Aguardente Anyone? (Agua who?!)

Aguardente is the Portuguese take on brandy. And, OMG, it is good! As a longtime brandy, Cognac, and Armagnac lover, I was thrilled to find a Portuguese take on the spirit. In the US, a decent brandy starts at about $30 a bottle. Excellent everyday Portuguese brandy can be found for about fourteen euros a bottle. Yes, Virginia, Portugal is a dream come true for lovers of quality drink! (Wait ’till we get to the gins and vodkas!)

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São Domingos Aguardente Vinica Velhíssima.

How does Portuguese brandy compare to its European counterparts? Favorably! It tends to be softer and sweeter than traditional cognacs and German brandies. For a stronger spirit from Portugal, there is bagaceira. Bagaceira is clear, strong, and delicious. If you are into that type of jet fuel…! Reminiscent of Italian grappa, it is usually bootlegged. But, it can be found for sale at some wineries.

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Aguardente from Lourinhã.

Portugal has a demarcated region for it’s best aguardente. It is called Lourinhã and is located on the coast near Lisbon. Lourinhã aguardente is magically delicious and costs more than your average supermarket variety. Aromas of candied fruit, and brown sugar on the nose. On the palate, dried fig and nut flavors with a silky smooth finish and a hint of sweetness. If you like brandy and come across a good aguardente, it is a must-try!

Back to Lisboa and the US.

After almost a week in Porto we returned to Lisbon for a couple of days before heading back to BFE USA via Dublin and Toronto.  This time we stayed in the Alfama neighborhood which is famed for places to hear the traditional Portuguese Fado music.  Luckily, the first place we stayed in Porto had lots of Fado CDs, which we listened to.  As much as I wanted to hear some Fado music live none of the bars that hosted the music commenced the festivities until 9pm.  When you are as old as we are that is late!  It is usually lights out by 10pm for us.

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Alfama, Lisbon.

Alfama reminded me of Venice, Italy without the water.  The streets are hilly and impossibly narrow.  One of the Uber drivers we hired had a mini van and the car literally scraped the wall on one side going down the street!  It is so charming that once there you understand why it is a must-see part of Lisbon.  One of best restaurants of our entire time in Portugal is there:  Alfama Cellar.  They specialize in cooking with individual cast iron pots and the dishes there will set you free!  The best was drunk rabbit; marinated in grappa and served with roasted vegetables that conveyed flavors beyond description.  We enjoyed the food here so much that we ate there our last two nights in Lisbon.  The staff was professional and fun, and the service was outstanding.  Alfama Cellar is located at Rua dos Remedios 127-131, 1100-451 Lisboa.  Www.alfamacellar.pt.

Castelo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon.

Sadly, it was quite rainy and stormy our last two days in Lisbon, so we did not wander far from our Airbnb which was about 30 paces from our new favorite restaurant.  We strolled around a little and got to visit the Castelo de Sao Jorge on our last day which was an amazing piece of history and architecture.  Our Airbnb was tiny but efficient and the craziest thing about the building was the stairs up to an apartment above.  Well, look…

Crazy Stairs in Alfama!

If one was drunk, they would be downright dangerous, methinks!

Needless to say, we were sad to have to leave Portugal.  But now, we had a mission:  figure out how to move there!

On the way back, we once again spent a day in Dublin, Ireland.  This time we were lucky to dodge an historic snow storm that dumped 13 inches of snow on the city shutting everything down two days before we arrived.  We watched as 13 truck loads of the white stuff was removed from the tarmac before we could deplane.  We got to our Airbnb and headed for the nearest pub.  Severe disappointment ensued; there was no Guinness to be had!  Fresh out.  While the city was immobilized for two days, everyone was at the pubs and drank the city dry!  That’s an historic event:  no Guinness in the pubs in Dublin!  Crazy, but true.  Happily, we got to have one more pint of Guinness at the airport before we left.

We arrived at Dublin airport around nine am. After getting through security we went through the duty-free store and found that they were having a series of gin and whiskey tastings!  Ireland, what a country!  Of course, we felt duty bound to try the local spirits.  Ireland is having a distilling renaissance and the whiskies and gins are first rate.  We brought home some Tyrconnell 12 year old Madeira cask single malt whiskey.  Mmm, good!

