A day trip to the land of mystical castles — Sintra, Portugal

A day trip to the land of mystical castles — Sintra, Portugal

Nested in the forested foothills of the Sintra Mountains, some 25 kilometers (15 miles) northwest of Lisbon, the tiny town of Sintra is a unique microcosm of a millennium of Portuguese history.  Although remains testify to a Roman presence starting in the 1st  century B.C., it is the Moors conquest of the area in the 8th century A.D. that is the genesis for Sintra as we explore it today.

Castelo dos Mooros

The Castle of the Moors.

Built as a military outpost on a high ridge in the early days of the Islamic occupation, the Castle of the Moors offers a commending view of both the surrounding agricultural territories of the plain below and the maritime access route to Lisbon. It developed into a major stronghold over the next two centuries, until 1147 and the creation of the Kingdom of Portugal by Afonso Henriques. With the country now in Christian hands, the fortress lost its strategic importance. While it remained inhabited for a time, by the end of the 14th century it had been gradually abandoned in favor of the village of Sintra below.

The parapet of the mighty fortress.

Today, its granite block walls interlinking giant boulders and rock spurs still snake along a 450-meter (1500-foot) perimeter to dominate the skyline as a  powerful reminder of  the Islamic presence in the region. And its parapet walk continues to provide stunning views over the town and its intriguing collection of palaces and villas while, further in the distance, the forested hills ripple all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

 

Palácio de Sintra

The Palace of Sintra (circa early 15th century).

In the center of town, just below the Castle of the Moors, the Palace of Sintra  (now officially the Sintra National Palace) was originally the residence of the local Moorish rulers. Upon his conquest of the area, King Afonso Henriques appropriated the Sintra Palace for his own use. However, nothing remains of this original structure. The current, radically modified palace dates from the reign of King João I (1385-1433). He intended his new palace to be larger and more luxurious, its rooms arranged around a central courtyard and able to serve multiple functions. Most famously, he is credited for the creation of the vast kitchen whose monumental conjoined chimneys have become an icon of the palace and the town of Sintra itself.

The Swan Hall.

Further enhancements were undertaken over the following centuries to create a surprisingly harmonious blend of Gothic, Manueline, Moorish and Mujédar styles, a unique palace that remained a royal summer residence until the end of the 19th century. The most notable rooms include the Swan Hall, named for the panels of crowned swans decorating the elaborately coffered ceiling, the Magpie Room with its exquisite 16th century marble fireplace, elaborate geometric azulejo wall treatment, and its painted ceiling, considered the oldest in the palace, featuring 136 magpies.

The Heraldic Room.

The vast, square Heraldic Room is the centerpiece of the tower built  during the reign of King Manuel I (1495 -1521). Here, the soaring octagonal domed ceiling  is decorated with the coats of arms of the 72 most prominent families of Portuguese nobility with the royal coat of arms at the top. The azulejo tiles of scenes of gallantry decorating the walls, were added in the 18thth century.

 

 

Palácio da Pena

The Palace of Pena.

If you have ever harbored fantasies of fairy-tale palaces, this one is for you. Perched on one of the highest hilltops dominating the town of Sintra the Feather Palace, now officially the Pena National Palace is a prime  example of 19th century dream castles in the sky inspired by medieval myths. Built on the site of a small 16th century monastery, severely damaged by the the catastrophic 1755 earthquake, this architectural hallucination is the brainchild of King-Consort Ferdinand, a German-born member of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, husband of Queen Maria II (1834–1853). He purchased the property and surrounding grounds in 1838. The original intention was to restore the remains of the monastery, which consisted mainly of the church, cloister and a few dependencies, as a summer residence for the royal family. These elements can indeed be found the northern section of the palace.

The Triton Gate.

The final outcome, however, is the embodiment of  the Romantic fad that swept through Portugal at the time: an over-the-top mixture of Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic and Neo-Renaissance styles. The incongruous ensemble, which took twelve years to complete, is further enhanced with elements of the medieval imagery such as parapet paths, lookout towers, and access tunnels. Then, at the explicit command of the king, the facade of the former monastery is painted a brilliant red, and that of the new building a vivid yellow. 

The Great Room.

The interior of the palace is equally disconcerting: a succession of opulent staterooms and royal apartments adorned with ornate furnishings, hand-painted tiles, and rich tapestries. It is impossible to miss the intricately carved ceilings and walls of Queen Amelia’s apartments, or the striking all white reception room. Mercifully, the chapel of the original monastery survived the Neo frenzy, The Chapel of Our Lady of Pena is a small gem of Manueline and Islamic styles. Its main altarpiece, carved in local alabaster and limestone carved in local alabaster and limestone is an 16th century masterpiece, attributed to French sculptor Nicolau de Chanterenne, who also created  the Western Portal of the  Jerónimos Monastery in Belem.

