Saturday, 19 February 2011

PORTUGAL – A Six Day Road Trip

Flying from and to London Gatwick, our trip would start in Faro, returning via Porto, using a hire car and four hotels along the route.

05/02/11 ~ Faro to Tavira and the Spanish Border
Arriving in Faro, with clear blue skies and a pleasant temperature of about 22 degrees in the sun, we both agreed that it had been far too long since we had visited warmer climes. Driving through Faro, we managed to miss the old town centre and it seemed to me that the satnav was not keeping up with us, although of course it was driver error really.

Embarking eastwards towards the Spanish border, we drove through Olhao, hugging the coast. The Ria Formosa natural park was an interesting if unexpected sight. The muddy creeks were very reminiscent of our own harbour and the rivers of the Solent. We stretched our legs at Fuseta and I can confirm that the mud even smells the same as in Langstone Harbour. We had a beer at a waterfront bar, watching a small armada of fishing boats dashing back and forth. A little further east, we stopped at Cabanas where we had a choice of restaurants. We settled at one offering cheese and prawns on toast, at least that is what it turned out to be.

We carried on east to Vila Real de Santo Antonio, the border town. At the river mouth, we admired the watery border between Spain and Portugal. We crossed the suspension bridge, dashing briefly into Spain before crossing back to Tavira, where we would stay the night in a fabulous hotel that was more a holiday apartment. With high ceilings and lots of bare wood, the place was a unique setting for our first night in Portugal. We strolled around a town that spans the river and chose a fish restaurant for the evening meal, “Restaurante Marisqueira”. As our first proper sight of a Portuguese town, we found it to be a mix of attractive architecture, but grubby; perhaps this is a real life town, less exposed to tourism than many of the Spanish towns we have visited.

06/02/11 ~ Tavira to Lagos & the Cabo de Sao Vincente
Today would be spent hopping along the coast, westwards to Cabo de Sao Vincente. We took the motorway as far as Faro and decided to explore the ancient walled town border the sea. Faro is central to the Formosa natural park, making it hard to approach from the sea due to the shallow waters. The town is very well preserved, with an orange tree lined square and white and sandy yellow buildings. I think seeing it out of season was probably the best time to do so as it must be packed in the summer. A crane has made its nest on top of the cathedral tower.
Further west, we drive through Quarteira and stop at Vilamoura marina, a large, fashionable marina complex surrounded by bars and cafes. We sit in the sun and enjoy a coffee and beer at Figo’s Bar.

Determined to see something of the Algarve beaches, we next stop at Albufeira. After struggling to find somewhere to park, we find the beach overlooked by a cliff top balcony. The rocky promontories have shaped a beautiful bay and nearby we dine outdoors on the cliff edge at Ocabaz da Praia, “The Beach Basket”. A large Mediterranean Gull sits on the wall nearby, eying up our lunch. The waiter advises us to be careful, as the gull scampers over the table between us and takes food from the plate.

At Silves, in land and overlooking the Algarve coast, the hill top castle is made from a dark red stone, unlike the lighter stone that other ancient structures are made from. The old town surrounding it is bustling with life, but we carry on westwards, driving through Alvor (unable to find anywhere to park) and on to Cabo Sao Vincente, the most south-western point of mainland Europe. The sun is getting low and we watch the Atlantic swell crashing into the cliff faces, sending spray eighty feet in to the air. The lighthouse is the most powerful in Europe, visible sixty miles.

Keen to get to Lagos before the sunsets, we drive the 20 miles back east and pull up to check for directions, only to find ourselves outside the hotel. Our room has a balcony overlooking the marina and is well furnished. We relax with a bottle of wine and as darkness falls, we walk to the old town walls, through the Moorish archway in to the old town, stopping for a beer before settling on the Restaurante Piri-Piri. Jayne has pork and clams, I have Portuguese style steak, a piece of fillet steak served in a stew of sorts, but very tasty.

