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Portugal Road Trip Oct 31 - Nov 18 2018

Portugal Road Trip Oct 31 – Nov 18 2018

First some info: about us and what we encountered in Portugal

We flew SLC – MAD on Oct 30 using Delta FF miles, then a TAP flight to LIS on Oct 31. We check one bag each because I detest doing laundry on vacation, other than undies in the sink a couple times, and it leaves room for souvenirs. I am the planner and Kevin is my driver. Make that husband.

We picked up our rental car from Budget at noon. A 5 door manual Peugeot 2008 (model #, not year) which fit our luggage (a 25” and a daypack for Kevin, a 21” and a 16” for me) with room to spare for souvenirs. It cost €420 for 15 days rental including a toll device which allows you to pass through the automatic “V” lane. Our tolls totaled €94. We drove approximately 2700 kilometers, much of it in the countryside rather than on expressways. Our Garmin, named Mrs. Jeepus, worked well and took us along many little winding roads and through tiny villages with narrow streets, when at times we could see a larger road off to the side. This is the norm when set on “fastest” and we enjoy the drive through the scenic and cultural landscape. On the expressways the rest areas (Area de Servico) have fuel, restrooms, convenience stores and restaurants. Drivers are sometimes too quick to move back to the right after passing and we found that tailgating was common. Roads are excellent and traffic was sparse except near Porto and Lisbon.

As titled, this was a road trip with mostly one night stays. We like to sightsee en route and feel it’s the best use of our time. We don’t spend a lot of time in our room and don’t unpack. I booked all lodging through Booking.com, a combo of B&Bs and small hotels. Most nights were in the €80-100 range with a few around €135. I felt we got great bang for our buck in Portugal. There was only one hotel that we weren’t entirely pleased with. We threw a couple of Marriotts in the mix too. Kevin has lots of points and lifetime platinum status so we get upgraded rooms and some nice freebies.

We aren’t foodies and don’t drink wine, although we enjoy experiencing the local cuisine. We usually ask the host at our lodging or a shopkeeper for restaurant recommendations. Most restaurants open at 19:00 or 19:30. We really enjoyed the food. Most of the time we shared entrees and waved off the bread and olives, because the portions were huge. Lots of grilled beef, pork, and lamb served with salad and both rice and potatoes. We loved the “chips”, thinly sliced deep fried potatoes, that were more common in the East and North. We had cod twice and were not enthusiastic about it, but I became enamored with pastel de nata. We like to hit McDonalds (for cokes with ice) and they had a burger with goat cheese and grilled onions that was pretty tasty. Don’t judge, it’s a travel tradition.

I plan pretty meticulously, mapping daily travel times and researching the sights we will see via multiple sources. RS Portugal Guide was good for the limited areas it covers, but the “Julie Dawn Fox In Portugal” website in particular, was invaluable for the Alentejo and Central Regions, and north of Porto. We saw a lot of beautiful scenery and visited a wide variety of sites all over the country, from time periods ranging from the Jurassic to the Renaissance. I made reservations ahead for a cork factory tour, a night tour of prehistoric rock art, a winery tour, a hike, a Fado performance and bought advance tickets for Sintra.

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November in Portugal is definitely off season. Crowds were nonexistent in out of the way places and low in most touristy areas. Sintra, Belem and the bookstore in Porto were the only busy places, and even they didn’t really have lines. Most shops and tourist sites close by 17:00 – 18:00, a few stay open until 19:00. The weather was variable, with several days of constant rain, some nice sunny days, and the rest a mix of clouds and intermittent rain. Temps ranged from a low of 42F in the mountains to 71F in the Algarve, but mostly in the mid 60’s, cool but not uncomfortable. We were prepared with waterproof shoes and our Columbia rain coats. There were a couple times we could have used our waterproof pants as well, but hadn’t brought them.

Next the itinerary: a synopsis to skim and a bit more detail if you’re interested

Day 1: Stones & Bones

Drive time: 2 hours

Scenery: rolling plains with cork and olive groves

Weather: Rainy

Sites & Sights: Almendres Cromlech - Neolithic standing stones. Evora – (UNESCO) town, aqueduct, Roman temple. Sao Francisco Church - bone chapel, nativity collection, roof terrace views.

Hotel: Evora – Casa do Escritor (B&B).

Restaurant: Adega do Alentejano

It was raining as we left the airport and made a coke stop at a rest area on the way to Evora. Our first site was the Almendres Cromlech, a group of Neolithic standing stones dating from 6000 BC, reached via a dirt road. I love ancient sites and had printed information describing the history and some of the more interesting stones. The downpour made it a little difficult to identify particulars but they were impressive nonetheless. The stones were set amidst cork groves, so our first glimpse of the Alentejo region was very nice. On to Evora where we checked in at Casa do Escritor, a family run B&B with a garage, in a very good city center location. Then off to see the Sao Francisco Church with its chapel of bones. Another thing that fascinates me, and very fitting since it was Halloween. There is also an extremely varied collection of nativity sets in the other side of the building and a nice view of town from the roof terrace. We walked around the historic center, saw the aqueduct and roman temple and had our first of many pastel de nata. Dinner was at Adega do Alentejano and it was a great introduction to Portuguese cuisine.

