I recently was on a trip to Portugal. It was ostensibly to cover a one-day surf event (The Perfect Chapter, which, in my opinion, is one of the best events in all of surfing), but it turned out to be a wild ride through the country for Visit Portugal that was, by design, full of surprises. We awoke each morning with no real idea as to what was going to happen. Surf was always at the center, but a little off to the side was to show us — me, Clay Marzo, Mikey February, Ace Buchan, and Torrey Meister — what else Portugal had on tap for visitors.
Our journey was helped along immensely by Nic von Rupp and Pedro Boonman, who would show up from time to time, lead us to some wonderfully fascinating place, then vanish again just as quickly. Surf-wise, for me at least, it was a decidedly un-salty trip. The day of the contest was basically un-surfable for the average guy (me), and the lineup at Carcavelos Beach was clogged with pros who were invited to surf. I did not surf. Instead, I opted to soothe my monstrous jet lag with afternoon drinks, octopus, and about 40,000 steps. Have you ever just walked around for eight hours? You can pack in a lot of steps, even if you stop every now and again for a caipirão and a plate of polvo à la lagareiro.
Two days later, we arrived at Supertubos for the day of the decade, which would have broken my spine and filled my mouth with sand. The next day was spent somewhere else a little farther north, and there was about a half-hour window in which I could have surfed. Again, I did not. Instead, I opted to catch up on writing from the van, because the breakneck pace (and the three-hour, wine-filled dinners) at which we were doing things left almost no time for anything other than landing in a new bed in a new hotel in a new town with a sunburn, a full belly, and a head swimming with wine. After my eight days was up, I arrived at the Lisbon airport without having surfed even once. Isn’t that awful? I thought it was too until I got home, and then I realized that I was, in fact, very happy that I went on a trip and actually got to experience the place I was tripping in. It’s very easy to miss out on a place if you’re only focused on doing one thing in that place. So here are four things you definitely need to do when you go to Portugal — especially if you’re cursed/blessed with bad surf.
1. Go go-karting at Kartodromo
Kartodromo is not a regular go-kart track, at least not like any I’ve ever been to. I now have the pleasure of saying that I beat a world champion… at go-karting. Adriano DeSouza met us outside of our hotel early one morning. Pedro Boonman had picked him up at the airport. He was wearing a cream-colored sweatsuit, perfectly unstained. White shoes, also perfectly unstained. Gold draped off his neck and fingers. I, on the other hand, was greasy and tired and my nose was peeling. I smelled like the inside of a wet suitcase.
Adriano hopped in the van and we set off on the day’s adventure without a clue of what the adventure would be. When we arrived, I assumed it was a surfing day, because there was a giant righthand slab breaking within spitting distance from a go-kart track full of people driving karts at breakneck speeds. The air was filled with the thunderous booming of that wave and the high-pitched wail of tiny tires flying through corners. A smiling man in a Honda-branded sweatshirt walked up to us, a Rolex with an emerald green face dangling on his wrist. We all shook hands. It turned out that the man was Tiago Monteiro, a World Touring Car Championship star and former-F1 driver.
They cleared the course for us and we all hopped in our karts. Tiago’s son Noah, a 13-year-old with more cool and confidence than I’ll ever have, looked over his shoulder at all of us. I could see the knowing smile in his eyes, despite the fact that most of his face was covered by a helmet. He beat the pants off all of us, but as he told me later, “it doesn’t count because I do this all the time.” Pedro Boonman vanished from sight as soon as the flag dropped and held his lead the whole time, only behind Tiago and Noah. At lunch afterwards, Noah watched F2 on his phone, glancing down at it in between asking the table questions with a confidence I sure didn’t have at 13. I asked him what he was going to do when he grew up. He laughed as though it was obvious. “F1,” he said. He’ll be famous one day, I’m sure of it.
The track is nuts. Located in Portimão, it was built to exacting standards that qualify it to host top level Karting and Supermoto races. It’s used for the general public to mess around on, but also for official competitions and private races. It’s a little over 5,000 feet long with all the twists and turns. And the karts? They go way faster than you feel like you should be allowed to go. I think the hour we were there was the funnest hour of the whole trip.
2. Do a wine tour at Quinta da Pacheca
Quinta da Pacheca is a winery. Located in the Douro Valley, it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Peacocks roam the grounds, pecking away in the grass while vast orchards of grapes stretch away behind them in perfect rows. Douro (and Portugal in general) is known worldwide for its wines, but especially its port wines. The place is stunning, all class and low lights and perfectly manicured grounds, but the best part, for me at least, was seeing where the wine is actually made. Enormous stone vats sit in the underground, where grapes from the vineyard are actually stomped on by actual feet. Another level down, vats the size of a building hide in a cool storage area. Lillies line the walls, sitting in tiny shafts of sunlight from the ceiling. And the wine… oh Jesus, the wine. I left with a bottle of tawny port that lasted only an afternoon. But it was a very pleasurable afternoon.
