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Trip Report Trip Report: Portugal and Galicia, June 2006

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This year we decided to go to Portugal for three weeks. We invited a friend to come along, had never traveled with him, and it worked out. My wife and I did all of the planning, I did the big picture (plane tickets, car rentals, etc.), and she worked on the more detailed sights, which I then organized into some type of itinerary.

We used Fodor's and the Michelin Green Guide for our basic information, supplemented by Internet information. Our map for Portugal was The Rough Guide Map, which was detailed enough but whose color scheme made it difficult to read the smaller roads. I prefer the Michelin color scheme, but the Rough Guide was the only decent map we could find locally.

We had no problems with our CU credit card and ATM card.

Flights: We took Jetblue from SF to NYC to visit relatives, then from NYC to Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic, landing in the morning, and taking a late afternoon Ryan Air flight from Standsted to Porto. Our friend met us in Stansted. At the end of our Portugal trip, we flew Air Berlin to Berlin, and then EasyJet to Paris (and then a 25€ train ride to Limoges). Finally we took Ryan Air from Limoges to Stansted and then Virgin Atlantic back to SF from Heathrow. I think that I found the most economical ways to hop around, but the local travel between airports in London should be added to fare costs. Our flight to Porto was one penny plus fees and taxes, so it came out to $92 for three; still a bargain.

Ground transportation: We rented a car through AutoEurope, but the actual rental agency was Avis. They were not the cheapest, but were the only ones that could offer a one way rental and the CDW waiver, which was a good thing because I did damage the car during our travels--the claim has been accepted but the check amount doesn't yet match my cost. However, the only car size they could guarantee would have AC was a Mégane or equivalent. We got the equivalent (Rover Streetwise) and I believe that it did not have the same amount of luggage space. Luckily our travel companion traveled very light and it was no problem. The same thing occurred later in France, where we got a VW Golf instead of the Mégane with Europcar, but luggage was not an issue since we were only two. The person at the desk said that Europcar rentals all have AC, so we could have gotten a smaller car. If luggage space is an issue, be very careful on the actual rental you will receive, or be prepared to spend more on a mid-size car. We drove all over northern Portugal, and find that the reports about wild Portuguese drivers are greatly exaggerated, with a single exception: the taxi driver from our Lisbon hotel to the airport was the wildest driver I have ever driven with--it was a white knuckle ride, especially in the front seat. One peculiarity that we noticed was the speed control system at the entrance to towns: there is a sign that warns about speed control and gives the speed of 50 km/h. If you go faster than 50 km/h when you pass that sign, the traffic light about 100 yds. farther down will automatically change to red. If you are going less than 50 km/h, the light will stay green. That light will be in the middle of a block, not at an intersection, nor necessarily at a pedestrian crossing. It is there exclusively for speed control.

Since we were traveling with a third person, our rule was to use a common purse for all common expenditures: gas, food, museum tickets. When the purse ran out of money, we added the same amount per person to cover the next expenses. Because of the use of the common purse, we probably needed more cash than most travelers. That meant more trips to the ATM and I therefore did not use my regular bank's ATM (BofA-$5 charge per withdrawal) but established an account with a local credit union because it does not charge for foreign ATM withdrawals.

Itinerary: Porto, Póvoa de Varzim, Guimarães, Santuário do Bom Jesus do Monte (near Braga), Viana do Castelo, Ponte de Lima, Lindoso, Valença do Minho, Hio, Marin, Pontevedra, Santiago de Compostela, Bragança, Vila Real, Pinhão, Vila Nova de Foz Côa, Viseu, Coimbra, Tomar, Marvão, Elvas, Évora, Cascais, Lisbon. For those who would want to see Portugal exclusively, I would go from Viana to Valença and then loop back to Lindoso and Ponte de Barca, and from there go to Chaves. The time saved could be used to hike in the National Park, or visit the small villages north of the main road between Chaves and Bragança.

