The Queluz pousada

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Once upon a time, there was a prince called Pedro who was calm and handsome. As the younger brother of the king, he did not expect to have to perform royal duties. So he devoted his energies to the construction of a palace in the village of Queluz where he could host hunting parties.

The king died and his daughter Maria inherited the throne. Her volatile temperament made many fear for the future of the kingdom. Pedro was asked to marry his niece, so that he could help rule Portugal. The prince accepted this arranged marriage as an obligation. But the queen fell in love with her dashing prince and her devotion was such that he fell in love with her.

The Queluz palace became a royal project, financed by the river of gold and diamonds that flowed from Brazil. A French architect, Jean Baptiste Robillon, was hired to build a palace that would rival Versailles. The original plan was inspired by the harmonious royal marriage: it included two symmetrical buildings that complemented each other.

After the first edifice was built, the royal couple spent as much time as they could at Queluz. They lived a blissful life, surrounded by their six children in one the world’s most graceful palaces.

Before the construction of the second building began, these happy times came to an end: Dom Pedro died of a stroke. The queen never recovered from this loss and her elder son replaced her as the prince regent.

In 1819, to mark the birth of a granddaughter of the old queen, the royal family built the watch tower of the second building planned for Queluz. Later, a private theater and servant quarters were later added to the tower.

In 1995, the watch-tower building and the old palace kitchen were converted into an historical hotel called Pousada Dona Maria I.

If you’re planning to divide your time between Lisbon and Sintra, Queluz is a superb location. You can wake up in the morning to the singing of birds, enjoy a wonderful breakfast, and walk to the Queluz palace before other visitors crowd in. You can drive or take the train to Lisbon (12 km) or Sintra (16 km). And return in the evening to this enchanting place that preserves the romance and splendor of an age gone by.

 

The Pousada Dona Maria I is located at Largo do Palácio Nacional, Queluz, tel. 351 21 435 6158. Click here for the pousadas’ website and here for a large collection of photos of the hotel.

Ephemeral gardens in Viseu

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Every year, the Ephemeral Gardens festival jolts Viseu, a serene city in the interior of Portugal. Sandra Oliveira organizes this grand event, inspiring a large troupe of collaborators to adorn Viseu with modern art and serenade it with contemporary music.

Shops become installation spaces, ancient churches double as music venues, old walls serve as canvases for street art. Every plaza seems to have its own DJ, every garden its own sculpture show.

Stores, bookshops, restaurants, and bars stay open until late. The flowers of the linden trees blend their fragrance with the aromas of chocolate, vanilla and popcorn. There are workshops to attend, movies to watch, performances not to miss. It is a wonderful celebration of the many ways in which the old inspires the new.

The Ephemeral Gardens (Jardins Efémeros) festival runs from July 1 to 10, 2016. All events are free. Click here to see the program. 

A cheese revolution

Composit Queijaria 2016

Queijaria, our favorite cheese store in Lisbon, keeps getting better. It is a place where the ordinary is banned to make room for extraordinary artisanal cheeses made in small batches by traditional producers.

On our last visit Pedro Cardoso, one of the owners, invited us to taste two unique cheeses. The first was from São Jorge, an island in the Azores archipelago. It is made with the milk of happy cows that roam free on the island. São Jorge cheese is always delicious but this one was the best we ever had–sharp, peppery and full of flavor. “This cheese is aged for 30 months which makes all the difference. It is very hard to find because the production is tiny and almost all consumed locally,” said Pedro.

The second cheese was from Serra da Estrela. It melted in our mouths leaving an amazing buttery after taste. It is made with milk from “bordalesa” sheep. This breed is being replaced with sheep whose milk is less flavorful but more abundant. “Eating this cheese is an act of defiance. It is saying that we don’t want this wonderful taste to disappear; that quality trumps quantity.”

Pedro speaks with revolutionary zeal. He wants to preserve and enrich Portugal’s wonderful cheese heritage. Will you support his cause?

Queijaria is at Rua das Flores, 64, Lisbon. Click here for their web site.

 

Food with character

Composit Moma

Rua dos Correeiros is a street in downtown Lisbon where leathersmiths once sold harnesses to horseback riders. Local residents are used to seeing commerce evolve. But they are surprised by the how much space has recently been taken by souvenir shops and pizzerias. Will Lisbon end up losing its unique character? they ask.

At the end of Rua dos Correeiros we saw a new restaurant called Moma Grill that was full of locals. Curious, we decided to try it.

We loved the space with its mosaic floor, warm lighting, large blackboards with culinary drawings, and Thonet chairs. The owner, João Vaz Guedes, was so gracious that we were predisposed to like the food.

