welcome to emmas housethought

nazaré: a day trip

 

I often get asked to rustle up an itinerary for bright people who have chosen Portugal as their holiday destination, as many expats do I’m sure. It’s like putting together a degustation of dishes, some standards well done, some wildcards. It requires boiling down the entire country into an essence of Portugal. You’ve got to get the balance right; something sour, something hot, something sweet…

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and something salty, and this is Nazaré.

I’m somewhat fussy when it comes to beaches, and Europe’s offerings are frequently disappointing in their size, surf, beauty and temperature. Nazaré however has an impressive girth of pebbly-sand and proper surf. Actual record-breaking, mutant waves, about once a year.

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Despite having serious surfing credentials, it hasn’t been taken over by the generic surf culture which can make the most exotic of locations feel like you never left Dee Why. Ericeira, down the coast, is a little bit like that. It’s not foreign enough for me. Far worse however are those completely artificial beach ‘resorts’ in the Algarve which would be practically uninhabited if the English left.  I don’t know what Vilamoura is all about but it doesn’t seem like any Portugal that I know.

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Nazaré is a living breathing fishing village full of old people doing their usual thang. Like hanging out at the fish drying racks that cover a good chunk of the beach, suggesting there must be a heck of lot of fish soup going on behind closed doors.

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Just as you’d be hoping there is a multitude of fishy restaurants, most of them mercifully typical and unfancy. If there’s anywhere in Portugal to have sardines, this is it, although I once spent a week in Nazaré ordering nothing but arroz de marisco, an equally idiosyncratic Portuguese dish. Nazaré has got the authentic seafood thing going on; try an omelet de camarão, big plates of pippies, grilled cuttlefish. And it all goes perfectly with the best Portuguese invention ever, vinho verde.

Nazaré does have a couple of classy hotels but they don’t interfere with the general atmosphere of unpretentiousness about the place. The waterfront is a jumbled bunch of crusty buildings that look like there might have been an attempt at seaside resort style early in the last century, but nothing dominates over the small and basic blue and white houses that perpetuate throughout Portugal.

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One of the many delights of Nazaré are the apartments rented by a tough gang of Donas who will accost you on the street with a brazen display of competitiveness, somewhat unusual behaviour in Portugal. Their accommodation offerings range from the spartan with doilies to fake flowers with doilies, so all you have to do is grab the one with the panoramic ocean views for an extra €10 a night. Last time I was there it was still a world class bargain at about €80 for a three-bedder.

Beneath the surface, these Donas represent the matriarchal society that underlies Nazaré. A traditional fishing society, the men would go out to fish and the women would sell the catch, placing them at the head of familial financial affairs. The treacherous swells would tragically make many women widows, in such numbers to form strong bonds, command respect and endure, playing a much stronger role in business and governance than was usual in Portugal, as a result. The strength of the women has become an intrinsic characteristic of Nazaré, as natural as the powerful seas themselves.

The best area of Nazaré is Sitio, which you get to via funicular. My dog wookie has taken this ride but he didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I did. Frankly I think that Portugal’s funiculars and elevadors are one of its major drawcards. Like the llamas in Peru.

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Sitio has the views and therefore the best places to stay. And probably the best restaurants too. And the best miracles; as here on this spot in eleven hundred and ahem, a horse didn’t go off a cliff when Dom Ahemahem, the rider, prayed to The Virgin; therefore there is the cutsiest tiniest tiled little chapel and you have to go down the teeny staircase to look out the weeny window – and when that’s done then you’ve seen the most important of the touristy things on offer. Although there are also the unique multi-skirted ladies with carts of full of nut and bean delectables… which go well with beer… which you drink after the beach… so it all makes sense really.

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If you are too sunburnt or already have skin cancer you might find yourself perusing the shops. There is a lot of crap and there is the typical portugalia that you can get anywhere, but what’s unique to Nazaré (and quite possibly unique to beach towns worldwide) is its wool. I know it’s a stretch to try and appreciate the soft cuddly feeling of naturally woolly goodness while wearing a bikini, but pick up some hand knitted socks or a jumper and you’ll be fondly reminiscing Nazaré when it’s cold and miserable.

