Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Portugal: Tourists Discover an Old Land

The magnificent Jeronimos monastery in Lisbon gives a hint of the grandeur and history
that Portugal offers, as tourists are discovering. Talk with anyone who's been to Portugal
lately and they're likely to tell you that it was crowded with tourists. 

  Portugal is probably seldom the first European country an American visits. Doesn't everyone want to see France first, then maybe Italy?   And why visit? After all, Portugal has almost no internationally known landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or Rome's Coliseum.
     Nevertheless, visiting Portugal is a lot like visiting those more popular countries. The wine and churches will remind you of Italy. The ham is like Spain's ham. The ancient ruins are like those in southern France, and there's an iconic bridge in Porto designed by Gustave Eiffel that opened three years before his tower in Paris. After a few days, you start to enjoy Portugal as Portugal, a unique and ancient country with its own traditions, cuisine, culture, music and history. Residents of Porto and Lisbon could give Italians lessons in la dolce vita. Chefs in Evora could teach their French counterparts a thing or two. Winemakers all over the country are producing world-class reds, whites and especially roses.  Not to mention port. Madeira, of course, comes from Portuguese islands in the Atlantic.
     In 2017, Jane and I spent the better part of April touring Portugal and we were hardly alone. There were throngs of international tourists in Lisbon, Sintra, Porto and Evora. Our other destinations were much quieter with fewer tourists. This posting focuses on the hotels we chose for our clockwise circuit around northern Portugal.

      We arrived in Lisbon very early on April 1 and stayed three nights at Casa Amora (click HERE for link), a guesthouse in a quiet residential neighborhood. If you're thinking of staying at Casa Amora, try for its studios in neighboring houses rather than the small rooms in the main house. We had one night in the later (with hardly room to open our suitcases) before asking if we could move to a studio. Fortunately we could, landing in a two-story unit with a small kitchen and two full bathrooms. Very much better, and the staff could not have been more accommodating. Casa Amora is close to a metro (subway) stop called Rato. It was also an easy walk to the streetcar stop at Basilica da Estrela. The only negative is that there are few restaurants in the immediate neighborhood.
The lounge at Casa d'Obidos featured a full-size pool
table, a felt-covered card table, and a TV with
several English-language channels.
      Once on the road in a rental car, our first stop was one night in Sintra at Villa Mira Longa (click HERE). Sintra is practically a suburb of Lisbon but is a destination in its own right because of its many palaces, reminders of Portugal's royal history. The last king was Manuel II, who was deposed in the 1910 revolution and died childless in England in 1932.  At least one palace still has much of its late-19th-century furnishings. Mira Longa is a short uphill walk from the center of the action in front of the National Palace and where you can grab buses to other palaces.
     Next was Obidos, a walled village that was a medieval port but is now 10 kilometers inland due to silting in its harbor. The town, still surrounded by crenellated walls and towers, is a warren of narrow streets lined with stone houses, shops and restaurants. Its castle is now a hotel, Castelo de Obidos. We stayed two nights in a converted manor house, Casa d'Obidos (click HERE), outside the town but with a view of the castle and walls.
Our terraces (the other was much smaller) at  Quinta do Vallado
near Peso de Regua looked out on a hillside vineyard.

     We made it to Porto on April 7, checking in for four nights at 6Only (click HERE), a boutique inn that had only six rooms when it opened in 2009. It has since added an adjacent building and added six suites. 6Only is near the top level of Gustave Eiffel's Dom Luis I bridge and the top of  the Funicular dos Guindais, the rail line that lets you return from the riverbank without a long, long walk up a steep, steep hill. Although 6Only is on a fairly lifeless block and around the corner from the bus station, its location really isn't too bad. And the suites are huge with unique cork-encased free-standing bathrooms. Be sure to ask for a room or suite at the rear, which will be much more quiet than a street-facing room.
      Next were two nights at Quinta do Vallado (click HERE), a winery hotel, in the hills above Peso da Regua in the heart of the Douro wine region. We stayed in a large room in an angular new building above the reception area and dining room. Our two terraces looked out to vineyards on the the other side of a tributary of the Douro. Vallado's wines -- we had a red and a rose -- are excellent, as is its restaurant. It was warm enough to use the pool, which is in an orange grove where guests literally pick their snacks off the trees.
The stone walls of the original convent add character to the bar
at Pousada Convento de Belmonte, which made a great gin and tonic using
locally made tonic.