Quinta da Regaleira

The mystical Neo-Gothic Quinta da Regaleira,

Long the preferred summer destination of the royal family for the lush natural beauty of its surroundings and its proximity to Lisbon, Sintra also became popular with aristocrats. They build their own palaces and villas around town. While several of them still exist, none are more intriguing than the Quinta da Regaleira.

 

 

Baroque marble bench with Templar Cross symbol.

A few minutes’ walk from the center of town, this eccentric 19th century Neo-Gothic extravaganza dreamed up by Brazilian tycoon António Carvalho Monteiro (1848-1920) is worth a passing look. Its main attraction, however, is its exuberant park, filled with mystical grottos, secret tunnels and enigmatic buildings bearing symbols and iconography related to alchemy, freemasonry, Templars and Rosicrucians.

 

 

Lisbon to Sintra

Sintra train station.

By far the best way to travel from Lisbon to Sintra is by rail. The journey takes approximately 30 minutes on trains that leave every half an hour or so from the central Rossio Station — and take you back a couple of centuries. Built in 1887, the Sintra station has changed little since then. Within its modest exterior, the walls of the public spaces have remain a delight of Romantic-style azulejos artwork that set the tone for your day in Sintra.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there —The fastest and most convenient way to travel from Lisbon  to Sintra is by train. It is unadvisable to consider driving to Sintra. The historic center is closed to traffic and its outer perimeter is clogged with drivers in quest of virtually non-existent parking spaces.
  • Getting Around — Walking: It is a scenic 10 mins walk from the Sintra train station to the historic centre of the town and the Sintra National Palace, and another 15 mins to the main entrance of Quinta da Ragaleira. The Pena National Palace, is situated at the top of a steep hill accessible via the Caminho de Santa Maria footpath, an approximately one hour uphill walk. The same applies for visiting the Castle of the Moors. By bus: Bus #434 departs from the train station every 15 minutes. It follows a one-way loop up the hill to the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace before returning to the train station via the historic centre of Sintra. Note: during peak season, there is incredibly high demand for the bus and long lines can be expected.
  • Visiting — The Palace of Sintra The Palace of Sintra and The Palace of Pena are open daily from 09:30 am to  06:30 pm. The Castle of the Moors is open daily from 09:30 am to 06:00 pm. All are closed on December 24 and 25, and January 1. Consult Quinta da Regaleria  website for any information regarding opening hours and visits.

Location, location, location!

Sintra

Popular arts — Exploring the soul of Lisbon

Popular arts — Exploring the soul of Lisbon

It has been over a decade since I last was in Lisbon. Now, as I reacquaint myself with the steep cobbled lanes of its ancient neighborhoods and the breathtaking views from its miradouros, my eyes are also drawn to something else. Something new has been weaving itself into the fabric of the centuries-old architecture: street art.

A City Enhanced by Street Art

Socially impactful murals flourish around the city.

Lisbon graffiti and street art emerged in the early 1970’s as a form of expression for marginalized voices, and began to blossom with some political mural after the democratic revolution of April 1974. Over the past couple of decades, the genre has evolved into vibrant open-air murals that embrace socially impactful messages. Today, this transformation has become a reflection of the city’s dynamic cultural identity. Lisbon is now recognized as a showcase for some of the best street art in Europe.

Mário Belém – A whimsical celebration of life (2017).

The works are diverse, ranging from traditional graffiti to elaborate, large-scale murals that merge social commentary with stunning visual expression. From the environmentally conscious works of Bordalo II, who creates art from trash to depict endangered species with striking realism, to the faces carved on the walls of the politically charged pieces by Vhils and the colorful optimism of Mário Belém’s whimsical scenes, each is a vivid reflection of Lisbon’s artistic heartbeat.

 

Bordalo II’s  Environmental Message

Bordalo II – Young Panda (2022)

The first piece that draws my attention is a striking young panda beseechingly staring at me from the side of a building high up in the Alfama, right across the street from the Miradouro das Portas do Sol. It could be an effective poster-child for any organization for the preservation of endangered species .

It turns out to be one of the latest creations of Bordalo II, a prominent figure of the Lisbon street art scene, famous for his compelling, environmentally conscious installations. His work is unique not only for its visual impact but also for its powerful message. His giant animals are crafted from salvaged plastics, metals and other urban detritus, to focus on the ramifications of consumerism and environmental neglect.

Bordalo II – Pelicans (2020).

