A Week in Portugal
was our second major "target" for our 2018 trip to Europe; neither of us
had ever been here before, we have Portuguese immediate family members & relatives, and
we wanted to explore everything we could!
Besides our Portugal motivations due to family heritage, here are some other incredible reasons why we wanted to visit Portugal;
- Portugal has it all: historic cities, world-renowned cuisine, beautiful country areas with natural landscapes, and some of the world’s most spectacular beaches.
- Once the world’s maritime leader and the longest-lived of Europe’s modern empires, Portugal has a complex history to explore alongside dramatic geographic landscapes, turquoise beaches, a rich gastronomy scene, and all the Port and bacalhau (salted cod fish) you can ask for.
- Portugal won the "best travel destination" award in 2018, and after you read this article of ours, you will be able to understand why!
- Nobody anywhere does custard tarts (or pastel de natas, as they’re called here) quite like Portugal. And perhaps nowhere in Portugal does them as well as Pasteis de Belém in Lisbon, which is why queues for the sweet, rich and perfectly crisp tarts often stretch along the pavement.
- Perched on the western edge of Europe, Lisbon is the continent’s sunniest capital city, boasting an average of 2,799 hours of sunshine a year, beating out Athens, which has 2,771 hours of sun a year.
- Thanks to the rolling swell of the Atlantic Ocean, Portugal is one of Europe’s best surfing destinations with a wave for every ability. Best of all, the surf breaks are relatively uncrowded.
Perhaps now you can understand our enthusiasm for spending a week in Portugal, exploring it from North to South?
Driving in Portugal
- Driving in Portugal is similar to driving in the USA; the freeways ("Autoestrada") are very similar, the information signs are easily understood, and the speed limits are easy to discern. Speed limits are in kilometers per hour, multiply by 60% to derive MPH.
- Driving in any European City is a lesson in patience and bravery. Traffic in Lisbon & Belém was thick, but most drivers were disciplined.
- Driving in Portimão was straight forward, but getting to our VRBO rental from the highway definitely required use of a mapping system. We had retired our Tom-Tom mapping device, and only used cell phone based mapping to navigate everywhere.
We flew from Madrid to Porto, Portugal via TAP Portugal Airlines. In Porto, we picked up our rental car from Auto Europe, fired up our navigation maps, and proceeded to drive to the Delfim Douro Hotel - our first stop in Portugal. Our route from the Porto International Airport was on the A4 east to exit 24 where we turned south on the N2. Once we crossed the Douro River Bridge, we then turned back west on the N222 to the Delfim Douro Hotel on the right side of the road.
Douro River Valley, Portugal
Just as we drove into the Delfim Douro Hotel Parking lot, we noticed that there was a River Cruise ship steaming down the Douro River from Câmara Municipal de Peso da Régua (the next town just east of the hotel).
Being veterans of several Viking River Cruises tours in France, we immediately jumped out of our car and started taking photos of the ship has it continued by us on it's way to Porto.
We had originally intended to check into the hotel, and then drive and find a local vineyard to visit or tour, but the hotel was so inviting, and occupies such a beautiful location on the hill above the River Douro, that we decided to spend a few hours in the pool and do the vinyard tour before dinner.
The decision to hang out for a while was also driven by the fact that we had departed Madrid at a very early hour, flew to Porto, hopped into a rental car and then drove to the hotel (125 kilometers). So the concept of relaxing at the pool after a quick lunch, was a very easy decision to make.
As you can see in image #2 above, after lunch we had a cappuccino and caught up with what was going on in the world since we had departed Madrid. Nice way to relax prior to driving to the vineyard tour.
The pool area was very comfortable with a stunning view of the Douro River down the slopes of the hill that the hotel was situated upon. You could not possibly come up with a better location for a hotel!
You can see that the sky was nearly cloudless that day, beautiful bright sunny day, and yet another reason why we decided to hang out at the pool!
