Travel expert Pippa O’Keefe gives us her insights into travelling to Portugal post-lockdown and the many wonders it holds for every kind of traveller….
There is life after lockdown! Especially in the Mediterranean, well Portugal to be more precise. The Portuguese have eased their way out of confinamento and are enjoying the country’s beaches and local eateries again. The only thing a miss is the tourism they so heavily rely on.
I’ve always thought of Portugal as that undiscovered restaurant that you are hesitant to share with others incase it balloons in popularity. Personal feelings aside, my Portuguese counterparts are eager to show how impressively unscathed from COVID they are and encourage us to take the plunge to and visit.
Restaurants, cafés, beaches, hotels and villas are back in business and it feels great. They are proudly displaying the Clean & Safe seal created by the Tourism board to signify all necessary health regulations have been complied with.
Having spent the best part of a month eating my way through formerly closed for business hot spots (for research purposes of course) it has all felt surprisingly “normal”, restaurants are more diligent with their hygiene and you must wear a mask if you go inside any premise, but the wine still tastes the same and the occasional beachside view harks you back to freer (pre-covid) times.
Lately, it seems there is an air of nervousness about travelling anywhere, UK included. Portugal have opened their borders to holiday makers and even though there’s talks of ‘air bridges’, people are still undecided as to whether to travel to the region or not. So to perhaps tempt you, here are some reasons to visit:
My dad always used to make a joke about the Daila Lama ordering a pizza and it being one with everything. I feel the same about Portugal being a multi faceted holiday destination; you have a draw dropping coastline as well as plenty of fly and flop beaches, bustling markets, vineyards galore, buzzing cities, UNESCO world heritage sites, culture, national parks, mountains, countryside, variety of cuisine, lakes, rivers and much much more.
Having travelled a fair bit with my job over the years, I’m hard pushed to find beaches I adore more than in Portugal, from the east of the Algarve where you’ll find gentle seas and remote little islands to the more rugged landscapes of the West. If you travel north up the coast past beaches such as Odeceixe, a turquoise swirl of river running through it, you’ll reach the undisturbed white sands of Comporta, where horse riding is encouraged and great beachside restaurants are plentiful. For surfers however, you’ll be wanting to head north of Lisbon to places like Santa Cruz and Nazare – where an impressive coastline frames local towns.
Portugal as well as being authentic and relatively untouristed, has a cheaper price tag than other European countries, and whilst it may not have the finesse of say Italy or Greece, they more than compensate for their shortfalls through culture and charm. You will be hard pressed to find many starbucks or big chain restaurants. Luxury hotels are sensibly priced with many off the beaten track gems being an absolute steal – even in the summer months! This goes for the food and wine too, and I’m talking about the Michelin star suspects.
Embrace Portuguese culture;
• Find a fado bar order a glass of port or bica
pingado (strong coffee) and listen, along with locals, to a singer performing traditional songs.
• Explore the beauty that lies within their many churches and monasteries from the whitewashed churches of the south to Sao Francisco in Porto, where more than 450lb of gold encrusts the interior.
• Admire picture-perfect tiles or azulejos as the locals call them, which seem to flood many an instagram feed of any visitor to the country. In the south the colours are more warm reds, blue and white throughout the country and yellows, greens and blues in the Alentejo countryside region.
• ARTisans, they live off the land and use materials such as cork to make anything from furniture to jewelry.
• Cities; Porto is brimming with soul, old-world charm and gorgeous architecture (JK Rowling spent some time here sponging up some inspiration). Lisbon with its yellow trams, steep hills and buzzing nightlife.
• Festivals, they love a party! They are also a very proud country, and even this year for Dia do Portugal in June, they still lined the streets with bright decorations and feasting stands.
• Football, their life blood. It’s a slim chance to find a public establishment that does not have a TV on showing football.
The wine is unapologetically fabulous. Anyone who has been to Portugal knows (or will soon learn) about the wonder of the Portuguese grape. With a good year-round climate and the influence of the Atlantic, the country is known to produce some of the best wines on the planet, and with them keeping a lot of its produce to themselves (unlike many others), you can be guaranteed its extensive quality and affordability.
