Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oh Porto!

The state of Tequila, Mexico produces Tequila, The Cognac region in France produces Cognac...therefore Porto, Portugal produces Port. I tried my first bottle of the wine and aguardente (sometimes called brady) mixture during a desperate winter getaway to Clearwater Beach, FL in the late 90's. I booked a few nights at a youth hostel and befriended a German by the name of Nils who was game for an evening of cigars and Port. A couple of bottles later we came to the conclusion that further investigation was needed as we stumbled back to our dorm room.

Since then my knowledge about Port has blossomed. Here is a little of what I know. There are bottles that you sit on, rest, hide, store for several years then enjoy once the grandkids graduate from medical school and there are those you open when you finish putting the groceries away...either way there is a bottle to suit your time frame. How is Port taken? It's not uncommon to have a glass before dinner but most I know enjoy "the sweet wine" after a meal. Some will swear that you drink it with cheese while others prefer fruits, though many insist on good chocolates. I would encourage experimentation with any of the above methods.

Below is a quick cheat sheet on Port you will most commonly encounter in a bottle shop (sans a speciality store).
Tawny-inexpensive ready to consume. Aged less than 8 years in wooden casks.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) aged about 5-7 years-decent, a few bucks more, but you can also consume after purchase.
Vintage-made with the best grapes from a single year. Aged for a few years in a cask then bottled. You will want to to consume after storing it for at least 10 years. Some bottles are over 100 years old and will cost you quite a penny. The older the better the flavors develop in the bottle.

Q: How is port made?
A: With feet stomping on grapes during harvest time.

One store was asking 500 Euros for a bottle. They better be good friends.  
We rented a car in Lisbon and drove north to Porto. Once in the city we got off to a rough start. While navigating through the compact city on streets not suitable for cars we smashed into a Smart Car. There were no casualities other than a broken plastic bumper. To our delight we had purchased full coverage insurance. We met up with our friend Paul who lives in the historic city center. He was generous enough to let us camp out at his pad for a few nights. Paul is band manager and usually on the road 11 months of the year, we happened to catch him home for the holidays. We spent our first evening chatting it up over a bottle Vhino Verde (Northern Portugal's infamous green wine). The image above is the Porto's train station, it is covered with crusader tiles.
The following morning and afternoon was spent walking and sightseeing. The bird lady was first on the agenda. 
We hit several cathedrals and roamed through local neighborhoods. Paul made the comment that people who live in the older buildings paid next to nothing in rent. He rents a top floor six-room apartment for 350 Euros. Shit, that would be like like finding a six room flat in the Gas Lamp for less than 500 bills in San Diego. He said most people in Porto want something more modern (with heat) outside the center for a few Euros more. People living in these flats are paying less than 100 Euros a month. Socialism has its' privileges. 

Who doesn't want to quit their job and move here. The winters are rainy but the summers are amazing. Paul recently move from Prague where he declared the city "over." The Czech Republic is on the Ryan Air route and has been flooded by European tourist. Porto is still an untamed entity waiting to be spoiled. Book your tickets now. 

For the record, I'm not a fan of Sandeman and try avoid it at all costs. 

We crossed Dom Luis Bridge into Nova Vila de Gaia (Gaia) after exploring old Porto. 

If your willing and have the time and money you can take an all day boat ride up the Douro river to where the port magic happens.  
Once in Gaia it was operation anarchy. We bypassed the standard port houses hoping to find one off the beaten path for tours and samples. This involved climbing upwards and combing through many empty steets. The good news was that we were away from people but that detailed a lot of dead end roads. 

What do you do when you run into a dead end street? Look for open doors or windows. We weren't sure what port house this was, but it looked promising. 
The vines are more for show.

A couple of houses had opened doors and not being shy we let ourselves in for a quick peek. We called out to anyone who would listen but there was no response. Maybe the workers were taking siestas on the barrels.

Just a buildling.

Somehow we ended up on the grounds of a five-star hotel. Each room had access to its' own miniture golf course.

