Xenia Taliotis hops on board an organised taster tour of Lisbon, Seville and Évora and discovers local delicacies, sweet spots, cellar tours and flamenco dancing
It’s chilly in Lisbon and the afternoon sky is bruised with heavy purple clouds, but I’m toasty inside Bar do Binho, Sintra, thanks to the drams of ruby port that are easing warmly down my throat.
Owner Samuel Esteves has made a living out of his passion for port and yet drinks only on special occasions. “Otherwise I would lose my ability to taste, my livelihood and my wife,” he tells me.
I could lose my sobriety and many days in here were it not for wanting to explore Sintra, a World Heritage jewel near Lisbon, Portugal, that’s topped by the part Gothic, part neo-Moorish, wholly mad 19th-century Palacio de Pena – barely visible through today’s mist – and tailed by the 14th-century Palacio Nacional de Sintra.
Sintra is the last place we visit on our first day in Lisbon. We – an international group of 29 – are here for a six-day Iberian taster tour, spending two nights in Lisbon, Évora and Seville.
Group holidays and escorted tours: a vision of hell?
If, like me, you’re of the InterRail and backpack generation, your brain will have translated the words escorted, group and coach into one monumental vision of hell. You’d be wrong, though.
Escorted tours are ideal for people who haven’t yet traded in their Lonely Planet apps for a two-weeks-in-a-could-be-anywhere brochure, but who are, nonetheless, ready to take a back seat (on a Mercedez Benz über-bus with extra leg room), and let someone else do the planning and luggage-carrying and restaurant research.
Lisbon city break
Take our first day in Lisbon. We’re picked up outside our centrally located hotel by our driver, a local expert and our tour concierge Toni, who accompanies us throughout. The group are like-minded and fun, all up for a good time and interested in food, wine and history. This is not the fuddy-duddy tours packed with bumbags and an over-enthusiastic leader but a tour taking in the best bits of the region with relaxed evenings. Phew! (Remove last sentence).
We’re taken to the majestic Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a building so beautifully sculpted that it appears embroidered; the Torre de Belém, which has guarded the Tagus for nearly 500 years; and the dazzling Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a prow-shaped stone monument to Portugal’s greatest explorers that strains over the river, as if trying to break free.
Then we cross to the Pasteis de Belém bakery for still-warm, cinnamon-dusted, gooey pasteis de nata. The custard cups were first made by the Jerónimos monks but have been made at Pasteis de Belém – a maze of tiled nook-and-cranny dining areas – since 1837. The secret recipe is apparently known by only three master pâtissiers at any one time.
Other special experiences (bespoke to Insight it seems) on our trip include fado at the 1920s Café Luso, flamenco at Seville’s El Patio Sevillano, a moonlit canter around Seville by horse and carriage and a dine-around, where we split into smaller groups to try different restaurants, with Toni picking up the bill.
Back on the road, we make an unscheduled stop en route to Estoril and Cascais. We feel the steely sea spray whipping in from the Atlantic and see, from afar, Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe. Those early explorers probably felt as if they were falling off the world when they sailed past that point.
Wineries in Alentejo
The next day we leave for Alentejo, the “land beyond the Tagus,” which is Portugal’s wine cellar. This region accounts for nearly 50 per cent of the total wine production, and its pantry, renowned for black pork, salt cod, cheeses, olives and much more.
We visit the family-run José Maria Da Fonesco winery, established in 1834, going deep into its cellars to find cobweb-covered casks that haven’t budged since they were built into the caverns a century ago, before sampling its award-winning wines, including a luscious Periquita Reserva and a honey and caramel Alambre Moscatel de Setúbal.
The historical town of Évora
From there we head to the immaculate, walled city of Évora, passing thousands of cork oak trees that, having only recently been stripped of their bark, appear half naked. The cork is used to make everything from umbrellas and shoes to hats and even dresses.
Built more than 2,000 years ago by the Lusitanians, Évora’s history reveals itself round every twisty street. Among its treasures are the 16th-century Aqueduto da Água de Prata (aqueduct of silver water), the arches of which hop across the back of our hotel, the five-star M’Ar de Ar Aqueduto; a remarkable Roman temple, reputedly dedicated to Diana, and the rose granite cathedral with its rare statue of a pregnant Madonna.
The ruins of Monsaraz
About an hour from Évora is Monsaraz, a hilltop beauty with medieval whitewashed houses and a castle that gazes out towards the Guadiana and Grande Lago do Alqueva, Europe’s largest man-made lake. Later we sail on that lake, our boat taking us over submerged Roman ruins and past islands that are actually the tops of flooded hills, to Sem-Fim, an old olive mill that is now an outstanding restaurant and gallery.
The food is exceptional and, as the restaurant’s name suggests, without end. Course after perfect course, from land and sea, appears before us and, for the first time in 33 years, I am tempted, by the black pork, to eat meat; I don’t succumb, but I come close.
More encounters with pigs follow the next day, in Corteconcepción, Spain, where the Eíriz family has been breeding black pigs and making Jamones Eíriz Iberian ham since 1818. Manolo Eiriz hums to his animals – a hypnotic guttural sound –to keep them happy. The pigs roam freely in the fertile fields, foraging for food and feasting on the acorns that Manolo knocks from the oaks. It’s the very depiction of a pastoral idyll.
Seville and Cordoba
We visit Seville’s Alcazar, the Cathedral and its bell tower, La Giralda, which is built around a 12th-century minaret. The reverse happened in Cordoba when, 300 years after the Christian reconquest, a church was built inside the city’s glorious Mesquita, now known as the mosque-cathedral.
Mercifully most of the 8th-century architectural masterpiece was left intact, so we can still gawp with slack-jawed awe at the vast arcaded hall built from horseshoe-shaped, red and white, double-tiered arches and 856 columns of onyx, marble, granite and jasper.
Writing this I remember how much we saw, ate, drunk and laughed in six days. That’s the thing about having someone else do all the work and the driving for you. It lets you relax and really enjoy yourself.