Custard tarts, octopus and port: a visit to Portugal

by Jan Wheatcroft

Summer is my time to visit friends in Europe. Emails fly between us as places are chosen for our explorations. Hotels are scrutinized, location and prices weighed, until the skeletal part of our journey is planned out. Then, finally, flights are booked and train connections are examined. 

My friend Frances usually takes care of this part as we make London our departure point. This year, we planned to visit Portugal, which neither of us had been to and two cities in Spain, which neither of us knows and, in the end, one of which we hardly see at all. And so the adventure begins.

Since our plane left from Gatwick Airport outside of London—and we are living down by the Sussex seaside—we order a mini-cab for 5 a.m. to take us there.  Packed and ready we sit on the front steps in the lamp- lit dark waiting. No one comes. We have no idea why we have been forgotten but after many calls, a replacement cab arrives to drive us up. We are only slightly rattled. Upon arrival, the driver empties out his trunk and drives off. We sort out our backpacks and wheelie cases and find that we have one more backpack than we began with. Not sure whose it is, we leave it on a bench feeling worried and guilty. Our trip is officially beginning as we rush off to catch our plane.

The first port of call is Porto, Portugal, a charming town of hills and streets covered in lovely stone patterned mosaics. Building after building is layered in hand-painted ceramic tiles, which keep me craning out of windows and snapping iPhone photos as fast as I can.  We are staying in a narrow street across from an Indian restaurant. Our hotel is older and we have the only room, which does not get a Wifi signal so we send our emails in the halls or the lobby. 

Our first plan after a visit to the information bureau is to buy tickets for a hop-on, hop-off bus tour of the city to get a feel of where we are. We walk along the cobbles to the bus stop and climb up onto the top deck of the bus. At the top of the hills, looking down to the river and up to the top of the hills, we see all the major Port Wine Houses. Some of these wineries have the familiar names of port wines I have enjoyed over the past years. Later, we stop for a port tasting. One of us has a moscato port and the other a white. Both are delicious and quite intense. Portugal is famous for its pasteis de natas, small crispy tarts filled with custard. They are available everywhere and we try them nearly everywhere, reviewing the crispiness of the tart shell and the level of sweetness of the cream. I like a very crispy crust and a not-too-sweet custard.

Portugal is also famous for its salt cod or bacalau but I am not fond of it. Frances wanted to eat some and I wanted octopus. Near the sea, we found a small street with a few restaurants at street level and living apartments above so that the narrow street was always full of restaurant-goers and local neighbors. 

For a first course, we had a lovely spreadable cheese and a fish paste on bread. My octopus was by far the most successful and we shared that leaving most of the bacalau. Enjoying the wine, we watched the street theater of locals being played around us—children rushing everywhere, shouting and others like us searching for good food. And then a young woman came and sang some jazz and blues. It went well with the wine. Afterwards, she came and sat at our table and told us about her dreams to go abroad and study music.

Our cab driver who drove us from the airport had told us to go to the Lello Library, which is an amazing bookstore. A double staircase sits in the center of the building and walking upstairs was like entering a dinosaur’s ribcage. The building was stuffed with tourists who, like me, snapped away at the beautiful wooden interior. I loved the mosaic stone streets, each with their own designs as well as old buildings and churches covered in antique hand-painted tiles in soft blues.

On our last night in Porto, the rains came in earnest. Luckily, the street we stayed on was extremely narrow and the Indian restaurant was right across the street. We felt a bit silly eating Indian food when we had come to explore the food of Portugal but it was easy to get to and was delicious.

After a few days, we left Porto by train for Lisbon.  Portugal sells senior-priced train tickets, which we happily took advantage of. In Lisbon, we stayed on a busy street full of restaurants and touts for each one urging you to read their menus and come in for their best prepared food. There was a great deal of sea food available of all varieties—lobster, shrimp, octopus, sea snails, as well as Italian food. The salads were really good and filled with fresh chopped sweet onions, which are much sweeter than what is labeled “sweet” here.  One of my favorite meals was large, grilled whole sardines served five to a plate, plus fries and a simple salad with those sweet onions on top. This was eaten outside with a glass of wine and, of course, a photo snapped to post on Facebook for bragging rights. There was no way that I could finish all five, fat sardines.

Frances had read about a bakery in Belem, an area at the mouth of the Tagus River where the Portuguese ships departed for their voyages of discovery. Our voyage was to discover the most famous bakery, Pasteis de Belem for natas, those delicious custard tarts. A long line snaked around the building and it was hot. The walls inside were covered in the hand-painted blue and white tiles and we shared a table with others looking for the same treat. Later, we walked to the back of the bakery and, through a large window, watched women filling huge trays of just baked tarts, row after row.

One evening we watched as people stood outside a tiny shop drinking something out of small plastic cups.  Some were locals, men mostly, and some were young backpackers. Our curiosity aroused, we entered to see what this dark drink was. We discovered Ginja licor, a dark cherry liquor, which was very good. When we left Lisbon, we do so with a few small bottles of this alluring drink.

On our last evening in Portugal, we went to an older part of town up in the hills with small winding streets.  In small restaurants and bars Fado, the soul-full music of Portugal is played and sung. In the first bar we entered we were told that all the seats had been reserved.  As we wandered up the street, a woman standing next to a restaurant door told us to come in. She sang Fado and was on a break. We ate a light meal and listened to her sing accompanied by two men. I liked her singing but it seemed more cheerful than other fado music I have heard. On the way back, we stopped by the small bar and peeked into the window to listen with the rest of the crowd to a more traditional style of the music.

When spoken, the Portuguese sounds more like Russian to me than the Spanish it resembles when written. It flowed around us like a fast-running river without an entry point. Being in Portugal seemed much more foreign to me than Spain. Perhaps it was because it was my first time visiting but I would no longer lump the two countries together in my mind. Each stands out very strongly on its own and both are worth a visit. 

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