See that left-most door in the hotel? That leads directly into the bar area if one felt the need for an adult beverage.
We made arrangements (online from the hotel) to tour a winery just down the road, and we had just parked the car in the Quinta da Pacheca parking lot. The walk from the parking lot to the winery office was so pretty, that we thought that a picture should be taken.
Grape Vats: in this picture one of the wine workers is shoveling the grapes into a barrel delivery tube.
These gray stone vats are used to hold the destemmed grapes and where the grapes are pressed ("grape stomping"). The grapes are then kept in the vats for several days.
After our tour guide had taken us through the various stages of processing, we then were taken to a port & tawny port tasting. If the name "port wine" or "tawny port" doesn't ring a bell with you, click here to learn about Port Wines.
This was an entertaining part of the tour, as we got to sample various types of wine they produce.
As we were departing the wine tour at Quinta de Pacheca, we happened to notice that there were some very large barrels next to the hotel. Turns out these 10 barrels were "hotel rooms" (270 square feet each), each barrel includes a bed, walk-in shower, skylight, Wi-Fi, and air conditioning. If you are interested in rates or more information about this unique hotel room, please click here to go to their web site.
Praia do Norte, Portugal
After departing the Delfim Douro Hotel, we drove to the Atlantic Ocean coast (250 kilometers from the Delfim Douro Hotel but still north of Lisbon), and stopped at the beach just north of Nazaré at the Praia do Norte, Nazaré. This is where the largest waves ever surfed took place, if you doubt this fact, please take a look at this video to see for yourself.
The waves here form due to the presence of the underwater Nazaré Canyon. As the canyon creates constructive interference between the incoming swell waves, it makes their heights much larger on this stretch of coast.
Even on a calm day, you can see how the surf here is strong. We saw a number of 8 to 10 foot waves come ashore.
The noise from each wave "set" as they crashed down onto the sand, was like a muffled explosion, yet at the same time, rather soothing! We took this video as we were watching the surf roll in and if you listen to it, you will see what we mean!
Nazaré Beach: on the other side of the cliff from where we were at Praia do Norte. As you can see, the village of Nazaré resides next to a pretty beach and a very nice marina.
The inlet in the distance is the entrance to the Nazaré Marina, to view this area on a Google Map click here. This map will provide you with an overhead view of the entire area, where you can more easily see where we were north of Nazaré at the Praia do Norte.
Because we had to meet our VRBO apartment agent at a specific time, we departed on the Portugal A8 freeway and drove to Belém (130 kilometers). Traffic was light until we arrived in the Lisbon area, and then it got quickly crowded.
Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge: from our apartment window in Belém, Portugal.
The suspension bridge closely resembles the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The comparison is correct as the consortium that constructed the American bridge also constructed Ponte 25 de Abril.
Once we unloaded our rental car and got settled into the apartment, we began our explorations of Lisbon!
Jerónimos Monastery: This area of Belém is very walkable & pretty. The Monastery is immediately across the street from the Jardim da Praça do Império, and the Belém Tower is approximately one kilometer west of the park. Our VRBO apartment rental was 1.1 kilometers behind the Monastery near the Palácio da Calheta museum.
The Monastery also just happens to be practically "next door" to the Pastéis de Belém bakery, which makes the most incredible Pastéis de nata!
There are a variety of public transportation methods in Lisbon, here is one of their tram cars, which are very popular with everyone. The red Tram Cars will take you a "Lisbon hills tour", but it was crowded and this particular day was warm. So we decided on other transportation methods.
Note: there are red trams and there are yellow trams. The Remodelado trams are the quaint yellow trams that rattle and screech through the narrow streets of Lisbon, and the most scenic route is the E28, which crosses the Alfama district.
An individual day pass currently costs €6.40 and allows unlimited travel over a 24-hour period on the entire bus, tram and metro network (€10.55 if you want to include Comboios de Portugal as well). If you're going to take more than five trips on the bus or metro on any given day, this is the best and easiest choice.
