LAND OF PLEASURE
Richard Holmes explores Portugal
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.