Cheers from Porto

Porto welcomed us with mild weather and a comfortable apartment overlooking Rua das Fontainhas. The spacious and bright AirBnB accommodation was cozy, and our host
Eugenia went out of her way to provide us with information about all there was to see and taste in their great hometown. Although Eugenia’s husband didn’t speak any English, he showed us a beautiful picture book of the city and proudly conveyed to us that the painting of the boats at sunset displayed in our room was one we could find in the book. We toasted with port wine alongside cherry chocolates, and prepared for a nice time in the city by Duoro River.

We took a nice stroll across the street and around the block passing enticing eateries and making a mental note of them for later. We walked past the stunning Majestic Café, glowing with the old Europe charm of la belle époque, then headed to the shopping area of Via Catarina. Our walk took us to the most beautiful train station I’ve ever seen, São Bento Station. We admired the tiled walls, telling stories of times long gone by, and the beautiful old Europe architecture.

For dinner, we settled in a popular and non-pretentious diner featuring local cuisine, Café Santiago. Although famous among the locals for the traditional franchesinha, we went for a lighter fare: a bowl of caldo verde, and a plateful of bacalhau and chips.

As the sun came up on our second day in Porto, we toasted it with a fresh cup of coffee, and some delicious natural pear nectar, and munched on some bread with local jam. We had scheduled a food and wine walking tour with Bluedragon City Tours for 10 a.m. We were the first to arrive at our meeting point, Manteigaria, a modern café featuring Portugal’s signature pastries, pasteis de nata. Sara, our host met us with a welcoming smile and little by little the rest of the group joined us around the table. We met couples from Tasmania, England, and Denmark, and quickly felt at ease, chatting away.

Sara took us to a local store, Comer e chorar por mais (which means “To eat and cry for more”), featuring all kinds of epicurean delights like smoked meats, cheese, olives, jams, and, of course, port wines. We congregated around a barrel displaying a most delicious charcuterie mix, learning about the history of the city and its food. We admired the old dusty Port wine bottles displayed on the top shelves and drooled over the many types of smoked meats.

Our next stop was a quaint pastry café, Confeitaria do bolhao , where we squeezed around small tables enjoying hot meat piesrissol de carne and rissol de bacalhau, and sipped on local beer and wine. I could eat those every day!

After a short walk, we stopped to admire the skillful cookery of the chef at Conga – Casa de Bifanas. A traditional Portugues meat sandwich, bifana takes on many flavors, according to the chef’s preference. We watched the magic happen through the windows and were immediately hungry again upon getting a whiff of the aromas rising from the large pots where the meat was simmering. Although best paired with beer, I found that a nice crispy vinho verde perfectly tamed down the spiciness of this juicy sandwich.

We concluded our culinary tour properly, with a Port wine tasting in the downstairs area of the Touriga wine store. The host was very knowledgeable, providing interesting details about the grapes, the area where they were harvested, and the wine aging process. We sipped on three wines, a Quita Sera D’Ordens 10 Years Tawny, followed by a ruby red LBV 2012, and finished with a smooth amber Borges Soalheira 10 Years Tawny Port. Although I’m not a fan of sweet wines, I enjoyed each one, and especially the Borges tawny, which was velvety and smooth.

Fueled by the comforting food and warmed by the potent drinks, the conversation flowed smoothly, and we became fast friends with our fellow travelers. We parted ways with our sweet tour guide and the group, with promises to keep in touch and perhaps visit each other in the future.

David and I headed up the road, willing to explore more of the beautiful architecture that the city offered. We passed by blue tiled churches, green parks, and admired once again the historic São Bento train station, now in full daylight.

We enjoyed the sunny fall day, walking and shopping for locally made cork jewelry at the open market near Universidade do Porto, across from Igreja do Carmo. Portugal produces about half of the world’s commercial cork, and its exports account for about 70 percent of world trade. Being a natural resource that’s easy to transform, as well as versatile, durable, and recyclable, cork has gained popularity in making a wide range of products beyond wine bottle stoppers. I delighted in acquiring sweet gifts for friends and family, while practicing my rudimentary Portuguese with one of the willing vendors.

