It was more than a bucket list trip – it was a postponed reconnaissance mission to find out if our much-researched idea to move to Portugal when my husband retires was a good one. We’d had a visit booked and paid for in late 2019 for Summer 2020 … but we all know what happened to that year.
Now I was going to London for a client meeting in early December so it seemed like I couldn’t ignore the opportunity to take a two-hour flight south to this, hopefully, soon-to-be beloved country. Guess what? Even the new Omicron variant and the rainy season did not deter my colleague and long-time gal pal from falling in love with this country of the “Warm Ports.” Speaking of which, we flew from Heathrow to the city of Porto on the day the U.S. CDC included Portugal on a list of countries suggested not to visit during Omicron. That call out remained a mystery to us – especially since the country has about an 86% vaccination rate; all restaurants checked our vax cards and EVERYONE wore masks with not a smirk or complaint heard. In fact, everywhere were posters reminding the public to wear masks with a headline that translated to: “It’s Our Obligation.”
Porto was a placed carved out of the imagination – cobble stoned hilly, narrow streets….tiled buildings… a riverfront that drew you toward it…and everywhere bridges! We of course were eager to see the famous bridge built by the student of Gustav Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) … and alas, we found it steps from our AirBNB (that mercifully had an elevator for all our stupid luggage and a Super Host that pulled a map out and made sure we knew where to go and what not to spend on meals.). It was misty grey with a light rain when we emerged, rain-ready, from our new apartment. But the sun continued to peek out from the clouds and the city beckoned… we were off and running… stopping at parks and cable cars with a goal of finding the famous World of Wine aka WOW, which ended up being shiny, new, big and a bit pricey after all the buzz we heard about affordability in the country. The city was lit for the holidays… the wines were irresistible … and the moon glistened over the Douro River.
Someone told us where to find great Fado music and a meal so after a wine tasting at WOW and charcuterie, and we began our uphill cobblestone trek …. We really did try to follow directions but ended up walking in circles and dead ends until we were late for Fado. Once we finally found the “hole in the wall,” the kind waiter invited us to come back the next night and encouraged us to try a restaurant closer to the water where he used to work. So we did… and we loved it. Octopus, cod…the best “wild cabbage” soup… and of course wonderful wines.
Someone else suggested that we look for real estate in the best neighborhood in the city – FOZ. So, after a morning of shopping and brunch and checking out the city’s unforgettably tiled train station, I jumped on a double decker bus that took off along the river. The Portuguese people were unfailingly helpful and kind and sooo much better at English than I was at their language. One young man about 25 years old said he moved there from Brazil and lived with his Polish girlfriend in Porto. He said we would love it there, not to mind the rain, the other seasons were sunny and bright. He said he used to be a tour guide and then shared the best way to explore Foz. Before he got off I told him he’d been an angel to me and asked his name. It was Gabriel.
Foz means, quite fittingly, “where the river meets the sea. It was a cross between Malibu, Cannes and Big Sur – with cable cars! (OK I was giddy.) I walked and walked and walked … and passed the restaurant the angel boy told me about. The one I visited was empty but very friendly … so friendly in fact that I gave in and ordered what the waiter said was a Portuguese favorite – French fries smothered in cheese and gravy! (Suffice it to say the wine was better)
On my way back, I ran into a lovely Portuguese woman walking two dogs, which I had to ask about. Surprisingly her English was in an Irish accent … turns out she’d lived in Ireland for 20 years. After telling me about her rescue pups she was excited to find out my husband and I might be moving to her neighborhood in about two years, so we made a plan to meet at a nearby surf front restaurant exactly two years from that day.
I hopped a cable car back to the city center and got distracted shopping for cork purses by the riverfront (did you know they have to shave the cork off cork trees – kind of like shearing sheep — or they will die and that Portugal is known for its cork?)
We made it to our Fado restaurant even a bit early that evening…only to find out there was a snafu and our rez wasn’t made and it was all booked up. But – you’ll notice a recurring theme – the intersection of my spotty language skills and the kindness of the Portuguese. The restaurant proprietors were so sorry, they paid for a cab for us to their other restaurant which actually looked better. The food was simple but delicious and the Fado musicians and singers were even better. The two guitarists were having such a fun musical conversation with each other; the greying man sang with a confidence built over years, but the young female singer was just gorgeous and so very soulful. If the music comes from women crying for their men at sea, then grab me a tissue.
