The Sounds of Portugal

With less than a week left in Portugal it would be remiss of me not to mention the music here. Fado is a genre of music that is synonymous with Portuguese culture. Fado to the Portuguese is like Flamenco to the Spanish, Pasta to the Italians, Baguettes to the French. Fado literally translates to mean ‘fate or destiny’. It is linked to the Portuguese word ‘saudade’ which kind of means loss, yearning or to miss something or someone, so a lot of fado sounds mournful and sad but very beautiful.

Fado is said to have originated around the 1830’s in the heart of Lisbon in the districts of Alfama and Bairro Alto. The singers or fadistas were mainly working class or sailors and were accompanied by the 12 string pear-shaped Portuguese guitar and a classical guitar. Around the 1950’s fado began incorporating the words of great Portuguese poets into the music. Amateurs, male or female, sing impromptu-style throughout fado houses and restaurants throughout the old neighbourhoods of Lisbon and it’s flourishing still today and getting more and more popular.

Some fadistas have achieved nationwide and worldwide recognition. One of the most famous fado singers was Amália Rodrigues whose career spanned over 50 years and she was known as the Rainha do Fado or ‘Queen of Fado’. Click below to see video of her singing Estranha forma de Vida (A Strange Kind of Life) from the 1960’s.

Amália Rodrigues – Estranha forma de Vida (Video)

She is probably Portugal’s most famous fado singer. She took fado to the rest of the world and by the time she died in 1999 she had received awards and honours from all over the world for her singing. Poets had started writing specifically for her to sing. She became an icon to the Portuguese people. Much of the street art around Lisbon is still devoted to her. When she died she was aged 79 and the government declared three days of national mourning. She is buried in the National Pantheon in Lisbon along side other famous Portuguese such as explorers, Vasco da Gama and Henry the Navigator.


Late last year, fado was added to the UNESCO list of the world’s intangible cultural heritage, forever recognised in international history.

The first time I heard fado was when Filipa gave me a CD by Mariza, who is a popular modern fadista today in Lisbon. This was the first song I heard and it’s one of my favourites – click on the link below if you want a more modern take on fado. The song is called Gente Da Minha Terra (‘People of My Land’) and you can feel the emotion and literally see her emotion towards the end of the song when she has to stop singing due to tears. It’s hard not to be moved by this music, even if you don’t understand Portuguese.

Mariza – Gente Da Minha Terra (live)

As I mentioned before, the 12-string pear-shaped lute or guitar (guitarra portuguesa) always accompanies the fadista with an acoustic guitar as well. Carlos Paredes is one of Portugal’s most notable Portuguese guitar players. This is a short video of him playing the Portuguese guitar, a beautiful song called Verdes Anos (Green Years).

Carlos Paredes – Verdes Anos (Video)

The music here has really grown on me, particularly as my Portuguese improves because the lyrics are so beautiful. One thing about the Portuguese is they really know how to put a sentence together and turn an ordinary statement in to something truly beautiful and poetic. They really value their poets and many of them have icon status here in Portugal. It got me thinking about my own country and our poets of old like Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson and Dorothea Mackellar. It has inspired me to re-read some of our old poets when I return home. I don’t think I’ve read an Australian poem since high school since we were made to memorise Dorothea Mackellar’s “My Country”….. I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains. I love her far horizons, I love her jewel sea, her beauty and her terror – the wide brown land for me. Shame on me!

Sweet Baby Cheeses

One thing I am definitely going to miss about living in Portugal is the cheese. It is so good I decided it needs its very own blog post as a dedication of my love. I’ve tasted many cheeses but this one is by far the best. It’s a semi-hard goats cheese from the Serra da Estrela region of Portugal, near Filipa’s village. I have had to restrain myself from eating it every day on toast for breakfast (like Filipa does). It’s been hard but with 9 days to go until we leave Portugal for a while, I’m not holding back!

The flavour of this cheese is strong but not overpowering or too tangy like some goats cheeses can be. It’s a semi-hard cheese yet it’s so deliciously creamy at the same time.