But when we asked for his recommendations and he said “pasteis de massa tenra,” our hearts sank. These delicate combinations of fried dough and meat filling were often on the table during our childhood. How could a restaurant compete with memories of food prepared by our grandmothers? “It’s not fair,” we told João, “the bar will be too high, we prefer to try something else.” João smiled and said, “I am very interested in your opinion, let me bring you a plate.” The pasteis were smaller and crispier than the ones we are used to. But we loved them, they were some of the best we ever had.

Our group tried an assortment of other items from the menu. Everything was delicious. The arugula salad was perfectly dressed. The codfish cakes were light, with the perfect mix of  potato and fish. The grilled sardines were moist and succulent. The partridge was magically infused with the taste of olive oil and vinegar. The black pork was bursting with flavor.

The meal was well paced and the service had a quiet elegance that is rare. For the grand finale, João brought an irresistible raspberry tart accompanied by a glass of ginjinha (a cherry liqueur).

The wine list is short, but the choices are careful and the prices modest. We had a great white Encruzado and an excellent red from the Douro region (Quinta dos Aciprestes).

João and his wife Maria loved to cook for friends so, after retiring, they decided to open a restaurant to serve food inspired by Portugal’s culinary heritage. It’s people like them that keep Lisbon’s character going strong.

Moma grill is located on Rua dos Correeiros, 22-26, tel. 911 762 349. 

 

 

Bussaco’s mystical wines

Buçaco Branco

Karl Baedeker, the famous guidebook writer, recommended a visit to Bussaco in his “Spain and Portugal, a Handbook for Travelers,” published in 1908. Here’s what he wrote:

“The royal domain of Bussaco vies with Sintra in natural beauty. In variety of trees and shrubs, the woods are without a rival in Europe and the views ranging from the Atlantic to the Estrela mountain are as picturesque as they are extensive. […] The woods […] include not only trees indigenous to Portugal but also a large number of exotic varieties, some brought home by the Portuguese navigators as early as the 16th century.”

Baedeker arrived too early to appreciate one of the great pleasures of Bussaco, which is the wine produced by the Bussaco Palace Hotel. The first bottles date back to 1917.

The Palace Hotel owns no vineyards, it buys its grapes from the Bairrada and Dão region. The quality of the wine comes from the careful grape selection and the meticulous traditional methods used in production. Bussaco wines taste great when they are young and taste even better when they lived for some decades. Both whites and reds are famous for their longevity.

These wines are difficult to buy, the easiest way to try them is to stay at the magnificent Palace Hotel. The cellar of the palace stores thousands of bottles going back to the 1920s. Trying these old Bussacos can be a mystical experience. The cellar walls are used to hearing visitors say words like divine, blessed, and sacred. These words would have delighted Friar João Batista, the Carmelite monk who started making wine in Bussaco in the 17th century.

Click here, for the Bussaco Palace web site.

Portuguese pop art

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Pasteis de nata, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, 2014.

Andy Warhol captured the essence of American culture using simple images: the appeal of convenience with cans of soup, the allure of fame with portraits of Marilyn Monroe, the love of brands with bottles of Coca Cola.

We wonder how Warhol would have captured the essence of Portugal. A good candidate image is the pastel de nata. It is sweet, with an exotic touch lent by vanilla and cinnamon. The crust gives it substance and the combination is unforgettable.

A school lunch

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In 1940, the Portuguese government announced its “centennial plan,” a program to build a large number of primary schools. The schools in the north of the country, designed by Rogério de Azevedo, look austere with their granite and schist exteriors. The schools in the south, designed by Raul Lino, have graceful arches and whitewashed walls. Both designs used elements of the vernacular architecture and became integral parts of the Portuguese landscape.

With the number of children in decline, some of these schools have been closing. The school in the village of Cachopos near Comporta in Alentejo closed in the late 1990s but found new life as a restaurant appropriately called A Escola (the school).

The building is located in a beautiful woodland. Our arrival was greeted by the chirping of birds and perfumed by the scent of eucalyptus.

As we sat at the table remembering learning the three Rs, a plate of marinated rabbit and a carrot salad arrived. The menu has lots of great offerings, including cuttlefish rice with shrimp, fried eels, pasta with sea bass, stewed partridge, and rabbit pie with pine nut rice. The portions are generous and the food is delicious. A Escola is a great place to enjoy the simple, hearty cuisine of Alentejo.

On the school wall there’s an old map of the Portuguese empire. Those vast possessions of land and sea are long gone. But the empire of the senses–Portugal’s wonderful culinary tradition–continues to thrive.

A Escola is located at Estrada Nacional 253, Cachopos, Alcácer do Sal, tel. 265 612 816.