Participants in Rick Steves tours are asked to identify their top "wow" moment of a trip. I wasn't able to name just one, but I've narrowed it down to three. I think you won't blame me after reading about them below!

 
 

 
 

cork safari

Wine drinkers love that dampened "pop" of a cork being extruded from a bottle. As a wine lover, I've long wished to visit a cork farm but really never thought it would become a reality. So this day of our tour ranks right at the top of my "wow" moments. 

We were treated to a fascinating tour of an Alentejo cork oak forest owned by the Carvalho Rovisco Garcia family. Our bus driver dropped us off on their property, and several family members greeted us warmly. They immediately helped us into their covered, open-air wagon-type vehicle, and we set off on our "cork safari."

 
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As we bumped along in the wagon (thankfully protected from the 40-degree C sunshine!), we learned how cork grows and is harvested:

  • Cork trees can be harvested every nine years. 
  • It takes 18 to 25 years for a cork tree to produce. The first harvest is no good; the farmer must wait another nine years to start earning revenue. 
  • When it's ready to harvest, the cork bark will have naturally released/separated from the tree. Farmers can tell this has happened by knocking on the tree and listening for a hollow sound. 
  • The bark is then removed manually in long strips by two people. They remove it in one big piece by making two long vertical cuts and two horizontal cuts. 
  • One tree in a section of the forest is labeled with the number of years remaining until the next harvest. 
  • Only 30 percent of a cork harvest is used for bottle stoppers. It's also used for a surprisingly wide variety of other products—even clothing, jewelry, and postcards!

After our tour, the family provided a delicious meal at their farm, complete with their own wine and olive oil. The whole thing was a fantastic experience!

 

the number indicates there are six years to go before this tree will be ready to harvest again.

 
 

 
 

fado performances

Fado is the sound of Portugal. Rick Steves describes it as "mournfully beautiful and haunting ballads about lost sailors, broken hearts, and bittersweet romance. Fado means 'fate' — how fate deals with Portugal's adventurers ... and the families they leave behind. The lyrics reflect the pining for a loved one across the water, hopes for a future reunion, remembrances a rosy past or dreams of a better future, and the yearning for what might have been if fate had not intervened."

We were lucky to hear two fado performances, both moving experiences. The first was at a private dinner in Lisbon for our group (see video below); the second was at Fado ao Centro in Coimbra. The strength in the singers' voices and the emotion they impart left goosebumps on my arms and chills down my spine.

 

the slow shutter speed required in this dark room resulted in some ghost-like effects in the photos as the singers moved!

I get chills each time I listen.

fado ao centro, coimbra

 
 

 
 

winery visit

WOW WOW WOW!
Visiting Quinta Sta. Eufemia will be a long-time favorite memory of my visit to Portugal.

Just getting to the winery was an outstanding experience. The bus barely fit on some of the switchback roads leading up to the property. Once we arrived, we were rewarded with unforgettable views of the valleys covered with vineyards, a tour of the property, and a home-cooked meal with their wines. Saud!

 
 
  • Soil in the Douro Valley is composed of granite and chist. Because it holds heat, it's called "warm lands."
  • Quinta Sta. Eufemia grows native plant species because they are most compatible with the soil.
  • Plants are watered for the first two years only.
  • Their property and wines are inspected by the Institute of Port Wine, which holds extremely high standards.
  • Although their harvest is done mostly by machines these days, they still do a bit of physical stomping of grapes, and they have a lagar—an ancient stone vessel—exactly for that purpose.
  • They do export to the United States (good news).
 
 
 
 
 

the whole gang, happy to be in the douro valley and eager to taste some wine!
(photo courtesy of cristina duarte.)