I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know of any traditional pastries particular to Nazaré. I must have been already very satisfied, I guess.

 

where to live

How much you have to spend will be the main driver on this question, because naturally, the more you have the more choice there is. I’m certainly not saying that you want to live where the property is the most expensive – hell no – quite probably the area with the highest property values is really the least interesting. I just know I could’ve chosen better if I’d had more money.

I’m assembling some considerations that I think you should give serious thought to. No matter what you think your needs and wants are today, you don’t want your life falling to pieces when problems come your way. I’m no pessimist, but with a little forward planning, if problems do arise they don’t ruin your life. Righto?

Also, this is just my opinion. There are many expats living perfectly happy lives (for all I know) in remote areas of Portugal and I say good for them. If you’re one of these people, please say something in the comments. I’m just saying if I was to do it all again I would pay more attention to the following factors. I’ve just been reading the forum at expatsportugal.com and there are very nice people out there in Fundão and Castelo Branco living sustainably with their chooks and cherry trees and I take my hat off to them. You are better men than I am, gunga din.

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  1. The Weather

Don’t go underestimating the value of sunny days. Take a long hard look at the weather stats for your home country and that of four cities in Portugal: Faro, Lisbon, Coimbra and Porto. Don’t just consider the extremes of temperature because they are the exception: look at average rainfall and average temperatures for each month, as well as the number of days with sunshine. Don’t live anywhere where the weather is worse than what you’re used to. If you don’t like the heat, then the northern half of the country could be for you. If you are passionate about summer however, I would strongly advise you to stick to the southern half.

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  1. An hour from a city

Especially if you are from a city, you’ll find living too far from a major city a major pain. By city I mean Lisbon or Porto. More than one hour is too far. Portugal is, to be blunt, the least modern country of western Europe, which means country Portugal is not well equipped to deal with the 21st century. It took me a year to get a telephone connected. Our internet connection is slower than dial-up. You may be, like me, a refugee from the rat race, but trust me that from time to time you will need to get a computer fixed, to get something unportuguese to eat, or to browse a quality bookstore. You should get yourself a foreign culture fix sometimes – a little jazz, opera or an international act. Ikea? An embassy? A better choice of building materials and homewares? Access to more tradespeople and services. There are a million reasons why you need a city nearby.

If you’re thinking you can do without the modern life altogether, then being within an hour from Coimbra or Faro might be ok. Your minimum requirement is a Leroy Merlin (hardware, building materials, home wares), a FNAC (computers, tech accessories, music and books) and a big Continente (supermarket and homewares). Without these things at hand, life can get very inconvenient. Frankly I never should have lived too far from El Corte Ingles (more foodie supermarket/dept store). It took me 5 years and a few trips back home to realise just having more options was really important.

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  1. Airport

This goes with the city requirement. Even if you think you’re done with traveling (?!?), your visitors aren’t. Love them or loath them, visitors are inevitable if you’re living in Portugal. OK, alright, perhaps you don’t want to be stuck doing airport runs all the time… then at least consider somewhere with a direct train line to Lisbon or Porto airports because you’re going to need it.

  1. Hospitals and health care

I was a strapping young fit and healthy 35 yr old when I arrived here and I didn’t think twice about hospitals. Little did I know how crap the local health centre was, or what bizarre afflictions would befall me. You are human, you break. No matter where in the world you are, you always need a decent doctor, so do your research about the availability and quality of health care in your area. On second thoughts, live within an hour of Lisbon or Porto. According to expatsportugal.com Algarvian expats are happy with the health care down there. Perhaps the demands of foreigners, and the location, attracts better doctors. Osteopaths along with other specialists, by the way, are rare in the country.

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  1. The Sea

Unless you specifically hate the beach, you should at least aim to be within an hour of the sea. As with the weather, being near the sea is a cost-free pleasure if not a basic human right. The sea also comes with seafood, and the beach is an opportunity for exercise, and you need all the encouragement you can get to exercise in Portugal. However, really charming villages by the sea are in short supply on planet Earth. A lot of Portugal’s Atlantic coastline tends to be quite industrial and sparsely populated, dry, flat and surprisingly foggy.