For a thorough description of the Lisbon public transportation systems and how to utilize them, click here for a good article at Trip Savvy.
Arco da Rua Augusta: is located in front of the Praça do Comércio, a very large plaza. It also serves as an entrance to the downtown commercial shopping area which is pedestrian-only, and contains a number of stores.
Baixa, or downtown Lisbon, is the heart of the city. It's the main shopping and banking district that stretches from the riverfront to the main avenue (Avenida da Liberdade), with streets named according to the shopkeepers and craftsmen who traded in the area. It was completely rebuilt after the Great Earthquake of 1755, with streets flanked by uniform, neoclassical buildings. This was Europe's first great example of neoclassical design and urban planning, and one of the finest European architectural achievements of the age (it's currently being considered to be listed as a World Heritage Site).
Comercio Square opens onto Rua Augusta through the Arco da Rua Augusta arch (which on the Rua Augusta side has a clock with filigreed stone reliefs). This is a lively pedestrian street with mosaic pavements, outdoor cafés, international shops, and the occasional street artist and peddler.
Image #1 is the "city side" of the Rua Augusta Arch and if you click on that image, you will see that it is in the center of that picture. We had stopped during our walk to look back at the arch as we were window shopping.
Treasure Museum of the Patriarchal See of Lisbon: We were walking up the Largo da Sé on our way up to Castle Saint George. We were finding out that the hills were relentlessly increasing in steepness and we were still quite a ways from the Castle.
As we arrived here at the Treasure Museum, we noticed that it seemed to be a place where all the tuk-tuk drivers would park and wait for customers. A beautiful location with the Church of St. Anthony of Lisbon on one side of the street and the Treasure Museum on the corner. So we made the decision that it was a good location for us to switch from being "hikers" to "tuk-tuk passengers".
So we spoke to one of the Tuk-Tuk drivers to see if he spoke English, and we decided to hire this guy to take us to the places we wanted to see, with Castle St. George being the first desired stop. The driver was fluent in 4 languages and knew Lisbon very well, so we found that we had made a good choice.
These tuk-tuk vehicles (think golf cart with a big back seat) have a decided advantage getting around on narrow streets that turn into long steep uphills - they turn easily & quickly, you can park them in very narrow spots and they can go anywhere!
Looking towards the Saint George Castle, which sits on one of the highest hills in Lisbon and provides a view of the Harbor and the city below.
From this distance, you might think that the hills surrounding the castle were not steep, but I can guarantee you that they are in fact quite steep!
The National Pantheon of Portugal, where many famous Portuguese people are immortalized, including Vasco de Gama.
The building has a centralised floorplan, in a Greek cross shape. On each corner there is a square tower (the pinnacles were never completed), and the façades are undulated like in the baroque designs of Borromini. The main façade has an entrance hall (galilee) and three niches with statues. The entrance to the church is done through a beautiful baroque portal with the coat-of-arms of Portugal held by two angels.
Image #1 is a view of the area below the National Pantheon as seen from it's roof. Gives you a very good idea of the height.
Image #2 displays some of the burial vaults in the Pantheon. The personalities entombed here include the Presidents of the Republic Manuel de Arriaga, Teófilo Braga, Sidónio Pais and Óscar Carmona, Presidential candidate Humberto Delgado, writers João de Deus, Almeida Garrett, Guerra Junqueiro, Aquilino Ribeiro and Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, fado singer Amália Rodrigues, and footballer Eusébio. There are cenotaphs to Luís de Camões, Pedro Álvares Cabral, Afonso de Albuquerque, Nuno Álvares Pereira, Vasco da Gama and Henry the Navigator.
The Lisbon Cruise Port from the top of the National Pantheon. You may recall that I mentioned earlier that Lisbon is a stop for many cruise lines, well here is visual proof! There are currently over 26 Cruise Lines that have ships that visit Lisbon, click here to see a list of Cruise Lines.
