Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Porto: A Food Tour with Taste Porto

I didn't know much about Portugal before my sister and I decided it would be the next country we'd tackle together. We were originally planning on just traveling to Lisbon (which was all yellow). As I started to tell people about our potential plans, two of my coworkers repeatedly pushed me to look into Porto. As Katie and I did more research and saw how cute the town was and how much it had to offer, we added a few more days to the trip so that we could fit in another stop.

A definite highlight of our time in Porto was our experience with Taste Porto Food Tours. Andre, our amazing guide, not only showed us around the best eateries and gave us the best food in Porto, he also gave us a tour of the city, language, culture, and the history. Andre took us to the best views, the trendiest 'hoods, and pointed out his five favorite tiles in Porto along the way to our tasting locations.

We started off with breakfast at Loja dos Pastéis de Chaves. This bakery sells pastries from the city of Chaves, north of Porto. In order to be dubbed a Pastéis de Chaves, it is regulated that the pastries must be made with the original recipe from Chaves. This particular pastry is made in Chaves every morning and delivered to five shops around northern Portugal. While the veal is the only pastry that can be designated as a Chaves pastry, this shop creates several varieties each day, including chicken, codfish, and dark chocolate. Although veal may be an odd thing to have for breakfast, I actually enjoyed it even more than I liked the dark chocolate pastry, which would be my typical go-to.

The next stop was Bolhão Market. We walked by flower, fruit, vegetable, butcher, and bread stands and sat down at Bolhão Wine House, which used to be the owner's grandmother's flower stand. The owners renovated it, turned it into a hot spot, and inspired other vendors to do the same which has revitalized the market, around since 1850. Andre called Bolhão Wine House's rebirth a tipping point for the entire market. I had an "oh crap" moment when I learned we were going to be eating sardines because I'm not a fish-fish person (but I am a huge shellfish person). Canned fish are big in Portugal so I knew we'd have some along the way. The sardines were covered in tomato sauce and we ate them with the best olive oil I've ever had and some great bread from another stand in the market. I was glad to have tried them, but only ate a little as I thought I'd save my appetite for something I really loved. We also had a sweet cheese pastry and a very very very sweet muscatel wine, made with grapes that are only found in the Douro Valley in Northern Portugal. I'm not much into wine, as you'll discover more about when I write about sampling Port, so I had a few sips and discreetly passed mine along to Katie.

Our lunch was my favorite stop of all and maybe my favorite meal in all of Portugal. As soon as we walked down the quaint street that contained Flor dos Congregados, I knew this was the reason why we came on the food tour. When we walked in, it felt like we were in a cave because it was so dark and cozy. I would totally live in a cave. This restaurant has been open for 160 years - 'nuff said, this was the real deal. We were served a few different wines, which I tried but also gave up to Katie. My mission was the Congregado sandwich that Andre kept raving about. This sandwich was one of the best I've ever had in this old belly of mine - and you know how much I like sandwiches. The roll is sliced twice - how have I never seen this before?! - with separate sections for the pork loin (marinated for over twenty hours and slow-roasted for over three) and the smoked ham (aged for 24 months).

Next after walking around town for a bit, we stopped for a dessert of lemon and chocolate éclairs in the sunshine at Leitaria da Quinta do Paço, open since 1920. Although it was slightly windy and therefore I got lemon icing in my hair because I am who I am, Katie and I loved the éclairs we had - so much, in fact, that we took advantage of the shop's proximity to our hotel and ate our afternoon snacks there two days in a row. Throughout our additional visits, we were able to sample mixed berry, apple, dulce de leche, and chocolate mint éclairs. I think the lemon remained my favorite.

Our last stop was at the adorable Taberna do Largo, a wonderful little shop where everything is sourced from different towns within Portugal. It was here we had a feast: more wine (some of which I actually finished), various cheeses (from cows, sheeps, and goats), breads, hams, and sausages from different Portuguese regions that were cooked on a tabletop grill right in front of us. 

If you find yourself in Porto, you must must must take a Taste Porto Food Tour. Not only was it a generous sampling of the variety of delicacies that Porto has to offer, it's also the best way to get acquainted with the entire town. Go ahead, do what we did and add a few days onto your European vacation to explore Porto. You won't regret it. You can also feel free to bring me along. I need more of that Congregado sandwich, stat.


