The Douro historical train

Our journey begins with the clatter of a steam engine pulling five rickety wooden carriages into the Régua train station. Trains like this one have trod on the steel tracks that connect Régua to Pinhão since 1879. In 1883, the line was extended all the way to Foz do Tua.

Once all passengers get on board, the chimney blows a cloud of black smoke and we see Régua recede in the distance. The train moves slowly and yet there is not enough time to take in all that there is to admire, from the myriad colors of the river to the wondrous vine terraces sculpted into the mountain sides. 

A group of folk musicians walks through the carriages singing traditional tunes accompanied by accordion, triangle, “cavaquinho” (a small stringed instrument), and a drum made out of goat skin and wood. The musicians’ faces are weathered by a lifetime of work in the fields. But they sing with joy the tunes that lift the spirits of the laborers during the harvest. 

We arrive at the Tua station and the train stops for a well-deserved rest. As our journey resumes, we marvel at the feat of 19th-century engineering that allows the train to go back without turning around. The locomotive’s engine simply goes into reverse, pushing the carriages towards Régua. We travel on the same tracks as before, but the landscape looks different. The light has changed and the blues and greens are now mixed with yellows and oranges. 

The train crew serves us a glass of port wine and some traditional candy. We stop at the picturesque Pinhão train station to admire the 1937 tile panels that depict in blue hues the inimitable colors of the Douro landscape. Then, it is time to return to Régua. The locomotive screeches and puffs as it reaches the place where our journey ends.

It is a privilege to travel in this relic of the industrial revolution that saw the world change and the beauty of the Douro endure. 

Click here for more information about the Douro Historical Train. You can buy tickets online. The best seats are on the right side of the train since you can see the Douro valley from your window both on the way to Tua and on the return.

Was Christopher Columbus born in Cuba, Alentejo?

Adega Monte Pedral

Last Summer, we visited Cuba, a small town in Alentejo. We were attracted by the legend that this hamlet of white-washed houses is the true birth place of Christopher Columbus. The navigator called Cuba the large Caribbean island he discovered in 1492. Why did he choose such an unusual name? Was it to honor his hometown?

We asked a local where to go for lunch. He smiled and pointed to a building on the other side of the road. A large sign read “Adega da Casa de Monte Pedral.”

As soon as we entered the restaurant, we heard voices singing in harmony. A group of locals was sharing a glass of amphora wine and singing traditional Alentejo songs called “cante.”

We sat at a corner table in the spacious dining room full of old wine amphoras. Our waiter asked whether we would like to try the wine that the singers were drinking. Of course we did! It came with a bowl of terrific olives and a plate of splendid prosciutto made from black pigs raised in Alentejo on a diet of acorns. The white wine was deliciously refreshing and devoid of affectation.

Our meal started with a soup made from beans, sausages, black pork, and “tengarrinhas,” a wild thistle abundant in the region. The flavors blended perfectly, to create a deeply satisfying taste and aroma. Our main course was culinary perfection: grilled black pork with a lettuce and mint salad and olive “migas,” a bread-based accompaniment.

José Soudo, the restaurant owner, said farewell to the singers and started making the rounds. He stopped at every table to talk to the diners, using a small glass to try the wine they were drinking. José told us that the building used to be the home of a wealthy family. He bought it four decades ago and turned it into a restaurant that quickly became part of the community. It is a place where the locals stop before lunch and dinner to drink a glass of wine and sing a few songs. His son is the cook. “You have to come back to try his other specialties, tomato soup, purslane soup, lamb stew, and much more,” said José.

The house came with six large amphoras which José used to make 3,500 liters of wine to drink with his friends. Over time, he accumulated 28 amphoras, so now he has enough amphora wine to serve in the restaurant.

We left confident that Cuba is not Christopher Columbus’ hometown. After all, if he was born in a place with such enticing wine, satisfying food and harmonious singing why would he ever leave?

Adega da Casa de Monte Pedral is located at Rua da Fonte dos Leões, Cuba, tel. 936 520 036, email geral@casamontepedral.pt. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

A master miller

Miguel Nobre

It’s not every day we meet a miller. It was once a common profession when every elevation had its windmill. Serra de Montejunto, a mountain that crosses the Cadaval and Alenquer counties, used to have the largest concentration of windmills in the Iberian peninsula. Today, only one working mill remains—Moínho de Avis. It was there that we met our miller, Miguel Nobre.

Miguel speaks with a cadence that makes everything he says sound like poetry. He has a lot of wisdom to share. “I am fascinated by the idea of bringing back the ancient grains, the old ways of making flour. It is my way of traveling back in time,” he told us.

