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Portugal

An Iberian Exploration: Evora and return to Lisbon

I've always noted how flat and featureless the landscape of Spain appears from the major highways, but this was particularly apparent in the western region of Extremadura. This is probably Spain's least visited region as well, the home of cities with familiar names such as Mérida and Cáceres that did not evoke any particular images. The highway skirted even the smallest towns with a wide margin so we didn't get any sense of Extremadura besides the unremarkable flatlands, but we made a mental note that one day we should return. For the present, we'd decided that our best bet for an overnight stop was the Portuguese town of Evora, a full five hour drive from Madrid.
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Far from the Atlantic coast, Evora is off the map of international tourism but it was a welcome discovery for us. The historic center of the small town is filled with character and also boasts a very well-preserved Roman temple. We arrived in the evening and had a hearty Portuguese dinner which was most memorable for our first bottle of Alentejo wine. Evora is at the heart of the Alentejo wine country, far less well-known abroad than the Douro and Dao but in my opinion equally deserving of recognition. The deep red wine provided an immediate pleasurable astringency at the first sip coupled with a long, savory finish. In the morning we explored the compact center which was almost completely devoid of tourists.
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The Temple of Diana occupies a splendid position in the center of a cobblestone square, incongruously surrounded by a park and traditional Portuguese whitewashed facades. Oddly enough there's no real reason to think the temple has anything to do with the goddess Diana. It was built to honor the Roman Emperor Augustus as a god and the association with Diana is an invention by a local priest in the 17th century.
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One of Evora's more macabre sights is the Capela dos Ossos, a Franciscan chapel whose walls are covered by thousands of human skulls and long bones. This is the only ossuary in Portugal, although there are a few others scattered around Europe including the famous Catacombs of Paris. It seems the motivation of these bone churches is to remind the visitor of the fleeting nature of life, but I would have been satisfied with a simple inscription to that effect.
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We returned to Lisbon on somewhat different terms than our first arrival. We now had navigation to keep us safely on the main roads until we reached our destination, and we were staying in an Airbnb instead of a hotel. Our choice paid off, as we had more space in the apartment as well as a working kitchen for about half the price that we had paid for our hotel. Since that trip we have rarely stayed in a hotel in Europe, and never in the United States. On our first evening back in Lisbon we only had time for a quick dinner and a ride up the short funicular called Elevador da Glória for the views over the city from Bairro Alto.
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We had one final day in Lisbon which we spent mainly on a return visit to Cervejaria Ramiro and a visit to the municipal market to gather ingredients for a final home-cooked meal. Cervejaria Ramiro was a little anti-climactic as we had already pulled out all the stops on our first visit weeks before. Before returning to the Airbnb to cook we took a stroll down one of the tiled pedestrian streets in Baixa towards the river. A crowd had gathered to watch a few people dancing to the beat of a street drummer. Someone began blowing a horn in time to the drum, a few others began singing, and suddenly the crowd erupted into a spontaneous dance party that lasted for several minutes. Cleo was really excited by the scene and was pulling Mei Ling into the center of it, although she was terrified when one tall fellow bent down to dance with her. Then it was over as quickly as it had begun and we continued back on our route.
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A short distance further we found ourselves at the most well-known place in Lisbon that we had missed on our first visit. A triumphal arch heralds the entrance into Praça do Comércio, an expansive square lined with government office buildings in the shape of a U. The open side of the U faces the water. The ground floor of the buildings was dedicated to restaurants and cafes which weren't particularly busy on this chilly winter night. In the center of the square is a monument of King José I mounted on his horse. The steps around the monument were mostly occupied by drinkers oblivious to the strong smell of urine. Cleo found herself a balloon and occupied herself chasing it around the square while I followed close behind to make sure she didn't stray to close to the noxious monument steps.