Obrigada (Thank you) Taste Porto Food Tours for the special rate and the fantastic experience. Tours are traditionally 59 for adults; 40 for children under 13. Opinions are always my own.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Madrid: A Rainy Photoshoot with Flytographer

My sister has been my personal photographer on several trips of ours, especially in Thailand, Italy, and Hawaii. She takes awesome photos and even puts them together into Mixbooks and all I have to do is share my iPhone pictures with her. But sometimes, she doesn't make it into enough photos herself, even though I try to take the camera from her every once in a while. Many of our family photos from Italy are of a group of three of us instead of all four. I bought a selfie stick before our Iberia trip (and wrote about it here), but for this trip, we also wanted to try something else a little different.

Enter Flytographer. I've been a fan of Flytographer's work for while now, since two of my travel buddies (the World Wanderer and Lola) have had some amazing experiences with them. Flytographer is a company who sources local photographers in over 130 destinations for personal, candid photoshoots of you, your family, and friends, enjoying your travels. My family has not had a professional photoshoot in quite some time (I'm the littlest one):

This year, for my parents' birthdays, my sister and I gifted them a Flytographer shoot of our own. Of the cities we were heading to on our Iberia trip, Flytographer is currently available in Lisbon, Madrid, and Barcelona. Since our parents weren't joining us in Portugal, we checked out the photographers in Madrid and Barcelona and fell in love with Julia's photos in Madrid. We worked with our Flytographer conceirge Jen, and discussed what kind of photoshoot we'd like. I mentioned we were interested in an old-school European feel, and from that, Julia suggested shooting in Plaza Mayor, the Almudena Cathedral, and in front of the Royal Palace. I also said that we'd want a lot of group shots and some individual "glamour shots" of my sister and me.

As our photoshoot was approaching and the weather forecast started looking worse and worse, we wondered if we'd made a mistake by not choosing a Barcelona shoot. Our entire time in Madrid aside from a few hours was rainy, which everyone told us was not what Madrid was normally like. We worked with Flytographer and Julia to see if we should shoot on a different day, and they were helpful and flexible, but we ended up sticking with our original timeslot, since no day appeared better than the next.

Our photographer Julia was the sweetest. We met in Plaza Mayor and bonded with her immediately, especially over How I Met Your Mother, which she's been watching. Because it was pouring, our photoshoot was a little different than other Flytographer shoots and contained many more posed shots than us walking around sightseeing. Julia had us fake laugh which would then cause us to laugh for real because it was so silly and she'd take the photos during the real laugh. She also had an activity where she'd ask us to "Say something that starts with the letter A that describes Erin," and so on, for more candid shots. 

We took photos in Plaza Mayor and in front of the Cathedral and Royal Palace as planned, adding and removing our jackets several times throughout the process. To warm up and get some variety, we also took photos in my favorite bar in Plaza Mayor, La Torre del Oro, which they allowed because we had been there several times already and because we were from New Jersey, where their amigo Bruce Springsteen is from. We also shot in the marketplace nearby where I wanted to buy everything.

Once our photoshoot was over and we'd dried off and warmed up, we all agreed that it was fun and that Julia should come to Granada and Barcelona with us, but we were skeptical about how the pictures would turn out because of the weather. So skeptical in fact, that when the pictures arrived in my inbox a few days later, I was afraid to show them to my family before looking at them first. But when I saw the first few images I said to Katie, "you're not going to believe this, but the pictures are amazing."

I really don't know how Julia did it. The only bad thing about the photos is simply that I'm not wearing one of the three dresses I picked out to wear when the Internet told me Madrid would be 70 degrees and sunny. I do love that jacket though.


Photo credit (aside from the first one): Julia Puig for Flytographer. Muchas gracias to Flytographer for the special rate and the wonderful experience. Shoots begin at $250 - use this link and the promo code #FLYFAN to get $25 off a photoshoot during your upcoming travels. Opinions are always my own. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

In Defense of the Travel Selfie

I've been taking selfies before I even had a Nokia cell phone on which I could play Snake, with old-school point-and-shoot cameras. It's not narcissistic - it just makes sense if you want a picture of you and another person, or in front of something cool, and no one else is around, that you take the picture yourself. My first selfie on record is of my dog and me in middle school that I took when she had to go to the vet and I thought she was going to die. Poor Huckleberry had no idea what was happening.

My selfie game (and my game in general...) got much better during my college years. I wanted everyone in every photo and I lost and broke many cameras so I kept mine strapped on my arm, holding it upside down so that my arm wasn't as prevalent in the shot. It felt so much more efficient than giving someone my camera in a bar and trying to keep a clear space in front of my group of friends and waiting for the picture to be taken.

