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The Pull of Portugal

Stunning Scenery Pairs With Culinary Delights and Local Wine

“Am I your first Arizonan since your country opened back up?” I ask Bruno Teixeira, as he carries my luggage up three flights of stairs to a stunning room overlooking Lisbon’s terracotta roofs, hills, and cobblestone streets.

The hotel manager laughs.

“You are,” he says, smiling.

Teixeira moved to the Portuguese capital eight years ago, spending the last six running Solar Dos Mouros, a charming boutique hotel in one of Lisbon’s oldest and hippest areas, the Alfama district.

“The tiny streets, the small tapas bars, the wine of course,” he answers, when I ask what he loves most about Lisbon.

For me? Just four hours in I was already smitten with the city’s colors, from the bougainvillea hugging the city’s aging buildings to the hand-painted azulejos (tiles dating back to the Moors) that you can’t miss. I learned quickly Lisbon is a vibrant place, where you’re guaranteed to work off the country’s famous pastel de nata (custard tarts), since walking is a sport here. Like San Francisco, Lisbon is VERY hilly.  

Always an early riser, especially when I travel, I grabbed a coffee the next morning and walked over to the stunning 12th-century Castelo De São Jorge (a stone’s throw from Solar dos Mouros), a mid-11th-century fortress overlooking Lisbon… a place the Celts, Moors, and Romans all called home. Today, the main residents are the beautiful peacocks that roam the grounds and tolerate tourists who try to get close and snap a photo.

Determined to cover as much ground as I could in 48 hours, I worked my way down to the seaport, past a popular Saturday market, taking a break to hop on Lisbon’s historic Tram 28, where the rattle of the vintage streetcar managed to hide my heavy breathing as the tram meandered through streets so narrow that it’s amazing I didn’t accidentally knock over a pedestrian with my resting elbow.

Apparently, people in Lisbon are NOT claustrophobic and must be former Cirque du Soleil performers who know how to navigate small spaces during their walks home.

“About that,” Texiera tells me later, “you have to be careful. Keep your arms inside the tram.”

While I DID manage to keep my arms and hands away from many of Lisbon’s pastries (trying not to overdo it), I couldn’t resist an octopus hotdog for lunch (believe it or not, great!) and later, a seafood specialty at Bairro do Avillez, owned by one of Portugal’s most famous chefs, Michelin-rated José Avillez.

Chef Avillez has made a career promoting Portuguese gastronomy with his innovative and soulful dishes, and, with more than 20 restaurants in his portfolio, he is thrilled tourists are starting to come back to his country. 

“We’ve been fighting the last year-and-a-half in this pandemic. It’s amazing to have back people from all around the world. For the whole world, it was a difficult time. So, to be able to travel? I’ve talked with other American tourists,” he says, looking around as if to make sure no one else is listening. “They’re my favorite guests.”

He laughs.

I repay the compliment by telling him how much I loved my dinner, and that, if I could, I’d give him another Michelin star JUST for his generous use of my favorite herb, cilantro. 

I decided to spend the next few days driving through the countryside up to the Alto Douro wine area, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and Portugal’s response to Napa Valley. Sure, you can find a nice dry red or white, but this place is all about their Port. Pair it with cheese and cured meat? Don’t get me started! I spent the afternoon at Quinta do Bomfim, a family-run vineyard and estate overlooking the Douro River, where wine guide Luís Pereira spent a lot of time talking about Ruby and Tawny. After realizing they weren’t two Vegas showgirls who had decided to bring their talents to Portugal, but instead categories of Port (I preferred the more “caramel-tasting” tawny), I asked Pereira what makes the Douro Valley ripe (no pun intended) for producing such great, sweet wines.

“It’s like a puzzle with very unique pieces,” he tells me. “Side-mountain vineyards, soil made of schist and shale, and the weather. We have a saying here: ‘We have nine months of winter and three months of hell in the summer.’” 

I tell him I’m from Arizona and know ALL about blazing, hellish summer months. 

Portugal may be a small country, but it is full of identity and heart with castles, coastlines, and a consistent Mediterranean climate. It’s also home to some of the nicest people you’ll meet. In fact, Teixeira emailed during my trip north, wanting to make sure I was still having a good time in his country. I told him I’d barely scratched the surface of the place. He isn’t surprised.

“Portugal is everything, at the same time it is nothing,” he writes. “We have so much to discover.” 

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