Portugal luxury vacations come in many forms, but if you are flying to Portugal with most of your travel then being by road and rail, you will want to travel as comfortably as possible. That involves business class flights, first class train tickets and your own private limousine with chauffeur. Whether you can find that or not is immaterial – it is what you will want, and there are travel companies that can provide you with level of comfort in addition to top class hotels and fine cuisine.
Portugal is the most westerly country on the European mainland, so the nearest to the USA after Ireland and the UK. Your flight destination will be the capital, Lisbon, sitting on the River Tagus and Portugal is historically the closest country to Britain with regard to political alliances (their 1373 alliance is the oldest standing in the world). It supported Britain during the Peninsular and Napoleonic wars, and they still regard themselves as being closer to Britain than to Spain.
So much for the history lesson: now for the vacation. The oldest part of Lisbon is the Alfama district, at one time actually comprising the whole city when it was ruled by the Moors, and now a labyrinth of small squares and narrow streets. It contains Lisbon cathedral, and many excellent restaurants that you must try.
Portuguese cuisine is centered on fish, although they also offer many fine meat dishes including piglet sandwiches. Portuguese pastry is renowned the world over, and their wines have been associated with Bacchus since the days of ancient Rome. The main wine area is Douro, although the country is probably most associated with the fortified port wine.
As Jerez in Spain is associated with sherry, so Oporto in Portugal is associated with port, and no Portugal vacations would be complete without a taste of a fine vintage port. Incidentally, the crusted port is not the best, and is generally known as the ‘poor man’s vintage’ port.
The National Palace of Portugal sits atop a hill on Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site due its architecture of the 19th century. It offers fabulous views of the Sintra-cascais Natural Park that includes the Serra de Sintra mountain range and the most westerly point of continental Europe, Cabo da Roca (Cape Roca), also known to the Romans. You will find some craft and antique shops at Sintra, well worth a visit for some Portuguese souvenirs. The Palace itself is also worth visiting, and contains rooms with strange names such as the Room of the Sirens and the Magpie Room. If you like a flutter on the tables, the casinos of Estoril are on the return journey to Lisbon.
Oporto is also known as Porto, and as already mentioned, is the home of port. It is made from red Douro wine which is then fortified with brandy. The brandy stops the fermentation, leaving unfermented sugar in the wine, giving it its sweetish taste. The port is then stored, mainly in barrels, and aged in cellars. Tawny port must be aged at least 7 years, and after that the label can state the wine to be 10, 20, 30 or over 40 years old. Vintage port is the flagship port, being produced from grapes grown in a declared ‘vintage’ year when conditions are favorable for good wines. Crusted port is of lower quality than vintage.
Under European Union guidelines, only port made in Portugal can be labeled ‘Port’, though for reasons of their own (probably due to their own ‘port’ industry, the USA has stated that port from Portugal must be labeled ‘Porto’ or ‘Vinho do Porto’. You must pay Porto a visit, although here, as elsewhere in Europe, you will find only wine made in Portugal to be labeled ‘Port’.
Apart from the wine, Porto offers the Cathedral, the Stock Exchange Palace and many traditional bars and restaurants in the narrow streets close to the waterfront. If you like fish, then this is for you because the fish dishes here are fresh and delicious. There are several port companies in Porto, although one of the better ones is Taylor-Fladgate who market the Dow, Croft’s and Sandeman brands among others. Taylor-Fladgate will offer you a tasting, and they also operate a fine restaurant that is well worth a visit for lunch or dinner. Their cellars are cross the River Douro at Vila Nova de Gaia. Just ask – everybody knows it.
Another excellent wine region is the Minho region, famous for its Vinho Verde, named after the fresh green color of the vine, not the wine (I have never seen green wine!). Like many Portuguese wines, it is excellent to drink with fish, although it is a very young wine, without any significant aging. The albarino grape is ideal for this type of wine, and has a slight sparkle to it a bit like the Franken wines of Germany.
In fact you are not far from Sesimbra here, a small fishing village where you can enjoy some deliciously fresh seafood along with a glass of vinho verde. What a fabulous way to spend a hot summer afternoon! Some perfect squid and fish stew and a glass of chilled wine. Or perhaps the cuttlefish or fresh tuna – that might be even better!
Close to Sesimbra is Coimbra that used to be Portugal’s capital, at least until 1256, and the Duke of Wellington stayed here during the Iberian campaign against Napoleon’s forces. It also boasts one of the oldest universities in Europe, dating back to 1290. This part of Portugal is really beautiful, and the entire country is small enough for you to drive around – particularly if you are not doing the driving! It’s around 350 miles x 135 miles, and you can drive the length of it in around 7 hours at an average of 50 MPH – the speed limits are much higher here than in the USA. However, the rail system is also very good.
That’s Portugal, and Portugal vacations are available in all shapes and sizes, ranging from wine tours to sightseeing. However, by far the best idea is to combine both, and the best way to travel is a combination of rail and road. Particularly if you have somebody to do the driving or have first class rail travel.