His Young Panda was created in 2022  as part of his “EVILUTION” (not a typo) exhibition, a retrospective of his work of over a decade, reflected through his signature Trash Animals. My attention now peaked, it doesn’t take me long to spot another of his compelling compositions:  Pelicans (2020) in the central Baixa neighborhood. Created of trash cans, car parts and construction materials, they stand at the intersection of Santa Justa and Carmo streets on the wall of the bank that commissioned the work.

A Mosaic of Artistic Expression

Vhils and Shepard Fairey – Universal Parenthood (2017).

Soon, I “discover” more street art at every turn. In the Graça neighborhood, east of the city center, on my way to the National Azulejo Museum, I come across a stunning collaborative work by internationally known local urban art legend, Vhils, and his American counterpart Shepard Fairey (of Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster fame). In this mural, realized in 2017 as part of the artistic project “Universal Parenthood”, aiming to promote peace, equality and humanity worldwide, Fairey painted half of a female face, while Vhils carved the other half to address the discrimination against women’s rights in  Arab countries.

PichiAvo – Poseidon (2018).

A little farther on, Poseidon, the god of the sea, towers over the Tagus Estuary. This colorful five-story high mural was painted in 2018 on the side of a building overlooking the Santa Apolónia Station, the oldest train terminal in Lisbon, by a group of artists known as PichiAvo.

 

 

Mário Belém – “Better to be lost here somewhere than on my way to nowhere.” (2022).

Then Mário Belém celebrates life with his bright, optimistic mural created in 2017  to mark the 150th  anniversary of the abolition of the death penalty in Portugal. And moments later, another of Belém’s works,  this one in dreamy pastel colors evokes “Saudade” (the Portuguese word for a feeling of yearning).  Painted in 2021 and known under the title “Better to be lost here somewhere than on my way to nowhere,” the mural is a nod to the 2020 pandemic lockdowns.

 

In the Grand Azulejo Style

André Saraivia – Mosaic panorama, detail (2014-2016).

At the corner where the Alfama’s Jardim Botto Marchado meets Baixa’s Campo Santa Clara, a magnificent panoramic work unfolds. Some 188 meters (620 feet) in length and covering an area of 1010 square meters (10,900 square feet), it is the largest piece of street art in the city, made up of over 50,000 small, hand-painted azulejo tiles. Two years in the making and completed in October 2016, it is the work of André Saraivia, a Portuguese visual artist who came to fame for his street art in Paris in the 80’s and has been a central figure on the urban art scene ever since.

Here, through images such as Lisbon’s 18th century Águas Livres Aqueduct, the Eiffel Tower, and New York City skyscrapers, Saraiva (a.k.a Mr. A) captures the story of his personal life and travels.

The Legacy of Fado in Contemporary Arts

Back in the Alfama, my path crosses again with Vhils and one of his works that creates the connection between my newly discovered interest in Lisbon’s street art and my life-long passion for its other popular art: Fado, the poignant melancholy music that is the soul of the city. I was still a child when my parents took me to an open air concert in the suburbs of Paris. On stage a lone woman in a black dress and shawl began to sing. The power and pathos of her voice filled the night and stayed with me forever.

Vhils – Tribute to Amália Rodrigues (2015).

Her name was Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999). She was to become the revered Queen of Fado, whose iconic voice popularized around the world the music of the docks and the poorest neighborhoods of Lisbon. Mainly thanks to her, from these humble early 19th century beginnings, Fado has gone on to be recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2011. In 2015, Vhils paid tribute to Amália Rodrigues by crafting her portrait in traditional paving stones on the sloping edge of a tiny square along Calçada do Menino Jesus. 

 Artists collective – Fado Vadio (2012).

There are Fado-inspired works of all kinds throughout the Alfama. Another notable one is Fado Vadio, created by a collective of neighborhood artist at the Escadinhas de São Cristóvão (Stairway of Saint Christopher), in the Mouraria district. Story has it that the building where the Fado Vadio mural is located is owned by a public company that encouraged the project because it didn’t have the funding to restore the wall.The paint was donated and the artists completed the work in 48 hours. 

The Fado Tradition

Classic and Portuguese guitars accompany the Fado vocalist.

The singer of Fado (Portuguese for “fate”) speaks of the harsh realities of everyday life, sometimes with a sense of resignation, sometimes with hope and resolve.The performer can be either a female or a male vocalist, typically accompanied by a guitarra (10- or 12-string guitar) and a viola (6-string guitar). Often enhanced by gestures and facial expressions, Fado aims to evoke the deep sense of saudade of the Portuguese soul.

São Miguel D’Alfama Fado restaurant.

There are countless Fado restaurants scattered around the city, their offerings ranging from long, traditional evening meals interspersed with professional Fado by advertised performers, to casual local eateries where up-and-coming Fadistas give impromptu performances. The best places can still be found in the two most traditional neighborhoods: the Alfama and the Bairro Alto.

