Portugal

Lisbon

The trip to the Iberian peninsula was much more than just a visit to Portugal. It bore special significance for two reasons: first, it was centered upon the Matti Family Reunion and second, it also reunited me with my girls who had been in Europe for the previous 2+ weeks. The Matti Family is a link through Brigitte and it had been many years since she had last seen many members of the family. I too was very excited about meeting everyone especially grandpa and grandma whom I had heard so much about over the years. And it was also a great opportunity to introduce Olivia. Everyone had travelled in from different pockets around the world, Grandpa and Grandma made the trip all the way from Hawaii while uncle Freddy and aunt Evelyne travelled over 20 hours from half-way around the world (Australia). Uncle Terry and aunt Kathy originated from Canada while cousin Jackie and her cool young dude son (Fiver), jetted in from Seattle (and her mom aka aunt Linda and bro aka cousin Anthony also flew in from Hawaii). Making a shorter trip were uncle Denis and Francoise from Switzerland and uncle Bob and auntie Sandra from the UK. But that’s not all, there were also the “kids” as Brigitte had remembered them from the last time she had seen many of them back in the ’90s. They were now adults and some had children of their own (i.e. cousins Hannah, Natalie and her son Jackson). Thus Portugal became the “central” destination for the reunion and the 26 of us set upon the village of Malveira da Serra, where the hilltop Morada da Sol property became home for 7 days. Uncle Denis and Francoise had scouted the location which proved perfectly situated proximity-wise to numerous attractions in the vicinity. Of immediate notice was the westward vista stretched by mending shades of blue, those of the Atlantic and the clear sky.

Nearly 20 years ago I had spent a rainy weekend in Lisbon (while doing a semester abroad in Spain). My memory of the capital was somewhat foggy but our arrangement of spending a couple of days in the colorful city (before heading to family reunion), would remedy the lapses. Slowly parts of the city reemerged from the shadows. The historic Chiado neighborhood with its signature pedestrian Rua Augusta, (filled with restaurants, street performers and tourists), the classic trams traversing the city, and the beautiful arch at the tail of Rua Augusta giving an open view to the River Tejo. We had the good fortune of beautiful blue skies as we made our way through various bairros (neighborhoods). One of the more popular attractions (which I would highly recommend even if you only had a day in the city), is the impressive São Jorge Castle, a Moorish castle dating back centuries if not millennia. The steep incline up the narrow streets leading to the castle eventually paid off with a 360-degree panorama of the city. We stopped frequently on the way up, not so much to catch our breath or even tend to Olivia, but to admire the hundreds or thousands of azulejos (decorative ceramic tiles), adorning the exteriors of numerous homes. Of Arabic origin, the azulejos have been part of Portuguese design for centuries and were brought over from Spain in the 1500s. Whether they followed us along our travels throughout the greater Lisbon area, or we found them along the way, is a simple matter of perspective.

Cascais & Sintra (area)

The week we spent in Maleveira da Serra placed us conveniently about 10-15 minutes away from Cascais, a colorful and historic fishing town just south of us (and only about 25 mins west of Lisbon. Cascais is loaded with restaurants and naturally delectable seafood reigns supreme. Grilled octopus with sauted garlic spinach and smashed potatoes was one of my favorite lunches. On a different occasion the outing was quite special. It was dedicated to celebrating Denis’ birthday with the entire Matti Family at Casa Velha (1878), over indulging not only in the food but in story-telling and forming new memories. It was also the first time I tasted a dry white port, served as an aperitif. Fittingly for Olivia, there was a carousel just across the way from Casa Vehla where she had much fun going round and round on her favorite animals.

Heading north of Malveira da Serra the undulating coastal road offered us a few unique experiences. Each day was an opening to explore, a new town, a new beach a new landmark. Much of Portugal is defined by the coast and although we only experienced a portion of it, the statement was made. Raw, rugged and perilously beautiful, it stands up to the ferocious and unrelenting beating from the Atlantic. At Cabo da Roca (the most Western point of the European Continent), the views inspire today the thousands of tourists seeking a breathtakingly perfect shot. (We too sought ours in various spots at times with Olivia zonked out in the ergo). Perhaps centuries ago, the coast conceivably inspired the intrepid voyages half-way around the world, those of Vasco da Gama, Magellan and other conquistadors. Men whose conquests of foreign lands and natural resources (from India to Brazil), enriched the Portuguese Empire beyond imagination. Traces of that are still evident today in some of the buildings that were commissioned as a result of the influx of wealth. The massive yet delicately detailed Mosterio Jeronimos in Lisbon’s Belem neighborhood is one (commissioned after the Portuguese explorers reached India), and the gargantuan Palacio Nacional in Mafra is another example. The Mafra palace became a national monument in 1910 and has since offered insider access to the royal family’s 1800s lifestyle (reflected in its 1,200+ rooms and halls). After a generous hour wandering endlessly from floor to floor and room to room of various themes and decor, we made our way into the library, one of the most impressive areas of the palace. Today it still possesses one of the richest collection of books in the country with over 36,000 leather bound volumes. A different type of collection can also be found in one of the palace’s courtyards, one of endangered birds of prey (in partnership with an organization that protects them). The benefit to tourists is the opportunity to get a photo taken with a bird of choice (eagle, flacon, owl, etc), with all proceeds going to their care taking. Brigitte seized the moment with North American owl, a beautiful and gentle bird with mesmerizing yellow eyes.