The Dom Luis Bridge as seen from the ground of the five-star hotel. Does it look familar? Hint: think of a tower in Paris.

It had to happen folks, we did find a port house with free tours and samples. Taylor Fladgate, and Yeatman would be crowned winner. Aside from the free samples the house offered aged Tawnies for a few Euros.

We were each given a glass of white (Chip Dry Port) and a LBV (Late bottled vintage). Conveniently there were fine chocolates available. It was almost noon by the time when we finished.

Taylors had quite a little museum to show off their history and production methods. My favorite part was the photos of the villagers/pickers with their knee high burgandy legs pressing the grapes with their bare feet to extract flavor and color from the grape skins. This process is done for two hours. One photo had a band playing their instuments while extracting. Sadly this process occurs only once a year. One of the ladies at Tayor's told me that machines were made to replace the pickers and replicate the foot movements but it was abandoned because the quality suffered. Personally I don't care how port is made as long as I don't end up with a toenail in my glass.     

Like Lisbon and maybe the rest of areas we went to in Portugal it rained off and on throughout the day and night. This made it a chore to want to explore the city. We did get in a few sights in the city center even if it was a casual pass.

I personally like the blue ceramic tile on the old buildings.

A friend of Paul's suggested we should do dinner at Ze Bota Restaurante. Almost every plate we had in Porto came with a fried egg on top of the meat. Not a super health conscious meal, but a glass of wine or two should break the fat down. And yes it was muy delicious.  

Vinho Verde hails from nothern Portugal from the Minho region. Casa Garcia is one of the more popular and inexpensive brands at about 3-3.50 Euros per bottle. By the way the restaurants in Portugal typically don't have a high mark-up on the wines like they do in the States. 

A view from Paul's bedroom window.
...and the bedroom.

Painting in the bedroom. Paul said he found this gem on the streets in Prague...I know I'm jealous too.  
West of Porto in Matosinhos there is an area of fish restaurants serving the day's catch. It is a local area run by the fishermen's families. A favorite of Paul's and his friend Solana was Salta o Muro. The place really poured it on with hearty main course portions, appetizers, 3 bottles of vino, and dessert for about 20 dollars/person. Friendly staff, intimate setting, high recommended.  
Paul patiently waiting for his plate to arrive.
Solana and her boyfriend would invite us back to their digs after dinner to show us their exciting finds of Porto. They definitely have an eye to spot the kitschy. 
A thrift store painting doesn't really get more wholesome than this.
A turning water skiing lampshade is always a party favorite.
Nothing gets the party rolling like a ghetto blaster, an 8-Track Tape player, and 45's. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sintra and Cascais Portugal

We had spent Christmas morning and part of the afternoon in Lisbon and let me tell you there wasn't much going on. We attended a noon mass at Basilica da Estrela (built in the late 18th century and equipped with space heaters and little boys rolling their Hot Wheels on the pews.). The day was cold and rainy and being short sighted we didn't stock up on food for a proper lunch.

I had been in contact with Sandra, a new friend who we met through the Couch Surfing website. We made plans to meet up later that afternoon in Sintra (about a 40 minute train ride from central Lisbon). Her description of the tiny town was spot on. It was like walking into a fairy tale; it had a castle, a palace, forest, fog, and all that was missing were the elves. To say the least the area was a magical and having someone like Sandra showing us around made it even more special. In our two visits there I felt like we've only scratched the surface and thus needs further exploration in the near future.

We weren't sure what we were in for when we met Sandra at the train station, the town seemed sleepy mainly because it were Christmas and there was only a handful of people roaming the streets. The afternoon would entail a good deal of walking around the main part of town, up the hill to a castle, and conversation. Pictured above is city hall. 
Sintra National Palace (Palacio Nacional)
The contrast between our first and second visit was pretty remarkable. When the town is awake and places are open, it is pretty flooded with locals and tourists. 
The path above the Sculpture Museum (Museu Anjos Teixeira) is lined with a variety of sculptures by several artists. 
Sintra is a town of fountains pouring out water from a natural spring. Although the signs advise not to drink any, we saw people pull up to them in their cars with several plastic containers. Sandra said there is usually a line. I guess the trick is to go during off peak times such as Christmas. Later in the evening we sampled a mouthful from this Moorish fountain. 
Fuente de Pipa (The pipe fountain) had barely any H2O to offer, but it sure looks pretty.