 

Owner Fátima Moura is always on hand with welcome smile.

On my long ago first visit to the city, I came across the São Miguel D´Alfama, and it has remained my personal favorite ever since. Located in one of the oldest houses in the Alfama (witness the ancient Roman pavement floor and the massive brick arches), it has been a family business since 1945, with the current owner, Fátima Moura, having inherited it from her mother. This is an authentically Lisboate place where local patrons usually far outnumber the tourists, the menu features well priced traditional local fare, the Port wine is excellent and the Fado exceptional.

São Miguel D´Alfama – An address to remember.

Contrary to most Fado clubs and restaurants who consistently feature the same one or two “names” every day of the week, each evening is a surprise at the São Miguel: it’s the Fado equivalent of a jam session. The only constants are the two guitars that traditionally accompany the singers. Established local stars and rising talents alike drop in and discretely visit with their friends while they wait for their turn to perform a set (usually four songs) before moving on.

 

The  Fado Museum

For those who still want to learn and hear more, the Museu do Fado opened in 1998 to document, preserve, and promote Fado history from its origins to its current form. In practical terms, it’s a collection of music scores, records, posters, musical instruments, and other arttefacts. It also features a wide array of music samples from different eras that help understand the evolution of the genre.

André Saraivia – Panorama (2014-2016)

 Good to Know

VisitingThe Museu do Fado, Largo do Chafariz de Dentro 1,  1100-139 Lisboa is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. It is closed on Monday, January 1, May I and December 25. Sao Miguel D’Alfama 9,Rua de São Miguel 9 – Alfama 1100-542 Lisboa. See website for opening hours and reservations. 

Location, location, location!

Lisbon

The Unique Museums of Lisbon

The Unique Museums of Lisbon

Shaped by the diverse people who settled here over two millennia, Lisbon is home to an exceptionally varied cultural heritage that is reflected in over 50 museum sure to address just about every field of interest. Three of them, however, especially illustrate the uniqueness of the city.

The National Azulejo Museum

Early Azulejo displays

Originally introduced to Portugal in the Moorish era (circa 10th century A.D.), the distinctive glazed Azulejo tiles are Portugal’s most ubiquitous art form, adorning public buildings, grand palaces and humble homes alike.

Housed in the former Madre de Deus Convent, founded in 1509, the National Azulejo Museum’s collection of ceramics is one of the largest in the world. With more than 300 items on display, it traces the evolution of the azulejo from 16th century handicraft to modern-day decorative art.

The Chickens Wedding.

The exhibits are aligned in chronological order, and many of the images are of a religious theme, but there are some notable exceptions, such as “The Chickens Wedding” or “The Cortege of Neptune and Amphitrite,” (circa 1670). 

One of the museum’s highlights is “The Panorama of Lisbon”, a composition of 1300 tiles, 23 meters (75 feet) in length, of Lisbon’s cityscape in 1738 — before the devastating earthquake of 1755. The composition is especially fascinating as certain buildings are still recognizable (Se Cathedral, São Jorge Castle, Belem Tower) while other areas are completely different.

The Lady of Life altarpiece.

Also of note is the exceptional, 1498 tiles  “Our Lady of Life” altarpiece, regarded as one of the key pieces of 16th century Portuguese production.

 

 

 

 

Nave of the Madre de Deus church.

Besides its unique  Azulejo showpieces, the collection includes ceramics, porcelain and earthenware from the 16th  to the 21st century. In the conventual part, the Church of Madre de Deus, a brilliant example of Portuguese Baroque abundantly decorated with sculptures, paintings and tiles, is also included in the visit.  The nave has been fully restored and is remarkable  for its over-the-top gilt work.

 

 

 

The Gulbenkian Foundation

The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum .

Assembled over a lifetime by Armenian oil tycoon and philanthropist Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955), his eclectic art collection is considered  one of the most important private collections in the world. At the time of his death it totaled over 6,000 world-class artifacts, spanning 5000 years of history from Antiquity to the early 20th century, and covering virtually all phases of Eastern and Western Art.

Solar barque of Djedhor – Egypt. Bronze (сirca. 380-343 ВС).

In his will, he created the Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian Foundation, to preserve and display it in Lisbon, where he had spent the last 13 years of his life. Located at the northern edge of the city, and specifically designed as a showcase for the collection, the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum opened its doors to the public in 1969. Its galleries are distributed chronologically and in geographical order to create two independent circuits within the overall visit.

 

The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

A treasure trove of Islamic and Oriental art,

The galleries of the Eastern circuit include Egyptian and Greco-Roman art, Mesopotamia, the Islamic Orient, Armenia and the Far East. The display of Islamic and Oriental art is an impressive treasure trove of carpets, robes, tapestries, tiles and glassware, mainly from 16th and 17th century Persia, Turkey, Syria and India. It is followed by  porcelain, jade, paintings and lacquered boxes from China and Japan. 