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We had an early flight back to Miami and hauled ourselves out of bed at the crack of dawn to bundle the bags and sleeping kids into the car for one final drive to the airport. As we passed through Lisbon's silent, deserted streets I couldn't believe that we'd pulled off everything we had planned with only minor inconveniences. We had been pretty lucky along the way, especially with some of the navigational blunders and almost being separated when the train stopped in Marrakech. The success of the road trip opened up a whole new world for us in Europe of small towns and out-of-the-way places that would be unreachable with public transportation. In the five years since then we've repeated the feat five more times, with each adventure more ambitious than the last.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:57 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: The Algarve

We didn't want to spend too much time driving so we scheduled an overnight stop on the Atlantic coast before proceeding to the Algarve. Not far out of Lisbon we stopped at a farmers market in any tiny town off the highway that I had discovered in my research. After touring the stalls we had a lunch of grilled meat in a pop-up churrasqueria. It was a great beginning to a road adventure.
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Vila Nova De Milfontes is a popular coastal vacation spot for Lisbon natives, although it's not really on the international tourism radar. It's best known for beaches so we pretty much had the small town to ourselves in February. We stayed in a small bed and breakfast which only had a couple of other guests. It was run by an elderly couple who were enchanted with Cleo. Their adult children and grandson were over in the evening when we arrived and Cleo was able to try out his toys.
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By the time we mustered the energy to walk to dinner it was already dark. We had a hearty and delicious dinner at the town's best restaurant, Tasco da Celso. In the morning we ate our fill of the delightful breakfast that was waiting for us and then took our leave. By the light of day it was easy to see the town's attraction to city dwellers. The narrow lanes were lined with picturesque whitewashed houses with colorful trim.
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We continued our drive down the inland highway until we reached Sagres, the town at the southwest corner of Spain. We didn't stop in town but proceeded to the end of Cabo de Sagres, one of those places that has an end-of-the-world feel to it due to its desolation against the backdrop of a seemingly infinite ocean. Due to the high winds nothing grows at the tip of the cape except scrub and the only sign of civilization is a tiny abandoned fort. There wasn't much to do there except celebrate having arrived at the only well-defined corner of Europe.
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We were now in the part of Portugal known as the Algarve. The region encompasses the entire southern coast of Portugal and has become one of the most popular vacation areas for tourists from the British Isles and Northern Europe, many of whom have returned there permanently in retirement. The coast is largely over-developed with inexpensive vacation apartments and extensive beaches so we kept to the larger towns where we would have more opportunities to experience authentic Portuguese food and culture.
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We spent our first night in the Algarve in Lagos, not far east of Sagres. Lagos is one of the larger cities in the area so it was a natural choice since our only desires were a good dinner and an atmospheric town center. Our hotel was sprawling and beautifully landscaped with tropical vegetation. We had dinner in a small seafood restaurant that seemed to be the top choice in Lagos, as it was absolutely jam-packed. Once we had recovered from the stress of parking in the narrow streets and wedging the strollers into the crowded restaurant we were able to appreciate the warm atmosphere and open kitchen. Here we had the best version of cataplana of our trip. Cataplana is Portugal's answer to bouillabaisse, a seafood stew slow-cooked in a hinged metal pot. Cataplanas are traditionally seafood but the technique can be used for meat as well. In the morning we strolled around the pretty but somnolent town center for a while before resuming our journey eastward.
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We made a brief stop in the coastal town of Olhão for lunch. This relatively large fishing port has beautiful cobblestone plazas and rows of antiquated buildings with chipped tile facades and Moorish stylings.
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For those of us who aren't traveling just for beaches and fruity drinks, Tavira is the prize of the Algarve. The town is set back a couple of miles from the ocean, along the banks of the River Gilão, and is best known for its picturesque old town and the ruins of a hilltop castle. Our hotel was one of the most beautiful we had ever stayed in, a sprawling estate of classic whitewashed Portuguese buildings with fresh blue trim. Paths led out to intriguing gardens with a circular above-ground pool and a grove of orange trees.
