Drinking, walking and eating – that pretty much summed up what Hema & myself did mostly during our short 5day trip to Porto & Lisbon, Portugal. We took it at our own pace, with only 2 sheets of paper as our general to do list and torn pages from LP book – goes to show how busy with work both of us were before departure. Admittedly there were plenty we missed out on, but somehow our wanderings did unravel some gems.
Can’t help but to compare Porto & Lisbon with Hanoi & Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in Vietnam. Porto was more rustic and down to earth, whereas Lisbon definitely more vibrant and filled with people who care to look fashionably good. Regardless, the Portuguese in general are very friendly and helpful, even if we don’t speak the language.
Porto – Race around the city
Our day out in Porto was quite a full-on experience – felt like an urban adventure race through the city. The goal was to cover as much drinking and interesting places on foot in a day.
CP#1 – First port wine tasting session at Sandeman, one of the biggest producer from the Douro region. The 1/2 hour tour was informative – we were briefed on what goes into making port, why the region here was so unique for the grapes, different varieties of port etc. The tasting session at the end presented visitors with 2 different varieties. First time tasting proper port – definitely plenty to look out for in terms of smell and flavours.
(Tasting port at Sandeman)
CP#2 – Braved the steep streets up towards Mosteiro da Serra do Pillar, located on one end of the Dom Luis I Bridge. The arch bridge is prominent feature linking Porto city and Vila Nova de Gaia (home to all the port wine lodges). The lower tier is used for cars & pedestrians, whereas the upper tier has a tram link running through and reserved mainly for people. It felt magical looking down from such a height (45m from ground level), having down 2 glasses of port by midday may have heightened the feeling.
(View of Dom Luis I Bridge from Vila Nova de Gaia – looking back towards Porto)
CP#3 – The challenge of finding a decent place for lunch, which is mere tourist trap. Found a small restaurant tucked away from the main street of Riberia which served up a decent lunch to go with our bottle of red wine, and thus begin our introduction to the slow, laid-back approach to dining out in Portugal. Waiter will take their time to set your table, bring the menu and take your order. No point hurrying them since they will nicely shoo you back to your table and reassured you that they will come shortly. Next you will be lucky that food arrives within 30-40min after the order is taken. Probably it’s a conspiracy so that you will pig out on the starters presented on the table upon arrival, since it cost quite a fair bit compared to the mains. Lesson whilst in Portugal or rest of southern europe – be prepared to have meals to last 1-2hours.
CP#4 – Back across the river to Vila Nova de Gaia and our 2nd port wine tour at Calem, one of the smaller and more traditional operator. The tour was more informal – our guide made the effort to throw in some humour compared to the dry, precise presentation at Sandeman. Tasting session at end was also more casual – we were allowed to try other port wines in addition to the usual 2 glasses offered. Had a 3rd glass myself to check out how their 10yr tawny tasted – it was simply fabulous.
CP#5 – Climbed up the 225steps leading up to the top of Torre dos Clerigos (Church of the Clergy), which was once the tallest structure in Portugal. Negotiating the narrow stairway is quite a challenge, and people have to squeezed past each other since the same pathway was being used to get up & down. We were rewarded with splenty views of the whole city at top, pity the sky was cloudy and not too great for pictures.
(Torre dos Clerigos – view of the tower structure where we survived walking up 225 steps)
CP#6 – Walking the long stretch towards Solar do Vinho do Porto, comfortable bar operated by the Port & Douro wines Institute. Known to have the widest range of port in town, you get to sample wonderful ports with the assistance of the helpful & knowledgeable port sommelier. Plus you get to lounge out in the small garden space with views of the river and city beyond. By now, the sweetness of the port sampling had to be balanced out with some cheese & crackers.
(Chilling out with more port wines out in the garden of Solar do Vinho do Porto)
CP#7- Returning back to Riberia for dinner. This time the choice of restaurant was not too great since we had to wait close to 40min for a simple meal of grilled prawns in olive oil and stew bacalhau (salted codfish common in Portugal). Only compensation was the jug of sangria was strong enough to keep our spirits going against the chilly night.
(Night view of Mosteiro da Serra do Pillar and Vila Nova de Gaia from Porto side)
CP#8 – Mustering enough energy to check out the Portuguese nightlife. As it was our only night to sample the local club scene, we recharged with a short nap before heading back to town after midnight. Challenge was finding the clubs, which was recommended by a local guy we met working in a CD store during the afternoon. We finally found a nice chill-out place, after walking up a quiet flight of stairs with absolute no indications of the venue located at the very top other than low hum of music as we neared the end.
