Alcobaça

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Alcobaça, ink on paper, Rui Barreiros Duarte, 2014.

To understand Portugal, you have to visit Alcobaça. It was here that the first king of Portugal, Dom Afonso Henriques, founded a monastery in thanksgiving for his conquests. He laid the first stone in 1148 on a beautiful valley irrigated by two rivers, Alcoa and Baça.

Alcobaça became a center of agricultural research with a vast library that included volumes printed by Gutenberg. The monastery served as a luxury hotel for the royal family and their guests, but it also baked bread to feed the poor. The kitchen of the monastery was famous throughout the kingdom. Water from the river Alcoa runs through the kitchen, providing water for cleaning and cooking.

Built in an early gothic style, the monastery was expanded and renovated throughout the centuries. King Dom Pedro erected sumptuous tombs to celebrate his eternal love for Inês de Castro. Henry the Navigator, who was the abbot of Alcobaça, built a palace inside the abbey. Every stone of the Alcobaça monastery is a page of the history of Portugal.

A Lisbon feast

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De Castro Flores doesn’t look like a restaurant, it looks like a convivial home where friends gather to share delicious food and great wine. There’s a spirit of celebration in the air created by the warm decoration, the friendly service, and the appetizing aromas.

We asked our waiter to bring us a series of small plates called petiscos. And so the feast began: clams with beans, cuttle fish with ink, partridge in escabeche, quail eggs with sausage, chamuças with cheese and honey, roasted octopus with potatoes, vegetable tempura with a garlic and lemon mayonnaise.

We left happy to have found a new restaurant where Portugal’s culinary traditions shine bright.

Restaurante De Castro Flores is located in Lisbon at Praça das Flores, Rua Marques Portugal, n. 1. Tel: 21 590 3077. Email: info@decastro.com. Click here for the restaurant’s web site.

In a tuk tuk on the spice trail

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Tuk tuk is a new company that operates three-wheeled motorized rickshaws in downtown Lisbon. These fun vehicles are the perfect way to travel: slow enough to see the sights, but fast enough to cover all there is to see without getting tired.

If you smell a whiff of cinnamon, it is perfectly ok to ask the driver to follow the trail and find the pastries that are sweetening the air. After all, visitors have been coming to Lisbon in pursuit of sugar and spices for more than five centuries.

Click here for the web page of Tuk Tuk Lisboa.

Visiting the Middle Ages

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The castle of Almourol was built by the Romans and rebuilt in the 12 century by the Knights Templars. Situated on a small island in the middle of the Tagus river, it was part of the defensive structure set up by Dom Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal. The castle quickly lost its strategic importance but retained its romantic appeal. At Almourol time stands still so we can get a glimpse of the Middle Ages.

It is tempting to sit on the river bank, enjoying the view of the castle, dreaming about chivalry and courtly love. But don’t miss the chance to cross the river by boat to visit the castle. You might arrive in time to free a beautiful princess or slay a nefarious dragon.

Heaven in Lisbon

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We dreamed we had died and gone to heaven. And heaven was a large pavilion sparsely furnished with long tables and bathed in white light. To our surprise, paradise was scented with the aromas of Portuguese cuisine: parsley, coriander, olive oil, garlic, codfish, and cinnamon. And there were many great chefs urging us to try their creations. We had a “pastel de massa tenra” cooked by Miguel Castro e Silva, roasted pork cooked at low temperature by Henrique Sá Pessoa, squid “pirolitos” made by Marlene Vieira, and a delicious tomato soup prepared by Alexandre Silva. We loved them all.

When we woke up, we realized we had been dreaming about a real place. The magazine Time Out Lisbon created a space in Mercado da Ribeira, one of the city’s food markets, where many of the best restaurants in Lisbon have stands. For a modest sum you can pick the food you like, pair it with some great Portuguese wine and enjoy the meal at one of the many tables. It is a heavenly way to experience the delights of Portuguese cuisine.

A beach fling

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First-time visitors to Lisbon are often surprised by its beauty. But, when you live in the capital city, you begin to take this beauty for granted and look around for something new. You don’t have to look far. Drive a few miles down the coast and you’ll find secluded beaches that will tempt your heart.

One of these beaches is Praia do Abano, on the coast of Cascais. Its cliff top offers breathtaking views of the Sintra mountain and the endless sea. Sheltered from the wind, Abano is the perfect place to enjoy a day in the sun.

There is a rustic restaurant on top of the cliff that you won’t find in tourist guides. It serves simple, wonderful food, such as amazing clams with irresistible country bread, delicious rabbit cooked in wine, and flavorful shrimp “açorda.” It is an unforgettable experience to dine there while the sun melts and the moon comes out to gild the sea with silver light.

An afternoon at Abano feels like a vacation. You return to Lisbon relaxed and content and, when you arrive at the capital, you are surprised by its beauty all over again.

The Abano beach is 21 miles from Lisbon. The telephone number of Restaurant Abano is 214870342.

A magical Summer soup

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When we sat down for dinner in the beautiful esplanade of the Arraiolos Pousada, we expected good food and attentive service. We got much more than that. We were served a series of delicious dishes that harmonized perfectly with Alentejo wine and made us feel we were at the right place, at the right time.

The dinner started with two soups, a Summer cucumber soup, followed by a tomato soup with quail egg. We then had “migas” (an Alentejo specialty made with bread) with wild asparagus and lamb grilled with rosemary. The grand finale was a sampling of traditional convent desserts updated with great refinement.

We congratulated the chef, Elizabete Velez, who told us that she learned to cook with her mother and grandmother in a small village in Alentejo. She offered to give us the recipe for her delicious Summer cucumber soup because it is very easy to make. Here it is.

Elizabete Velez’s Summer cucumber soup

Get the very best cucumbers you can find. Peel them (this step is key because the peel is very bitter) and remove their seeds. Dice the cucumbers, season them carefully with salt, pepper, and great olive oil. Puree the mixture in a blender. Pour into small bowls, placing one or two ice cubes in each bowl. Garnish with toasted slivered almonds, small strips of cucumber peel, and Portuguese sausage (preferably from Alentejo!).

Imagine eating this soup in a warm Summer evening, as the sun sets over a grove of olive trees and the stars wait their turn to shine on the Arraiolos castle. It’s magical!

Click here for the Pousadas’ website and here for more photos of the Arraiolos Pousada.