After Lisbon we rented a van and toured Portugal. Driving was fairly easy…and would have been easier in a smaller vehicle. The streets in many towns are more conducive to donkey carts than modern vehicles. More than once we made turns with less than inches to spare.
Our initial drive out of Lisbon was south along the Atlantic coast. We stopped at the Bom Petisco seafood restaurant on the beach at Sines. (The place was recommended by John, our guide at Sintra, and he again steered us right. ) It was lunchtime, and the place was hopping. the menu was seafood, all reasonably priced, as was wine and beer. Janet and I enjoyed the boiled shrimp. The shrimp were closer to prawn sized, and easy to peel. Don’t expect a dollop of cocktail sauce as a side – you won’t find one. Seafood is best served naked, or so it would seem. The food was uniformly excellent, and the bill small by comparison to USA prices. One last tip: The fried shrimp are not those breaded and deep-fried morsels…they are literally fried shrimp. They proved hard to peel, although tasty once out of their shells.
Our first overnight stop was at the Balaia Golf Village at Albufeira. It was a beautiful resort off the Autoestrada. When we checked-in for only ine night the young lady told us we would regret the short stay. She was right. Our condo was beautiful, roomy and well-kept. The entire campus was nicely groomed, as one might expect. We paid $95 for our group through Booking.com.
Outside the gate was a full-sized supermarket. As we had a kitchen we loaded up on meal fixings. But the real fun was in the wine section. John, our favorite guide, gave us sage advice when he said, “Never spend more than three euros on a bottle of Portuguese wine. The expensive wine is no better, and you’re wasting your money.” Through the trip it became a contest to find the cheapest wine…some under one euro! Not once did we suffer an undrinkable wine; not even a “bad one”. Now, the wines were usually vinho verde, a spritely white with a touch of fizz. Buy it!
We left Albufeira and the southern coast heading north toward Evora, driving through a land of hills and fruit groves reminiscent of California years ago. It was beautiful country, especially on a warm, sunny day. We largely had the road to ourselves…when there was a road. Occasionally the highways become single lane tracks between two stone walls. The good news was we never encountered opposing traffic. Sheep were commonly seen grazing in these walled fields.
Evora is a well-preserved medieval town that features high walls, a 13th-century cathedral,and a Roman temple – all designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There we spent an overnight at the Peacock House, a pleasant guesthouse a few steps up from the Church of San Francisco. The proprietor was very nice, and the house equipped with a full kitchen and a nice rooftop patio. Our room overlooked the church’s front. Parking was in the Church square, free overnight, but the metered time begins early! The area boasts several restaurants just up the hill toward the town square. The town is a delight to explore. Don’t miss the Chapel of Bones, the Roman Temple of Diana, the Cathedral and, especially, the view from the walls.
Franciscan monks lined the walls and ceiling of the Chapel of Bones with the bones and skulls of more than 5,000 people exhumed from ancient graveyards of Evora. The archway at the entrance reads “We the bones wait for yours”. My mother-in-law was freaked out at the sight!
Below the back of the Church of San Francisco we found the Restaurante Snack Bar IPDJ (Portuguese Institute for Youth Sports). For 6.50 euros we enjoyed a substantial lunch that included entree, beverage (wine, beer or soft drink), dessert and coffee. You can’t beat that, and the food was excellent, as was the service. And you will find yourself eating with the locals. Isn’t that high on your list?
Our overnight stop was in the fortress Marvão, at the Dom Denis hotel. We arrived after another beautiful drive though fruit orchards, vineyards and cork groves as evening was falling. The drive up to Marvão was one thing; driving within the fortress walls was another challenge. One stretch of perhaps 200 meters was driven with only inches to spare on either side of the vehicle. The last thing I was looking to do was “scratch” the exterior of the rental van! Pull in the sideview mirrors and go slow. Mirrors gave drivers a chance to see one another – with one having to back out of the narrow channel.
