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Trip Report Portugal Trip 21-30 April 2013

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Portugal, Trip Report 21-30 April 2013

I am a widely traveled senior citizen (78), US born, now retired, and have visited all continents except Antarctica. I travel alone as I am without a significant other for the time being. My travel interests are wide and varied, due, in part, that I read, write and speak four languages (English, Spanish, French, Russian) and worked for 20+ years as a technical translator for the US Army and NASA, for a combined total of 40 years of federal service. I am an avid ballroom dancer, with emphasis on swing, both East Coast and West Coast. In 2012, I made six trips overseas and in 2013 will make six more (Europe and Asia). This report is based on the first of the 2013 six trips.


My Gate 1 Travel itinerary took me from Huntsville, AL, to JFK, Geneva and Porto (north of Lisbon), then by bus to Coimbra, Fatima, Tomar Castelo de Vide, Evora, Nazaré and Lisbon, whence I flew back to Geneva, JFK and Huntsville.

Porto, founded in the 3d century BC, is the second largest city in Portugal, and as such, many of its streets are paved with cobblestones and are narrow and winding. Porto can brag of a most adequate public transportation system, which includes a metro, light rail, bus and electric streetcar conveyances. There are four streetcar (tram) lines, one dating from 1895 and claiming to be the first on the Iberian Peninsula; its cars are quite old and reminded me somewhat similarly of the cable cars of San Francisco.

The Duro River divides Porto horizontally and empties into the Atlantic. With the city thus split, a total of six bridges now cross the river to unite the two shores and have given rise to the nickname of Cidade das Pontes (City of Bridges). We had an afternoon tour of the Duro River and passed under these bridges, which were of the concrete-arch, metal-crescent arch and cable-stayed types, one of which was designed by Gustav Eiffel and Company. It was a great opportunity for picture-taking. The river cruise was followed by a superb dinner of local fare with endlessly flowing wine at a local restaurant.

Our visit to the Cathedral of Porto included a tour inside and outside the building. Its construction began in the 12th century and ended in the 13th. Over the centuries, however, it has undergone several modifications/improvements and so reflects Baroque, Romanesque and Gothic styles. I am awed by the construction, thinking how the architects, managers and workmen were able to conceive of such grandiose buildings and how they managed to build them so tall, particularly the interiors with their vaulted arches reaching some 90-100 feet high.

The Stock Exchange Building (Palácio da Bolsa), built from 1842-1850, is now a major tourist attraction with sumptuously finished rooms, the most noteworthy being the Arab Room done in exotic Moorish style. For those who have seen Moorish and Islamic art forms, this room will bring back memories of long-past artisans devoted to intricate and breath-takingly detailed workmanship. The room is now used for receptions by dignitaries or visiting heads of state.

Another fascinating visit was to a local port winery, where the manager in excellent English gave us a tour and then a wine tasting. He asked us if we knew the types of port wine and none did. They are the tawny port and ruby port, both red wines. There is also white port, made from white grapes, and a vintage port, the oldest of all the port wines. These vintage wines are first aged in oak barrels then further aged in the bottle and can commonly take three to four decades to reach their peak drinking flavor. And of course they are commensurately expensive.

There are miles of eucalyptus tree farms in Portugal and they are the heart of the paper industry. Its wood is not used in construction or as firewood, but logged and shipped to paper mills. As we passed the first grove of eucalyptus, the guide asked if any of us knew what kind of trees we were seeing and just one person recognized them as he had grown up with them in his native California, where, as in Portugal, these trees were imported from Australia.

Our visit to Coimbra, a university town dating from 1307, took place on a bright, sunny but cool day. Many students at the university have the option of wearing a uniform consisting of black skirt or trousers with a black cape and black vest and we spoke with several of them on the broad, sun-lit esplanade about their studies. Students of some 70 nationalities study here in courses ranging from architecture, life sciences, civil engineering, IT, physics, law and pharmacy, to name just a few. The university was founded in 1290 and originally located in Lisbon, but finally settled in Coimbra in 1537.
The university's library, the Joanina Library (after King João V, who funded it), enjoys world renown; its construction lasted from 1717 to 1728 and it now contains more than one million volumes and access to modern technology; however, no mention was made of digitizing the collection. The library's interior, in the Baroque style with many gilded finishes, is divided into three huge rooms separated by immense arches that are filled with two-story bookshelves under richly painted ceilings. Sumptuous elegance could be used to describe the interior, but, alas, no pictures are allowed.