Porto to Valença I reserved ahead of time two hotel rooms for our first night in Porto and our stay in Lisbon. Our friend kept on suggesting that we wing it, but when it came down to it, he was glad that some things were planned. I had no desire to start looking for a hotel room after a long night and day of traveling, arriving in the town are 9 p.m. The Hotel Bolsa (75€) was fine, with AC, located in the historical center of Porto within five minutes of the river. Breakfast usually came with the hotel rooms, and with one memorable exception, was usually very basic. I give prices, and some readers may find us cheap, our friend said we looked for good value; anyone looking for 100+€ accommodations should not take our hotel recommendations with the exception of the pousadas. Restaurants close early compared to Spain, so that evening when we were ready to eat, little was available but cafés and bars. We found one along the river (the tourist area) but we were the only foreigners there, ordered what we could identify, which included chouriço (sp?)--it came on an oval earthenware dish with crossbars attached to it (think of a canoe and its crossbars). The sausage was on the crossbars, the waiter poured something over them and then lit the liquid with a match. You then grill your sausage at the table for however long you wish. It's clearly a common dish as the earthenware dish could be found wherever dishes and household pottery was sold. We also had some cod fritters--a good introduction to Portuguese food.

Photos for this portion of the trip at: http://tinyurl.com/zz5qw

Porto is an interesting town to walk in. We were surprised how dilapidated the old town was. It is a World Heritage site, and one would think that living in the center would be a desirable thing. But the impression we had is that the gentrification of the old town is barely beginning, and quite a few buildings have broken windows and just look in need of a good upgrade; it reminded me of the Marais in Paris in the early 60s. We found the central market, bought ourselves lunch items and eventually found a piece of lawn where we could picnic. The central train station is worth a stop for its azulejos in the central hall. We did the river tour, which gave us a view of all the bridges that cross the river, including the one built by Eiffel. We did a lot of walking in the old town, saw the cathedral and the Igreja de São Francisco, visited the Chamber of Commerce palace with a Belgian tour guide--it was her internship. But essentially we were trying to recover from our jet-lag. That evening we ate at one of the tourist restaurants along the river. We chose one with traditional Portuguese fare--we looked for the ones that advertised fresh grilled sardines since all the restaurants claim to have traditional fare. It was good. I ordered tripe Porto style, since the town is known for it--it was very good and not too strong in flavor. Our friend ordered the sardines, and was disappointed that they were so large that they had to be boned--and throughout the trip he never found what he thought he should have found. Grilled sardines in Portugal are excellent, but they are large enough to be gutted and the bones must be removed. Fresh sardines in France, picked up at the fish market, are smaller and do not need to be gutted before being grilled but the bones must still be removed. We discovered that generally our big meal for the day hovered around 60€ for the three of us including wine but rarely dessert. The next day we picked up the car, drove back to the hotel, picked up our luggage and drove to the Fundação de Serralves (Museu de Arte Contemporânea). None of that driving was easy in that the streets are narrow, the center of Porto is under reconstruction, and the maps we had were somewhat impressionistic. But we got there. We recommend the cafeteria for lunch. It has a good buffet including a large dessert one, nice staff, and the cost is reasonable. The new museum is interesting in its architecture, the art did not impress us. The Casa de Serralves itself is a grand Art Deco mansion but a little cold. It is difficult to imagine it as a residence, which it was in the 1930's. The garden facing it is a contemporary take on the French parterre. From there we took off to see northern Portugal.

That day we drove to Póvoa de Varzim, thinking at first that Vila do Conde might be a nice stop. Neither town was particularly attractive along the waterfront, although Póvoa had a nice square away from the waterfront. It has a casino and behind it we found the Hotel Luso-Brasileiro with a double room for 47€ (we got a discount, which probably would not be given in high season). No AC and it was noisy. We eventually got used to the noise in hotels with no AC, but this first night was a little difficult. The man behind the desk recommended a restaurant (31 of January) which specialized in sea food. They have tanks with live seafood and fish, but the standard fare was forgettable; especially disappointing was the rice and seafood, said to be a traditional Portuguese dish. I suspect that special orders are much better (and pricier). This was our shake-down cruise, both in getting used to driving in Portugal and seeing how the three of us would interact when looking for hotels, restaurants, etc.

From Póvoa we went to Guimarães, a two star town according to Michelin and a similarly high rating in Fodor's See it Portugal, in part because it is the cradle of Portugal. The town has a large market, a nice shaded allée where we picnicked along one side of the old town wall, and a pleasant old town. But we were not overly impressed by it. We did not go see the castle, which might have modified our view point. We picked up lunch items at the market, including a small chouriço in a charcuterie where the woman spoke French. We discovered that for picnicking, one must make sure that the sausage is made with ground meat. This one was made with chunks of meat and needs to be cut very thinly with a slicer to be edible; I have a sharp knife, but it simply did not do the job properly. After lunch we drove off to Braga (and first 20 km. in the wrong direction), or rather, the Santuário do Bom Jesus do Monte with its famous flight of stairs. I walked it all the way from the parking lot at the bottom, and it is worth it to look at the carvings on the stairway of the five senses. Every level has a fountain with the water coming out of the organ that represents a sense--e.g. hearing hence the ears. It is a difficult walk in the heat, and it is possible to drive up, stop at the base of the staircase and then drive on to the top, which we did once I returned to the bottom (I was the sole driver). We then continued to Viana do Castelo where we stayed for the night.

