Tiles, carbs and custard tarts in Portugal

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What kind of idiot doesn’t properly read an Airbnb listing before they book their holiday? Fools like us. We had chosen what we considered to be a ‘characterful’ Airbnb in Porto for the first leg of our two week trip to Portugal at Easter, with our two rascal children in tow. We found somewhere central that looked charming – no bland IKEA, thank you. We browsed the artful photos that showed us high ceilings, quirky decor and a glimpse of a kitchen. Perfect. Actually no. Turns out the glimpse of a kitchen from one picture was precisely that. A wee minibar fridge and a microwave, with a drawer containing four plates, four tiny tin cups and one tea towel does not a kitchen make. Fine for young couples, but a nightmare for a family, where requests for food are shrieked from the mouths of our starving seagull children approximately every four seconds. Washing up every cup and plate in the toilet sink is zero fun and a bit grim. Our son nearly nuked the microwave by cooking a tin cup inside it (there were angry, orange sparks). Don’t even get me started on the ‘double bed’ – a king size mattress perched atop a SINGLE bed base, cleverly disguised by duvet overhang, but which made us roll out of both sides of the bed immediately as the mattress drooped down to the floor. FFS, I know these are first world problems but when you’re shelling out for a holiday….argh argh argh.

What didn’t help also, was that we were practically jetlagged when we arrived, having been up since 2:30am to catch our flight from London. When our hosts greeted us, our eyeballs were rolling into the backs of our skulls and we allowed ourselves to be utterly charmed. They were so genial, spoke fluent English and wore eclectic clothes. Plus they gave us maps, biscuits and a carafe of port. We failed to notice the lack of kitchen and waved them a friendly goodbye. We are such dicks.

Still, Airbnb mishaps aside, I fell hard for Porto. If, like me, you’re constantly imagining that the 1970s were the best looking decade, then Porto is a treat for the senses, with shopfronts that don’t look as though they’ve changed since that era. Everything seems bathed in Technicolor light (or was that just my state of fatigue?). Plus I REALLY love tiles. And Porto has these in all kinds of colours, textures and configurations adorning many of the buildings.

Seriously, LOOK:


Lisbon was also beautiful, but we couldn’t drag our kids around it for more than a few hours; all the vertiginous hills and architecture wasn’t their bag, no matter how many custard tarts we bribed them with – all they really wanted to do was dig holes on a beach, so we headed down to Cabanas in the Algarve for the last bit of the holiday, which was infinitely more chilled out. All the towns and cities we visited were stunning, all boasting wonderful tiled buildings in varying amounts – smaller beachside places such as Santa Luzia, Tavira and Cabanas reminiscent of Mexico with brightly painted and tiled adobe houses, with Lisbon and Porto leading the way with dramatic and stately architecture.


When it came to the food, I didn’t quite fall in love as much. Portuguese food is BIG, hearty and robust – and often quite plain. I do love a custard tart and grilled fish off the barbecue…but I did yearn for a bit more variety, and a bit of spice. When you eat out the portions are absolutely massive, there is a lot of bread and sardine pate, and we ate like absolute pigs. I returned to the UK practically a sphere filled with custard, and ran straight for the nearest curry. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy lots of the food – such as bacalhau (salt cod with potatoes), arroz de mariscos (a soupy, comforting version of seafood paella) and salt cod fritters (only a fool couldn’t love these). I could eat pasteis de nata (custard tarts) for days. And we were extremely impressed by the sheer number of pastry shops, which at times seemed to outnumber the population. And the old fashioned sweet shops (also selling biscuits, nuts and cheese) are to DIE FOR. Portugal is a place that does carbs – all of them – all together. Chips, rice, boiled potatoes, pasta, bread – all in the same meal. I quite approve of that, but living there would kill me!

I am quite at one with a stretchy waistband post holiday, and I am slowly returning to the fact that I need to eat rice, bread and potatoes separately. I’ll leave you with a picture of the Porto speciality, the ‘Francesinha’ – a towering beefcake of a hot sandwich that contains six types of meat (steak, sausage, chorizo, ham etc), encased in a white bread sandwich, topped with a fried egg, cheese, and drenched in beer sauce. Resting on a bed of chips. It’s the kind of food Elvis would have been eating when he died:


Here are some photos and recommendations from the trip…let us rejoice for carbs in their shedloads, and wonderful tiles. I warned you.


Amazing restaurant recommendation: Refugio 112


This was our best meal of the trip. Host Fernando at Refugio 112 regales the punters and his wife cooks all the food from a tiny stove in the back of this modest five-table restaurant, which is like someone’s living room, festooned with football scarves and a telly blaring out news and chat shows. You get to choose either ‘meat’ or ‘fish’. Everything else that happens from that moment is utterly out of your control. Fernando approaches with port, then wine, then shots of liquor. Obligatory. Requests for water are rejected (“Agua with Bacalhau? NO!”) Instead, we ended up drunk and our kids were pumped with litres of ice tea, so they were buzzing. The food is simple, hearty and delicious, the TV never shuts up and we didn’t stop laughing. Fernando doesn’t speak a single word of English, we don’t speak Portuguese, but somehow we communicated effortlessly. Don’t miss out on the sturdy puddings, delivered by the slab.

Bacalhau – salt cod drenched with onions, olive oil and fried potatoes. Delicious:


Pudding station – look at those custardy bricks of delight:


The tiny doorway:


Sweet shops

I discovered quite a few beautiful old sweet shops in Porto – they sell a dizzying selection of candy, chocolates, biscuits, nuts and cheese. Like stepping back in time…ahh so nostalgic. Did they see me coming? Yes they did.



Aside from the sweeties, just look at that amazing font!










Even though it’s a bit touristy, you have to check out the Cafe Majestic in the centre of Porto. It’s absolutely beautiful – all Art Deco magnificence, ornate beauty and polished glass. Very fine custard tarts. Great for people watching.




Pasteis de nata: gone in two bites, easy:




Every man and his dog comes to eat custard tarts at Pasteis de Belem, a veritable institution of cake. The cafe is beautiful and it has been churning out custard delights and other cakes since 1837.




We ate a hearty lunch on the edge of the big food market, Mercada da Ribeira, at Cacao da Ribeira:


The ubiquitous fish pates and olives that you get with bread at the start of every meal. The Portuguese eat the saltiest olives I have ever tasted:


Damn fine salt cod croquettes:


I always try to visit the food market in cities that I visit – I don’t feel like I know a place at all unless I peer at where people get their potatoes – this is Lisbon’s Mercada da Ribeira:

At the supermarket

Seafood by the shovel-load:


Piles of dried salt cod:


A national obsession – fried egg flavoured crisps, which can’t be a good idea, can it?


Tiles and doorways:

Crazy two-dimensional tiles:


Serious ornate pavement action in Portugal:



These are ridiculous (I love them):


Excuse me while I freak out at these beautiful tiles:




Seriously good tile game:


Santa Luzia, Algarve:

















Porto is ridiculously beautiful, I have so much love for this city:




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