Over New Year's we had the opportunity to go to Portugal for a week. Lesson learned - the Algarve is beautiful at that time of year, the Duoro is in the height of rainy season. Choose wisely.
Lisbon is a fairly charming city, with winding back alleys and a lot going on. Unfortunately I was sick, so we didn't see much of the city. We did manage to make a stop by Belem, where there is a beautiful Manueline monastery housing the tomb of the explorer Vasco da Gama, and the nearby Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, producer of the heavenly custard tarts known as pasteis de belem, served warm and dusted with cinnamon. If you go to Lisbon, you MUST try these.
We stopped by the hilly town of Sintra, where there are pastel manors and a fairy-tale castle, plus a small monastery, the Convento dos Capuchos, featuring tiny cells lined with cork. The rain caused the area to be shrouded in mist, which actually added to the romance of it all.
We headed north then, up to the Duoro, the region known for its port wine. We visited several gorgeous little towns, each of which has its own specialty wine and pastry. Lamego features a dramatic staircase leading to a beautiful church, and a regional sparkling wine, raposeira, which is not unlike champagne. Amarante is an atmospheric little town that is the hometown of Portugal's Saint Valentine and very rich egg pastries - delicious but one or two is quite enough. Vila Real is known for the Palacio de Mateus, a baroque mansion that became known for a rose wine but now produces one called Alvarelhao, claimed to be one of Portugal's best. Because of its reputation we went out of our way to taste it - it was disgusting.
Our favorite stops in the area were Pinhao, the highlight of which is the nearby Quinta do Portal, producers of excellent port wine and moscatel. We wished we could have brought back a whole case. We also made a detour to the tiny town of Murca after noticing a footnote in the guidebook about granite pigs that were theorized to have been scattered about the remote countryside by Celtic people as some kind of fertility symbol. The best preserved one is in Murca, so we went to check it out. It turned out this was the middle of olive and grape country, so we picked up some excellent olive oil and wine and chatted with some of the locals. We also tried the local specialty - toucinho do ceu (frequently hilariously translated as "lard of heaven"), a very sweet cake.
Porto, the traditional hub of port wine exports, is an extremely charming city, worth a visit. The port wine lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia were closed because of the holidays but the old boats they used to use to transport the wine are still sitting picturesquely in the river and the city itself is colorful and full of history.
On our way back to Lisbon we stopped at Tomar, the historic headquarters of the Knights Templar. They have a huge monastery there, from which they used to run their operations. Because the Knights were rather more mercenary than religious, they have big, heated cells and plenty of space for entertaining and cooking, plus a church designed circularly so that the knights could attend mass on horseback. Tomar also houses the matchbox museum, a collection of over 60,000 matchboxes from just about every country in the world. Apparently there are matchbox collecting societies that people can join if they have this as their hobby... we learned many new things in Tomar.
Lastly we stopped in Fatima, a town where in 1917 there was an apparition of the Virgin, and now there are two giant churches and a courtyard twice the size of St. Peter's, where thousands of pilgrims come to worship every year. The place is not particularly beautiful, but the spectacle of the scale is something else. After we left Fatima, we headed back to Lisbon and had a last look around and a few more custard tarts before bringing our vacations reluctantly to an end.
Our conclusion - a visit to this region is highly recommended, especially for the port wine and delicious egg-based pastries, but is probably best reserved for the spring or summer.