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For dinner we drove to Santa Luzia, a fishing village on the bank of the inland waterway that forms the Ilha de Taveira sandbar. Santa Luzia is famous for the many seafood restaurants that line the avenue along the waterfront, all of them specializing in octopus. Our waiter spoke excellent English, which was a rarity in Portugal, and helped guide us through the many different preparations of octopus that were featured on the menu. We love octopus so it wasn't a problem for us to try several of them. Aside from the deliciousness of the food, what took us aback was the generosity of the portions. In the United States it's common for an octopus dish to include just one tentacle but here it felt like we consumed the equivalent of two entire cephalopods.

As in Lagos, the antiquated town center was blissfully free of tourists but here there was much more to see. There was a promenade on either side of the Gilão with a Roman-style bridge connecting the two sides of the city. The town center was a maze of narrow cobblestone alleys filled with mysterious churches and somber stone buildings.
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We encountered more travelers as we ascended the steep hill to the Castelo. On the way we were rewarded with a terrace with views over the red roofs of the town as well as the iconic clock tower of the Church of Santa Maria do Castelo. The ruins of the castle were enjoyable to stroll through with a bright and colorful garden in the remains of the courtyard.
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We would have liked to have stayed one more night in that beautiful hotel but our trip was only beginning and we still had much ground to cover. I would finally be returning to Spain after thirteen years, now with my own family with whom I could share its wonders.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:27 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Lisbon

After our son Ian was born a few weeks premature in 2013, we had to put travel on hold for a few months and focus on helping him catch up with his weight and his milestones. By the time he was six months old it was pretty clear that he hadn't suffered any serious injury and was ready to join his sister Cleo as a world traveler. We were desperate to go back to Europe but the only problem was that it was now winter and we didn't want the additional stress of freezing weather. We had to find the most temperate place in Europe that would also provide us with an interesting itinerary. It quickly became clear that we would be going to Portugal and southern Spain. I remembered that when I visited Andalusia as a child we had taken the ferry over to Tangier in Morocco and thought that was doable. When I investigated Morocco more deeply I realized that Tangier wouldn't even begin to give us an appreciation of what appeared to be an amazing country. We expanded the itinerary to include an ambitious train journey to Fes and Marrakesh. It was the first of many times that we would let our curiosity overcome our trepidations on a road trip.
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I'd been to Western Europe countless times with my parents and on my own, but somehow never made it to Portugal before. It felt good to dust off my Portuguese phrasebook again five years after its last use in Brazil. This would be our first time renting a car in Europe as well but we felt confident we could navigate the roads with an unlocked smartphone, a local SIM, and Google Maps. The only problem was that there weren't any stores open to sell us a SIM card at the Lisbon airport. We weren't too worried, since we still had navigation and the map from the rental agency. We did pretty well at first, getting into the center of the city without too much difficulty. Once we were in the area of the hotel we ran into the problem that has subsequently plagued us many times in Western Europe. While the main streets may appear modern and wide, one ill-advised turn can quickly place you into a maze of narrow alleys that are only suited for a miniature car. Trying to navigate those streets with a full-size sedan was a nightmare. At one point we found a twisting road that I crawled up at a snails pace with minimal clearance at every curve only to reach a retractable bollard obstructing our exit. I was forced to retrace our path the entire way down, with Mei Ling walking outside the car to help guide me through the curves. It was an incredibly slow and painstaking process but miraculously the car made it through unscathed. We got ourselves back out on the main street with frayed nerves just as a downpour began. We reached a large square with minimal traffic and I parked at the side of the road to ask directions. As soon as I got out of the car, I saw the sign for our hotel less than a hundred yards away. The desk staff brought umbrellas and helped me bring Mei Ling and the kids to safety with a minimum of drenching, after which I found the parking garage underneath the square. Once we'd finally settled all we had energy for was dinner near the hotel and then a bath for Mei Ling and the kids before bedtime.
