Portugal postcard #1

I about had a stroke scaling the steep medieval alleyways of my ‘hood in Porto, Portugal, last week, fuming at yet another of life’s inconveniences — precipitous hills! The humanity! — while clutching my chest and wiping my brow.

It was the same in Lisbon’s Alfama area, the capital city’s coolest, oldest, most mazy residential neighborhood, cut through with endless perpendicular hills and narrow passages. I am either desperately out of shape or the Portuguese are sadomasochists. (The former, decidedly.) 

These are not complaints. These — crippling strokes, premature heart attacks — are symptoms of the kind of euphoria travel so uniquely delivers, and what I experienced during a week split between Portugal’s two largest cities, Porto and Lisbon. Considering strokes and such, you could say the trip was to die for. I was smitten the entire time. 

I’ve been to much of the continent and Portugal reverberates with a different European tang that’s refreshingly, truly Old World. The people are amazing. And, except among many hacking, shriveled taxi drivers, English magically appears whenever you need it. It’s a country of nuance and contrast, urbanity and tradition. And with crazy luck, gorgeous January weather of cobalt skies and 60-degree days, everyday.

Both cities exude singular flavors. Sight-wise, there’s much to see but not an excess. That’s why walking tours are outstanding, taking you deep to reveal the nooks, the crannies, the crooks, the grannies (seriously: old women pop their heads out of two-story windows and chirp, “Bon dia!”). These are pleasant places, vibrant and laidback, and, with their fabled trams/trolleys, rolling hills and postcard waterfronts, redolent of classic San Francisco, my old stomping ground.

My brother asked if I missed a museum-centric city, à la Paris, but I did not. I do weary of so many museums in other cities that can, occasionally, feel like obligations. These cities are all street, with street art, graffiti, cathedrals, tavern after tavern (wifi — what’s that?), earthy food, multitudinous alcohol (Port, wine, Ginjinha!), ankle-twisting cobblestone, claustrophobic side streets, vertiginous hills and slopes, all of it intoxicating.

The streets are brilliantly bad for driving — lots of cobblestone in rattletrap cars with Model T shock absorbers. Sometimes I thought we’d been in an accident, but it was just a thump in the road. Rides are a steal: Uber lifts ran me $3 on average, with taxis still a bargain at twice the price.

Four days in Lisbon, then a three-hour train north to Porto, which resides languidly in pastel colors on the picturesque Douro River. My boutique hotel, a little alleyway charmer, was smack near the water, where it’s clotted with touristy action, even in January, but not too much. Like the guy with the explosive man bun juggling for tips. I got, but did not finish, a fish bowl of sangria, on the water, in the sun and breeze, while a hippie juggled in the distance.

In both cities the women are dark and lovely and the old men are raisin-faced, unshaven, bent over, sweater-clad, with baggy pants and newsboy caps — exactly how I hope to turn out. One day I had two female servers who possessed hairier arms than mine. As a man of Portuguese heritage, I almost cried with respect and admiration. They put my Aunt Silvia to shame, never mind my Uncle Johnny.

The Portuguese language is enchanting, musical, soft around the edges, like cookie dough. It has notes of Spanish, Italian and Russian, dappled with flower petals. It’s fragrant, easy on the ears and I know all of four words of it.

I found these twin cities fresh, novel, relaxed, uncrowded, winsome. Really, from the fine hotels to the affable people, authentic atmosphere to gushing hospitality, legendary history to rapturous food, Portugal is in my travel pantheon. It’s real Old World material. Humble but proud, and never pushy or arrogant. And always something beautiful.

Onto the slideshow, continued in the next blog post … 

Lisbon
The riverfront plaza three steps from my Porto hotel (try and spot the moon)
Alfama neighborhood in Lisbon, modern graffiti clashing with ancient tiles
Alfama
The infamous must-have Porto meal, the Francesinha, a heart-arresting cholesterol orgy of steak, ham, sausage, cheese and bread stacked and drowned in beer and spiced tomato sauce. Staggering decadence that could fell a mastodon. 
At Povo in Lisbon, where you eat and drink while witnessing fetching fado by up-and-comers in the Portuguese musical form, which is founded on soaring sentimental vocals. This singer cracked a roomful of hearts and we didn’t even know what she was saying. 
The Douro River in Porto
Street art is rampant, and almost always striking

 

How wine’s vines wrap around your brain

I am sipping wine as I write this, a chilled glass of Portuguese rosé that is an ideal swirl of sweet and dry, fruity and floral. It is 42 degrees outside. The fusty stereotype says that rosé is expressly a summer drink, just as some insist soup is only a winter meal. I say balderdash to both feeble-minded myths, which suffer a fatal lack of imagination. 

So, indeed, I am sipping wine (rosé!). And I am thinking of an article a friend sent me about the intricate neurological processes involved in the simple joy of tasting wine. It says: “According to neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd, the flavor of wine ‘engages more of our brain than any other human behavior’” — be it pitching a baseball, basking in Bach, playing Fortnite or, I imagine, having tangly Tantric sex.         