Each region of Portugal has its own distinct climate; the cooler temperatures and Atlantic breeze make the far north of Portugal (north of Porto/Braga region) ideal for producing the very popular ‘Vinho Verde’, whereas the daytime heat and cool nighttime temperatures in the middle of the countryside, as you head further south into the Alentejo wine region, are perfect for ripening the grapes for a beautifully smooth red (otherwise known as ‘Vinho Tinto’).
Much like the wines, Portuguese olive oil is one of the country’s best-kept secrets, but once tasted it is never forgotten. I love some freshly baked pão
caseiro with oil, a staple at most restaurants throughout the country, and if it’s on the menu order some Serra da Estrela cheese.
The Portuguese food scene has often been overlooked, however the country’s young chefs are bringing delicious twists to traditional dishes like cod and grilled sardines infused with locally foraged herbs and spices. A handful of the most successful big names such as Rui Paula and Jose Avillez have set the bar high for the others. Notable spots include Rui Paula’s DOP in Porto and DOC which sits on the River Douro. Belcanto and Cantinho do Avillez, all owned by Jose Avillez should be on your list of places to try in Lisbon.
When in the Algarve many like to flock to notorious beach spots such as Maria’s and 2Passos for their fresh fish and chilled rose, be sure to book however, especially in the summer!
As a bonafide foodie I tend to veer off the tourist path to local places with daily changing menus and opportunities to practice my broken Portuguese. My clients will always be given a full list of my regional favourites to dine at and dishes (for example the Francesainha in Porto – essentially a croque monsieur on steroids).
PASTEIS DE NATA
Portuguese custard tarts
These deserve their own section – they are Portuguese happiness in its purest form. Sometimes, when in Lisbon, I will amend a route just so I can head to Pasteis de Belem, where the recipe originated in 1837, brought, some say, through a secret underground corridor by monks in the kitchen of the magnificent, neighbouring Monastery of Jeronimos.
An activity I’m not entirely convinced the Portuguese do (which may have something to do with their Schwarzenegger strength coffee), yet their country is full of enticing places to lay your head at night. The hotel scene in the 90s was either rustic bed and breakfasts or big hotel chains, now we’ve seen a rise in unique boutiques.
I don’t shy away from bigger hotel groups; in fact there is the gorgeous Six Senses in the Douro Valley (pictured top right) that is much like others in the group, spa centric and a real hub of wellbeing. The location lends itself perfectly to the nature of the brand and it’s top of my list for some high end R&R in Portugal.
Most recently I’ve discovered boutique hotel Palacio Principe Real in Lisbon, a city in need of what Gail (the owner) has brought to it. It has all the bells and whistles of a five star hotel yet without the stuffiness, the ethos here is enjoy the place as if it were your own. The interiors are timeless and classy, no corners have been cut here – your bedroom even comes with a SMEG fridge filled with little treats. Plus any hotel with freestanding bathtubs in their rooms wins my vote.
Outside the cities you have places like their countryside and wine region Alentejo, which is populated with relatively unheard of boutique hotels such as a firm favourite of mine – Herdade Malhadinha Nova. Owned and run by the Soares wine family you essentially feel like one of their amigos when you go to stay. A few of their bottles have labels designed by their grandchildren, which like the rest of the estate gives a real personal experience.
If you were to do a road trip, which I thoroughly recommend you could twin the above mentioned with a visit to Fazenda Nova Country House in the Algarve. Another, best kept secret, type place. The owner’s taste can be seen in the architecture of the former farmhouse, eclectic artwork and vinyl library. You are also in close proximity to the gorgeous fishing town of Olhão where you wander the cobbled streets in the evening and get speedboats over to deserted islands during the day.
I could wax lyrical all day long about the accommodation in Portugal, or just the country in general, so please do get in touch with me if you want to know more.
Alas there you have it, Portugal, travel now to experience it in all its glory…