We were treated to a spread of food that will be tough to ever top. Tiny quiches, rolls of smoked meats, cheeses I will never remember the names of but will never forget. Clay Marzo’s eyes widened and he laughed like we’d just pulled up to the world’s best wave with no one out. Tour the cellar, eat the food, take a cooking class, and even sleep in a giant wine barrel. Quinta da Pacheca, if you’re a person who likes nearly-perfect wine in a nearly-perfect setting, is a must-see.
3. Eat. Eat. EAT.
There is no place like Portugal to grind. Clay Marzo, if you didn’t know, likes food almost as much as he likes surfing. The bread. The olive oils. The fresh seafood. Everything is delicious and oily and full of garlic. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country where I was floored by how good everything I ate was. Everything. I’m not a picky eater, not by any means, but everywhere we ate, from tiny backrooms of restaurants to side-of-the-beach cafés, served up platter upon platter of mind-meltingly good food. Even the gas stations have espresso machines that must be worth thousands of dollars. There’s a bit of a culture in Portugal where food and drink and friends are more important than most other things, and it’s a culture I can get behind. Lunches are frequently two-hour long affairs filled with wine and immense amounts of bread. Dinners are late, around 9 or 10 p.m., and filled with even more wine and even more bread. Everyone is happy, well-fed, and partially drunk most of the time, which makes the entire country — as far as I can see — have a fuzzy, warm feeling. Everyone should be fat, but they’re not. They’re just happy and full all the time.
Three things to eat, should you be looking for things to eat. The first was called pica-pau de atum, which is a tuna dish so good there aren’t words to describe it. It’s fresh chunks of tuna in a sort of reduced vinegar sauce. Between Clay and I, I suspect we ate our weight in tuna.
The second is called francesinha, which Clay and his wonderful partner Leilani advised me against. Pedro Boonman, however, looked outraged that one would not like francesinha. The word itself means something like “little French girl,” but I assure you that francesinha does not represent a little French girl. It is an enormous stack of food; a sandwich of epic proportions. Soft bread sits beneath wet-cured ham, linguiça, fresh sausage like chipolata, then a steak covered in a soft fried egg. It’s all covered with melted cheese and sauce that’s vaguely sweet and vaguely salty, usually made from either tomatoes or beer. Or both. I ordered a half serving and almost died from a stomach rupture. Pedro Boonman ordered a full order and packed it away like he’d never eaten food before. “It’s a famous Porto dish,” he told me with bits of egg and meat barely contained in his mouth. “I’ll never get sick of it.”
And last, but not even close to least, is rissois de camarão. If you’ve been to Portugal, you’ve probably seen these things. Pretty little half-moon shaped deep-fried pastries, often found in cafés. They’re filled with many things, but generally shrimp or mincemeat, and they’re eaten easily in three bites. They will be the best three bites of your life. The first ones I got were, like that gas station espresso in a paper cup, from a gas station. Generally, gas station food is not good. In Portugal, though? It’s unbeatable. Then I ate some from an actual restaurant, and now my life is separated into two parts: before I ate rissois de camarão and after.
Man, Portugal is so full of culture. Old world, steeped-in culture. Streets are cobbled, and fortresses and castles sit stopped in time, looking over a landscape that has drastically changed since they were first built. There is something like 150 castles throughout Portugal, and all are staggering to look at. I asked Maria, who was tasked with wrangling us for the week, how old one in particular was. “Just 200 years old,” she said. “Not that old.” I laughed, because nothing in North America is 200 years old. But in Portugal, it’s just a little while ago. Time moves differently there.
Like I do on most trips of this nature, I walked a lot. In each new town, I’d spend a few hours simply wandering through the streets, poking my head in stores and getting lost. It is impossible to be bored in a place like that — I am, and forever will be, in awe of what humans can build with enough time on their hands. The feeling one gets from staring up at some of these buildings is a little unnerving. Hands now long-dead laid the stones. Thousands of them, placed perfectly time and time again to create these awe-inspiring structures and walkways that will be standing long after I’m dead. And Portugal is full of them. Nearly every town has at least a few, intricately adorned and immaculately taken care of. It feels as though with each new street you turn down, there’s something else to stop you in your tracks, and it’s well worth your time to actually stop in your tracks and simply look at them.