We did some wine tasting in the Martinborough region over the last few days. This is a tiny winemaking region, in size, in production, and in many cases in the size of the wineries. New Zealand produces about one percent of the world’s wine. Martinborough produces one percent of New Zealand’s wine, and it does it with about five percent of the countries wineries. So, when you go out to taste wine here, you are very likely going to meet the folks who do all of the work, from planting and caring for the vines, to harvesting, to the magic that makes the wines. The tasting experience can be very intimate, and, so informative. The winemakers we met all took great pride in their processes and their products. Also, as several of them told us, “when you make such small batches, you make the wine you like.”
Martinborough was mostly a quiet agricultural region until the 1970s, when they had some agricultural scientists from the government come out to help them determine how to “revitalise” an area that was losing population. When the scientists looked around, they determined that much of the “river terrace” in the area was similar to the soil in Burgandy, France, and combined with the weather, grapes might be a good crop. There had been some vineyards in the area in the past, but they had not been optimized for the region or well cared for, so the government offered incentives to pull out the old vines. A few brave souls – including one of the soil scientists – planted some vines and started a small wine industry. In the 1980s, a local Pinot Noir won a big prize and put the area on the map. Because the areas with the right soil are somewhat limited, the wine industry here is both robust and small. There are so many small producers that there is a lovely variety of wine tastes and styles. Plus, the town in charming and the scenery is great.
Prior to coming to Martinborough, we spent a few days in the central part of the North Island in Taupo. While we were waiting for the floodgates to open on the dam for one of the daily “tourist releases” that fills the channel and is worth hanging around to watch, we started chatting with another couple from the area. When they found out we were from Ohio and headed to Martinborough, they said, “You have to look up this winery – an American from Ohio started it!” Well, Mike is actually from Blue Earth, Minnesota, but he and Margaret have a lovely wine and olive oil business. It took a little bit of time on the Google Machine to track down their winery, but an email request later, and we had an appointment for wine and olive oil tasing!
We are not really oeniphiles (a new word we learned recently), but we have come to appreciate wine, and really enjoy going to wineries and learning about the wine process. It is one of those things where the more you know about the stuff, the more you get interested in it. It doesn’t hurt that most wine is grown in areas that are incredibly scenic!
No, we don’t know the rules, and we don’t understand the strategy, but we always say we want local experiences. So, when the high level league has a game in the town we’re visiting, we buy tickets and check it out!
The Pulse raced out to a quick lead. We did understand the scoring, if nothing else. Our seats were pretty high up, alright, they were row Z. No one was sitting right next to us to ask, so we just tried to figure out the game on our own. We enjoyed the action; lots of passing, no dribbling or running with the ball. Players are restricted to zones, and we’re still not sure what prompted a lot of the whistles or actions after the whistles, but it was fun, and we’d go again.
The Magic clawed their way to a small lead in the 4th quarter, and there was an exciting see saw of baskets. The final score wasn’t what the local crowd hoped for.
Where to start? We spent a lot of December and January with Lisbon as our base of operations. This gave us plenty of time to explore the city at our leisure. Which was a very good thing, because there is a lot to do in Lisbon, and it can get pretty overwhelming, especially when it is crowded. Having a base of operation was a nice way to balance how much you can do with some down time.
We took a walking tour, one of three we took with the same guide, and were advised to check out the Lisbon Geographic Society to see the collection. We took that advice and enjoyed an informative time looking at the building and many treasures from Portugal’s 19th Century explorations. They had items from India, China, and Africa. Brazil was already independent when the Society was formed, so it was not represented in the collection. The building is worth the visit, and the displays were very interesting.
Our guide for the walking tour, Peter, also recommended we go to the Pantheon and the Monestary nearby. Both buildings were well worth the visit. Many notable Portugese are entombed in the Pantheon, politicians, poets, sports figures, and explorers are all there.
From the Pantheon, it is a short walk, and only slightly uphill, to the Mosteiro de Sao Vincente de Fora. The monestary is well worth the visit for both the building and the exhibits.
We happily recommend the walking tour we took, it was very informative and served as a “sampler platter” of the area because Peter, our guide, recommended various places that were worth a more in-depth visit. One of those places was the 11th Century Se, or Cathedral. Harking back to the rule of Portugals’ first king and rebuilt after the earthquake, it holds a wealth of history and artifacts. And, across the street in the small square, the public toilets are built above some Roman ruins. They are visible from the steps before you need to pay to use the toilets, so you can visit even if you don’t need a pit stop.
