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Devouring Portugal, from Lisbon to Porto

This resilient, independent, often overlooked country has come into its own—particularly in the kitchen, where talented chefs are creating a food scene that might be one of the best in Europe.


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In Portugal, everything starts with the sea. History, culture, empire, nostalgia, and, of course, lunch, all tumbled together in those mighty Atlantic currents. With over a thousand miles of coastline and a neighbor, Spain, with whom relations were never exactly cordial, it’s little wonder that all eyes are fixed eternally west. Away from Europe, to the place where, in the words of Luís de Camões, that great and most revered of Portuguese poets, onde a terra se acaba e o mar começa, (Where the land ends and the sea begins).

Celts, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Swabians, and Moors all settled or invaded this land. And it was the Portuguese, masters of exploration, conquerors of the ocean, who, in the age of discovery, set sail for Madeira and the Azores, the coast of Africa, and the route to India. The country may be small, but its legacy is mighty. Over three centuries later, another fine Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa, master of melodious melancholy, was equally obsessed. “The sea with an end can be Greek or Roman,” he sighed. “The endless sea is Portuguese.”

And it’s not just the sea that swirls through Portugal’s veins, but saudade—the nostalgic “presence of absence”—that flows rather more slowly. Because here is a land with everything: centuries of culture and learning; a liberal, permissive society; clement climate; and some of the finest natural produce on earth. Yet the Portuguese seem unwilling to sing too loudly of their blessings, to revel in what they have. While Spain basks in sun, Portugal mopes modestly in shade. “Saudade is a national characteristic,” says Raquel Prates, an actress and the owner of multibrand 39a Concept Store. “Even when you have everything, you don’t. Everyone has it. You can find it in the music, fado”—a sort of traditional Portuguese blues—“and smell it in the air.” But while saudade is similar to nostalgia, it’s more than that: It’s the pang of “missingness” soaked in a romantic conservatism that constantly yearns for the past. Portugal wears it like a mourning cloak.

Yet Lisbon, Portugal’s capital, seems anything but melancholic. Oh, the irony. In fact, it’s a city that suffuses the spirit with giddy joy, scrawling an impromptu grin across one’s face. Drenched in winter sun, the skies a startling azure, the crisp, sea-salted breeze is scented with roasting chestnuts, thick with the clink of glasses and the merry ting-ting of ever-present trams. I don’t think I’ve ever fallen for a city so fast, so hard. I guzzle the view from the top of Bairro Alto Hotel (rooms from $240), a lemon-hued beauty that straddles bohemian Bairro and ever-fizzing Chiado. It passes over terra-cotta roofs and pulchritudinous pastels of blue and pink, out to the glimmering Rio Tejo, with its lobster-red 25 de Abril suspension bridge (named after the Carnation Revolution of 1974), and on to the city of Almada. Ferries chug from one side to the other while cargo boats wend their way down to the sea. My senses abuzz, I descend to the ground to wander down the cobbled, undulating streets and along wide mosaic-floored avenues, awash in a visceral joie de vivre. The light has a startling luminosity, a reflection, they say, of the river, and those hand-painted tiles, azulejos, which the city wears so well. All this vitality, this enervating urban thrust, turns every thought to lunch. Gambrinus is old-school Portuguese, with stained-glass windows, regal red carpets, and waiters in burgundy attire. I eat boiled prawns with the ethereal, fleeting sweetness of the truly fresh, and plump clams swimming in parsley-flecked, garlic-infused liqueur.

My appetite, barely sated by an uncharacteristically restrained lunch, craves a hit of oily sardines and spicy mackerel fillets. So I stop at Sol e Pesca, on Cais do Sodré, a tiny restaurant based in an old fishing shop, where rods and reels sit alongside a menu with dozens of varieties of canned fish. It’s the Smithsonian of metal-encased swimmers.

Now suitably full, my trousers stained with oil, I traipse through the various floors of the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, lost in the sheer wealth, breadth, and wonder of Portugal’s past. The panels of St. Vincent; baroquely breathtaking silverware; Ming porcelain and Indo-Portuguese ivory; mother-of-pearl-inlaid Indian caskets; a Bosch triptych, with Christ bleeding on the cross and St. Sebastian, his body punctured by spears. Blood, Catholicism, and the golden, bejeweled spoils of a vast Indian and Brazilian empire.