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  1. Extra Charm

You would do well to choose a locale that charms you, extra-specially. Not only will it continue to charm you every day but somewhere with at least a bit of a name will help when you move on. This is where it gets hard: getting the location right and a spot of great charm and beauty is a tall ask, which is why most of us buy where we do even though it’s totally impractical: because it’s got the magic. Outside of properly famous or touristy spots like Óbidos or Sintra, there are plenty of villages that are just a little cut above. Look for castles, for instance, or rivers and dams. The presence of a university should mean more youthful creativity and decent bars and music. Look at their festivals (not just the annual São João), culinary specialties and tourist attractions. If you have fallen for a place that’s super charming but more than an hour from a city I really recommend renting there for three to six months to get a proper sense of the place. It’s a wise move anywhere you choose.

  1. Friends

If you’ve already got friends in Portugal it pays to live near them if you can. Not next door necessarily but not so that the distance is an obstacle to your friendship. Also, they’ve already trialed the area and can advise you. I regret that my friends are so scattered about the country and more than an hour away and I don’t see them as much as I want to.

So, when you take these factors into consideration, where should you be looking?

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The green patches on the map indicate an hour’s driving radius from Porto and Lisbon. Yellow indicates the other areas I mention below.

From north to south, wetter to drier:

Viana do Castelo, Braga, Guimarães & Porto. To the east past Amarante to Vila Real, around Espinho on the coast and then south to Aveiro.

Then from Aveiro to Coimbra to Leiria is a maybe (yellow) area. Coimbra is the third largest city and is a wonderful place, full of students and a small music and food scene. But it’s far from being an international city. I’m quite fond of Leiria too which is very pretty and has good shopping , but this is central Portugal and quite far from any airports. Still, around Coimbra and Leiria is preferable to further east in the Beiras, despite some spectacular mountain areas.

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Around Nazaré and Alcobaça is also a maybe area, somewhere I’d really bend the rules for. Like Viana do Castelo, Nazaré is an especially nice place, a rare example of cute Portuguese village meets the sea. But it’s 1.5 hours from Lisbon. It does have Leiria and Caldas da Rainha within 30 minutes however, which are both fairly civilized: both have Bricomarché (a backup to Leroy Merlin) and Leiria has a Fnac. This whole area is dense with beauty and interest.

Things start getting very interesting at Caldas da Rainha, and this is where I would start a search. Caldas is a bit flat for my liking but it has the beach so close so I’d live with that. Draw a line across to Santarém, which is hillier and I’d look at everything within this triangle to the north of Lisbon, especially beachside. Go village stalking, although beware of getting too far from a freeway because this will add a lot of time to your run to Lisbon.

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Anywhere from Lisbon to the west coast would probably bring a lot of happiness, but this is most likely the most expensive territory in the country (some places in the Algarve would cost the same). Évora and Sines and beyond the one hour boundary, but are certainly worth considering for beauty and interest (Évora) and seaside (Sines). Ditto the Alentejana coastline, which should in theory be all gorgeous but you have to be choosey with your villages and how far they are from the freeway.

Then there’s the Algarve, which is 2.5 hours to Lisbon, and although Faro has an airport and even an Apple store, it is not quite a substitute for a major city, but it might suffice. The Algarve has a different character to the rest of the country, with a lot of British expats and a lot more English spoken: To me it feels less foreign and unique and it’s therefore less desirable. Some parts of the Algarve are beautiful and some of it is a hideous hellhole, but at least the weather is better here than anywhere else. The most touristy part is from Albufeira east to Spain, with the far west being less populated. Portimão is a well equipped big town, an hour from Faro (with much the same resources) and Silves is a nice town within this area. A thorough search north of Faro up to Almodovar might produce quirky villages, Alcoutim is worth seeing for instance, but there’s not a lot else inland in that area. Mértola and Monchique would be worth checking out but they are both over an hour from Faro. The Algarve should be looked at in the summer, when you’ll get a proper idea of the size of the population at its most intense.correio.jpg

There are Fnacs in Faro and Albufeira and Leroy Merlin also in Albufeira. From many reports the health services here are better than in the rest of rural Portugal.

