Travel Guide to Portugal

How to Fall Deeply in Love with Portugal and Spain

By Gabriella Opaz

Not surprisingly, I’ve delayed writing this post for weeks, dutifully trying to answer the question, “what happened over the past 6 years and how does one summarize such an experience in one article?” Admittedly, it’s absolutely impossible. To write a one off post on how our lives have changed feels as inconsequential as writing a paragraph on the death of reason. Well, then again, if you merged both topics, you just might have something!

If someone asked me 7 years ago if I would be prepared to live hand to mouth for half a decade in order to write about Iberian wine, in a country I had never been, speaking a language I had never uttered, to meet people from around the world that would eventually become life long friends, I would have offered a very cheeky grin and suggested they lay off the whiskey. If that very same someone went on to suggest that I would eventually find myself on the shoulders of Cristiano Van Zeller in a quaint restaurant in Matosinhos during Essencia do Vinho; sipping fresh olive oil with two Italian grandmothers in Umbria; sharing a glass of wine with the President of Croatia while overlooking the city of Zagreb; riding horseback high above the vineyards of Rioja, or simply enjoying horse sausage among new friends in their cozy and familiar apartment in Budapest, I would have asked them to seriously consider refraining from all stimulants, including acid. The notion would have been so preposterous, so out of my realm of understanding, that even the mere engagement of such an idea would have provoked a very quizzical look.

Nothing is Impossible

Allow me to repeat this statement: nothing is impossible. If there has ever been a truer nugget of wisdom, I have yet to encounter it. From day one, I have experienced more flavors, aromas, sites and sounds than most people have encountered in their entire lives; each and every one of these I would have initially defied impossible to experience. I might even have gone so far as to say they didn’t exist. Oh, how wrong I was. I still remember my head exploding when sitting down to a table full of sherry wines in Jerez, each vastly different in their color, each profoundly unique in their flavor and each perpetually misunderstood by the world at large. Like eating 1,001 different types of cured Spanish ham, Sherry opened my mind to the immense amount of diversity existing in the world. How did I not know about this? I would ask myself. How could I have generalized all Sherries as the same? This was a mistake I had made many times over the years, continuously doubting that life has a little magic to throw our way as long as we’re open to the experience.

Love Grows over Time

Prior to moving to Spain, I had imagined the Spanish landscape similar Greece, with white adobe houses, gorgeous blue waters and slinky cats skirting around every corner. Add a touch of New Mexican dessert with stunning orange sunsets and wild horses, and a dash of Hollywood pizazz where every woman had a sassy, no bullshit sexiness like Catherine Zeta- Jones, and you essentially have my image of Spain. It was naïve and childlike, sweet and completely out of sync with reality. The clue-stick eventually hit after landing in Madrid, one cold January morning, when I stepped out of the taxi to long barren city streets covered in cement and lined with dive bars, shoe shops, bakeries and enough pharmacies to make Pfizer have a mini orgasm. Taking a long hard look around me under a gray-blanketed sky, tears rolled down my cheeks. “Where the hell are the cats, the gorgeous blue waters, the stunning views? Damn it, where is my Zorro!”

It took many months before my appreciation for cosmopolitan cities like Barcelona and Madrid, and rustic hideaways in San Sebastian, Rioja and Andalucia grew into a full blown addiction. Despite the mounds of cheap unabsorbant napkins littering bar floors, and haughty Spanish grandmothers decked out in pearls, fur shoals and bright red lipstick taking out the garbage, I couldn’t help but eventually turn the corner. In spite of the cultural differences, I so appreciated our varying ways of tackling the world.

What is Spain to me? It’s rugged, boisterous and opinionated. It loves nothing more than to tell you a fabulous tale, a juicy story, enhancing every bit of drama it can muster. It desperately cares about appearances, unwilling to do anything that might cause a raised eyebrow, but will nail you to the wall if you care to throw down a good debate. It’s stunning, geographically diverse, culturally passionate, and filled with some of the loveliest people I have ever encountered on the planet.

