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Trip Report April 2010 in northern Portugal

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We had a very interesting, two week trip to Portugal in mid-April 2010, and just want to mention some general comments on our trip for which we thank the many folks here who helped with our planning.

We were so glad to be able to stay in smaller places, which gave us the chance to really interact with the people.  Not knowing the language wasn't too much of a problem, except that sometimes it prevented us from really having in depth conversations, which would have been even more enlightening.  In at least one place, we felt that we had also been good American ambassadors, and presented a different view to our host.

Loved our first 3 days in Sintra. Our house was easy walking distance to Sintra and Sao Pedro, where we were able to experience our only market day.  What an experience!  We walked into Sintra (after giving up on finding a parking spot the first day) and took the bus to the Moorish Castle and also Pena Palace on Saturday.   Both incredible places with all the tile work.  Strolled around the town, which seemed crowded, but a shop owner told us he had only had half the usual number of customers because it was a beautiful day after weeks of rain and everyone was at the beach.

Sunday, we went to the market and then Jack, our traveling friend,and I walked to Sintra to see the National Palace while Ann and Ed stayed home and sat in the sun.  Very impressed with the painted ceilings and huge white chimneys in kitchen.

Monday, we headed to Obidos.  I agree that a few hours was enough time there.  We had been so pleased with ourselves for having no problems getting right to our house in Sintra from the airport, but quickly discovered the fun of travel directions in Portugal.  By the end of the trip, we constantly said, "Circles are our friends," as we so often used them to turn around or better yet, kept driving around them to look at all the town names while attempting to find the town on the map.  

Continued on to Porto and somehow, coming from a different direction than planned, came right to our Hotel Clip (low price attached to good comfort) in Gaia.  Very good location as suggested by Laurie.

Next day took hop on/off bus for tour of city. Although it was good to get an overview of the city, I think I may have wanted to spend more time walking around the central part, but without the bus, we may not have been able to discover the center.  Very nice lunch along river, as we overlooked a funeral!  Our waiter told us a young man had died unexpectedly, so there was a lot of wailing from his mother.  Interesting local flavor.

By now it was almost 5:00 so rushed across river to try to visit some port lodges, which closed at 6:00.  Wanted to visit Taylor and Croft which had free tastings, but after many false starts up hills by Ann and me (we were the walkers, especially since Ed is still having problems walking and all the cobblestone streets didn't make it easy) we gave up and went to Sandeman to sample.  This was our only sampling of wines on the trip.  Not drinking---sampling...

Ed made the long walk back to the hotel, while the rest of us returned to Porto to look around and get the bus home.  While studying the bus schedule, a very nice man helped us.  In fact he was so helpful in talking to the bus driver about where we wanted to go, that when we saw our hotel and tried to get off, the bus driver said, "No, no," and only Ann's persistence allowed us off. We had actually told the man we wanted a prominent spot near our hotel to make it easier, and that's where the driver wanted to take us.

Wednesday headed up the Duruo.  Beautiful scenery, lots of backtracking, quick stop in Cinfaes (why? because we thought it'd break up the trip) Again helpful Portuguese, whose directions we were somehow able to follow until we’d come to a circle.

Lovely casa in Mesao Frio overlooking Duruo.  Light over the river was interesting, especially rainbows, or "colored water" as Maria called them. Walked up hill to "Alice's--and Andre's--Restaurant"  So endearing.  Whenever we asked about a food, she'd rush back to kitchen and bring out the raw food on a platter, such as cantaloupe, apple or the way potatoes could be cut. Always with a big smile. After many attempts, we were able to explain "tap water," and the next night when we returned, she immediately brought a pitcher.  Second night, the wine and olive oil producer sat next to us and shared some of their new wine.  No labels on bottles.

Next two days were frustrating to group in Duruo area. Missed train schedules, boats not working, no wineries to visit, in towns when stores closed for lunch, forgetting Victor's restaurant suggestion in Pinhao, no sense of direction in Vila Real (but was finally able to make myself understood to cheese merchant to get some nice strong cheese.  Hope holding one's nose isn't an obscene gesture in Portugal.)  Wonderful (???) back roads from Vila Real to Regua that swooped and twisted their way up and down hills.  Seemed to be area of very old vineyards.  Would have liked to take photos but difficult to stop.  Second day, took train from Regua to Pinhao.  When looking back at Laurie's report, I guess we should have continued to end of line for even more scenic views, which even to Pinhao, were pretty good.   Perhaps I was expecting this area to be one wine tasting after another. There is a lot I would do differently if returning to this area.

But we did meet John in Regua, who would have talked all day when we asked for directions.  Instead we sang 60's songs, "If you're going to San Francisco...." and he told us which of us he liked according to our vote for/against Obama. We wanted to meet the locals, and John was one.

Next day was one of our best as we visited Guimaraes.  Lovely main street with tree covered park down center of street, and interesting old section.  At old castle, Jack and I walked along walls without any railings to inner part, but the paths were actually quite wide.  This is where Portugal first was declared a country in 1128 when Afonso Henriques defeated his mother from Spain.  Nice lunch in outdoor courtyard--flowers, fountain, friends and bright sun.