Regrettably, my considerations leave off many lovely charming places in the far north and east and south east of the country which are great to visit but, as a long term home, I think would become inconvenient to live in. I really love the Minho but it is cold and wet and very far from civilization, as is Trás os Montes. The mountainous areas of the Beiras, Serras dos Açor, Estrela and Lousã, host some of the most curious and picturesque villages in Portugal. To the east, Monsanto and Belmonte are charming and of another time, but seriously a very long way from the modern world. I still haven’t been to the marble towns of Vila Viçosa, Estremoz and Borba. These, and many other towns, are all great places for exploring and discovering once you’ve found a practical, well-connected, flexible and comfortable base camp to call home.

adventures may not always turn out the way you expect them to, but they are still adventures,

Kevin McCloud said, at the end of Man Made Home.

Inevitably this blog would have something to say on the subject of Kevin McCloud, Grand Designs and Man Made Homes.

I only vaguely recall Grand Designs being around before I bought my house in Portugal. Back then it was a show whose principal theme was failure: it invariably ridiculed people’s ambitious building projects which ran over budget, over schedule and failed to meet McCloud’s style expectations.

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To be sure, reality TV is not documentary. Punters are deliberately exploited and their stories manipulated to suit the format. I should know, having both worked in TV and been a participant on one of these shows.

I’m not denying that real life ‘grand designs’ are without mistakes or drama. Of course not. The point is that big building projects are inherently problematic. The mistake you make is expecting things to go as planned.

As Grand Designs went on and McCloud’s star rose, it has become a better show. The emphasis has shifted towards more ecological and interesting house plans. Grand Designs today focuses less on the naivety and wasteful spending of the protagonists and more about their ingenuity and endurance. McCloud still makes they should have known better type remarks but almost always credits the builds for their sustainability, which apparently is McCloud’s own interest. Man Made Home demonstrated McCloud is not actually the condescending queeny bitch of the earlier Grand Designs, but someone passionately crafty and planet loving and not really that shallow at all.

I reckon McCloud and/or the producers started off not really understanding the owner-builder story, and only after several years they realised what sort of integrity the program’s concept had. All they had to do was stop looking down on the protagonists and embrace the essential theme of the human search for shelter. Building a house is not just about somewhere to live, or making money. Nor is building your own place just a technical exercise in engineering and project management or budgeting. Maybe there’s a bit of playing with toy-tools and making mud pies, I’ll admit that. Certainly it’s a type of artistic expression, it’s about creativity and craft and imagination. And it can be about our interaction with nature and finding a compatible place on the planet. But ultimately, building a house, your own house, is like a great voyage; you pack your bags with your itinerary in hand, and the rest is unpredictable, challenging, complex, marvellous and humbling. It can turn out to be something of a massive life experience.
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It’s not only my story that turned out that way, but many of my friends building houses in Portugal have also had pretty monumental experiences: huge relationship challenges, incredible feats of architectural artistry, financial wins and losses, but above all the imagining and realisation of a home, a cave where we get warm and fed and loved.

So next time you’re wondering why Kevin’s waxing lyrical and getting a bit teary eyed over a piece of junk he’s converted into something useful… well that’s because he’s tapped into a primordial human need to make a space to call our own.

Sigh.
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Meanwhile here’s what happened in my life where we left off.

I came back from Sydney, we went on a fab luxo tour of the Douro, and then we built a new bedroom where the hole in the wall was. Then we were planning to strip the floors again and put in the kitchen, as per the last post. My back wasn’t getting any better however. Any time spent in the car getting to the osteopath would kill me, and all that was there every day when I opened my eyes was masses of work to be done on the house. I finally realised that the house would quite literally, never be finished.

(As an aside, it’s got to be said one of the great misconceptions about retiring from city life and living a simple country idyll is that it is relaxing. The idea that I would go back to Portugal and my back would get better is ridiculous. Portugal has never been anything but brutally hard work. As my own boss I am meaner than any city employer I ever had. Whip cracking, cake-eating bitch is she.)
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Anyway, we were going to run out of money again sooner or later. So I went back to Sydney again in December 2013. Once the adrenaline I was burning to keep going in Portugal wore off, the full catastrophe of having a fractured spine sunk in. I was in unbearable amounts of pain, going a bit nutty and all the qualified people were looking worriedly at me. My osteopath of 25 years flatly told me he’d never seen me look so bad in my life. Just his professional opinion; but it cut through *ahem* to the bone. I got rushed off to a surgeon who got out my life book, went to today’s page and tore up everything after.