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Having learned our lesson about driving in Lisbon immediately, we began our exploration of Lisbon on foot. We had a brisk walk to Mercado da Ribeira by the bank of the Tagus Estuary. The Tagus River, or Tejo in Portuguese, is the longest river in the Iberian peninsula. It begins humbly in the Sierra de Albarracín of Aragon and meanders through iconic Spanish cities such as Toledo and Talavera de la Reina before bisecting Portugal and emptying into its estuary northeast of Lisbon. The Tagus provides Lisbon with a harbor sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean, which made Lisbon an important port for the Romans and helped Portugal launch the Age of Discovery in the 16th century. The estuary is also one of the most important wetlands in Europe.
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The neighborhood close to the water was full of classic, charmingly dilapidated apartments and cafes on cobblestone streets. Some of the buildings had the iconic tiled facades and wrought iron balconies that are emblematic of Lisbon. The market itself was slightly disappointing, a rather low-energy affair without much in the way of unusual food. Unfortunately our visit occurred only a few months before the market was renovated with the addition of a Time Out food hall.
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We worked our way back inland through the Chiado neighborhood. Many of the buildings here had beautiful and colorful facades that were in much better shape than the ones around the market. Although this is one of the busiest areas in Lisbon during the tourist season we had it largely to ourselves in the coolness of winter. Mei Ling couldn't resist sampling the product of a sidewalk chestnut roaster.
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One of Lisbon's nicknames is The City of Seven Hills, and we were to learn that as in San Francisco the city's hills are not to be taken lightly. It seems quite a number of people were weary of the ascent from the sea level commercial center of Baixa to the hilltop neighborhood of Bairro Alto so at the dawn of the 20th century the city constructed a forty-five meter elevator from Baixa to Largo do Carmo. The Neo-Gothic iron Elevador de Santa Justa has become one of the iconic sights of Lisbon. One of the advantages of visiting Lisbon in February was that we did not have to endure the legendary wait to ascend. After just ten or fifteen minutes we were on the observation platform with incredible views of the city in every direction. My favorite was the jumble of red roofs in Baixa with Alfama and Castelo de São Jorge in the background. On the opposite side was the eerie Gothic ruin of the Convento do Carmo, abandoned since an earthquake in 1755.
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On our second morning we tackled Alfama, the original Lisbon of the Middle Ages. The neighborhood is a web of narrow lanes that ascend the São Jorge hill towards the Castelo. We followed our navigation which provided us with a circumferential route up the back of the hill to the Miradouro da Graça at the summit. It was a much more grueling climb than we had anticipated but the views from the terrace of the little park were spectacular. The haphazard rows of multicolored buildings topped by roofs in various shades of red and orange looked more like a giant Lego model built by a madman than a genuine city.
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We commenced a somewhat sloppy exploration of Alfama that was cut short by rain. We toured the Castelo de São Jorge with its impressively dense medieval fortifications and towers. The former palace inside is mostly in ruins and has been largely replaced by a collection of gardens. To the east we encountered the 16th century Church of São Vicente of Fora, whose architectural style has been variously described as Romanesque or Mannerist. The facade is notable for ornate alcoves containing detailed statues of saints.
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Further along we came across the National Pantheon, whose enormous white dome makes it an instantly recognizable feature of the Alfama backdrop. The edifice began its existence as a church which was desecrated and partially destroyed in the mid 17th century. It took three hundred years to complete the construction of the Pantheon, which now serves as a final resting place for many of Portugal's most venerated citizens.
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In the morning we drove to another market outside of the center to purchase ingredients for a self-catered dinner. This was a much more lively scene than we had encountered at Mercado da Ribeira and even the seafood looked fresher and tastier. I've forgotten the name of the market but here's a good list that includes the ones outside of the center. From what I can determine, Mercado da Ribeira has been greatly improved since our visit under the management of Time Out with the addition of a food hall.
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After whetting our appetites at the market we headed to Cervejaria Ramiro for lunch. This was already a local favorite before it was featured on Anthony Bourdain's travel show, but afterwards it moved to a whole different level of popularity. Fortunately we arrived at the very beginning of the Portuguese lunch interval or we may not have made it in, but as it was we were shown to a table in the corner fairly quickly. Unlike some seafood restaurants that stick to the basics, Ramiro offered many of the most exotic specialties of Portuguese waters including scarlet shrimp, crab soup served in its shell, and best of all percebes. We had seen these unusual edible barnacles in the markets and were thrilled at the opportunity to try them, despite their intimidating price. They had a pleasantly firm texture and were a little more salty than I would have liked, but they were fun to eat.

