“The thing about Portugal is that on the one hand it seems like nothing has changed and they’ve been doing things the way they were doing them decades ago, but on the other hand if you consider North America, we’re trying to change back to do what places like Portugal never stopped doing.”
Okay, so I bounced around some ideas for this post for a couple of weeks since being back from Portugal, but this quotation (said by my partner while we were there) kept swimming up to the top of my pool of ideas, so, I’m going to deviate from my usual documentation style blog post. Besides, these days anyone travelling and willing to invest a little planning time can easily google (or search social media) for the trendiest restaurants and hotspots, and seek the wisdom of professional travel writers for the “must see” historical sites of most places in the world. So instead I present you with some quirky and unusual (for non-Europeans anyhow) facts that you may not know about Portugal; some things I once took for granted, but have since fallen in love with. Fret not, I will follow with some photos; the best part of sharing.
First, a little background: I haven’t been back to Portugal in 15 years. As a kid, I went often with my parents. My father was born in Porto, and my mom in a very small village in the Douro region called Pinhal do Norte. I was born in Africa, which if you know anything about Portugal’s colonial past you will recognize this as quite common. We moved here as a family in 1976 and left quite a bit of family behind. In my younger years we spent as many summers as we could afford vacationing in Portugal. Since then, most of my family members have moved or passed away, and I have spent the last 15 years discovering other parts of this vast world.
We planned for this trip over a couple of years, knowing it would be our longest to date, and that we would attempt to see Portugal from the top to the bottom as well as visit the family I still have there. In hind sight, we both agree that we should have heeded the advice of family who strongly encouraged us to visit for much longer than our 18 days, but we both came away with a new (for him) and renewed (for me) appreciation for this small, yet incredible country. Sometimes appreciation for the things we take for granted grows out of experiencing things through the eyes of someone else, and many of the observations that follow, in fact, came from my (Canadian born/non-European) partner, who is now equally enamoured. So, without further ado, here are some things you probably don’t know about Portugal:
1. Coffee culture is everywhere. You do not have to go to a trendy town and find the latest hipster coffee house; everyone is a barista. From the city coffee shops to highway rest stops, you can bet on an excellent cup of coffee (always espresso, unless you ask for something different). You can also bet on the fact that everyone sits down to enjoy their coffee; this time is expected and respected. Nothing is too important that you can’t interrupt to have a coffee, and I wish that mentality existed here. The other great thing about how the Portuguese consume coffee, is that there is NO WASTE, ever. You can’t get your coffee to go; you have to sit down and drink it. I think we call this being “environmentally friendly”.
2. Support for locally derived food and drink is not the latest trend, it’s just the way it is. Wherever you eat you will enjoy regional specialities made with whatever is in season. The wine list, in almost all cases, will have Portuguese wine exclusively. This may sound restrictive, but Portugal has 14 different wine regions which produce wines that celebrate a heritage of over 25o different grape varieties, some of which can not be found anywhere else in the world. We asked one restaurant why they didn’t have wines from, say France or Italy, and the reply was “why would we; we make lots of wine here”.
3. The “house wine” is usually the best. Here in North America, asking for house wine is akin to asking for the cheapest, crappiest wine a restaurant has to offer, but in Portugal (and this was confirmed by a number of servers we talked to), the house wine is selected “to represent the restaurant” and is often the best or favourite as selected by the owner or sommelier. You can also be sure, that in most cases this specially selected wine is very, very reasonably price.
4. There is so much natural and historical beauty to be seen in Portugal, and the Portuguese love it when people visit, but don’t expect them to make anything convenient for you. What I mean is, you won’t find signs leading you to the cliffs of Sagres to watch the sunset, you won’t find escalators, stairs or even walkways to the beautiful beaches in the Algarve, you won’t even find information easily online for the 66 wineries you can visit in the Alentejo, you won’t find convenient operating hours, and you definitely won’t find safety railings on any natural wonder to keep your kids from falling. But somehow, people get there, and this stoic determination to keep things they way they were is a marvelous thing.
5. As a tourist, Portugal is the best deal in Europe. Even in some of the upscale restaurants in Lisbon and Porto we were unable to spend more than 100 Euros despite copious amounts of food and wine. Again, because the wine and food is locally produced and there aren’t ridiculous rules and taxes associated with and imposed by government bodies (ahem, I’m talking to you Ontario LCBO) excellent wine is very inexpensive (and very readily available), and food is very affordable. Lodging options are also plentiful and affordable, but my suggestions to you is to stay in a bed and breakfast, small inn or Posadas where you will enjoy the personal attention and suggestions of your hosts.
And now for some photos; a short slide show from the different areas we visited:
Douro Region (the North):
Thanks so much for reading and viewing. I hope one day you can visit this marvelous place.
