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Trip Report Our trip all around Portugal - Long Report

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We spent the first half of October 2013 in Portugal. Our overnight stops were, in order, Evora, Marvao, Pinhao, Guimaraes, Porto (2 nights), Cortes (near Leiria) (2 nights), Obidos, Sintra and Lisbon (4 nights). We had a car until we were in Lisbon. In this (very long) report I'll try to comment on the wisdom of this particular itinerary, general impressions of the country as a tourist destination, hotels and restaurants. I'll also mention particular sightseeing stops we found either great or perhaps not worth the time, but I won't get into most details of moment-to-moment daily itineraries. I've included prices for hotels (usually standard rooms, all included breakfast) and restaurants (appetizers and main courses for two, with bottled water and wine (unless otherwise stated) and tip). If you want details on a particular meal, let me know and I'll post them.

Introduction

By way of background, I'm 60 and my wife is 55, we're active travelers (we like to walk a lot as we tour). We live in Sonoma County and enjoy wine and food when we travel.

We flew from San Francisco to London on United Business class -- used a lot of Mileage Plus miles for this, and it was well worth it. Seats are easily comfortable enough to make actual sleep possible.

We had arranged car rental through Hertz (price was best because of available AAA discount). Got a four-door Renault Clio, which was fine for our needs. We paid €18 to activate the automatic toll payment feature, a semi-expensive add-on but we felt worth it as we never had problems others have reported paying the very frequent tolls. We haven't gotten the final toll tally yet, but it has to be substantial.

We did NOT take the optional GPS and that was a real mistake. Many have reported that driving and finding one's way around in Portugal is easy, but I would beg to differ. Yes, it was generally easy to get from one city to another, and major tourist spots are well-signed, but looking for rural hotels, our apartment in Porto, or out of the way places was fairly difficult. The directions we had (Google Maps and Mappy) told us to turn by directions (N, S, E or W) onto particular roads – but most signs do not indicate directions and the street names are almost never given or obvious. I would HIGHLY recommend GPS for driving in Portugal.

While the toll roads (and indeed most roads) had only light traffic, the drivers in Portugal make each trip an adventure. Passing means that the driver doing the passing will certainly move back in front of the passed driver before he is fully in front of the passed driver. This sort of "buzzing" is an absolute art form – in one instance on the three-lanes-in-each-direction auto-estrada I was traveling in the right lane, the only other driver anywhere in sight was in the center lane and getting ready to pass me, at which point he moved behind me, buzzed me in the rear and then in the front, and once he was about 50 yards ahead of me he moved back into the center lane. Fascinating.

Tailgating is the rule. You can be driving at 120 km/h (around 75 mph) and have someone following so closely that you can't see their headlights in the rearview mirror.

Another point of pride for Portuguese drivers is not staying on their own side of the road. Sure, many of the roads are pretty narrow, but on twisting mountain roads I don't love coming around a blind curve to find an oncoming driver several feet over the center line. Yet that's the rule, not the exception. I was fine with all of these "quirks," but if you're not comfortable driving a strange car (likely a manual shift) on strange roads in a different country, you'll need to think about it before renting a car.

General Impressions

We had a great time on this trip and we would certainly recommend a visit to Portugal to any traveler. That said, we're not sure we would go racing back – although we would happily return. Unlike some other places we have visited which really grabbed us and made us think about a return trip, we came away from this trip enriched for the time spent but feeling a bit of "been there, seen that." Maybe that's more a sense of the huge number of places we have never been to and would like to check out. But there is a certain grittiness to Portugal that, for us, made it less than truly captivating. It felt like the country is resting on its laurels, looking in the rearview mirror to its real glory days a few hundred years back when it was a world power. That pride is everywhere, but the country lacks a sense of forward-looking energy. On top of that, the current economic climate has taken quite a toll on Portugal, and it shows – there are many closed shops in nicer areas, and that takes a bit of the buzz out of the place. Mind you, the people are almost universally friendly and eager to engage with visitors. So, if you are looking for a place to fall in love with for life, this might not be it; but if you're looking for a wonderful vacation spot, this would be an excellent choice.

Day 1 – Lisbon to Evora

We left the Lisbon airport in the rain, heading to Evora for our first night. Getting to Evora was pretty easy and the rain subsided by the time we arrived there. The directions from Google Maps were useless for finding the Pousada in Evora, but it was well-signed and we found it without great difficulty. The Pousada is very nice, and as a former monastery the rooms are numbered as "cells." The bed in our room is about as soft and comfortable as a wooden table.