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We spent the afternoon at Oceanário de Lisboa, one of Europe's premier aquariums. Cleo was just old enough to appreciate some of the displays, especially the penguins and the impressive central tank with enormous rays and sunfish.
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In the evening we returned to Alfama where my brother was now staying in an Airbnb with his family, having made a detour in his own European vacation itinerary to meet us. I was chagrined to learn there was an elevator an easy walk from our hotel that went straight up to the Castelo. Our long slog up the back side of the hill the prior day had been for nothing. We were really impressed with the Airbnb, a modern and spacious two bedroom apartment with a well-equipped kitchen right in the middle of Lisbon's most walkable and historic neighborhood. Best of all, it was about half the price of our hotel room. We had stayed in Airbnb's before in the US but had no idea it was such a viable option internationally as well. This was a watershed moment in our traveling because we were just arriving at the point where single room accommodations were no longer satisfactory and Airbnb was now a very economic choice with the ability to prepare our own meals as well. Mei Ling and my brother's wife went to work in the kitchen while the kids got acquainted. It was the first time Cleo had seen her cousins from China since she was six weeks old. Cooking dinner for ourselves in Europe was a great new experience.
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The next morning we left Lisbon, but before we began the coastal drive south we stopped at a couple of historical sites in the western district of Belém. The Belém Tower is one of the most recognizable features of Lisbon, an ornately decorated limestone fortification at the bank of the Tagus that resembles a miniature fairy tale castle. Although it was constructed to defend to port of Lisbon from invaders in the early 16th century, over the centuries it became recognized as the ceremonial gateway to the city for those arriving by sea. This was probably the longest line we endured in Lisbon and we wouldn't have missed much by skipping the tower's interior, although the view of the river from the upper terrace is quite good.
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The Jerónimos Monastery is just a short walk from the tower. Like the tower, the monastery is constructed in the Manueline style named for the Portuguese monarch who ordered its construction. The ornate facade blends many contemporary architectural movements with nautical themes intended to honor the country's oceanic exploits. Everything about the monastery was intricately decorated with sculpture, from the entryway to the church pillars to the cloisters.
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Lisbon had given us a very good start to our road trip. It's a beautiful city with a great deal of antiquated charm and plenty of interesting areas to explore. I think visiting in winter may have given us an impression of a less vibrant city than we would have gotten in the summer, but on the other hand it was nice to see things in their natural state without being overrun by tourists. Years later we visited Porto and thought it was much more impressive than Lisbon. Of course Porto is a very different city with the river running through the middle and all the action along the banks, but it seemed to have that special kind of energy and vitality that we weren't overwhelmed with in Lisbon. Perhaps we'll be back in Lisbon again one day in the spring or fall and we'll have a better atmosphere for comparison with the other great European cities.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:16 Archived in Portugal Comments (2)

An Epicurean Odyssey: The Douro Valley

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We had finally arrived at the last of the three legendary wine areas of our journey, and the least well known. Few people would name Portugal if asked what European countries are known for their wine, but wine has been produced there for four thousand years and exported as early as the 12th century AD. Those whose familiarity with Portuguese wine begins and ends with port are missing out on some of the most full-bodied and textured reds that Europe has to offer, often at at a fraction of the cost of a similar quality bottle that originated in France or Italy. There are more than a dozen wine regions in Portugal that cover pretty much the entire area of the country. My personal favorite region since our first visit to Portugal is the Alentejo in the south, but the best known wines come from the Dão region around Viseu and from the Douro Valley. In the world of travel, the Douro Valley is the most popular region because of the amazing mountainous landscape and picturesque villages that surround the serpentine Douro River.
