A tale of two (Portuguese) cities

From Lisbon to Porto, and along the coast of the Atlantic, Portugal offers rich history, beautiful scenery, lively cities and lots of wonderful wine.

GRAPEVINES FOLLOW the contours of the steep canyons. (photo credit: Courtesy)
GRAPEVINES FOLLOW the contours of the steep canyons.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Boasting beautiful old cities, ancient castles, scenic routes, kind, welcoming people, lively nightlife, wonderful food and relatively inexpensive hotels and restaurants, no wonder last year Portugal was named World’s Best Destination for 2017 by the World Travel Awards.
However, if you go there, don’t limit yourself to Lisbon, where most tourists end up. The north of Portugal, as I recently discovered, offers many enchanted sights and the crown jewels are Porto and the Douro Valley.
I have heard many stories about Portugal from friends, so an unexpected invitation to join a group of journalists on one of the first direct El Al flights to Lisbon was very much welcome.
Beginning October 2018, El Al operates bi-weekly direct flights to Lisbon. According to the company, as of March 2019 there will be five weekly flights. The prices start at $359 per person and the flight takes around six hours, more than going to London or Paris, but very much worth it. To make the flight nicer, if you can afford it, business tickets start at $1,219.
We landed in the evening. Lisbon’s airport is practically in the city, but we were heading north. Our host on this tour (together with El Al) was Marta Marques, of “Wild Douro” Tourism – and our first destination was the coastal town of Aveiro, a three- or four-hour drive from Lisbon, depending on traffic.
Enveloping the edge of the Ria, a shallow lagoon rich in bird life, Aveiro is a pretty city on the west coast. An important medieval port and salt-producing center, the city is sometimes dubbed “Venice of Portugal,” thanks to its network of picturesque canals navigated by colorful boats called moliceiro. Similar to Venice’s gondolas, they are available for short, inexpensive trips (about €10 per person).
In the city center, known for its art nouveau buildings, is the Cathedral of Aveiro, with its prominent bell tower. Other attractions include the Art Nouveau museum and a pretty seaside neighborhood built with small houses painted in colorful stripes, an homage to the fishermen’s huts that once filled these beaches. It is also the home of the famous porcelain makers Vista Alegre.
We stayed in the Montebelo Vista Alegre Ilhavo Hotel, a beautiful new five-star hotel built on the former grounds of the Vista Alegre factory, where the workers and owners lived. The factory still operates nearby and the hotel includes the palace of the former owners, the factory’s shop and a pretty chapel still sometimes used for special weddings. The design enhances the heritage and the social, technological and artistic importance of the ceramic industry in Portugal and the hotel offers tours of the old factory kilns, shop and chapel. The tour includes a short and quiet (no photographing allowed) visit to the room where artists paint the porcelain by hand. Accommodation prices vary according to season and at around €80 for a couple, are well worth the cost. www.hotelmontebelovistaalegre.pt
While in Aveiro, don’t miss the numerous fish restaurants spread alongside the lagoon. We enjoyed a fun evening dining with the local Cod Fishermen Guild at an excellent restaurant called Dori, located by the Ria. The restaurant serves the delicious local cuisine, made up mainly of fish and seafood, and even on the off-season evening when we arrived there, it was very full.
Next on our itinerary was Porto, Portugal’s second biggest city, where the Douro River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Built on the Douro riverbanks, Porto’s historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site for good reason – it is simply ravishing. We wandered its steep cobblestone streets, joined the free organ concert that takes place in the cathedral every day at noon, toured the train station and learned about the city’s Jewish heritage.
Other favorite spots of the city include strolling along the waterfront, and the beautiful São Bento railway station to view the azulejos: 2,000 blue-and-white hand-painted ceramic tiles that tell the history of Northern Portugal.
Not very far from the cathedral is a must for Harry Potter lovers – the Lello bookshop, which was built in 1906 and boasts high ceilings and winding staircases. The shop became famous thanks to J.K. Rowling, who was inspired by it when writing about the bookshop in the Harry Potter books. The bookshop is crowded and you have to pay an entrance fee, which is deducted if you buy books.
The best way to encompass the beauty of Porto, and get fantastic photos, is to take a boat tour. Many large boats offer tours, both of the Porto area and into the Douro Valley (from about €10 per person), but taking a private boat tour for up to 12 people is a whole different experience – and not as expensive as you might think (from €12 per person for two hours). Feel Douro Cruising & Yacht Charter (feeldouro.com) offer custom-tailored trips from two hours up to a week, including sleeping on board, catered meals from gourmet Michelin starred restaurants and the possibility to stop wherever you choose. Our two-hour tour, just before sunset, was a lot of fun.
One of the recommended boutique hotels in Porto, Hotel Teatro, which opened in 2010, is located on the site of the Teatro Baquet, a theater that was the cultural hub for Porto before it was destroyed by fire in 1988. The 74-room hotel has a theater-themed decor. It is part of the Design Hotels group, with a restaurant, bar and gym. We stopped there for a tour and a long and relaxed gourmet lunch that introduced us to the new cuisine of Portugal as well as to some of the country’s finest wines. (hotelteatro.pt.)
Six bridges connect Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia, located on the opposite riverbank. Our guide, a passionate Porto man, joked that the best thing about Nova de Gaia is the view of Porto, but in fact it is where most of the famous port-wine houses are located. Two of the bridges will remind you of the Eiffel Tower, and for good reason – one was actually designed and built by Eiffel and the other one was built by his apprentice, probably because Eiffel’s price tag was too steep. According to our guide, the angry Eiffel then went back to Paris and started building his famous tower.
