Portugal- The Hidden Gem of Europe

For many years I had a curiosity to visit Portugal but I always chose to go to another European destination instead. When I was invited on an intensive educational trip with 6 other leading luxury Virtuoso Travel Consultants from North America I knew the time had come to travel to Portugal. The trip was sponsored by Virtuoso a leading company comprised of the finest worldwide luxury travel agents, hotels and tour operators. The trip was operated by one if its members Made for Spain and Portugal based in Madrid, Spain.

Our journey began in Porto

The journey would commence in Porto, Portugal’s second largest city in the northern area of the country situated along the Douro river.  Porto is best known for its production of Port Wine. I arrived a day prior to the trip and was met at the airport by a uniformed chauffeur in a new Mercedes Benz. My hotel was about a 20 minute drive from the airport.

The Yeatman hotel is located 15 minutes from Porto center  on the other side of the river in a town called Gaia. This five star boutique hotel situated on a hill had breathtaking views of the river. It is set amidst numerous Port wine lodges not to mention next door is  the famous  Taylor Port winery.

After getting settled in I decided to take a stroll down the narrow cobblestone streets heading to the river. After about 10 minutes I found myself in a very scenic riverfront area with many cafes and restaurants.  I sat down outside at a local restaurant and ordered a glass of wine while I scrutinized the menu before deciding on the grilled codfish.  While I was waiting for my lunch I was talking to the owner who spoke perfect English. About 20 minutes later I was served a huge cod fillet, grilled and smothered with onions, potatoes and red peppers in a delightful sauce. I am not sure but the sauce tasted like a mix of vinegar, olive oil and white wine. The meal which included a glass of wine and a cappuccino was about $25USD.  A great start to the trip !!!.

Later that night I met 2 other of my fellow travelers and we decided to meet for dinner at a recommended local Tapas restaurant. We enjoyed an incredible bottle of local red wine and 4 orders of Tapas for about $15 per person. As I would soon learn Portugal has excellent food and wine.

The following afternoon I met the other luxury travel consultants, Virtuoso and Made for Spain & Portugal representatives.  Accompanied by our local guide we did a nice walking tour  of the city which is proclaimed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tour included stops at the stock market, Porto Cathedral and Livraria Lello bookshop with the famous red stairway featured in the Harry Potter movie. Later that evening we had a tour and port wine tasting at the Taylor Port Winery. We were served white and red port wines, followed by an excellent dinner in a private room at the Yeatman Hotel.

My last night in Porto would be spent at the Intercontinental Palacio Das Cardoses which featured an excellent downtown city location. If you want to be in the heart of the city’s shopping, restaurants and cafes this is the place for you. A very nice five star hotel but I personally preferred the scenic views and serene location of the Yeatman hotel.  During two hours of free time I did shop for wallets and handbags made of cork. Very unique and stylish gifts made in Portugal.

The next full day included touring at Guimaraes Castle and a lunch at Casa de Sezim a 14th century manor house owned by the same family for hundreds of years. We sampled their house made wines and feasted on a duck and rice dish. Later that afternoon we arrived at the impressive Vidago Place in the town of Vidago.

Visiting Vidago Palace

The Vidago Palace is a beautiful old world hotel that used to be the home of King Carlos. It features magnificent grounds and an adjacent golf course. Another feast with 3 pairings of wine would follow that evening in the main dining room. In the early morning before breakfast I took a nice stroll around the grounds to admire its beauty. After breakfast we headed to Portugal’s renowned wine region the Douro Valley.

Driving thru the Douro Valley reminded me of a mix between Tuscany and Napa Valley.  We arrived a the Sixth Senses Hotel. The Sixth Senses is a very upscale hotel chain based in Thailand. I was not disappointed with this magnificent hotel and spa which is a renovated 19th century manor house built into a hill overlooking vast wine vineyards. They have an award winning spa and many exercise classes. That evening featured wine tasting  and  organic foods from the region. I really loved the vibe of this hotel and rooms were very chic and modern.

The next day was bid our farewell to the Sixth Senses hotel and continued our journey with stops in Tomar and Evora. Tomar features a fortress buit in the 12th century inhabited by the Knights of The Templar to defend the city from the invasion of the Moors.

Evora is a charming walled city that was originally founded by the Romans. It boasts ancients temples,  Roman aqueduct, a main central plaza with many cobble stoned streets and the unique Bone Chapel. The Bone Chapel is designed with human skulls and bones as part of its interior.Later that evening we arrived at the Conventto do Espinheiro Hotel in the Evora area. This five star hotel used to be a 15th century convent which is considered a national monument.  It was quite an experience to stay and dine here.

The next afternoon we made our way to Lisbon or Lisboa as the locals would say. Our home for the last two nights of this magnificent journey would be the Four Seasons Lisboa. I really loved Lison, the beautiful architecture and  parks. The streets filled with  lots of quaint shops and restaurants.  The Four Seasons lived up to its reputation with its oversized rooms and impeccable service.

Our stay in Lisbon

During our stay in Lisbon we inspected and dined at other five star hotels which included the Liissippo Lapa Palace and Pousad de Lisboa. Both were excellent properties. Our sightseeing in Lisbon included the medieval Belem tower, the Moorish Sao Jorge Castle, Rossio Square and the trendy Barirro Alto district  filled with shops, bars and restaurants.

Portugal exceeded my expectations

Portugal truly exceeded my expectations. The people we encountered were warm and friendly. Many of the locals in the major tourist areas will speak some English. Portugese is the native language followed by English and Spanish as secondary languages. My cell phone worked fine while in Portugal and internet was never a problem. All of the main roads and highways were well maintained.  The hotels we stayed at were incredible. My personal favorites were the Yeatman and the Sixth Senses.

Portugal is very safe. I always felt safe and to this date they have not had any terrorist incidents unlike many of its European neighbors. Most of the tourists visiting the hotels I stayed at are from the United States, England and Brazil.  Portugal is a great value compared to other European countries as associated costs with hotels and dining are priced less.

The food and wine was outstanding for the entire 9 days. I loved the scenic Douro Valley  region and its wines are fantastic and reasonable priced. I can honestly say I had some incredible meals on this trip but be warned that the portions are usually huge.  We had mostly seafood but the pork, beef and chicken were delicious as well. We dined at a mixture of local inexpensive  restaurants and Michelin star rated restaurants at five star hotels. All the meals and service were wonderful. I enjoyed this trip so much I am in the process of booking a return trip in the next 6 months.

Let me assist you with a custom designed luxury journey to Portugal so you can also discover this hidden gem. I can be contacted at gtalewsky@dt.com or call 781 471 2310.