Central and Northern Portugal

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April 14th 2018
Published: April 14th 2018
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Central and Northern Portugal road trip

Friday 6 April – Batalha

It was a transit day and you know what that means? Rain…and plenty of it. We left Lisbon under threatening clouds and made our way to a magical kingdom called Sintra. This town was the summer retreat for Portuguese nobility and is famous for at least 8 castles and a landscape that feels overgrown with old, crooked trees and an overdose of thick moss and enchanting views. The walls that divide property or mark a paddock, are made of stone, similar to those found in England and Scotland. Against the backdrop of eerie forest, the rough grey stone adds to the feeling of age.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. Rain started just out of Lisbon and continued well into Sintra. We went to our chosen castle which was the most different to what we’ve seen before, only to find that 2 of the 3 floors were closed for renovation and with heavy rain, the gardens – which is the highlight of this property – seemed unappealing. We waited there for almost an hour to see if the weather passed over, but after watching people get soaked, we decided it was not our day. If the rain had been light, similar to when we were in Palenque, we would have jumped at the chance to photograph such wonderful forest in fog and rain, but alas, heavy rain does not bode well for cameras. We regretfully left Sintra, and within 5km the rain stopped. Typical!

We made our way out to the Atlantic coast where the rain picked up again and was with us for the rest of the day and night.

Sabbath 7 April – Coimbra

God heard our prayers on Friday night and gifted us some sunshine on Sabbath. In fact, it rained every time we were in the car and stopped when we got out to explore briefly. Convenient! Obidos was our first stop, which was a tiny walled city with an aqueduct and lots of chocolate shops. We walked around half of the walls and when it started to spit, we descended to the inside town for a bit of a look and then back to the car.

Next stop was Batalha, which is the scene of the decisive battle between Portugal and Spain, where in 1385, 44,000 Spanish/French troops marched on Portugal’s 8000 troops, which Portugal won within an hour, and effectively ensured Portugal’s independence from that point onward. Amazingly, the battle field is essentially the same today as it was back then. We watched the interpretive show and then walked the battle field, looking at where the different troops were positioned. It was only a 100m long battle area due to the Portuguese tactics so quite amazing at how it all played out.

Tomar was next, and the castle which was turned into a convent, was the main seat of the Knights Templar in the 1100-1300’s. We didn’t go in but walking around the grounds was very pretty.

We also picked up some groceries for haystacks and as we were getting into our car a small Fiesta reversed out of his park and into the trolley bay next to us, and I’m not just talking about a light touch on the outside trolley but moving 8-10 trolleys before he realised. However, he put the car into gear and drove off without even looking at the damage. We were just glad that there were trolleys between his car and ours!

An hour later we drove to Coimbra (pronounced queen-bra) through the myriad of toll roads. Portugal has the most unfriendly tolling system. Their roads are a combination of private tolls and state tolls. The private tolls have toll booths where you can pay by credit card and the state tolls only use cameras. Since both types are on the same roads, you have no idea which toll type you will hit. Unbeknown to us, the state tolls have to be paid in advance because they are 100%!e(MISSING)lectronic with no booths. It was bad enough that it cost us €8 in tolls, but because we didn’t realise we had to pre-pay, it could cost us 10x that much in fines because they don’t allow post-payment. I then tried to register on the web, hoping that I could set up an account before the tolls had been processed, and their website crashed while processing the payment and wouldn’t let me re-register. Will contact the operator and see if they’ll let me post-pay. Fingers crossed!

Sunday 8 April – Coimbra

Had a lazy morning exploring the little university town of Coimbra. The university was created in 1290 and is one of the oldest universities in continuous operation in the world. Their claim to fame is the 2-storey library, which houses thousands of books from the 16th century onwards. They also have older books but they are not available to the public for preservation reasons. It was impressive to say the least and the fact that tiny bats live in the walls and keep the moths from destroying the books is also rather cool. The rest of the old town was cute but easily explored within the hour. We drove across the river to get some landscape shots of the city just as it started raining.

Have also discovered that France rail workers are planning to strike on the days we take the bullet train from Bordeaux to Paris, and Paris to Switzerland. Between the damage bill with Hertz Morocco, the toll debacle in Portugal and now having to potentially find alternative ways to get in and out of Paris, it’s just not our year. Sigh.

Monday 9 April – Douro Valley

The drive from Coimbra to Douro Valley was again rainy. We did stop off at a town called Viseu to stretch the legs and get a coffee, but apart from that there isn’t much to tell. There is a lot of logging up north compared to down south. Saw lots of Eucalyptus trees, which is bizarre because they are native to Australia, yet both Spain and Portugal seem to have a lot of them. The last hour before we reached our B&B got interesting with a craggy rock landscape, similar to what I’d imagine in Scotland.

Tuesday 10 April – Porto

Drove from Pinhao to Porto along the Douro River. I can imagine it would be very pretty when the sun is out and the river is blue. Unfortunately for us, the weather was raining, foggy and the river was muddy brown from all the rain. I feel a bit cheated by the weather in Portugal. For 4 months they’ve not had a drop of rain, and the day we left Lisbon, a full week of heavy rain set in – just long enough for the remainder of our road trip in Portugal. I do not feel we’ve seen the best of central and northern Portugal.

Wednesday 11 April – Porto

There was a 6hr break in the weather so we explored the old part of Porto, which is very cute, although they too have restored buildings next to run down ones so it’s cute one minute but not the next. The Porto train station is very grand, with over 20,000 ceramic tiles depicting various battles in Portuguese history.

