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Saturday, 28 September 2013

Alijo and the Durou

The breakfast at the Pousada was similar to most we have been experiencing, with a nice difference. Eggs are made to order! We have been noticing that staff at these hotels work very long hours. The same waiter that said good night to us around 11pm greeted us at 9am.

Susanne at the front desk was a wonderful conceirge. She took time to help us chose destinations, called to ensure we had reservations and was very clear on how to navigate the map. Later that day when we couldn't find our lunch destination we phoned her and she helped us get where we were going.

We had three destinations today. First we were heading into the Douro Valley to a lookout point; then to a small town, Pinhao to take a one hour boat ride on the river and then finally to the Quinta do Portal, a local winery for lunch and a tasting.

Driving in the Valley was an adventure. The Douro is lined with a series of mountains, most which are covered with vineyards, olive and orange trees, all grown on terraces. The hills are very steep and it seems that this cultivation almost defies gravity. The roads also challenge the laws of physics. There is a switch back every 50 metres and only occasional barriers separating the road from oblivion. A few inches off the pavement would lead to a short ariel experience with disastrous results. We seldom exceeded 45 kilometres and occasionally came to screeching stops when a large truck full of grapes came barrelling around a blind curve. When possible we pulled off to the side to allow local drivers to stream passed us. They didn't seem to need to drive at our snail's pace.

The other reason for driving slow was to view the scenery. It was breathtaking! Our pictures only capture some of the magic of this beautiful oasis. Wonderful colours and dizzy vistas. This is the one place in all of Portugal we certainly would like to come back to. Two days in this region was not enough.

We found the vista and then the boat. It was a smallish vessel made in an ancient style. From here we got to see the same wonderful hills, but this time from the bottom up.

We then headed for a neighbouring town to find the Quinta Do Portal. This is where we got a bit "turned around". We actually found two entrances for the Quinta, but thought the first was just to their offices and then found the second "tasting centre" closed. Confused we headed into the local town and that's when we called Susanne and she saved the day. It was really helpful having a local SIM card for our phone.

We headed back to the first entrance that we had passed by and found a lovely dining room where we sat on the patio surrounded by the vineyards and ate some of the best food of the trip - perhaps the best lamb I ever had! And of course the wine pairing were superb. After lunch we did go to the tasting room and compared 30 and 40 year old Tawny Port. The 40 year old has come home with us.

By the time dinner time arrived we were still satiated from our late lunch so we had a light bite at the Poussado and then a pleasant time talking and sipping on the patio adjoining our room. Many thanks to Susanne and her colleagues for a lovely, albeit short stay in the Douro.

Friday, 27 September 2013

The Road to Alijo

Our trip from Coimbra to Alijo was mostly on toll roads. While most of these are easy to understand - take a ticket - give up the ticket - pay; there are some toll highways without any stations. There is no way to pay. Since they send a bill based on your license plate, it is best to discuss this ahead of time with your rental agency.

We made only one stop along the way. Leaving Coimbra we continued North and decided to stop for a late lunch. We entered into Viseu, a mid sized modern town in the centre of the Dau wine producing area, found a parking spot and wandered into the older quarter. At the top of a long hill (always at the top) we found a visitors centre who explained all the religious sites that we could see - but thankfully they were all closed for lunch. We explored a warren of streets and finally decided on a busy restaurant that served the local speciality, drunken rabbit, that Monica found in the guide book. One draw back, even though were sitting outside, was the loud TV blaring sports. They agreed to turn it down, but not noticeably. Another patron half way through lunch took it upon himself to turn it down further. We were grateful.

Now drunken rabbit is made with a rabbit marinated in wine for several days and then roasted. Unfortunately Monica's rabbit was dry and tough. Joe's clams were a bit salty, but otherwise quite good. The service was surly and indifferent.

Now on our final leg we left the toll roads and approached Alijos along windy country roads. Alijos is a very small farming village. It was no problem finding the Pousada
Forrester in the centre of town. Our check-in was quick and friendly and our "suite" was modern and comfortable. While not actually a suite it did have a huge rooftop deck with a couch and two lounging chairs overlooking Alijo's local community pool, tennis courts and the Douro hills. It was a great place to sip wine and relax. But first we took a walk around town. It didn't take long and it was interesting to see groups of men everywhere just hanging out on the streets socializing. It was like going back in time.