Better still is the discovery of the combination of strong black coffee with cheese. O.M.G. When Filipa first mentioned it, I baulked and thought that it didn’t really sound that appealing but after tasting this combination, it really is a match made in heaven. You have to try it. The coffee and the cheese flavours compliment each other perfectly. Forget red wine – cheese and coffee were meant to be together. Am I the last person on earth to know about this?

I can’t end this post without mentioning the breads here either. Of course, bread or pão is a staple food of Portugal. It is the heart of Portuguese cuisine. One type of bread is broa or corn bread. It has a thick crunchy crust with a dense but moist interior and obviously is made from corn. I also love the soft, light and airy breads with their crunchy crusts. I also love the small vans that drive around the villages every day selling their warm loaves from the back of the van. Nothing beats warm bread.

Corn bread on the left

In Seia, near Filipa’s village, there is a large museum devoted entirely to pão. Inside the museum you will discover how the different breads are made, the cycle of bread from the land to the oven, information about the milling process, the history of bread in Portugal and bakeries from the old times. For bread lovers, this place is a must see!

Ahhh Portugal, I love you and I’m going to miss you….but for the sake of my waistline I must leave you….but only for a while.

Feliz Ano Novo!

For New Year we headed north to the second-biggest city in Portugal – the romantic city of Porto. It’s a beautiful medieval city and also the birthplace of Port wine. The Douro river runs through the city and beautiful traditional boats, barcos rabelos, are still used to ferry the Port wine down stream. These boats line the riverside beneath the Dom Luís I bridge and you can see the boats filled with the large barrels holding the Port wine. The Douro region of Portugal is where some of the world’s best wine’s are produced. There is evidence of wine making in this region which dates back to the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. A great place to celebrate the end of the year and the beginning of a new one!

Unfortunately we only got to spend 2 nights here but managed to see a little bit of the city. We stayed in a gorgeous boutique pensão in the centre of the city. When we weren’t out eating and drinking we walked the city centre admiring the mix of old – lots of beautiful old buildings, Portuguese tiles, old doors and street art.


New Years eve was spent with Filipa and friends indulging in a degustation meal beginning around 9pm and finishing around 2am. At midnight, everyone paused from the eating to drink champagne and watch the fireworks visible out the window from our table. Traditionally at midnight the Portuguese eat 12 sultanas, typically called desejos or ‘wishes’, one for each month of the new year, with the chime of the clock. Much more civilised than resolutions! The Portuguese also believe you have to wear blue underpants on New Years eve to bring good luck – they can’t be old daggy ones, they have to be new! After our degustation, we walked a short distance to our friend’s bar which she opened just for us where shots of Pampero rum were downed accompanied by lime segments coated with brown sugar on one side and coffee on the other…..delicious and guaranteed to keep your eyes open a few more hours.

The hangover wasn’t too bad the following day so we drove to the gorgeous town of Aveiro, sometimes known as the ‘Venice of Portugal’ due to the arched bridges over the network of canals and the moliceiro boats. What makes these boats unique are the colourful paintings on their helm, usually religious in nature or humorous and dirty….go figure?

Aveiro is a gorgeous little town. It’s also home to a typical Portuguese dessert called Ovos Moles which is basically an egg-yolk pudding which I can’t say I like…..too eggy for my taste….but the town has other delights such as the beautiful calçada, tiles and sculptures.

After all this, our appetite had returned and we drove out to the coast to Costa Nova for a late lunch. At first you think you’ve driven on to the set of a Disney film or something as all the houses are all vertical or horizontal candy-striped. These houses were originally the old fisherman’s shacks. In front of the candy-striped houses are large sand dunes. Costa Nova sits on a large spit of land and is connected to the mainland by a bridge. It got separated in a massive storm in the 16th century.

Lunch was a delicious splurge of seafood rice with the freshest sweetest prawns I have ever tasted! Feeling better already….is it beer o’clock yet? A good start to 2012.

Happy New Year everyone!