The municipal trains around Lisbon will take you to many notable sights, some are historic, some are beaches, and all are easily accessible and affordable. We took the train out to the west of the city center and enjoyed a lovely day walking along the river and looking at the lines of people to visit some of the iconic sites of Lisbon. As we waited for our return train, we noticed the Coaches Museum across the way from the train station. As it was late in the day and we were a bit punchy, the speculation included “sports museum” and “train engine barn.” When some expats living in the city said ‘it’s well worth the visit,’ but didn’t tell us why, we added it to the plans. It is an amazing museum. There are royal coaches – you know the horse-drawn carriages, like the one that took Cinderella to the ball – dating back to the 1600s on display. They are in great shape, and, even better, the displays have really good interpretive signs detailing the provenance, engineering, and other significant information about the coaches.
With so much time in Lisbon, we indulged in many random activities, including weekend craft and art markets, museums, and long walks that may have included checking out scenic and fancy cemetaries.
Lisbon has a lot going on, and this long post is just a small sampling of what we were able to do!
We stayed in Lisbon for several weeks over the holidays and happened upon a British born tour guide near our accommodations. We took several tours with him – you’ll hear more about that when I post about Lisbon (but we have a lot of photos and stories, so that one will take some time) – and one of the tours was Sintra. We started out bright and early, catching the first train from Lisbon to Sintra. We met our tour guide, Peter, at Rossio Station early enough that he was able to tell us about the history of the station and point out the beautiful stone carvings and decor. He also explained about how the statue featured in the front of the building was a recent reproduction because a few years ago some tourists, who clearly had enjoyed way too much Portuguese wine, had decided to climb up for a photo and managed to cause the statue to fall and break into many pieces. The original statue, of King Sebastion who was killed fighting in North Africa, dated back to the 1500s, so it was quite a shame to have some foolishness destroy it. Alas, it was cloudy and still dark when we met at the station, so I have no photos for this post, guess I’ll make a note to get a few on a future visit for a future post.
Our tour group consisted or our guide Peter and a lovely couple from Northern California. We spent the hour on the train learning about Sintra. We began with information about the Moors when they controlled this part of Portugal and the fortifications and outpost that was on the hillside. When the Portuguese and Crusaders from elsewhere in Europe approached the outpost one day in the 1100s, the soldiers garrisoned there realized how outnumbered they were and immediately surrendered the area. From here, King Alfonso and the Crusaders would carry on to Lisbon and lay siege to the main Moorish settlement and, ultimately, take Portugal from the Moors. Sintra still boasts significant Moorish remains and influences and was always an important place for the monarchs who ruled the country. In the 1800s, Queen Maria’s German husband, Prince Ferdinand II, designed Pena Palace, using remains of the much older convent on the sight. It is quite the building, incorporating many styles from the existing buildings and the new construction. The park it sits on is also renowned for great views, but on the day we were there it was shrouded in clouds – I guess we’ll have to go back some day!
Sintra has been a favorite place for Portuguese Royalty since they defeated the Moors and took over the place. In addition to the Pena Palace, the city also boasts the National Palace, built on the foundation of a large Moorish building. Another grand building well worth a visit.
Because Sintra was where the Royals spent so much time the city has many large villas for the members of the court who moved around with the Kings and Queens. One of these is the Quinta da Regaleira, which has extensive grounds with many whimsical, and sometimes befuddling structures. The owner was a very wealthy Brazilian mining magnate who had a thing for secret societies, like the Freemasons, so not only is it very fancy, it also has grottos and caves on the grounds that could have been used for any number of rituals and activities.
We spent a good day in Sintra, and only scratched the surface. This is definitely one of those places that deserves the amount of tourism and attention it gets. We will likely make a few more trips here over the years to see more of sights and the area.
It is the big wave season and most of the top ten biggest waves surfed in the world have happened off the coast of Portugal in sight of the town of Nazare. There is a combination of topography, wind and ocean currents that create these big waves. It takes a big storm out at sea pushing the water toward a trench that funnels the water toward the beach where it pushes up and amplifies the “regular” wave action. Expert surfers from around the world come to surf these waves which require them to be towed out behind jet skis. There are not many days with the huge waves given the need for several factors to occur in just the right way to get the results. That said, none of those conditions were in place during the several days we were in Nazare. The water was calm, the winds mild and the town quiet. We enjoyed our stay and will try to be there for big waves on a future visit! One bartender did comment that lots of people come thinking the waves happen all of the time when in reality is a lot of waiting around for a few days with big waves.
From Porto we headed south to Coimbra, home of Portugals oldest University. We visited here on our last trip to Portugal, but didn’t make it in to the famous library because of the crowds, so that was definitely on our list for this time! As we checked out the ticket situation we learned there was a “combined” ticket which included the famous Library, the Palace School, Science Museum, and Cabinet of Curiosities. We really weren’t sure how many museums we wanted to commit to because we had several days of mild, sunny weather but who can resist a Cabinet of Curiosities? Not us.
