The excitement was building as we waited for Sue’s sister Lindy and her husband JB to arrive in Lisbon on May 10th. They were joining us for three weeks in Portugal, learning how to be ‘trailer trash’ just like us, before heading off for the rest of their three-month European holiday.
At the start of May we set off for Lisbon, where we were due to meet and were able to do some research for our holiday with them along the way.
The drive through northern Spain was very beautiful and quite different from the terrain on the Mediterranean side. We can’t wait to go back and explore the area in more detail in June, particularly San Sebastian and the Rioja wine region.
We arrived in Vila Nova de Gaia just near Porto on May 1st. There are two distinct areas of Porto on either side of the River Duoro – the Porto side with the old town and the Gaia side with the famous port houses and fishing village. We were staying at a campground on the Gaia beach and an 8km bike ride into town. We haven’t been impressed with the camping grounds we have stayed at in Portugal compared to those we stayed at in Spain. The staff are friendly and helpful but often the bathroom facilities are tired and limited and not well maintained. We booked Lindy & JB into bungalows with en-suites, in the camping grounds where we were staying and that worked really well.
We enjoyed exploring the Gaia side and the port tastings. We discovered a new cocktail that is yummy: white port with tonic and a slice of lemon. Who would have thought?
The coast of Portugal between Porto and Lisbon is renowned for its surfing beaches. There are lots of long beaches with white sand but at this time of year its very windswept, hence the surf. There is often not a lot else to see.
On the way to Lisbon we stopped for a few days in Peniche and stayed in our first paid aire. It was basically a concrete parking lot (would be horrible in summer!) with good security. It was 10EU a night including electricity and camping car facilities and had coin-operated showers, toilets, and even a car wash for the camping car. The beach was beautiful and there were lots of seafood restaurants.
From there we headed to Lisbon to check it out and await Lindy and JB. The drive through Lisbon wasn’t as bad as we’d anticipated. We were staying at Costa de Caparica, 20k out. It was a beach popular for surfing and for holidays for Portugese people. It was a little like a Portugese Victor Harbor!
Lindy & JB arrived in the late afternoon of May 10th and we were so excited to see them! We had lots to say and 6 months worth of news to catch up on! We cooked some of our ‘signature dishes’ – duck with a red wine orange gravy, leeks, new potatoes from the Ile de Re and white ratatouille. We had a ‘lay day’ where after a leisurely breakfast JB and Michael rode to Tarafaria, to check out the ferry to Lisbon and to scope out the fish restaurants. Sue, Lindy and Grubie walked along the beach promenade into the town of Caparica to explore the shops and food market.
Then it was off to Lisbon to explore the city. We figured out that 4 people sharing an Uber was quicker and cheaper than catching the bus, or ferry and tram to get downtown. It worked wonderfully and we never had to wait for more than a few minutes.
Our plan was to catch the hop-on-off tram around the hills of Lisbon. What a disappointment! We bought the tickets but could never get on the tram. Once we did – three hours later!- we weren’t game to hop off. The Eurovision Song Contest was on in Lisbon and we think hat may have contributed to the chaos, but the place seemed totally overwhelmed by the tourist invasion. Sue & Michael returned to take care of Grubie while Lindy and JB stayed to explore and to meet up with a colleague. This proved very useful and they got lots of information so we all went back next day for a good explore. It’s a beautiful city and we decided to stay a few more days to explore the beautiful architecture and gorgeous tile work, to say nothing of the food and wine!
One day we went by ferry to Belem, just across the river. There’s a fantastic monument to Portugese explorers that juts out into the river as well as a mosaic map of their routes. But it’s the architecture and gardens that makes this place so special. The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, the art museum and the Torre de Belem fortress were our favourites.
Sue, JB and Lindy took a private tour by car to Sintra, Caiscas, the Hells Mouth blowhole and Estoril. It was fascinating! Sintra was amazing and has been beloved by Celts, Moors and royals for good reason. Thank goodness we had a private car because it is on an incredibly steep promontory overlooking everything. The gardens were as impressive as the fortress and were full of ferns and huge shade trees. No wonder everyone flocked here in summer!
Caiscas and Estoril were quite like the French Riviera. Caiscas used to be a fishing village, but the EU agreement required a limitation on fishing (probably to protect the fish stock) and the fisherman were paid out to stop fishing until 2020. Now the town is very wealthy and is called ‘cash-cash’! It was very pretty and up-market. We had considered staying there rather than vial Nova de Gaia and it would have been great but much more expensive.
As we left Lisbon we travelled directly to Coimbra, where we stayed for a few days and hired a car to tour the area. What a stunning town! It’s the oldest and largest university in Portugal and is very prestigious. Similar to Oxford or Harvard, but with a much longer history. We took a (three hour!) walking tour of the town and found that it had a past that linked education and politics very closely. So nothing is new!
