A day trip to Azeitão, a pretty village just south of Lisbon, proved to be a feast for the eyes as well as my stomach. Among the things to see and do in Azeitão are many of my favourite aspects of Portugal plus some unexpected treats.
Not only did I get to taste some delicious wine and see stunning examples of Portuguese ceramics, I also found a new love for S-shaped biscuits. The only thing I missed out on is the local Azeitão cheese, which rivals Serra da Estrela’s finest for gooey goodness.
Quinta da Bacalhôa Museum, vineyards and palace
Quinta da Bacalhôa had been on my wish list for a long time, not only because it’s a well-established wine estate but because guided visits incorporate stunning collections of art. Nothing had prepared me, however, for the gigantic blue dog standing guard over 2,000-year-old olive trees, transplanted from the Alentejo region when the Alqueva reservoir was formed.
Art of Africa
The art collections inside and outside the museum and nearby palace are thanks to the estate owner, renowned collector José Berardo. The Out of Africa exhibition is dedicated to Nelson Mandela and is evidence of Berardo’s love for the continent, developed during his years as a gold and diamond mining tycoon in South Africa. Swathes of brightly patterned cloth hang from the high ceiling, as do multicoloured sculptures. The wall and floor space is devoted to wooden sculptures, pictures and animal skins.
Tiles and wine at Quinta da Bacalhôa
An enormous intricately carved doorway marks the end of the African artworks and the beginning of the wine museum. As we drank in the aromas emanating from rows of oak barrels, Catarina, our guide, proudly described the process by which their muscatel wine is made.
She then led us to a darker cellar to explain the ageing process of their red wines but I wasn’t listening.
I was too busy getting my azulejo fix from the myriad of tile panels displaying 500 years of Portuguese ceramics around the cellar. I paid much closer attention to the wine tasting session later, especially their Moscatel de Setúbal, a fortified wine with hints of citrus.
I haven’t seen such exquisite marquetry since I was in the Art Museum in Barcelona’s Parc da Cidadela. I only wish I could have stayed longer to really appreciate the fine examples of inlaid woodcraft and glorious Art Nouveau glassware. Sadly, as part of a guided tour, time was limited and we were whisked away to the 15th century Bacalhôa Palace.
If you’re a ceramics fan, you’ll love Bacalhôa Palace even more so than the collection of azulejos in the museum’s wine cellar. Here, they decorate the external and internal walls. Although many of the tiles have deteriorated or disappeared over the years, the Casa dos Azulejos (House of Tiles) which overlooks the estate’s water supply, is a series of themed rooms decorated with beautiful tiles and panels.
Tile-making in Azeitão
Next to the palace you’ll find the Azulejos de Azeitão workshop; the place to come if you want to see how they’re made. The factory reproduces historical designs for individual resale or custom orders such as the façade of a church in Gabon or a living room in Atlanta. Everyone was hard at work when I walked in.
Visitors are welcomed so while his colleagues continued painting and drawing, Nuno Silva showed me the different techniques involved for recreating raised relief 15th and 16th century tiles using moulds and dry ropes. I couldn’t resist buying a finished product to take home, safe in the knowledge that no historical buildings had been vandalised in order to get it.
Time for cake… with moscatel wine!
There is only so much ceramic art that anyone can take in one sitting so it was time to explore the village of Vila Nogueira de Azeitão. The main street is dominated by another wine estate, José Maria de Fonseca, but I didn’t have time to visit.
Instead, I headed down the cobbled pavement, past the decorative fountain, the small church and the restored communal laundry to O Cego (The Blind Man). This little bakery has been running since 1901 and invented the S-shaped cinnamon-flavoured biscuits known as esses. I was more interested in trying one of the famous tortas de Azeitão, a sublimely soft sponge roll filled with egg cream and cinnamon.
The proprietor, however, had other ideas. He managed not only to convince me to try an ess, but also to wash it down with a glass of moscatel wine. Although you can eat the biscuits cold and hard, he swore they were better for dunking in moscatel when they’re warm.
And he just happened to have a batch fresh from the oven.
I was powerless to resist, although I didn’t try very hard, I must admit. Turns out he was right. A warmed up ess biscuit soaks up the light, fruity fortified wine a treat. To achieve the same effect at home, all you need do is pop one in the microwave for a few seconds before dipping. I warn you, they are very moreish.
Practicalities for visiting Azeitão
If you’re not driving to Vila Nogueira de Azeitão, or visiting as part of an organised tour, you can catch either the #754 or #755 Transportes Sul do Tejo (TST) bus from Lisbon. Bear in mind that Quinta da Bacalhôa, the palace and the tile-making factory are on the outskirts of town so if you’re using public transport, you may prefer to visit the José Maria de Fonseca estate instead.
To visit the museum, winery and palace at Quinta da Bacalhôa, you need to book a guided tour. Check the website for times and prices.
Azulejos de Azeitão is open daily, from 9 am to 7 pm Mon-Fri and 10 am to 6 pm Sat-Sun.
Prefer a guided tour of Azeitão and Arrábida?
Tell me what you’re most interested in and I’ll put you in touch with a reputable tour company that offers a suitable small group or customisable private tours. I may receive a small commission but you won’t pay any extra – I might even be able to get you a discount.
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