Magnificent Portugal

Beautiful beaches, picturesque villages and exciting cuisine

Portugal (photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
(photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
With direct flights available from Israel to Portugal, only some five hours away, Israelis can now enjoy that beautiful country full of pleasant surprises, such as boutique wineries, enticing cliffs that overlook beautiful beaches, little villages, bustling cities and excellent cuisine.
We chose to rent a car and drive the 300 km. on our own from Porto to the capital Lisbon, Portugal's two largest cities. There are many interesting villages and sites to see along the way, so we decided to spend an entire week making the trip. We began in Porto, Portugal's second largest city, which is located on the mouth of the Douro River. The name of the city is also the name of the port wine for which the country is famous, and we were offered a taste of this sweet and rich wine at every meal we enjoyed in the city.
Port wine contains almost twice as much alcohol as regular wine, and therefore it is usually consumed in smaller portions. Most people assume that port, which is proudly produced in the Douro Valley by local residents, is always dark and made from red grapes. But after spending a few hours in the city we discovered that there were a number of types of port, such as white port made from white grapes, and rose port, which is a wonderful wine with which to enjoy the Mediterranean air. All port wines have rich and dominant flavors, and the Portuguese know exactly which one to serve with every dish and course.
You cannot make a trip to Porto without visiting at least one winery. There are so many interesting wineries, especially in Vila Nova de Gaia, which is part of metropolitan Porto. Most are family-owned businesses, and one even had a bottle in its cellar dating back to 1815.
We realized pretty quickly that we were feeling the effects of the alcohol and so we set off to find something to fill our stomachs. One of the most fun ways to get to know a new city is by walking through its outdoor market, and so we set off for Mercado do Bolhão, where we found a huge variety of smoked meats, fresh fish, vegetables, spices and local delicacies.
We finally sat down at a restaurant called Os Lusíadas, which specializes in seafood. One of its unique delicacies was salted fish cooked over an open fire, which the chef prepared right in front of us.
Porto has much more to offer than just food and wine. One of its most famous tourist sites is the riverfront promenade of Cais da Ribeira, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located near the Douro River, considered the most picturesque area of the bustling metropolis. Here in the historical center you'll find the Se do Porto, the Roman Catholic Cathedral, and the Palácio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace), in front of which stands the famous statue of Prince Henry the Navigator.
Next, I recommend going to see Liberdade Square, from which you can go up to Avenida dos Aliados, which is surrounded by ancient granite buildings. At the end of the street, you'll come upon City Hall, and then just a few steps away you'll see the Livraria Lello & Irmão, one of the world’s most beautiful book stores. Don't let the long line inside deter you – it's worth waiting a few minutes to catch a glimpse of the famous crimson staircase, remarkable wooden balusters, sharp-pointed arches, grand ceiling, and of course tons of interesting books.
There were so many sites we didn’t get a chance to see in Porto, but nonetheless it was time to head east toward the Douro Valley. As soon as we left the city, the countryside turned green and within an hour we'd passed by gorgeous views of vineyards and terraces.
We decided to stop at the House of Croft Winery, where we tasted varieties of port and wine, and then ate dinner at a restaurant called DOC, where we had a spectacular view and ate some of the most creative chef dishes made with local produce, served with local wine, of course.
We slept at a charming hotel called Largo Do Coro, on top of a mountain in Marialva, a village where residents engage in agriculture and local crafts. We bought little bottles of fragrant olive oil, homemade liquor, and fruit that had probably been picked nearby that same day. If you choose to stay at Largo Do Coro, make sure you get a reasonably sized room, since they were all built differently.
Our next stop was Trancoso, a town that every Jewish tourist absolutely must visit. The city's Jewish community goes back at least until the 13th century and thrived until the Inquisition reached its doors. Many of the doors of homes there have crosses etched into the entrance, but hidden Jews apparently added three spokes on the bottom to form an inverted Hebrew "shin" as a way to cling to their heritage. Today, there's a Jewish Center there named after Isaac Cardoso, who came from a family of B'nei Anusim, Jews who'd been forced to convert.
From there we continued on to Costa Nova, one of the most pastoral coastal towns in Portugal with colorful houses and a beautiful promenade where we enjoyed fresh seafood delicacies at a restaurant called Canastra do Fidalgo.
Our next stop was Coimbra, Portugal's medieval capital and home to a 500-year-old university, whose beautiful library – lit by natural light – houses the Abravanel family Bible that dates back to the 15th century and documents of the Coimbra Inquisition.
Evenings in the university area are lively and students gather at a wide variety of cafés, ice cream parlors and bars where live performances take place. There are also well-stocked bakeries lining the picturesque streets where you can taste pastéis de nata, Portuguese custard tarts, or Ovos Moles de Aveiro, a dessert made with eggs and sugar.
We slept that night at the Hotel Quinta Das Lagrimas, an ancient building surrounded by luscious green gardens. Our hosts told us the tragic love story of Prince Pedro of Portugal and Lady Inês de Castro, in which Pedro's father, the king, orders Inês be beheaded. Later, when Pedro becomes king, he has the body of his lover disinterred, placed on the throne, and demands that his subjects kiss the helm of her royal robes. There is an excellent (but pricey) restaurant in the hotel. 
The writer was the guest of Arkia and the Portuguese Association of Travel and Tourism.
Translated by Hannah Hochner