We wandered around town but missed most of the sights we hoped to see because we were really turned around (and I have a good sense of direction). It was fine, we were tired and stopping for a bite and a drink at a covered outdoor table under threatening skies. While we sat, we saw several parades of new university students, separated by area of study, and pretty clearly a gentle form of hazing (men wearing skirts, singing songs loudly as they marched, slimy gook in hair, all under the watchful eye of upper classmen wearing traditional capes covered with patches which must signify various academic achievements (sort of like Scouts' merit badges)).

We had dinner at Cartuxa, a restaurant apparently owned by the local winery of the same name. It was excellent and just a block from the Pousada. Cost was €65, perhaps the best meal value of our entire trip.

Breakfast at Evora Pousada was fine, nothing special. Room cost was €129.60 (Pousadas have excellent discounts if at least one member of the party is 55 or older).

Day 2 – Evora to Marvao

We headed on to Marvao, with plans to stop at Evoramonte and Estremoz on the way. Evoramonte was barely worth the trouble. Just an old, small castle to walk around, can't go in – interesting Manueline touches on the exterior.

Estremoz was also perhaps not worth the trouble (although the lower town, which we only drove through, seemed nice), but we did have a very nice conversation with the owner of a wonderful gallery (mainly sculptures) called ElaPedra, near the castle. We had lunch at A Cadeia, situated in the old town jail. Service was pretty indifferent. It was all very good, but at a total of €59 it was overpriced.

Then we finish the drive to Marvao, where not scraping the walls on the way in is a major challenge (the walls bear testimony to the fact that many others were less successful in that effort). This is an amazing medieval walled town, high about the surrounding countryside. It's a fun place to walk around and take in the views. We stayed at the Pousada in Marvao, and while it's nice enough, it's nothing special (but at only €97.20 for the night, very fairly priced). We dined at the Pousada because the town is small and has few options – it was only so-so. Not a good value at €70. Breakfast at the Pousada was similarly uninspired.

Day 3 – Marvao to Pinhao

We stopped not too far from Marvao in Castelo do Vide. This might have been interesting had we not just been in Marvao – but we had just been in Marvao. As it turned out, it was a mistake to stop here, because the drive to Pinhao took a lot longer than expected. This is because the mapping sites estimate travel time based on distance and speed limits. On many of the roads, either because of a slow driver in front of you (usually a truck or another tourist) or just how steep and winding the road is, you really cannot expect to travel at the speed limit the entire time.

The drive to Pinhao was beautiful, but slow. As we moved further north, we got to forests and then vineyard after vineyard. We eventually got to Pinhao, which was cute and a bit crowded seeming, but our destination was just outside of town, Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros in Sabrosa. This was almost certainly the nicest place we stayed during the trip. It is really hidden away (even from the front entrance it doesn't seem all that exciting). Once inside, you discover beautiful grounds, a lovely pool area, and extremely large and inviting guest rooms (with a nice carafe of port included). I had anticipated this place would be nice, but we got there a lot later than hoped for – still, we had a chance to pour ourselves a glass of port and sit on the terrace outside our room and enjoy a perfect late afternoon. At €150 for the night, this place seemed like a steal – we liked it enough that we could envision a return trip to Portugal just to stay here for a bit more time.

We had dinner at Chanceleiros, which is prix fixe at €37 per person, again, a great value. All of the guests who have dinner there (and it seemed like everyone did) are seated at the same time and served the same meal – while each group has its own table, this makes the service semi-family style. Seconds were available at each course, and there was a very generous amount of wine being poured (refills available), changing with the courses. All very tasty.

Breakfast at Chanceleiros is also very nice, served in the same room as the dinner – which is surrounded by glass and jutting over the property with a view all around to the vineyards across the Douro River. In addition to the usual breakfast array, they had great smoked salmon and fresh squeezed juice from oranges grown on the property.

Day 4 – Pinhao to Guimaraes

We left Chanceleiros by heading back through Pinhao and then driving down along the Douro River – a beautiful if sometimes harrowing drive, winding up and down the mountains. We had decided to stop in Amarante to check out the Saturday market, but either we couldn't find it or it had been cancelled for a national holiday. There was little to see there, but we stopped for a lunch at a very local café, which set us back only €9.80 (without beer or wine).

A lot more winding driving to finally arrive at the Pousada in Guimaraes. This Pousada is truly an amazing place. It is a huge (or HUGE) old monastery, very elegant, with lots of beautiful tiles, extensive gardens and forest paths going up into the hills, with an ultra-modern pool area at the edge of the hillside and overlooking the center of town. Our room itself, in a converted monk's cell, was a bit small but nicely laid out and comfortable (although the bed was somewhere between a double and a queen). It was €145.80 for the night.