The cruise port of Lisbon is long and is stretched out along the Rio Tejo. Cruise ships can dock at 5 different places. The most important docking area's are Santa Apolonia at about 1,5 kilometer from the city center and da Rocha/Alcantara, close to Ponte 25 de Abril. The cruise terminals are modern and offer all necessary facilities for cruise passengers.
To reach the city center of Lisbon from the cruise port is easy but the mode of transport depends on where your ship docked. From most ship terminals, you can easily go on foot. Good alternatives are the metro or train.
The entrance to the fort area of Castle Saint George, you can see that a moat was present at some time in the past.
It is interesting to note that this castle was originally built by the Moors when they controlled the Iberian Peninsula.
In the context of the Christian Reconquista, the castle and the city of Lisbon were freed from Moorish rule in 1147 by Afonso Henriques and northern European knights in the Siege of Lisbon during the Second Crusade.
The fort area of Castle Saint George was all about defense, heavy stone walls and gates everywhere.
It is amazing that this castle is still standing, as it has endured several major earthquakes; a strong earthquake in 1531 did considerable damage and the great earthquake of 1755 also did extensive damage.
The 1755 quake has been estimated to have been in the 8.5 to 9.0 on the Moment Magnitude Scale and Lisbon was virtually completely destroyed. The death toll estimates have been described as being as high as 100,000. When you realize that the population of Lisbon at that time was perhaps 200,000 it serves to demonstrate how devastating that disaster was.
A view of Lisbon through one of the Saint George Castle apertures where cannon once sat.
The Castle is located right on top of the tallest of Lisbon´s Seven Hills of the historic centre of the capital city, above the old Moorish quarter.
Even though we had a rental car, we rode the train from Belém to the Cascais area, which is a beach town west of Lisbon. This was a simple decision, as the train proceeds along the coast from Belém straight out to Cascais, and best of all, we would not need to search for parking once we arrived! Plus you get a very good view of the coastline, beaches & villages during the entire train trip because the train route parallels the coast all the way to Cascais.
Cascais's history as a cosmopolitan haven for the rich and famous originates in the 1870s, when King Luís I of Portugal and the Portuguese royal family made the seaside town their summer residence, thus attracting members of the Portuguese aristocracy, who established a summer community there.
The Belém Tower, or the "Tower of St Vincent", is just a few blocks west of the Jerónimos Monastery and since it sits next to a beautiful park, we decided that this would be our next walking destination.
Our VRBO rental was approximately 1.2 kilometers from the Belém Tower location, which is surrounded on one side by the Jardim da Torre de Belém ("Garden of Belém Tower") and the Tagus River on it's other side.
We departed Lisbon and drove south on the A2 to the Algarve area of Portugal, approximately 235 miles. This allowed us to cross the 25th of April Bridge and see Almada on the other side.
Getting There: The freeway from Lisbon to Portimão was easy to navigate and had very little traffic. We stayed on the A2 until it became the E2. Leaving the E2 onto Portugal A22 to Portimão, exited onto the N124 to enter the city. As the Tivoli Hotel & Marina was perhaps 10 miles away, we traversed Portimão on local streets with numerous round-a-bouts and traffic. Typical for Europe, but a little challenging for many Americans! Diligence & discipline in driving & navigation is required !
We had reserved an apartment at the Tivoli Hotel & Marina in Portimão. Image #1 is a view of the Hotel Pool area from the top floor of our apartment. Image #2 is a view of the restaurant and snack bar next to the Arade River.
The Tivoli is a very comfortable hotel; huge pool, nice outside cabana area for drinks & snacks and a a good restaurant. The Praia da Rocha is perhaps 100 meters away, just past the Marina and a row of restaurants.
This picture gives you a great idea of how nicely located our apartment was. The Tivoli Marina and Hotel are at the bottom right.