We spent 1.5hrs inside the old Customs House, also the birth place of Henry the Navigator in 1394. There was supposed to be an entry fee but the lady at the desk told us that it was free that day, because “the person who takes the payments isn’t working today”. That cracked us up. That would NEVER happen in Australia!

We meandered downhill to the waterfront, which still has that old port feeling about it, with 1800’s warehouses and buildings and traditional wooden boats laden with wine barrels bobbing in the water. On one side are all the cafes and hotels, and on the other are all the cellars of the port companies. It hasn’t changed that much from photos we saw in a museum which were taken in the mid-1800’s. The difference is that cafes and tourists are the waterfront mainstays, not dock workers and sailors. It’s funny how places like docks used to be the low-brow places that no high society chum
Coimbra University - founded in 1290Coimbra University - founded in 1290Coimbra University - founded in 1290

One of the oldest universities in continuous operation in the world
would be caught dead in, because that’s where the undesirables hung out. Waterfronts these days are mostly owned by high-brows and are the place to be seen. What once was shunned, is now desirable.

We walked up the steep hills to the Pont Luis I bridge for the classic vistas of the waterfront before making our way back into town for some afternoon pastries. It soon started to spit so we made our way home before the worst of it. Tomorrow is meant to be rained in, so it may be a washing and haircut day.

Thursday 12 April – Porto

It rained for most of the morning but the good news is that tomorrow the sun returns for a week, just as we leave Portugal and drive back into Spain. Convenient!

By early afternoon we decided to do the only thing a tourist can do in Porto when it rains – go tour a port cellar. There is a ruling that only port made within a particular boundary can be called port, so port by definition, only comes from Porto. There’s nowhere else in the world that can claim to make port.

There is
Coimbra University is famous for its library with books from the 16th century. Coimbra University is famous for its library with books from the 16th century. Coimbra University is famous for its library with books from the 16th century.

They also have books from the 12th-15th centuries but these are not on display to the public.
a myriad of companies who have cellars on the river and each one offers a tour with wine tasting. We opted for Taylor’s, who have been making and selling port since 1692. They were and still are a British company, with it still owned and managed by the same family. We chose them because they have a self-guided audio tour so we didn’t have to pre-book. The cellars are amazing, the tour was interesting and the two ports were not my thing but others were buying the bottles so I guess they must have been appreciated by people other than me. I did buy a bottle of local grape juice though. The juice looks quite light in colour, but it’s incredibly sweet and flavoursome; reminding me of a non-carbonated Patritti Shiraz but not quite.

By the time we got out at 6pm, it was time for dinner and since it was our last Portuguese meal, we ate out. Cream of vegetable soup and bacalhau de nata (cod gratin with cream). We also took the opportunity to take night shots.

And thus ends our time in Port-u-gal. The guidebooks say that spring is the best time to visit but I’d like to disagree and say that perhaps early September might be better. The vineyards would be green and full of grapes and the days would be less wet and the nights would be warmer. I dislike all the smoking, toll road rules and shocking parking, but there’s a lot to like about the rest of it. I like it more than Spain and I’d recommend it to anyone thinking of coming here. I only wish we’d seen it at its best during good weather. Ce la vie!

Friday 13 April – Santiago de Compostela, Spain

For our last adventure before we left Portugal, we drove through the Peneda-Geres National Park, which borders Spain. It’s a rather rocky park, similar to what you’d see in the Grampians, but with moss on all the rocks and trees, as well as leaves all over the ground. Half way into the park, we stumbled across wild horses, which was a complete surprise. We even got to see a foal! Apparently there are also Iberian Wolves but we didn’t see any of them.

We stopped at the pinnacle of the park, Peneda, which is a tiny town straddling a narrow river valley. We were looking for a particular granite waterfall but none of the locals knew where it was so we followed an ancient and steep stone path under a magical looking canopy of trees that zig-zagged its way up the sheer valley side until we popped out high above the village. We never did find the falls we were looking for but we found some other impressive falls, including a swimming hole for Dad (although the water was freezing!). That was a nice 2-hr stop.

As we drove into Spain, we looked for bakeries that would offer that last mouthful of Pasteis de nata (Portuguese tart), but alas there were none over the 150km we travelled so we crossed the border without any last hoorah.

Crossing the border left me with a tinge of sadness, knowing that we had re-entered the land of effort. Upon arriving in Santiago de Compostela, we met our Airbnb host and she didn’t speak of word of English so we communicated via Google translate. And then the supermarkets didn’t sell fresh milk or peanut butter and no one spoke English. Everything is hard work. Sigh.

Take me back to Portugal!!

Additional photos below
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18th April 2018

Have you read Bernard Cornwell series on Sharpe?
Hi Renae, Portugal (and Spain) is one of my bucket list locations, mainly due to my love of historical fiction and specifically for there the "Sharpe Series" by Bernard Cornwell who uses a figure of Richard Sharpe to follow Wellington's Peninsula War between Britain and France all the way through to the final battle of Waterloo in 1815. Here is one book from the series based around Coimbra http://www.bernardcornwell.net/books/sharpes-escape-2/ Keep on travelling safe. Love your posts. Thanks,
19th April 2018

No, but Dwayne has the tv series with Sean Bean
Hey Simon, we haven't been reading up on any England/France history at the moment, as we've focused mainly on the transitions between Roman, Visigoth, Muslim and Christian rule. Will probably start looking at French history in the next week since we move into France this weekend.

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