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The Undiscovered Sights, Sounds and Flavors of Portugal

Gail Aguiar is by far, one of the most prolific travel bloggers in Portugal, which is why we’re so keen to feature her! Filipino by birth, Gail has spent most of her life traveling, working and exploring the world; hence her insight comes from a place of deep wisdom and experience. Today, she joins us from Porto, where she’s offering up a series of fabulous food, culture and travel tips for your next excursion to Portugal!

Gail Aguiar’s Top Tips for Portugal

  1. Open yourself to the Portuguese, accepting their loving, gracious hospitality.
  2. Visit the remote villages of Portugal where you’ll still find donkeys pulling carts and livestock roaming freely. 
  3. Seek out Portugal’s best products that are made in small batches, in small places and are not for export.
  4. Jump into the thematic festivals in small Portuguese towns. The local food, wine and culture are irresistible. 
  5. Begin every exchange in Portugal with a greeting and a smile. It’s opens hearts and doors across the country.

1. You’ve been travelling the world for a good portion of your life, so what makes Portugal such a enticing place to live and work?

I believe Portugal has a much better work/life balance than many places, including Canada. It’s partly the weather, the long coastline, the easy access to nature. But Portugal is also less urban, crime is low, there’s more solidarity here. As a foreigner, I feel welcomed and supported by Portuguese society, and despite the smaller economy, I’ve had offers and opportunities here I wasn’t given in Canada.

Living and working in Portugal comes with challenges, however. For example, wages need to keep up with the increase in the cost of living due to the current economic growth. I never want to characterize Portugal as a “cheap” country because it’s not cheap for Portuguese people. Foreigners (whether tourists or residents) expecting Portugal to keep consumer prices low don’t realize how that hinders the country’s prosperity. I would much rather take action to reduce the widespread poverty in Portugal and let prices increase BUT only if wages are in line with economic growth.

2. What small off-the-beat villages would you suggest people go to discover the food, wine and culture of Portugal?

I’m partial to the tiny, remote villages in Portugal, home to a few hundred people or less. (This includes my in-laws’ home village of Penela da Beira, where we stay 3-5 times a year.) Without the convenience of restaurants or even grocery stores, the villagers are resilient and resourceful, with a close relationship to the land. Visiting a village feels like time travel; you’ll still find donkeys pulling carts and livestock roaming freely. In the middle of nowhere lie ancient mills, centuries-old groves and orchards that have never seen a pesticide, specialty bread, crafts such as embroidery, a hundred ways to eat chestnuts, homemade wine and home distilleries. If you’re very lucky, you will spot somebody making something, get waved in closer to observe the process, and fed liberally with the bounty.

Some of my favourite local-colour type of experiences have been in tiny places like Pitões das Júnias (pop. 161) or Podence (pop. 252), where I saw the Caretos de Podence, colourful masked Carnival characters pretending to terrorize festival goers for Entrudo Chocalheiro — referred to as “the most authentic carnival in Portugal” (see also the Entrudo de Lazarim).

There’s a wonderful directory for villages in Portugal that I consult regularly and which is also in English: http://www.aldeiasportugal.pt/

3. Food is the cornerstone of much of your writing and photography. What dishes do you feel are overlooked that shouldn’t be?

In Portugal, the very regional dishes — especially the ones that don’t travel well — receive little attention in the rest of the country. For example, bolo do caco from Madeira, made with sweet potato and traditionally baked on a volcanic stone, is a rarity on the mainland. It is irresistible when piping hot and slathered with garlic butter. Recipe-wise, it can certainly be replicated — I’ve seen it recently in Porto — but without the volcanic stone, something is missing from the original. (Those who favour wood-fired pizza over oven-baked pizza, you’ll know what I mean.)

It’s puzzling because there are some things on the Madeiran menu like milho frito (fried cornmeal) that are practically unheard of on the mainland, and I don’t know why. It’s delicious!

Other very regional foods that I like to travel for include: Pão de Ló de Ovar (I’m not even a fan of regular pão de ló, but Ovar’s version of this sponge cake, eaten with a spoon, is gooey goodness), bôla de carne de Lamego (specifically, Carne de Porco em Vinha de Alhos from Pastelaria de Sé in Lamego which is a savoury cake filled with pork marinated in wine and garlic), leitão (suckling pig) from Bairrada accompanied by an Anselmo Mendes vinho verde (green wine), to name but a few!

Portugal’s best products are made in small batches in small places and not for export, which is why I always encourage people to travel around the country to make these discoveries at the source. (Also because the best stuff is without preservatives, made fresh and to be eaten right away.) Not to mention the makers are enormously proud of their work and only too happy to tell you the stories behind the products (there’s always a story and it usually involves their family).

4. From surfing to skydiving, Portugal offers a wide range of incredible experiences. What have been some of your absolute favorites?

My favourite experiences in Portugal are the thematic festivals in small towns. Many are ostensibly religious, but nobody cares if you’re religious or not, it’s a celebration invariably accompanied by local food and drink. Everyone in town participates in some way, from young to old.

There are far more festivals in Portugal than is humanly possible to attend — just pick your fancy. There are festivals honouring patron saints, food-related festivals like the Festa do Caldo (Broth Festival) in Quintandono (a restored schist village) or the octopus festival in Zambujeira do Mar, an almond blossom festival in Vila Nova de Foz Côa, the spectacle that is Festa dos Tabuleiros (Trays Festival) in Tomar that takes place every four years, the Festas do Povo (People Festival) in Campo Maior where the streets are decked out competitively in handcrafted paper flowers — a festival so labour-intensive that it only takes place when the residents decide they’re ready to host the party again.

There are festivals for practically anything, but I wanted to highlight the fact that they’re a huge labour of love by the townsfolk and purely for community spirit. This is an area where Portugal shines.

5. If there was one travel tip you would give someone visiting Portugal, what would it be?

Begin every exchange in Portugal with a greeting (bom dia before lunch, boa tarde after lunch, boa noite after dark) and a big smile. It’s as effective as saying “please” or “excuse me” and sets the tone for the exchange, especially if that’s all the Portuguese you know.

6. Finally, do you have any sites, events, projects, or other cool things you want to plug or share with our audience? 

I’ve just launched an interview series with Portuguese artists, part of a wider series of interviews with Portuguese (PT/EN). The artist series is up on the blog now, the first artist is Daniel Eime.

Find Gail Aguiar

Website: https://gailatlarge.com/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/gailatlarge/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/gailatlargedotcom/

Gail Aguiar is a Philippines-born, Canadian-raised freelance photographer who made Portugal home in late 2013, six countries and three continents later. Her daily blog, Gail at Large, chronicles more than 15 years of travel-centric living through a unique lens as a 4x expat. She first earned her photographer stripes in urban Toronto and is now focused on Portuguese culture and practicing her nasalized vowels. She lives in photogenic Porto with her Portuguese husband and their rescue dog from Guimarães.

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