72 Hours of an Intense Food and Wine Journey in Central Portugal
Until recently, my knowledge of Central Portugal was limited to a weekend trip to Coimbra back in 2015. I’ve known that this region had a lot to offer, specially in terms of food and wine, but it seemed to get overshadowed by the bigger players (i.e. Porto, Lisbon, and the Algarve) until now.
So when I was invited by Rota da Bairrada and Turismo do Centro to spend a week in Central Portugal, I immediately accepted. The entire trip was six days long and divided into two segments. The first half was what's known in the travel industry as a FAM or familiarization trip. In this particular case that meant me along with a selective group of Portuguese food and wine journalists, photographers, and travel professionals. The days were really long (18 hours) but the food and wine were plentiful and delicious. You’ll find the highlights from my take on this ambitious culinary adventure into deep Central Portugal below:
This was a sponsored trip, however the opinions are my own.
Day 1: The first day was dedicated to traveling by train and bus to the northeast of Portugal to our first destination: Casas de Côro in Marialva. The concept was unlike anything I've ever seen before. It's a cross between a medieval citadel and a boutique resort. The ancient small granite houses were transformed into designer bedrooms, suites, and villas and outfitted with all the luxuries that today's traveler needs. The property includes a locally-sourced restaurant, modern spa, and stunning vistas. The visit, albeit really short, gave me an entirely new appreciation for rural tourism.
Day 2: Our first winery visit was to Quinta dos Termos in Belmonte. The lively owner, João Carvalho, gave us a colorful tour of the property where we learned just as much about his wines as we did about his experiences growing up in this region. Afterward, we joined João and his family for an impressive wine tasting and a typical country-style lunch at a nearby village.
Later that day, we visited the massive 600 year old Sé da Guarda or Guarda Cathedral. The cathedral, built in both Gothic and Manueline styles, lies 30 miles west of the Spanish border where it was a constant reminder of Portugal's strength (and faith) during a time of foreign invasions.
We ended the day with a visit to Quinta de Lemos for a quick tour of their cellar and traditional winepress. Forty-five minutes later, the real treat began: a five-course dinner prepared by Chef Diogo Rocha at Mesa de Lemos where attention to detailed reigned supreme. Rocha and his team made sure that everything was perfect: the space, the course selections, the wine pairings, and of course, the presentation.
Day 3: We started the day with a detailed guided tour of the majestic Casa da Ínsua, a former 18th-century baroque style mansion now turned boutique hotel. It was a journey back to the time when the Portuguese nobility busied themselves with buying (and most importantly displaying) art from around the world. Wherever their travels took them, they had a room in their mansion that was dedicated to showing it off.
After the tour, we had a locally-sourced three-course lunch with wine pairings at Restaurant Casa de Ínsua.
The day ended with a different kind of royalty as we drove hours to experience the Rei dos Leitões which literally translates to King of Suckling Pig. According to the Portuguese, they will tell you that the town of Mealhada is home to a dozen or so restaurants that specialize in this famous national dish and Rei dos Leitões, shines above them all. After three and a half hours where we tried everything-leitão (with matching wines) I think we would agree.
Day 4: We started at the office of Rota da Bairrada or Bairrada Tourisim Office. It’s an old train station transformed into a functional tourist information center, wine store, and local gift shop. Here we met the talented team that organized this experience for us. We also visited the eclectic Aliança Underground Museum, a winery that houses one of Portugal's largest private art collections. In their huge wine cellar, you'll find statutes, semi-precious stones, fossils, and hand-painted Portuguese tiles displayed beside 60 year old port wines, perfectly-balanced oaked reds, fun rosés, and more. This museum/winery combined two of my favorite worlds and one amazing space.
Later we visited to the Caves São João (São João Cellar). In preparation for our arrival, the staff transformed the reception into a beautiful dinning area where they served us a traditional lunch of soup with greens, cod fish, dessert, and of course, their wines.
We ended our visit to Caves São João and the first part of the Central Portugal trip with one of my favorite activities: exploring the wine cellar.
Central Portugal was such a treat. The people, places, food, and wine totally exceeded my expectations and I'm already ready to go back.
I want to thank Turismo do Centro, Rota da Bairrada (specially Jorge Sampaio and Cristina Azevedo) and Joana Pratas for making this possible.
Sheree M. Mitchell has traveled to 40 countries, lived on three continents and speaks English and Spanish (while currently working on Italian and Portuguese). In 2014, Sheree gave up her comfortable life in Miami to embark on an ambitious 14-month, five continent transformational solo sojourn around the world. Today she oversees Immersa Global and IG Scholar, two boutique firms that specialize in designing unique immersion experiences abroad for adults and students. Sheree serves as a tourism consultant and also speaks publicly on transformational and immersive travel. Connect with Sheree and Immersa Global on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @immersaglobal