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Day 2: Cork, Castle & Cosmos

Drive time: 1.5 hours

Scenery: Alentejo plains, small villages

Weather: Sunny

Sites & Sights: Corticarte Em Arte - tour of cork factory. Olarias of Sao Pedro do Cordoval – ceramic workshops. Monsaraz – town, castle, views. Observatorio Lago Alqueva – star gazing program.

Hotel: Monsaraz – Horta da Coutada (B&B)

Restaurant: gas station convenience store

In Portugal you can find almost anything imaginable made of cork. Much of it is grown in the picturesque rolling countryside of the Alentejo region. The cork harvest was over so we decided against visiting a farm. I found a cork factory on a TripAdvisor post and booked a tour through Facebook at Corticarte Em Arte in Azaruja. David described the cork harvesting process, the different properties, grades and uses of cork and showed us how the bark is boiled and dried. Then we found fun things to purchase at better prices than we would see later elsewhere. We drove through Sao Pedro Cordoval where there are a lot of pottery workshops (olarias) but since it was All Saints Day many were closed. We visited one and saw people making and painting ceramics. Approaching the white hilltop village of Monsaraz is quite picturesque and required a photo stop. The town was quiet because of the holiday but we walked around, climbed the castle walls, took in the views and watched the sunset. We attended a stargazing program at Observatorio Lago Alqueva which has International Dark Sky Designation. The astronomer, Nelson, presented in Portuguese and English and then we got to view constellations and other celestial bodies through telescopes. Only two restaurants nearby were open on the holiday and both were full, so dinner was snacks from the gas station convenience store 15 km away. Haha. We stayed at the lovely Horta da Coutada below the hill.

Day 3: Marble & Military

Drive time: 1.5 hours

Scenery: marble towns and quarries

Weather: Sunny

Sites & Sights: Vila Vicosa - Museu do Marmore, town, views. Elvas – (UNESCO) town, Amoreira Aqueduct. Forte de Graca – star shaped military fort, views.

Hotel: Elvas – Hotel Sao Joao De Deus

Restaurant: O Largo

We visited the small museum in Vila Vicosa and were given a private tour, since we were the only ones there. We learned about the formation and quarrying of marble (marmore), which is abundant in this area. It is the building material of choice in nearby “marble towns”. After a stop in the town square to photograph the Ducal Palace, made of lovely blue marble, we drove to a miradouro (viewpoint) for views of the quarries. Numerous quarries and marble yards are alongside the road and we were able to look into one to observe the machinery at work and see the formational structure of the marble. Our destination was Elvas, one of several fortified towns along the Spanish border. It has star shaped city walls and is flanked by two star shaped forts. On arrival you are greeted by the huge four level Amoreira Aqueduct, built in the 16th century. We visited Forte de Graca, the largest of the forts, which also afforded views of the town walls and surroundings. After checking into our hotel we wandered about town a bit. We had asked at a cork shop for restaurant recommendations and were trying to locate one on our map when a gentleman offered to help. He led us to the restaurant, O Largo, spoke to the proprietor for us and left almost before we could thank him. We came back when the restaurant opened and found that we had a reserved table. We both enjoyed our pork dishes. Hotel Sao Joao De Deus was a nice enough hotel but they were having key card issues, so an employee had to let us into our room each time. They failed to let us know we needed to request that the hot water be turned on in the morning (?) so we took cold showers. It was also tricky getting out of the tight parking lot.

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Day 4: Giant Rocks & Rock Art

Drive time: 4.75 hours

Scenery: yes there was

Weather: Sunny

Sites & Sights: Monsanto – (HVP: Historic Villages of Portugal) – village built among huge boulders, castle. Coa Valley Archaeological Park (UNESCO) - tour of prehistoric rock art engravings.

Hotel: Castelo Rodrigo – Casa da Cisterna (B&B)

Restaurant: Casa da Cisterna

This was our longest driving day of the trip so we got a little earlier start. After nearly three hours we arrived in the village of Monsanto, one of the designated Historic Villages of Portugal. It’s pedestrian only so we parked along the road leading uphill to the village. There were quite a few people wandering about, marveling at the size of the boulders which have houses built on, around and under them. It’s pretty amazing. There were men roasting a lamb and an accordion player in the town square, but it was a local’s only affair. A marked trail through town led us to the castle on top of the hill. After two more hours of driving, and a stop for gas and snacks, we arrived in Castelo Rodrigo. We were scheduled to tour the Paleolithic rock art with our B&B hostess Ana. We rode for about 30 minutes to the Coa River Valley and it was dark when we arrived. Tours are conducted at night because light sources used to illuminate the engravings can be controlled for maximum visibility. It was fascinating to see the art work of humans from over 15,000 years ago. Horses and aurochs were the main figures, and each panel had multiple overlapping images. This site is still being excavated and studied as it was only discovered in the mid 1990s. We had reserved dinner at the B&B and were served a four course meal featuring a cod dish. Casa da Cisterna consists of several charming rooms sprinkled around an area of the village with a separate dining/lounge area.