Coimbra is built on the hillsides that rise up from the banks of the River Mondego, so most days, you climb up to check out the sights. The University is up on the hilltop, our hotel is down by the river. Needless to say, we logged a lot elevation walking around. The Library, the Castle School, and St. Michael’s Chapel – all on our combined ticket – were perched high above the city.
We took the train from Porto for a day trip back to Guimares with the express goal of checking out the museum housed in the Duke’s residence and visiting the Castle of Portugal’s first King. During our visit here in May we skipped this attraction because there was a bus load of elementary students visiting and we thought it would be better to check it out on a quieter day. A mid week day in November proved to be a perfect time to return. We took the bus from our hotel into the historic train station of Porto, Sao Bento Station, where there are usually several tour groups in the entrance lobby to see the building’s tiles. This day, it was much quieter than usual
Guimaraes lays claim to being the birthplace of the first King of Portugal, Alfonso Henriques who unified the area that is now Portugal in the 1100s. The Castle where he was born, and the church where he was baptized remain.
For this trip, we spent the first month or so in Porto and the north of Portugal before heading south. Matosinhos and Porto hold the distinction of being our first favorite spots in Portugal. And, because we had several lengthy stays in the same hotel in Matosinhos, we also made friends with the folks we saw there every day. When people ask us “why Portugal” for the repeat trips the answer always starts with “the people, and the food” and then we go on to discuss the fun things we have done and the places we have visited.
When we arrived back after five months it was nice to be recognized by folks at the front desk who had been so helpful on our first trip, and to have them enforce our “please use Portuguese so we can practice our language lessons” on this trip. When we showed up for breakfast the first day and insisted on trying to say our room number in Portuguese, the giggles we got in response made the “corrections” as difficult to understand as our mangled attempts, but we got better! And, because we got better, we got offered fancy coffee! Getting to chat with familiar people is always a treat for us, and one highlight came a few days before we left when someone came over to say goodbye as she would be on vacation for the next few days and would miss our last day. And then, the night before checkout, a tray with dessert and an envelope was dropped by our room. The envelope had a lovely note signed by many of our new friends! When you travel for months at a time you get a lot of quick interactions with people. But sometimes, you stay in a place long enough to make friends, and those times become the treasures of travel.
We spent almost two weeks just checking out the Porto area this time. The plan was to make some day trips, explore the city some more and generally enjoy the rhythm of the area. We took random rides on the bus, walked a lot and checked out a number of local restaurants and shops. The weather was mild for November, with some rainy days and plenty of sun. We walked along the beach, visited the Holiday Market and sampled the cherry liquor that is served as a shot in a chocolate shot glass. Dan let me do the sampling after the first booth, and I can report that there are differences. My favorite had a hint of cinnamon to spice up the cherry flavor. This post is as all over the place as our time, enjoy!
We learned a lot about the port making process during our stay in Pinhão, and a big part of that process is the aging of the port which takes place down the river. While the grapes are grown, stomped and initially fermented on the quintas (farms or vineyards) further inland along the Douro Valley, the port is stored and aged in cellars known as caves on the shore opposite the city of Porto in Vila Nova de Gaia. Originally the location was selected to avoid taxation, but the riverfront is much less steep and easier to move the cargo and the environment proved to be ideal for the storage and aging. We toured the Grahams Cellar because several folks had recommended it, and it did not disappoint. The location had a great view, the guide was knowledgeable and entertaining, and the tasting introduced us to some very good port. Many of the major Port companies are British owned, and this is one of them. British ownership of port companies goes back to the early 1700s.
The process to make port involves getting the grape juice from several varieties of grapes, then stopping the fermentation after a few days with a distilled alcohol (77%). The alcohol is a standard, required by the entity that oversees the certification of the ports and is a distilled white wine that is neutral in flavor and smell. It turns out that it is produced in Spain, so if you can get someone in Portugal to give you that information it is often accompanied by an eye roll. The alcohol volume of port is 20%, so based on the alcohol level of the fermenting juice, the amount of the distilled alcohol is determined. The stopping of the fermentation keeps the sweet flavors, and then barrel aging process adds other flavors, finally they blend different barrels and years, or not if it is a vintage, and you get port. Well, there’s actually a lot more to it, some science and more art, but that’s the outline. Like beer and wine, we are finding the more we know about Port the more we like it.
There is a gothic church in Porto with catacombs that can be toured. The church has a long history in the city and the interior decor is amazing. There are no photos allowed in the baroque church, alas, because the wood carving was amazing. The catacombs are under a chapel and administrative building that now houses a museum and is lovely space.
