Gems of the Atlantic coast
La Rochelle, halfway down France’s west coast, has first impressions nailed. Standing on each side of the entrance to its Vieux Port is an imposing 14th-century tower. On one shore is St Nicolas Fort, a former prison and royal residence. On the other is the squat Tour de la Chaîne, which gets its name from the vast chain that was raised between the two towers to protect the harbour in times of war.
Once safely past these two fearsome guardians, there is much to delight in – starting with the old city, accessed through the elaborate Porte de la Grosse Horloge. Elegant colonnaded streets, fine public buildings and quirky shops make this a wonderful area for shopping. You can also browse, sample or sip your way round the fantastic central market, set within a 19th-century hall. Here you can discover wonderful produce and delicacies – the perfect place to try freshly shucked oysters and the local aperitif, a fortified wine called Pineau des Charentes.
If oysters aren’t your cup of tea, you can watch the world go by from one of the harbourside cafés, or venture further afield to the vast pleasure boat marina, Les Minimes, beyond which is a lovely sandy beach.
Known as the ‘City of Glass’ for its elegant, sea-facing houses with glass-fronted galleries (from which anxious wives used to watch for the return of their sea-faring husbands), La Coruña on Spain’s far north-west coast exudes understated charm.
To really get a feel for the place, wander around the pretty old town, filled with cobbled streets and little squares radiating off the central square, Plaza de Azcárraga. You’ll also see notable historical buildings such as the town’s two oldest churches, the Church of Santiago and Collegiate Church of Santa María del Campo. And don’t miss the House and Museum of María Pita – the 16th-century heroine who became the city’s symbol of resistance against the English Armada. Literature lovers can explore the house of famed 19th-century poetess Rosalía de Castro.
La Coruña also offers a refreshing mix of museums – among them the Religious Art Museum, the Picasso House Museum and the Caixa Galicia Foundation, an art space designed by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw. Foodies can go to town, too. Try tapas-hopping down Calle de Franja or simply soak up the flavours of fine local produce at the town’s central market.
The Spanish Armada set sail from La Coruña in 1588 and the town’s maritime heritage is symbolised by the iconic Tower of Hercules, Europe’s oldest working lighthouse. It’s a great place to experience the wild force of nature and feel the Atlantic breeze in your hair.
Despite having been temporarily occupied and set on fire by English hero and Spanish scourge, Francis Drake, (they called him ‘the Dragon’), Vigo today is vibrant and buzzy, with striking modernist architecture and many new bars and restaurants rubbing up against the medieval and Roman vestiges. Brace yourself seafood fans: it’s said that Vigo boasts the best in the country. Spain’s busiest fishing port is famous for its oysters, which you can’t leave without trying.
The hilly old town is a warren of streets, many named after the professions that still ply their trade there – buy hats on Sombrereiros and baskets on Cesteiros. You can take in the panoramic views from the Castillo del Castro, the 17th-century fort overlooking the harbour, and don’t forget to salute the statue of Jules Verne down the hill in Vigo Bay (which he wrote about in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). The famous novelist is perched on the tentacles of a giant squid but still manages to look majestic.
Beyond Vigo, the shoreline is stunning, with scores of great beaches and the wonderful Cies Islands Nature Reserve, a national park uninhabited by humans but brimming with flora and fauna.
Portuguese wines: Olly Smith’s top tipples
Portugal is famous for its port, but also produces some fantastic non-fortified wines, too. ‘In Portugal there is a wealth of local grapes that bring unique character to the wines and never fail to delight with their special exuberance,’ says P&O Cruises Food Hero, Olly Smith. ‘They’re as exciting as hearing the Rolling Stones at full blast for the very first time! Plus, they can be great value. Arinto is a grape that makes white wines so zesty they feel like Flash Gordon in a lemony lightning bolt. If you want to treat yourself to an amazing red, look out for the wines of Julia Kemper – as complex and arresting as the best spy thriller. My top pick of the Portuguese wine available on board in The Glass House is Quinta do Crasto Douro – perfect alongside a gorgeous fillet of beef. Blended from local grapes, the wine manages to feel fragrant, robust, spicy and elegant all at the same time. They work in perfect harmony.’
