Thursday, December 13, 2012

It's All About The Wine

This is a long blog as I haven’t updated you for a while. Too busy wine tasting!

After leaving Porto we headed south to Coimbra. This wonderful hill town did wonders for our gluteus maximus, tempered by the wonderful pastries, especially the custard tarts – they are simply irresistible. Coffee in Portugal is exceptionally good, so every day is a challenge to avoid pastries, but we fail mostly.
Coimbra University

Coimbra is a university town, with the oldest part of the university dating back to the 12th century. The students still wear the black cape when outside, a lovey sight to see strolling about. The town also boasts a convent that was almost completely submerged for several hundred years, now unearthed and able to be explored.
Santa Clara Convent

From Coimbra we drove to Conimbriga, an area of vast Roman ruins. This was an extraordinary place with the most amazing intact mosaic floors, covering several hundred square meters. Portugal has surprised us with the amount of Roman ruins popping up here and there.
Mosaic floors at Conimbriga

We had lunch in Mealhada, the roast suckling pig capital of the world – absolutely delicious. We attempted to visit Bairrada wine region, but wine tourism hasn’t hit this part of the world yet, so we just bought a few bottles from a local producer and made up our own story.

Next stop Lisbon – with side trip to Munich. Lisbon is a vast sprawling city with a compact old town and some interesting old suburbs. The heart of the city is post 1755 earthquake with ramrod straight streets. Outside this grid is a complete maze and very easy to get lost in. We did the usual churches, cathedral, monastery, etc.  The old trams that help you up the steep streets are a real treat.
Lisbon Tram

The most interesting part for us, of course, was some small and unusual wine regions. Colares (pronounced Kolarsh) was a completely new one to me made from the Ramisco (red) and Malvasia (white) grapes. The vines grow low on the sandy soil close to the beach and sprawl out in a seemingly haphazard manner. We visited Palmela, which had a wonderful wine information centre with no information to be had – wine tourism has not matured here! We just bought wine. The region, Setubal, is renowned for good stickies made from Muscatel.

Sintra, near Lisbon, was once a King's playground. The buildings are bit bizarre, and would have made Ludwig the Mad green with envy. The pictured palace was once a sedate monastery.

Palacio Nacional de Sintra

 From Lisbon we headed inland to Évora, famous for its Roman Temple and in the heart of the Alentejo wine region. The mediæval town is delightful with the Temple being the centrepiece, but there is also a vast aqueduct and some great churches. Of course being close to Christmas, all the nativity scenes are being dusted off and displayed around town. Some of those Baby Jesuses have seen better days. The countryside is also renowned for megalithic sites of standing stones, around 2000 years old, just sitting in a farmer's field. Gosh!! 
2000 year old Roman Temple in Evora

Being devoted and intrepid wine lovers, we headed out towards the Spanish border to visit to the José de Sousa winery. We took MoJo out for a spin as she hasn’t been out for while – BIG mistake. We didn’t realise just how cold it was, and it got colder as we headed into thick fog. Too late to turn back as we had an appointment with the winemaker, so on we ploughed. When we arrived in town Lawrence said, “I don’t care if we are late, if I don’t get a coffee, I might die”.

We were frozen solid, and froze the whole way around our private tour, which was mostly outside or in freezing cellars. However, one must suffer for one’s art, and we were rewarded with a really informative tour by a very talented winemaker.  

Two things set this place apart. Firstly they still ferment some of their top-of-the-range wine in clay amphoras from the 19th century- REALLY!! Secondly, they crush the wine by foot in lagares, still, REALLY!! We have come across this in a few places, but the amphoras really blew us away – the sight is breathtaking. And the wine is stunning, from a 3 euro white that is reminiscent of a white Rhone through to a dense, complex red made from Trincadeira, Grand Noir (this is a new one to us!!), Aragonês (tempranillo) and Alicant Bouschet.
Amphoras in use at Sao de Jose

This winery was a real highlight and worth almost freezing to death.

We are now in Beja in a dreary campsite, with a town to match and have decided that one night is enough. Having said that, there is a wonderful convent that is now a museum, famous for the Portuguese nun whose alleged love letters to a Count have been made into a romantic book. I love this story and really hope that it is true.

We are very happy to see Storks again. They are heading south and taking up real estate on the highest points they can find. We love these birds and watch them refurbishing their nests in the helter skelter fashion they seem to favour.

