Portugal

If you don’t want to take the time to read the entire journey than check out the 3 videos throughout the post.  Enjoy!

Arrival

The Lisbon airport is not far from town and while they do have public transportation by subway and bus, we highly recommend renting a car (there is too much to explore that is not easily accessible by public transportation).  We only spent a day in Lisbon and were able to see almost everything we had planned.  We actually ditched the car at our hotel (the Holiday Inn) and spent our entire first day on foot.  There are some great places to visit in Portugal including museums and castles in the heart of town and a few museums, castles and monasteries along the coast (some you will need to drive or take public transportation too).  We spent most of our day enjoying the food and wine and walking through the wonderful neighborhoods.

Main attractions in Lisbon:

There are many great museums (including the carriage museum) and sites to see in Lisbon.  These include:

  • The Jeronimos Monastery
  • Balem tower (smallish castle in the ocean)
  • St. George Castle (large castle in the center of town on the hill)
  • Elevador de Santa Justa (takes you to a lookout tower in the center of Lisbon).   While the view is good it is not as good as that from St. George’s castle across the way, but there are some cute neighborhoods that you can walk to from the top of the hill that the bridge from the elevator will take you to.

We could have spent a few more days here but we were very excited to get out into the country and see the castles.

Day 1:  The Templar Quest

On the 2nd day we hopped in the car to head northward.  It was our intention to see as many of the castles and monasteries (built by the Templar knights as they returned from the crusades) as possible.  While we stopped at few small towns to see the churches, our first major stop was Castle Almourol.  This is a beautiful castle located on an island in the middle of a river.  We highly recommend it (although there is not a bridge so it is not easily accessible).

Our next major stop was Tomar.  As the home of many Templar nights there are many places to see, best of which is the Convent Do Christo.  This convent was probably our favorite convent/monastery in Portugal, it was large, beautiful, and you can walk through more of it than any of the others.  The best part was there were few tourists, we experienced almost the entire place without running into another person.

Hint:  You can by a pass here to see The Convent and the two other monasteries in the area (we visited them later on in the week) for less than purchasing them separately. 

Next was Coimbra.  This beautiful town is famous for the oldest university in Europe, and being the resting place for Queen Isabella.  We highly recommend the baroque library which is part of the University, a fascinating multi-story building filled with old books (there is a charge to see it).  Hopefully you will also get to see the traditional Portuguese students in their Harry Potteresk robes.

Next up was some great wine country in the Dao Wine Region.  You can try Portuguese wine in just about any restaurants.  While there are very few wineries to actually visit (most are grown by local farmers and typically require an appointment).   Although, there are wine centers that have multiple wineries in one location.  Be sure to check for dates and times because they can be sporadic.  We happened to be there during a wine festival so JACKPOT!

Last (and best) was our final stop of the day, which also happened to be our hotel,  Bucaco Castle.  This is a beautiful smaller castle located in the hills of the Dao Wine Region. The rooms are fully modernized while still maintaining the castle feel.  We highly recommend the restaurant and their private wine (if you really want to make us smile then send us a bottle).  The entire setting was magical.  It was not crowded and we rarely saw anyone as we walked the grounds.

Day 2:  Into Wine Country

On day three we headed East towards the Duoro wine region (named after the river and is similar to the wine country of neighboring Spain).  Our first stop was Lamego, a charming town that is worth spending a little time in.  We loved the little castle on the hill that is now the home of the local boy scout troop (we think we were the only people to visit that day, including the roof).

Our next stop was Viseu, a cute town with some beautiful churches.

From here we highly recommend taking the back road over to Mondim do Basto, the views are breathtaking.  Mondim do Basto is out-of-the-way from most of the tourist tracks but it is a great town and the Agua Hotel is wonderful with its’ modern, beautiful rooms and the amazing view.  We also recommend a drive up the hill (you will know the one) it has a breathtaking view with a cute little church at the top (watch out for all the bikers).

While here don’t forget to try their Vinho Verde (green or new wine) it is famous for this region and is very light and refreshing.

Day 3: The Festival of San Joao or on to Porto.

