We drove into Portugal from Spain and headed straight to Porto on the north west coast, a beautiful coastal city that also happens to be home to the fortified wine that shares its name.
One of the first things we noticed upon crossing the border, was that the Portuguese language did not sound anything like what we expected. Our understanding was that Portuguese was very similar to Spanish (it certainly reads a lot like Spanish), but it sounded like... Russian!
I know this sounds strange, but I have since done some research and apparently mistaking Portuguese for Russian is actually quite common. Who knew?! We also noticed on the tourist buses that in the list of languages offered for tours, Brazilian Portuguese is listed as a separate language to Portugal’s Portuguese. Apparently some words are completely different, the formal and informal speech used in Portugal doesn’t exist in Brazil, and the differing accents can make comprehension really challenging.
On our road trip so far we'd visited England, France, and Spain, all countries we had visited previously and knew quite well. But this was my first visit to Portugal, so the "newness" was thrilling, and I especially enjoyed having my preconceptions challenged. Isn't this the best part of traveling somewhere new?
Aesthetically, Portugal is also full of surprises. Buildings everywhere - from everyday houses, to churches, to shops, to castles - are covered in brightly colored, patterned ceramic tiles known as “azulejos”. The tiles cover the exterior and interior walls, and give Portuguese architecture a really distinct appearance. They’re incredibly beautiful, and also serve the functional role of providing insulation. If you’re a history buff, you could use the imagery on the tiles as a guide to their era. For me, just being surrounded by so much pattern and design was really happy-making. Our Airbnb in Porto had recently been remodeled, and as a nod to tradition they also used bright, patterned tiles throughout the kitchen and bathroom to great effect.
In contrast to the pristine azulejo covered facades, there were also a lot of derelict buildings in the towns and cities across Portugal that we drove through. I can only imagine that these buildings will be brought back to life as the economic climate improves, but in the meantime they seem to have cultivated a vibrant urban art movement that has swept across the country. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much street art in one place! We visited a few art galleries while we were in Portugal, but the street art stole the show.
From Porto we drove to Portugal's capital, Lisbon; a hip, youthful city that really captured my imagination.
The Portuguese Empire was the first ever truly global empire, and it was also the longest-lived of the modern European empires. At different times, the empire encompassed territories that now form 60 independent sovereign states.
These days you can experience some of these influences in Portugal's truly dynamic food scene. There aren’t many countries with an amalgamation of culinary traditions that extends from India to Mozambique, from Angola to Brazil, and from China to Japan. Dining in Lisbon is exciting, while at the same time it nudges you to reflect on the country’s colorful history and international reach.
Early Portuguese missionaries introduced tempura to Japan, Goan Vindalho is a derivative of Portugal’s carne de vinha d’alhos, and the famous Portuguese custard tart can be found at Dim Sum restaurants around the world since their introduction into Guangzhou by the Portuguese around the time of the First Opium War. A lot of foodie fusion happens in nearly 6 centuries of global exploration!
There were moments during our time in Portugal (when talking to shop owners, Uber drivers, and Airbnb hosts, among others) that resentment regarding recent government imposed austerity measures felt palpable to me, but I also noticed a distinct feistiness among locals that I found really engaging. Perhaps their zeal and confidence was a consequence of having such an outward looking culture? Who knows for sure, but despite the fact that times have been tough for many in Portugal recently, it felt like a country full of characterful people with a lot of resolve.
From Lisbon we drove down to the southern coast to check out some of the beach towns in a region known as The Algarve. We stayed in Tavira, a picturesque town steeped in history. It was utterly charming, with cobbled streets, bright white buildings, abundant oleander, fiery red roofs, and authentic piri-piri chicken.
Rent a bicycle at one the shops near the Dom Luis I Bridge, and ride across the Douro River to Vila Nova de Gaia. Then head to Taberna Do Sao Pedro for lunch. The Portuguese know a thing or two about fish, and this restaurant is as authentic as it gets. There’s not much choice on the menu (if any), but you won’t be disappointed with the quality of your barbecued fish. It’s family run, and sometimes there are some emotionally-charged familial theatrics, but that just adds to it’s charm. The ride will take you around 15-20 minutes each way. Here’s the address as they don’t have a website: 4400 Vila Nova de Gaia, Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal +351 912 846 887
Restaurante Traça - If the weather permits, sit outside at a table in the square and enjoy a leisurely lunch. The food is refined, seasonal (think lots of game during hunting season) and incredibly reasonably priced for the high-end experience.
Reserve a table at Povo Lisboa and spend the evening listening to their latest artist in residence take you on a musical journey through Fado. Each residency lasts 12 weeks, and over that period the artist will perform with different musicians, poets, and composers to develop and enrich their art. Fado is intimate, emotional music, full of longing and soul. I adored our night here.
- Catch the ferry across the Tejo River from Lisbon to the fishing village of Cacihas, and walk along the sea wall to Restaurante Ponto Finale for lunch. The ferry ride is only a few minutes long, but in that crossing you will leave behind the bustle of Lisbon and enter a whole new world of sleepy fisherman.
- Book one of only ten tables at Belcanto and order the 'discoveries' menu - a culinary journey through Portuguese history around the globe. In addition to the 2 Michelin starred food, you'll also sample a fascinating selection of Portuguese wines.
- Taste Mozambican / Portuguese fusion food at Ibo Restaurante. The "kid chacuti" (spciy goat stew) was especially delicious.