From here we head back to the west coast and hopefully catch up with our friends Caroline and Nigel, who we met almost 12 months ago in El Rocio. We have been threatening to visit them ever since and it seems we might actually make it. We have a magnum of Rioja to celebrate the occasion.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Austria for Lunch?

We are just back from Munich and it was so wonderful that I thought I should devote a blog to it.

Business first - we spent the best part of Friday at Bimobil. They are a company that build camper bodies for 4WD vehicles. We first saw them in Morocco and were so impressed we decided that this was the way forward for us. Hilda the Hymer was always an interim vehicle and she will go to a new home some time late next year. (check out

Bimobil design each body individually, so that’s what we were doing on Friday, as well as bombarding Simon, the marketing manager, with loads of questions regarding building it onto a Landcruiser chassis. Having lived in 2 motorhomes now, we know what our priorities are – storage, storage, storage and this one should do the trick.
A Typical Interior

Don’t get too excited, this is a 12 month project so won’t be ready for quite some time.

Since we were in the region we thought it appropriate to see a bit of Bavaria. We arrived by happenstance for the first weekend of Christkindlmarkt (Christmas markets) and there seemed to be people from all over the world in town. On top of this the local football team, Bayern Munich, was playing Borussia Dortmund so the city was also full of out of town football fans. The place was absolutely heaving. The market is really just a great excuse to put on all your clothes and stand around in the freezing cold night air drinking gluhwein and eating wurst.  We felt obliged to join in the fun.
Neue Rathaus and Markets

Day 3 we ventured into the Bavarian Alps. It was like driving through a Christmas card. Snowy trees, onion domed church spires, cuckoo clock houses and the odd snow flurry. We did a quick tour of one of Ludwig II’s fanciful schlosses, and could see very clearly why he was called Ludwig the Mad (Ludwig the Absolute Barking more like it).
Me in the Snow

I'd forgotten how silent snow is, and so gentle, it makes rain seem noisy and undisciplined by comparison.
Road in Bavarian Alps
Chocolate Box Villages with cuckoo clock houses

Day 4 we decided to drive to Austria for lunch. Salzburg is only 130kms away so it seemed like a fine idea. We woke to quite a lot of snow but the roads were clear and everywhere just looked like a postcard. It was a beautiful drive and Salzburg is still lovely. Downed a quick gluhwein and some goulash for lunch and then off to the airport.
Salzburg was a balmy 4 degrees

Now back in Lisbon, we are eating vegetables and drinking water. After 4 days of beer, pork, cabbage and potato dumplings that have the consistency of squash balls, we need to detox.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Chicken Blood and Vinegar

More on this recipe later, I’ll quickly fill you in on our adventures in Portugal. We crossed the border about 2 weeks ago and spent out first 2 nights in a campsite by the beach at the mouth of the Minho River. The town of Caminha has views directly across to Spain, and provided us with a wonderful introduction to our latest country.

We cycled into town and sent a lovely few hours exploring the old city with the usual collection of churches, walls, towers and a wonderful square that begged us to sit and drink wine in the sun. We chatted with some expat locals who pointed us in the direction of the best restaurant in town for lunch. 13 euros for 2 three course lunches and a carafe wine and 2 coffees – we instantly fell in love with Portugal.  We worked this off with a brilliant walk on the beach.
The Square in Caminha

Many of the campsites in Portugal are a closed for the winter, so we drove straight to Oporto and hired a cheapo car (18 euros per day!) in order see the region.

Our camp here is close to the beach with about 10kms of brilliant cycle tracks into town. The track has loads of beachside cafes and bars along the way, so you never actually make it into town. We can also take the rollercoaster (aka the local bus) into town – what a ride!! Some of the streets are so narrow that we wonder how the bus makes it around the corners. There is a bit of reversing and jostling on the way.

November 13 was Lawrences’ birthday, so you’ll be surprised to hear that we had a lavish lunch. We visited Taylors, one the major Port producers and after doing the obligatory tour of the cellars, booked into the restaurant for a wonderful lunch. We ate with views across the river to Porto.