When our connecting flight from Bonaire to Toronto was cancelled on Sunday and we found ourselves stuck in Newark, I felt very unlucky. In fact, I experienced quite a lot of self pity, which at the time was unnecessary since we were immediately rescheduled and (due to a booking mixup) ended up at a pretty luxurious Marriott hotel for the evening. A decent meal and good bottle of wine was hardly grounds for “poor me” feelings, but I harboured them with unyielding emotion well into the following day, which we spent working out and shopping; again, hardly reason for feelings of despair. But when the text came Monday evening that the second flight was cancelled again, I moved quickly into panic mode and fear took over; fear of missing work; fear of the worry I’d be causing my Mom; fear which morphed into dread; fear which jump started the exploration of other possible ways to get home. At this point I was ready to drive home. These moments of desperation all led to an interesting series of events (that some might call fate, God’s will or Karma, but which I call luck) that eventually got us home.
Today I am strangely overwhelmed with the feeling of luck; lucky to have secured tickets for an Newark-Ottawa-Toronto flight after the second flight home was cancelled; lucky to have had a super New York taxi driver who drove us from Newark to Laguardia in less than 70 minutes; lucky to be waiting at the same gate as the last flight to Toronto boarded and to have a partner with the foresight to ask if there were any available seats; lucky to deal with an amazing Air Canada agent and ground crew who went out of their way to get our bags off the Ottawa plane and onto the the Toronto plane; lucky to have a seasoned flight crew that safely landed the plane in terrible weather after twenty minutes of being bounced around the sky like a ping pong ball; lucky we only sat on the runway for one hour; lucky I remembered that at Pearson your bags don’t always come on the indicated bag carrousel; lucky that, still wearing our summer clothes, we caught a cab as soon as we stepped outside; lucky to be home when others still are not; lucky to feel the warm sun through the cold trees today.
I’ve only ever stayed at all-inclusive resorts when in the Caribbean, and while the convenience of not having to worry about food or drink might seem appealing, being locked up in one place doing the same thing every day is definitely not how I like to travel. This time down south we rented an apartment; this is how most people set up shop in Bonaire, and the fact that there are really no resorts on the island testifies to the fact that this is a place for people who like to do things (scuba, kite-board, snorkel, hike, bike, etc.). There’s something great about hitting the local supermarket to stock up your temporary home with all the food and drink you love, and if you so choose, also have the option of hitting the local restaurants and bar. This, my friends, is really the best of both worlds. All the apartments here at the Djambo open up to the centre courtyard pool & bar, which (along with an outdoor kitchen) pretty much makes this the best accommodation I’ve ever stayed at.
Yesterday was a glorious day here in Bonaire. We keep meeting people who arrived on vacation and never went home, and it’s easy to see why. One of those transplants is Haiger, owner and chef of the famous Cactus Blue food truck, which finds its permanent home on Kite Beach. Although we didn’t get to taste his famous lion fish burgers, we did enjoy beer and stories with him; this was a perfect way to end a day of kicking back on the beach and watching our guys on the water.
There are many many things I expected from a vacation in Bonaire, but incredibly inventive cuisine was not one of them. On an impromptu recommendation from some locals and other visitors we stumbled into At Sea and enjoyed a Chef’s tasting menu (& wine parings, of course) that rivals restaurants I’ve visited in New York and Chicago. A fantastic surprise, and needless to say, we’ll be returning next Friday.
This summer’s road trip took us to California, specifically San Francisco, Wine country (Sonoma, Napa, Anderson Valleys) and Mendocino. So rather than one gigantic post, I thought this would best be done in three parts; here, my friends, is part one.
We landed in San Francisco and took the Bart into town in order to pick up our rental car. I mention this bland point because, once agin, we landed in a city smaller than my own which has an easy to use and extensive public transportation system; this always causes much envy. Dragging suitcases and carry-ons through a strange city, especially a very hilly one, is not fun, but renting a car in the city always guarantees a MUCH cheaper rate than picking up at the airport (half price actually). Truthfully, I will admit that the walk from the Bart station to the Hertz office left a bad taste in my mouth for a city we were soon to return to for five days. We walked through a “rougher” neighbourhood, and despite the fact that there were two of us, we were heckled and accosted (more on this later). Once we had the car, we made our way out of the city, but not before stoping for some much needed sustenance at Tacolicious, a popular (small chain) Mexican inspired restaurant.
San Francisco is cold. Some may call it mild, but having just arrived from a super hot and humid Toronto, the 17 degrees was shocking. I was glad to drive away to our first stop, Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa is a very small city in the Sonoma Valley; a less expensive option compared to the trendy Healdsburg, it would serve as the perfect home base for the activities of the next four days.
