Smart Travel 14 - Northeast Portugal

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December 13th 2014
Published: December 13th 2014
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Having received an invitation to attend Smart Travel 14 in Northeast Portugal is an honour, and I'm thrilled to be in the lovely city of Braganca with my generous hosts. Portugal is a country steeped in tradition with world class architecture, culture, gastronomy and wine, and the Northeast is home to the world famous port wine. There's so much on offer in this region the Portugese may just have a chance of civilising me! Everything travellers love about Western Europe is right here in the friendly Northeast, and my worldly hosts have left quite an impression. i suppose that's to be expected, as the Portugese ruled half the world during the height of the Portugese empire. So here I am, ensconced in Braganca and Mirandela for the duration of the event, and grateful for the opportunity.

Smart Travel 14 is an international forum bringing together global specialists in the tourism and ICT sectors to gather in Northeast Portugal, with the participants including travel bloggers and artists. I flew in from Sydney to Mardrid via Dubai on Emirates, to be greeted at the airport by a City Manager from the Mayor's office in Braganca and his driver. We fairly scooted along the highway out of Madrid for over 300 kilometres, before crossing the border into Portugal for the final 20 kilometres and arriving in the gorgeous city of Braganca. The manager was courteous, knowledgeable and professional during the drive, helping to set the scene for the following five days. I checked into the Pousada de Braganca S. Bartolomeu hotel, and settled in my immaculately appointed room before joining my colleagues for a welcome dinner. We started with a glass of port, as is the tradition in Portugal, and got to know each other over the course of a superb meal. I was seated next to the President of the Polytechnic Institute of Braganca, who is a delightful conversationalist. The night seemed to fairly race by in company with this worldly and charismatic gent, and I also took the time to chat with some of my new colleagues.

The organising team pulled me aside during the course of the evening, and informed me they had not planned for me to attend the two days of conferences. Were they sure this was the best way to go? Indeed it was, and I was introduced to one of the organisers who had been shoehorned to drive me around the Northeast for the next four days. How fabulous an opportunity, and the organiser has proven to be consistently good company during the course of our long days, and even longer evenings. He enjoys a regular coffee stop, a cigarette, cars, wine and good times. Now that's my kind of guy! We headed out to explore the Northeast on the first day as a team, and I enjoyed the centre of lovely Vimioso. This is just one of the many delightful towns I had the privilege of visiting during the trip. For lunch we headed out to Miranda do Douro on the border with Spain. Estalagem Santa Catarina hotel has superb views of the canyon on the Spanish border, and the restaurant specialises in delicious Mirandes beef, which literally melts in your mouth. A superb steak with fine wine, this is quite the experience! We headed to a local canyon and went on a wonderful boat trip on the canyon, home to glorious wildlife and exceptional views.

The next day we had the chance to explore the host city Braganca, and my colleague dropped me off at the majestic Braganca Castle perched on top of a hill with sweeping views of the city. I spent nearly two hours exploring the magnificent castle and war museum contained within, as well as wandering around the historic buildings that make up the fortified town up on the hilltop. It is one of the most impressive castles in Europe, and known as the top castle attraction in Portugal. We had the chance to wander around the centre of town, and I was snapping photos of the lovely city on a glorious winter day. My colleague informed me a call had been placed to St Peter for suitable weather during the course of Smart Travel 14, and he must have got the message as the weather was consistently splendid! At lunch we visited one of the the most prestigious restaurants in the city. Solar Bragancano serves up world class cuisine, and again we found ourselves enjoying a fine red wine over the course of our meal. After lunch we headed off to Montesillo Natural Park for a very scenic drive, before stopping off at the fascinating Biological Park near Vinhais. There are plenty of animals and exhibits to keep tourists entertained during a visit. We enjoyed another sumptuous meal at a farm near Mirandela for dinner, and I had another enjoyable evening mixing with the great people of Northeast Portugal.

The next day we started with a tour of Azibo, which is a beautiful man made lake popular with locals and tourists alike. It's also the site of a fascinating geological park, and we enjoyed a tour on the bus with the friendly and knowledgeable guides of this historic region in Europe. They recently attained international certification as a geological park, providing a big boost to tourism in the Azibo region. We then drove out to the gorgeous village of Romeu, home to one of the most famous restaurants in Portugal. Maria Rita is justifiably famed for promoting the world renowned olive oil from the region, and for the superb cuisine the chef lays on every day. The codfish and meat dishes are unique, and almost too good to describe in words. Rest assured though, tourists will never forget sampling the cuisine and fine wine on offer in this immaculately maintained historic building. I have to come back to the Northeast to enjoy another meal here, it's a restaurant that will live on in the memory for a long time. We headed up to Hotel & Spa Alfandega Da Fe for sublime views, a jacuzzi and a relaxing massage. The evening was topped off with another superb meal in one of the top restaurants in Mirandela. Fleur du Sal specialises in Alheira, a sausage variant with bread that was created by the local Jewish population. So much fine food and wine, this trip has almost been overwhelming.

The final day started after waking at an immaculate hotel just outside the city centre of Mirandela. We headed out to Carrazeda and the famous Castle of Asiaes. My goodness, this is such a beautiful place with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside, and you can spend a long time strolling around the ruins on the hilltop, the place is just dripping with history. Wow, what a tourist destination, but then it was time to head to the most famous region in the Northeast. The legendary Douro Valley is the most ancient wine region in the world, and also home to world famous port wine. It's so beautiful to witness the sweeping views of the vineyards and farmland that hug the Douro River. We had lunch at the wonderful Senhora da Ribeira restaurant, and the food was as good as the local red wine. In fact a second bottle of red appeared at our table, and our enjoyment was so palpable the manager offered us a complimentary bottle each to take home. That's the Northeast of Portugal in a nutshell; where the locals show generosity of spirit, pride in their culture, and can gracefully highlight the tourist potential of the region.

The Northeast of Portugal is perfectly situated to cash in on an upswing in local and international tourism. The cities are absolutely gorgeous, the streets immaculately clean and organised, the infrastructure world class, with brand new highways and fast trains connecting the major cities, and ultra high speed fibre broadband connected right to the home for internet users. The GFC hit Portugal hard like the rest of the continent, but the government is committed to reopening Villa Real and Braganca as regional hubs for international flights, with the reopening of the airports scheduled for March 2015. Also a TGV connection from Zamora in Spain to Braganca across the border is in negotiation. As a guest of Smart Travel 14, I've had the chance to see first hand the tourist potential of the region. The Northeast has the best of Portugese architecture, culture, cuisine, and fine wine in a package the country is famed for, but the experience is on a smaller and more relaxed scale. I enjoyed my visit to the Northeast immensely, and can't wait to return to this magical part of the world. You know what, basically all of you should be here now!

"Live to live and you will learn to live." Portugese proverb

As I continue my travels, until next time it's signing off for now


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