Quillebeuf – Mouth of the Seine. Turner (1833. Oil on Canvas).

The section on Western Art features a wide-ranging number of pieces reflecting various European artistic trends from the beginning of the 11th century to the mid-20th century, starting with illuminated medieval manuscripts, ivory and wood diptychs, and further on Italian Renaissance majolica ware and tapestries. Then comes a stunning art gallery featuring the works of some of the most important painters of all times, such as Domenico Ghirlandaio,  Francesco Guardi, Rubens, Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Manet, Turner, and Monet.

French 18th century silverware.

French 18th century decorative arts have a special place in the museum, with outstanding gold and silver objects and furniture, as well as paintings and sculptures. The visit ends with a dazzling collection of Art Nouveau  jewels and glass by René Lalique, displayed in its own room.

 

 

 

The National Coach Museum 

The richest collection of royal coaches in the world.

Created by Queen Amélia of Portugal to preserve the important collection of vehicles belonging to the Royal House, the National Coach Museum opened in 1905 in the old riding ring of the Palace of Belém. However, since 2015, what is considered the richest collection of royal coaches in the world, can be appreciated nearby in a newly built museum close to the bank of the Tagus, within walking distance of the Jerónimos Monastery and the Monument of the Discoveries.

Coach of Philip II – 1619 (Dim. 5,86 x 1,95 x 2,50 meters).

The museum gives a full picture of the development of vehicles from the late 16th through the 19th century, including coaches, carriages and sedan chairs. Each carriage is more extravagant than the next, illustrating the ostentatious wealth of the Portuguese elite of the time. The oldest, used by Spanish newcomer Philip II of Portugal (also Philip III of Spain) in 1619, is notable for its exterior austerity, so as not to stoke resentment among his new subjects, but still luxurious inside.

Coach of King José I   (Dim. 6,40 x 2,27 x 2,92 meters)

One of the most outlandish, used in an embassy to France’s Louis XIV, depicts cherubs with bats’ wings. There are also several Baroque 18th century carriages decorated with paintings and exuberant gilt woodwork, such as a ceremonial coach given by Pope Clement XI to King João V in 1715, and the three coaches of the Portuguese ambassador to Pope Clement XI,  built in Rome in 1716, including one decorated with allegorical scenes representing Portuguese military and maritime triumphs.

Mail Coach – 19th century (Dim. 5,00 x 2,10 x 2,98 meter).

The display primarily focuses on ceremonial carriages but also includes a few used for a broader purpose, such a mail coach from the 19th century and even a prisoners’ transport coach, as well as a few miniature carriages designed for children.

Panorama of Lisbon, Azulejo cityscape (1738).

Good to Know

Visiting  — National Azulejo Museum, R. Madre de Deus 4, 1900-312 Lisbon, is located 2.5 kilometers (1.5 mile) east of the city centre, an interesting walk through residential neighborhoods, or via the 759 bus. It is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Closed on Monday, January 1, Easter Sunday, May 1,  June 13 and December 25Calouste Gulbenkian Museum,  Avenida de Berna, 45A, 1067-001 Lisbon is located 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) north of the city center, close to Praça de Espanha. It can easily be reached by bus (lines number 713, 716, 726, 742 and 756), or metro (blue and red lines – station São Sebastião ). It is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Tuesday and January 1, Easter Sunday, May 1, December 24 and 25. The National Coach Museum  Avenida. da Índia 136, 1300-300 Lisbon, is located in Belem, approximately a 30 minute drive west of the city center and easily accessible by tram number 15 (from the Cais do Sodré station, in the Praça do Comércio). It is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Monday, January 1 , Easter Sunday, May 1.June 13 and December 25

Getting Around  — When getting around Lisbon outside of the city center or what you consider easy walking distance, you may want to consider using your favorite ride-hailing app. I used mine frequently throughout my recent week-long stay and found it both efficient and exceptionally cost-effective.

Location, location, location!

National Azulejo Museum

Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

National Coach Museum

From the Vineyards to the Sea – the Douro River

From the Vineyards to the Sea – the Douro River

A gauzy veil of early morning mist hovers over Porto’s Ribeira pier when we board the Tomaz de Douro for a daylong cruise to the birthplace of the celebrated Vinho do Porto. The prized liquid gold of Portugal may be coming of age right across the river, in the Gaia cellars of world-renowned Port producers, but it is some 60 kilometers (40 miles) upriver, in the famed vineyards of the Douro Valley that it all begins.

A Cruise Back in Time

Douro-Maria Pia Bridge.