His windmill dates back to 1810 but lingered in ruins for many years until he restored it in 2008. Miguel was a carpenter until he fell in love with windmills. He started restoring them, first as a hobby and later as a full-time occupation. He has restored windmills all over Portugal but takes special pride in Moínho de Avis. It is a beautiful windmill. Miguel shows us the ingenious gears that rotate the sails towards the wind. The small windows offer expansive views of the mountain and the sea.

With his son Luís, Miguel is bringing back the old wheats that are full of nutrition and flavor: barbela, nabão and preto amarelo. “These stones have never milled modern grains so they have no trace of pesticides. My wheats are certified as biological, not by the government but by nature, come see.” He places a handful of barbela grains at the entrance of the mill. Soon, an army of ants arrives to cart away this loot. “The ants avoid grains that have pesticides, but they love these ancient wheats,” Miguel says. “I am also starting to find more and more lady bugs on the wheat fields, they had vanished from this region but they are coming back to my fields.” Miguel likes to plant his wheat in southern-facing slopes protected from northern winds that are likely to be tainted with pesticides.

We stepped outside to hear the sound of the clay pots attached to the sails. Each is tuned to a note in the key of C major. “These pots are our weather report system,” says Miguel. “They sound different when the air is humid, so they warn us when it is going to rain. We also need to be aware of time. Millers do not use a watch to tell time. The sun is our clock. When it touches the horizon, it is time to stow away the sails.”

We bought a couple of bags of barbela wheat and promised to send Miguel some photos of the breads we were planning to make. We didn’t imagine that we would keep coming back throughout the Summer, to get more flour and wisdom from Miguel Nobre, the master miller.

You can hear the sound of the windmill beautifully recorded by Pedro Rebelo. Pedro is a Portuguese composer, sound artist and performer, working primarily in chamber music, improvisation and installation with new technologies. To learn more about his wonderfully original work click here.

 

Provesende, a fairy tale village

ProvesendeIn the first half of the 18th century the production of port wine was in dire straits. Inferior wines were often mixed with sugar, spices and elderberry juice to be sold off as port wine. In 1756, the Marquis of Pombal, the autocratic prime minister of King Dom José, created the Royal Company to regulate the production of port wine in order to protect its authenticity.

Pombal sent officials to define the boundaries of the Douro region and classify all its vineyards, creating one of the world’s oldest demarcated wine regions. Vineyards classified as “vinho de ramo” could only produce wine for domestic consumption. Vineyards classified as “vinho de feitoria” could export their wine. These classifications had an enormous impact on property values.

The officials charged with classifying the vineyards and regulating the port-wine trade settled in a small village called Provesende. Over the following decades, the village experienced a construction boom. Large land owners built imposing manor houses so they could spend time in Provesende and rub shoulders with government officials.

The memories of the parties hosted in these mansions have faded in time. What we have left is a charming village that belongs in a fairy tale.

The Marquis of Pombal and his dessert wine

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Almost everyone who visits Lisbon runs into the statue of Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marquis of Pombal. It stands on top of a giant pedestal facing the downtown neighborhood that the Marquis helped rebuild after the 1755 earthquake.

The Marquis had a profound influence on the production of port wine.  In 1757, he ordered the first classification of port-producing vineyards, making the Douro one of the world’s oldest demarcated wine regions. He also founded the Royal Company which controlled the exports of port to England and Brazil. These measures were unpopular, but they greatly improved the quality of the port produced.

We wonder whether, after doing what he thought was right for the Douro region, the Marquis had second thoughts. He owned a large wine estate in Oeiras, in the outskirts of Lisbon, that produced an excellent fortified wine. But according to the rules he helped create, he couldn’t call it port wine. Instead, the wine was known as Carcavelos, after one of the region’s seaside villages.

An early coup for Carcavelos wines came in 1752. King Dom José gathered a collection of luxurious gifs chosen to impress the emperor of China. One of these gifts was a red velvet box with two bottles of Carcavelos wine.

Half a century later, the winds of history interceded in favor of the Carcavelos wine. When Napoleon’s troops invaded the north of Portugal, it became difficult to export port wine to England. Carcavelos wine emerged as an excellent alternative, gaining fame and prestige among British wine connoisseurs.

In the 1930s, the Carcavelos vines started to be uprooted to make space for suburban homes. As a result, wine production dwindled. In 1997, the Oeiras city council decided to invest in the preservation of the vineyards that were left, saving this historical wine from oblivion. The city also restored the palace that belonged to the Marquis of Pombal.

