To save on time/space, I’m going to try and cram multiple days/areas into a single post. Sadly, it’s not proving possible to keep up with our blogging while travelling – mostly due to our ambitious time schedule, our rather slow vehicle and lack of a data connection for my computer.
Douro Valley Region
It was amazing that as we approached the border from Spain, the landscape seemed to perceptibly change. It was no longer the large flat agricultural fields, but rather it was a little hillier, and a little wilder. To be honest, it started to feel a little like Western Australia, with rolling arid hills, and beautiful wild flowers (which also smelt amazing).
Of course, we stopped many times, and took many photos. It was by far the most scenic driving we’d done to date, and we were happy with the decision to come this way to Portugal.
As we drove further into Portugal, we started seeing more signs of farming – especially vineyards! This region is famous for wine (and port), so it was expected.
It was more of a surprise to see the rather aggressively terraced farms – I can’t even imagine the effort required to shape this much earth.
The hills were also something new for Gunter, as we’d been fortunate to have driven mostly on flat roads to date. I can report back that he was mostly fine, able to tackle 7-10% climbs in 3rd gear at 40-45kph – the motorists queued behind might disagree with my judgement.
We spent the night in a small area dedicated to motorhomes. It was such a surprise to see parking space, complete with waste water disposal (and fresh water supply) for free. While we’d only been travelling for just over a week, we hadn’t seen anything this generous yet – and we’d driven past a few before settling in for the night.
The next morning we continued further into the Douro Valley, and the hills and the farms only got larger. The terraces became contoured works of art. It also did make us question the ecological impact of wine – at least from this region. We stopped in tiny Pinhao, right on the river, and a popular tourist location. There wasn’t anything for us to do, other than enjoy the views of the river, and continue driving.
We followed the northern bank for some time as we headed east towards Porto, and the views only got nicer. We understood why this drive was highly recommended – and would recommend anyone coming into Portugal from Spain to come the same way (or take a detour to enjoy the scenery).
It was a an hour or two of less scenic motorway driving after we left the Douro valley. Arriving in Porto, we were amazed that we were able to find a park on the streets. We might have been a little to enthusiastic, as it was over 30-minutes walk to get to the central area in town, and there were many more closer to centre. Annoyingly, to add more time remotely, I had to download an application and create an account – which couldn’t be deleted without assistance from the application’s support team.
It immediately felt like a smaller Lisbon, with houses covered in colourful tiles, and pained in lovely shades of pastel. Plus, there were narrow alleys, stairs, and steep hills. I’ve never been to Brazil, but there was something about it that reminded me of the photos I’ve seen of favela, with multi-coloured houses all squashed next to each other, spreading over the hills.
We crossed the river to get a better view of town, and as we approached the bridge, we could see a large crowd gathered. Turned out they were watching (mostly waiting) kids jump from a bridge into the river. It was a little funny, because it would have been at most 10m, and these kids were making prayers, and making the sign of the cross before taking a leap. Curiously, many were wearing their shoes when they made the plunge.
It was well worth the stroll across the bridge, even with the heat that we were experiencing. It might have just been the sunshine and the blue skies, but we thought it was rather pretty.
This side of the river had all of the port companies’ cellars. It was possible to do tours, but most required some level of preparation – which we hadn’t done. Plus, we weren’t that interested in port! However, their traditional boats, with the barrels of port stacked up did make for pretty photos – which is all that matters.
We were running on fumes, so stopped for lunch at a small place up an alleyway. We weren’t quite aware that it was famous in Porto, but had seen many places that mentioned a dish called francesinha. We also had no idea what it was, so we ordered one. Turns out, it’s a sandwich made from white bread, stuffed with a varied of meats (ham, spicy sausage, thin steak), then topped with a few slices of melted cheese, drowned in a tomato sauce (not too dissimilar to that in baked beans) and served on a plate of chips. It was surprisingly filling, and we were happy that we’d decided to share it between ourselves. I am glad that we tried it – admittedly maybe not at the best of locations – but I’m in no rush to try it again, or go searching for it when we get home. It also came with a pastel de nata, which is something that we would eat again (and again), and have searched for in London.