The Praia da Rocha beach is at the top center of the picture, and the city of of Portimão occupies the upper right area.
Thanks to Hotel-R for the picture above.
This is Praia da Rocha beach, looking down from the Avenue Tomas Cabreira.
The city of Portimão is off to the left in this picture, and the Tivoli Marina where we were staying is at the far end of this beach view. The entry to the Arade River can be seen in the top center of this image.
Looking westward from a lookout point on Avenue Tomas Cabreira of Tres Castelos beach. You can see all of the beach chairs and lounges ready to be rented!
Note: I should point out that this was still pretty early in the day, we generally get an early start on each day when we are travelling, and it was not yet 8AM when these pictures were taken. As the day proceeded, the beach slowly became busier.
We descended to the beach to find a spot where we could play paddle ball, and were amazed at the cliff rock formations.
Rock formations & cliff on the west end of Praia da Rocha beach, you can see how small the people are in relation to the cliff.
We took this picture early in the day, and the beach crowd had not yet started to arrive. After we spread our towels out and hung out for a while, the crowds were starting to build up.
This is one way you can get from Tres Castelos beach to Praia da Rocha beach! At low tide you can just walk around through the water. Speaking from experience, that particular cave was just barely tall enough for me to squeeze through.
Looking back at Portimão from a lookout point above Tres Castelos beach. See the boardwalk in the center of this picture? There are a number of small restaurants & pubs all along this walkway. Because of their proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, each establishment offers really nice views of the beach & the Ocean.
Cape St. Vincent, Portugal
We decided on a day trip to Sagres from Portimão. The motivation to go here, comes in two parts, ie; This was where Prince Henry the Navigator had his school of navigation in the 15th century. Part two is that the cliffs in this area are fantastic.
Beside the historical signficance of the Sagres area, the drive takes you through a larger part of the Algarve area - taking you into pretty villages, amazing coastline and then you arrive at the farthest southwest point in Europe!
We were standing in the Sagres Fortress area, looking over at the next peninsula which has a lighthouse on it. That lighthouse was built in 1846 and was constructed on the old ruins of a Franciscan monastery. It now belongs to the Portuguese Navy.
This lighthouse is the second most powerful in Europe (after Phare du Creach in Brittany) and the light beam can be seen 60 kilometers away.
You can see in this picture how the Ocean has pounded out a cave in the cliff. The waves get extremely large in the winter here, for a graphic portrayal of winter storm driven waves take a look at this YouTube video.
This is the Sagres Fortress (Fortaleza Sagres). It is located at the southern tip of the Sagres Peninsula and was designed to protect the town from raiders from North African. It was from here that Henry the Navigator devised his 15th century expeditions to the uncharted seas around the western side of Africa, which heralded in the golden era of Portuguese exploration.
It cannot be overstated how good seafood & pastries are in Portugal, below are pictures of a few of things we enjoyed.
Pastéis de Nata - these are from Pasteis de Belém which is considered to make the best in Lisbon
Now as you have read on this page that we had a rental car while in Portugal, and so you can imagine that we had to stop for gasoline, or rest rooms, etc, at various locations throughout Portugal right? At every rest stop or gas station that we visited, there would be an espresso bar. So during most of these stops we would have an espresso with a pastry, and each & every time it was absolutely delicious!
The point we want to leave you with, is that Portugal Service Station food & coffee is miles better than what you can find in the USA ! Do yourself a favor and give it a try.
If you have never been to Portugal & either you are planning a trip there, or you just want to know more about it, here are some good sources of information;
We entered the Airport area on Avenue Berlim because we had to fill our rental car gas tank, and the only gas station was a BP station (on the south side of Avenue Berlim as you enter the Airport). All of the car rental companies are located in a single building, located adjacent to the Airport Terminal One building. What we discovered was that the Car Return Building signs were not obvious as we exited the gas station, and we wound up exiting the Airport and upon returning, we found the signs to the Car Return area could be seen!