We walked down the hill into town on a hot and muggy afternoon. We went to see the castle, which is just the outer walls with ruins inside, and the palace, which was closed for a very fancy private function. Town seemed kind of dead, until we wandered into the lower part of the old city which was absolutely jumping with what appeared to be a big art walk – lots of open buildings with all manner of displays inside.

We had dinner at the Pousada, served in a beautiful large room, with towering stone arches. It was very good and the portions were huge. The meal was a bit under €80.

Day 5 – Guimaraes to Porto

After a very nice breakfast at the Pousada, we began the short drive to Porto. GPS would have been most helpful. We got to within a few blocks of our destination (a rental apartment), so we called the owner and he came by and led us to the building (and expressed amazement that we had gotten so close without GPS).

The apartment was very cute, large (three bedrooms), and had a view of the Atlantic. It was a few blocks from Casa de Musica, and close to the metro station. We headed over toward the Ribeira district and visited the Church of Sao Francisco, which was awesome with its gold-drenched chestnut wood carvings. Walked along the Ribeira itself, which was somewhat cheesy, although my wife found some nice, inexpensive scarves. We took the funicular back up the hill (a godsend).

The apartment owner had recommended that we try dinner at Mercado Bom Successo, which by his description was a market that, after hours, had some nibbles, wine by the glass and entertainment. In fact, it is basically a very upscale mall food and wine court, with a wide variety of places to get almost any sort of food, along with many wine retailers (mostly from individual producers). For around €30 we had four glasses of wine and a variety of big nibbles, enough for dinner. Because of the route from our apartment to the Mercado, my wife did not feel safe (we had to walk under a roadway, along unlit streets, etc.). While the area seemed fine to me, it only takes one to pronounce a verdict on the comfort level of a neighborhood.

The apartment lacked a lot of simple things (e.g., no waste baskets in the bathrooms) which would have made it more pleasant. Still, it was only €175 for two nights, and we had free parking in the building's lot right at the front door.

Day 6 -- Porto

The next day we went to visit the Bolhao Market, which was unexciting at best. We had expected a sort of junior version of the Boqueria in Barcelona, but they are worlds apart and this is not at all tourist-worthy. We then headed over to the Se, which was closed (not sure why – I will observe that throughout Portugal we found that opening and closing hours varied from what we found in guidebooks and online, sometimes things were open later than expected, sometimes they were closed in the middle of the day).

We walked across the bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia – we took the upper level bridge by the metro, and surprisingly there was no staircase or other direct means of getting down to the level closer to the river. We had lunch along the waterfront at Douro Velho, a place obviously aimed at tourists (as in, the waiters grab your camera from the table to take your picture while you're eating). Without wine, about €26.50. Nothing exciting, filled its niche well.

We then went to taste port at three lodges – Ramos Pinto, Sandeman and Taylor Fladgate. We enjoyed the wines at Ramos Pinto the most (naturally, because it will be the hardest to find in the U.S.). We also did the tour at Sandeman, which was fun and informative. We also learned about a drink that is white port and tonic (equal amounts) with a twist, over ice – a really refreshing aperitif.

Back over the river, we were able to have a rather early dinner at Restaurante A Grade. Among other things we had baked octopus (the house special, and deservedly so). The dinner was a steal at €62. A fabulous, filling meal in a mom and pop place on an alley you wouldn't find unless you were looking for it (we were). By the time we left (still early), it was crowded and they were turning people away.

An aside: At A Grade, and throughout Portugal, we found the waiters recommending less expensive wines than we had asked about. They tended to go for more fruit forward, medium body wines, but the prices were good and the wines went well with our meals – it's something of a tradeoff, though, because for several Euros more you could get a bigger, more structured (but more tannic) wine.

Day 7 – Porto to Leiria

Left our apartment in the morning and headed for Coimbra. We parked in a metered public lot right across the street from the old city center (and had to pay a rather sketchy guy a couple of Euros to "watch our car" while we walked around, the only experience like this anywhere during our trip). We followed the Rick Steves walk here, on a very hot and sunny day. We stopped for lunch at Jardim da Manga, which ran us €22, a reasonable price at a pleasant stop. The university was very interesting, especially the old library (pretty much a "not to be missed" visit).

We left Coimbra and headed south to Casa da Nora in Cortes, just outside of Leiria (€85 per night). It is hard to find and doesn't have a particularly pleasant entry area (near a sort of factory in a somewhat odd area), but once inside the hotel grounds it's a different story. We checked into our room, a very nice but simple one near the pool, we had huge, well-prepared gin and tonics while sitting on the patio overlooking a small river .

