Shhhh… lean in closer. I am going to share a secret. For a blissful escape to the countryside in Portugal.
If Portugal isn’t on your travel bucket-list, put it on there NOW. Everyone I have met who has traveled to Portugal, absolutely raves about it. I know, I know… I am biased. Full disclosure: my family has roots there (like strong Oak tree roots). My blood is 100% Portuguese.
I spent my summers in Portugal as a child and since moving to Paris, I have had the pleasure of spending even more time there. Both with family and exploring the rest of the country.
Even though my family is from Portugal, that doesn’t mean I traveled all around the small maritime country in my youth. Not at all. We were planted in a teeny, tiny part, in a town called Cantanhede for the whole summer with time spent on the beach and a few day trips at most.
It was only in 2009 when David and I spent three weeks exploring it top to bottom, actually bottom to top… Algarve, Evora, Lisbon, Coimbra, Porto and more in between. That’s when my true appreciation for Portugal as a prime traveler’s destination started.
It’s a clean, modern sun-baked European country. Its people are friendly and warm. There are long stretches of sandy beach where you can watch the fishermen pull in the day’s catch. Salt and olive-oil drenched food that leaves you licking your fingers and wanting more. It’s a small country, that is easy to navigate. (But a car is a must to explore its hidden gems.) And the best part: it’s relatively off the beaten path. You will find hoards of tourists in the major towns in the Algarve and in Lisbon during the peak season but visit in May or September, and you’ll feel like you have it all to yourself.
But back to the secret escape to bliss… here it is… spend (at least) two nights in the Douro Valley.
Once you’ve visited the beaches and did the city thing in Lisbon and Porto, you can’t leave without an visit to the lush vine-filled Douro Valley. Located in the north, directly east of Porto, the river crosses from Spain to the ocean and its valleys provide the bounty for Portugal’s well known Port wine.
Where to stay
Do yourself a favour and plan a stay near Peso da Régua. Last year, we found a charming guest house in Armamar called Quinta da Raposeira. We loved it so much, David’s parents stayed there this summer and we stayed there again with my parents just two weeks ago. Ana and her family are warm, friendly and welcoming.
We stayed in one of their two-bedroom apartment suites. They are simple but comfortable and at a good price point. We were invited to enjoy the common living/dining area in the house that felt like home. Had the weather been warm enough, their pool would have been the perfect place to cool off. And the views overlooking olive groves and hilltops are simply breathtaking. A lovely place to wake up to.
For dinner, upon request, Ana served us a hearty 4-course typical Portuguese meal (that even my parents approved of). We were surrounded by tradition and elegance from the table setting, to the decor and overall atmosphere.
Go for the wine, stay for the hospitality and the views
While in the Douro Valley, you MUST visit Quinta do Pôpa winery. We stumbled upon it last year and visited it again this year. Our whole trip was based around spending the whole afternoon here.
Porto and the Douro Valley are well known for Port wines and most estates’ main product is just that. But Quinta do Popa makes their own red and white wines. They have a beautiful estate overlooking the valley and the river. Leila, who we met last year and greeted us with a large smile and two kisses on the cheek this year, is bubbly, entertaining and very knowledgeable. She guided us through the tour of their cellars and production facility and then through a generous wine tasting.
This estate has a truly beautiful history and it pays homage to the current owner’s grandfather who had always dreamed of owning a winery. At the same time, it has a young and vibrant feel. They experiment with blends and wine names (like naming two wines that are sold together, Lolita and MILF). What first caught my attention was their funny signs along the numerous steep switchbacks up the hill. Signs like “Shhhh, old vines sleeping”.
The best part of the visit is their lovely packed picnic which you can enjoy on their estate with those breathtaking views. We comfortably lazed in the shade on a hot afternoon, on pillows and carpets, munching our assortment of bread, cheese and cured meats, homemade jam, honey and olives. Of course, we washed it all down with a bottle each of white and rose from their entry level Contos de Terra (which translates to Tales from the Earth).
Don’t feel guilty if you end up spending the entire afternoon here like we did … it’s worth it. And I guarantee you won’t want to leave.
Admire the typical Portuguese blue tiles
Admittedly, as we took the wrong turn off the highway and I chastised David for his poor navigation, I didn’t think we would stumble into the quaint historic city centre of Lamego with some worthy sites to visit. The most striking site is the sanctuary of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios. Hundreds of steps zig-zag up the hill but you won’t even notice the burn in your legs because along the way are beautiful murals of blue painted aluzejo (tiles) depicting the life of Mary, mother of Jesus. At the top, you’re rewarded with views of the city and a baroque church.
Of course there is a lot more in the area to explore, see and do including many more wineries to visit, cruises along the Douro and little towns to get your espresso and patel de nata fix.
Portugal is a traveler’s dream.
In the end of a relaxing, slow-paced trip, my parents were grateful we showed them a part of their own country they had never seen before. This serves as a reminder that even the most wonderful things to explore may be right in your own backyard.
As my father said, pictures don’t do it justice. You have to be there to appreciate the beauty and vastness of the landscape. So I really hope one day you can go there to enjoy it as much as we did.
Have you been to Portugal? What did you think? If not, is this enough to entice you?