En route to Mafra we made a pit-stop at Jose Franco’s miniature village, a masterful representation of traditional homes and farms outside the cities. We Gulliver’ed our way through and Olivia had a blast running around the place with things being a little more her size. Jose Franco’s world was not only a depiction of rural life but a portal into a fantasy. That notion stayed with us throughout parts of the trip, especially the day we made our way to Sintra’s Palacio de la Pena.

Sintra’s allure comes in various forms, from magical palaces and castles to dense forests, scenic views, and a romantic town center comprised of colorful shops, numerous wine bars and restaurants. As we drove through town (en route to nearby attractions), we took notice of Sintra’s charm and looked forward to wandering its street at lunch. As the road continued beyond the town limits it snaked up towards Palacio de la Pena and the Castelo dos Mouros (or Moorish Castle). Arriving early (by 8:30am), paid off in finding a parking spot in what later seemed a parking nightmare. We decided on the palace as the first stop and walked an aggressive incline to reach it. With our heads tilted backward and trees giving way to a direct view, our initial reaction was awe at the palace’s peculiar appearance. Yellow, red and blue.. what the!? was this recently converted into a Disney castle or was is a deliberate choice in color? As we learned later upon navigating the grounds, King Fernando II was in fact an artist and gained inspiration from the palace’s hilltop location. Naturally the palace’s melange of primary colors began to make sense. Facing westward just beyond the yellow and green landscape, the clear blue sky intersected with the deeper Atlantic blue to form the horizon. The views were breathtaking. In the opposite direction (inland), just minutes away by foot stood the Castelo dos Mouros, a magnificent stone structure dating to the 8th or 9th century. This time  it was I who carried Olivia (while she zonked out in the ergo), working our way up to castles’ peripheral wall. The views from there were stunning as well. In contrast to Palacio de la Pena, the Moorish castle was far more minimalist and pure than its colorful neighbor (it was also constructed about 1,000 earlier). From there we made our way into the heart of Sintra for lunch followed by a stroll through its various shops checking out the local arts and crafts.

As the week wound down after days of exploration and fun with the Matti Family, the inevitable farewells were said and the sad feeling of parting ways too soon set in. It sounded like everyone still had days if not weeks of vacationing left after the family reunion, except for us unfortunately.

On our last full day in Portugal we carved out time for a visit to Lisbon’s notable wine region around the town of Azeitao. In my mind, a trip to an old world wine country would not be complete without a visit to one of its wine regions. And although the drive to Azeitao was mostly industrial and not quite scenic, things changed within a mile or so from town. Vineyards came into view on both sides of the road as if the stage design masters dreamed up a bucolic backdrop and rapidly manipulated sets. It was now a true wine country welcome, as far as the eye could see hills were covered with vineyards. We made our way into little town mainly defined by one principal road speckled with a handful of restaurants, cafes, wine bars, and a church. Small town indeed but wine tradition boasted grandiose here, two of Portugal’s largest wineries (with one being the oldest), are found in Azeitao. They are Jose Maria da Fonseca and Bacalhoa, with JMF’s tasting room and cellar situated in the center of town. Timing didn’t align for us to tour the cellar, instead we indulged in a tasting of various labels and blends (mostly dry reds and whites). With our palettes attuned, we settled in for lunch right across the street at Casa das Tortas (its backyard restaurant), where a bottle of Periquita (Branco 2014), kept us cool on a hot bright day.

From Azeitao we headed to Lisbon for our last night before the morning flight back home. We kept with the wine theme and wandered through Bairro Alto’s festive streets capturing some last minute photos before taking a break at one of the neighborhood wine bars. A few doors down we found Bar Alto (our dinner spot), where we reflected on our trip and the people we spent time with, wishing we didn’t have to fly home so soon. Fittingly Brigitte’s wine glass was accommodating enough for both of us to drown our sorrows.

Looking back, our trip to Portugal was special for two reasons. First, we spent most of our time with an incredible group of people, telling stories, cooking and eating together, and bonding as if we had known each other for years. It takes a unique group of people to make you feel this welcome and personally it meant a lot. It was also amazing to see how everyone took so openly to Olivia, the smallest and youngest member of the family. Second, Portugal is simply an amazing country, obrigado!

Thank you Matti Family!