Building a house in Portugal is over. We are moving to Australia for good.
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In those first few months in Sydney, I was consumed with regret and failure. Yes, failure. That same illusion Grand Designs plays upon. I suppose it was some sort of grief, for Portugal, for my health and for the dream of building a house. It was all nice and hopeless in my dark hole until I read an article about Bryan Smith, a National Geographic adventurer who says “If you don’t fail every once in a while, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough to try different things.”  So there.

The idea of Portugal being just another adventure settled on me, and no, it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, but it has been an adventure nonetheless. Now I’m more resigned to put it in the box of many mad journeys I’ve been on. It was like a long safari in Egypt. A love affair with someone who doesn’t speak your language. It was like making a film. Like a cliff-edge taxi ride in Morocco. A great swim between the heads of Bondi at three in the morning. It was a test and it changed me.
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Still, I’m not patting myself on the back every day about coming back “home”. As great as Sydney is, it still feels like a step backwards, away from what I wanted for so long. I’m sure that’s common amongst ex-expats. But shit hey, that’s life, and when I’m feeling like a loser someone usually comes along and says “I was just telling someone about you how threw it all away to become a Portuguese-speaking peasant”, and I feel so much better.

Então. One year later and I’m not so fatalistic about it all. It’s not like I’m never going back. The house, emma’s house, is just where I left it and is an ongoing concern for The One and our Wookie, Mao and Purdy. Their story is still to come as we embark on new battle with the dark forces of immigration – this time to import 85 kilos of Englishman into Australia.

Actually right now I’m organising some more work to be done on the house. At arm’s length. Across the oceans. I won’t be getting dirty this time. Quite excited.

And I’ve finally found some time to write again…. So stay tuned for Emma’s House, The Final Season…

sydney-breakfast

ode to the pizza pan

You know how when you’ve decided to buy a new car then the old one starts falling apart? Like it’s pissed off and seeking attention? That’s what’s happening in our kitchen.

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A new kitchen has been on the cards for years, 6 years to be exact, but finally I can actually see it happening in a few months time. And so all of our appliances are failing.  The bedroom (the space that will liberate the living room, the same floor on which the kitchen will sprout) is taking about a month or three longer than expected, but that’s to be expected. I will continue to be vague about when the kitchen will happen given that the following has to be completed first:

Plaster

Paint

Buy cupboard-build cupboard-install cupboard

Something about the steps and hole in the floor

Hang doors

Clear living room

Fix walls (multiple things there) and limewash

Paint fireplace and woodstore

Install fan

Clean floor

Stain floor, varnish floor

Skirting boards

And then get kitchen

Back to the appliances. First the microwave developed an unhealthy hole in its bottom and has been delivered to the recyclers. The fridge’s thermostat is buggered – ice cream melts and lettuce freezes – and the door falls off every time you use it. The small food processor that’s good for pastes and pesto decided to eat itself and vomit into a lovely batch of hummus last week. And our master appliance, the pizza pan, has an anomaly in its electrical parts and is held together with tape.

It may not sound like much but believe me, this is a threat to our survival. I have been cooking dinner every night for the last two years exclusively using this pan. That’s right. We have no cooktop, no oven, no other electric whatsamitoosis. This is it. This is the end.

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Is there anyone out there who remembers when I cooked all my meals over a fire in the old kitchen? Those were the days. Unadulterated interior camping. Now we have the infinitely less bragworthy circumstance called “making do”.

Looking back I wonder what the hell I was cooking all those non-lonely nights. Spaghetti, I expect. That fireplace had two burners and that’s one more than I have now. Bloody luxury having two burners, mate. So what the hell could I be cooking now? Beans on toast?

