A Lazy Escape to Portugal Is What We All Could Use Right Now

At the moment, many of our plans are still on hold. But that doesn’t mean we here at Bloomberg Pursuits aren’t planning the experiences we’ll rush out to enjoy when it’s safe to do so. We’re sharing our ideas with you in the hopes that they will help inspire you—and we’d love to hear what you are daydreaming about, too. Send us your ideas at [email protected], and we’ll flesh some of them out for this column.

In today’s dispatch, travel writer Chadner Navarro dreams about the perfect itinerary for continuing his long-running European love affair. 

Portugal is my second home. I’ve visited more than 20 times over the past dozen years. As the single destination that helped me realize my career in travel journalism, the country has become synonymous with my own personal and professional identity. If I’m not planning a trip for myself, I’m planning for my friends. Portugal is always on my mind.

As a local resident once told me, the country is full of amazing things: historic sights, fantastic wines, great landscapes, killer shopping. One thing it lacks, she said—a decade ago—is good marketing. That was then. Even as the country has evolved into a bona fide tourism hotspot, its residents remain humble salespeople. Their style of hospitality is warm and modest, tied more to an eagerness to share their traditions than to any capitalist desire.

In Portugal, shopkeepers and chefs rarely sing the praises of their products until you do; this might be why I can comfortably say that I don’t really care for port or pastel de nata, two of Portugal’s most famous treats. “Está bem,” they would say, handing me more arroz de tomate and red wine.

Since returning from my last trip to Lisbon on March 12, just before lockdown hit, I haven’t left the one mile-radius surrounding my home in Jersey City, N.J. My favorite place has reopened its borders—flights from Newark resumed on June 4—and Portugal has curbed the spread of Covid-19 better than many of its western European neighbors, with about 43,000 confirmed cases and 1,600 fatalities. But non-essential American travelers are still not allowed into the EU, leaving me waiting, seemingly indefinitely, for that next trip.

But I’m still daydreaming. Not just about the freedom of travel, but of Portugal’s countless iterations of rice dishes, walls covered in hand-painted ceramic tiles, and the melancholic melodies of fado. On my 22nd visit there, I’ll visit the following places that merit exploration, even by first-timers.

 

Living Like a Lisboeta

The easiest way to get into or out of Portugal is via Lisbon, a city worth revisiting frequently, given how quickly it’s been growing. There’s always something new to see or taste, but the next time I’m in town, I want to reacquaint with some recent favorites that have been stuck in my mind.

First up, a sunny lunch at BAHR, the fine-dining rooftop restaurant at the sophisticated Bairro Alto Hotel. Its chef, Nuno Mendes, is the most recent in a spate of talented Portuguese cooks making exciting homecomings after years of working in top international kitchens. (Mendes helmed London’s glossy Chiltern Firehouse.) At BAHR, he focuses on local ingredients he probably missed while abroad, such as saltwater-boiled goose barnacles—a local delicacy—that he smokes on a yakitori grill and piles onto sourdough for a twist on the traditional dish called percebes toast. Topped with a squirt of lemon and served alongside a glass of Malvarinto, a blend of native malvasia and arinto grapes made by BAHR’s sommelier, it’s a Portuguese seaside fantasy brought to life.

The best days in Lisbon can be spent aimlessly walking up and down its steep hills—ideally, in sturdy boots that help navigate the city’s slippery cobblestones. It’s a great workout. I’d explore the western side of the city center, where trendy neighborhoods São Bento and Principe Real are both walkable, with plenty of new shops to see. On my list: the minimalist cafe Hello, Kristof for espresso and indie magazines; Nannarella, for gelato laced with such local ingredients as Algarve salt or tart ginja liquer; and Embaixada, a neo-Moorish building transformed into a constantly evolving shopping emporium.

