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  1. #1

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    Trip Report: Portugal, 2 Weeks, April, 2016

    WHY PORTUGAL?

    This question came up a lot. Follow-ups included, “Are you of Portuguese heritage?” and “Are you going to Spain, too?” No and no.

    Portugal fascinates us. Why did we go? Maybe it’s because no one ever talks about it, we tend to root for the underdog, or because it’s cheaper and less crowded than other Western European countries.

    We found this hugely underrated country charming with no tourist hordes. Castles, cloisters, whitewashed villages, ancient Celtic sites, Manueline and Moorish architecture, hilly towns, far flung colony influence, squat widows dressed in black, wild beaches and rivers, dino prints, fighting monks, good wine, great people. Just go!

    THE TRIP


    Porto: 4 nights

    We jumped off our flight in Lisbon, caught a fast AP train at Oriente station to Porto (about 3 hours) and stayed near the nightlife in an apartment on Rue Jose Falcao. Porto is a moody, drizzly, hip, medieval, granite city easily done on foot. Sightseeing highlights were Sao Francisco church (Tree of Jesse and tableau of Moors beheading missionaries…wow), Lello bookstore (worth the admission for the staircase alone), the view of Porto tumbling down the hill toward the Douro from Gaia, and encountering a procession for St. Elmo (patron saint of fishermen) while walking to Foz do Douro. We did a relaxing day trip up the Douro river via train to Regua and took a quick taxi to have lunch and a port tasting at Quinta de Marrocos. We didn’t have a reservation and, after being greeted by Marrocos the giant black German Shepherd mix, they kindly accommodated us. Thank you Susana and Cesar!

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    Captions: St. Elmo procession, Porto window cat, nets near Foz do Douro

    Guimaraes: 1 night

    We grabbed our car at the Porto airport and headed north to Guimaraes (1 hour) and the Hotel Toural, which is well located smack in the center with secure parking, great front desk staff and a civilized breakfast (the orange cake is scrumptious). “Portgual was born here” is the town motto and there is much pride in this picture perfect medieval town with wooden balconies. The hilltop site of the Ducal palace and castle (castle free and fun to climb around) is impressive. We LOVED our day trip (30 minutes away) to Citania De Briteiros. This Iron Age hill fort is the largest known ancient urban development in Iberia. This “Celtic influenced” (as the Portuguese say) B.C. site has splendid valley views from its moss covered granite walls and round houses. Martins Sarmento was the early excavator (and patron) and his finds are featured at two museums. Take the guided tour at the Guimaraes location to see what they found there.

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    Caption: Citania de Briteiros round houses

    Tomar: 1 night

    Conde de Ferreira Palace is an estate built in 1760 that has been in the same family all this time. It is in the center of Tomar, about 3 hours south of Guimaraes by car. It is undergoing restoration so you need an open mind. Kings have slept in its rooms and Napoleon’s army visited and left it unscathed. Ask Dinis to show you around the house and ask about his carriages. Downtown is thoroughly untouristy. One nice little surprise is the Moorish water wheel along the Naboa River. The real reason to visit Tomar is the Convento de Cristo. You could easily spend a whole day there, we only took 3 hours. Since Portgual’s Templar Knights headquartered here, it’s more like a self contained city. We loved the cloisters (all 8 of them) and the lower choir. Everyone loves the Jerusalem-style charola. The kitchen, refectory, olive stores, aqueduct, and dorms are intriguing. Built over 500 years, the architecture is representative of these many time periods, but I loved the over-the-top cool Manueline touches the best -- belt buckle décor circling towers and Davy Jones’ locker-themed ocean details. The castle has innovative defense systems like thick sloping walls that you can’t tunnel under and are easier to shoot people with arrows from above.

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    Captions: Manueline belt buckle decor at the Convento de Cristo, Moorish water wheel along Nabao