Gustave Eiffel’s Maria Pia Bridge (circa 1877) straddles the Douro just upriver from the historic center of Porto

Leaving behind the bustle of the piers and the soaring bridges of Porto, we meander upstream between the cliff-like banks. Soon the dense mosaic of homes climbing up the hills of historic Porto fades away, gradually replaced by stately haciendas surrounded by lush vegetation. Eventually, just as the sun begins to pierce through the mist, we enter a pristine nature preserve. Herons feed in the shallows and bright kayaks silently slide by on their way downstream.

Douro-pink hacienda.

Haciendas dot the banks of the Douro.

After days of roaming through the cobbled city streets, it is a treat to settle on the viewing deck and watch villages drift by. By late morning, we reach the first of the two locks on our itinerary, a reminder that the Douro was not always the serene river we enjoy today. Until it was tamed by a series of dams in the 20th century, it was a turbulent stream coming from the high sierras of northwestern Spain. Starting in the 1960’s, dams and locks were built to normalize traffic along the river.

Douro-Crestuma lock.

The lock of the Crestuma-Lever Dam.

Shortly after we enter the lock of the Crestuma-Lever Dam, lunch is announced in the glassed-in dining room on the lower deck. It is a formally served meal of traditional local fare, preceded by an appetizer of assorted bacalhau (dry, salted cod), vegetable and cheese fritters paired with glass of lovely white Port aperitif. By the end of the meal, we pass through the lock of the Carrapatelo Dam and landscape changes. The wild slopes turn into socalcos, terraced vineyards hewn into the riverbanks. They follow the sinuous contours of the valley to mold a unique landscape with its own microclimate. It is this product of two millennia of human labor that has earned the Douro vineyards their UNESCO World Heritage status in 2001.

Two Millenia of Human Labor

Douro-Terraced vineyards.

The terraced vineyards of the Douro.

Harvest time came early this year, and in the fading days of summer the sprawling whitewashed quintas (country estates) and the yellowing rows of gnarled vines that surround them are a surprisingly silent place. Suddenly, a familiar black silhouette materializes among the ripple of terraces. It’s the world famous Sandeman Don (or Sir) draped in his traditional Portuguese student’s cape and wide Spanish hat, growing to gigantesque proportions as we draw nearer. We definitely are in the heart of Port country.

Douro-Sandeman.

The familiar silhouette of the Sandeman Don overlooks the rippling vineyards.

The Tomaz de Douro pulls into the sleepy little town of Peso da Régua, where Pedro Batista, the friendly English-speaking guide who has been with us throughout the cruise, shepherds us to the tiny train station a short walk away from the dock for the two-hour ride back to Porto. “The best views are on the left side,” he hints as we board.

Whilst serious oenophiles may want to extend their time of the area with visits of some of the famous quintas, I find this daylong cruise to be a comprehensive introduction to the spectacular Douro Valley. And the slow, cliff-hugging ride back to Porto on a train of another century offers yet another perspective of the unique landscapes of one of the oldest wine-growing regions in Europe.

Douro-Panorama

Westward to the Sea

Although the city of Porto is located inland from the Atlantic, the Douro’s estuary is just an easy ninety-minute walk from the Ribeira waterfront, following the right bank of the river to the sea. Along the way, we pass through the colorful medieval neighborhood of Miragaia. Located outside of the old city walls, this arrabalde (suburb), it is where the Jews and Armenians of Porto used to live.

Douro-Foz Lighthouse.

The Felgueiras Lighthouse in Foz do Douro.

In Miragia, houses are constructed below the level of the Douro, on an ancient beach where the boats of the Discoveries Era were built to carry explorers headed for the Cape of Good Hope and settlers bound for outposts of the empire. Nowadays the houses are protected by a wall, their upper floors built over arches that give that give the whole neighborhood a unique atmosphere. We keeep going and pass the small fishing village of Afurada before reaching the seaside resort town of Foz do Douro. Its lovely 19th century Passeio Alegre Garden with its grove of palm trees overlooking the ocean was designed by German landscape architect Emille David (of Crystal Palace Gardens fame).

Douro-Matosinhos Sardines.

Grilled Sardines and Vinho Verde are a Matosinhos tradition.

It’s another hour-long walk along the shore to Matosinhos. Today, the town’s long fishing tradition is most noticeable by the large charcoal grills in front of its many seafood restaurants. A variety of fish, from sardines and sea bass to cod and shad are roasting in the open air. The restaurants are packed with locals. We join them for a bountiful meal of fresh grilled fish and boiled potatoes drizzled with olive oil, washed down with a glass of refreshing Vinho Verde (green wine, which in this case refer to the young age of the wine rather than its color). It’s the perfect way to cap the long morning walk by the sea.