Dusk is draped over the city when I stop at A Taberna da Rua das Flores (351-21/347-9418), long and narrow, and devour scallops wrapped in crisp, smoky bacon, and salt cod, the ingredient that fuelled a thousand ships, formed into fritters, crisp and softly saline. A glass of vinho verde, then on to dinner proper, a wonderful taste of an old Indian colony, Goa, at Cantinho Da Paz (351-21/390-1963). Pork vindaloo, rich with cloves, sharp with vinegar, hot with peppers, is a dish in which old Europe meets the subcontinent. The Portuguese introduced chilies to India, of course. A mouthful tells a tale of exploration far better than any dreary old book.

I awake the next morning to the blissful baritones of a strolling male choir. Quite why they’re there, I don’t know. But this is Lisbon, a city where the extraordinary seems common-place. I’m meeting Prates at her store, 39a, a cavernous space surrounded by modern Portuguese creativity in its every form: surfboards, bicycles, jewelry, clothes. “It’s an open gallery of ideas,” she says as she points out the work of local artists adorning the walls. She’s glamorous and garrulous, with a deep, throaty laugh. “We’re a small country but one known for our quality and craftsmanship. We just need to sell ourselves more to the outside world.”

On the way to lunch (and all roads in Portugal lead to lunch or dinner), we talk of the difference between Lisbon and Porto, up north. “The money is up north. Down here we spend it.” Prates smiles. “In the north,” she says, “people are more traditional. In Porto, they work. In Lisbon, we dance.” We stop by Maison Nuno Gama (351-21/347-9068), the headquarters of the eponymous and revered Portuguese fashion designer. Handsome and eloquent, with a neatly trimmed beard, he incorporates Portuguese flags into the lining of his suits. And the Galo de Barcelos, that famed Portuguese rooster, the savior of an innocent man, looms large. One T-shirt has the brightly colored bird crafted from leather and studded, like a fetish thong.

Lunch is at Bairro do Avillez, the newest project of the famed chef and restaurateur José Avillez. He’s modest and softly spoken, despite having seven restaurants and nearly 300 staff. “My biggest influence is the sea,” he says. “That and flavor, flavor, flavor.” We eat spanking-fresh horse mackerel wrapped in nori and silken hams from rare-breed pigs. “Like fashion and craft, food artisans are learning how to sell their product,” he says between bites. “We need to tell the story of suppliers. To get it out, to sell it.”

Avillez and I are meeting up later for dinner at his Michelin two-star Belcanto, his flagship. But first, I walk to the Strada Rosa, the old red-light district down by the river, with yellow-painted bridges and pale-pink streets. The large market Mercado da Ribeira has had a facelift, taken over by Time Out publishing group. Fish, meat, bookshops, florists, and fruit. Plus casual restaurants of every hue. I eat percebes (gooseneck barnacles), which resemble dinosaur feet, at Marisqueira Azul (351-21/131 8599), their softly phallic flesh possessed with the very spirit of the Atlantic. As I twist them open, they gush juice across my front.

Religion next, lavish and lovely, at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, with honeyed cloisters and delicate arches where the monks once prayed for sailors, as well as the soul of the king. Then through the western portal of Igreja Santa Maria de Belém (mosteiro, where Gothic moves into Renaissance, with those intricately carved columns and the tombs of Vasco da Gama and poet Camões, the two great pillars of Portugal’s past.

I stop by Antiga Confeitaria de Belém to buy pastéis de belém, those legendary custard tarts. Avillez had told me that 90 percent of these sweets started in the monasteries. Egg whites were used to stiffen clothes and filter wines, leaving a glut of lonely yolks, perfectly suited to the richest of cakes. These tarts are fittingly divine, with flaky, crisp pastry and a lasciviously wobbling, slightly scorched egg custard.

On to the Torre de Belém. Built to defend the city’s harbor in 1515, the tower is, according to my wise guide, Fernando, the physical embodiment of saudade. “The last thing you see sailing out, the first you see coming back in,” as Fernando points out. “We’re not conquerors, like the Spanish, but discoverers.” Ah, the sea.

At Cervejaria Ramiro, a famed beer-and-seafood joint with queues even at five in the afternoon, there’s no pomp or pretence, rather paper-covered tables, cold Sagres beer on tap, and live crustaceans and bivalves awaiting their bubbling fate. Soccer blares from televisions in the corner, and white-shirted waiters scurry manically about. I eat a pair of huge carabinero prawns the size of my hand and suck the sweet, mildly fetid juices from the head. Sublime. Then delicately striped shrimp, sweet as morning dew, and a prego roll—fillet steak cooked rare, slathered with pungent mustard and chili oil, and crammed into a crusty roll. A sandwich of greatness in a restaurant of simple brilliance.