CP#9 – Finding a livelier club scene took us back across the river towards Vila Nova de Gaia. This would probably marked the 4th time we crossed the bridge to this part of the city since arriving at Porto. Entered a club which was jam-packed with young adults enjoying the local thumping music. Was not to our expectations since most of the people were content with standing around and checking everyone out, while we wanted to boogie more instead. Plus the music that night was not flowing on smoothly, with brief gaps between song changes.
CP#10 – Returning back to comfy bed in our extremely clean & comfortable hostel after 3am. Hurray!
Drinks counter: 7 glasses of port wines, shared bottle of red wine, shared jug of sangria & 2 local beers. That’s probably my 1mth alcohol intake cramped in 1 day.
Lisbon – Vibrant & colourful
Loved the fact that Lisbon city consists of various quarters which are unique in its own way.
We stayed at a wonderful hostel around Alfama, which is an older part of the city with winding alleyways and colourful buildings. Pace of life is slower and definitely a fabulous site to wander around to sample the local lifestyle, Fado music and taking pics. We spent a few good hours exploring the Castelo de Sao Jorge and enjoyed an interesting 360′ view with commentary of landmarks around Lisbon using periscope reflecting live views from outside onto a big concave dish. The other highlight was taking the vintage tram ride through the old quarter, and holding our breaths at certain areas where the tram rattled past within inches of the buildings beside the narrow streets.
(Sampling of the colourful houses & buildings around Alfama)
(View of the tram rolling by outside our hostel)
Baixa is very much the heart of Lisbon with its many administrative & business offices alongside major shopping outlets. It is also home to Elevador de Santa Justa, built to link lower parts of Baixa to upper Chiado & Bairro Alto. The platform at the top offered great views of the city and made one realised how hilly Lisbon was.
(View of Lisbon city from Elevador de Santa Justa – see Castelo de Sao Jorge at top of the hill)
Chiado is the aristrocratic quarter made famous as the hangout place for writers and artists with its many cafes and fashionable shops. We enjoyed some strong Portuguese coffee with some yummy pastries at Cafe a Brasileira, one of the city’s oldest and most famous cafe. Fascinating noting how most Europeans like their coffee in espresso form while the people in London usually take it watered down with milk.
(Inside view of Cafe a Brasileira)
Bairro Alto is home to Lisbon nightlife with its many bars, restaurants and clubs. We managed to spend a nice evening here with pre-dinner drinks at a Cuban bar, superb dinner at Olivier and chill-out drinks at Pavilhao Chines (Chinese Pavillion). Dinner at Olivier (www.restaurante-olivier.com) was to die for – we were treated to a set menu with 9 starters, 1 main course and 1 dessert. We were already full at end of the 9 starters and was struggling to get through main course, with no room at all for dessert (pity!). Night cap at Chinese Pavilion was also an unforgettable experience. The venue is famous for its bizarre collection of artefacts and specialty cocktails. Each room houses different themed collection of quirky items, ranging from toy soldiers to military headgear. We spent the night away in the biggest room where we “played” pool – more like trying to aim straight and not hit anyone with flying balls as both of us were lousy players and definitely tipsy from the array of drinks for the evening.
(Playing pool inside Chinese Pavilion)
Belem oozes history as it was the place that Vasco da Gama set sail for India. Here we set eyes on 2 great UNESCO Heritage sites – Tower of Belem, finely decorated fortress to safeguard the approach to Lisbon harbour and Jeronimos Monastery, finest example of Manueline architecture. Didn’t really enjoyed the monastery too much since it was packed with hordes of tourists, preferred instead the serenity when visiting a place of worship. Other than great historical landmarks, we also feasted on original Portuguese egg tarts at Antiga Confeitaria de Belem. Simply heavenly, the pastry was flaky with creamy egg custard topped with cinnamon and icing sugar. Washed down with more strong cafe, it must be one of the best pastry I have tasted todate.
(Tower of Belem)
(Portuguese egg tarts)
Looking back at our trip, it was indeed fascinating to see how much both of us managed to cover in such a short time. Nevertheless, plenty of great sights and eats which we missed out on – so definitely another country I do hope to return to in the near future.
More pics at picasaweb.google.com/wyeyim/PortoLisbonMay2008