Deck the Halls

Christmas in Portugal is not too different than ours in Australia, but obviously it’s a lot colder, being winter in the northern hemisphere. There are some slight differences but above all Christmas here is about family, friends, food, religion, giving and receiving.

In every household, in the streets, schools and shopping malls are very elaborate presépio’s (nativity scenes). Some of them are even life-size. My favourite little presépio that I saw in the lead up to Christmas was in a town in the Algarve inside an Italian restaurant. This presépio also had its own pizzeria, which the three wise men were just leaving from!

You also see a lot of climbing Santa’s throughout Portugal. These little red and white guys can be spotted hanging out windows, chimney’s, off rooftops, restaurant signs – I swear they are everywhere! But in contrast, Santa is not the star of the show here and children are brought up to believe that the baby Jesus brought the presents (not literally but figuratively in the story of Christmas). Santa is treated more in good humour. Children in Portugal generally do not think that a fat guy in a red and white suit bought them a stack of presents…which makes sense in this country where Catholics make up 85% of the population.

Traditionally, the most important get-together is Christmas eve. We spent most of the afternoon helping Filipa’s aunty prepare for the feast that night; preparing the table, chopping vegetables, peeling chestnuts and doing last minute things. The gathering was slightly smaller this year due to some of the family spending Christmas with their husbands/wives families but nonetheless we still had around 24 people for dinner that night. Traditionally, codfish (bacalhau) is always eaten with cabbage on Christmas eve. There was also a dish of beef with chestnuts as well, plus cheeses, chouriços and don’t forget the home made wines and a whole table-load of desserts.

After the meal, we headed to the centre of the village where every year there is a huge bonfire. It was very welcome as temperatures were down to about -1 degree that night. We stood around the bonfire for a while and then we headed back to the house for the giving of gifts at midnight.

The Christmas tree was overflowing with a sea of presents underneath. Filipa’s cousin Pedro played ‘Santa’ with the help of two other little cousins, Clarisse (10) and Joana (8) as helpful elves, delivering the presents as they were called out. But Joana really wanted to be Santa (see below).


This was an unwrapping, hugging and kissing frenzy which went on for about an hour, leaving everyone with smiles and mountains of wrapping paper. After this, it’s tradition for Zé, one of Filipa’s unclesto cook his prawns. Trays and trays of prawns came out and Christmas wrapped up around 2.00am. Well, we kind of rolled home.

Half of the family went to Mass on Christmas morning (we were still sleeping…guilty!) and then we all met for Christmas lunch – a big roast turkey, with stuffing inside and also a roasted goat with potatoes, garlic, herbs and chilli. More wine, more desserts! I must confess I am a huge fan of goat after living here for almost 6 months. And the turkey was divine too, always served with orange.

We spent the days after Christmas just hanging out in the village and doing some small trips to places nearby. Not far from Barriosa is the cutest traditional village I have ever seen called Piódão. Just over 200 people live there. Forty years ago, this little village was only reachable on horseback or foot! It is unique in that all the houses are still made traditionally from a beautiful grey stone and slate.

First view of Piódão village

Filipa lived here when she was about 6 years old as her mother taught at the school for a year. She had to walk almost to where I took this photo from, sometimes twice a day (home for lunch) in rain, snow, mud or sunshine.

I loved it. We walked through the tiny streets and admired the stonework and gorgeous doorways. The village clings to the beautiful remote ridge and there is a rushing river that passes alongside the town with the perfect swimming hole for summer. Crosses above some of the doors are said to protect the occupants from curses and thunderstorms.


Another one!!

Filipa’s village is also about 45 minutes drive away from Portugal’s highest mountain (on the mainland) called Torre. It’s 1,993 metres high but the highest mountain in Portugal is actually on the island of Azores called Pico, at 2,351 metres. There is a small ski field on the top of Torre with three lifts and some modest beginners slopes. We went right to the top and only lasted about 10 minutes outside the car due to the windchill. Usually at this time of year though the mountain is covered in snow but this year there was just a spattering, only enough for some very enthusiastic beginners and tobogganists.

