Sunday, May 10, 2015

Some Days in Portugal

Portugal's ancient, place-rooted families, remnants of the aristocracy, were a target of the 1975 revolution, which initially went after the big landowners. The smaller ones escaped. One thinks of an aristocracy as a regressive force, but its innate appreciation for the land and its willingness to keep and cultivate it for the next generation are admirable. The place pictured here, Casa de Sezim, has been in the same family since 1376. The current owner is a worldly, cultured man whose father was a diplomat and whose daughter hopes to become a hotelier. Dependent on tourism and the wine market, he keeps his estate going, employing 14 people to run its different parts. The recession was tough, he said, but things are improving.
He was luckier than a woman we encountered the day before in Lemego, at the top of the Duoro Valley. Her family lost its much larger holding in the 1975 revolution, but she managed to buy it back from Seagram. The main house was in ruins, she said, and she had to restore and refurnish it. Today, it serves mainly as a wedding venue and destination for touring clubs. (A dozen Citroen DS21s were parked outside when we arrived - a club from Porto.)
My favorite of the towns and cities we visited was Coimbra, site of Portugal's oldest university. It remains the most prestigious, we heard later. Its heart, a large plaza defined by the oldest buildings, is nearly at the city's top - only the cathedral is higher up, but without the view. We stayed across the river at a palatial hotel with extensive, walled-in grounds and the best restaurant in town, according to Michelin. 
A close second was Porto, a more compact city than Lisbon, where we also stayed at the city's edge, in a former palace on the Duoro River, and had our best meal. Foz, which means mouth in Portuguese, is a district that borders the Atlantic coast. We rode along it in the cab, headed for one restaurant, but the best one was closer in. Within the core of the city, we found a famous bookstore, housed in a small, white art-nouveau building and organized around a winding stair. Like another bookstore I visited in Lisbon, the focus was on Portugal's voluminous literature, domestic and imported. The book covers alone are worth a careful look. Like Lisbon, too, Porto is a hilly city. We did better in Lisbon at making sense of the transit system, a combination of buses, trams, and a metro. Kathy took a bus from the center to Foz that was a very inexpensive, pleasant way to see the sights in that direction, she said.
We started in Lisbon and ended up there. It's a larger, more sprawling city than Porto, looking out at the large bay or estuary that forms its harbor off the Atlantic. The major buildings are on a grander scale, but the city still has its medieval castle, a staple dating back to the need to protect the city from the Moors. Next visit, we'll give it more time. We stayed at York House, near the antiquities museum overlooking the harbor - a former convent organized around a small, elevated terrace that provides a true respite from the city around it. As Michelin advises, don't sleep in the front rooms, as there's a loud nightclub just down the street. The first night, jet lagged anyway, we hardly slept, despite double-pane windows, until the last revelers drifted away.
Baroque is a theme in Portugal, especially in the churches. Often it's layered onto older buildings, expressing a new-found largesse. It gives the country the appearance of having been developed in spurts, brief moments when the money was flowing and the patrons' pockets were open. There's modern architecture here and there, but it's not abundant and relatively little of it is within the core of Lisbon and Porto. (This isn't true of the smaller cities, whose historic cores are typically much smaller.) It's part of what makes Portugal feel different. Italian cities are laden with history, but they're also inundated with tourism, sometimes seeming like museums. That's not true of Portugal.