they call it ginja

We interrupt our sightseeing for a quick beverage break – yet again. Ginja is a Morello cherry liqueur popular across Portugal as an aperitif or midday pick-me-up.  Here in Sintra I found it served in a chocolate cup, although typically it comes in a shot glass with an alcohol-soaked piece of fruit at the bottom. Tastier than Robitussin, you’re still not going to find it taking up precious space on my liquor shelf.  As a taste of Portugal, however, I’ll raise a toast to anything served in dark chocolate.

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pena palace

Consort to Portugal’s Queen Maria II – and cousin of Bavaria’s “mad” King Ludwig – Don Fernando II built Palacio Pena in the 19th century atop a ruined monastery perched on the summit of the highest hill in Sintra. Overlooking a vast expanse of countryside, the view – on a clear day – extends all the way south to Lisbon.  Influenced by the romantic and eclectic tendencies of the time, the Don oversaw the creation of a revivalist palace incorporating artistic styles from antiquity to the Renaissance, while entwining art of the Far East with Arab-style domes and minarets.  In short, he built himself the ultimate over-the-top fantasy castle; a worthy rival to Neuchswastein. Almost as dramatic as the castle are the surrounding gardens; a remarkable project of landscape transformation Lord Byron likened to “a wonderful Eden.” Initially barren at the time, the hill was turned into a 200-acre arboretum of historic gardens, grottoes, fountains, and lakes, imbued with the same Romantic taste for the exotic so evident in the palace.  It’s all terribly dramatic and hauntingly beautiful; a testament to the Romantic ideal of man’s supremacy over nature. Pena has spoiled me, I think.  It’s what I always imagined a fairytale castle should be.  And more.

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piriquita, chiquitita

Among the cafes and pastelerias in Sintra, tiny Piriquita is a legend. It somehow manages to accommodate a non-stop bustling trade in the center of town while maintaining a relaxed and congenial atmosphere.  Most visitors opt to get their pastry to take away, but I sat at a table to watch the parade of people  – and a random pigeon that flew in looking for table crumbs – come and go. It’s also a bargain:  two cortado and two queijadas for a whopping 3 euro left me with enough change to try the almond pastry, travesseiros, and a walnut-topped mystery ball that tasted like farina soaked in honey. I got the feeling they would have let me nurse my espresso for hours, had I desired. But enough with the coffees and pastries – there’s still far too much to see.


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smitten with sintra

Sintra is hands down one of the most beautiful towns in Portugal.  A mix of sumptuous royal palaces and beautiful landscapes, it’s beyond picturesque; breathtaking views over the countryside stretch all the way to the coast. Primitive Iberians were so bewitched by the area’s natural wonders that it became a place of cult worship – christened Sintra, Mountain of the Moon, after the Celtic goddess. The summer escape for Portugal’s crowned heads, Lord Byron described it as “a garden of the earthly paradise.” Also known for its wine growing and marble quarrying, Sintra has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. However, the town’s real treasures are also its most unassuming: the many cafes – little oases of  daily repast – and their traditional confectionery, like queijada de Sintra, bite-sized cheesecakes made from queijo fresco, a kind of cottage cheese. Sightseeing has never been so restful – nor tasted so sweet.

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at the mercado

A rainy day brings it’s own simple joys, like a trip to the local market.  Aside from the dizzying display of bacalhao (dried salt cod) and hams prepared and preserved in every imaginable way, there was a bountiful selection of exotic fruit imported from the former Portuguese colony of Brazil. The carambola and kumquats were easy to recognize.  As for the mangosteen, well, the “mangustan” sign proved helpful.  But a scaly thing that looked liked an armadillo in hiding?  A spiky dinosaur egg the size of a beach ball?  There was nothing in my culinary phrasebook to help. Collectively, the display emitted a smell so fragrant it was borderline narcotic and I couldn’t resist the adventure of buying a softball-sized mystery fruit for later.  Once I got back to my hotel, however, my fruit’s distinctive odor – separated from the pack – became apparent.  I had chosen one of my favorites: passion fruit.