The top!

The two towers on top of Torre round up the mountain to 2,000 metres.

Apart from missing my own family, it was a brilliant festive season with Filipa’s family. It was everything that Christmas should be about – LOVE!

The Beautiful South

Before I blog about Christmas and New Year, I just want to tell you about a 5-day road trip we did just a few weeks before the festive season – a little Christmas present to ourselves. We decided to head south to the Algarve on Portugal’s south coast. To get there we traveled through the Alentejo region, renowned for some of Portugal’s best wines. Alentejo is also regularly called the ‘Tuscany of Portugal’. It is Portugal’s largest region – think rolling hills, grapevines, cork trees, rugged coastlines, traditional villages and farming. The maps shows the regions of Portugal and the arrows shows our overnight stays – one night in Alentejo and then three nights in the Algarve in Portimão, Albufeira then Tavira then we drove back up through Alentejo on the eastern side, along the border of Spain and back to Lisbon. It felt like we were away more than 5 days as we did so much and I took just over 800 photos in 5 days! It was a fantastic trip.

From Lisbon we drove a few hours to a small village called Vila Nova de Santo AndreThis was a good base for us to do some smaller trips to Troia and the nature reserves nearby and ocean beaches. That night we stumbled across an old primary school that had been turned in to a restaurant. It was so quaint and gorgeous. The Alentejo region is renowned for it’s traditional food – black pork (the pigs are black in colour and the meat is more tasty), game dishes, bread, cheese, wines and seafood. We ordered the most spectacular dish of wild rabbit empada – the rabbit is wrapped in pastry with delicious spices and served with pilau rice and salad. One of many of my favourite meals so far in Portugal and we highly recommend this restaurant for it’s fantastic service, local organic food and large selection of local wines. If you’re ever around Cachopos, near Sines in Alentejo, go to Restaurante A Escola. Maravilhosa!

Wild rabbit empada for two

The following day we ventured off along the spectacular coastline of Alentejo to some of  the most beautiful beaches I have seen. First stop was one of my favourite places, a little seaside town called Porto Covo. It’s an old fishing village still blessed with cobblestoned streets with the gorgeous cottages in blues, reds and whites.


Porto Covo harbour

As we drove further south we made stops at Vila Nova de Milfontes, Zambujeria do Mar, Odeceixe and we just made it to Praia do Amado for sunset. The coastline became more rugged and wild and I was starting to wish we had more than just five days. Part of me was also wishing it was summer, but then again, summer brings hoards of people and turns the whole south of Portugal in to a totally different place. The peace and the solitude along the beaches and in the villages was perfect – as long as we were sufficiently rugged up!

Vila Nova de Milfontes


Praia do Amado and local canine taking in the view too
Praia do Amado – the Algarve west coast

We sped along a dirt track to just get to Praia do Amado in time for the sunset. It was the most amazing orange colour against the sandstone rocks. We were the only people there apart from a little dog who whimsically stared out to the sea, enjoying the sunset, the peace and the sounds of the ocean as much as we did.

That night we slept in a funky little boutique hotel in Portimão, after navigating the labyrinth of one way streets. It’s the Algarve’s second largest city. It used to be a major fishing port and once had a large cannery, which is now part of an excellent exhibition in the local museum. I loved the harbour area of this city. You could feel the maritime history and its trading connections to the rest of Europe. The south of Portugal is also home to thousands of storks. Anywhere you see a large electric pylon or old chimney stack, just cast your eyes upwards and you will see some. About 10 years ago these birds were in serious decline in Portugal but they are now off the endangered list due to concerted efforts by the power companies to make the electrical pylons safer for nesting. The stork nest can be over 2 metres in diameter and there are now over 4,000 storks year-round in southern Portugal. Another factor has been the introduction of the Louisiana crayfish which reproduce very quickly and has given them an extra food source. They are amazing birds and I love seeing them up there, knowing the two of them have a little baby in their midst.

