Saturday, 28 May 2011

Class in a 60 cent glass at the Casa de Mateus

Two days into our Portuguese jaunt, the weather decided to frown on us (well, 'weep' would be more accurate). Inadequately prepared for anything other than sunshine, we slopped our way around the country on the receiving end of much finger-pointing at our sandal-clad feet from local men, their faces creased with incredulity. Our attentions turned to indoor activities: there's only so much fun you can have with wet feet, an umbrella in hand and a wrinkled finger assessing your every footstep.

With our walking plans for the hills surrounding Vila Real rained off, we took the bus to the Casa de Mateus instead. The home of the aristocratic family of rosé-producing fame, this Baroque mansion is now open to the curious public. Despite the casa's starring role on the label of that blush-filled funny-shaped bottle beloved of grandmas UK-wide, wine takes a back seat here. Unless you visit the café, that is.

With guided tours in English only taking place every few hours out of season, we had some time to kill. During a wander round the perfectly-manicured gardens, another downpour began. We sought refuge in the café, where an item on the drinks list caught our eyes. Wine. For 60 cents a glass. It had nothing to do with Mateus; it wasn't even rosé. But it was 60 cents. It was raining. What else were we going to do?

Fast forward a couple of hours, and Rachael and I joined the English-speaking tour group, which consisted of us and a French couple who spoke no English. Cue a lot of enthusiastic nodding and mm-hmming from us and blank stares from the couple. Interesting whether or not you've just visited the café for a drink or two, the Casa de Mateus opens its doors to numerous grand rooms, including drawing rooms, dining rooms, old bedrooms, the library (stocked with books dating from the seventeenth century and some original printing plates) and the family's own chapel, complete with its own relic. They certainly weren't short of a bob or two, the Mateus's: nothing but the finest furniture from France and objets d'art from China and India for this lot. Still under the influence of a couple of 60 cent beverages, we were quite excited to learn that the count and his family are still in residence, although visitors aren't granted access to their private apartments.

Although the tour was enjoyable and the guide knowledgeable about the artefacts on display, there was no mention of the history of wine production; there was no mention of wine at all, in fact. For a family who made their name from the stuff, the focus was decidedly wine-free: good job we decided to give the visit our own wine-focused slant, then. It was entirely appropriate, after all.

Friday, 20 May 2011

A sign of the times in Braga

As Portugal's religious capital, Braga isn't exactly renowned for its liberal atmosphere. So you can imagine our surprise when we saw this sign at the train station, innocently nestling between directions to the exit and taxi rank.

What in heaven's name is a kiss n' ride, we wondered? A polite name for a semi-legal kerb-crawling area? A designated spot to kiss your loved ones when arriving home after a day or week away at work? A teenage dream? You have to admit, the choice of a boy racer-esque model to grace the graphic doesn't exactly help to conjure up positive images.

With a little help from the internet, I put my fears to rest. Apparently, a kiss n' ride is a drop off zone - the place to kiss family and friends goodbye before they board the train. Wouldn't it be a bit easier to just say that? And in Portuguese, perhaps? I wonder what the good folk of Braga make of it all...

Thursday, 19 May 2011

A glass of the white stuff in Porto

'Peacocks', I observed. Rachael looked at me as though the mere scent of the port in front of us may have already gone to my head. I pointed towards the door; peacocks were patrolling the garden of Taylor's port wine lodge.

Set on Vila Nova de Gaia's hillside above the River Douro, Taylor's is one of a small number of lodges offering free tours and tastings of Porto's most famous tipple (most charge around €3). It's the only one to offer a glass of Late Bottled Vintage to its visitors, and its also the only lodge to boast its own peacocks.

Tours typically begin with a history of the company, before moving on to an overview of the port production process and a description of the various styles available. Made from grapes grown in the demarcated Douro region, port is fortified with a flavourless 77% spirit called aguardente before being transported to Gaia to age in gigantic wooden barrels. Some styles are quickly transferred to bottles, while others must mature for longer.

Before visiting Porto, I had filed port under 'sticky horrible drink served on stuffy formal occasions'. Completely ignorant about the different types of port, I was surprised to learn that light, refreshing white ports are served chilled as an aperitif, while heavier rubies and tawnies are reserved for post-prandial sipping. Most lodges offer a taste of a white port and a ruby or tawny, with extra tastings and appropriate nibbles at an additional cost.

Just one taste of a white port made me reconsider my categorization: not just a tipple for crusty academics and the elderly, port actually tastes good. Nowadays, there's even a pink port: this stuff is positively trendy. The Late Bottled Vintage offered by Taylor's is a much richer number: it's a vintage port (the star of the port family, produced entirely from grapes harvested in a declared 'vintage' year) allowed to age in the barrel for longer than its older brother. It has a vintage taste without the hassle: vintage is an awkward customer which needs to hang around inside a bottle for years reaching maturity. Ready for drinking straight after purchase, LBV is perfect for the impatient. Perhaps that's why I liked it so much.