If you’re looking for an outing near Lisbon, a visit to this palace is a great choice. You can stroll through elegant salons and manicured gardens. And you can try a glass of Carcavelos wine. Drier than port, it has enticing aromas and exquisite flavors that enchant the senses. A sip of this nectar is a trip back in time, a taste of the wine enjoyed by a Chinese emperor and served at the lavish parties staged by the Marquis of Pombal . 

The Palace of the Marquis of Pombal is located at Largo Marquês de Pombal, in Oeiras, tel. 214.430.799. You can reach Oeiras by taking the Lisbon/Cascais train.

The resplendent tranquility of the Mafra library

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Standing at the entrance of the library of the Mafra palace, it is easy to believe that the world is orderly. In the pristine silence of this space designed by architect Manuel Caetano de Sousa, we have everything we need to understand the world of the 18th century. There are science and mathematics books in the shelves near the entrance, so we can learn the laws of the physical world. Further ahead, there are bookshelves with travel diaries that tell us about lands near and far. Dictionaries and grammars teach us the rhythms and intonations of foreign languages. If we use them to master Greek and Latin, we can enjoy the classics of antiquity, tales of love and war, stories about gods and humans. Walking the 88 meters of marble floors that take us to the end of the library, we reach the shelfs devoted to the mysteries of the soul.

The palace of Mafra and its library were built with the riches from Brazil. But the money ran out and the gold decorations that had been planned for the library were never executed. It is just as well, because the white Nordic-pine shelves give this library an elegant simplicity that looks modern.

It was here that José Saramago, a Nobel laureate, found inspiration for his famous novel about the construction of the Mafra Palace as seen through the eyes of two young lovers, Baltasar and Blimunda.

If you’re traveling in Portugal, don’t miss the chance to experience the resplendent tranquility of the Mafra library. And don’t forget to take a notebook, in case the muses that inspired Saramago whisper in your ear.

Dona Antónia’s great grandson

Composite Quinta S. José

João Brito e Cunha is the great grandson of the legendary Dona Antónia Ferreira, the woman who shaped the future of wine production in the Douro valley.  Born in 1811 to a family of rich wine makers, Dona Antónia seemed destined to enjoy a life of leisure. Instead, she had to contend with two plagues that decimated European vineyards, the oidium in 1850 and the phylloxera in 1870. Dona Antónia rose to the occasion, making shrewd choices and taking calculated risks. She made great wine and amassed a large fortune. When she died in 1896, she owned 24 wine estates and huge wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia.

João’s grandfather was a taster for the renowned Real Company Velha. His father managed the famous Quinta do Vesuvio, which in Dona Antónia’s time produced some of the most expensive wines in the Douro valley.

We tell you this family history so that you know that João Brito e Cunha had no choice, the love of wine runs in his blood. He studied enology, first in Vila Real’s UTAD and then in Australia. He interned in Champagne and in many other wine regions. When he felt ready, he bought Quinta Dom José from his father and moved to the estate with his wife Sofia and their kids.

We arrived at Quinta Dom José late in the afternoon, just as the sun was getting tired of making the brilliant light that shines on the Douro valley. João is very intense and his energy is contagious. He wanted to show us everything, the vines, the cellars, the different viewpoints. As soon as we got into his jeep, he accelerated up the steep, treacherous road leaving being a colorful dust cloud.

We stopped on a hill top with breathtaking views of the Douro river. João wants us to understand that in a region where beauty abounds, this quinta is like no other. He shows us with pride the schist soil that preserves humidity during the scorching Summers and the vine roots that dig deep in search of water.

João drove us up to the tasting room to try his wines. The Flor de São José white Reserva is an aristocratic wine that enchants the palate with its refined elegance. The Touriga Nacional Reserva is an indulgent red, with a full body and an understated intensity. The Grande Reserva is a profound wine, full of wisdom, finesse and subtlety. The 3,400 bottles produced last year quickly sold out.

We stayed in the terrace outside the tasting room talking to João for hours. It was a warm night with a sky full of stars.  A choir of crickets sang in the background. João told us about his vines, his wines and his dreams.

Dona Antónia regretted every moment she spent away from the Douro. João feels the same way–he inherited his great grandmother’s passion for the Douro valley. And like her, João is destined to make great wine.

Quinta de São José is located on Ervedosa do Douro, tel. 93 4041413. Click here for their website. 