Portimão harbour


The hooks from the old cannery

The next stop, heading east along the south coast, was Albufeira. The old fishing port has unfortunately been replaced by an ultra modern marina filled with flashy million dollar boats. It’s a town dedicated to tourism and in summer the cheap package deals and cheap food and booze bring hoards of Europeans. I loved it but still wondered how different it would be in the summer. It has beautiful white washed buildings and many many beautiful beaches and we enjoyed another fantastic sunset at beer o’clock, at Praia Grande. After dinner, we wandered the deserted streets, walking down to the main beach for a sangria or two at Filipa’s friends restaurant. Many of the bars and restaurants were closed for the winter season.

The white washed apartments waiting for the summer influx
The beautiful beach of San Rafael in Albufeira
Praia Grande – Albufeira

Traveling further eastward the following day we stopped at Cavoeiro to an interesting place set in the cliffs called Algar Seco which had pounding seas and dramatic rock formations. It was fun exploring all the caves, blowholes and watching the waves crash against the cliffs.

Algar Seco at Carvoeiro
Algar Seco

Another stop was made at Praia da Falésia, a beautiful golden sandy beach which holds precious childhood summer memories for Filipa and then to the glitzy and glamourous marina of Vilamoura for lunch. This marina can berth over 1,000 vessels and in summer it’s the place to spot the rich and famous of Portugal and Europe. Cristiano Ronaldo is often seen here as he owns a bar with Luís Figo, another famous Portuguese football player.

The next two nights we stayed in a self-contained cottage in Tavira which was just gorgeous. I’d heard lots of great things about Tavira, so I had high expectations and I was not disappointed. It’s a very charming little town, still rather untouched and unspoilt by tourism. The old town is a maze of little cobblestoned streets with gorgeous shops, cafés and restaurants. Ponte Romana is a beautiful 17th century arched bridge crossing the river which runs through the town and out to sea.

Sunset upon Ponte Romana


We saw many beautiful places – a haunting beach in the winter called Praia do Barril which has a graveyard of anchors. To get there you catch a small train across to another little island. We also caught the boat over to Ilha de Tavira one day and walked around the deserted islands resort and beach.

We also had two amazing meals whilst we were staying here, the first at a restaurant called ‘O Pedro’ in Cabanas (a short drive from Tavira) where we ate Conquilhas (tiny cockles in a white wine, garlic and herb sauce which are amazingly sweet and so delicious). This was first course. For second course we shared a Cataplana de Peixe. A cataplana is a large clam-like cooking vessel which in this instance contained four types of steamed fish, red peppers, garlic, prawns, potatoes and onions. A-maz-ing flavours! All washed down with a bottle of wine from the region. Heaven! The second meal was at a gorgeous little restaurant called ‘Aquasul’ in the heart of Tavira old town. Very cute, great service, delicious organic food – tuna and prawn skewers with cous cous and roasted vegetables and a to-die-for wood-fired pizza. Someone call Greenpeace and roll me back in to the ocean!

Our last day and we visited a beautiful local waterfall ‘Poço do Inferno‘ (Hell’s Well) surrounded by beautiful orange and olive groves and where a broken pale in the fence meant that we had the sweetest oranges I’ve ever tasted for the trip back. Another treasure was the teeny tiny village of Cacela Velha with it’s colourful houses, scruffy looking dogs and gorgeous ocean views.

View from Cacela Velha


A cottage in Cacela Velha

Reluctantly we headed inland traveling north towards Mértola in Alentejo. To cheer ourselves up, we bought some local chouriço, cheese and bread for a picnic overlooking an old mining crater in São Domingos. Sounds strange I know but the mine closed in the 60’s and whats left is a deserted, eerie yet interesting place to explore old crumbling buildings and rusty machinery. The mine is over 150 years old but I read that mining has taken place here since Roman times. The colours were amazing.

We really weren’t ready to go back home but we made one final stop in the beautiful town of Evora, one of Portugal’s most beautiful medieval towns. The town sits inside a 14th century stone wall with beautiful narrow lanes and striking architecture.