You may also be interested in reading the article on budget breaks in Porto I wrote for The Travel Belles.

Photos of peacocks/peahens & port drinking copyright Rachael Schofield.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Porto: Art in the park

Whether or not you're a fan of contemporary art, you can't fail to be won over by Porto's contemporary art gallery, Serralves. The gallery itself features two temporary exhibitions at a time, but for me, Serralves' real appeal lies outdoors.

Set in a vast park 4km outside the city centre, the Serralves Foundation is home to an outdoor sculpture collection, a pink art deco mansion, formal gardens, wild woodlands, a lake and a farm featuring species from northern Portugal. Well worth half a day's exploration, it's a slice of contemporary cool with a side of countryside in suburban Porto.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Going boho down in (O)porto

North west of Porto's main boulevard, the Avenida dos Aliados, there lies an unassuming area that's far removed from the much-visited lanes of the waterside Ribeira quarter. On Rua da Conceicao and its continuations, there are no grand views, no key sights to tick off. What you'll find instead are an eclectic mishmash of old school shops peddling secondhand jewellery, religious goods and fruit and veg, comfortably co-existing with tiny independent galleries, trendy boutiques and design stores, with some laid-back bars and cafes thrown into the mixture for good measure.

The graffiti that adorns many of Porto's walls moves up a creative gear here, adding to the bohemian feel of the area. Sitting in the walled 'garden' of bakery turned cafe-bar Casa de Lo (Travessa de Cedofeita 20A) sipping one of their many teas, my travel companion Rachael observed that we could be in East London. A very laid-back pocket of East London, you understand: you won't find an overload of geek chic specs and checked shirts in these streets.

A nice cup of tea and a sit down at Casa de Lo

Shops selling secondhand books, clothing and furniture are well worth a browse, as is the Centro Comercial Miguel Bombarda on the street of the same name. No ordinary shopping centre, this smart space offers vintage clothing alongside the work of local designers, in addition to a cafe and a teashop retailing its own deliciously fragrant blends. Also worth a look as evening draws in is Cafe Candelabro at the start of Rua da Conceicao, the gateway to the area: an inviting dimly-lit bar with bookcase-lined walls, a relaxed atmosphere and huge glasses of good wine for €1.50. You certainly wouldn't get that in East London.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The scenic route from Porto to Faro

I recently spent a few weeks travelling from Porto in northern Portugal to Faro in the country's southernmost region, the Algarve. It's a journey I've made three times now in the name of travel guide research. Every time I return, I'm struck by a number of things: the beauty and diversity of the landscape, from the verdant fields of the northern Minho region, to the rolling hills of the central Beiras and the rocky coves of the western Algarve; the quiet friendliness of the Portuguese, less obviously ebullient but just as welcoming as their near neighbours the Spanish; the amazing value of a generously-sized meal and a bottle of local wine.

Every time I return to the same streets, my eye always chances upon something previously undiscovered: a stunning view that had escaped my notice, a restaurant with a tempting menu or even a newly-opened art gallery. At first glance, though, Portugal is a country that seems to change relatively little: independent retailers selling homewares or religious paraphernalia sit alongside trendy boutqiues and international chainstores, bacalhau (salt cod) still features highly on menus, resisting cosmopolitan competition. Every town is speckled with crumbling facades, somehow adding to the country's low-key charm while also hinting at tough financial times.

Evora's quiet streets

Yet despite the tumbledown houses dotting the landscape and the occasional feeling that time has stood still, Portugal is developing. Lisbon and Porto boast cutting-edge galleries and museums, as well as impressive infrastructure installed in the run up to Euro 2004. The traditional and modern seem to coexist happily, resulting in an appealing fusion of old and new. In Porto, the slick metro glides across the top of the nineteenth century Ponte Luis I, depositing its human cargo high above the riverside Cais de Gaia. Making your way down the hillside to the swanky restaurants on the water's edge with their panoramic windows, you wind through quiet cobbled streets where washing waves in the breeze and cats lounge in the sunshine. Grocers shops and neighbourhood bars are the only businesses in these lanes; you could be in a small rural town anywhere in the country. Emerging on lively Cais de Gaia, you're plunged back into Porto: a low-key, laid-back city, but a city nonetheless.

Ponte Dom Luis I seen from Gaia's streets

It's just this blend of old and new, of calm and bustling, that makes me hope that I'll keep returning to Portugal for years to come.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be blogging about my experiences of travelling around Portugal by bus and train. For now, here are some photographs of the towns and cities I visited on my journey from north to south.

The coast at Foz, Porto

Casa Serralves, Porto

Bom Jesus do Monte, near Braga
Coimbra's old town

The Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Church, Vila Nova Milfontes

Storks, Faro

The coastline near Lagos

You can find more of my posts on Portugal here. You may also be interested to read the article on Porto I wrote for The Travel Belles.

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