When a friend responded to my spontaneous “Let’s go to Portugal” with an immediate yes, I took it as a sign. A few short weeks later, we were embarking on a north-to-south journey, spending three nights in three different locations, taking in as much of Portugal as we could.
With my penchant for Port, starting our journey in the town named after the fortified wine was fine by me. Porto is a city that wears its history on its steep hills. All descending to the Douro River below, the historic suburbs are painted with red-tiled roofs and blue-tiled facades, with magnificent spires regularly rising in between. Largely thanks to Portugal’s powerful maritime empire from the 1500s–1800s, palatial buildings adorn nearly every corner – both confronting and enticing with unexpected hues and ornate concrete details of rococo, gothic and Renaissance architecture.
Gazing across the Doura River and its iconic bridges, you’ll see the names of the various Port producers boldly blazoned across their cellars in the adjacent town of Gaia. Due to strict papal control in Porto, wine storage was moved to Gaia, where the crown didn’t demand as high a tax for the tipple. We opted for a tour at Taylor’s and spent an hour meandering through the ‘lodge’ as the cellars are called. All tours end with a tasting and, in our case, sampling both their barrel-aged and bottle-aged Ports.
To truly appreciate the wine, however, a journey to its source is in order: the beautiful Douro Valley, only one hour away. These hills carry their history on their vines, established here as early as Roman times. Fast forward two millennia, and in 1756, the valley was designated as the world’s first appellation d’origine contrôlée (officially demarcated wine region). Today the valley has 60 000 hectares of riverbanks under vine – some of the steepest in the world, with a large portion growing on land over 30 degrees. Tours last 8-9 hours and generally include two or three wineries.
It is this perfect combination of soil and climate – matched with expert winemaking – that produces the world-famous Port wines. Miguel Torga, Portuguese poet and Nobel Prize nominee from the region refers to his native land as “an excess of a geological poem” and its wine as “bottled sun drunk [through] the four corners of the world”.
Back in Porto, the Livraria Lello is an unmissable literary treat – regarded as one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Afterwards, walk up an appetite en route to The Majestic Café for a Belle Epoque-era affair of note.
Well satiated on Port, it was time for a three-hour bus journey south to the capital. After depositing our bags at the hotel, it seemed only appropriate to visit Pastéis de Belém – the original home of the Pasteis de Nata. These iconic Portuguese pastries are a national staple and will quickly become a daily accompaniment to your morning coffee.
From here, the walk along the Belem promenade takes in several monuments that pay homage to the country’s staggering nautical history. From this very spot, in August 1487, Portuguese Mariner Bartolomeu Dias left his homeland to become the first European to circumnavigate the Cape. With, I imagine, a decent amount of many barrels of Port were safely stored on board.
Heading towards the city, the LX factory reminisces Joburg’s Victoria Yards, an urban fringe experience with artisanal producers and quirky bars. After a visit to São Jorge Castle, retire to Miradouro das Portas do Solfor unsurpassable views of the city, best enjoyed with an Aperol Spritz in hand.
After walking around 20 000 steps a day, your hotel becomes a welcomed sanctuary. In Lisbon, I chose the relatively new five-star Wine and Books Hotel – whose name caught my attention even before its location and style. A stone’s throw from some of the key sites, the hotel sports several swanky spaces – including a cleverly designed sunken dining space, which allows in a flood of light and views of the towering Igreja da Memória next door.
Wine and Books Lisbon also reminded me why I love smaller boutique hotels with a licence to push boundaries and create something unique. Boasting the finest local amenities, automated curtains, and on the bottom storey, a full gym, sauna, Turkish bath, and shower circuit – it’s a place worthy of turning a page, pouring a glass and spending the night.
After all the urban exploring, it was time to slip into a lilting sultriness – usually synonymous with tropical escapes – and the famed beaches of the Algarve would provide just the scene.
The Ponta da Piedade, located in the Western Algarve town of Lagos, is a picturesque headland that dramatically tumbles into the ocean, leaving an impressive line of cliffs. Dotted around this peninsula are unique freestanding rock formations in the ocean, creating caves, bays, and rather sexy secluded beaches.
In addition to soaking up the sunshine on the various Lagos beaches, the dramatic scenery is equally explored by boat. Tempting as kayaking was, I opted to languish on the net of a catamaran while the rock formations ambled by. Our four-hour excursion included a stop for swimming and water sports – and later, killer Mojitos on board.
Since Portugal almost tops the list of most affordable European destinations, those travelling on the suffering Rand can expect an affordable land of Port, pastries, and picturesque beaches.