We walked through the small 19th century Jardim do Carrilho Videria, which used to feature a rare Sequoia tree. We wandered up and down old streets, admiring the colorful tiled buildings, as well as the quirky graffiti art adorning the walls along Rua de Miguel Bombarda. Later on, we admired the portrait of Agustina Bessa Luís, one of Porto’s greatest writers, as depicted by one of the most talented stencil artists working in Portugal, Daniel Eime. I found the street art in Porto to be interesting and non-intrusive, unlike the graffiti I witnessed in Lisbon.

Tired of walking and ready for a good meal, we followed our host’s instructions and boarded a bus to Matosinhos, a beach area known for its seafood. We didn’t know exactly where to get off, but had our decision made for us when the driver told us it was the end of the line. I asked some of the locals about the fishing village, as our host instructed us, and ended up on a street lined with seafood restaurants. Our noses led us to Casa Serrão, a great choice. Once again, I couldn’t resist having the caldo verde, and we savored grilled octopus with potatoes. We sipped on vinho verde and talked for a while. The staff was very nice, and hooked us up with extra potatoes, while being patient with my broken Portuguese. In the dark, we headed to the station and caught the bus back to toward our AirBnb.

As evening descended on the city, the lights came up, showcasing yet another side of Porto. The river bank was aglow, lively but peaceful. We took in the view and then walked back toward our apartment. On the way, we were lured into a cozy wine shop, for a quick tasting. The only available space was tucked in the back, but we appreciated the privacy. We recapped our day’s favorites while sipping on wine, feeling blessed, and looking forward to the following day.

The next day, we wanted to spend our final hours in Porto by the river, enjoying the views of the city from across the bridge. We walked across Ponte Luis I, along the river until we reached Mercado Municipal de Gaia. Across from the market, I shopped for a few more gifts, and I was thrilled to find a cork key chain with a Dacia inscription (the name of a Romanian car brand, and which my dad owns). A tablecloth with colorful fish seemed to be an appropriate purchase for our RV. On our way back toward the bridge, we passed groups of school children dressed in their traditional attire, wearing heavy black capes, like we had seen them wear in Coimbra.

Since we were leaving town, we wanted to experience one more traditional meal and take in the view of the river. We secured a table by the window at Dourum Restaurante, one of our hosts’ recommendations, and finally tried Francesinhas.

I cannot recommend Porto enough and, knowing that we didn’t get to see all that it has to offer, I am hopeful that we will someday return.

Want more photos? Check out the Porto album on my Facebook page.

Romanian Christmas Traditions

If I were in my childhood’s Romania, winter and the holidays would be the best time of the year. I remember the anticipation of the first snow and how as soon as we saw the white flakes start falling, our attention would shift from the classroom to the window. Our teachers’ best choice was to let us go outside and enjoy it. The snow would start falling sometime in late fall and keep piling up through the winter, blanketing everything in fluffy and sparkly white coat.

(I don’t own the copyright to the following three photos but they are too nice not to include.)

As kids, there was no better thing than playing outside and the snow provided many good options from sledding, to building entire living spaces out of snow, to skating at the rink or even on the sidewalks, and to snow fights. I remember going Christmas caroling with my classmates, visiting some of our teachers and receiving oranges, walnuts, and homemade traditional cake. I remember friends coming over to our apartment to carol around our modest but festive tree. I was lucky to live in Brasov, a mountainous town only minutes away from Poiana Brasov, a ski resort and a paradise for all winter sports enthusiasts. I remember my parents getting our sled out, a beautiful blonde wood and red metal number I called Steluta (little star). We hopped on and the parents pulled the sled, walking through the beautiful snow to go visit friends or just to get some air.

