One of the many things I have come to rely on from using the Lonely Planet Guide to plan my travels is their “Suggested Itineraries” section. Located in the front section of their guides, these recommended itineraries not only help me plan which direction I want to venture, but also help me make sure I don’t bypass any of the “not to be missed” stops along the way.
I have been loosely following the Lonely Planet’s recommended “Highlights of Portugal” itinerary, which heads south from Lisbon, east along the southern Algarve coast, then turns north to Evora, then back west to Lisbon before heading north to Porto, forming the shape of a lower case letter “b.”
Having now come within 15 miles of the border with Spain, it’s time to leave the Algarve Coast and continue my counter-clockwise loop of the bottom of the letter “b” and loop back up toward Lisbon. While I’m not ready to leave the beaches of the Algarve, I know there will be more opportunities as I head north along the coast to Porto. So with a pang of melancholy, I leave the beach behind to board the bus bound for the medieval town of Evora.
Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, Evora is often referred to as the most beautiful of many medieval cities lovingly preserved throughout Portugal. Surrounded by 14th century walls, the town is filled with all the landmarks one would expect from an ancient fortified city; winding, narrow cobblestone streets, ancient ruins. Cathedrals, cloisters, and yes, even a collection of skulls and bones.
Evora is also the heart of the Alentejo wine region, where wines are described as “fat, rich, and fruity.” A designated wine trail runs around the area, but sadly, it’s yet another activity where one really needs a car, as public transportation to vineyards is really more like private transportation, which translates to scarce and costly. However, all is not lost, as my trusty Lonely Planet Guide tells me the “Rota dos Vinhos do Alentejo,” or “Wine Route of the Alentejo” the not-for-profit headquarters has a tasting room right in the heart of the walled city, with over 70 wineries represented. Each Monday, a new lineup from four different wineries is on offer for free tasting.
It is here in the Rota dos Vinhos do Alentejo that I learn about the different regions from which Portuguese wines originate, as well as the regulating bodies such as DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada, or protected designation of origin) that govern them. He also tells me there have been discussions that the price of exported wine to the USA should be increased, because “Americans equate the quality of wine with the price.” It’s true, as I often equate any wine under $10 to “Two Buck Chuck.” However, it is possible to buy a beautiful bottle of really good wine in Portugal for under five Euro.
When selecting restaurants during my travels, I rely almost solely on Trip Advisor these days, as the site contains first hand reviews from travelers posted as recently as the same week. I typically find the reviews “spot on,” as fellow travelers are eager to share their impressions, photos, and suggested menu items. It’s pretty easy to tell which reviewers are “legit” as Trip Advisor posts their review history and contributor level achieved beneath the name of each reviewer. From this one app on my phone, I can filter restaurants by food type, location, price, and even which restaurants are “Open Now,” while clicking through to Google maps to get walking directions.
However, occasionally I go “old school” by reading the reviews in the Lonely Planet to see which restaurants have stood the test of time. Such was the case with “Botequim da Mouraria.” Not only has it achieved high marks all around in Trip Advisor, but Lonely Planet refers to it as “a culinary shrine for gastronomes.” A shrine? What better way to pique my curiosity! To further my interest, I am intrigued by a restaurant that has achieved such notoriety despite being closed on weekends, and consists solely of eight barstools at a small wooden bar for seating. Nothing does more for the popularity of a restaurant than exclusivity, it would seem. I had to check it out!
The first time I tried for a seat at Botequim da Mouraria, I arrived shortly after opening time to see a paper sign on the front door saying “COMPLETE.” All eight stools were filled, and there was no second seating. So much for my theory of “There’s always room for one more.”
For my second attempt, I decided to arrive half an hour before the restaurant opened. I was number eleven in line. No point even waiting, as customers one through eight weren’t going anywhere.
Would the third time be the charm? It was Friday night, and the restaurant was not open on weekends. I already had my train ticket to Lisbon on Sunday, so it was now or never. I would try an hour before opening this time, taking a book to read so as not to feel like a complete fool for standing there outside the door for an hour looking like a beggar. It was no longer about wanting to try the food. It had now turned into a personal challenge, like fighting over the last pair of snow shoes on the bargain table in Macy’s the night before the first snowstorm during my first winter in Manhattan.
But my arrival an hour in advance did the trick. I was first in line. In fact, I sat alone on the stoop for the first half hour before anyone else showed up. I could have been a little less fastidious, but I didn’t want to leave this small town behind without having paid homage to the “gastronome shrine!”
It wasn’t just the food. It was the ambiance of feeling like I was dining in Domingo, the owner’s home. His wife could be seen through the narrow doors into the tiny kitchen, preparing the entrees, while Domingo tended the bar, made recommendations, consulted each individual on taste preferences, and lovingly described each dish. He mixed salads and sliced bread, and plated each item right across the bar. Each refill of the wine glass required only eye contact, followed by a nod at the glass. Between the warmth from the wine and aromas from the kitchen, it was an intoxicating experience, like poetry in motion. It should be, after all, this husband and wife team has been serving behind this eight-seat bar for twenty-five years.
While there are plenty of reasons to visit Evora, from the architectural beauty to the robust, affordable wines, I expect my experience sitting at the bar in Botequim da Mouraria will hold the most lasting memory.