By Robert K. Stephen (CSW)
(LISBON, PORTUGAL) – The other night I received a telephone call concerning a dear friend of mine, José Preto da Silva. After a second round of chemo matters took a turn for the worse and after four weeks in a Lisbon hospital he died losing a long battle to cancer. José and I had met many years ago through our daughters who attended a Toronto elementary school together.
José worked for the Portuguese government promoting tourism to Portugal. He had been posted throughout the world to promote the charms of Portugal. He had received orders of merit from the French, Japanese and Portuguese governments. Obviously he was a very well respected tourism professional. There was no pressing need to promote Portugal to me although the last time I had been there was in 1978 and absolutely loved it.
José persuaded us to visit Portugal again in the late 1990’s and personally worked with us to arrange an itinerary and make bookings at Pousada’s and hotels from the top to the bottom of Portugal. A three week adventure in Portugal. A total view of it from Northern Portugal including Ponte de Lima, Braga and Guimares down to Evora, Coimbra, Lisbon, Estoril, Navares and Lagos on the Algarve. At the conclusion of that trip I was totally hooked on Portugal as a holiday destination.
José was a true gentleman exhibiting a great degree of Portuguese formalism and manners and always respectful of your point of view. Yet the formalism was shallow as you didn’t have to dig that deeply to realize he had a great sense of humour, a deep understanding of politics and economics.
Despite his battle with cancer we linked up with him a couple of summer’s ago after his first successful battle with cancer. We spent a lovely few days in Estoril at the beach, eating grilled sardines and having a few dinners on his veranda overlooking Monte Estoril with a few glasses of Portuguese wine perfectly matched to the various courses we ate. Jose knew his Portuguese wine from reds, whites, Port and Madeira and being a gentleman took great care in pairing wines with each course.
Last summer things were not so great. Jose could not make it through our dinner at his condo, had no wine and had to retire early as he did not feel well. The last I heard from him was that his new therapy seemed to be working well and we discussed going to the Douro this summer to visit some wineries. Unfortunately this will not be the case.
I never really had the opportunity to say good-bye completely but at our last visit I thanked him for his friendship, his love of Portugal that inspired my own love for Portugal, his enthusiasm for Portuguese wines and food which was very easily transferred to me.
I’d like to repay José in some way to express my appreciation and somehow preserve his memory and about the only way I can do this is to tell you to visit Portugal, particularly the city of Porto and the Douro Valley. This is my favourite part of Portugal. Without his encouragement to explore Portugal and its wines I feel that I would not be writing about travel and wine today. In my younger days his serving of a chilled Gamay with spicy Indonesian food really stretched my knowledge of food and wine pairings and encouraged further wine education and research on my part.
Porto is a great Euro city full of culture, marvellous architecture, astounding food and friendly and welcoming people. Initially it has a certain roughness and grittiness to it giving it a slightly hard edge particularly as you move up from the Riberia (River District) but I like that dose of reality. The grittiness fades with subsequent visits to Porto. It’s charming the more you get to know it. And across the Douro River a few minutes away is Gaia, the location of the great Port lodges open for tours and tastings. It has a vibrant and buzzing waterfront and a great view of Porto, particularly at night. I won’t name all the tourist sites and great restaurants of Porto and Gaia as you can buy a guide or Google me with a “Porto” after my name and hit some of the basics.
Porto is but a 6 hour flight from Toronto if you can catch a direct flight. Two or so hours (120kms) from Porto you are in Northeastern Portugal and in the Douro Valley. You can take a day cruise, you can rent a car or you can take a week cruise down the Douro River. You have options. A note of caution though. Driving is a bit problematic once off the motorway. Winding up and down might be a bit easy for the driver but passengers beware. Motion sickness may be a bit of a problem.
Do your research if you want to visit the Quintas (estates producing wine). Unlike many wineries in Niagara, Prince Edward County or Lake Erie North Shore you’ll need an appointment. Lunches may also be arranged depending on the Quinta. Be prepared for a bevy of great table wines and stellar Ports. Douro Valley cooking has loads of meat involved and mind blowing potatoes. If you do not have an appetite your hosts will be very worried if not alarmed.
Aside from its wines and fabulous foods the Douro Valley’s incredible strength is its scenery. I liken it to the Grand Canyon which is a bit difficult for the Portuguese to understand as just about no one it seems in Portugal has visited the Grand Canyon. But it reminds me very much of the Grand Canyon and driving along the dirt Roads of the Superstition Mountains in Arizona. Spectacular. Winding roads. Small villages. Heights. Vibrant colours particularly in October and November. Narrow bridges. Forests. Hospitality and a fierce pride about Douro wines. And perhaps the opportunity to drink Ports that are older than you.
We are talking rugged country in the Douro Valley. It’s not cutesy Napa or Russian River Valley in California. It is also unforgettable somewhat like my dear friend José. I will never forget the 8 course dinner we had with José at Fortaleza do Guincho on Guincho Beach after his first successful battle with cancer. A great array of Portuguese wines with fabulous cuisine and laughing that we could barely manage the pre-dessert, dessert and post dessert courses. A sense of happiness, fulfillment and optimism shared amongst friends. This is the way I will remember José.