We had two great dinners at the hotel – the place is popular with locals and for good reason. The food is excellent and the room is very pleasant. They have a wonderful and extensive wine list, with good recommendations from the friendly and knowledgeable waitress (who also checked us in and made those wonderful G&Ts – like many places we stayed, the staff members wear many hats). The two meals, along with four cocktails and two glasses of port, came to a total of €190 and we felt a very good value. Breakfast at Casa da Nora is also very nice.

Day 8 – Touring: Fatima, Tomar, Batalha, Leiria

Quirky as the hotel's surroundings were, it's a good location to head off to many local sights. We saw Fatima (a last-minute decision) which isn't that great without the hordes of pilgrims, but it is such a massive area created for them it is almost worth the detour. Then we headed to our intended destination of Tomar to see the castle/convent complex which had been the HQ for the Knights Templar – the place is huge and has good, informative signs throughout (we had lunch there, which was a mistake as it took forever for a very simple meal). We then drove over to Batalha to see the monastery, which is highly recommended, especially the unfinished chapels. On a whim, we stopped to see the castle at Leiria, which was okay but we had seen more impressive places already on the trip.

Day 9 – Leiria to Obidos

After breakfast the next morning we headed to Alcobaca to meet friends from home in front of the monastery. The monastery was nice, but after all we saw the day before, not quite as exciting as it might have been. We had lunch across from the monastery at an outdoor place with an "energetic" waiter who flagged down everyone walking by. With a couple of beers, our lunch was tasty, but at €34.50 it was a bit pricey for what it was.

We then drove to Obidos and checked in at Casa das Senhoras Rainhas, where our superior room with a truly lovely, huge terrace was €130. This place is inside the town walls, again some incredibly tight turns on narrow streets. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but the room was really nice, with a complimentary carafe of ginjinha which we enjoyed on the terrace (with our friends doing the same next door). We took a walk around town, shopped a bit (the stores in this touristy town have a mix of great artistic handiwork and pure schlock – we picked up a beautiful large ceramic bowl the next morning) and climbed up on the castle wall. We had dinner at the restaurant in the hotel. All of the food was excellent. The meal came to €84. We agreed that this hotel is VERY nice – elegant and old with great amenities (in addition to the ginjinha the room had a nice basket of fruit and some small cakes of gooey chocolate and cherry). Breakfast in the dining room was served to us with grace – the only place the entire trip that was not a buffet -- very good food with a nice variety to select from.

Day 10 – Obidos to Sintra

After breakfast we said goodbye to our friends (headed in the opposite direction) and drove down to Sintra. We stopped first at the National Palace, which was very interesting and well worth the visit. Then we drove up to the Pena Palace and Moors Castle (right past our hotel, nice to know where we'd end up). Pena Palace exceeded my expectations – I had feared it would be a bit cheesy, but it wasn't at all. The Moors Castle was interesting, not more, but it was a heck of a workout on a hot, humid and long day to walk all the way to the top. We drove back down to Lawrence's Hotel for the night. The room (a suite – unexplained free upgrade) was fabulous – beautiful views from the large living room, and at €135 it was a steal.

We wandered downtown (just a couple of blocks) to shop, grab a drink and hunt for a dinner spot. The drinks were at a cute tapas bar (Romaria de Baco), and the shops had lots of interesting tiles (some from the 17th Century, priced accordingly), but while the restaurants were nice looking, nothing really called out to us. So, as usual, we ended up eating at the hotel (guests get 10% off), in a very elegant dining room with a formally attired staff (although, oddly, they used pre-packaged butter packets). Dinner came to €90, only a little pricey and worth it as a reward after a day with a lot of climbing. Breakfast was very nice, a full breakfast with lots of good fruit and a variety of interesting cheeses.

Day 11 – Sintra to Lisbon

At the suggestion of the woman who had checked us in, after breakfast we walked up the street a few minutes and visited the Quinta da Regaleira, an interesting place (mostly for the gardens) which doesn't get as many mentions as the palaces but is definitely worthwhile if you have an hour or more to spare.

We then dropped our car at the Lisbon Airport and took a cab (at €20, more than it should have been) to our apartment smack dab in the middle of town (on Rua Garrett, a block from the Armazens do Chiado Mall). We dropped our bags and grabbed some lunch and looked around the area. Rua Garrett was a shorter street than I had expected; as it turned out, the entire touristy area of Lisbon was a lot smaller than I had expected. Also, after reading many reports about how tough it was to walk up all the hills in Lisbon, we found it hilly, but no more than most other places we'd been in Portugal (perhaps we were just "in shape" by that point) – in any event, a pretty easy, and pleasant, place to walk around.