Douro-Atlantic Sails,

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – To the sea. If you prefer not to walk, or for the return trip to the city, the most scenic bus line route in Porto (bus 500), departs from the center of the city (at Aveniad dos Allados). It crosses the historic center and follows the coast to end at the Matosinhos central market. You can catch the bus at any stop along the way in either direction and purchase a ticket from the conductor (€1,70 at the time of my visit). To the Douro Vineyards. There are a number of companies with varied boat types offering cruises from Porto the Douro vineyards. At the recommendation of a local acquaintance, I opted for the Tomaz do Douro, with offices at Praça da Ribeira  5, 4050-513 Porto. Contact: tel. +351 222 081 935, e-mail. geral@tomazdodouro.com.
  • Best avoided unless you yearn for a bygone era transportation experience. A rickety tram (line 1) outfitted with old leather seats and wood paneling departs half-hourly (more or less) from Praca do Infante Square where tourists jostle for position in an unruly waiting line. It follows the river non-stop to Esplanada do Castelo on the Foz de Douro waterfront. The ride takes about 25 minutes and cost €2.50. The tram is usually packed, so chances are that you will be too busy trying to keep your balance as it rocks along to enjoy any of the scenery.

 

Location, location, location!

Douro River Valley.

Foz do Douro

Matosinhos

Traditional Portugal At Its Finest – Porto

Traditional Portugal At Its Finest – Porto

Porto has the enduring charm of medieval cities that grew from their river. Today its Ribeira (literally “riverbank”) waterfront is a picturesque promenade that welcomes throngs of visitors who, after a day of scaling the steep cobble streets of the city on a treasure hunt for its elaborately gilded churches and public buildings clad in blue ceramic Azulejos, enjoy relaxing at one of the many café terraces. Here they can sip a leisurely glass of Port, while gazing at the far bank of the Douro, Vila Nova de Gaia (or simply Gaia), where the word-famous nectar still ages. On the river, the traditional rabelos, the flat bottom boats that once ferried the wine from the vineyards some 100 kilometers (60 miles) upstream now offer popular tours under the six soaring bridges of the city while seagulls glide overhead on the Atlantic breeze.

Porto-Laundry_Flags.

The narrow balconies of appartment-houses are draped with fluttering laundry and the flags of local soccer supporters.

But step through one of the ancient arches that line this postcard-perfect riverfront, and you find the soul of Ribeira waiting for you up the winding streets. An unruly jumble of skinny houses cling like barnacles to the precipitous hills, their aged facades speaking of many generations of hard-working residents. The little wrought iron balconies are draped with fluttering laundry and flags that proudly announce support for the national football team (or soccer if you are from North America). Narrow storefronts display the stuff of everyday life, and the tantalizing scent of grilling sardines leads you to tiny family-run restaurants where you can feast on simple traditional fare, warm welcome included.

A Tale of Two Markets

Porto-Hard Club

Once an Art Nouveau covered market, Mercado Ferriera Borges is now an art exhibit and concert space.

Yet there are signs of evolution. A couple of blocks up from the waterfront, the renovated steel-and-glass structure of the Mercado Ferriera Borges, a grand Art Nouveau covered market built in 1885, was recently reborn as the Hard Club. Today, it houses art exhibit and concert spaces, a bookstore, a restaurant and bars. Events staged here can vary from photo exhibits to crafts fairs to indie rock concerts.

Porto-Mercado_Bolhao

A sizeable section of the Mercado do Bolhao is dedicated to fresh produce.

In stark contrast, a 20-minute walk away, little seems to have changed at the two-story Mercado do Bolhao since it opened in 1914. Dedicated mainly to fresh products, it is divided in specialized sections: fruit and vegetable, flowers, meat, fish (you can still hear fishwives hawking their catch), cheeses and deli products. In recent years, the inevitable souvenir shops have claimed a section as well. On the ground floor, there is also a sprinkle of stalls where you can eat fish so fresh it probably was still swimming in the Atlantic yesterday, and sample local cheeses and wines. Less than ten euros will get you lunch and a total immersion experience of the real Porto.

Art Nouveau Institutions

Porto-Livraria_Lello.

Behind its Neo-Gothic façade by architect Francisco Esteves, the Lello Bookstore has been a Porto institution since 1906.