We made it home with minimal delays and after thinking about it we realized that the only thing we missed while we were away:  our dog Jiva (aka Bubba).  Looks like there’s a transatlantic trip in your future little buddy!

Escher Exhibit/O Prado Take 2

The next day we wandered back down to the water.  We had noticed on our first day out that the Museum of Popular Art had an exhibit of M.C. Escher’s work.  Along with the Tower of Belem, the Museum of Pop Art is on the banks of the Tagus River.  It is a fun dichotomy that the two are almost literally down the street from each other. 16th and 20th centuries pretty much next door to each other in the enchanting city of Lisbon!

Since Joe and I are both big Escher fans we decided to check it out.  It was amazing to see the man’s work up close and personal, so to speak!  The amount of detail in his drawings is mind blowing.  There was also a fun interactive piece that let one enter the orb in the Hand with Reflecting Sphere pen and ink drawing.  It was an illusion, of course but most of this master’s work is illusion based, so totally appropriate! The entire exhibit was entertaining, informative and awe inspiring.

After the museum we had some sangria at a hotel that had a patio on the water.  The weather was beautiful and the scenery equally so.  It was interesting to note that folks were sporting winter, even fur coats in the 60ish degree weather.  Sort of the opposite of what we have in Colorado where it is common to see people in shorts and flip-flops when it is 30 degrees or colder and snowing!  I have never understood this having been taught to dress for the weather.  Kind of crazy either way, I guess!

We had dinner at one of the seafood restaurants on the way back from our sunset patio excursion.  There was a gentleman standing outside extolling the virtues of the food inside and after a couple of suggestions about the menu I said, “I’m in, let’s do it”!  Holy mother of amazing seafood!  I had horse mackerel with a Spanish sauce and Joe had a squid and shrimp skewer.  Both were outstanding, as was the white wine we had with it.  All for about 30 Euros.  A meal like that would’ve cost $100-150 stateside.

After dinner we strolled back toward our Airbnb and decided to stop back in at O Prado for a night cap.  A night cap, right.  Clearly, I had no idea who I was dealing with!  We sat at the bar again and were warmly greeted by our new BFFs, Christina and Johnny.  Boy, did we get more than we bargained for!  After a bottle of Cartuxa, an excellent Portuguese red wine, if you ever run across it, I was ready for that night cap!  So, Johnny pulled out some of their home-made hooch.  Portuguese grappa, if you will.  Now, I happen to love grappa, and this was wickedly smooth and delicious.  But wait, there was more!  Next, he pulled out a barrel aged version of the same fire water which was even more delicious than the first!  Then, of course, I had to try some of the Portuguese aguardente which literally means fire water.  Really, it was Portuguese brandy.  Thankfully, Joe is not a big grappa/brandy fan, so he only had little sips of each.  I, on the other hand, partook fully.  Being the world class enablers that our hosts were, they sent us home with little samples of the two home made liquors, cleverly disguised in recycled apple juice bottles!  Love them, mean it, they came in handy later in our trip.

I vaguely remember staggering back to our place.  Joe says it was a small miracle that we made it back in the dark after all that drink!  Yes, I was in for a world class hang over, to be sure.

Coach Museum/O Prado, Take 1.

Being older helped us out with the timing of everything we did on this trip.  While the rest of the Portuguese world has lunch around 1pm or later, we were usually hungry by noon.  The same went for dinner.  We usually wanted to eat around 6pm and were the only ones in the dining room at that time.  Restaurants got busy after 7pm, which suited us just fine.

We re-visited the Pasteis de Belem at about 11am in the morning and, guess what?  There was no line!  The place is also much bigger than it looks from the outside and seats around 400.  We ordered coffee and two pasteis de nata, as they are known.  This is the Café du Monde of Lisbon.  Little custard tarts served in a parchment like pastry shell.  Not as good as beignets, but still, quite tasty.

After our “breakfast” of custard tarts and coffee, we decided to check out the Coach Museum.  Now, Joe thought, really?  A coach museum, how interesting could it be?  Boy, was he surprised!  As was I.  These were historic coaches built for royalty and they were impressive and amazing to say the least.  Having been a carriage driver in Denver for many years, I could really appreciate these mobile works of art.  They made our carriages look mighty pedestrian, I’ll say!  Well, look!