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We had allotted ourselves less than 24 hours in the valley, which is something of a sacrilege. On the other hand, we're used to making sacrifices in order to become familiar with a wider area on our road trips. We're not done traveling by a long shot, and fortunately there's enough in northern Portugal to make a return visit more than worthwhile. There are no large cities in the Douro Valley and after much consideration I'd decided we would base ourselves in the central town of Lamego for the night. One interesting fact about Lamego is that it is considered to be the place where port wine was invented, not Porto as one might expect. We had little interest in port but Lamego had a couple of interesting sights and placed us in good position for the long list of things we wanted to accomplish in the Douro the next day before returning to Spain.

There weren't many Airbnb's available around Lamego and we ultimately chose a place calling itself Casa do Batista in the tiny village of Britiande, four miles to the south. Once we arrived at the village our GPS took us off the main road and into an area of orchards and vineyards, ultimately depositing us at the wrong house. Google Maps recognized the name but led us to a spot in the same area where there was nothing but a solid stone wall with one rusted iron door and no signs. We inquired at a couple of houses nearby and no one had heard of Casa do Batista. The host didn't respond to messages on the Airbnb app but someone answered to the phone number and we communicated in a broken Spanish/Portuguese hybrid. I tried following his directions a couple of times and got nowhere. Eventually he told me he would meet us in the village at a spot that I recognized. The person on the phone turned out to be the elderly father of our host, which may have explained some of the difficulty in communication. We followed his car back into the orchards and ended up at the exact same spot Google Maps had taken us to. Our host's father went to the rusty iron door, unlocked it, and brought us inside a walled compound.

Our annoyance at having wasted close to an hour for the simple lack of a sign or a doorbell dissipated almost instantly once we got a look at the place where we would be spending the night. It was one of the most unique, idyllic, delightful residences we've ever stayed in all our travels. The only place I could compare it to on Airbnb would be the farm we stayed at in southern Slovakia. In front of the house was a small patio completely roofed by grapevines that would have collapsed from the weight of enormous bunches of unripe wine grapes if there wasn't a trellis supporting them. The yard was an apple orchard where the fruits were also green, but edible to anyone partial to a little sourness. The house was rustic but very modern and comfortable on the interior, with a second floor balcony that had sweeping views over all the farms and orchards in the area. Adjacent the the residence was a tiny winemaking operation that was dormant as harvest season wouldn't begin until late September. It was one of those moments that reminded us why Airbnb's are worth all the minor inconveniences that come with them. No B&B or hotel could have brought us anywhere near as close to the heart and soul of the Douro Valley.
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Despite its small size, Lamego has more than its share of attractions for visitors. After settling into our Airbnb we drove directly to Santuario Nossa Senhora dos Remedios. The 18th century rococo church stands atop a steep hill from which a breathtaking 686 step staircase descends to the town. The double staircase has nine landings decorated with beautiful azulejos, intricate columns and friezes, and ornate balustrades. There are so many details in the design and so many angles from which amazing photos can be taken that one could easily spend most of a day meandering up and down the staircase. It was one of the more remarkable sights we had experienced thus far on our journey.
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Dusk was falling and we had one more stop to make before dinner. Lamego has a tiny old town on a hill in the center. At the top of the hill is the medieval castle which now consist of just a wall and a short watchtower. The best parts of visiting the castle are the narrow cobblestone streets that lead up to it and the view of the modern town and surrounding countryside from outside the wall.
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Normally I don't ask our Airbnb hosts for restaurant recommendations since we've had a few notable disasters with that approach, but something led me to go against my better instincts in Lamego. Their suggestion was o Padrinho on the outskirts of the city which didn't seem particularly well-regarded on TripAdvisor. We went for it anyway and found a huge, casual restaurant at the side of the highway that was practically full. After a short wait we were given a table and provided with one of the longest menus I've ever seen. Not only did they have pretty much every typical Portuguese dish I could have imagined, they had a large selection of exotic meats such as venison, kangaroo, and alligator. Of course these weren't local but we let our curiosity guide our appetites and ordered some of the unusual dishes as well as some typical Portuguese food and pizza for the kids. The food preparation was great and we agreed it was the best restaurant meal of the entire trip. Given the popularity of the restaurant and the quality of the food it was hard to understand why it was halfway to the bottom of the TripAdvisor list, but then again some of the best restaurants in Miami don't chart very high either. It's a good reminder that there's no perfect system for choosing a restaurant in an unfamiliar city.