We spent the rest of the afternoon just aimlessly walking around town, picking an interesting looking landmark, like a church on a hill, and then finding the smallest roads to get there. I know that there are many sights that we likely missed, however, we just weren’t in the mood to ‘tick off locations’.
I especially loved the churches that were decorated in porcelain tiles – sadly the interiors were far more prosaic.
We made our way back to the car, again, taking the smallest streets possible, and made our way out of town. We weren’t so lucky finding places to stay tonight, and ended up having to take a bit of a detour to a listed area that was ‘motorhome friendly’. It turned out to be a large gravel car park directly underneath an amazing castle, Castelo de Santa Maria da Feria.
Since we were already here, we walked around the Castelo. It was such a defensive looking castle, and I especially loved the crosses that were used for portholes. I regret not taking photos the previous evening (I was too tired), as it looked far more imposing under the floodlights.
It was back on the motorway for another hour or two to get to Coimbra – which happened to have free motorhome parking just across the river from town. Coimbra was described as ‘Portugal’s Oxford/Cambridge’, due to the large and historic university built here – and dominates the skyline at the top of the hill.
We started with a special lunch, feijoada, which is a Portuguese stew of beans and meat. We both found the same restaurant recommended in our separate research, so that is where we headed – Ze Manel Dos Osso. As described, it’s down a non-descript alley, and there was a queue. We were a little worried, as there were a few groups already ahead of us, but fortunately, they opened the second floor, and we all got seated more-or-less at the same time.
The walls were covered in notes (and other things, like money, watches, keys, pens etc). It’s always interesting to read the stories (and random drawings) of other guests, even if the place does feel a little like the interior of a crazy hoarder.
Most importantly, the food was amazing – and cheap, at only €21.20! We ordered some roast sucking pig, and of course, the feijoada! Oh, and if it wasn’t enough food, they included some truly incredible goat and sheep cheese, too. For reference sake, these were both the ‘half portions’!
I’ve had feijoada before at work (we have daily caterers – yes, I know how spoiled I was at Meraki), but this was much more complex, with smoky aromas, and a rich meaty taste. It also came with rice, and some delicious potatoes. It was actually so much food that we had to take half of it ‘home’, which we reheated for dinner!
The grilled pork was incredibly juicy, with a wonderful charcoal-grill taste. It also had an interesting vinegar-like dressing, which really helped cut through the fat that would ordinarily be there.
It wasn’t the wisest idea to eat to the point of discomfort during the day, when we had to actually ‘do things’. These things including walking up many, many steps in rather warm temperatures. I was starting to cramp, and Risa wasn’t in great shape either.
However, we managed to push ourselves up the hill to the old cathedral (there is also a ‘new’ cathedral, too. It was a simple, and very solid looking building, lacking the flair that we’ve come to expect from cathedrals on the Iberian peninsular – it almost looked defensive with the squared off edges and narrow slits for windows. However, stepping inside, there were lofty roman arches, and some truly beautiful tile art.
However, for me, it was the main chapel that was truly the trophy item. I stood and examined for a good five-ten minutes, amazed by the amount of detail that was carved into it. It was even more amazing that it was around 500-years old! Coming from Australia, I’m still amazed at the age of things in Europe. Sadly, my photos don’t even come close to giving it justice.
There was a small cloister, and the light walking around the open hallways was beautiful. It was amazing stepping in and out of the sunlight, and feeling an immediate relieve from the temperatures. The ‘windows’ above each of the arches were also unique.
We kept climbing up to see the old university, which is the drawcard attraction for this town. Sadly, the tickets were quite expensive, and the main attraction, the library, required joining a tour – which were already booked. The photos looked amazing, so it was a bit of a shame to have missed out on this.
With our food coma in full swing, we gave up and decided to head back to the car. The walk was much easier in the morning on a semi-empty stomach. We had some small entertainment, watching people play water polo in kayaks – which I can honestly say I didn’t know existed. It was a pretty intensive game, and they seemed to hold nothing back.