Circles were definitely our friends as we tried to reach Paco d Anha.  Very nice apartment style house overlooking pastures with sheep, cattle, lots of noisy roosters, goats and ducks, as well as vineyards and ocean in the distance. Lots of walking paths and friendly dogs to trot along with us. Excellent wine from quinta.

Sunday, lazed around as each one did their own thing.  Valenca, on Spanish border in the afternoon.  Even more commercial vendors within town walls than Obidus, but still interesting, especially overlooking the ramparts near Pasoda.  Saw our third Eiffel bridge of the trip.  In hindsight, would have liked to continue east along the Minho River instead of returning via Viana do Castelo, but not enough time.

Monday, discovered our perfect beach in Amorosa.  Dunes with large pink flowers and great embedded rocks on the beach.  I galloped with joy!  Water, for walking, not too cold.  Wanted to jump out of the car to take a photo when we saw an old woman (possibly younger than us) dressed in heavy clothes, leading an ox and wagon containing her husband (?) But better judgement ruled, and I didn't want to appear as a brash American.  Interesting that the group had several discussions about actions being tacky or not...

On to Barcelos, which for me was a little disappointing.  Setting up for spring festival later in week, so streets were strung with decorations and lights.  Renovations in church, castle square and museum preventing entering those.  Great pastries in business square.  Jack was glad to visit "the home of the chicken!"  I was sorry to miss Ponte de Lima, but again, only so much time, and didn't want to rush around like crazy just to squeeze in too many places.

As we headed south the next day, I realized how much I had liked the older feel and landscape of the Minho. Sounds strange as we were headed to see Roman ruins, but there was more, modern development surrounding the older sites.  Gave me the feeling that we were slowly moving back to the 21st century and the end of our time in beautiful Portugal.

As for the ruins, these were in Conimbriga, and inhabited from 9th century BC to 8th century AD.  Enjoyed a picnic lunch next to a large group of 13 year olds from Porto.  Spoke to them, and they seemed to enjoy talking to the Americans that they had been checking out at the next table.  Never having seen other Roman ruins, I thought that these was quite impressive.  Lots of almost intact mosaic floors.  Couldn't believe largest house excavated was 35,000 square feet.  Walls to surround city were "hastily built," but were 13 feet wide.  

Another adventure on the roads as we decided to take the back roads to Ourem and our next quinta.  Could definitely see the landscape changing to more pine, but also lots of old olive groves with fig trees interspersed.

Nuno, our host gave us some excellent suggestions for touring, which otherwise we probably wouldn't have found.  On way to Convento de Cristo in Tomar, Nuno told us where to see a large, intact aqueduct.  We were so excited to see this "Roman" structure only to find out later that it was actually built in the 1500's to bring water to the convent.  Well, it was still impressive!

Convento de Christo was founded in 1162 by Grand Master of the crusading Order of Knights Templar, who later became the Order of Christ. Magnificent 16 sided drum shaped church.

I preferred this convent to the monastery of Batalha, which we saw the next day.  The Manueline architecture is so distinctively Portuguese, whereas that in Batalha is seen in so many more places.  All during the trip, we were definitely having difficulty trying to make some sense of Portuguese history, but finally some of it was falling into place between Tomar and Batalha.

Again, found ourselves in a city, Tomar, that we couldn't seem to navigate, so took another of Nuno's suggestions and headed to the small town of Constancia for lunch overlooking the Tagus River.  As we watched people get off a tour bus, we were SO glad that we weren't being herded from place to place at someone else's pace.

Running short of time and wanting to get back to Ed, who had taken another day off from traveling, we passed up going to Castelo de Almourol.  According to Nuno, this  castle, built in 1171 in the middle of the Tagus, that is reached by small boat is a unique place to visit.

Since we were only about 6 miles from Fatima, we felt obliged to visit it the next day on our way to Batalha. However,we all agreed that it was just too large and didn't do the least for us. After Batalha, it was finally time to head back to Lisbon airport to return the car.  Had our first rain while driving.  Easy to return car and then in for an infamous taxi ride to our hotel.

Instead of trying to sort through any sights in Lisbon, we chose to people watch while enjoying wine/beer in a cafe on Rossio Square.  A relaxing way to end our trip to Portugal.

BTW we drove almost 1000 miles in two weeks.

Impressions and things we came to expect.

Circles! Narrow, steep, convoluted cobbled streets. Tiles of every kind and color used in any and all places. Beautiful wooden ceilings, elaborately painted in public buildings or dark stained in every room of a house. Long, wooden shuttered windows, which made me feel cozy when closed at night and exhilarated when opened in the morning. Elaborate, gold gilded churches with many life size realistic sculptures of the agony of Christ. Blues and yellows on pottery, houses, linens. White buildings with red tile roofs.

Cats, dogs sleeping on streets, roosters (live and noisy or the Barcelos rooster on every type of souvenir. Wash hanging from windows. Wonderful, smooth, soft bed linens and rough, lined dried towels. The strong smell of bacalhau in every food store and the sweet scent of citrus blossoms in gardens. Delicious, crusty rolls and large cups of stong coffee for breakfast. Olives and bread always placed on the table. Perfect, fresh flowers on every gravestone. Friendly, talkative people. A huge range of flowering and other plants, trees. Lots of wisteria, citrus, eucalyptus and of course, grape vines and olive trees.

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