The One – “We have a variety of very nice things. We enjoy many cuisines from around the globe. Sometimes it’s simple, done very well and sometimes it’s very exotic. My favourite thing? That would be like naming my favourite child. Purdy, for example.”

Simple? With one pan, it’s never that simple. But they do say that creative people need boundaries to excel themselves. Or maybe that’s advertising bullshit, I can’t remember. One thing’s for sure, we eat damn well in this house especially considering I keep us to a €20 a week meat budget because The One has never eaten a vegetarian meal in his life.There are many things that can be done with one pan. The trick is to have many many things so you can keep eating from one pan day after day after bloody day. I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to bake.  (no wait… lasagne!… roast lamb!… lemon delicious pudding!).

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Some of our simpler regulars include stir fried salt and pepper cuttlefish (just add a pile of lettuce), hamburgers, and… um… steak and egg. (I never imagined I’d marry someone who got excited about having steak and egg, but there you are. Why bother with lamb tagine if he’s that easily pleased.)

These fall into the simple range because the pan is used in only one sitting. However, The One is also a carbohydrate queen I mean king and potatoes and rice make my life complex. We eat chips about 20 times a week, and these have to be done in a separate pan-sitting, take ages and can only really be successfully served with something that cooks very quickly so they don’t get cold. Tragic. Slivers of fish for instance, but never salmon. Steaks, but never a chunky t-bone.

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Clever types will be thinking BBQ. And I do, but I’m shit at it. I blame the equipment, which is a stack of bricks with a flat top and a pile of charcoal. I might be alright with a decent weber or gas, but you need time and attention for a real barbie, neither of which I have on an empty stomach. And others will be thinking ‘stir-fries!’, that one-wok wonder at the fundament of every Sydney professional’s cooking repertoire. But, the pizza pan is not a wok and I’m shit at stir fries too. There’s another pretty good one-panner, risotto, but The One With The Food Habits doesn’t like risotto much and anyway my favourite is with roasted pumpkin.

With our rice-cooking microwave gone, so has our main staple, curry. There’s the thai green chicken, the massaman beef, the lime and coconut fish curry, the prawn kurma, red soupy pork curry, and the multi-veg yellow curry. Sometimes I do like a pretend wet tandoori, which is a yoghurt and spices trip, with fillets instead of boned pieces. Now if I’m doing rice I have to cook it first and like pasta it really doesn’t go so well in a frypan.

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Instead I’m making a lot more larb. Thai salads. Pork mince makes for a great larb and my new favourite butcher is the first I’ve met here who will mince turkey and chicken – the supermarkets don’t produce it packaged and usually butchers don’t want to foul their mincers. So, quite a pile of finely chopped lettuce and cabbage, shredded red pepper and carrot, onion, cherry tomatoes and cucumber topped with lashing of spicy mince, fried with heaps of garlic, dried chilli, fish sauce when I’ve got it and soy and vinegar when I don’t (it’s a trip to the big city for fish sauce as with oyster, and sweet chilli is a rarer treat, this bloody monoculture) and a lot of lime, juice and zest. Thank god for limes, chilli and coriander, and the coconut milk, which surely must have come from African and Indian adventures. But nothing from Macau except soy? Certainly the Portuguese learnt nothing culinary from Indonesia either, and were arrogant enough to say they brought tempura to Japan, but brought nothing back. Their loss.

This limited kitchen makes me invent stuff. Lately we’ve got this salad going with chicken livers and bacon, served with beetroot and spinach leaves and a balsamic dressing. The bacon – from the Saturday market, superb stuff – also embellishes a potato gratin, with onions, cooked first in wine or stock and then cream and cheese with a nice acidicly-dressed salad. Gorgeous. Big fat quality potatoes from our neighbours at €10 a sack which I consider a very fair trade. They make chips (The One’s job, by the way) that are worth waiting for. Then there was the warm rabbit salad we had the other day. A little hopper from the neighbours, trimmed and marinated in vinegar and oregano for a day and then panned with big cepas mushrooms and rosemary and a few caramelised sweet potato rounds. Adorable. I’ve got my eye on the neighbour’s ducks too, for my list of things called first thing I’m putting in the oven when it comes. After cannelloni. And chocolate pudding.