On the way back home we heard loud music coming from the village and remembered we had seen a stage being set up earlier in the day. Spenser had fallen asleep so Mei Ling decided to stay home with him while I drove the older kids back to town. We found the road through the village lined with parked cars and eventually had to walk several hundred meters to get back to the main square where a huge party was in progress. Most of Britiande and probably half of Lamego was packed into the small square dancing to a live band. We never found out what the occasion was but we had fun checking out the vendors and jumping around to the music until we were exhausted.

Despite our heavy agenda the following day we couldn't bring ourselves to leave the villa in the orchard. Once we were finally done lounging around the patio underneath the grapevines, o Padrinho had opened and we went back for another huge meal. It was one in the afternoon before we got back on the road. Vila Real, about half an hour to the north, was the largest city in the area and had the only daily municipal market I could find. Unfortunately by the time we arrived and found a place to park the only people left were the cleaners that were hosing the place down. Our trip hadn't been for nothing as Vila Real was also the site of the Casa de Mateus, an 18th century rococo palace originally built for a wealthy family and now in the hands of a foundation. In front of the ornate palace is an enormous reflecting pool which was unfortunately brown and murky on the day of our visit.
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The exterior of the palace was quite reminiscent of the church and staircase we had seen the previous day. There was also a winemaking operation in a couple of outbuildings, which seems to be a requirement for any freestanding structure in the Douro Valley. The gardens were very elaborate and well-kept, and exploring them was the most enjoyable part of visiting the palace. Neither of us felt that a tour of the interior was likely to be worth the time and the hassle.
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I was attempting to coordinate a late arrival in Salamanca but our hosts seemed determined to have us there by eight, which meant we had very little time to see the valley. I set a course for Pinhão which seemed to be the quintessential riverside town. Serpentine roads took us through an amazing landscape of terraced hills and finally deposited us at ground level just where the Pinhão tributary dumps into the much wider Douro River. The town was surrounded by wineries but all were now closed late on a Saturday afternoon, and the last boat cruises on the Douro had returned to shore long ago. It didn't really matter as these were all things we had already done in Bordeaux and Rioja. Instead we used our short time in Pinhão to take the winding road up to the viewpoint above the town at Miradouro de Casal de Loivos. Here we got the classic view of the S-shaped curve in the Douro that features prominently in every guidebook and website.
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I had hoped to take a northern route to Salamanca, stopping in the ancient walled town of Mirando do Douro where the river passes through a deep gorge. Unfortunately the only way we would come anywhere close to the eight PM deadline our hosts in Salamanca had set for us was to drive directly along the shortest route to the main highway, and that's what we did. I think we would have had to stay overnight in Miranda to do it justice and it was far from the only part of northern Portugal that we skimped on during this trip. Fortunately, it was clear that we left enough unfinished to justify an entire trip dedicated to northern Portugal and Galicia some time in the future, perhaps during the wine harvest. I could see doing a circle that began and ended in Porto and covered some of the territory we missed on this trip from Ourense to Coimbra. I think we could manage it in a couple of weeks, similar to the road trip we did in Sicily in 2017.