Dinner our first night was at the Pousada. The food was traditional and very good. Monica ate Partridge and I had the local wild Boar. Both were brown and stewish. The local wines were quite good and the service was warm, friendly and very competent. There were 3 other couples dining with us from Ontario, BC and Holland. We struck up a conversation about wine and travel and all had a satisfying evening.

Before heading up to bed at 11pm we conferred with Susanne, the wonderfully helpful conceirge on our activities for the next day. She made great suggestions and promised to call and make reservations early the next morning. The staff here certainly work long hours.





Sunday, 22 September 2013

Pedro Lemos - Wonderful restaurant in Porto (More on Douro Valley Alijo to come later - sorry for the sequence)

Our first night in Porto we had pre-arranged reservations for dinner at Pedros Lemos, an up and coming star chef. We asked our hotel to tell our taxi driver the name and address of the restaurant. The journey was not smooth. The taxi kept getting lost and even after I got him to call the restaurant it was 10 more minutes before he found it. Pedros is located in a residential neighbourhood and is hard to find. But worth the effort.

We were greeted warmly and any tension caused by the taxi soon faded away. We started with drinks on the 2nd floor outdoor deck. The night was warm and the cool porto branco was refreshing. After our drinks we moved inside to start serious dining. We had decided to indulge with the 6 course tasting menu along with wine pairings. We were not disappointed.

The service from start finish was superb; attentive and fun. Two servers appeared with our first amusee bouche and unveiled lightly smoked fresh sardines accompanied by a small cocktail (non alcoholic) that tasted like a caesar. The sardines were delicate and quickly consumed.

The sommelier then delivered the first wine, an Alvarinho, Loureiro, Fernad. It was a lovely interesting departure from the often thin Sauvignon Blancs, although it did share some similar grassy charactersitics. It was an excellent match for our first (1/6) course of Blue Lobster, Crayfish, Scallop and Shrimp in an asian broth made from black pig. The seafood was delicate, perfectly cooked and a wonderful start. Lots of time was allowed between courses for us to contemplate the many tastes and the always generous wine pours.

Our next wine was a Granjo 2007 Late Harvest, a sweet icewine (like) that had a nice balance of sweetness and acid, almost balsamic, to stand up nicely with the Foie Gras. The pate was a generous helping with a cherry based sauce and pistachio crust. Bad for the heart and great for the soul. We savoured each piece along with the nectar.

So ended the "appetizers" and now we on to the entrees. The Cataplana had a creamy fish broth made with a little bit of wine that complimented the fresh sea bass, mussels and shrimp. This was a very modern style and while true to the "freshness requirement" of the traditional dish it was constructed in a modern style. The wine accompaniment was similarly perfect. A Vinho Formal 2011 Bairrada from Central Portugal. A nice wine with sufficient complexity to match the food, but not our favourite.

We were then ready for the "meat" course. Our first of two wine pairings was a Reserva La Rosa 2009 from the Douro. This was complex wine, lots of tannin, deep ruby colour and yet smooth to the taste. Lots of spice and cherry at the tip of the tongue followed by a long finish.

The Magret of duck was served with a celery root mash along with wild mushrooms and truffle. Although a little bit tough the flavours were intense and the creaminess of the celery root mopped up all of the reduction. We should add that for most of our courses we could not resist taking a bit of bread to clean up any remaining reduction.

The Sommelier then appeared and provided us a second red. This was not part of the normal pairing, but an acknowledgement of our keen interest and delights in his wine offerings. This second red was a 2001 INHA OFOIO (label hard to read, name might have a few more letters) from the Douro. This wine had more of an edge, and was interesting with stronger tannins. It was a nice surprise and we sipped it for a while before courses 5 and 6!

We were somewhat relieved when it became clear we were moving into the dessert phase of dinner. Our next wine was a Taylor's 2008 Late Bottled Vintage Port. It was a sweet wine with a great mouthfeel. After one sip Monica decided she had enough for the night and slipped her glass over to Joe, who gladly accepted her offering.

Our first dessert was creamy mint, sesame, gin and cucumber strawberry ice cream. It was a power house of sensual intense flavours that even Monica (who does not like ice cream) could not resist.

Our second dessert was Lavender, Tourigo National Pearls, rhubarb and caramelized pine nuts. The "Pearls" were made from red grapes. It was divine.

