Discovering the Essence of Portugal

Although an international gateway to Europe boasting a rich history and heritage rivaling that of its European neighbors, Portugal is often overlooked by American tourists. Which is a shame because unlike the cookie-cutter tours to Rome, Paris and London, the country which gave us some of our greatest explorers including Ferdinand Magellan, and the Porto wine for which it is so widely known, sneaks up on you. That is, you have to live it to feel it.

The convergence of old and new is apparent upon touching down at Portela Airport in Lisbon. The Iberian Capital is experiencing a dazzling rebirth. As I waded through security, I noticed travelers surfing wireless internet while sitting at shiny café’s and noshing on Portugal’s famed custard pastries, locally known as pastel de Belem.

The country is known for its quality of life. Lisbon, as a gateway capital of Europe, is a unique compromise. The city enjoys a fantastic year round climate, and its proximity to the sea ensures all the benefits this affords. Unspoiled wild sand dunes, waves lapping upon quiet shorelines, and a calmness that permeates the fresh breeze.

Portugal is preserved, having learned from the mistakes of Spain’s urbanization efforts which some claim cast a pall on the seaside resorts. A beautiful old port city, Lisbon features fresh seafood brought in daily, sailing and surfing. In the North, there are elegant mansions lining the seaside and the atmosphere is akin to what you’d find in Biarritz, or even Cape Cod. No wonder the royal family of Spain decided to live in exile in Portugal, and that the King of Italy also chose Portugal as his place of exile during WWII.

As a capital city, Lisbon is easily discovered on foot. With sidewalk café’s and alfresco dining around every corner, the palpable rhythm of the city creeps up on you.

Many Americans travel with a checklist in hand of sights they wish to visit. Discovering Lisbon is a journey to be undertaken without a checklist. Tourists come to Lisbon to experience life, to enjoy the bustling outdoor café’s and the winding, cobblestone streets.

Which is not to say Lisbon is sleepy—quite the contrary. Like the international airport terminal, mixing old with new seems to be the trend. In the Old Quarter, trendy boutiques selling the latest fashion may be found next door to an elderly woman hanging out her clothes, or selling antique bird cages. The city is mixed, like its people, who herald from many parts of Europe.

Late night haunts include trips to local bars to hear musicians sing the Fado, the traditional Portugese music. The harbor is another evening hot spot with tourists and locals partying late into the night.

Although there are significant historical sights and museums to be had, Lisbon is not a place for the cruise ship mentality, i.e., a checklist approach to a vacation. As in: been there, saw that, check.

Take the cherry drink called ginginha. This old, traditional drink where the alcohol is mixed with cherries is savored by locals and tourists alike on street corners where they buy the drink from local stalls.

Portugal is, of course, famed for its Port wine — not simply the red syrup that Americans expect as an after dinner liquor, but also the light, white crisp tasting port served with meals.

As far as accommodations, the city offers numerous hotels tailored to fit any budget. Lisbon’s finest hotel is managed, not surprisingly, by the Four Seasons, and is called The Ritz Four Seasons Hotel, Lisbon.

Originally opened in 1959 when Portugal was controlled by Antonio Salazar, the hotel was established with the aim of becoming one of the fanciest, luxury hotels in Europe. Twelve of the wealthiest families in Portugal came together to ensure that Portugal’s capital city, with its burgeoning business community, would create an institution in Portugal. Now the Four Seasons brand, the best in its league, manages this fine place. Once again, the hotel manages to cleverly weave a rich tapestry between old and new.

Over 600 pieces of original Portugese art adorn the Ritz Four Seasons Hotel, a passion project of some of the founding families. Which is not to say the atmosphere is staid and old-worldly. The stunning spa and pool ooze that of a cool, contemporary space, with spa treatments rivaling those found in Manhattan or Beverly Hills. Situated on one of Lisbon’s famed hilltops, the rooms offer commanding views of the city and the park below.

A feature of the Ritz Four Seasons Hotel that can’t be missed is the food, best exemplified by the elegant buffet lunch which caters to Lisbon’s business and social elite. The food mixes contemporary Portugese cuisine with traditional favorites, once again inspired by old and new.

Favorites include the fresh fish and meats of the day, sushi rolls rivaling those found at the Tokyo fishmarket, seafood ceviche, and the famed Portugese cheeses and desserts on display.

When HTEXAS dined here, a comment was overheard that the food “tasted like a kiss.”

For another unforgettable dinner, try Café Olivier. With exquisite food and wine pairings, the idea at this culinary showstopper is to simply relax and recline while various amuse bouches are presented at a dizzying rate. The goat cheese puff pastry with honey and nuts was a major highlight until the fresh sea scallops arrived along with entrees of white veal accompanied with truffles; and fish, prawns and spinach tucked neatly inside the famous Portugese baked pastry crust.

Both the Ritz Four Seasons Hotel, Lisbon and Café Olivier offer a selection of Portugese wines from small, local producers that are not found in the United States. A rarity, these days, when it seems as though the homogenization of culture has produced an unfortunate after effect: travel without surprises.

Americans, especially Texans who enjoy following the path less traveled, should love Portugal. A place where one can explore ‘off the list’ while enjoying a true feast for the senses.

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