The old port houses line the left bank of the Douro River in Vila Nova de Gaia. Port wine is produced in Douro, but because the weather during the summer can get too hot, the wine barrels are stored in Porto. The large port companies offer tours and tastings that will teach you everything about the differences between tawny and red ports, vintage ports and blended ports and more.
Jewish life in Porto
It seems that Jews came to Porto even before the Middle Ages. They lived close to the cathedral and inside the walls of the city, and occupied many prominent positions as doctors, merchants and at court.
Enjoying a good relationship with the Crown at the time, the Jews flourished in Portugal until the mid-15th century, when they were forced to convert to Christianity or leave. According to many historians, Porto tried to protect its Jewish community but succumbed to the Inquisition. At the beginning of the 20th century, a new Jewish community of Porto was born, mostly due to the courage and tenacity of Capt. Barros Basto, a World War I hero who converted to Judaism after learning of his Jewish ancestors. Sometimes dubbed the Portuguese Dreyfus, he not only founded the community but also raised the funds to build a synagogue in Porto and gathered dozens of Jewish families.
What was once the Jewish quarter is now a commercial area filled with quaint little stores. The old synagogue is located here, and many signs indicate the rich Jewish life that existed here. According to our guide, most of the houses where Jewish people lived had two doors – one for the store and one to the upstairs family residence. The Jews brought to Portugal modern commerce, medicine and business. The Porto people proudly claim that Jews were always welcome here and they mourn the expulsion of Jews during the Inquisition, saying that it took the city backwards. According to our guide, the Jews who chose to stay and converted to Christianity would carry portable wooden mezuzot in their pockets and hold them whenever they had to participate in a mass or pretend to pray.
Douro Valley
The next morning was a little windy and overcast as we drove east from Porto along the Douro River.
Our route was through the heart of the Douro Valley, where wineries, some hundreds of years old, make Portugal’s famous wines.
The grapevines follow the contours of the steep canyons, and the hillsides were swathed in terraced lines of red and gold colors of the fall. Below, the river reflected the sky, with clouds.
The sights are so stunning that we urged the driver to stop wherever he could so we could take photos. Trees with bright yellow leaves stood out among the vineyards and olive trees. If you don’t mind the odd rain, traveling during the fall months means cool weather, much lower hotel prices and hillsides ablaze with red and orange, as well as empty car parks and almost private tours and wine tastings.
There are dozens or even hundreds of wineries and vineyards along the way; we stopped at three. The first was Casa Amarela, where the owner, a fourth-generation winemaker, gave us a taste of his lovely wines and boasted about his old barrels, one of which is 80 years old.
“We use this wine only for blends,” he said proudly. Showing us the room where the grapes are crushed by human feet, he said that he used to hire people, but this experience is so attractive to tourists that now all he has to do is allow young people who arrive here, mostly from the US and Britain, to join in the crushing and the parties that are held at the end of the season.
“The girls know that the grape skins do wonders for the skin. After crushing the grapes for a few hours, the skin becomes soft and smooth,” he added. Casa Amarela offers a tasting and light lunch when booking a tour in advance (quinta-casa-amarela.com).
Covela, a medium-size winery and hotel was next, located in the middle of a beautiful garden and ecological farm, where fruit and vegetables are grown next to the vines. The winery used to belong to a local family, but they had to leave it during the economic crisis and it was purchased by two ex-AP journalists who keep the place working. Tours and wine tastings can be reserved here for no or very little cost (visit@covela.pt).
Our last stop was at the Vallado, one of the larger wineries, which also owns a charming boutique hotel, with two wings, an old traditional one and a new, modern wing nearby. The hotel boasts 13 rooms and suites, spa, dining room and pool, all located in the midst of an orange grove and vegetable patch on the hillside. The prices are steep, from about €200 per night for a couple during the off-season, but the hotel is fully booked until the next summer.
Another recommended hotel is the Douro Palace, where we stayed. It is located in the middle of the Douro Valley and offers a docking station for those who arrive by boat. The rooms are pampering and there is a spa, swimming pool and excellent restaurant. Prices start at €85 for a double room including breakfast (douropalace.com).
The medieval town of Obidos is located about 85 kilometers from Lisbon. The beautiful old walled town is protected by high towers and thick walls. Its charming red-roofed whitewashed buildings, cobblestone streets and balconies draped with bougainvillea make it an obvious tourist stop, but off-season most of the visitors were locals, who adore it. The town is so charming that it became a tradition for the Portuguese kings to gift their queens with Obidos as part of the wedding ritual. We wandered the village streets, which are narrow and lined with shops selling souvenirs, cakes and ginja, a chocolate liqueur consumed in tiny chocolate cups.
Finally, we got back to Lisbon, but after a good night’s sleep, woke up to pouring rain that didn’t stop until it was time for us to fly home. We did manage a bus tour of the main attractions, including the castle of São Jorge, the Basilica and the central square. The main bridge, named after Vasco da Gama, is 17 kilometers, considered the longest in Europe. It entered the Guinness Book of Records when a 2.4-kilometer dinner table was set up on it for a meal.
When in Lisbon, take the tram to the port town of Belem, home of the impressive Monasteiro dos Jeronimos, where Vasco da Gama is buried. The monastery has elaborate late Gothic architecture and is classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Our guide insisted that we stand in line for the famous cakes of the Pastel De Belem bakery, which draws crowds in any weather.
Other attractions in Bellem include the Modern Art Museum and the carriages museum.
The writer was a guest of El Al and Marta Marques, manager of the Douro Valley Touring Company which operates wine tours of Porto and the Douro Valley.