Portuguese pursuits – rural retreats and versatile wines

By | Category: Travel destinations

tea pots at Vista Alegre

A few days near the Atlantic coast had definitely whetted my appetite – I wanted to see more of this part of Portugal, surprisingly rich in history and culture. Leaving the coast, famed for its cod fishing obsession, behind, I continued a short distance inland, to pay a visit to another Portuguese institution, Vista Alegre. This one, although not edible as such, is intimately linked to Portuguese cuisine – in fact Vista Alegre can probably be found in virtually all Portuguese kitchens, from cottage to castle. It’s the country’s famous Royal Factory of Porcelain .

Vista Alegre has been making porcelain since 1824 and it’s still going strong today. Some items are still handmade, using traditional methods, while others are made using a more modern technique. It’s no small place, this – the factory seems rather like a miniature town, complete with chapel and even a theatre. These days it’s both a working factory and a living museum and the whole fascinating process of making royal porcelain can be experienced on a guided tour. Even if the daintiness of pretty pottery isn’t your thing, getting an insight into all the steps from early design to finished product, including the porcelain painting, is more intriguing than you might think, not least because of the knowledgeable guides and friendly staff. Keep your fingers away from those ovens though.

After an informative few hours it was time to venture much further inland, heading straight east towards the Spanish border and the area of Portugal’s highest mountains, Serra da Estrela, stopping in the village of Penalva do Castelo, to spend the night. My home for the night, Casa da Ínsua, was a splendid mansion set amidst lush gardens and rumour had it I was to be earning my keep here the following day. The owners had apparently originally made their fortune in Brazil and I had visions of being worked to the bone, tilling the land, but luckily this was not the case – Casa da Ínsua simply offers visitors a chance to get closer to the land, trying their hands (and feet) at a variety of rural Portuguese pursuits.

Said and done, next morning I was up and at ‘em, carrying a quaint wicker basket, ready to pick some apples, later to be turned into jams and chutneys. Despite being slightly distracted by the ever so delightful mansion cat, all fluffy fur and pretty purr, I managed to pick a few of the local apple variety, maçã bravo de esmolfe – way harder to pronounce than to pick, I’m pleased to say. No sooner had I honed my apple-picking skills, than it was off to the next activity. While the kind ladies at Casa da Ínsua manhandled my freshly picked apples to make them fit for jam, I was off to try my hand at cheese-making – hardly something I spend much time doing at home in London, so it’s safe to say I was a complete cheese novice.

making cheese - not my results!

“Glamorous apron” (read “all-encompassing plastic sheet”) firmly in place, off to the cheese factory I went. Little did I know just what a gooey business cheese-making can be; the recently curdled milk was sitting there, quietly waiting for me to get my hands dirty and soon I was wrist-deep in “muck” squeezing the whey away, until only the fresh cheese remained. Sadly I was told the cheese crafted with my own fair hands would only be ready a month later, so no point hanging around waiting for a taster. Instead there were apples waiting to be peeled, chopped and boiled with sugar in the room next door. Luckily the morning’s strenuous activities were followed by an excellent sampling session of the local produce, home-grown on the property.

Apples are all the rage in this part of Portugal, but there’s plenty more fruits and berries growing in the hills and fields around Penalva do Castelo. Raspberries, pumpkins, pears and of course apples, are all turned into jams here and, somewhat to my surprise, they complement the local cheeses made of ewe’s milk beautifully. All of the above was nicely washed down with local wines. I was only sorry we’d just missed the end of the wine season – another activity here is grape-picking and traditional wine-making, using your feet to crush the grapes. Having just got my hands dirty, my feet following suit seemed an excellent idea, but alas, I had to settle for just drinking the stuff. The fresh, crisp white was so tasty I really didn’t mind if someone had trampled it first, but was assured that not all the wines are made traditionally anymore.

vineyards at Santar

Feeling rather smug about making my first cheese and thoroughly earning my keep, I figured a bit more wine was definitely in order, especially since I found myself in one of Portugal’s key wine regions, Dão Sol. The small village of Santar, in the heart of the wine region, is opening up to visitors and an old manor house, Casa de Santar, dating back some 400 years, is the hub of the wine production, as well as home to an excellent restaurant, focusing on local cuisine and wine-tasting. A grand tour took in part of the vineyards and the winery itself, complete with huge vats holding up to 35,000 litres of wine each. We also visited parts of the village of Santar, crumbling gently at the edges. The years haven’t been entirely kind to Santar, but times are a-changing. These days the winery produces 10 million bottles a year, exporting them to 22 countries worldwide, including the UK.

There are 383 grape varieties growing on Portuguese soil and sampling all in one sitting might be taking things a bit far, so I settled for a sparkling white, followed by the touriga nacional red and finished off with the muscatel dessert wine from neighbouring Douro valley. The dishes here are created to complement the wines, rather than vice versa, making for an excellent taste experience. The blood sausage, somewhat reminiscent of black pudding, on a bed of puréed apple, followed by the pork tenderloin with mustard sauce and apple dauphinoise and then, for dessert an apple, caramel and cinnamon pudding was one of the tastiest meals of the journey. Apples remained a theme, even in the wine region – clearly no one had explained to them about cider…

My stay had one more highlight in store – a visit to Centro’s main city, Coimbra. Famed for its university, recently turned into a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Coimbra is well worth a visit for its academic splendours alone.

Coimbra University

The university library, with its 250,000 volumes spanning three centuries, is enough to turn even the most hardened internet enthusiast into an avid bookworm and most parts of the university are open to the public to view and visit. Then there are plenty of quirky and alternative alleyways and backstreets to amble and for all its diehard traditionalist approach, Coimbra still comes across as a radical student haven, at least in pockets. It’s also a wonderful place to enjoy fado, that soulful, yearning Portuguese folk song tradition, accompanied by guitar. Fado ao Centro has daily concerts at 6pm, which include two introductory films about fado in the city, as well as classic performances by talented local musicians. For me, it proved a lovely note on which to end my trip around Centro de Portugal.

Getting there:
National airline TAP and lowcost carrier easyJet both have direct flights to Porto, the nearest airport to the places visited, from London Gatwick.

Places to stay:
Casa da Ínsua, Penalva do Castelo, historic, baroque-style working country estate, offering visitors a chance to try all sorts of country life activities. Parts of the house open as a museum. Gorgeous terrace bar overlooking the French and English gardens.

Quinta das Lágrimas, Coimbra, elegant “Estate of Tears”, a former Royal Palace and part of Luxury Hotels of the World. Splendid gardens, top-class gastronomy experiences and spa treatments. Home to the legend of star-crossed lovers Prince Pedro and Inês de Castro.

Hotel Astoria, Coimbra, slightly crumbling hotel in excellent location overlooking the Mondego river, a short walk from Coimbra university and student quarters, near the main pedestrianised shopping street. Old-world charm from the Belle Epoque.

For more information about Centro de Portugal, click here.
For more information about Portugal, click here.

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