After this full day of flying and driving, our dinner at Willi’s Wine Bar was exactly the California welcome we needed. Super fresh and local food accompanied by an endless list of both local and world wines, almost all of which were available by the glass. Needless to say, we spent the evening eating a variety of small plates (oysters, in-house made charcuterie, etc.), and tasting some of the incredible wines the area had to offer.
The next day was the start of three full days of wine tasting in the area. The options are overwhelming, and it pays to do a little research before you go; talk to people who have been, and get your hands on some of the great maps available at most hotels, restaurants and wineries. We had some starting points in mind thanks to fellow oenophiles and the other wineries we hit were a result of recommendations from the wineries we visited, sommeliers and winemakers we met; this led us to some of our favourite spots. Be prepared to pay for tastings, $6-$10 in Sonoma and Anderson Valley, and $25+ in Napa. The big difference we noticed about these regions was that in Sonoma & Anderson Valleys the wineries we visited waved the tasting fees with purchase (which was pretty much every time for us), but in Napa tastings fees are charged regardless of what and how much you buy. I think it’s more than fair to charge for tasting wine when no purchase is made, but when it is, I think it’s in bad taste to charge me an additional $25 for the four small drops of wine I tried (and in most cases, shared!).
The wine region of Sonoma county is stunning, and it is easy to be distracted by the beauty of the wineries; gorgeous vineyards lined with silvery green olive trees, and perfumed by the beautiful eucalyptus trees. We had an incredible first day and tasted some really great wine, but the favourite that day was definitely St. Francis (if you want a more detailed list of most of what we tasted on this vacation, you can click here: Wine Tasting in California 2013).
Our second dinner in Santa Rosa was at Jackson’s Bar and Oven, a last minute recommendation we received from some locals. The wood-oven pizza, oysters, dessert and the wine were fantastic; and it was great to be able to walk back to our hotel.
Our second day of winery visits was done via road bikes. I can not talk or write enough about how biking on vacation is the BEST way to see and experience the place you’re visiting. We do this every time we vacation, and it’s always a highlight. The ride through the Sonoma Valley vineyards was definietly the BEST ride I’ve every done on vacation, not in terms of athletic performance, but in terms of the sheer beauty of the surroundings. The route we rode was almost absent of cars, which made the experience even more idealic. We rented road bikes from two spots: Echelon Cycle in Santa Rosa, and Wine Country Bikes in Healdsburg. We spent the day tasting and buying (conservatively) stopping also to enjoy lunch at the busy and delicious Dry Creek Store. The favourite here was the beautiful Bella Vineyards and WIne Caves; a stunning winery at the end of our bike route, which poured us some of my favourite wine.
Our third evening was a spontaneous decision made after talking to locals all day, the Santa Rosa Night Market; every Wednesday in the centre of town, hundreds of people gather to enjoy a delightful combination of local food, craft vendors, live music, children’s activities, a wine tasting garden, and some costumed characters (my favourites were the dancing ninjas). We weren’t sure sacrificing our hard-to-get reservations at a heralded foodie destination was the right thing to do, but it turned out to be perfect way to continue to experience many of the things this area has to offer.
Our third day of wine tasting took us to the famous Napa valley. After three days of being in this area, we debated whether or not to visit this very touristy, and (in the opinion of locals) highly overrated wine region, but we felt that we should visit at least once, especially since we were so close. We drove through the, sometimes unbearable, traffic to hit up some spots recommended to us, most especially the bubbles. The favourite Napa spot was Pride Mountain Vineyards, who welcomed us despite their reservations required policy. The wine here was outstanding, and they were the only place we visited this day that waved the tasting fee with purchase.
We hit up the usual suspects for bubbles, but had the best experience at Mumm Napa, not only because of the Fine Art Photography Gallery (permanet exhibit of Ansel Adams as well as a rotation exhibit), but because of an unexpected opportunity to taste their Pinot Noir (the only wine they make); this wine was INCREDIBLE, and one of the best Pinots we tasted. Proof that being friendly with strangers can yield unexpected pleasure.
Our final evening in Santa Rosa took us back to St. Francis Winery for the first night of their Outdoor Summer Film Festival; a screening of Dirty Dancing. For a wine-loving 80s’ girl, this was the best thing! We borrowed a blanket from our hotel and sat among the locals sipping wine and eating some great food truck eats. It was the perfect ending to our Sonoma stay.
Stay tuned for PART II: Mendocino and Anderson Valley
It’s funny how a quick conversation over twitter can ignite all kinds of desires. We’ve gone to Burlington Vermont every summer for four years in a row; it’s a small town, but it has so many things that I love so much, the most important being a love of everything local (especially beer and food) and a love of outdoor play. One day we’ll retire there, but in the meantime, we’ll dream…