And so the hardworking pan. I didn’t think anything was made so durable anymore. But it has made a thousand meals, and yet never a pizza, which apparently it was designed for. Perhaps I should try it, before the poor thing dies of jealousy.

 

douro decadence

Luxury and Portugal didn’t seem to me like very compatible bedfellows, but I was wrong. What bliss there is to be discovered here! Luxury; discreet, surprising, original, charming.

Here’s the paradox about the high life. It can feel so extremely impersonal. It can make you feel low. It can make you feel like an imposter, even if the cheque is in your name. It can be so unwelcoming, so rude, so bitchy… despite the lure being one of absolute comfort, pleasure, and “exclusivity”: an ugly word meaning special, separated from the ordinary world, separated from ordinary problems. Buying luxury is buying the promise of a little happiness. I guess that’s why it can be so disappointing when it doesn’t deliver.

But they’ll be none of that here. Instead there will be too many superlatives.

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We arrive in Porto at the dream barn car park of the Palácio do Freixo. Porsche, Porsche, Ferrari, S-Class, Maserati, 1987 Mercedes diesel estate with some trim missing, Porsche. I’ve never seen people posing for photos in a car park before, so that’s got to mean we’re in Portugal. Not up ourselves.

Visible as you enter Porto from the Freixo bridge, Palácio do Freixo is a baroque architectural classic by Nasoni and typifies the completely gorgeous perfection that 18th century Portuguese architecture rose to. It’s a cupcake fairytale of a building with a few original public salons that haven’t been ruined by over zealous restoration. The rooms themselves, all set in a modern annex, aren’t bedazzling but the pool and bar on the river’s edge was an excellent way to introduce our very special guests to a week’s worth of Douro decadence.

porto-yeatmanThat night we ate at the Yeatman Hotel, one of the two Michelin-starred restaurants in the north of Portugal. Frankly I was a bit worried, and tested, as they had all gone Michelin the night before in Spain, with mixed reviews. It became a bit FC Porto vs Real Madrid.

The Yeatman is pretty new and like the Freixo, the location alone is worth a million bucks. High on the hill of Vila Nova de Gaia, the panoramic view of Porto stretching from Ponte Dom Luis I to Massachusetts, a million little lights cascading down into the river, and then the moon rising over the Mosteiro do Sierra do Pilar, well…golly gosh.

And then the food. You can only rarely expect that the intricate, elaborate miniature artworks that these kitchens create will also possess an alchemy of surprise and flavour and delight, that elevate a meal into an experience. It really was extraordinary.

yeatman-restaurantMercifully, despite the nonsense formality and ritual, the service was also charming, with the young staff not being quite as serious as the atmosphere intended.

(The hotel itself looks ghastly btw, Modern American Plantation in primary colours.  Half expected Julia Roberts in a hoop skirt).

Day two started frighteningly hungover and then it got worse. I had researched Douro boat trips for a month in an attempt to avoid what I suspected could be a really nasty crowded smelly tedious loud and trashy experience. The company I booked with was Rent Douro but all the boats are in collaboration and we got sold on, cheaply. Despite promises and photographs to the contrary, we became stuck on a boat for 5 hours with 200 too many people, bad food, bad music, bad fashion and the Zumba. It was horrendous. The Douro isn’t even pretty until the last hour before Peso da Régua, so it’s just a complete waste of time. For god’s sake, take the train. The stations on the Douro are the cutest in the universe.

douro-portugal

All of this was forgotten once we walked through the doors of the Aquapura Hotel. Everything about the Aquapura is perfect. Architecturally it is designed to draw the outdoors in and you feel swamped by the beauty of the Douro Valley. It might be disconcertingly dimly lit, but around each corner is an enormous picture window framing the lines and colour of vineyards and the spectacular light. Actually the presence of the outside is so strong that the interior design makes little impact at all, except perhaps for that lovely big green bath in the centre of our room. It was an enormously relaxing place, and although we did venture out to Lamego and some wineries, we were all pretty keen to come back and do nothing much, except be there.