If there was ever at time the Spanish culture was more beautifully exemplified it was on a long and arduous train trip coming back from Paris. Having broken my foot on a biking tour, I was resigned to carrying my gear, with crutches, from Beaune to Dijon, from Dijon to Paris, from Paris to Irun, and finally, from Irun to Madrid. My saving grace was the telephone call made by my company requesting a porter to be present at every station to help me through the transfer. Not so bad, I thought, but when arriving to Paris, where a chestnut brown haired kid with brilliant green eyes helped the invalid off the train, I was met by my surly knight in matte gray smelling of cheap cologne and stale nicotine. His job was specifically to help me, but rather than lend a hand, he chose to instigate a fight through backhanded insults, flippant remarks, and a death-defying joyride through the vacuous station of Gare du Nord. Passing sunburnt tourists and hunched old men playing cards on wobbly wooden benches, we eventually arrived to my train with only a few minutes to spare. Hours later, the train hiccuped to a slow halt in Irun, awakening me from a deep slumber – limbs found sprawled out in a garage sale like fashion. Stumbling off the train, two men with toothy grins and a rickety chariot boisterously shouted, “Here is our adventurous woman! How was your trip so far guapisima?!” Blocking the sun from my eyes, I let several days of trapped air slowly escape my lungs in a deep relaxed sigh, while attempting to explain my arduous story from the crack of the bone to my Formula one wheelchair ride. Taking my hands, the shorter rounder Porter with bushy black caterpillars for eyebrows giggled, “Ah, this is why you should’ve simply stayed in one of our many bars enjoying a good Spanish wine with friends – a little laughter, good tapas and less drama! Sounds better, no?” Helping me into my final train, the lankier porter returned with a clear plastic cup filled with table wine. “Hasta luego Gabriella!” he chirped excitedly, as he placed his sun-kissed hands on my head while kissing on either cheek. “And remember, more wine and less biking!”

Despite all of the hardships we’ve had while stumbling our way through culture shock, poor customer service, and a sincere lack of immediacy for anything, I can’t help but smile for the number of wonderful experiences I’ve had in Spain, equally matched in Portugal.

Appreciating the Moment

Portugal on the other hand is vastly different from Spain. There is a sweet gentleness that spills from its pours. Many Portuguese speak with a singsong whisper, a gentle “sh” sounds that lulls you to sleep, and a trusting embrace that creates a heartfelt feeling of family. From warm delicious soups, sumptuously sweet Moscatels and vast amounts of boisterous laughter, Portugal has become a fast friend, a country that I will never deny an invitation to visit.

When I think of Portugal, my mind immediately goes to mouthwatering grilled fish and a glass of Arinto. I imagine long walks along the boardwalk in Lisbon with a gentle breeze consistently at my back; gorgeous, bright sunny days and beautiful train rides through the rustic northern Portugal landscapes. My mind also wanders to a magical afternoon spent at Cortes de Cima listening to Opera as the late summer sun casts deep orange shadows across rows of stunning vines in the Alentejo; lunch with friends among the thriving green landscape of the Azores Islands, and the stunning terraced lands of the Douro.

Granted, I may never fully appreciate the vast number of cold showers and freezing cold bedrooms we’ve experienced throughout Portugal, but I can say that a glass of Port and a warm fire will always make up for it. How do I know this? Spend a cold, overcast evening at the Villar d’Allen Estate in the heart of Porto, and you will quickly realize how incredible company, a good conversation and roaring fire with a bottle of great port can make all the difference in the world. With 300 years of stories embedded in every crack and seam, the house literally breathes. You cannot walk a foot without stumbling upon a historical artifact dating back to the 17th century, or a book from the 14th. It’s absolutely incredible, a work of art, but come evening, when the cool winds bury themselves deep into your bones, you start eyeing that port as if it was a elixir of the Gods. And fortunately, when you’re at the Allen’s, it usually is.

This type of living museum is unique to the Villar d’Allen Estate, but Portugal as a whole is a testament to living history, and an incredible reason to visit!

The Never Ending Story

In short, for as long as I live, or visit, Iberia, you will never lack stories. If anything, this is merely a transition, a blip in the radar, a short evolution if you will. There is too much left to share, to experience, to communicate for us to stop cold. If anything, it’s simply a chance for you to keep experimenting, to keep pushing your cultural, gastronomical and vinous boundaries to perpetually try something new. We’ll never stop, and we hope you won’t either!

With a Full Heart and Much Appreciation,

Gabriella Opaz

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Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula
looking for the very best food and wine experiences.

Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula looking for the very best food and wine experiences.

Catavino is the best place to learn about travel, food
and wine in Portugal and Spain.

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