By early evening, I’ll join the crowd of locals and foreigners that buzz around MAAT, a multidisciplinary riverside museum that opened in 2016. Its outdoor spaces are a people-watching haven, filled with done-for-the-day cyclists or friends clinking beers. For dinner, it’s O Frade in Belem, a modest, counter-seating-only eatery that’s possibly my favorite restaurant in town. I keep returning for its addictive, razor-thin, lemon zest-topped slices of pork lard and the bowls of chickpeas tossed with chopped squid, garlicky broth, and tons of cilantro.

 

Slowing down in Alentejo

“Everything and everyone moves slowly in the Alentejo,” my friend Diana told me the first time I went there. Portugal’s largest region—12,182 square miles of land bounded by Lisbon and the Algarve—has since become my favorite, probably thanks to those languid vibes. Tall buildings seem to have been outlawed here. Meandering roads are endlessly lined with half-naked cork oaks, ancient olive trees, and rolling vineyards of green and gold. Along coastal routes, the Atlantic Ocean pounds away at the cliff sides. Sure, the Alentejo lifestyle might allow you to catch your breath, but the landscapes will take it away.

So will the hotels, which are among the best in the country. Though it’s barely two-years-old, the standard-setter may be Da Licença, formerly a hilltop farm in a forgotten corner of Estremoz, a historic city known for its marble. Now a quiet, eight-room refuge, Da Licença is filled with arts and crafts furniture and decor amassed by owners Vitor Borges and Franck Laigneau. 

Closer to the coast, there’s Craveiral, a collection of cozy farmstead casas outfitted with blonde wood furniture, cork headboards, and macrame wall accents. As the country was beginning to peek out of its lockdown, the hotel announced a culinary partnership with Alexandre Silva, one of Lisbon’s best chefs. His new restaurant there puts the spotlight on ingredients grown onsite, many of them grilled or cooked in a wood-fire oven. 

From either spot, it’s easy to rent a car and drive among the Alentejo’s quaint villages. The medieval hilltop hamlet of Monsaraz, nestled up against the Spanish border, tops my list for the still-active bullring adjacent to its stone-walled castle. I would also stop into Mizette, a shop owned by a textile artist who produces colorful blankets and rugs on a traditional loom—one of few remaining in Europe. I might snap up a fringed scarf; Alentejano evenings can get quite chilly.

Then, it’s dinner at Mercearia Gadanha, which first opened in Estremoz as a gourmet grocery shop in 2009 before chef Michele Marques added a dining room in 2013. It’s a quirky space with mismatched chairs and exposed wood beams, serving whimsical platings of rustic dishes such as pig trotter terrine. 

The Alentejo’s roads are well-maintained and mostly bare, making it easy to get around. But if wineries are your priority—there are so many worth visiting—Uncovr plans excellent weeklong explorations of the area, complete with a driver. Its group trips include such lazy, yet jaw-dropping experiences as hot-air balloon rides, stargazing in a dark sky reserve, and horseback riding, from $5,050 per person.

Uncovr’s founder Jason Wertz was the person who introduced me to a character I need to meet again on my next trip: Jorge Rodrigues, the artisan winemaker behind Herdade Outeiros Altos, an incredibly hard-to-find winery just outside Estremoz. His secret is to use massive clay vessels (called talha) to make vinhos, honoring a local winemaking tradition that started 2,000 years ago.

When I visited last year, Rodrigues and his wife greeted me with a beautiful outdoor lunch of hearty salads and slices of chouriço paired with their wines. It’s as emblematic an experience as I can conjure of Alentejo, where time seems to slow down in the presence of great company, great food, and great wine.

Until trips are possible, consider a donation to two organizations keeping hospitality alive: ROAR (Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants) provides New York’s service workers with monetary grants, and Porter & Sail sells discounted hotel credits for future vacations. The credits are valid for up to two years and help keep travel businesses afloat; each purchase also supports Saira Hospitality, a nonprofit that helps locals in burgeoning tourism destinations jump-start careers in hospitality.

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