aquapura-douro-valleyaquapura-roomaquapura-spa

Sadly, after a couple of days, we had another really nice place to go to. About 10 minutes up the road, across the river, there’s Quinta do Vallado, a family-owned working vineyard with a few rooms in the manor house and a bunch more in a very nicely designed modern wing. Massively tasteful and understated, more intimate, characterful and altogether a different kind of thing than Aquapura but still holding us there in with comfort and quietness. And good food.

quinta-do-vallado  quinta-do-vallado-dining

I felt we were risking unhealthy levels of languid contentment so we set off on a adventure finding Quinta do Passadouro, tucked into one of the Douro’s deep clefts. Our destination lay in a chasm between two cars and two generations of GPS. As we locals know, GPS don’t differentiate well between new tar and centuries old donkey track with 50 degree gradient and hairpin turns unsuitable for E-class Mercedes hire cars and vertiginous types. Great wines once we got there though. We loaded up the trunks.

douro-valley

Perhaps a good point to mention, if you are planning a quick trip to prop up the Portuguese economy, deep Douro country is not the place to be caught short. Banks here are not agreeable in exchanging obscure Antipodean currencies and while the multibanco system (ATM) is excellent in many respects, providing a customer with voluminous wads of cash is not really its forte. The plastic was fine in fancy-land but hopeless on the street. Our jetsetters were well prepared, however, and one international money transfer at a pre-ordained favourable exchange rate kept the palms greased and wheels oily or whatever the metaphor.

lamego  casa-mateus-bw

Now we left the Douro proper and headed for Amarante, via the lovely Casa Mateus, just to show I really knew something about quality wines. At Amarante there was the Casa da Calçada, a large posh place of the pompous kind, all heavy drapes and aristocratic imagery. The kids took the presidential suite, because they could. We were there for the food at Largo da Paço, the other Michelin star of the north. I wonder now if after 5 days we had fortune fatigue as while the meal was astonishing, we couldn’t help comparing it to that first night at the Yeatman. Sigh.

casa-da-calcada-2  casa-da-calcada

largo-do-paco

Our return to Porto proved we were not jaded. The Hotel Infante Sagres is as gay as a Mardi Gras. It’s Portuguese 18th century meets Versace. High camp, colour, magic and glamour. It looks like a party. I love it. So we dressed up and romped off to the Ribeira, where the promise of real food with the people waited to be found. Just some perfect treasure of a place I had to find… in the Ribeira.

hotel-infante-sagres-room  hotel-infante-sagres

VIP Mario and I hit the waterfront while the others watered their fronts. You know that waterfront, with the menus in several languages and the touts – I was just hoping there might be one shiny place I’d missed…we went upstairs, we went behind. Then we went to my favourite backstreet behind the Pestana where I’ve had many a real meal. Dodgy. Full. Maybe. Flags on menu. Empty. Too rustic. Then that was the end of the options. Regarding our prospects, I was thinking Holy Shit. BUT THEN I saw lights on in a teenie weenie building straight ahead, and despite being wildly discreet, I could smell ambiance.

The sign on the closed door said, “if you are in a hurry, go somewhere else”. We were hooked. It was a slow food place. We had hit the jackpot. I had to negotiate our way in, however, promising on scout’s honour that we would not want anything before 10pm.

“But you can serve us drinks, right?”

“Hmmm. OK, drinks only. But really no food, no bread, no menus, nothing before 10. I won’t look at you before 10.” He said. He was a feisty opponent this restaurant security guard host person. Earnest. Stubborn. Serious. This was all good.

“But after 10, we will be absolutely there for you. But it will be slow! You must be patient!”

ode-restaurant

I don’t know what sort of people he was used to dealing with but I knew we were the perfect customers. Dammed happy to be left alone with a fine wine of his choosing, and then another while our anticipation lifted elegantly like puffs of smoke from a Cuban cigar.

A tiny place, in the stone cellar style of the Riberia and we were in the back room with walls of wine boxes and candles. Linen. Reidel. This was restaurante ODE. We already knew it was going to be great.

He chose all the wines that night, our host, we trusted him so well. It was a wonderful meal, and a delicious end to a beautiful week.

fine-dining

Very special thanks to The Prez, Mrs Prez, Mars Prez and Dra Rob Prez. Lots of love.

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