Day 5: Vines & Wine + River & Rain

Drive time: 4 hours

Scenery: misty autumn colored vineyards

Weather: Rainy

Sites & Sights: Castelo Rodrigo – (HVP) town, castle. Coa Museum – history and displays of Coa Valley rock art, river views. Douro Wine Region (UNESCO) and Highway N222 - scenic drive. Quinta de Marrocos - winery tour.

Hotel: Peso da Regua - Quinta de Marrocos (B&B)

Restaurant: Locomotiva

Since we hadn’t gotten to do it the evening before, we walked around the quaint village of Castelo Rodrigo which is built around a castle on a hill. It was raining and we were worried that we would have no views along the Douro River later in the day. We drove to Vila Nova de Foz Coa to visit the very modern Coa Museum, which has nice river views from the terrace. The included audio guide explains the geology and history of the Coa Valley, and there are outstanding replicas with explanations of the rock art in the area, including the site we had visited the night before. We grabbed a sandwich from the cafeteria and began our drive through scenic vineyard covered hills with the river below. Highway N222 through the Douro River Valley is on a list of “best drives”. With vines as far as the eye could see, in their gorgeous autumn colors of gold, orange and crimson, it did not disappoint. It was rainy but we saw plenty of beautiful vistas as we drove through bands of mist and fog. We made a quick stop in Pinhao before continuing the drive, now alongside the Douro River. Our lodging for the night was Quinta de Marrocos, a historic family run winery and B&B right on the river. We had an appointment for a tour of the winery, which ended up being private, as we had opted out of the tasting. Our guide Raquel showed us the facilities and explained the regulatory, production, and bottling processes for port wine. The tour ended in the parlor where Cesar, the patriarch of the family, chatted with us and a couple from Canada. He recommended Locomotiva, a restaurant in the former train station in Peso da Regua.

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Day 6: Celts & Christians

Drive time: 3 hours

Scenery: wooded hills

Weather: Intermittent Rain

Sites & Sights: Citania de Briteiros – ancient Celtic settlement. Sanctuario do Sameiro – hill top church. Bom Jesus do Monte - cathedral with gardens, zig zag baroque stairway, expansive views.

Hotel: Porto – Sheraton Porto Hotel & Spa

Restaurant: McDonalds

Today we headed into the Minho region north of Guimaraes to Citania de Briteiros. These well preserved ruins of an ancient Celtic settlement, situated on a hilltop, date back to 200 BC. It is a walled city with paved roads, ceremonial spaces and over 150 round dwellings, two of which have been reconstructed. The visitor center provides a good map that explains and identifies points of interest. A large school group left just after we arrived and we were virtually alone. It was extremely photogenic with bright green mosses and fungi, freshly wet from the rain, growing on the low stone walls and trees. After exploring for a couple hours in on and off rain, we drove to the outskirts of Braga. We were looking for Bom Jesus do Monte but ended up at the Sanctuary of Sameiro. Don’t know if it was us or Mrs. Jeepus who went astray, but it was a pretty church on a hill with expansive views. We figured out where to go, arrived at Bom Jesus do Monte, rode the funicular to the top of the hill, and the sun came out. The church was closed but the surrounding gardens were lovely, as was the view. We walked down the double zig zag stairway with its many statues, fountains and patterned pavements. Since we had another hour’s drive to Porto, and were near a larger population center than in recent days, we decided it was advantageous to dine at a fine establishment called McDonalds. We enjoyed our Signature Queijo Chevre burgers accompanied by batatas fritas. (Burgers with goat cheese and grilled onions and fries.) Quite satisfying. We arrived just after dark at the Sheraton Porto Hotel and Spa which is outside the city center. We were upgraded to a suite on the club floor with a balcony and city views. Gotta love those Marriott reward points and lifetime Platinum status, thanks to Kevin’s 25 years of corporate travel. After drinks and snacks in the lounge we called it a night.

More to come ASAP. This is time consuming and I still have some Christmas decorating to do.

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Thank you, Carolyn, for this well written and very interesting trip report and for taking the time to post all these wonderful details! It sounds as if you and Kevin had a terrific time. I can't wait for my trip to Portugal next October and have bookmarked your post for future reference! I'm looking forward to reading more of your adventure but absolutely understand how time consuming this can be. The nighttime rock art tour sounded awesome!

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Great report - thanks for taking the time to post all these details.

This will not only be immensely helpful for those planning a trip to Portugal, but also great for those who want to combine Portugal and Spain in one short trip, to show them that there's plenty in Portugal alone to fill a trip.

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This is such a great report on your trip
I can’t wait to read the rest of your adventure
This is perfect information for the exact trip we are planning
Thank you so much for writing all the details

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Wow Carolyn, so much more than I'd expected or even hoped for. Thank you so much. I've only begun reading it but I had to pause to thank you. The pastel de nata sounds like the custards I learned to love in Macau, so one more thing to look forward to.

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Thanks for the great report! I hope there is more as this will be an asset in planning our trip!