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We raced all the way to Salamanca picking up at least one automated speeding ticket to find no answer at the door of our Airbnb. The hosts didn't respond through the app either, and when called them they gave me a keycode for the front door and the location of the room key in the inside mailbox. There was no requirement for any person-to-person interaction whatsoever, and we could have arrived just as easily at any time we wanted. Why they insisted that we arrive by eight instead of just sending us the keycode through the app is something I'll never understand, but it's far from the first time something like that happened in Europe and I'm sure it won't be the last.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:31 Archived in Portugal Tagged travel blog tony lamego pinhao vila_real friedman mateus_palace Comments (2)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Aveiro and Viseu


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I had originally wanted to drive all the way south to Coimbra, but our decision to include Valencia and the Dordogne forced me to shave a day from Portugal and the distances became impractical. As an alternative I chose to spend one night in Aveiro, also known as the Venice of Portugal due to its canals. It was less than an hour's drive from Porto so we arrived in the early afternoon and had plenty of time to explore. It was too early to check in to the Airbnb so we headed to the downtown area adjacent to the main canal. The area was busy and energetic with a strong vibe of domestic tourism, most of it likely originating from Porto and Lisbon. The buildings had an ornate, classical appearance and many had tiled facades, but without the antiquated patina we had become accustomed to in Porto.The most elaborate of the buildings is the Casa Major Pessoa, currently the home of an art museum and a tea house.
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There happened to be a crafts fair going on at the waterside and we browsed the stalls, some of which had very high quality ceramics and entertaining toys. We also found a place to try the local specialty, ovos moles, which consists of egg yolk and sugar within a wafer casing. It was an interesting thing to try but none of us particularly cared for it.
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Venice of Portugal may have been a stretch, considering there was really only one canal that passed through the town, but they made the most of it with pretty pedestrian bridges and colorful gondolas that seemed to be constantly crammed with tourists.
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Our Airbnb was in a perfect location on the most picturesque square in the center of town.
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We spent the early evening exploring the old town on either side of the canal. Most of the tourists and restaurants were clustered into a tiny area north of the canal, but some of the prettiest buildings and streets were on the nearly-deserted southern side. At the end of our walk we saw a building along the canal that seemed very busy. Inside we found a movie theater and a food court. It was definitely more fast food than food hall, but it was a great opportunity to feed the kids and we took advantage of it. Later we found some more interesting food for ourselves at a crowded restaurant in the old quarter.
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In the morning we checked out the two markets in town. The fish market was totally dead for some reason and the produce market wasn't much better. We'd already explored every street in Aveiro the night before so we decided to head for the beach town of Costa Nova on the Atlantic coast. The tiny town occupies a segment of the strip of land between the ocean and a short intracoastal waterway called the Aveiro Lagoon. Costa Nova is famous for the brightly-striped "haystack" houses that face the lagoon side of the town.
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We had much better luck with the fish market in Costa Nova. It was small but bustling and there was a large variety of fish and mollusks. Everyone's favorite was the wriggly eels and each kid got their chance to stick a finger into the slithery pile.
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The produce market was likewise small but very local and authentic. We were relieved not to have missed out on a market experience as Friday is usually one of the better days.
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Our seafood appetites had been whetted by the market and we hunted around for the most authentic restaurant we could find. The town was so small that all the restaurants were completely tourist-oriented. We found a place that was decent if overpriced, but not on a par with the best seafood we've had in Europe. We tried the fried eels, but they were so greasy and bony that we were barely able to finish our portion.
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The logical place for a midday stop was Viseu, a mid-sized city inland city with a reputation for elegance and historic character. The old town turned out to be a great stroll through cobblestone pedestrian streets and atmospheric squares. Best of all we seemed to have left virtually all tourism behind us at the coast.
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After an ice cream break we walked up to the top of the hill that the old town straddles. Here we found an expansive plaza which was flanked by two of Viseu's architectural treasures, the Igreja da Misericórdia (Church of Mercy) and the formidable cathedral. The church had a beautiful and unusual rococo facade, while the walls of the cathedral looked as solid and impenetrable as a fortress. The north side of the plaza was unobstructed and afforded views over the modern town and the countryside.
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On the way back down the hill we walked along the narrow commercial alley Rua Direita which dates back to Roman times. Back at the car we saw some interesting Portuguese street art, a highly anatomic rendition of a heart constricted by a string.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 10:54 Archived in Portugal Tagged travel blog tony aveiro viseu friedman Comments (0)

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