We took the train north of Porto to the city of Viana do Castelo. Viana do Castelo is a beautiful city situated on the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the River Lima. The area is known for fishing and for the jewelry and costumes that are traditionally made and worn in this region. The city certainly lived up to the reputation! The old center was a rabbit warren of narrow streets and lovely old buildings, the river front and the beaches gave beautiful water views and the Santa Luzia mountains frame the area.
There was a fair amount of rain during our visit, so we had incentive to check out a museum or two. The town boasts a Costume Museum that shows the various clothing traditionally worn by people in the Minho region. It also shows the methods for creating the cloth. This region appears to have a history of providing textiles in Portugal.
Given the position of the city on the coast and close to the northern border with Spain, there are forts!
From Viana we headed north one day to check out the border with Spain in Valenca. A nice train ride along the Atlantic coast and the River Minho gets you to this nice city.
Back in Viana do Castelo, we stayed in the Flag Design Hotel in the old part of the city. After we checked in we were treated to a quick tour and some history of part of the building. Originally the town villa of an influential and important family, there was a nicely tiled entry foyer that took you to a winding stair that took visitors up to the reception rooms on the first floor.
From Porto we headed west in to the wine region famous for being the home of Port Wine, and the oldest demarcated wine region. Just as wines from areas outside of Champange, France just sparkle, Port must come from the Douro Valley. But, there is more wine in the region than just the fortified varieties. There is also a lot of olive oil produced here too.
The region is beautiful with a wide, meandering river and terraced hillsides rising up both sides. Early November was well past the harvest this year, but many vines still wore leaves resplendent in their fall colors. We had mild and sunny days for most of our visit.
The wine region not only has all of the production and process rules in place for centuries, it is also a UNESCO site which means tradition is very important. So, grapes are harvested by hand by the women and carried out of the vineyards in baskets by the men. This method is also necessary because of the tight rows and steep inclines in many vineyards-known as Quintas. Many of the vineyards still have the stone walled terraces built by the Romans when they first came to the region in the 2nd century BC. The stone walled terraces are not only historic, they reduce erosion, which is a problem in newer vineyards that are not installing them.
Another tradition is the stomping of the grapes. Not every vineyard or vintage is done this way, but at Quinta da Foz the charming woman helping us select wine proudly declared their wine was made this way. They had some photos of men stomping the grapes and Dan asked where the photo of her stomping grapes was. She said it was a job for men and their big feet!
We learned some other stuff about wine too. They use American root stock because it is resistant to a pest that damages European root stock. There is a fungus that will affect the vines that also hits roses, and shows up earlier on the roses. So, some vineyards have rosebushes planted around the grapes so they know if they need to treat for the fungus. Our guide called them the sacrificial lambs for the wine.
It takes about 3 years for a vine to get rooted and start producing, then the vine will supply a lot of grapes. As the vine matures the quality increases, but the quantity goes down. Old vines, we have learned on previous winery visits, are highly valued and by old they mean over 30 years. Here in the Douro they have vines which are producing at over 100 years.
The vineyards, especially those which grow grapes primarily for Port wine have the varieties intermingled. The winery tour guide may have explained why, but he was also telling jokes and neither of us can remember the reason. Several of the wines we tasted are blends with 20 or more grape varieties in them.
Olive oil is another major product of the region. The olive trees are often planted at the boundaries of vineyards and, increasingly, in place of vineyards as they require less work and money to maintain and harvest. On a tour of the area we visited an olive oil collective and learned about the old process for pressing the fruit. During that tour we learned the difference between “regular” processed and cold processed oil. Cold process is newer, and a much easier and shorter process, which also results in better oil. Apologies to anyone who runs in to us in real life over the next bit, because the factoids I learned are sure to be brought up in conversation.
Our home base for exploring the region was Pinhão, but one day we took the train to Pocinho which is the end of the train line. The tracks hug the river and it was well worth the 2 hour round trip. We got off in Tua, the stop just past Pinhão and hiked a trail laid out as a school project during COVID, which was both a feat and perfect assignment given the lock downs and social distancing in 2020.
On the surprisingly full train from Pocinho, someone broke out an accordion in the car behind us and played some lively music as we rolled along beside the Douro River. They were in the car behind us, but opening the connecting door we could hear the music and even see a bit of the aisle dancing that was going on. This might be Dan’s favorite story of the trip!
When we were planning our trip to Pinhão one of the lodging choices was a houseboat. I was intrigued but would not have booked it left to my own devices. After I mentioned the choice to Dan he was all in! “Of course we should stay on the houseboat! Think of the experience.” So, we spent the week on a really nice, tiny, but nice houseboat. After we adjusted to the realities of a marine toilet and figured out how to get in and out of the bunk beds we settled in and enjoyed the gentle sway of our space.