On another day we headed first to Fatima, a Catholic shrine sacred to modern day pilgrims. This is where Our Lady appeared to three shepherd children and gave them three instructions. Apparently Our Lady of Fatima appeared to be ‘full of light’, hence the glow in the dark statues of her on sale! The weekend prior to our visit was the Feast of the lady of Fatima, commemorating her apparition to the children on May 13th 1917. On that weekend there were many thousands of people at all the religious events.
The Fatima sanctuary consists of three main churches. The first was built on the actual site of the apparition. It is mostly open-air and there were masses, rosaries etc in different languages happening all day every day. The second church built was the basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary and was more traditional.
The last church built was the basilica of the Most Holy Trinity. This is a stunning modern church of white stone, very monolithic yet serene. It would seat a couple of thousand people! Inside there was a most unusual statue of Christ on the cross looking very gaunt and distressed. Everything was minimalist and very stylish. Sue loved the effect although apparently it has been quite controversial. Outside was a huge cross of rusted steel that is awe-inspiring. Between the two main basilicas is a huge area for outdoor masses as well as a marble pathway that pilgrims walk on their knees, worn smooth through many years of penitents.
Our next stop was Obidos. This is a beautiful medieval hill-top town with expansive views and lovely lanes to explore, as well as many churches and monuments from the 13th to the 17th centuries.
The last stop on our day of ‘touristing’ was Nazare. This is famous as the place where the huge wave was surfed. Worth a look on YouTube and you can only admire the bravery of those who were game to surf in those conditions. It has a lovely white sandy beach and lots of fish restaurants but is a town very much dominated by tacky tourism. We were all glad that we stayed in Coimbra rather than here, as had been our original intention. As we drove home the predicted thunderstorms hit, making driving quite tricky for JB and we arrived home to find wet washing and chairs. We must learn to trust Accuweather!
On May 19th we made our way to Aveiro, sometimes called the ‘Venice of Portugal’ because of the canals and raised bridges. It was an interesting day full of lots of ‘false starts’ and getting a little lost but it ended well and gave Lindy and JB a true taste of our life on the road. Aveiro is actually several distinct areas – north business district, centro with the canals and the beachside towns such as Costa Nova. Lindy and JB stayed north while we booked into the closest campsite – 11 km from town in an area called Costa Nova. Guidebooks and websites for Portugal allow about half a page for this area, but we all thought it was wonderful.
Costa Nova is a busy fishing village as well as a place for Portugese families. It has brightly painted houses and a rich fishing culture. In one area of the beach were all the fishermen’s shacks where they store their nets and motors etc. There was a little tin shed bar reminiscent of Woolly’s bar & grill where they sold a decent wine for 75 centimes a glass.
Once we all made our rendezvous next morning we drove north to Porto, staying on the ‘south bank’ at Vila Nova da Gaia and catching Ubers to and from the centre. We walked miles exploring the architecture and street art of the old town and the Port houses of Gaia.
On another day we caught the train (Grubie too) up the Duoro valley to Pinhao, a pretty little village on the banks of the Duoro surrounded by terraced vineyards and full of port cellars. From there we caught a boat for a tour of the less settled/more natural spots along the river. After a couple of false starts and a hot walk up a very steep hill we found a restaurant that suited us and ate some of the best lamb chops since leaving Australia! Then we stumbled upon a beautiful winery to do a tasting of port and table wines from the region. The wines were fabulous but the view was even better! It was a fourteen-hour tourist day and even Grubie had had enough and pulled the plug for an early night.
One of our favourite places was the fishing village of Afurada, just a 3km walk from our campsite and almost underneath the bridge across the Duoro. What we loved the most was that it was a working fishing village and had resisted the lure of tacky tourism. Once back from the wharf with its boats, nets and fishing shacks there were streets and streets of beautifully tiled houses. And lots of charcoal grilled fish restaurants. Once Michael had been back a few times they started charging him ‘local prices’ – 75c or $1AU for a glass of very respectable red wine. The food was well priced and very well presented but like Bali, they do have a tendency to slightly over-cook their fish on the grill. The sea bass was wonderful.
Portugal is famous for it’s azulejos, or hand-painted tiles that are often blue and white. Many of the buildings and homes have these tiles on the outside, often with religious depictions. But one of the most magnificent examples we saw was the San Bento railway station in Porto. It covered all four walls of a huge high-ceilinged chamber and depicted important events in Portugese history.