Viana is an attractive town. The tourist bureau directed us to the Hotel Viana Sol because it has a swimming pool and therefore immediately attracted the attention of our friend. The pool was being repaired and was out of order. The hallways had a slightly musty smell, but the rooms were fine. It was a little run down as it was built in the 70s or early 80s and had not been refurbished since. We had a corner room which allowed some cross ventilation, a blessing as AC was non-existent. Following the Green Guide recommendation, we ate at the restaurant Os 3 Potes. No music, no fado that night. The place is too touristy for me. The food was fine, but nothing special. Had we known, we would have chosen to eat in the bar-restaurant complex in the middle of the harbor. It has three or four restaurants, several bars, and clearly that's where the locals go to eat out--there was a line of cars waiting to get into the parking lot at 10 p.m. The next day we walked to the municipal museum. One enters via the 18th century town house (palace is too strong a word) with original azulejo decorations on its walls, and the ceramics collection is exhibited in its rooms--definitely worth a visit. Behind there is a large courtyard which leads to a modern building which contains its painting collection and public WCs. We were the only ones in the museum, so it appeared that the modern part would only be opened on request. We walked back to the hotel, got into the car and drove up the hill to the cathedral for a beautiful view over the city. It is popular with the locals and all the picnic tables were taken.

We then drove away from the coast and stopped in Ponte de Lima for lunch. We did not see much more than the riverside, but from what we saw, it looks like the town would provide an interesting visit for an hour or two. It was in Ponte de Lima that our friend demonstrated his propensity for falling in love with any attractive female either waiting tables or manning the hotel desk. None of it was for real, as he recognized that their interest in a 60 year old was probably nil. Lunch was not memorable in any other respects except that it was blazing hot and our friend's hot dog was unlike anything in the States. We continued on to Lindoso (getting lost at one point--signage leaves something to be desired) only because it has raised stone granaries which I thought were specific to that locality. It also gave us a reason to drive into this mountainous part of Portugal, and getting there and out is more important than the destination itself. But these 19th or early 20th century granaries are worth seeing. They are not immediately seen from the road because one does not know where to look for them. We arrive in Lindoso, drive around the base of the fort and park in the parking lot. Walk toward the town, and suddenly one sees dozens of them. They are impressive in their own way, and a visit to the fort gives a spectacular view of the area. From Lindoso we drove straight north--just a manner of speaking as the road twists and turns in all directions--to the Rio Minho, discovering in the process that these granaries are all over the place, and in fact, can also be found in Galicia. Some people build modern ones for their gardens. But we have no regrets about the Lindoso detour, because the scenery was exceptional. We reached Valença in the early evening. The town is built behind two Vauban-type forts overlooking the Minho river. The forts themselves contain the old town, which curiously enough has quite a few restaurants and souvenir stores but only one hotel as far as we could determine. That hotel is a pousada, and we decided to afford that luxury for the night (at a 25% discount when we hesitated). We had parked at the base of the fort and went back to get the car. Signage is terrible in Portugal. There is only one entrance to the forts, and it is not easy to find. We found ourselves on the access road to the super highway going to Spain or south to Porto. We chose the direction south, figuring that we could take the next exit and go back to town by local road, whereas if we found ourselves in Spain, we could not use local roads easily as the river was in the way. It worked, and I managed to find the entrance to the forts and eventually the pousada. The room had a wonderful view over the river. Our friend had purchased a bottle of port wine in Porto, part of which we enjoyed as an apéritif while we sat on the room's balcony watching the sun set. We had dinner at a restaurant in the old town (most places were closing down by that time, so we did not have too much choice). A real tourist place, not awful, but nothing to rave about. The pousada's dining room had a nice view over the river, its breakfast was not great, but real juice was available. The next day we drove to Spain using the Eiffel bridge, and again it took two tries to get on it.

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