As we crossed the westernmost border of Spain into Portugal, I thought of the imaginary line that once divided the world between these two empires during the 15th century. That invisible line determined the destiny of the new lands outside Europe for the next hundreds of years – lands to the east for the Portuguese, lands to the West to la Corona de Castilla.
Channelling explorers of new lands, our little traveling foursome – my boyfriend Jef and his parents Juanita and John visiting from the US – embarked on a two week adventure on the road, traversing borders to witness the bluest of skies, rugged coastlines, historic towns, and some of the most unforgettable dishes at nearly every stop.
This trip was one for the foodlover’s books, an eat-venture at every city, and if you’re a fan of seafood, then the Portuguese and Spanish towns along the Atlantic coast are a seafood mecca offering incredible fish, shellfish and crustacean treasures from the deep.
Here are some of the highlights of our eatventure, and a few snaps I sacrificed at the Instagram altar!
In Cod we trust
Lisboa is a landmark in a Time Lord’s agenda. Lisboa is ultramarine sky, ruin porn, candy-coloured buildings, cobblestone-mosaic streets, art deco fonts and graffiti covered trams all at once; it is the strange but beautiful juxtaposition of lively streets and the guitar strums of a nostalgic Fado song at sunset.
The restaurant Aqui Há Peixe (“Here there’s fish”) in Bairro Alto, where we feasted like Neptune’s bitches on vieiras salteadas (flambéed scallops), ameijoas à bulhão pato (braised clams in olive oil, cilantro and garlic), picanha de tamboril (finely sliced monkfish), and ostras ao natural (oysters au naturel). But the main event was the famous Portuguese national dish, bacalhau assado, or roasted codfish, served with potatoes and onion confit. The verdict: Oh. My. COD!!
Pouring the port in Porto
The city of Porto was a high point of our trip and my new favourite destination calling for further exploration. This city’s historical centre built alongside the Duoro river is in fact a UNESCO World Heritage site. – it was difficult to tear my eyes away from the colourfully painted buildings, Baroque cathedrals, and the muito charming restaurant terraces by the water that all come together like a perfectly composed work of art. Gliding across the river waters are the city’s iconic rabelo boats carrying wooden barrels of port wine.
Port wine tasting in Espaço Porto Cruz 360° Terrace Lounge.
When you cross the Dom Luís bridge from the historic city centre, you’ll get to a row of port wine tasting houses with picturesque riverside views. Soaking up the sun on the roofdeck of Espaço Porto Cruz, we sampled Porto’s famous sweet wine, produced exclusively in the Duoro region. Espaço Porto Cruz offers various Porto wines, Vintage and White port (a first time for me) – it was hard to not stay there the whole time and celebrate global Happy Hour (you know, declaring it’s Happy Hour somewhere in the world for the next seven hours).
Savouring Porto’s original Francesinha sandwich at the popular (and highly recommended by our AirBnB host) Brasão Cervejaria Aliados restaurant. Literally translated into “Little French”, this triple decker version of the croque monsieur is a meatlover’s dream come true with its sandwich filling of bacon, pork, ham, beefsteak and smoked sausage, all topped off unrepentantly with a fried egg and melted cheese. And then it’s drenched in a dark sauce made with onions, tomatoes, wine, brandy and of course, port.
When in Óbidos…
North of Lisbon is a quaint little medieval town called Óbidos. Lining the main street of this walled village are several chocolate and ginja (cherry liqueur) shops that offer ginja tastings to passersby.
Ginja a-go-go!! A shot (or two) of aguardiente-infused sour cherries swimming in a chocolate shot glass. ‘Nuf said.
Pilgrim’s progress (and pescado)
Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia, Spain is the final pitstop for pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James). I was pleasantly surprised with the atmosphere here – I thought it would be more pious and somber, but it was actually very celebratory and festive.
Pilgrims of all ages, with the iconic Camino seashell around their necks, backpacks and walking sticks, formed a line outside the majestic Cathedral de Santiago like it was a popular ride in Disneyland. By a fountain in the Praza de Cervantes, which was our zip code for two nights, two violinists played such classics as Pachelbel’s Canon in D, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and… “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica. Oh and the “Game of Thrones” opening track, which really did lend it an otherworldly, parallel medieval universe feeling (just less beheadings and wyldfire accidents).
Of course, Galicia is also known for two exquisite things – Albariño wine and seafood!!
The grilled seafood platter for two at A Barrola, which was highly recommended by our local host. This was by far my favourite dish of our entire foodcation, with freshly grilled razor clams, prawns, lobster tails, squid and crabs.
Pintxo me I’m in food heaven
It’s hard to find another city as beautiful and captivating as San Sebastián, rightfully dubbed as “Paris by the Sea”. It was my fifth time to visit this corner of the planet and yet I still found myself staring at the seascape, utterly mesmerized by its panorama, with its turquoise-coloured waters and sea foam paintings on the sandy coastlines, framed by cloud-fringed mountain ranges. Boats, like fallen stars, lay languidly on the Bay of Biscay by the lone Santa Clara island, and everything seems to be embraced by the shell-shaped Playa de la Concha. A walk on La Concha Promenade, even during its usual stormcloud-painted sunsets, is a kind of meditation, whose breaths fall in rhythm with the water’s ebb and flow.
In this rainy, northern part of the Basque region, We were very lucky to have at least one day of blue skies, and that morning Jef and I enjoyed our coffee and breakfast by the balcony of our rented flat, watching surfers on the lineup, almost feeling their exhilaration as they claimed waves to ride. At some point, Jef – a San Sebastián virgin – turned to me and said, “wow, this place is just so magical.”
As if this weren’t enough to win the Best Destination on Planet Earth Award, San Sebastián is also famous for being a gastronomic Promised Land. It holds the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain, and one of the cities in the world with the most Michelin stars per square meter (second to Kyoto, Japan).
Pretty much every pintxo bar and restaurant in the Parte Viejo (Old Quarter). You can’t go wrong on Kalea 31 de Agosto and Kalea Fermin Calbetón streets, with bar after bar outdoing each other with their display of dizzying pintxos (meaning “spike” in Basque). One thing I’ve learned over the years of coming here is not to get overly excited and fill your plate with too many pintxos that you can’t pintxo bar-hop because you’re too stuffed. Take just a few pintxos, order some txakoli, or Basque dry white wine, and savour the bites peppered with good conversations before moving on next door. Repeat.
One San Sebastián mainstay that I always come back to (and recommend to friends) is La Cuchara de San Telmo, a Michelin-starred pintxo bar on Kalea 31 de Agosto with the most memorable duck foie I’ve ever tasted in my life. This time, however, it was just impossible to hijack even a small space at the bar, let alone the terraza – looks like its fame has grown so much over the years that it’s pretty much on every visitor’s Must-Eat list.
And that closes the chapter of my summer food diary – time to say adeu to the hot days and bienvenido to Autumn!