     Our next stop was the mountain town Belmonte where we stayed at Pousada Convento de Belmonte (click HERE). Only the bar, a courtyard and a few sitting rooms remain of the original convent. The large and comfortable rooms and the dining and breakfast rooms are all relatively new. If you go there, don't be tempted by the offer of a large room with a private terrace. The smaller rooms with smaller balconies have the mountain views you'll want.
During our four nights at Albergia de Calvario
in Evora we encountered a group of Harley Davidson
bikers from Siberia. They were there for only
one night, but made an impression nonetheless.

By April 15, our time in Portugal was winding down and we were headed to our last destination, Evora, in the Alentejo wine region and a center of cork production. Here we stayed three nights at Albergia de Calvario (also known as ADC; click HERE), just inside the city walls. Most people planning a trip to Portugal are intent on seeing Lisbon and Porto. Evora should also be on that list for the ancient megaliths nearby, for its bizarre chapel made of human bones, for its cathedral and Roman temple, and for its great cuisine. Portugal's famous black pork (from a special breed of acorn-fed pigs) reaches its apogee here.
     Our trip ended with one more night in Lisbon, at Tryp (click HERE), a hotel within walking distance of the terminals at the airport (where we had to return the rental car). With a 5:40 a.m. flight, it made sense to be close to the airport, and it was easy to grab a taxi for one last dinner in the city.


        You may be focused on Porto's many port tasting rooms (expect to pay for your tastings), but for my money the best alcohol in Portugal is it's unfortified wines. Touriga nacional and touriga franca grapes are blended with other varieties, especially tinta roriz (known in Spain as tempranillo) to produce hearty and satisfying reds with loads of secondary flavors. I seldom like rose wines, but I didn't have a one in Portugal that I didn't enjoy. Yes, Mateus rose is still made and sold in its distinctive bottle. No, having given it up while still an undergraduate, I didn't try it again. Many of the good roses are 100 percent touriga nacional. Whites are also good, especially vinho verde and alvarhino.
     Two beers seemed available most places, Super Bock and Sagres. Both are so-so lagers but good enough when cold enough.  Some tapas places also offer bottled craft beers; I had only a couple and both were pretty hoppy and pretty good.
     Sangria is another option -- better by the liter than by the glass -- and is widely offered. Never had one that wasn't freshly made, well fortified and dotted with fresh fruit.
Renting a Car

      We've rented a car for at least part of every European trip for the last 20 years, and renting through Avis in Portugal was the worst experience by far. The diesel-powered Renault Megane estate was fine, but  the total charge ended up being more than double what Expedia had quoted, and the receipt, emailed to us, was in Portuguese, not that the English language version that we finally requested and got was much easier to understand. Also, the charge to our credit card was in U.S. dollars, allowing Avis to charge us an unfavorable exchange rate as well as a needless "dynamic currency conversion" fee. I will avoid Avis/Budget in the future, and will make sure that my credit card is being charged in the local currency.
      Driving in Portugal is like driving anywhere else in continental Europe. The signs and traffic laws are the same. Narrow village streets can be quite a challenge. One problem, and other tourists reported experiencing it, too, is that the GPS didn't always get us where we wanted to go.  Belmonte, for example. There is apparently more than one Belmonte in Portugal and the GPS wanted to send us to one in the south rather than asking which Belmonte we wanted. We had to stop and ask directions. The GPS was fine, though, in the larger cities.
     Get a toll responder (same idea as an EZPass responder) when you rent your car. It will let you go through tollbooths without stopping and give you unfettered access to the highways, almost all of which have tolls.

No comments:

Post a Comment