Our next stop was in Fatima, located approximately half-way between Lisbon and Porto, and the site of famous religious miracles. Several hundred people were visiting and wandering around the huge esplanade, which, in my estimation, was comparable to Tiananmen Square in surface area. On 13 May 1917, three young Portuguese shepherds saw an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was repeated six times until October of that year and revealed three secrets accepted into Catholic interpretation as Hell, World Wars I and II and the attempted assassination of John Paul II by gunshot. There is a strip of concrete approximately four-feet wide and 1,000 feet long that starts not far from the site entrance and leads down to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary. We saw several people who were walking on their knees (padded) working their way down this 1,000 path toward the basilica, then continue around the basilica three times as an act of penitence. All were women and accompanied by a friend or relative. Also located at Fatima is the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, the fourth largest Catholic church in the world.

The town of Tomar was founded within the walls of the Convento de Cristo and castle-fortress, constructed under the orders of the fourth grand master of the Knights Templar in the late 12th century. The castle walls were some 50 feet high and crenelated, some with narrow slits for archers. The town is one of Portugal's historic jewels as it was the last Templar town to be commissioned for construction and was particularly important in the 15th century as it was a center of Portuguese expansion overseas under Henry the Navigator, who was the Grand Master of the Order of Christ, successor organization to the Knights Templar in Portugal. Some say the Templars were the first to develop a bank-checking system when traveling to the Near East to rid the area of the Muslims. Instead of carrying large sums of money or gold, they got a letter of credit that they presented to their counterparts at their destination and were then given the funds to carry out their holy mission.

The city of Evora has its own rich history, the most noteworthy (and unusual) probably being the Chapel of the Bones (Capela dos Ossos) in the Church of St. Francis. The name derives from the interior walls, posts and arches are decorated (I use the term loosely) with the human skulls and bones of some 5,000 people from several dozen church cemeteries and are held in place by cement. The lighting is dim and the atmosphere morbid, even gruesome, although there is no offensive odor. The chapel was built in the 16th century by a Franciscan monk, who in the Counter-Reformation spirit of the era, wanted to push his confreres to contemplate the transitory nature of life. This is epitomized by the warning at the chapel entrance Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos (We the bones here await yours). As a parting shot, one can see written on the chapel roof Ecclesiastes 7:1 from the Vulgate: Melior est die mortis die nativitatis (Better is the day of death than the day of birth). The whole experience was interesting from a history aspect and I'm glad for my visit to the chapel, but I prefer to dwell on the joy of living as full a life as I can and enjoy the fruits of my working years, such as traveling, dancing and as a pilot flying small airplanes, even at 78.

The last several days of this tour were spent in Lisbon and surroundings. The city itself has a population of some 700,000 souls, while the greater Lisbon area claims some three million inhabitants. The weather by now had changed from the warm, balmy days of Porto to brisk and cold windy but sunny days, and we were all bundled up in heavy jackets and head covering. Santa Maria de Belém, or simply Belém, derives from the Portuguese word for Bethlehem. It is a parish of Lisbon at the mouth of the Tagus River, six kilometers west of the city. Its Belém Tower, an impressive sentry outpost, was built to protect the Tagus Estuary from pirates and enemy attacks.

Located nearby is the Monument to the Discoveries, a 52-meter (170 feet) tall concrete monolith erected in 1960 commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator, born in Porto. It is sculpted in the form of a ship's prow with dozens of figures from Portuguese history, such as Vasco da Gama, et al. Inlaid in the esplanade nearby is a huge map of the world showing the dates, routes and locations of Portuguese explorers during the Age of Discovery.

Our Gate 1 afternoon visit took us to Sintra, a small town some 30 minutes out of Lisbon, located at the foot of the Sintra Mountains. Because of its 19th century architecture, Sintra is now a major tourist attraction. In the 8th-9th centuries, the Moors built a beautiful castle atop a nearby high point overlooking Sintra and offering a commanding view. Of equally impressive beauty is the arabesque Monserrate Estate on another hilltop, and the Pena National Palace, the massive summer residence of Portuguese monarchs during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Moorish castle and the Pena National Palace were classified by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites in 1995. Lastly, the 1808 Convention of Sintra ended the first French invasion of Portugal.

Our last day in Portugal took us to the surrounding area outside Lisbon where we visited the town of Obidos, with its beautiful castle and surrounding walls and the town of Alcobaça and its monastery, with the Gothic fountain and Renaissance water basin within the monastery cloister. Our last stop was a visit to the fishing village of Nazaré for souvenir shopping and a quick bite to eat before returning to Lisbon.

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