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Tedgale Trip Report: Portugal in April 2014 (with Easter in Amsterdam)

Tedgale Trip Report: Portugal in April 2014 (with Easter in Amsterdam)

Old Apr 28th, 2014, 10:46 AM
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We don't normally eat red meat, though we are not doctrinaire about it, so a dinner of "black pork" was not of especial interest. Very hearty cuisine and abundant vegetables, though.

But oh, how I longed for a salad after a few days in Portugal. You can find one sometimes ....but you know their heart isn't in it.
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Old Apr 28th, 2014, 06:14 PM
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Bookmarking
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Old Apr 29th, 2014, 03:39 AM
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Ted, how did you find your wonderful accommodations? Can't wait to read more?
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Old Apr 29th, 2014, 10:01 AM
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misha2: Just the usual website searches.

For hotels, I start with Tripadvisor, then cross check with a search using the name of the potential hotel.

The Pousadas have a website of their own.

I used Homeaway to find our very nice Lisbon apartment.

And I never, ever make an apartment booking anywhere with a US-based website. They are always overpriced, in my experience -- though some have lovely listings.

I want to get back to writing my Top Ten. But I suddenly got involved in planning a 10 day trip to the USA (back to Savannah, with a stop in DC on the return).

Departure is 48 hours from now so I'm kinda "otherwise occupied" at present....

Apologies to those waiting for more text.

As a down-payment on the text on ALCOBACA, BATALHA & TOMAR, here is an album of those three amazing sites:

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?...1&l=d759e4688c
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Old Apr 30th, 2014, 06:01 AM
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Lots of wonderful info and photos! I'm bookmarking this for leisurely read.
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Old Apr 30th, 2014, 12:55 PM
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Ted: The photos of Alcobaca, Balalha and Tomar are such "eye candy" that I will happily revel in them with happy memories of those marvelous Manueline monasteries, and wait til you have time for more.

No problem at all!

Down payment gladly accepted.
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Old May 1st, 2014, 03:13 PM
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Those 3 spots were mesmerizing.

I am currently sitting in Winchester VA, far from my Canadian home.

I hope to post my final chapters from Savannah GA (when we get there) .....but I'm not sure that will happen easily
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Old May 3rd, 2014, 04:22 AM
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You are wise to escape the gloom,even though it interferes with excellent trip reporting ... staying tuned for the next installment.
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Old May 4th, 2014, 04:55 PM
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Thanks, FB.

We have only a tablet. Not easy to compose long paragraphs of text.

I suspect further instalments will await our return.

Meanwhile, Savannah invites a whole narrative of its own. Never met a city I liked so well. And 33 C tomorrow. Wow!
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Old May 16th, 2014, 12:13 PM
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After a 12 day break, during which we revelled in 30+ C temperatures in beautiful Savannah, I am now back and fully resolved to complete my Top 10 list. Here goes:

3, 4, 5. Alcobaca, Batalha and Tomar:
(The order given above is the order in which we viewed these sites and that fortuitous choice turned out to be fortunate as well, as Tomar was the highlight of the three.)

3. Alcobaca:
Alcobaca monastery stands at the centre of a small and otherwise rather unremarkable community, surrounded by hills. It was founded in the 1150s to fulfill the king’s vow after an important triumph over the Moors at Santarem. While the main construction works were finished by the 1220s, expansion and redecoration continued into the 18th century.

From a large square, you confront an impressive Baroque façade, which gives a misleading air of uniformity to what is actually a very heterogenous (and immense) complex. You enter through the church – the largest church in Portugal. As elsewhere, entry to the church is free and you pay only for admission to the areas not used for actual worship.

In accordance with Cistercian practice, the church is austere in design and décor: a simple three-nave plan with no ostentation and little colour to relieve the plain dressed stone. The one exception is two magnificent and ornate royal tombs – a king and his murdered mistress, united in death as they were not in life. It is the plainness, purity and uniformity of this huge and dignified building that impress. We were almost alone during our visit and the relative silence only increased the grandeur.

From here, we proceeded through the Sala dos Reis, whose 18th century azulejos depict the founding of the monastery, into the monastery itself. Everything is well labeled and explained. We were able to reconstruct monastery life as it was lived there: the cloister, where monks walked in silent meditation; the refectory, with a pulpit for the reading of lessons during meals taken in silence; the astonishing kitchen, with its mammoth, tile-clad internal chimney.