Night falls once more, and I meet Avillez at Mini Bar. It’s dimly lit and discreetly sexy. As we eat chicken skin with spicy avocado, we discuss the financial crisis of 2008 to 2010. “The people were sad. But the football was good!” he says. “Porto was always a city of commerce and work. In Lisbon we have our salary. Let’s spend it.”

It’s a short hop to Belcanto, where we sit at a table in the kitchen and watch 25 of his chefs working skillfully and silently, all dressed in brown uniforms. They move like ballet dancers, graceful and assured. Even the sizzles are polite, the tinkles well mannered and soft. The food is remarkable, technically perfect, packed with flavor and art and a sly sense of humor. There are edible bacalhau “stones,” percebes with green strawberries and pickled seaweed, a sea bass dish of bewitching clarity. I leave, not stuffed but elated. Cooking to stir the soul. Like fashion designer Gama, Avillez draws on the past to pave the future.

I leave early the next morning and bid a fond farewell to Lisbon to head north to the coastal city of Porto. Passing the old university of Coimbra and the holy shrine of Fatima, Fernando expounds on the national character: “The Portuguese never impose themselves by force. Unlike the Spanish. We prefer peace. While Greece threw Molotov cocktails, we sung.” Indeed, even the overthrow of the fascist dictator Salazar’s regime on April 25, 1974, is known as the Carnation Revolution. Barely a shot was fired.

Still, Fernando is open about shortcomings. “There’s this idea of accepting things as they are. Do what your father and grandfather did. We’re sometimes afraid to be happy. If happy, we worry something is going to go wrong.” We’re now pulling in to Mealhada, halfway between Lisbon and Porto, famed for its suckling pig. “We’re jealous too. If someone has a Mercedes, we don’t think, Great. Rather, I hope he has an accident.” Avillez agrees. “Ah, envy,” he says with a sigh. “People are not comfortable with success of others and try to push everyone down to the same level. If someone is very successful, there must be a reason. A powerful connection or relative. You need resilience to succeed here.” Fernando merely shrugs: “That’s how it is.”

We stop at Rei dos Leitões (351-23/120-2093), which slaughters its own pigs on site. Two hours in the oven, cooked over pine. The skin is deep mahogany, brittle as stained glass, the gravy salty and robust. No-nonsense tucker. There’s no time to linger, as we’re expected at Aliança Underground, a remarkable private subterranean museum. With an incredible collection of African tribal art, old tiles, minerals from Brazil, and ammonites over 145 million years old, it’s eclectic, eccentric, and utterly unique. Our tour ends with a wine tasting with Mario Neves, director of Aliança. White-haired and loquacious, he sits with me in the cellar, sipping Portugal’s finest. Which means that my head is light as we enter Porto. I crave stodge—and stodge I get in spades at Bufete Fase, small and nondescript. I eat the legendary francesinha, a great monolithic block of fried bread and meat—steak, pork, ham, chorizo, sausage—draped in melted cheese and bacon and wallowing in a lake of fiery tomato sauce. A work of artery-furring delight.

Food up here gives energy and sustenance, says my guide, the lovely Joanna. “It’s much colder up here and more damp. So our dishes reflect that,” she says. I’m staying at Hotel Infante Sagres (rooms from $240), traditional but comfortable and grand. We meet for a cup of coffee at the Majestic Café, opened in 1920, a stunning Art Nouveau–Belle Époque room with burnished mirrors and marble floors. “We’re known as the tripeiros [tripe eaters],” Joanna explains, “and we’re proud of that up here. King John I needed food for the sailors preparing to conquer Morocco, so Porto gave him all the meat they had and lived off the cheap cuts, the offal and tripe, for a year.” She pauses. “I don’t like tripe much myself.”

We leave and spend the morning strolling down Rua de Santa Catarina, through the old Mercado do Bolhão and along the winding alleys of the Ribeira, the city’s oldest area, down by the Douro River, which snakes sedately through the city. Buildings are hewn from dark granite, solid and dependable, like their inhabitants. I lunch at Mosaico de Sabores on tripas a moda do Porto: white beans, tomato, and blood and smoked sausage. Discreet and understated, the dish has a seriousness of purpose. Just like the city from which it takes its name.

“We are a soft people,” Joanna says. “And we have a great capacity to endure. But when we’ve had enough, we make ourselves known.” When it comes to riches, Portugal’s cup runneth over. Talent, beauty, delight, dynamism. Tempered by saudade. No bad thing. But enough of the past. And time for the future. Portugal has it all. It’s time for that cockerel to crow.

Bowles’s trip, covering Lisbon and Porto, was put together by Mike Korn at Heritage Tour Private Travel. Portugal is one of its specialties. Five days from $2,500;

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