The Dom Denis was a jewel. It was 100 meters from the fortress keep, flush against the wall. There was nearby parking with pelnty of maneuver room for departure. We were greeted with a friendly reception, our rooms in waiting. We quickly went to the terraces to view the sunset – fabulous. it is said, “From Marvao you can see the whole earth; come and see with us!” I agree!
The next morning, after an excellent breakfast, we walked over to the fortress, which was open for free in the off-season. One can see how it was such a strategic point, fortified by Dom Denis in 1299 to keep an eye on the Spanish.
Guarda was our next stop as we progressed northward to the Douro Valley. Along the way we stopped at Castelo Branco, where we visited the Jardim do Paço Episcopal, a park that was once the private winter garden of the bishop.
The garden was a multi-tiered construct, with several water features – some with surprises for visitors! There are many, many statues that follow themes within their sections, and beautiful blue tile features. The Garden is well worth the stop and time, a sight fit for a bishop.
Driving further we sidetracked to Portugal’s highest point, the Torre in the Serra da Estrela mountains, rising to 1,993 metres (6,637 feet). The drive up through the switchbacks was slow but beautiful. Along the way we passed carvings in the stone made when the road was constructed. As we climbed there was increasing snow – and finally a working ski run at the summit. The 360 degree views are worth the trip.
The draw at Guarda was the Cathedral and square. Like most towns, it was also walled centuries ago. Arriving in Guarda we followed our GPS to the square, looking for our hotel, the Guesthouse de Sé. The problem became one of not having an accurate location for the Guesthouse, and the road narrowing and becoming one way, preventing an easy turnaround.
I was able to pull up to ask a policeman directions. He smiled and pointed across the square, and allowed me to park. Like a dummy, I walked across and down an alleyway, following the GPS. As I walked the “location” changed. A bit exasperated I asked a woman, who took me by the arm to a fellow fixing his car in the street, saying he could help. Wiping his hands, he turned out to be the Guesthouse proprietor.
The Guesthouse de Sé was hiding in plain sight…sporting a large painted sign announcing its presence as “Casa de Sé”. We were taken to our rooms, all very rustic and very inexpensive. A restaurant around the corner was recommended.
We had dinner at the Solar da Beira, a nice neighborhood place. Being the off-season, we were not expected. Apparently neither was anyone else – most of the lights were turned off and except for the menu outside, the place sure looked closed. The owner invited us in and the lights were turned on. As he took our drink orders, the cook was summoned! Once again, the fixed menu gave the best value – including entree and dessert. The five of us enjoyed excellent food, and the owner was incredibly attentive as we stumbled through English and limited French with good humor.
We had breakfast at the Cidade Doce 2 pastry shop across from the Misericordia church. Great pastries and coffee at a place frequented by locals.
Then a tour through the gothic Cathedral with a classic cross-shaped floor plan. I found it fairly cold and austere. With that, we climbed the steep spiral stairs to the roof for the view on another clear, sunny day. Treat yourself…
We drove off toward the Douro with plans to stop in Lamego, reputed to be one of the most beautiful cities in Northern Portugal. Again the drive was through beautiful country, with rolling hills and terraced vineyards. Along the road we found a pull-off for lunch and enjoyed our bread and coldcuts.
As we drove further, like an explosion, the Douro came into view through a clearing. Spectacular! The vineyards down the steep hills to the blue river flowing below. Here and there a quinta where the port wine base was being collected and fermented.
Our overnight was at the Quinta do Porto, a century-old rural family home that had been converted to a guesthouse. It was a bit difficult to find, but worse was the proprietor wasn’t there at the appointed time. She finally showed up from town, where she said she expected to meet us. She opened the house and noted how cold it was – she normally didn’t open until April and this was FEBRUARY! She pulled out a number of oil-filled radiators and plugged them in.
We brought rotisserie chickens, a universal bargain entree, from a supermarket in Lamego for dinner. We cooked up some side dishes in the freezing kitchen…and then the electricity went off. We were in the dark, not knowing where the fuse box was. A few text messages later and we had things back going. We also learned we needed to dial back those radiators.
The next morning we picked a goodly number of fresh fruits from the trees – oranges, kiwi and lemons. All proved delicious at breakfast and lunch.