I’ll drink to that (and I did). More, and listen closely as the ideas get knotty: 

“The apparently simple act of sipping Merlot involves a complex interplay of air and liquid controlled by coordinated movements of the tongue, jaw, diaphragm and throat. Inside the mouth, molecules in wine stimulate thousands of taste and odor receptors, sending a flavor signal to the brain that triggers massive cognitive computation involving pattern recognition, memory, value judgment, emotion and of course, pleasure.”

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I’ll drink to that, too, mostly because that passage was as complex as some of the most sophisticated wine varietals, and it kind of gave me an instant hangover. (Shepherd’s book, by the way, is “Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine.”)

Yet so much jibber-jabber is a buzzkill. So let’s for a moment detour to Turkey, the last place I really indulged in wine. Namely to Göreme, in Cappadocia, where I enjoyed a marvelous wine tasting. Just me, the sommelier and lots of wine.

After almost crashing a rented motor scooter about four times in the craggy hills of Göreme, returning the vehicle well before it was due, I was rattled. Walking to the town center, defeated and with a comical helmet head, I caught a sign outside a handsome restaurant that said simply “Wine Tasting.” It was time for a drink, a celebration that I didn’t smash open my head toppling off the scooter into rocks and shrubs.

Apparently I stumbled upon a hotspot, the newish Mozaik Restaurant, which is rated the #1 restaurant in Göreme on TripAdvisor. (OK, it’s TripAdvisor — take it with a grain of salt.) For about $18.50 you get four tastings of the varietals of your choice. The wines come from the rugged Cappadocia region, a local tasting.

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A rose from Cappadocia, served by my sunny sommelier.

Thing is, and I’m hardly complaining, my friendly host did not pour tasting measures — a few hearty sips — but pretty much full pours. I sat there for a good 90 minutes, sipping four glasses of wine — a Chardonnay, Merlot and, of course, two rosés. They were excellent, dimpled with notes and accents and bouquets and finishes and all that jazz.

I all but forgot about the scooter drama, because, little did I know, this was happening inside my head: The wine, recall from above, “stimulated thousands of taste and odor receptors, sending a flavor signal to the brain that triggered massive cognitive computation … emotion and, of course, pleasure.” (Italics mine.)

That’s a lot of action from a sip of fermented fruit. I know shamefully little about wine — I’m no vino snob; the rosé I’m sipping came out of a box — but I can tell good grape from rotgut pretty well. All that “cognitive computation” triggered by a “flavor signal” is nifty enough. But I think many of us agree it’s the “pleasure” that’s triggered that we are after. I’d drink to that, but, alas, my glass is empty.

Drinking outside the box

Summer’s steamy curtain call is almost here (woo-hoo!), but we’re still in a light wine state of mind. Rosé is our go-to beverage in the seasonal swelter — with citrus-laden gin and tonics right behind — almost like sody-pop for the kids: refreshing, quenching, yet still retaining that sneaky bite adults crave (and sometimes require).  

These days we’re getting our rosé from a faintly unorthodox source: We’re drinking from a box. They call it bag in box wine, or simply boxed wine. Either way, you extract a plastic nozzle or spigot from a cardboard box and wine spritzes from it, or more specifically, from a shiny bag inside the box.

It’s resplendently dorky.

And yet …

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After a period of snooty ignominy, boxed wine is back in vogue, shorn of shame and stigma amongst those who know a good deal and, yes, a good wine. Excellent boxed wines abound, including the crack rosé we’re drinking in almost blushing abundance: Lab Rosé, from Casa Santos Lima winery outside of Lisbon, Portugal. (Rosé, incidentally, is defined as “a light pink wine, colored by only brief contact with red grape skins.” It’s exceptionally fruity, just a tad dry, ideal for the hot months.) 

Three reasons boxed wine rules:

— It’s way cheaper. A standard 3-liter box holds as much wine as four regular wine bottles. Our local outlet sells a Lab Rosé box for $17. Do the math and get misty-eyed. Then guzzle. What you lose in sleek glass aesthetics you make up for in sheer value.

— It’s environmentally sound. Say several sources: The production of boxed wine generates about half the emissions per standard bottle of wine.

 It lasts forever (almost). “Thanks to its handy-dandy vacuum-sealed spigot, boxed wine has a longer shelf life after opening than its bottled counterparts,” writes one pro. “And I mean a lot longer. Up to six whole weeks, in fact.”

IMG_1161And that brings me back to Lab Rosé, which is that much more of a bargain because of its prodigious quality. It is, for example, far more luscious and drinkable than its more expensive Provence Rosé counterpart, whose gloppy malty finish is ruinous. And though Bota Box Dry Rosé is quite fine, it too is several dollars more than trusty Lab.

Lab indeed earns consistently strong reviews from wine experts and sundeck sippers alike. Wine Enthusiast bestows Lab Rosé a respectable 86 points, noting, “This is a pale colored, attractively perfumed wine. With red berry fruit flavors, bright acidity and a lively orange zest texture, it is fruity and ready to drink.”

Ready to drink, for sure. Right out of the dorky, yet somehow radically cool, box.