Why everyone is going to Portugal now
I hurry up while driving in the sunlight, turning north into Lisbon in the late afternoon. When I turn off the road and exit the tunnel, I see my destination: Porto, shining in the Iberian sun. After washing the dull tones and tiles, Portugal's second largest city is a panorama of blue, yellow, brown and green. The colors soothe me; they calm my eyes and slow me down. It's October and the wind is cool. (Learn more about key things to do in Lisbon.)
Out of the car and walking in the tangled streets and alleys, I watch the melody floating in the air and find my old street organist. He has a fuzzy chicken picking seeds on the table, almost as if it were dancing to music. Behind him, the sun has cast a lightly etched organ mill silhouette against the wall of buildings. It looks like the Hague school in the countryside. I throw a euro into a person's basket, take a photo and walk on.
But not far away. I can barely move the block without admiring the shadow of the lost plaster wall, the shimmering of the red tile roof, the dry linen hanging of the dry sunshine striking the bright reflection of the sun. For the past year or two, it seemed as if every other person I met said they had just been to or were going to Portugal. They would say that Lisbon was lovely, Alentejo timeless, Porto magical. When I asked why, their words seemed to fail. "Go check it out for yourself," they say. (See beautiful photos from a trip to Portugal.)
Passengers arriving at Porto Sao Bento Train Station are astonished by the 20,000 blue-and-white azulejo plates from the early 1900s depicting historical scenes and rural landscapes.
Now, one of them, in my camera, is looking for something elusive - the lighting that lasts, the way to capture the momentary moments we have on our journey. Light filters through the streets through the stream through the reed. It plays tricks where it lands, splashing around, reflecting from beautiful, polished angles. Click on the blue-white tiles; click, pastry reflections in the window; the click, the dust of workers who rebuild centuries-old buildings. More scenes: UNESCO-listed monastery Serra do Pilar, Gothic church of St Francis, man in green fedora. People gather on Dom Luís I Bridge to watch the sunset. At a riverside cafe, the family chats and laughs as they see Porto's famous salted cod bacalhau. Click the button.
LIGHTING: NAZERÉ During the flight, I sat next to a passenger who shared a not-so-well-kept secret: Nazaré is one of Portugal's most attractive beachbirds, with some of the largest waves in the world. The wave season is from October to May, and in November 2017, Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa made history by riding an 80-foot reel, breaking the world's highest wave of dead world records. (See some of the best beaches in the world.)
Such mastery of the seas is a precedent. From the beginning of the 15th century to the 17th century, Portuguese seafarers dominated the waves, proclaiming the era of European discovery. Prince Henry's navigator urged his captains to constantly search for a route to India that would lead to a huge trade empire extending from Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to South America and the Caribbean. The sailors navigated the stars and relied on lighthouses to guide them safely away from the cliffs.
The Nazaré Lighthouse has been in operation since 1903 and is the region's best forget - front row seat for surfing. In the once perch of the light of the castle, I see the wide white sands stretching on either side of the wind ring. Beside me, strong surfers scour the water with beer, planning the next wave. There is autumn cooling in the air, but I can imagine that the sands will fill up during the summer.
REFLECTION CITY: LISBON This city is crisp like a starched shirt. The smell of bread and peeled cobblestone lures me through the passages of the capital and the narrow streets. The day begins with an espresso, a cheery greeting and pastel de nata (eg tart pickle tart). Customers lean on a glass counter at Leitaria Académica and are visited by a perfectly balanced barista accustomed to this morning's choreography.
Walking through the streets Castelo de São Jorge carries like a giant, its existence is guaranteed in history. The Celts, the Romans, the Moors - all called this place home for a moment, leaving everyone a fragment of their civilization to reveal to future residents. What strikes me most is the vitality of the city - ancient and faded, yet vivid. Enormously absorbed, I miss the details. I drift between the past and the present. But then I shake myself out of the reflection as I see the tempting church or watch students drown each other in the fountain, or pause to change the guard in front of Palácio de Belém. Suddenly I'm back in the moment, looking for the next street to turn, the next vision to grab.
LIGHT IN HORIZON: ALENTEJO Rolling down a hillside through the Alentejo area, the soft landscape of eyes and senses. Sunlight cuts through the cork trees. The white bull sleeping in the field seems to be a ghostly revelation. Pigs mix from one acorn (bellota) to another, seeking a nut flavor that gives the Iberian hams abundance. Castles and churches determine the slopes; they are remnants of the past while still retaining power in the present. It's a season of shoulders and the streets are empty, except for a couple of busy men, weather faces and hands walking home from the pub.
São Lourenço do Barrocal is a family run hotel, wine cellar and eco-friendly resort in the heart of the Alentejo area, offering horse riding, wine tasting, spas and a stone from the Neolithic era.
