Portugal’s state of emergency in the face of the global Covid-19 pandemic was lifted at the beginning of May, and on May 4th the country’s phased re-opening began. The ‘situation of calamity’ proved much less dire than our English-language understanding of the word might indicate. Porto residents had taken lock-down seriously, and as the country began to ease restrictions, many people remained close to home. In late May, several weeks after the city re-opened streets were eerily empty, but views across the Douro were as splendid as ever.
Smaller shops and businesses opened first, and Tom and I got our first haircuts since January. By mid-May, restaurants, cafés, patisseries, terraces, promenades, and shops of up to 400 square meters opened to the public. The situation of calamity expired at the end of June. Through May and June, it was a pleasure to chase down a tasty bite, a meal outdoors, and ever so cautiously, begin to spend a bit of in-person time with friends again.
Keeping it local
Supporting local businesses has become a theme for many consumers in this most unusual year. In Portugal as elsewhere, businesses have donated food and meals to food banks and health workers. Under the state of emergency, all of our meals were home-cooked, and ranged from family favorites (sometimes missing a critical ingredient or two) to culinary experiments.
Local chefs had to regroup too. Some made adaptations for take-away, including a switch from gourmet tasting menus to easy-to-serve comfort food, and providing meals in family-sized portions, or tucking condiments for serving into home delivery packages. Prior to re-opening, Porto’s restaurants adjusted dining rooms, and where possible set up tables outdoors. And many that initiated take-away and delivery during lock-down, continued to offer these services. Most restaurant menus went online, and contact-less payment became the norm.
After many weeks at home, it took us a while to feel comfortable out and about, but in mid-May, Tom and I ventured into Baixa, masks on and armed with sanitizer. When we stopped in at A Perola do Bolhão to replenish our supply of tinned fish, the shopkeeper overheard Tom and me speaking English to each other. “So long since we spoke English here, I hope we’ve not forgotten!” he chuckled. “Welcome, welcome!”
The time had also come for a culinary change of pace from home cooking and for that, we headed for a South India fix at Restaurante Swaad in Matosinhos. A few days later, for our first meal out with friends in what seemed an eternity, we enjoyed a cookout in the garden at Porto’s Almeja Porto Restaurante. Slow-cooked pork ribs finished off on the grill, and topped with pico de gallo, were extraordinary. Hot dogs of Portuguese sausage on brioche buns took an American standard up several notches. Grilled fruit salad, fresh churros dipped in chocolate and carrot cake rounded out the menu. We also made some new sunset memories at Wine Quay Bar in Ribeira. As always, we enjoyed superb Portuguese wine choices and tasty petiscos, and now, with few tourists about, could snag a quayside table.
(Something like) normalcy returns
The organic market at Parque da Cidade re-opened on 6 June, and much as we had appreciated home delivery during lock-down, we were happy to see our favorite vendors back in the park. They had socially distanced tables, masks and sanitizer were everywhere, and security guards enforced access limits (since lifted). June was also a time to savor small indulgences from Comfort Cakes Kitchen, and the talented hands of Michael Arruda. Ours were delivered but the cakes can be ordered for take-out, in mini or full-sized versions.
Restaurante Bragança, in the center of Porto’s tourist zone, is usually jam-packed with visitors from all over, enjoying inexpensive local plates. When Tom and I stopped in with friends in the tourist-free early days of Portugal’s situation of calamity, we were the only guests. The menu had been stripped to a bare minimum of four dishes, and half the tables had been removed, but our meal was served with the lively spirit we have always experienced there. A few days later, we ventured across the Douro to Afurada and an outdoor table at Armazem do Peixe, where we were surrounded by Portuguese diners. The grilled fish and homemade lemonade were especially festive and summertime perfect. Pernil (pork shoulder) sandwiches at Casa Guedes are legend, and we figured a warm mid-June afternoon was the right time to grab a park-side table at the snack-bar location and enjoy sandwiches, frites, and a beer. There were a few other diners, but no wait for a table and service was prompt and friendly.
Tom and I have enjoyed quite a few meals out in recent weeks, most of them outdoors, and often as the only guests. Although difficult for the restaurants, it reassured us, both to see that they were coping and how they have adapted to a new normal, and to support them in a small way. After putting on a few kilos during our period of pandemic confinement and with Porto’s gorgeous summer weather upon us, we now make it a point to enjoy our limited restaurant time as a delicious finale to a long walk around town!
Tourism and the Covid-19 pandemic
“Clean & Safe”
At the end of April, Turismo de Portugal, the national tourist office, launched a new “Clean & Safe” stamp for hotels, restaurants and tourism-related businesses, aiming to boost confidence in the tourism sector after the Covid-19 pandemic collapse. Portugal’s national health authority introduced new requirements—enhanced cleaning protocols, temperature screenings and provision of personal protective equipment—and created online training programs to keep staff and customers safe. Compliant businesses display a digital badge on their online platforms or as a physical sticker on their premises.
‘TuPodes, Visita Portugal’
In mid-June, Turismo de Portugal launched another campaign, ‘TuPodes, Visita Portugal’, to encourage the Portuguese to take their holidays at home as the country continues to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time, government officials are also inviting a gradual ramping up of incoming tourism from abroad (Portugal was voted the world’s best touristic destination in 2017, 2018, and 2019).
The program hit a snag when the UK excluded Portugal from its Covid-19 pandemic visitors list, but if the increased number of airplanes overhead (we live in a flight path) is an indication, visitor numbers from across Europe are definitely on the rise.