Portugal: Lisbon, Nazaré, Douro Valley

The idea to go back to Portugal started with a half-baked idea to spend part of December working in Ireland. After Jill and sis-in-law Amy signed on, the destination changed to Portugal, the idea of working while there went away, and I dropped tentative plans for a weeklong motorcycle trip.

This post is all about week one of the two-and-a-half weeks I spent there. In this chapter, Jill and I landed in Lisbon where we spent three days, drove up to Nazaré and the Douro Valley for three days, then came back to Lisbon. We had zero plans other than a couple of dinner reservations, and our time could be summarized like this: low stress, high joy.

We saw a lot.

We walked a lot — including many hills and miles — and ate a lot. I’ll give you the greatest hits:

Best dining experience: Oficina do Duque. We climbed a lot of stairs in Lisbon to get there and it was worth every step. The wait staff danced and sang songs and fed us delicious food and wine. Recommendations: The oxtail — wow. And if it’s on the menu, the tuna with whipped root vegetables. It was so good we went back on our return trip to Lisbon. Be sure to glance at the framed Bukowski quote in the bar — it served as a motto for our trip:

“For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command nor faith a dictum. I am my own god. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”

Runner-up for best dining experience: Tasca da Esquina. Stellar food — I loved the creamy cheese that was waiting for us on our table, and the octopus. And the port. Yes, the port. It’s only a runner up because we couldn’t stumble down the stairs, stop for a ginja at the bar at the base of the hill, and wander through the Christmas market on the way to our hotel after eating. Location is everything.

Answering a question: Time Out Market or LX Factory? On my previous trip, a local scoffed at the Time Out Market and said to go to LX Factory. Jill and I went to both. If you want food, there’s no comparison, IMHO. Jill and I ate croquettes, sardines and tomatoes on toast, and pastel de nata, and drank cheap and delicious vino verde at Time Out. Amazing food, and a bargain. Two meals at LX Factory restaurants were mediocre at best. But LX Factory is worth a visit, if only to check out my favorite shop, Ementa. I loved their skate wear, and had to buy something because the woman running the store was so friendly and curious about everyone who came in, and retail needs more of that.

Brunch, anyone? In Lisbon, check out The Folks Sé. I’m obsessed with their syrniki, tiny pancakes made with farmers cheese.

Surprise dining experience: Swagat, in Nazaré. The best Indian food I’ve eaten, and no one else was in the restaurant. We went back two nights later and repeated the experience — great food, amazing hospitality, and a criminally empty restaurant. We appreciated them leaving a bottle of rum on our table the second night, and giving us the green light to empty it (we didn’t).

Stunning vistas and sleeping dogs. We took a day trip up to Miradouro de São Salvador do Mundo, in the Douro Valley. To get there, you hop off the N222 and take a winding, narrow road that ends in a small parking area. Walk up to a chapel, and there’s a stunning panoramic view of the valley. When we were there, an inversion filled the valley with fluffy white clouds. We watched the valley for a while, then went down the road for lunch at São Leonardo, where we ate an okay lunch while enjoying a spectacular view of the valley. Bonus view: When we exited the motorway before heading up the mountain, we came upon a pack of dogs sleeping in the roundabout. I’ve never seen this before, and wish I had video. I know Jill does somewhere.

The 100 Foot Wave. It’s a documentary on HBO about big wave surfers in Nazaré. Watch it — I’m addicted. And Nazaré was a great place to hang out for a few days. We had an apartment overlooking the ocean, plenty of beach to walk, and an out-of-order funicular that forced us to drive up to the vantage point for big waves (there were none — the waves were maybe 15′ when we went). It was a great jumping off point to visit other beaches along the coast.

Final thoughts: Portugal is gorgeous, Lisbon is charming, the people are warm (though a bit chillier to the idea of tourism these days), and it’s an inexpensive destination. Go. You won’t regret it.

London Calling

There’s one place we’ve traveled where Beth and I don’t see eye-to-eye: London. She’s #teamlondon, and sees something romantic in marginal weather, royals, and obscene concentrations of wealth. I, on the other hand, crank up The Sex Pistols and turn my cynicism to 11.

We landed in London for an overnight stay on the way home from Portugal. A cabbie greeted us by plundering our wallet for the trip from Heathrow to our hotel in Kensington, where we checked into a room about twice the size of our dog’s crate. He gave me his card in case I needed to shed cash at any point during our stay.

True story: The last time we were in London (2010) we stayed in a room so small that at one point Beth found our son reading on the roof, where the walls weren’t inches away.

I digress.

I stowed my cynicism and put our itinerary, minus dinner, in Beth’s hands. She wanted to see the Portobello Road Market and The Famous Door (wait for it….). So off we went.

I’ll give it this: The people watching at the market was excellent. Beth checked out street vendors and I shot photos. It was a win-win. Eventually we got tired of being elbow to elbow with half the Americans in London and retired to The Castle, which answered the question, What would it be like to drink a pint of beer while surrounded by noise like ’50s-era jets taking off?

Did I mention “The Door?” This would be the purple door where Hugh Grant emerged during whatever movie it was that propelled Portobello Road into the consumer consciousness. We saw it (the door, that is). An angry man elbowed me in the ribs while I took a picture.

After Portobello we took refuge in The Beachcomber, a tiki bar where we drank from a glass skull. This was only two or three days after the final Brexit vote, and if I were British I would still probably be there with no plans to #leave. By the way, I had no idea tiki bars are a thing in London, but knowing this elevates my opinion of the city.

Dinner: We went to Hereford Road, which is the name of both a road and a restaurant. It’s where a butcher shop once stood and they serve all kinds of meaty goodness, while completely lacking any pretentiousness. I had the lamb chops and loved them. I would go back in a second.

It was raining hard when we left Hereford Road, so we Uber’d back to the hotel where I picked up an umbrella and walked to a gelato/coffee shop for an espresso. While I waited in line, a kid who was about five made a game of stealing my umbrella and bringing it back. His mom was horrified. I was entertained. The espresso wasn’t bad, and unfortunately I can’t recall the name of the place.

We flew home the next morning. Truth be told, I’ll miss that tiki bar.