(The next three photos are from Poiana Brasov/Romania Facebook Page. Check it out for some great videos, too.)

Even if the Christmas tree didn’t arrive and get decorated until Christmas Eve (the earliest we managed to convince our parents to do it was on the 21st of December), the celebrations started early. On December 5th, we excitedly placed our clean shoes by the door, hoping that Saint Nicholas would leave some goodies in them come the following morning. We didn’t have a ton of toys available, and there were hardly any sweets, unless homemade, but somehow the parents always managed to get us something – I mean, Santa. I remember always questioning how Santa got into our apartment, since there was no chimney available and we kept the doors locked at night…. I resolved that he used magic to shrink himself, then slide through the keyhole, turn back to normal size, leave the gifts, and move on.

Closer to the holidays, my mom got busy in the kitchen, as winter was the time to have a pig cut and (almost) every single part of it prepared into different types of sausages, piftie (meat in gelatin with garlic), toba (our version of head cheese, a gelatinous amalgamation of organs – yum), and various meat cuts for later stews or for making soup. No Romanian Christmas is complete without two things: sarmale – stuffed cabbage rolls and cozonac – traditional cake/roll with walnut filling (or sometimes with other fillings like Turkish delight or raisins).

Romania is very rich in cultural traditions. Each region of the country has its own flavor of these traditions, from clothing, to songs, to food – and all good. One of the traditional Christmas Eve carols is the Star, which entails carrying a star manufactured from colorful paper, adorned with tinsel and bells. A popular New Year’s Eve carol is the carol of the Goat – Capra. Someone dresses up as a woolly goat with pompoms and bells or carries a wooden one that would clap its jaw to the music. Ursul (the Bear) and Plugusorul (the Plow) are two other well-known carols around the holidays. The carols announce the birth of Jesus, and also bestow blessings and good wishes of prosperity upon the listeners.

Today, visitors and locals alike can enjoy the beautiful traditions in the countryside as well as in the city. It is nice to see a renaissance of these ancient traditions in today’s cynical modern world. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of reuniting with my family in Romania for the holidays. We spent some time in Maramures, the picturesque northwestern area of the country were local traditions are alive and well. We also attended a comprehensive folk festival, and witnessed traditions from all around the country. It was such a delight!

Read more about Maramures and some of its attractions, like The Merry Cemetery at Sapanta, Traditions Festival in Sighetul Marmatiei, Ieud Monasteries, the famous wood carvings of Mos Pupaza, and Ples Folk Museum.

I’ve lived in the U.S. for 22 years now, and I am still not used to the lack of time off around the holidays to enjoy with family…. In Romania, everything shuts down for a few extra days because Christmas really is celebrated over three days, plus Christmas Eve, and, then we have to celebrate the New Year appropriately. So, we party through the night, take a nap, then do it all over again the second day, since there is still much food and alcohol to finish up. Although I have new family and friends here now, there is no place like home for the holidays, and I will always miss the long holiday celebrations, Romanian-style.

For all Romanians close or far, Craciun Fericit si La Multi Ani! And for all my readers, Merry Chrismahanukwanzakah and a happy, peaceful, and sane New Year! May you be surrounded by your loved ones and enjoy your holidays!

Castles and Seafood: Sintra and Cascais, Portugal

Sintra and Cascais are two places close by Lisbon that everyone visiting Portugal should see! We were enchanted by the beauty of the castles we visited and refreshed by the crisp air in Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, perched high above the Atlantic Ocean. Continue reading “Castles and Seafood: Sintra and Cascais, Portugal”

Happy 100th Birthday, Romania!

December 1, 2018 is a special day in the history of Romania, marking the country’s 100th birthday. Here is a little tribute to my beloved homeland. Happy Birthday, Romania! La Multi Ani, Romania dodoloata! Continue reading “Happy 100th Birthday, Romania!”