After lunch we headed out to do the Rick Steves Bairro Alto/Chiado walk. We were very impressed with the Sao Roque church and would definitely recommend a short visit. We stopped at the Port Wine Institute to taste a few ports; it was nice, but really little more than a bar that also sells bottles to go. Also, they have only a limited number of things available for tasting (and, I assume, bottles for purchase to go) at any given time.

Dinner that night was at 100 Maneiras, our most expensive meal of the trip at a total of €202. That covered two tasting menus with "classic" wine pairings. The place is small and cute, and they were steadily turning away folks without a reservation. All of the food was excellent, but we felt a couple of the wine pairings (which were poured and topped off generously) were misses – in one case, the wine was simply uninteresting, in another the wine was very nice but was a true mismatch for the dish with which it was served. Service (including from the sommelier) was excellent.

Day 12 - Lisbon

The next day we headed out to Belem – we took the train there and the trolley (or maybe I should say the sardine can) back. We began at the coach museum, which was a lot more interesting than we had anticipated. Certainly worth a visit. Lunch at a small place across the street was €14 and overpriced at that. The Monastery of Jeronimos was next, and it was fabulous – even after all the churches, monasteries and cloisters we had already seen on this trip. The Monument to the Discoveries and the Tower of Belem were not all that exciting (we did not enter or climb either one – though I'm not convinced the view is that much better than many others available around town), but the walk along the river on a beautiful day in a light breeze was excellent. And yes, we had the requisite Pastel de Belem at "the" place (Pasteis de Belem) -- very good, but honestly cannot say it was better than several others we had while in Lisbon.

Dinner that night was at Aqui Ha Peixe – wonderful and only €73 (and we took home leftovers from the huge portions. It's a cute place.

Day 13 - Lisbon

The following day we did the Rick Steves Baixa walk. We began with lunch at Aura on Praca do Comercio. Slow service, good food – with a couple of beers it was €26; not bad for a somewhat touristy stop. The walk itself was not all that exciting, although we found Sao Domingos Church very interesting -- it exhibits both the damage from the earthquake and the city's resilience in impressive fashion. We snacked on pastel de nata from Confeitaria Nacional and roasted chestnuts from a street vendor.

Dinner that night at Largo was much-anticipated, but produced a mixed verdict. It is a beautiful room. They allowed smoking everywhere. Somewhere along the line, the good service became merely mediocre. The food itself was delicious. This came to €110. Overall, we enjoyed this meal, but the room temperature (pretty warm on a very muggy day) and smoking all around us were significant detractions.

Day 14 - Lisbon

The next morning we headed to the Alfama, with plans to start at the twice-weekly flea market. We took trolley 28E, a very slow clowns-in-a-VW experience – walking would have been a better choice. The flea market was a true junk array – some textiles from China were nice, but not much else of any interest (we really didn't need an old mismatched set of screwdrivers or license plates from Ohio and Illinois); even individual vendors had no coherent theme of what they were selling, more like a garage sale. We walked over to the castle on what was again an extremely muggy day. We decided not to go into the castle grounds for a few nice views – again, maybe we had already seen too many old walled town areas already on this trip. We stopped at the Sé on the way back to our apartment, and that was worth the short visit. Across the street from our apartment we went to an excellent pizzeria (Inter Mezzo Giorno) and ordered more than we could finish for €30.

Later, we had drinks at U Chiado, where we had a very interesting discussion about life in Portugal and the economy with the bartender who was Russian but had lived in Portugal for eight years. Then we had dinner at Cantinho do Avillez, just down the street. My wife had the gourmet burger, which completely lived up to its billing – probably nearly a half pound of Barrosa DOP beef topped with wonderful caramelized onions and foie gras. Service was excellent. With a very good bottle of wine and two glasses of LBV port for dessert, it came to €103. The place was packed and turning walk-ins away on a Tuesday night – the restaurants up the street were empty.

Day 15 – Travel home

The next morning we grabbed a cab to the airport (nicely arranged by the rental contact for our apartment). The cab driver spent the whole trip complaining about the U.S. Congress shutting down our government and hurting Americans and people around the world. Saying he had a good point and we agreed did not help ("But sir, politicians must care about the people." "I agree, and it's sad they don't." "But sir, you don't understand how badly they are hurting others" etc.). Bought one more bottle of port at the duty-free shop at the airport – the prices were better than any we'd seen around Portugal. After the long flight back to SFO, I barely could keep my eyes open driving back home – but obviously, we made it safe and sound.

As I said at the top, I'm happy to answer any questions.

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