    Evora area: 3 nights

    En route (sort of) to Evora we headed to Marvao, a fortified castle town in the sky emerging from a craggy granite mountain overlooking Spain. Eagles or condors were flying below us. The castle is well restored and has a huge cistern to last for 6 months. You can climb the keep and gusty ramparts. We didn’t have time to explore Castelo de Vide near Marvao, but it looked pretty cool from the road. We stayed 3 km outside of Evora at Quinta do Cano, opting for the two bedroom apartment with kitchen and fireplace accompanied by Irish wolfhounds, donkeys, pigs, pool, gardens, and great hosts serving tasty breakfasts. It’s along the aqueduct and there is a little trail beside it if you wish to explore. Evora was a pleasant town, spared from the Lisbon earthquake, full of Moorish detail. The college students, like Porto and Coimbra, wear black capes. It rained pretty hard this day so we spent a lot of time in the Se (pregnant Mary statue), its cloister, and museum (beautifully renovated exhibition space including a reliquary studded with 1,426 precious stones). Climbing around the Se’s ramparts affords a great view of the Alentejo countryside. We stopped in to the city offices to see the Roman baths they uncovered when redoing the plumbing. A much loved side trip was to a cromlech older than Stonehenge, the largest in Iberia, in an isolated cork oak grove. The Cromeleque dos Almendres is thought provoking and fun to poke around to discover the inscribed rock art. The same day we headed east to explore another hill top border town. Monsaraz peers into Spain and overlooks the largest reservoir in Europe. The castle is more crumbling than Marvao but just as fun to explore. It’s different enough from Marvao to be worth the visit. I think maybe this is what the Tuscan hill towns might have looked like in the ‘60s? The rolling olive and cork trees and brilliant spring flowers (poppies, rock rose) made driving a pleasure.

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    Captions: Marvao, Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora town symbol (beheading Moors!), Monsaraz

    Sesimbra: 1 night

    Sana de Sesimbra was a fine oceanfront hotel (search for deals, this can be well over 100USD) with a glass elevator, top floor pool (all to ourselves), sauna, steam room, and its own underground parking. The rooftop hot tub wasn’t very hot and there were seagulls using it! We found the seafood here expensive and it wasn’t super lively as it was off-season. But we needed the break from sightseeing and the hotel fit the bill nicely. The real highlight was the side trip west to Cabo Espichel -- dinosaur footprints on a hike filled with wild rosemary (take your car down the piste at your own risk, or just walk in) and an end-of-the-world cliff top pilgrimage church. I gather that two separate men had a vision of Mary riding up the cliff on a mule out of the sea. It seems the tracks the mule left are actually from sauropods. Nevertheless, it’s a pilgrimage site and the crashing sea views are spectacular. There is a cool little Moorish style chapel with a Hershey Kiss-topped roof.

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    Caption: Cabo Espichel chapel

    Lisbon: 4 nights

    We dropped the car at the Lisbon airport and hopped a cab to our apartment, Encanto da Paz in Sao Bento near Parliament. The location was close enough to the action but far enough to be quiet and more authentic. Our fantastic hosts owned the restaurant below – Churrasqueira da Paz. Eat whatever the daily fish special is!
    There are tons of museums in the Lisbon area, we chose the coach museum -- fairytale carriages that reminded me of spiders. One had bullet holes from assassinations, another hosted a princess exchange, and another carried the Mary statue from Cabo Espichel during processions. It’s housed in a new minimalist building but the old locale, the former presidential palace riding arena/ballroom, is equally wonderful. The Jeronimos Monastery was the first tourist mob scene we encountered (the Belem suburb and the Castelo Sao Jorge were the only crowded areas we encountered). We admired the outside and skipped it since the Convento de Cristo had been our focus. The second day we took a taxi to Sao Jorge castle and hiked around (many hills) the Alfama, Baixa/Chiado, and Mouraria areas. It was all highly atmospheric and happened to be on Independence Day, so people were wearing red carnations symbolic of the revolution. We tried Mozambique food for lunch and stopped at a fire station (husband’s profession) in the Graca neighborhood before catching the famous tram 28 back to the apartment. The third day we opted against another “must see” site, Sintra. Touring palaces just didn’t sound good on such a warm, sunny day. We took the half hour train to Estoril/Cascais. Estoril’s casino is Ian Fleming’s inspiration for Casino Royale but it’s unsightly and depressing. The seaside promenade walk between Estoril and Cascais is pleasant. Cascais is full of fanciful 19th century houses and has a compact little downtown and harbor. We lounged on the sand at one of the coves, drank cheap wine from the beach bar, and ate Indian food in the little downtown on our last day in Portgual.

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    Captions: Lisbon street scene, restored coach, Churrasqueira da Paz grill, Frankenstein street art

  2. #2
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    Thanks for this great report, Ktp. Portugal is on our agenda for 2017 - and your photos and descriptions have whetted our appetites!

  3. #3

    Slow Traveler

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    Estoril Casino not the original

    Good friends just let me know that the Estoril Casino is not the original. The "jewel like" old casino was spectacular. Progress!

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