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After being wowed by the antique coaches for royalty we found O Prado for lunch.  This little gem of a restaurant is on Rua da Junqueira, 474, 1300-341, Lisboa, and if you are ever in Lisboa (Lisbon, to us foreigners!)  you need to dine there.  We sat at the bar and were entertained by the Johnny and Christina show!  These two run the place and they are awesome, as is the food.  I had a salmon steak that was crazy good, super fresh and cooked to perfection, that is not overdone, and Joe had a pork dish which melted in the mouth.  We shared a bottle of the house red wine which was a red Vinho Verde.  Why, oh why do we not get this wine over here?!  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not against the white Vinho Verdes, but the red is so perfect with everything!  Beautiful dark red color, a hint of effervescence, light bodied with dark fruit flavors and nice and dry on the finish.  Yumilicious, it was.  It reminded me of the dry Lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna in Italy.  I Wish I could have brought some home.  One of the many reasons we’ll just have to move there!  Seriously, I have travelled a lot, but never have I visited a country where all the food and drink is so consistently good if not great. 

Given the great fun, food and drink, we became instant friends with Christina and Johnny and said we’d be back before we left Lisbon.

O Prado house red Vinho Verde.

On to Lisbon!

The people in Ireland are so very nice!  Having visited once before with my Mom back in the 80’s, I remembered this.  It is truly an enchanted isle.  Part of our cheap flight regime included leaving Dublin for Lisbon at 6:15am.  This meant leaving our Airbnb around 4am.  Ack!  When we asked about reserving a taxi to pick us up so early, our hostess arranged for her flat mate to take us to the airport in the middle of the night!  That was over and above in the hospitality department, to be sure.  Thanks again Danny and Fionnuala!

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We did manage to sneak in a trip to the Guinness Brewery during our less than 24 hours in Ireland!

The upside to our early flight was that we landed in Lisbon at about 9am.  Once we arranged for a cab to take us to our lodgings, the city would be ours.  We stayed our first four days in the Belem neighborhood and that was an excellent choice.  There are so many monuments, gardens, museums and amazing restaurants in Belem that one could spend weeks exploring them.  And they were all a short walk from our adorable Airbnb apartment.  Our host Antonio couldn’t have been nicer.  He left us a nice bottle of Portuguese wine and his assistant Pedro brought us keys and some fruit to enjoy during our stay.  He also gave us the low down on the best places to eat and how to get around via public transport.  They were the hosts with the most during our trip. 

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Lisbon was awe inspiring.  The weather was nice, clear blue skies and about 60-65 degrees.  We walked down to the center of Belem and the gardens across from the Jeronimos Monastery.  It was a short stroll along the water from there to Belem Tower.  This 15th century fortress is a fantastic piece of architecture with great views of the city and the Tagus river.  Another important tip:  buy your tickets to see the Tower at the information center just down the hill from it.  When you get to the Tower itself you will see two lines; one to buy tickets and another much shorter one for those who already have tickets!  After exploring the tower for an hour or so we were hungry, so we headed back up to the main street with all the shops and restaurants.

Here is the best part of a visit to Portugal:  It is hard to go wrong in the eating and drinking departments.  While we did have great advice from our hosts regarding where to dine, we never had a bad meal during our trip.  Everything was so good!  At first glance some of the little places we went to looked unassuming, but the food was excellent no matter where we went.  The seafood is so fresh, and the meats do delicious that I hazard to say that Portugal has some of the best food and wine in the world.  We picked a spot to have lunch and the maître‘d asked us what we would like to have.  When we hesitated, he offered to pick the best dishes for us.  I had a cod dish with vegetables and Joe had pork.  Both were great.  And so was the white wine that I had with the fish.  Joe had beer, Sagres being the foremost brand of beer in Lisbon.  Sagres and Super Bock, in Porto are described at the Miller/Coors of Portugal.  Very light style brews.  Joe and I agreed that we liked the Super Bock a little better than the Sagres.

After lunch we strolled the Rua de Belem and saw a huge line to get into the Pasteis de Belem shop which is famous for the little custard pies that have been made there since 1837.  Later for that we thought!  We would come back when, hopefully, it would be less crowded.