Guimaraes was our first stop on day 3.  This was a wonderful town with a lot to see, especially the castle.  We recommend parking in the center of town and then walking around for a few hours. This castle was probably our favorite out of all that we saw in Portugal, it is still fully furnished and beautifully decorated.  This city was probably John’s favorite.

Braga was next.  Because it was the festival of San Joao the town was alive and amazing, although it would be wonderful at anytime of the year.  It is the oldest city in Portugal with the Se Cathedral dates back to the 12th century.  A visit to the Bom Jesus Cathedral and Gardens, sitting on a hill near the city center, is highly recommended (it can be reached by car, funicular or by taking the thousands of steps leading up to it).

We consider Porto one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.  It is also the home of Port wine, hence the name.  There are many wonderful and unique Port Houses, especially the world-famous Sandeman.

June 23rd is big day for Portugal and most of all for Porto.  It is the Festival of Saint John (Sao Joao) and it is described as “the most lively party in Europe.”  Thousands and thousands of people descend on the beach area to enjoy many stages of live music, great food and most of all, hitting each other over the head with plastic hammers.  It has become our favorite festival and we hope to take part as many years as possible.

Day 4:  Coasts, Castles and Convents

While we wish we had time to explore more of northern Portugal, it was time to start heading back towards Lisbon, and there was plenty to see along the way.

Our first stop was the beautiful coastal town of Aviero, also know as the Venice of Portugal.   This cute town is famous for its waterways, colorful houses and amazing cream filled candies that have been specially made for centuries.

Next was the famous beach town of Nazare.  We drove to the small fortress located on the top of the bluff  (it is down a small road just off of the historic part of town on the upper cliffs).  There are beautiful views from here and an ideal picture spot.  If you look to one side you will see a long stretch of beach with hundreds of people bathing on it.  On the opposite side you see a long stretch of beach and nobody (at least that was our experience).  If you start walking down the small dirt road on this side you will come to a trail and stairs carved into the rocks leading down to the beach.  It is a great spot to enjoy some beach time if that is what you are hoping for.

We made a quick trip to a small but very fun castle at Maria Do Fiera.  The castle and the grounds are worth a visit.

Next was Leira castle, the parts that have been restored are very well done especially the large balcony, and even those that are not restored are still amazing to walk through and imagine how grand it once was.

Obidos castle was our next stop and includes the surrounding village.  This castle was traditionally the wedding gift to Portuguese queens and the main section is now a bed and breakfast.  While the town is beautiful the highlight is the native drink called Ginja  (made from sour cherries that are grown in the region).

The National Palace in Mafra is a newer castle used primarily in the 1700s, it is a beautiful example of Baroque architecture.  We were particularly enthralled by their hospital (for the wealthy) and the astounding library.

Fatima is the home to a large religious complex dedicated to the events surrounding multiple visits of the Virgin Mary to three children (and many others) in 1917.  It is a famous pilgrimage sites for catholics and still holds vigils filled with countless people a few times a year.

Next was the very large Alcobaca Monastery.  You could spend hours here wandering the various floors and spacious rooms that once housed thousands of Monks.  Our favorite was the massive kitchens filled with giant 3 – 4 story furnaces for cooking hundreds of pounds of meat every day.  Here you can also see the famed (and amazingly beautiful) coffins of the Romeo and Juliet-esk lovers – Peter I and Ines de Castro.  When their forbidden romance continued to blossom Peter’s father had Ines beheaded.  Very soon afterwards Peter became king and had her body exhumed and placed on the throne claiming they had been secretly married and she was queen.  All there were forced to kiss her hand and swear fealty to them both.  Now they are buried facing each other from across the church.

Our final stop was the Battalha Monastery, this very impressive monastery is also home to the unfinished chapel.  The beautiful round structure sits roofless, on the back of the monastery and is now considered a world heritage site.

We actually stayed at the small hotel located on the Monastery grounds on this night.  It has beautiful views of the monastery (especially at night) and a wonderful restaurant to enjoy the view at.

Final Day;

Our final day was spent enjoying the outskirts of Lisbon.  We truly wished we did not have a plane to catch because we could have spent days in this area.  Throughout most of our time in Portugal we saw very few crowds, that is because they were all in this area.  There are many wonderful castles, beaches and sites to see.  Next time we are there we will spend longer in this area.

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