My favourite spot, though, was the upstairs dormitory, a huge arched room whose acoustics cause every sound to resonate and echo. I couldn’t resist singing, just to hear my voice billow and bounce back to me.
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Old May 16th, 2014, 12:34 PM
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4. Batalha:
After about 90 minutes at Alcobaca, we headed off to nearby Batalha, a small town completely dominated by the abbey complex. We made the unfortunate mistake of taking small roads, an apparent shortcut. We snaked through areas of spotty residential and commercial development – slow travel through banal surroundings. I was reminded again always to stick to the big roads in Portugal, unless you have a solid reason for doing otherwise.

Batalha abbey, as the name suggests, was likewise built in celebration of a military victory – this one a 1385 victory over Castilian troops at Aljubarrota. The 200+ years since the building of Alcobaca had seen huge changes in taste. Where the earlier structure is chaste and plain, Batalha, begun in 1388, is deliriously, breath-takingly ornate, both outside and in. Every inch of roofline, every window, every niche has been given a sculptural treatment.

Much of the decoration is in the Manueline style, which drew heavily on the natural world for its inspiration: the pale limestone is carved in imitation of leaves, branches, tree roots and even knotted ropes. Unlike the larger complex at Alcobaca, there is just one cloister here, the Royal Cloister, but it is splendidly and riotously decorated. With the combination of attention-grabbing carving and the distraction of the lush formal gardens, one wonders how much contemplation the monks ever achieved.

You need to exit the complex to view one of the most striking parts of the abbey, the unfinished chapels. Begun under an earlier king, the construction of the octagonal mausoleum was arbitrarily halted by Manuel I in the early 1500s, in favour of similar works at the Jeronimos monastery in Belem. The lower sections of the chapels are fully finished but the construction never got more than halfway to the roof.

At a certain height, all work stopped and the chapels were left open to the sky. The fact that it’s unfinished makes the elaborate carving all the more arresting to the eye. It looks sometimes Moorish, sometimes Art Nouveau, sometimes Art Deco and even sometimes Mayan or Indian.
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Old May 17th, 2014, 07:05 PM
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Thanks so much Ted, I really appreciate your insight into the driving situation as that is the part of our upcoming trip I am most nervous about. So I am gathering that for you it was safer and more straightforward to stay on the major motorways. Here in the States I often try to take back roads, but maybe not such a good idea in Portugal. Thanks for the tip about the transponder and the instructions to the airport - also for the restaurant list -
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Old May 21st, 2014, 03:56 AM
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We enjoyed some smaller roads in less developed areas such as the Alentejo region. Sometimes we found ourselves almost alone, even on a large N road.

The worst driving is on hilly, twisty roads, where some locals drive like maniacs. Truckers are also notoriously bullying on small roads.

On motorways, the drivers are far more consistent and disciplined than those we've seen in the eastern US. People stay in the right hand lane unless they have some reason to pull out. We saw none of the lane hogging and distracted driving that seems to be the current norm in N America.
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Old May 21st, 2014, 06:43 AM
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that is really helpful and reassuring to know. any other driving/sightseeing tips most appreciated: we will be in Lisbon, Evora, stopping off in Bussaco, then Porto and Obidos region. will let you know how it goes in a month or so
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Old May 21st, 2014, 10:06 AM
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If you are near Obidos, you can certainly see Alcobaca and Batalha, perhaps Tomar as well. Here is my write-up on Tomar:

5. Tomar:
Alcobaca – Batalha - Tomar is the order in which we viewed the three sites. That fortuitous choice turned out to be most opportune, as Tomar was the highlight of the three. In retrospect, it seems almost comical that we thought of omitting the Convento do Cristo in Tomar from our itinerary, judging it to be too remote (we were staying in Batalha) and likely too similar to the other ecclesiastical buildings we had just seen. Fortunately, curiosity prevailed and we headed off to Tomar on a moist and foggy morning, via a speedy highway.

The Convento sits on a craggy outcrop high above Tomar, a pleasant and historic town with the usual unlovely suburbs full of lowrise apartment blocks. From the centre, you climb up and up to a car park, where you leave your vehicle at the foot of the high castle walls and start the ascent, through well-tended gardens, to the entry gate. You walk down a long avenue, its yew hedges trimmed in geometric design, to reach the main entrance.