FYI, The grass was greener on the other side. 
Several years ago Ana met my friend Noal for the first time in San Francisco. One evening he took us on one of his epic walks around the city which included a dimly lit path up a hill. She had an irrational moment where she thought he was going to turn into a vampire. Fortunately for her that vision was never realized. On the way up to Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors) we passed by the former residence of Hans Christian Andersen (Hansel and Gretel). There was no one on the path besides us so Ana and I naturally figured that Sandra had a plot to get us lost in the woods and eat us.  
Since Sandra didn't end up eating us, we at least thought we might find a fairy or a unicorn. No dice amigo. We finally reached the gate to the castle only to find locks on it. We headed back down the path and took an alternative route also to discover another locked gate.
We finally made it back into town only wanting to see more Sintra. We took the train back towards Lisbon and parted ways with Sandra. She wished us luck on finding a place open for dinner, we settled for an Indian meal at a Chinese restaurant.  
We stayed in contact with Sandra while we were in Porto, we told her that another visit to Sintra was a must and asked her if she wanted to hang out with us again. She was game. The first stop was the Toy Museum. We probably spent more time here than at the Louvre in Paris. Four floors filled with mostly vintage toys.
Egypt is never too far away.

Dear Santa, Please bring me a toy bar for Christmas.
The contemporary exhibit consisted of musical instruments. 
Paper dolls and pecking metal birds.
I couldn't get the right shot of the actual Smoky Joe toy. Overall the toy didn't look like much fun...I suppose if you stole a pack of matches from mom and dad and lit the couch on fire then you might be in a for a good time and potentially a beating.  
Nothing says hours of fun like horse and cart.
Open wide little bear.
He does laundry too.
Before Smoky Joy there was My Village Is On Fire play set.
The dolls were on the top floor along with the toy repair center with boxes of doll heads and body parts...the stuff slasher films are made of. 
The estate of Quinta da Ragaleira. We didn't make time to go in. Reason no. 53 why we must return to Portugal.

Pena National Palace sits on a hill above Lisbon overlooking the town. It is said that it can be seen from Lisbon. The structure is an intentional eclectic mix of neo-Renaissance, Gothic, Islamic, and Manueline styles...it feels and looks like a stew of Portuguese architecture. Pretty or not, I couldn't help but feel like I was stuck in an M.C. Escher's dream.   

The Palace at a distance.
To our left

To our right
The kissing cousin to the Belem Tower.
At the entrance gate we received a map to the palace and surrounding park/forest detailing the paths and hidden sights. The statue of the warrior is the protector of the palace.

Queen Sandra ordering "Off with their heads" in the most pleasant was possible. At the point when we were the furthest away from our car it started to pour rain. Short story even shorter, we got drenched as our undies had enough water to float a small vessel. Again in a display of kindness Sandra took us back to her place where we could change our clothes and offered us her room for the night. Later we all went shopping for winter clothes at a mega sports store.
The evening ended with delicious veggie lasagna at o Pizza
In wasting no time, the following morning's mission was devoted to taking in a little Cascais (about 25 km west of Lisbon). It reminded me of La Jolla. If you have time the town offers free bike rentals as a means to explore. 
The Cascais Mermaid looking out to the sea keeping fishermen safe.

Boats in the marina.

At the gate of Marechal de Carmona Park and Condes de Castro Guimaraes Museum.
When the birds see you coming around the corner they hope you are packing food.
In addition to birds chasing you down and a farmers market, there is a big pair of feet.

Back of the Condes de Castro Guimaraes Museum and on the road to Hell's Mouth.
The mouth of hell.
Hell's Mouth even has a bar.
Just a typical building on the way back to the car.