The olive trees frame the driveways of the São Lourenço do Barrocal Farm, outside Monsaraz. Some, the owners say, are more than a thousand years old. Torn but still falling olives, one tree grows a few yards from a Neolithic stone that has been watched for nearly 5,000 years. I imagine the conversations these two monuments have shared for centuries. The storm rolls in and the city of Monsaraz shines like a spectrum in a lavender sky. The lightning strikes and the last rays of the day struggle to break through the sinister thunderstorm.
GOLDEN HOUR: SAGRES I'm tired but the hotel concierge says go. He marks the X on the map and puts the paper in my hand. You won't be sorry, he says. I drive quickly through Sagres and take the exit at three at the roundabout. Soon the ground is leveling and I see cars parked along the road. I'll keep driving until I find a place to sneak in. People walk, laugh, and talk excited as the wind whips their hair. The energy of the crowd increases with expectation. Something grand will happen soon.
I reach the end of the road to the westernmost point of Portugal. The Atlantic waves collide with the Sagres rocks, the gulls ride the thermos, sliding higher and higher. I'm about to gather around a hundred people as the orange glows through the clouds. At first, silence will wash over the world as we witness the end of the day. Then someone holds a glass of wine to make a toast. The sky changes from orange to purple to pink and blue to pastel. We slowly walk back to our cars as the shadows take the last glimpses of light.
The Porto Majestic Café has served Art Nouveau glamor, strong coffee and eggy confectionery for almost a hungry year. Try the Rabanese, a majestic French toast with a glass tawny port.
Portuguese cuisine has long withstood the penetration of fusion or molecular gastronomy. Sincerely guilty, family-run restaurants offer satisfying options between bacalhau (salted cod), piri-piri chicken and ultra-sweet cakes. But here are some recent attempts to shake the Portuguese mouth.
Belcanto / Bairro do Avillez: Chef José Avillez's two eateries in Chiado, Lisbon, share a love of invented Portuguese food. Belcanto boasts two Michelin stars and exquisite dishes called "goose garden with golden eggs". Bairro do Avillez is a sprawling space with occasional tabernacles, a market and a cabaret.
In the rustic and intimate setting of O Paparico, Alsati's top chef surpasses the classic and anticipated seafood dish, bacalhau, playing with colors and combinations while staying true to "Portugality," one of the tasting menu titles. The winery, which is one of the world's wine-growing capitals, seems infinite and the bar is worth a look.
Peixaria da Esquina: Another of Portugal's cookbook bases, Vítor Sobral has opened modestly priced casual dishes in Lisbon and Brazil, approaching traditional flavors but with lightness and elegance, such as Azores tuna with mango, paprika and pennyroyal. Try the Peixaria da Esquina Shiitake mushroom, broad beans and coriander sauté at his seafood exhibition.
Epur: This restaurant, opened a year ago, is the preacher of the future of Portuguese cuisine. The chef is French, with a menu and decor, minimalist. Dishes respect the name of the restaurant, focusing on important local ingredients. From rabbit to tuna to prized "black pork" - these foods are not so gently humorous. The dining room across the street from the National Art School is also one of the best panoramas in the city.
Majestic Cafe: If you're tired of experimenting and looking for the right ending to your meal, or if you are hungry after an afternoon of shakes, this pastry palace with Lisbon's Pastelaria Versailles is a classic of the genre. As the hundredth anniversary approaches, both are mirrored examples of beaux art prosperity. Do as the locals do: Pair egg butter pastries with a strong bice (espresso).
Portuguese rooms offer views as well as considerable historical and architectural diversity. While state-run pools (inns) in old palaces or concerts are a unique experience, many newer houses offer them top-notch spas and opportunities for agro-tourism.
Martinhal Sagres Beach Family Resort: This luxury Algarve resort is suitable for multi-generational travelers. Adults can sip cocktails as children learn to surf. The concierge offers strollers, high chairs or bottle sterilizers.
Verride Palácio Santa Catarina: This recently renovated 19-room mansion offers one of the best views in all of Lisbon, set over steep cobblestone alleys in Bica's neighborhood.
Quinta Do Vallado Winery Hotel: The main activity of the Portuguese Wine Country, this 13-room winery hotel offers a great frame overlooking the magnificent Douro Valley. Guests sleep either in the manor house dating back to 1733 or in the new wing, completed in 2012. Both options are located in the sloping terraces of the vines to be made.
São Lourenço do Barrocal: Surprisingly, many of the most daring Portuguese architects in the country have developed the charm of their painted minimalism in the country. A humble working farm near Monsaraz, redesigned by Eduardo Souto de Moura, the caresses of São Lourenço do Barrocal are easy.
On the shore of Porto Monizi, on the northwest coast of Madeira Island, Portugal, swimmers float in a crystal clear seawater pool reflecting the blue of the sky.