Tomar, built by the Knights Templar, was both a monastery and a fortress. Other than the castle walls and the keep, much of the fortified part (dating to the mid 12th century) including the former royal quarters, lies in ruins.

The extensive, steeply terraced gardens must have been sumptuous once upon a time. Nowadays they are a bit unkempt and neglected – understandable, since they are so extensive that proper maintenance is almost unaffordable. The well-kept monastic buildings are a sharp contrast.

The surviving jewel of the earliest period is the 16-sided drum or Charola, the Templar oratory, whose dramatic interior is almost entirely covered in paintings and frescoes.
From the 1160s until the 17th century, the rest of the site was progressively extended and embellished, with the greatest additions being made in the early 16th century in Manueline style. Running water arrived in the 1600s, with construction of an aqueduct.

The complex is vast, comprising the Charola, the church, the Washing and Cemetery cloisters, the never-finished Chapter House, which stands open to the elements, plus four other cloisters laid out in the four quadrants of a square. The most magnificent of the four is the Great Cloister, built in the 1550s in a pure Italian renaissance style. Its elegant and severe style is a sharp contrast to the adjacent Manueline church. That church, awkwardly grafted onto the much earlier Charola, is another decorative high point – a riot of naturalistic carving, inside and out.

Throughout the complex, the overwhelming impression is of encrustation and of layer upon layer of decoration. Where a new building was added in a new style or at a different level, the builders did not obliterate what came before. Consequently, you have new staircases running parallel to old; sudden changes of level; tempting, can’t-get-there-from-here glimpses of inaccessible rooms; and marooned bits of decorative carving from older buildings revealed in much later interiors.

We spent about 3 hours; delighted and impressed though we were with everything we saw, we left feeling we had merely scratched the surface.
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Old May 21st, 2014, 10:14 AM
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6. Douro Valley:
According to all the guide books, the Douro below Peso da Regua cannot compare to the upriver stretches. Regua is a mostly modern town, well sited on a hillside overlooking the river but otherwise unremarkable. By staying near Peso da Regua, we felt we were perfectly located for visiting the upper Douro Valley.

We are not terribly keen on wine tasting as an activity and are not wine connoisseurs in any event. Why come to the Douro, then?

It is one of the most sensuous landscapes I’ve seen – a series of dramatic forms that the hand of man has softened and civilized in a way that heightens the natural grandeur, instead of diminishing it. We were advised against taking a river cruise – too slow, too many old people and too little opportunity to wander, we thought. Instead, we used a combination of car and train. These gave us two entirely distinct but complementary perspectives on the region.

On a Saturday morning, we drove by pleasant byways from Regua to Pinhao, a trip of about 20 minutes. All along the road we saw the evidence of the prosperity that tourism has brought to this region, in the chic riverside restaurants and the grand vineyards offering tastings and sales.

In sleepy Pinhao, the pretty station is decorated with azulejo tiles depicting all the villages of the region.
Many trains run each day from Porto to the upper reaches of the Douro. The ticket booth in the station was closed – I was serious when I said the town was sleepy – but we were told we would buy our tickets on the train.

Our midday train had only 3 cars. The train from tiny Pinhao to even tinier Pinhao has the immense advantage that its single track runs right alongside the Douro, where no road could now be squeezed in. At first you run rather high above the river, which is murky and brown. What begins as a broad sheet of water quickly becomes narrower and more sinuous. At every turn there is a new panorama of greenish-brown hills, swift-flowing water and vines. The best views of all come when you exit from the only tunnel on this part of the route: you are rather high when you enter the tunnel but when you finally emerge, you are right at river-level and literally at the water’s edge. Another five feet and we would have been in the drink.

All along the route you see signs for the great names in port production: Taylor, Warre, Ferreira, Cockburn. The hillsides of these estates are stepped in terraces, a series of green ribbons that unspool themselves vertically, undulating into the distance.

We stopped frequently at the little villages and whistle-stops that depend on the railway. After about an hour of travel, snapping pictures at every turn, we arrived at unlovely Pocinho, a small industrial centre for (it appeared) the logging industry. There is nothing to see or do in Pocinho but the 45 minutes or so we were obliged to spend there passed quickly enough. On our return, the train was fuller. At several stations, rough-looking local men climbed aboard, each encumbered with several huge flagons – port or perhaps oil, to be carried down to the city, we thought.

