13 december 2015

Exploring Portugal

Crossing the country, from the North to the South

By Renate In Culture, Food 8 minutes

I really like road trips, because during a road trip you will see so many different things and really experience the culture of the country you are visiting. And besides that, being on the road and not exactly knowing what the next stop will be like gives me a feeling of ultimate freedom. This blog is about our two and a half week road trip to Portugal.

With its mild climate, 3000 hours of sunshine per year and 850 kms of  beaches bathed by the Atlantic Ocean, Portugal is the perfect holiday destination all year round. Other things to enjoy in Portugal are of course the cuisine, fine wines (port!), very nice and hospitable people and unique cultural heritage. And another advantage: Portugal is not expensive at all.


We started our road trip in Porto, where we picked up our rental car and drove to the city center of Porto. Here we checked in to an apartment: Bandeira3Rooms, where a bottle of Port was already waiting for us. The apartment was really great! We had our own bedroom and bathroom and shared a living room, kitchen and balcony with two other couples. The owners were very hospitable (great breakfast and free port all day long ;-)) and decorated the place with love, making us feel at home here.

The next days were for exploring Porto. What a nice city! The city center of Porto is very old and not that big. I don’t know why but it seemed like not many tourists have discovered this lovely place yet. We struck gold and visited Porto while there was some kind of Fado festival, with lots of music along the Douro bank sides. We visited the cathedral of Porto, the Se, where you will find a tourist office. Here, we got a city map highlighting the star features of Porto. The things that should definetely be on your list are the Cathedral itself, a half open food market, the railway station with the painted tiles on the walls, the Torre dos Clerigos and the area along the bank side with the coloured houses.

Se of Porto

Outside the city center of Porto: Vila Nova de Gaia
Outside the city center there are also lots of things to discover. It struck us that outside the city center, you will also be confronted with a lot of poverty. We found out that lots of people in Portugal live below poverty line. The more reason to put Portugal on your travel list and spend some money here! You cannot leave Porto without a visit to Vila Nova de Gaia, just at the other side of the Douro, where all the famous Port houses are situated. For just a couple of euros, you will get a grand tour including a Port tasting at the end. Some of these port houses have excellent kitchens as well and you can enjoy a nice lunch or dinner here. We visited Grahams, from where you can also enjoy a great view over the city center of Porto.

Outside the city center of Porto: Casa de Serralves

Casa de Serralves used to be the house of a wealthy businessman, nowadays it hosts a museum of modern arts. Not only the museum but also the gardens are worth a visit.

Casa de Serralves

From Porto to Coimbra
> From Porto to Coimbra: 120 km/ a 1 hour drive

Next stop was at Coimbra, a real university town. Since we were not able to find us a nice place to sleep here, we did not stay long in Coimbra. The University of Coimbra and its library are world famous heritage.

Coimbra University
From Coimbra to Conimbriga
> From Coimbra to Conimbriga: 20 km/ a 20 minute drive

Conimbriga is one of the largest Roman settlements excavated in Portugal. We visited it on our way to Nazare. At this site, you will find a visitors center and a large excavated area where you can still see the remains of what once must have been a glorious city. When you visit Conimbriga during summer, bring enough water and sunscreen: temperature is rising and there is hardly any shade here.

From Conimbriga to Nazare
> From Conimbriga to Nazare: 95 km/ a 1 hour drive

Next stop was at Nazare, a very old fisherman’s town at sea which is very popular with both tourists and local people as well. Nazare is divided into two parts: a lower part, with lots of cafe’s and shops, where you will find most tourists, and an upper part, with less restaurants and shops. If you want to avoid the crowd at the beach, you’d best go to the Praia do Norte, the beach up north, where you will leave mass tourism behind you. This is also a nice place to surf. A nice place to swim can be found about 15 km below Nazare, at Saho Martinho do Porto, where you can chill in a natural bay of the sea.

If you are looking for a nice place to have dinner, try Sitiado (upon the hill), a small and nice place with a small terrace outside. Downtown Nazare A Tasquinha can be recommended (make sure to make a reservation, this place is always packed with people!) where they have great seafood as well as meet dishes. During our visit to Nazare we stayed at an old monastery called  Quinta do Campo, which has been in the same family for centuries now. A magical place with very friendly owners, where every room has a different story to tell.

Quinta do Campo

Around Nazare: Fatima, Alcobaca and Batalha
The area around Nazare has lots of nice things to offer. You can go swimming, surfing, walking or visit the cultural heritage at Alcobaca and Batalha where you will find two very large monasteries. When you visit Alcobaca, make sure to pop in to one of Portugals most famous pastry shops, where you will find the best Pastéis de Belém of the area. Nearby you will also find a quite peculiar place called Fatima. The history of Fatima is associated with three local children, who – while they were guarding their sheep –  witnessed the appearance of the Lady of Rosary. This Lady was said to have predicted the second world war as well as an assassination attempt on the pope. Nowadays, Fatima has turned into a pilgrimage where thousands of people gather every year.

Around Nazare: Obidos
The name “Óbidos” probably derives from the Latin term oppidum, meaning “citadel”, or “fortified city”. The place is not that big and really charming. You’d best explore it by walking on the city walls. 


From Nazare to Lisbon
> From Nazare to Lisbon: 125 km/ a 1,5 hour drive

It was time to leave Quinta do Campo and its nice owners and visit Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Lisbon is a big city, very nice for a city trip. The earthquake of 1755 destroyed a large part of the city. The city that was being rebuild after the earthquake is much like the city as we know it today. Some of the famous highlights of the city are the Se, Castelo de Sao Jorge, the Baixa en Avenida district and Belem.

Around Lisbon: lots of castles
West of Lisbon, you will find lots of castles and the good news is: most of them are open for visitors. During our stay, we choose to visit the ‘gingerbread house’ castle in Sintra: the Palace of Pena. Located in the Sintra hills, the Park and Palace of Pena are the legacy of King Ferdinand II’s creative genius and the greatest expression of 19th-century romanticism in Portugal, denoting clear influences from the Manueline and Moorish styles of architecture.

From Lisbon to Lagos
> From Lisbon to Lagos: 300 km/ a 2,45 hour drive.

We left Lisbon for Lagos, where we would have another week for relaxation at the beach. We chose Lagos because of its beautiful beaches and hoped this would not be as touristic as Albufeira and Faro would be. But we where wrong about that. Where the rest of the country has hardly been affected by tourism, the south cost of Portugal has unfortunately changed forever. Lots of ugly hotels, private property and a cost line where concrete and mass tourism rule. After visiting the nicest (but crowded) beaches of Lagos, we decided to spend our time at the pool of our hotel Villas D Dinas, away from mass tourism. Lagos has an interesting city center, with a dark page in history called the beginning of slavery. Its nice to explore the center of Lagos, but I recommend to avoid the crowded beaches, especially during the high season. We returned our car at Faro airport and from there we flew back home again. Definitely a country to visit again soon!

Lagos beach