One Sunday night last year, during a brief foray into the seven channels of Portuguese television, our interest was captured by a regional heat of a competition to find the seven best ‘à mesa’ in Portugal.
These were basically a selection of courses featuring local products which would form a typical meal of a given area. What was particularly fascinating was that many of the names mentioned were of locations around Portugal I’d never heard of previously. A wee bit of research uncovered it was a competition which had been held every year since 2007, each time involving a different aspect of Portugal’s many natural and human-made attractions. It was like finding a direct insight into a ‘best of’ the country as known by residents. Some places, foods, natural attractions etc. we already knew and had visited/imbibed. Others were already on our to visit/try list. But there were also a significant number of entries which were new to us, immediately being added to a mental list of places we must check out.
Each year seven finalists are chosen from a greater amount of entries (49 in 2018), far too many to mention. Instead here’s a taster of some of the ‘best of Portugal’ categories to date.
One of the surprises from the seven ‘à mesa’ marvels was that it was from Albufeira; a location which, having visited, I thought mostly had been spoiled somewhat by mass tourism. The dishes which won it a place among the seven best tables in Portugal reflected the area’s fishing and farming roots – sea urchins; fish and seafood cataplana; oranges. Accompanying the food was Vida Nova rosé wine and Vinho Onda Nova white wine.
The line up for the seven best villages in Portugal was a real eye-opener. We hadn’t visited any, and yet we thought we’d seen some of the prettiest villages the country had to offer – Marvao in Alentejo for example. One, Monsaraz, we had nearly visited when we were scouting potential places to stay but in the end we spent so much time being serenaded by nearby Évora, pretty as a picture itself, that we ran out of time and didn’t make it.
The category which launched the competition included the least surprises, the chosen seven probably not including any real surprises. We’d visited four of them, my favourite being the Torre de Belém in Lisbon.
Seven best Portuguese constructions around the world
Although we hadn’t visited any of the seven finalists, which included historic buildings in Brazil (São Francisco Convent), India (Fort Diu), Morocco (El Jadida), Cape Verde (Cidade Velha) and China (Igreja de Sao Paulo), they acted as a reminder of just how many times our paths had taken us to former Portuguese colonies – staying in a Portuguese fort in Goa; visiting Portuguese churches in Negombo, Sri Lanka; escaping the bustle by walking castle ramparts in Essaouira; and, oddest of all, gazing over a mock Torre de Belém at Mindelo on the Cape Verdean island of São Vicente.
Best of nature
When it comes to natural wonders it was no surprise that locations in the Azores and Madeira figured in the magnificent seven, but so did one close to where we’re staying – Portinho in Arrábida National Park. I’d have been outraged if Arrábida hadn’t made the grade.
Seven best Portuguese dishes
We’d have had to stop calling ourselves foodies if we hadn’t tried most of the classic Portuguese dishes which made up the final seven. As it turned out we’d tried them all from caldo verde (cabbage soup) to alheira, the sausage that wasn’t a sausage. This was another category where the top seven wouldn’t hold any surprises for anyone who knew Portuguese gastronomy reasonably well; pastel de Belém and sardines were also included; although, surprisingly, bacalhau wasn’t.
Although we don’t spend much time actually lying on beaches, we’d notched up quite a few of the ones included among the finalists and winning top seven. Portugal is a country blessed with outstanding beaches so choosing a top seven is a mission impossible that few are likely to agree with. The inclusion of Praia de Odeceixe in Algarve is hard to dispute. But is Praia do Guincho on the Estoril coast not far from Lisbon really better than Rabbit Beach in Arrábida?
Much of the above confirms something about travel we already subscribe to. Portugal is a highly popular destination at the moment, yet the tourism spotlight falls on only a handful of places, leaving plenty of fabulously interesting and beautiful locations that remain virtually unknown to the bulk of visitors.
This year’s seven Portuguese marvels involve doces (sweets). My money’s on some of these classics getting to the finals – camel spit; nun’s belly, and lard from heaven.