The river of forgetfulness

Tapeçaria -106 - Pousada de Viana do Castelo, Monte de Santa Luzia - @mariarebelophotography

The bar of the Viana do Castelo Pousada has a beautiful tapestry designed by the great artist Almada Negreiros and produced by the Portalegre Tapestry Manufacture in 1957.

The tapestry depicts the arrival of roman armies, commanded by Decius Junos Brutus, to  the left bank of the Lima river in 135 BC. The beauty of the place convinced the romans that they had found Lethes, the mythical river of forgetfulness that erased all the memories of those who crossed it.

The army stood still, no soldier dared to cross the river. Holding the roman banner in his hand, Brutus crossed the river. Once he reached the right margin, he called each soldier by his name to prove that his memory was intact. Reassured, the rest of the army crossed the river.

Stone soup at Quinta do Arneiro

Quinta do Arneiro Composit (cropped)

Once upon a time, there was a poor friar was too shy to ask for food. Famished, he knocked on the door of a farm house and solicited a pot and some water to cook a stone soup. The farmer and his wife were intrigued by this request. The friar took a stone from his bag, placed it in the pot and put the pot on the fireplace.

“How is the soup?” the farmer asked. “Delicious,” answered the friar “and when you put some lard, it tastes even better.” The farmer gave the friar a piece of lard. The friar tasted the boiling broth and said “this stone makes an excellent soup, especially when it is seasoned with a little salt.” The farmer’s wife promptly offered the friar some salt. The farmer commented that it was starting to smell good. “If I added some leftover beans, cabbage, and potatoes, the aroma would be divine.” Curious, the farmer gave the friar the vegetables he mentioned. “Is it ready?” the farmer ’s wife asked. “Almost done, if we added some slices of sausage, even the angels would eat it.” The farmer’s wife gave the friar a sausage. He sliced it into the broth and a few minutes later declared the soup ready. He shared it with his hosts who agreed that the stone had produced a remarkable  soup.

Every year on December 8, Quinta do Arneiro, a biological farm near Lisbon, uses its pristine vegetables and sausages to cook a monumental stone soup. The meal starts with hot country bread baked in a wood-fired oven accompanied by plates of freshly made hummus, olive oil and garlic. Then, the hearty soup is served with mulled wine. A delicious dessert composed of oranges, pomegranate, pumpkin jam, and roasted sweet potatoes brings the meal to a satisfying end.

Luisa Almeida, the owner of Quinta do Arneiro inherited the farm from her father. When Luisa was a teenager, she wanted nothing to do with agriculture, But, Luisa went to live on the farm after she married and it was there that her children were born and raised. In 2007, worried about the detrimental health effects of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture, Luisa ventured into organic farming. “It is arduous work but every day we treat nature with the respect it deserves,” she says proudly. The quinta delivers regular baskets of organic produce to lucky subscribers and opens its restaurant  for lunch from Wednesday to Sunday. A meal at the restaurant is a unique opportunity to eat nutritious, delicious seasonal products, freshly picked and cooked with love.

We greatly enjoyed our meal outdoors warmed by the bright sun that joined the feast. And the soup?  Even the angels would eat it!

Quinta do Arneiro is located in Azueira, Mafra. Click here for the farm’s website. To have lunch at the restaurant, email restaurantedaquinta@quintadoarneiro.com  or call 918740906 for reservations.

Hotel Convento do Salvador

Convento do Salvador Composit-2

One of the best-kept secrets in Lisbon is a hotel called Convento do Salvador. It is run by a non-profit association that charges modest prices for 43 comfortable rooms. The location is fantastic, right in the middle of Alfama, the neighborhood around St. Jorge’s castle.

The hotel occupies the site of one of the oldest convents in Lisbon, Convento do Salvador, built in 1392. We know a lot about the convent thanks to a book published by one of its abbesses, Maria Batista, in 1618.

Maria describes the convent as a place where you can “flee from the dangers and labyrinths of the world,” and live a simple life. She tells us with pride that it was here that a princess came to find peace. In 1460, princess Dona Catarina, the daughter of queen Dona Leonor, came to live in the convent after the prince to whom she was engaged died prematurely.

Much has changed about this place, but it is still offers peace and simplicity. The hotel is decorated with minimalist furniture and contemporary art. The spacious patio offers a great place to relax when the weather is warm. Most rooms overlook the patio but some offer the only luxury that the nuns enjoyed: a view of the orange rooftops framing the blue waters of the Tagus river.

Hotel Convento do Salvador is located at Rua do Salvador, 2B in Lisbon, tel. 218 872 565, email hotel@conventosalvador.pt. Click here for the hotel’s website.