Disclaimer: the following post is the first in a series that will document my two-day post-conference trip through Northern Portugal, kindly organised by the Portuguese Tourist Board. I’ve never been on a sponsored trip before, so I’m breaking down my write up into three sections to fully describe everything we did.
The next two installments, ‘We Left Our Hearts in Guimarães’ and ‘A Photographic Pilgrimage to Bom de Jesus’, are on their way in due course!
Over the course of three conference days and my first blog trip, I’m pretty sure I ingested more than a years worth of quality food and alcohol. From fresh fish, market stall fruit and indulgent desserts to the famous Franceschina (a multi layered sandwich of beef, ham and cheese covered with a spicy tomato sauce), there’s simply no doubt about it: Portugal really scores high in the dining stakes.
The most surprising thing, though, was my discovery of Porto’s most famous export: port.
Do I even like port?
I’ve always had a vague awareness that I don’t enjoy drinking port. Many Christmases past, I used to watch my grandma happily indulge in a cheeky snifter of port, but the heavy smell and the overly sweet taste did nothing for me. Of course I wasn’t in the best position to be a port wine connoisseur when I was 10 years old, but nevertheless, the impression kind of stuck.
Luckily, the Portuguese people who hail from this compact city in the north are fiercely proud of their famous namesake drink – and they emphasise that the real true port can only be found here. Everyone, from taxi drivers to tour guides, are resolute that you simply have to sample this wine, in its original city, to understand its quality.
Clearly, they were right: from my first sip of my first glass of port and tonic, I was hooked. So, too, were the rest of my conference buddies – so much so that a glass of the simple cocktail became our standard drink order during our eight days spent in the region.
Touring the North
The first stop on our whirlwind tour of Northern Portugal was Pinhão, a small town in the Douro Valley. Our guide, Marta, explained it was the heart of the wine region, where the Douro and Pinhão rivers meet: the water has been used for centuries to transport port wine down river in flat-bottomed rabelo boats, to be eventually stored in barrels in cool, underground cellars.
Nowadays, port is transported via tanker trucks, but the river still looks so inviting that, naturally, we boarded a similar style of boat and journeyed along the water. It was sublimely relaxing, and a much needed antidote to the madness of the last few days at the conference.
When we were suitably calmed and sunned, our boat docked alongside the Rabelo restaurant at CS Vintage Hotel. Under a white canopy on the terrace, we enjoyed a delicious lunch of smoked ham carpaccio and honeydew melon, veal medallion and apple strudel.
Paired with our meal were a selection of appropriate wines, along with the best white wine I think I’ve ever tasted, and which succeeded in helping to break the ice with the bloggers I hadn’t yet had a chance to meet. I hadn’t really thought about it, but the blog trip offered the surprising addition of spending some quality time with a group of new people – and, fundamentally, in an environment where we could just chat normally instead of feeling we had to focus on ‘blogtalk’.
This meal essentially set a precedent that we gladly followed over the course of the next two days.
Our mornings were spent wandering through the beautifully photogenic towns of the North, punctuated by a three course lunch with a hefty amount of alcohol – and then our lovely bus driver, Mario, transported us through the hills to another similarly gorgeous town, while we slept off our alcohol intake for a sneaky few hours on the journey.
Another town wander followed, then another three course dinner, and finally a comfortable bed at a local pousada – a traditional Portuguese historic hotel. I’m not totally sure if this is the way a blogtrip normally goes, but I was more than happy to pretend!
The rest of my fellow conference delegates were spread across the region on four similar blog trips, and the same obsession with wifi continued – primarily to see the various Instagram/Twitter/Facebook updates that other people had posted about their activities. Surprisingly (to me at least), there were a wealth of experiences to hear about, from zip lining and boulder climbing to dressing up in medieval garb and having dinner at a castle.
Unsurprisingly, many of the other posts were about alcohol. Be it photos, tweets, status updates: it was all about the booze.
Before this conference kicked off, I’d spent the last six months effectively teetotal. While Thailand is renowned for its drinking culture (among the Western tourists, at least), in India there wasn’t such an emphasis on getting trashed. And when I was deep in my hippy-yoga phase, my liquid intake was much more about chai and honey-ginger-lemon tea than it was about wine and port.
But it’s supremely difficult to refuse the nice man holding the green bottle at a slight angle above your glass. And it’s even harder when there’s three nice men, three different bottles of liquid and a never ending supply of empty glasses to fill.
This situation, however, can often culminate in disaster. Disaster spelled with the letters ‘local firewater’…
Blood, guts and sputtering Spaniards
The place was Viana do Castelo, at a small family style restaurant named Camelo. They specialise in serving ‘interesting’ Portuguese meals: think blood rice, chicken gizzards and platters of every pork-based organ, including heart, lungs and real-skinned sausage.
Come to think of it, the photo montage of various stages of a pig slaughter, displayed proudly on a board outside the front door, should definitely have been an indicator of their menu.
It was the last night of the blog trip, and we’d already drunk our weight in complimentary red, white and green wines (no word of a lie – vinho verde is a Portuguese speciality) to aid us in wading through the vast array of food that loaded our table, when the waitress emerged from the kitchen, brandishing a glass olive oil bottle.
“Who would like to try our special home brewed firewater?”
I’d been warned about this drink by a cab driver in Porto. Warned, and simultaneously ordered to attempt to drink a glass of the stuff. We turned to Marta, who piped up from the corner of the room.
“It’s Portuguese tradition. It’s good, like very warming tea.”
Watching a burly Costa Rican splutter and swear in his native Spanish upon ingestion of said firewater was certainly a sight to behold. So, too, were the few rookies who attempted to shoot the whole thing back in one. I took my time, and employed a very useful suggestion from a fellow blogger:
“breathe all the air out first before you sip it – then it won’t burn as much!” True, but it still packed a hell of a punch.
And sorry Marta, but tea it most definitely is not. After a tour through the country’s finest – and most experimental – alcohols, I’m still pretty certain where my loyalties lie.
Take me back to the port, posthaste!