By this time we were both completely satiated and very happy. The combination of great food and warm service was a delight. Our trip home by taxi was much quicker and non eventful. We recommend this restaurant to anyone going to Oporto.














Saturday, 21 September 2013

Coimbra Explored on Foot and by Stomach

After our previous day of rest we decided on an early start for our day of exploring Coimbra. We grabbed a taxi for 6 Euros and headed up to the university which is perched on the highest hill in town. Our driver was true to the Portuguese taxi code of getting your passenger to their destination as quickly as possible up the narrow windy roads. Today we only "almost hit" 3 people.

When we arrived at the top there were already many tourists and students gathering for the day. It must be strange being a student at a university that was started in the 1200's and has hundreds of tourists milling about each day. This was the first week of classes and many students were partaking in orientation tours themselves. THeir guides were older students dressed in traditional black capes, ties and black pants or skirts. It felt very medieval.

We paid for our tickets and also secured audio tour speakers which helped us enjoy the historical aspects of the place. Although it is always strange to hear a British voice guiding us through Portuguese or Italian sites. The main square is surrounded by medieval buildings and opens up on one side to show a great vista of the surrounding town. In the middle of the square there is a large statue of one of the university's early benefactors.

Highlights included lots of great art; an ancient library which was used until about 50 years ago; a prison for wayward students; a court for academic disputes and best of all - we got to peer through a window and see an actual Doctoral defence in progress. THe defence was in a large church like room with spectators (likely family) sitting on pews; a judge like figure in robes presiding from a high chair and about 7 people adjudicating from a high bench on the side. All of these judges were dressed in academic robes. In the middle of the room sat a middle age man at a small desk and he was doing most of the talking.Off to his side was a young woman in regular clothes. She didn't seem to talk much. We remain curious on how their process works. It seemed much more intimidating than MI State.

After our tour of the University we walked over to the National Museum and saw amazing 16th C religious art, including the famous Black Jesus. There was a modern looking restaurant at the museum with a fabulous view, but we did not taste their food.

From the museum it was a pleasant walk DOWN through windy narrow streets (glad we didn't try walking up). There is a large church/monastary which we visited quickly and tasteful shops. We bought a 2 CD Fado collection along the way down. They have nightly Fado performances and Port tastings. We also saw some fun installation art - umbrellas lining one street.

The clerk who sold us our tickets for the University tour recommended a local restaurant on the river. He said it was more expensive, but very good. It was a bit hard to find because it is not on an actual street, but part of a small shopping building that sits in the park and right on the river. Strangely it is named the "A Portuegesa". When we found it we knew this was going to be special. Our waiter had a huge personality and ensured we had a delightful experience. We decided to sit under some umbrellas right at the riverside. From our table we could see a solitary swimmer in the river and ducks underneath our feet. After looking at the menu he took us inside to view the fresh fish and explained our many options. The fish was so fresh they almost squirmed. We had choices of Skate, Grouper, Dorado, Sea Bass, Sole and Lobster. We chose a Dorado and they weighed it and told us the very reasonable price for 2 people. With our waiter's help we selected a local white wine and had an informative discussion about Portuguese wine. He then brought out a special bottle of red wine and poured us both a taste, instructing us to let it breath for about 15 minutes before trying it.

When the Dorado appeared it was perfectly grilled (on charcoal) and the waiter expertly filleted it into two pieces. It was delectable and one of the best we had had on this trip and perhaps anywhere. I did express my disappointment in receiving oiled potatoes instead of fresh fried chips - but this was rectified quickly with a smile. The chips were also great, as was the fresh salad. We really enjoyed this restaurant and our waiter. When the meal was just about done we finally tasted the red wine and it was worth the wait. Medium bodied, nice complexity and deep ruby colour. We liked it enough to order it by the glass at our hotel later in the evening. Thanks to the producer's marketing it was only 3 Euros a glass!

It was a quick 10 minute walk across the river back to our hotel. We took a quick rest at the pool and then met our new Ohio friends in the lounge to catch up on our days. We ended up joining them at the hotel's restaurant for a light dinner. The staff (with the exception again of the Sommelier) continued to disappoint with their lack of attention and warmth. A huge contrast to our lunch experience and again evidence on why they no longer have their Star. For the high price the food was just ok.

And so ended our last night in Coimbra. David and Charlotte we hope to see you again real soon.