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a monastic moment

From my balcony at Penha Longa I can see orange trees in the foreground and the lone figure of Michael, the Archangel, atop a cupola. Yet it’s not some distant church, I discover; it’s the Monastery of St. Jerome on the grounds of the hotel. The history of Penha Longa and the Monastery is inextricably linked with the history of Portugal.  Founded by Friar Vasco Martins in 1355, the historic structure was built in 1390 when King Joāo sponsored the purchase of the site for the burgeoning order of Hieronymite – or hermit – monks. The small monastery thrived, increasing its domain thanks to the grace and favor of various Kings and Princes who often stayed for long periods, preferring the cooler micro-climate of Sintra to the heat of Lisbon. In the 16th century, King Manuel built a small palace next to the Monastery as a weekend getaway for the royal family.  The Manueline style, a late-Portuguese Gothic which we’ll see a lot more of once we get to Lisbon, can still be seen in the buildings that survived the great earthquake of 1755: the Sacristy and the main entrance to the Convent, and in both the arched ceilings and twin portals of the Palace. In 1584, the Monastery played historic host to the first European visit by a Japanese delegation. (Two tiles, recently unearthed on the property, depict the visit and can be seen in the hotel’s lobby.) With the expulsion of all religious orders from Portugal in 1834, however, the compound’s days as a functioning monastery ended. The property was abandoned and left to its fate, before being purchased at auction by Viscount Olivais, Count of Penha Longa.  It passed through a shifting series of private hands until it became part of a newly built hotel in the 1990’s. Now it’s one of the more unique highlights available to guests at Ritz-Carlton’s Penha Longa property. (I mean, come on, how many hotels come with their own monastery?) The soaring spaces house majestic conference and banqueting facilities, acres of rejuvenated palace gardens with fountains, reflecting pools, and dovecotes make for inquisitive strolling, and in the former royal palace you can still get the king’s treatment at the luxurious Six Senses Spa.

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what’s good for the belly

What better introduction to a country than a fashionable and defiantly cool lunch?  Relaxed and oh so chill atop the clubhouse at Penha Longa, Arola is chef Sergi Arola’s modern twist on Portuguese cuisine.  A disciple of Ferran Adria, Arola spent eight years in the kitchens of El Bulli and it shows. His respect for tradition and heritage, while contrasting unexpected flavors and textures, is an obvious homage to his mentor. It begins with a bowl on the table that I at first mistook for the centerpiece: garlic cloves, cherry tomatoes, and small toast squares.  I soon learned the trio is a classic Catalan tapa served DIY before the meal in every village in Spain: tomato toast. Halve a clove of garlic, making sure to leave the skin on so as to not get the smell all over your fingers.  Rub the cut side across a piece of the toast.  Halve a tomato and do the same.  Drizzle with a little olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt, and voila: ridiculously simple perfection that also happens be a convivial, participatory start to the meal.

The fun doesn’t end there either. Rather it’s delivered via the kitchen on plate – no work required: thinly sliced pata negra with spunky  Saõ Jorge cheese, Royal and King crab salad, foie gras-topped oxtail ravioli, ethereal Bravas potatoes dolloped with crême fraiche, John Dory on a puree of boletus mushroom with ox tail. I’m tempted to order the rest of the menu, but I’ve already devoured every tasting plate put in front of me – helped along in no small part by an unassumingly fresh bottle of red from Portugal’s Douro Valley. Partridge cannelloni, Iberian ham croquettes, and Massuça goat cheese will have to wait another day.  I can’t even imagine dessert until something called Arola’s Sweet Moment arrives.  It’s a petite timbale of custard with various textures of lemon that refreshes the palate and brings me back from the brink of a food coma.  I fleetingly think I might be able to go another round but wisely opt instead for a cortado and a glass of muscadet, the lighter, honeyed cousin of port.  Fresh off the plane, I am sated.  And I know I am going to love it here.

 

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bom dia, portugal

It’s Mediterranean Month here on the site, with March trips to both Portugal and Spain. (Technically, I guess that makes it Iberian Month, but that’s not nearly as euphonious, n’est-ce pas?) Curiously, this is my first trip to the Iberian peninsula, so I am excited to see what’s in store:  the food and fado of Portugal, the art and architecture of Spain.  And of course, all that glorious Iberian ham.  For now, I think I’ve made the right choice in eschewing the city to start my travels in the lush Sintra countryside at Penha Longa, which traces its origins back to the 14th Century.

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