In my travel life, I use the selfie method quite frequently. I don't often like to hand my camera or phone off to others because they could potentially run off with it. I also feel slightly silly when traveling by myself to ask someone to take a picture of just me. The selfie works well whether you are nervous about being locked up in Alcatraz in San Francisco, hanging out on top of an elephant in Thailand, visiting Windsor Castle in London, or sitting alone in a park in Amsterdam:

There has been a lot of chatter about selfies in various outlets lately, including several features in the NY Times, especially with the recent popularity of the selfie stick. Before we went on our family trip to Portugal and Spain, I invested $15 in a selfie stick, which I purchased at a local Duane Reade. It has a clamp for the phone and then a wire that plugs into the headphone jack. You press a button on the 4-foot extendable handle and voila, you have your selfie. While these are basically all the same pose, I do enjoy the photos we took in Spain with the selfie stick - an example from Madrid, Granada, and Barcelona, respectively:

Of course not every traveler is as respectful as they could be when it comes to taking photos. One of my major pet peeves is people who keep their sound on while they are taking photos with their iPhones and the incessant little snap that comes along with every press of the button. This is especially obnoxious in quiet places, like places of worship.

I also think it's important to discuss how one should use a selfie stick. I'm of the belief that in public, these should only be used outdoors, never indoors, especially not in churches or museums near priceless works of art or artifacts. Many museums, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and the Frick have banned them and for good reason.

Selfie sticks should definitely not be used in crowds - this sounds obvious, but some people forget that there are others around them. The first time I used my selfie stick in Lisbon, I accidentally hit my sister twice and she quickly forgave me, but if I had been around strangers and gotten my selfie stick stuck in *their* hair? I think we'd have a different story. Whenever we took pictures with our selfie sticks in Portugal and Spain, I made sure we were in our own little area and would never reach or disturb anyone around us.

Many opponents of the selfie discuss how you should just put your camera down and enjoy what you are seeing. You should definitely do that - if you are only experiencing life through the screen of your iPhone, then you are doing it wrong. But I see nothing wrong with wanting a few shots of yourself with amazing backgrounds. You're not only capturing the shot to show people when you return - you're helping to record the moment so that when you are 95, you can better remember how bright and warm the sunshine was on your skin, how blue and clear the sky was in the distance, and how the experience made you smile your widest in months.


Monday, April 6, 2015

Lisbon: 'Cause You Were All Yellow

Editor's Note: You are encouraged to listen to this while you read this entry.

While we were eating dinner our first night in Porto, my sister asked me what my favorite thing about Lisbon had been. Without a beat, I said, "the color yellow." I saw yellow everywhere I looked in Lisbon and it seemed to me a pretty unique trait for a city. If you don't believe me that it was everywhere, just read on.

Lisbon is a pretty steep city with sidewalks that could easily give you shin splits. To battle these streets, there are cable cars, buses, and funiculars everywhere. And yes, these were mostly yellow. We rode on a particular funicular, Elevador de Glória, a Portuguese national monument, from the Baixa neighborhood up to the Bairro Alto. The trip costs 3 euros a person and is probably less than a two-minute ride, but it's a fun thing to do and we would not have wanted to trek up this street ourselves. Plus, the driver lets everyone on the funicular take pictures of themselves as if they are driving, and that alone is worth the cost.

It seemed like every pastry in Lisbon was yellow, but the yellowist and yummiest of them all was Portugal's signature pastry, pastel de nata, also known as pastel de Belém. It is a custard tart, similar to the egg tarts I loved so much when I was in Hong Kong, but contains a much flakier crust. Katie and I devoured several natas a day while in Lisbon, and even continued in Madrid when we stumbled upon a Portuguese bakery. While traveling through the Lisbon neighborhood of Belém, we made sure to stop at the well-known, "original" spot for natas, Casa Pastéis de Belém, where they've been baking these treats since 1837. It's said that only three people know the exact recipe at Pastéis de Belém and I am sadly not one of them.

Many of the buildings in Lisbon were brightly colored, but the most striking to me were those in this particular shade of bright yellow. It seems like the developers in Lisbon got a big discount on yellow paint at some point. My favorite yellow buildings were those surrounding Praça do Comercio on three sides.

Lisbon is covered in beautiful tiles, and many of the tiles we saw inside and out also featured the color of my obsession.

And let us not forget about that sunset the first evening over the Tagus River. I may have arrived five hours late to Lisbon and at the time of this photo I didn't know where my luggage was, but you might as well have called me mellow yellow.


Obrigada to my sister Katie for some of these pictures and for allowing me to take a picture of each and every pastel de nata before we were allowed to dig in!

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