When we alighted at Pinhao, we still wanted more of the same, so we got back into the car and drove inland from the river. Just south of Pinhao, on the left bank of the river, we turned in for the N.222 road. The road climbed and twisted around the hillsides, opening up new panoramas of terraced hillsides, deep valleys and the rare glimpse of the distant river curving beneath us. Apart from the occasional (maddeningly reckless) oncoming driver, we were alone on these roads. Every so often, we’d pull over to admire a new vista laid out beneath us, in brilliant sun, heat and utter silence.

We drove as far as São João da Pesqueira, then retraced our steps. Perhaps there are roads as pretty on the northern/ right bank near Pinhao; we did not explore them. The next day we drove briefly westward from Regua, then cut inland for Amirante and Guimaraes. The Douro portions of that road were equally spectacular.
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Old May 21st, 2014, 10:20 AM
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7. Bom Jesus do Monte church:
Early in our trip, we decided we did not want to negotiate our way through cities. Portuguese cities, however historic, are primarily modern and – from what we could see – rather dreary. As much as I wanted to see the ancient core of Braga, Portugal’s third-largest city, I was reluctant to deal with the negatives: navigating, traffic and parking. Our compromise was to confine our visit to the Bom Jesus church, which sits high above the city, about 4 km from the centre. We navigated by the sun and by instinct, having no decent map of the city. We got lucky. Soon we were on our way up – endlessly up – through the hazy green of a dense forest.

Hillside churches approached by a monumental Baroque staircase (“escardaria”) are something of a Portuguese specialty. We had already seen one example in Lamego, near Peso da Regua. We knew of another famous example in Nazare, on the coast. Bom Jesus, created in 1722, was designed by the Archbishop of Braga as the approach to a small shrine of the 15th century. The shrine was replaced and the entire hillside developed into a showplace for the devout. Completion of the project took almost 90 years.

Originally, visitors were meant to approach the complex from the bottom, where the Chapel of Christ’s Agony in the Garden stands. From this point, a stepped walkway lined with chapels slowly ascends toward the main church. Since 1882, a hydraulically powered funicular has carried the less fit and less motivated up (and down) this very lengthy incline. (At the top, the visitor sees the carriage take on a load of water to power its descent and draw the opposing carriage up the hill.)

Today, however, the car-enabled visitor normally arrives at the top of the complex and approaches the Baroque church obliquely, though beautifully groomed grounds. The Spring gardens, blazing with azaleas and other blooms, were at their zenith when we visited.

We spent only a little time inside the church – it is the least striking part of the ensemble. The theatrical exteriors are the whole point here. From the broad forecourt in front of the church, you descend by twin curving staircases to the first terrace. Here the monumental double staircases begin, descending through level after level, each decorated with fountains, statuary, small chapels and splendid gardens. Though the scale is indeed grand, all the elements have been cleverly scaled to appear even more monumental than they actually are. Symbolism is also heavy here: the staircase of the five senses, the staircase of the three virtues. Much of the symbolism of the decorative scheme is, in fact, secular.

None of the individual bits of carving and statuary is artistically very distinguished. This is a stage set, where the effect of the ensemble matters much more than the quality of the individual pieces.

For us, the charm of the site hinged on the gorgeous landscaping and plantings, the distant views of the modern city, the peacefulness of the surrounding countryside, the elegant and highly civilized pitch of the Archbishop’s Baroque vision and – most important of all – the brilliant theatricality of its execution.
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Old May 21st, 2014, 10:32 AM
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We definitely want to see Tomar (thanks for the insights - and are planning some kind of Duoro river cruises, it's helpful to hear your thoughts , kind of doubt we will make it to Braga, thanks so much - sounds like your trip was lovely
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Old May 21st, 2014, 10:39 AM
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If you are staying in or near Bussaco, you are quite close to Viseu. The centre of Viseu is quite attractive, with a central square dominated by the Se (cathedral) and another grand chapel building.

Parking and/or driving in the centre can be quite challenging, however.
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Old May 24th, 2014, 05:35 AM
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tedgale, great info about Lisbon! What did you like about the Tile Museum? I keep looking at that in the guide books and wondering if we need to make time for it.
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