The next day we packed up and went to the big train station with our big luggage and headed upriver into the Douro Valley. The views were spectacular, and the train was filled with singing young men who might have been intimidating somewhere else but who turned out to be jolly gents who even helped us with our bags when we arrived at our stop. We were now just a cab ride away from the Six Senses Douro Valley – which turned out to be one of if not the best hotel experiences of my life. Here’s why.
Everyone in the wellness biz has heard of Six Senses Resorts – famous for authentic sustainability and cutting-edge wellness. In fact, I’d interviewed their CEO, Neil Jacobs, for the Global Wellness Summit Podcast in 2019 (Episode # 5) and then their Director of Wellness, Anna Burjstrom, for the GWS Leader Livecast in 2020. The latest season features an interview with the iconic designer, Clodagh, who told me all about the way they created the interiors for the resort we were about to enter in Episode #48. Once again…it did not disappoint!! The 49- room resort was a former manor home overlooking vineyards and the river. But why was I so in love? Was it the homey, living room feel of the public spaces? The open kitchen with canned goods from their own gardens?
The kombucha, kefir and tonic making class? The warmth and skill of their visiting wellness practitioners? Or the soothing and sleep-enhancing contrast bathing circuit in the spa? Was it taking Pilates in an upstairs studio in the morning and then watching “Love Actually” while munching popcorn in the same space later that night? Maybe it was our ahhh-mazing suite with homemade olives, chocolates, dips and teas and the kind of furnishings that you want to pack up and take home? Or perhaps it was learning to make a Japanese hanging plant in the resort’s “Earth Lab?”
Actually, it was probably the staff. They were so open and kind and interested … well trained but down-to-earth young people from the local village, excited for the opportunity to learn heartfelt hospitality at a five-star property that everyone said was the best in the country.
We met quite a few couples who said it was their second or third time there this year. I’ve worked in and with hotels most of my career and here was one of my favorite things … a tiny balcony outside a glass door by the front desk, ideal for listening intently in private to the rare disgruntled guest and making things right.
My gal pal and I visited the nearby village of Lamego and walked the 400 steps to the top to visit the ancient church perched over the city — the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies — followed by an affordable but bountiful wine tasting at a nearby restaurant.
While we were gone, I missed the hotel and was so glad to get back, get comfy, order room service and just enjoy our last night in that lovely – decluttered but homey – suite.
The next day it was time for yet ANOTHER Covid test and then we jumped back on the train to Lisbon.
Did I mention Lisbon was hilly? Holy hilly heck it was. You never know real terror until you face 500 narrow, ancient steps with five pieces of luggage.
Luckily our booking.com host was fit and friendly and she just took a deep breath and lifted my monster suitcase up all the steps – including the ones to our apartment with a view of views — sweeping from the castle on the hill to the Golden Gate looking bridge over the foz between the ocean and the port. Speaking of which, turns out Lisbon had cable cars way before SFO!
Sadly, we only had one night in that unforgettable city but we worked hard to make the most of it. Lucky for us, a friend of a friend was an expat living in Lisboa for the past six years and he was nice enough to meet us for an in-the-know walking tour (with even a bit of shopping included) and a memorable dinner of local favorites with a modern twist, including some kind of mouthwatering cod potato hash and spiced shrimp … and that cherry liqueur, Ginjinha.
It was a big, often ornate and sometimes gritty city but you could feel a gentleness rising above the cobblestones. The next day we paid for a private driver ($12 each) to take us to the airport and that nice man not only carried our dreaded suitcases down all those steps, but he stopped to make me a coffee in the lobby.
The all-too-brief visit to Portugal impelled me to not only buy a Swatch Watch decorated all over with reminders of Lisboa, but also to buy an English translation of a famous Portuguese novel by the Charles Dickens of Portugal … I had to learn more about my newly beloved country … it’s past and maybe my future.