One day JB hired a car (a nifty little Merc) and we all set off for a day of sightseeing, Grubie included. We had decided to visit the city of Braga and luckily went during the Braga Romania festival. Braga is the 3rd largest city in Portugal, built at the crossroads of two important Roman roads in the 1st century BC. New Roman archeological sites have been discovered as recently as 1977 and the festival was a celebration of the town’s long history. It was an incredible event with seemingly the whole town dressing up and acting the part. There were jongleurs, goatherds and their goats (Grubie really liked that!) and troubadours, along with streets of stalls showcasing all things local. The attention to detail was impeccable – even the rubbish bins were dressed up for the event! After wandering around for ages we sampled the local food with meals of chargrilled meat, meat and meat!
Then it was off to Bom Jesu du Monte, an unexpected highlight. Only 5 km from Baraga you drive up, and up, and up! It is an important destination for penitent pilgrims who climb the miles of baroque staircase with its stations of the cross. The reward at the top is the church and then the swank hotels, beautiful gardens and grand views
On the 27th we all deserted Michael, leaving him in Vila Nova de Gaia, in charge of Grubie and the van. JB headed to Lyon and his Interpol conference and Sue and Lindy flew to Madrid for an art and culture hit and some sister-time. Their trip started out badly, with Lindy being robbed in a lift at the bus/train station and then having to spend five hours at the police station to report it. The sheer number of people at the one police station reporting theft was quite shocking. Their accommodation in Madrid was in a fabulous location for walking to all the tourist spots. Sue and Lindy are both challenged when it comes to a sense of direction and were quite proud of heading all around the city without getting lost, although the accolades probably belong to Googlemaps. Madrid reminded them both of New York in that it is a 24/7 busy city that has lots of different neighbourhoods. And so much shopping! Streets and streets of shops, but they were very disciplined because the sales hadn’t yet started.
Our first stop was the Palacio Real, built by Carlos 3rd in the 18th century. It was designed to be an imposing statement of royal power and it was certainly impressive and ornate, with a collection of paintings and ceilings scenes as well as many clocks. Of course we had to take the tour of the Real Cochina (Royal kitchen) that had a huge hot cupboard for keeping things warm as well as a rotisserie and an incredible collection of copper cooking utensils and molds.
Next we followed our culinary theme and visited the San Miguel markets, which were really more a collection of food stalls. They even had a gin stall and an Aperol stall – our kind of place! There were some good tapas, Sue’s favourite being the little crab rolls. It was fun to sit at the shared tables and talk to people from all over the world. We also had a few meals of paella while in Madrid that were very good, although not quite as good as the excellent one Sue had in Seville. The other culinary favourite for us in Madrid was Mexican food!
Right next to the Palacio Real is the Cathedral Almudena. This is more beautiful on the outside than the inside, except for the wonderful crypt that has over 400 columns each with a unique capital. It has 20 little chapels each with different styles of tombs. Many are still available if you fancy that as your last resting place!
The next day they went to The Prado to see the enormous collection of masters –Goya, Velasquez, El Greco, Rubens, Bruegel, Rembrant etc. They picked up the free map and then ‘cherry-picked’ their way amongst the collection to see the artists of their choice. That proved to be a good way to go as the collection is so enormous it would be quite overwhelming to try and see it all. On another day they went to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museo where the private collection of European art has paintings across a huge array of artists, styles and times.
As well as visiting the palace, cathedral and art galleries, just walking around Madrid is a visual feast. All the gorgeous churches and buildings with their statuary and wrought iron balconies! And so many plazas! There seems to be one every few streets.
Holy Toledo, Batman!
Wednesday saw Sue and Lindy up very early and headed on a day tour to Toledo, the religious capital of Spain. It really is holy Toledo. Fortunately the tour was the day before the feast of Corpus Christi and the town was decorated for the parade next day. They visited five monuments showing the religious history of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities and the history of the town from Roman, Visgoth and ‘modern’ times. Toledo has been the seat of the Spanish Catholic church from the 11th century and still is today. The cathedral is stunning, with the only El Greco painting in Toledo (before he spat the dummy and refused to paint any more) and where he hid the likenesses of his wife and son in the picture. He lived in Toledo for many years. The old town is situated at the top of a very steep hill and is paved with large cobblestones. Watch your step!
Lindy and Sue had booked the day trip without lunch, so went off at lunchtime to explore the restaurants on offer. After much menu reading that led them across the bridge and into the ‘new town’ they stumbled across a terrific tapas bar filled with workmen. They pointed to the tapas they thought to try and hoped for the best. Magnificent! Pork with pigs ear was the highlight although several of the dishes were great. Four glasses of wine between them and 6 tapas later at a cost of 27 Euros and they were both replete and happy. A wonderful lunch! The drive around the outside of Toledo to look at the views of the town was the highlight of the afternoon.
Eventually all good things must end and with regret Lindy and Sue parted ways at the airport in Madrid, hoping to meet up again before Lindy and JB head home to Adelaide.
Once Sue returned to Michael and Grubie in Porto it was back to Jarnac to get the last of the camping car repairs done.