From “one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops” to “an Art Nouveau masterpiece,” guidebooks rival in hyperboles to point you to Livraria Lello, a Porto landmark since the turn of the 19th century. Behind the Neo-Gothic façade, a curvaceous two-story staircase with ornate woodcarvings that match the intricate columns and wall panels dominate the illustrious literary emporium. Rumored to have inspired J.K. Rowling in her depictions of Hogwarts, the shop has become a pilgrimage site for Harry Potter fans from all over the world. Crowds are such that Lello now charges a €5.5 entrance fee (to be credited toward your potential purchase) and urges on its website to purchase tickets ahead for a specified day and time to avoid the long lines. What of the books? They are still there, some 60,000 volumes in Portuguese, Spanish, English and French, stacked high toward the stain glass ceiling. But they seem an afterthought to the visitors who jostle for selfie opportunities on the famous staircase.

Porto-Vida_Portuguesa.

All manners of traditional Portuguese products are available at A Vida Portuguesa.

For a more laidback shopping experience through a general store of a bygone era, step right around the corner to A Vida Portuguesa (Portuguese Life) on the second floor of the venerable Fernandes Mattos (circa 1866) store. Once dedicated to fabrics and sewing supplies, Fernandes Mattos morphed over time into a funky gift shop where you can browse through all manners of stuff from cotton handbags to fun kitchen gadget, as you head toward the elegant staircase with its back wall covered with A Vida Portuguesa’s trademark ceramic sparrows. On the light-filled second floor, displayed on original 19th century store fittings, you will find every imaginable type of traditional Portuguese products from notebooks, pencils and cans of sardines in their retro-style packaging to lettuce ware china. And from the balcony you can enjoy a unique close-up view of Porto’s iconic Clerigos Tower.

The Gardens of the Crystal Palace

Porto-View_Crystal_Palace.

View of the Gaia from the Gardens of the Crystal Palace.

Regrettably, all that remains of the 19th century Palacio de Cristal is the name, the original glass and steel structure having been replaced in the 1950’s by a huge UFO-like domed sports arena. However, the eight-hectare (20 acre) park landscaped to complement the original building has fared better. Today, it is a mosaic of luxuriant terraced gardens dotted with fountains and sculptures that reveal themselves along with stunning views of the city and the Douro, as you wander down toward the river. Under a canopy of giant magnolias and cypress trees, the sun-dappled lawns are favorite picnic spots for local families and students of the nearby university neighborhood of Massarelos.

Little Frenchie

Porto-Franscesinha.

This Franscesinha sandwich is drizzled with Port Wine for good measure.

It’s impossible to speak of Porto’s daily life without mentioning the Franscesinha. When this Little Frenchie got its name vary from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, depending on whom you ask. But its origin is usually attributed to some immigrant returned from France who tried to adapt the croque-monsieur to the Portuguese taste. One thing is certain, there is nothing little about this cholesterol bomb of a sandwich that has by now found its way onto the menu of every eatery in town, from humble diners to posh epicurean venues. Order this Portuense right of passage and in between two thick slabs of white bread, you get generous slices of steak, ham and two different kinds of sausage in a shroud of melted cheese, on a bed of thick, spicy tomato and beer sauce. For good measure it is traditionally topped with a fried egg, (although some trendier establishments will replace it with a drizzle of Port Wine) and a mound of French fried on the side. Bom Apetite!

Porto-Rabelos_Regatta.

Rabelos Regatta sails under the Arrabiata Bridge.

Good to Know

  • Getting there –The Porto International Airport, with direct flights from most major European cities, is located 17 kilometers (10 miles) north of the city, and easily accessible from the center of town via direct metro line. If you prefer door-to-door service, taxi fare is around €20 -25.
  • Getting around – The best way to get around the web of narrow cobble streets of the touristic center of Porto is on foot, with comfortable walking shoes a must. If walking is a challenge or to go farther afield, Porto offers an extensive public transportation system, mainly metro and buses, operated by the Sociedade de Transportes Colectivos do Porto to reach the top attractions in and around the city. Bus fare can be purchased on-board, metro cards at the station.
  • Visiting – The Central Tourist Information Office , 25, Rua Clube dos Fenianos, is open every day from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Tel: +351 223 393472. Hard Club ( previously Mercado Ferriera Borges), l Rua do Infante D. Henrique, 4050 Porto, is open daily except Monday, from 11:00 am to midnight. Mercado do Bolhao, Rua Formosa, 4000-214 Porto, is open Monday through Friday from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm and Saturday from 7:00 am through 1:00 pm. Closed on Sunday. Livraria Lello, Rua das Carmelitas 144, 4050-161 Porto, is open daily from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm. Contact: Tel.+351 22 200 2037. A Vida Portuguesa, Rua Galeria de Paris 20 – 1º, 4050-162 Porto, is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm and Sunday and holidays from 11:00 am to 7 pm. Contact: Tel. +351 222 022. Jardim do Palácio de Cristal, Rua de Entre-Quintas 20, 4050-240 Porto, is open daily from 8:00 am to 9:00 pm

Location, location, location!

Gardens of the Crystal Palace