Monday, March 7, 2011

Vila Real for Valentines

We don't take many train rides in Europe, as bus tickets are usually cheaper and we have the extra time on our hands. That being said, we enjoy going by train very much and our guidebook recommended  a line from Porto into the Douro Valley for it's scenery alone. We thought we'd take the train into Vila Real and use the town as a base to take the train further along the line the next day. The train ride was as advertised and Matt and I were completely enchanted as we rumbled by our lush but mountainous surroundings. Our neighbors for the train ride were three Brazilians who were enjoying not only the view but a bottle of Vinho Verde a piece, sipping and corking by turns. I always forget I can drink in public here. Although it isn't conscious, force of habit seems to stop me from taking advantage. The rail lines have been cut off past Regua for repairs so unfortunately we had to take a short bus ride to Vila Real. Our plans for visiting the other towns further up the line evaporated and I do regret it. However, Vila Real held plenty of charm with it's amazing variety.

Vila Real is a small town of smaller town neighbors and climbs up both sleep inclines that lead step by terraced step into the Douro river. The river is small at this far eastern point and the town is dominated by several bridges that cross it, both high and low. Matt and I walked down a trail tucked into the side of the cliff facing the river and marveled at the ancient looking stone houses clinging to the terraces. Young couples lounge on the rocks and enjoy the view with a beer. Wherever space allows there are vines climbing posts and you feel that time might not exist on these slopes but that people most definitely do. But this kind of silly make-believe only lasts until you look to the west where a giant front-lit shopping mall dominates the view by day and night.

The river roars below it all and Matt and I spent our first evening walking around and watching people go about their routine. A gentleman was on his patio terrace striking stones into the right shape for his rock wall that separated him from the chasm. The shoemaker hammered in a small shed as we walked past him and onto a new red bridge. On the lower and older stone bridge the cars took advantage of the extra space and parked to the side. Old ladies leaned out their windows as the streets fell empty and dark.

Well, I don't recall now all that happened in Vila Real. What do you call house wine when it comes in an unlabeled green bottle, is of passing fine quality, and too much is perhaps ordered only because you think a large bottle simply can not cost so little? True house wine? The food was nice, I especially enjoyed a grilled octopus at a local churrasqueria, although Matt and I become a little tired of steak (although some of the most delicious) and chicken cutlets or grilled fish. We are still escaping from time to time to the odd Italian joint to liven up the variety.

We celebrated Valentines day with a pastry from our favorite shop in town and fruit juice and a Taekwondo tournament at the mall. It attracted quite the crowd. I tried to order the local tripe dish that night but no luck again. Soon, soon.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Leaving Lisbon, Bound for Northern Portugal

The highlight of Lisbon for Matt might have been the castle situated on top of one of the seven great hills of Lisbon. It took us a while to find which road took us to the entrance side of the castle walls but once we were in we enjoyed the palace gardens, the old Moorish fortifications and the small archaeological exhibit. As for me, the grilled sardines were grand and I liked seeing the young people busy hanging out in squares and drinking. We both are glad we put time aside to go see the museum housed in a semi-restored cathedral that took terrible damage in a great earthquake. Quite a few royal tombs were still maintained inside and had great carvings of boar hunts and etc.

We liked Lisbon, but knew it was time for a slower pace outside of the big city. We wanted to give Braga a try and heard of the exquisite Bom Jesus cathedral just out of town. Braga was a fine university town, full of energy if you knew the right spot. Also a bit of a residential wasteland if you walked the wrong way. We stayed at a very affordable private room that is let out by the Methodist Church that operates on the ground floor. I enjoyed the change of pace from the regular hostels but it was a little far from the bustling center and finding dinner was a little bit of a pain from time to time. That being said, the people were very friendly, the University student joints were cheap and delicious, filled with the basic grilled fish or meat or breaded fish or meat fare and Matt and I both had a great time watching the soccer games alongside everyone else. We went and saw Bom Jesus later on in our stay and if Braga was a little more of a pain than we were anticipating, Bom Jesus was spectacular. Take-out was big here and you could get a mix of barbecued meats that would feed two and more for very little. Becoming at last tired of gastronomically somewhat simple fare, a restaurant that seemed perpetually closed finally opened for the weekend and we leapt at the opportunity. We dined sumptuously on gratined Cod and aoli, thinly sliced steak that was incredibly flavorful and still medium rare and an entire bottle of the local Vinho Verde. Smoother and a little sweet, this green wine was easy going down and I'd like to have it again. Braga sits right next to all sorts of great wine territory. Didn't have a bad glass, but the green wine was by far the best.

From Braga we wanted something a bit more picturesque and booked a train ticket that went from Porto to Villa Real. The track followed the spectacular Douro Valley and it's river. Matt and I loved watching the scenery go by as the vineyard owners were out pruning their vines for the coming spring. Just around the corner in Portugal. We will save Villa Real for the next post.