The town of Oporto (just Porto in Portuguese) is a wonderful to city to wander around - grand buildings, crooked streets, wide avenues, churches galore and a great tower to climb.
Just wanting to show off the blue sky in Porto

Typical shot of Porto

We took our little Renault Clio out into the Douro Valley for a few days to see the ‘real’ port country. Most of you will know that port is matured in Vila Nova de Gaia (across the river from Porto) but it is grown in the Douro Valley towards the Spanish border. The road along the river was a real adventure and I was carsick for the first time since I can remember, so winding was the road. The views however, made it worth the nausea.
Two typical views of the Douro Valley 

We booked into a ‘Quinta’ for 2 nights – a working vineyard and winery, right on the river, just outside the town of Pinhão, the heart of port country.
The view from our room

We did a bit of driving in the area, as we were so struck by seeing the wonderful steep terraces along the river where the port grapes area grown. It is just like in the wine books!! We were also able to wander along some of these terraces doing an audio tour supplied by another Quinta.
Vineyard terraces

Now to dinner! We ate a local restaurant the first night in Pinhao and enjoyed the hospitality and food so much that we were enticed to come back for a second night for the speciality of the house – Chicken cooked in chicken blood and vinegar, how could we resist?? What a treat, it was absolutely delicious, despite the ingredients.

Back in Porto, we drove out to a town called Braga, a long-standing religious capital of Portugal. It is positively heaving with churches, but the real show stopper is the Bom Jesus, just out of town. We climbed the 500 plus stairs to the church, eschewing the funicular (that’s for wimps). The real faithful do it on their knees as a demonstration of their devotion. We are really chocking up heaven points with all these church climbs (just in case).
Surely this should get us some brownie points - the stairs up to Bom Jesus

Next we’ll head to Lisbon with a side trip to Munich as the first step in our quest for the perfect vehicle to eventually drive back to Australia. Watch this space!!!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

From the Top of the Cathedral to the End of the World.

We have now been in the Galicia region for almost 2 weeks. Our first few days were a bit wet, but things have slowly improved and a few lunches in the sun have been possible. Our campsite in Santiago is OK, not glamorous but adequate, and the showers are really hot which is very welcome as the weather continues to get colder.

The region is mixed, some parts lovely, some bits not so. Many of the smaller towns, particularly the coastal regions, are quite dreary, bordering on ugly. We think that the failed Spanish architectural students are sent here to practice.
Carpaccio of Octopus in Santaigo market - delicious

Having said that, Santiago itself has some outstanding buildings, not least of which is the Cathedral, the ultimate goal of all those years of pilgrimage. Santiago (aka the Apostle St James) allegedly arrived here in a stone boat (stone being well known for its buoyancy) and his bones are buried under the now Cathedral.
The Cathedral with baroque facade

The ‘new’ facade of the cathedral is ‘over the top’ Baroque built in the 17th century by a Canon who didn’t quite like the original 12th century Romanesque front porch (which is quite lovely and can be seen on the tour).

The Roof Top Tour of the cathedral was the highlight of our stay here. We literally walked onto the roof of the cathedral. I, being a sook afraid of heights and having a dodgy ankle, pathetically clung onto Lawrence’s arm the whole time, but was awestruck by this building from on top. The roof is built from granite slabs, stepped to make the roofline. This explains why there are so few windows; solid walls were required to keep the thing up.
Standing on the roof of the Cathedral - being brave.

We did the museum as well, so literally saw the cathedral from top to bottom (including the crypt), inside and out. We poked in all corners of the building, saw secret doors, 1st floor cloisters, balconies, the entombed remains of St James and listened to a nun singing the beginning of mass. She should have been on the stage, so lovely was her voice. The altar piece was the typically baroque “I can do more gold carving than you can” style.

We went to the end of the earth – Finisterre, actually the most western point of Spain and cruised around a lot of coast. Spent a few hours in A Coruña, a large concrete city famous for being the spiritual home of the fashion chain Zara, but little else to recommend it.
Some lovely coast to be seen
Lunch in A Coruna

We drove back to Lugo in our little Seat (a car, not a chair), having failed to see inside the Roman walls the first time around. The walls are quite amazing in their completeness, but the city inside is a bit dull with a lot of new building. Still, we did get to do Spanish Lunch in the sun, in a lovely square complete with an orchestra playing show tunes in the bandstand, and an Australian couple sitting next to us, watching the old ladies parading their wonderful coiffures.
Walls of Lugo

We visited a wonderful winery on the Rias Baixas region. The region grows mainly Albariño, which has become very fashionable in Spain and the UK, with prices to match. We spent a wonderful 2 hours at Paco & Lola, a new kid on the block winery with wonderful wine and brilliant marketing and merchandising.  We met with the export manager and talked about our aim to import Spanish wine to Australia. As a gift, we walked away with 6 bottles of their brilliant wine, definitely a visit to remember.
Albarino with lunch after Paco&Lola

Next stop Portugal (and all those weird grape varieties).