling and ship­ping to far-off shores.

Tra­di­tion­ally, they trav­elled down­river on wooden ra­belo boats, their shal­low draught al­low­ing them to tackle the rapids and fast-f low­ing wa­ters of the up­per Douro. The last boats set sail in the 1960s though, so we hopped in our car to fol­low their ghosts down­stream.

Porto is one of the most be­guil­ing cities I’ve vis­ited in a decade of traips­ing across Europe. Along the banks of the Douro – the ‘river of gold’ – the his­toric heart of the city is easy to fall in love with.

It was early evening when we ar­rived, and we were hun­gry. Af­ter a quick cof­fee and pasteis in the Café Ma­jes­tic to ad­mire the Art Nou­veau decor, we hit the streets in search of din­ner.

The lo­cals are widely known in Por­tu­gal as tripeiros, ‘the

tripe-eaters’, thanks to the lo­cal del­i­cacy of tri­pas à moda do Porto: white beans with an as­sort­ment of in­nards. It’s not re­ally to my taste, so along­side the city’s Teatro we joined the crowds out­side Gazela.

An­thony Bour­dain made this lo­cal take-away joint fa­mous in his TV series Parts Un­known. On the night we ar­rived in Porto, his sui­cide had just made head­lines, and we joined the throngs of lo­cals and tourists pay­ing trib­ute in the best way we knew how: food, drink and con­vivi­al­ity, shar­ing tall glasses of beer and plates of spicy ca­chor­rin­hos (hot­dogs).

With toasts done, we wan­dered down­hill. Through res­tau­rant-filled squares and past the strik­ing São Bento rail­way sta­tion, stop­ping to ad­mire the im­pos­ing statue of Henry the Nav­i­ga­tor, who was born in the city in 1394. A short walk away is the river­front Ribeiro Square, where we took a seat and or­dered a few glasses of port. To our left lay the grand bridge of Ponte Dona Maria, built in 1877 to a de­sign by Gus­tav Eif­fel.

Across the wa­ter, their lights twin­kling in the gloam­ing are the his­toric port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia. To­mor­row we’ll wan­der in their cool dark cel­lars, ad­mir­ing bar­rels of port undis­turbed for a cen­tury. We’ll learn about the art of ma­tur­ing fine port, and taste our way through a se­lec­tion of fine tawny. But that’s for to­mor­row. Right now, all we have to do is raise a glass and ad­mire the fad­ing sun­light glint­ing off the river of gold.

Porto on the Douro River, theheart of the Port in­dus­try.

Ad­mir­ing the views over Lis­bon’s Alfama dis­trict.

Un­til the 1960s, ra­belo boats trans­portedport-filled bar­rels down­stream to Porto.

Thou­sands of azulejo tilesadorn the en­trance to Porto’s São Bento sta­tion.

The vine­yards of the Douro val­ley are a World Her­itage Site.

Charm­ing square and eatery in Lis­bon.

Cork bark laidout to dry.

Fresh sar­dines, a res­tau­rant bar­gain in sea­son.

Art Nou­veau in­te­ri­orsin Café Ma­jes­tic.

Porto’s Igreja de Santo Ilde­fonso, built in 1739.

Toast­ing the Douro on river­side Ribeira Square.

Spicy ca­chor­rin­hos and lo­cal Su­per Bock at Gazela.

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