Try unique local wines
Located on the eastern slopes of the Sintra Mountains in the beautiful Estremadura region, the tiny village of Colares is home to renowned wine producers who make some of the country’s finest wines. The notable grapes of the Colares region are Galego Dourado, Malvesia, Jampal, Ramisco and Arinto – thanks to the unique microclimate conditions of the Atlantic coast, the distinctive wines are considered to be the best in Portugal. The region boasts Portugal's highest wine classification as a Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC).
Colares vines are protected from the strong Atlantic winds by sand dunes and are grown in small-scale vineyards using traditional manual methods. As it’s quite a labour-intensive process, only small quantities of these fascinating wines are produced each year, making them highly sought after.
On the Colares Winery and Cape Roca shore excursion, you can explore this unique wine region and enjoy sampling these distinctive wines at Colares Winery, where your wine tasting takes place in a beautiful old cellar that dates back to the 19th century.
A flavour of Portugal
Lisbon-based journalist, Trish Lorenz, explains why Portugal’s stunning cities of Lisbon and Porto are the perfect ports of call for foodies.
If you’re visiting Porto, you won’t go hungry. The city is famed for its food thanks to the wonderous array of fresh local produce available from both land and sea. Nowhere is this more on display than at the famous Mercado do Bolhão — this foodie city’s beating heart. It’s a must-see and the perfect place to try local specialities and taste the ingredients that Portuguese chefs and locals use each day. The market has been trading for more than 100 years, and whether you’re after fruit and veg, meat, fresh fish, olives, cheese, flowers, homemade bread or even a quick haircut, Bolhão has it all on offer.
The fresh fish is particularly good. At her ground-floor stall, Sara Araujo stands before her wares: silvery-blue sardines, pale pink squid and iridescent fish of every shape and size. ‘I buy my fish fresh every day,’ says Sara. ‘I get up at 3am and go to the wharves in Matosinhos, a city by the sea about 15 minutes from Porto. My customers are chefs from the nearby restaurants and local people, too. I’ve worked here since I was 11 years old and I still love it.’
Opposite, at Salsicharia Luisa, you can buy another local speciality, homemade tripas enfarinhadas (a tripe sausage), alongside chorizo and cured hams. The stall is run by Luisa Silva, who has worked here more than 45 years. ‘The ingredients include tripe, black pepper and fresh herbs and they are especially delicious if you shallow fry them,’ says Luisa.
Perhaps because most of the vendors have worked here for decades, the warmth of the market has become famous throughout Portugal. It is always busy: Portuguese women with large shopping bags point at the choicest pieces of fish and discuss recipe requirements, tourists eat fruit and pastries, and groups of friends meet to drink beers and enjoy a bite at the market’s cafés.
It’s a great spot for lunch. The informal café-restaurants that run along the centre of the ground floor source their ingredients from the stalls, making everything fresh and seasonal. So copy the locals and park yourself at a sun-dappled table to soak up the atmosphere before tucking into freshly grilled seafood and a glass or two of chilled local wine.
Lisbon: queen of tarts
Northern Portugal may be the culinary heart of the country, but Lisbon is proud to be the home of the country’s most famous pastry: the sweet, creamy and utterly delicious pastéis de nata (custard tarts). Best eaten sprinkled with cinnamon and with a strong coffee or a glass of port on the side, you can’t visit Lisbon or Porto without sampling at least one of these golden treats.
Every pastelaria (cake shop) in Portugal has its own version of pastéis de nata, and finding the one you like best is a matter of taste. The best-known are those made by Pastéis de Belém in Lisbon. The company has been making pastéis de nata to its own recipe since 1837 and, according to Miguel Clarinha, who is the fourth generation in his family to own and run the business, it’s slightly different to most others. ‘The custard is a little less sweet, and the pastry is crisper and a little more salty,’ he says, without giving away any specifics. Of the 50 bakers who work at the site, only three know the secret recipe.
Pastéis de Belém bakes around 20,000 pastéis de nata every day and doesn’t sell them anywhere else – so if you want to try one, you’ll have to get in line with the hungry locals.
Trish Lorenz writes about travel and culture for titles including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Monocle magazine. Her travels have taken her to 60 countries, across every continent.