We only had time to see the Templo Romano – the remains of a Roman temple dating back to the 2nd or early 3rd century and one of Portugal’s best preserved Roman monuments. It’s 14 Corinthian columns have survived so well as the temple was covered up by a wall in the Middle Ages to form a fortress and it wasn’t uncovered until the late 19th century.

A long blog post I know, but I felt like I didn’t want to leave anything out because it was all so beautiful. Just consider yourself lucky I didn’t post the entire 800 photos!

Sweet Temptations

After spending a few days in the village we headed due west to the central coast. On the way we stopped off in the beautiful city of Coimbra. This is the ‘Oxford’ of Portugal, being a very old and distinguished university city. It has one of the oldest universities in Europe, the University of Coimbra, as well as it being the oldest in the Portuguese-speaking world, dating back to 1290.

We spent the day just wandering through the streets and along the river Mondego. It was a crisp winters day and the sun was out and Portugal is the most wonderful place to just wander and enjoy the architecture and café culture.

I was privileged to see some traditional calçada guys at work fixing up some broken pavement and some gorgeous Portuguese men sitting on a bench sharing a moment and a laugh. I would love to have known what they were talking about.

We hung around to see sunset across the river and then meet Filipa’s cousin who is studying at the University of Coimbra for a coffee, before we drove on westward to the small coastal town of Figueira da Foz. We were suitably hungry by the time we got there so Filipa took me to the renowned local Forte Santa Catarina restaurant…..renowned because of it’s Rodizio de Marisco, or ‘Never-ending, all-you-can-eat platter of Seafood’ all for 18 Euro ($24) per person.

On the platter were heaps of these strange things called Perceves, otherwise known as Goose Barnacles, thanks to Wikipedia. They basically live on rocks, like most barnacles do, but only really exposed coastal areas as the perceves depend on water motion for feeding. They are widely consumed here and in Spain and considered a delicacy. You squeeze the leathery tube near the shell-like claw and then twist to suck out the flesh. Up close they look rather weird and scary and daunting to eat. Lucky Filipa was with me. The taste was like the sea, very briny, and the texture like a mussel or clam.

The funny thing is the name perceves is very close to another Portuguese word, percebes. Translate the first word to English and it means ‘barnacles’ but translate the second word to English and it means ‘understands’. In some places the locals try and translate their menu into English. If traveling through Portugal, you may just see some “understands” on the menu.


Figuiera da Foz is a gorgeous town and has a giant sandy beach which reminded me a lot of Santa Monica in L.A. but so much more beautiful with no people on it (in winter). In summer, the town turns in to a holiday mecca and surfing destination. The beach here is the largest in Portugal at 3 km in length. It’s also very wide and takes about 5 minutes to reach the water.

Figueira da Foz coastline

We only stayed here one night and one day but I loved it, a beautiful place to visit and we will definitely be back.

Of course, on the way home, more pit-stops for food and coffee. This time at a very famous pastry shop in a very small village, Tentúgal, called A Pousadinha. There are a few famous desserts here, one being the Queijadas de Tentúgal and also the Pastel de Tentúgal. Both use copious amounts of sugar and egg and pastry. Oh my. God.

The amazing and interesting thing about this place is that the recipes date back to the 16th century when these sweet temptations were first made behind the walls of the local convent, Convento do Nosso Senhora do Carmo. The place got the name doce conventuaís, ‘sweet convent’. What do you call a nun with a sweet tooth? A Carmel-like. Sorry!

And because it is coming up to Christmas you also see many Bolo do Rei, or King Cake, throughout Portugal. It is eaten up until the 6 January (the day of Kings – a biblical reference to the Three Kings) and it resembles a crown covered in crystallised dried fruit.  Just like the Australian plum pudding, the King Cake used to contain a small ‘prize’ but has now been forbidden due to safety reasons. It also used to contain a ‘bean’ and whoever had the slice with the bean in it had to buy the cake the following year.

Bolo do Rei

Merry Christmas everyone!