07/02/11 ~ Lagos to Lisbon via Monchique and Sintra

Leaving Lagos after allowing ourselves a lay in, we head up into the Serra de Monchique, a low lying range of hills footing the Foia peak, standing at 902 metres. The road climbs steadily through beautiful wooded land until we arrive at the town Monchique. We don’t stop as we know there is a café on the summit, but when we get there, it is closed. The hazy views are stunning though – tree lined gorges descend from the hill top in all directions, but the terrain northwards looks a little more rugged. A precariously narrow lane leads us down from the top, heading east towards the Atlantic coast. The countryside here in the Alentejo region is more reminiscent of France than anywhere else, with lush green fields and typical farm style houses in small clusters. We follow the coats road north, although it offers few glimpses of the sea. Still looking for a coffee stop, we leave the road and head into Vila Nova de Milfontes. We are presented with the most stunning scene so far – a sandy river mouth with huge breaking waves crashing across the entrance. It is very pretty, but again every bar is shut. Further north, we try again at Porto Corvo. More amazing rocky bays, stunning coastal scenery, but all closed for the winter. The next stop visible on the horizon is Sines. The industrial port consumes the area and is a blight on the landscape. We join the motorway and make an error with the toll gate that costs us 37 euros when we leave the motorway near Lisbon. We later find out that it probably did not cost much at all as the Portuguese motorway tolls are all expensive… We cross the enormous 25th April suspension bridge, but dodging Lisbon for now, we drive past to Sintra. This town in the hills has long been the summer home of past kings and contains a number of palaces. After lunch and a beer, we visit the Palacio National de Sintra. It contains some wonderful interior design and furniture, but the whole town feels a bit run down and need of repair. After, we cross the hill top and descend to the coastal resort of Cascais. This seems quite a pleasant place and we stroll the seafront, choosing a bar for a quiet drink in the last of the evening sunshine. The drive that follows takes us east to Lisbon, closely following the Tagus River. The many beaches all offer lots of Atlantic surf and despite the season, each bay is full of surfers bobbing up and down in the waves, waiting for the right one.

In Lisbon, we easily find the Hotel Mundial where we will be staying for two nights. We have already decided that we will eat in the 8th floor panoramic restaurant in the hotel, but take a short stroll afterwards where we find the night time atmosphere to be somewhat sinister and foreboding. There are plenty of police officers around, yet we are openly offered drugs for sale. We are back at the hotel within half an hour, intent on making the most of the next full day exploring Lisbon.

08/02/11 ~ Lisbon

Lisbon surprises us somewhat. It is not the bright and prosperous capital city we expected and we find it quite run down in places and lacking many old buildings and attractions. Perhaps this is in part due to the tragic earth quake in 1755, where 15000 people died in Lisbon and much of the city was laid to ruin.
We start a long day of trekking with a walking tour of the Castelo de Sao Jorge and the Alfama district. The steep climb up the hill included a continuous assent of 122 steps before another climb of 66, just to reach the lower roads below the castle. The walls, keep and grounds are of ancient origins, overhauled by the Moors sometime after; bring back memories of Almeria and Cordoba. The surrounding residential area of Alfama is the oldest in Lisbon. Narrow winding streets are portrayed in a romantic way in the guide book, but the reality is a grotty unkempt neighbourhood with little appeal but lots of potential. The ‘Se’ cathedral is also located in the same area, but again fails to compete with those of Spain. Descending into the lower town area of the Baixa, we find it much improved in the daylight. Pedestrianised streets lack the threatening feel of the evening before and we head north to the Rossio square which has two fountains and a central monument overlooked by the National Theatre building. Further into the Restauradores area, we take the Elevador da Gloria funicular up the steep hill to the Bairro Alto, the upper part of the modern town. The funicular is not a true one, but a tram car, with the floor levelled for the steep incline. It gets us to the top however and we embark on a short circuit of the area, finding 18th and 19th century shops and cafes. Our loop concludes at the Elevador de Santa Justa, a turn of the century cast iron neo-gothic lift stood away from the cliff face. We enjoy a small bottle of Mateus Rose at a bar on the cliff top and then descend to the Baixa on foot. Strolling back south to the Praca de Comercio, we board an electric tram to carry us the few miles west to the Belem area. Our first port of call is the Torre de Belem, a small defensive battery built on the beach. Climbing the tower, the noise of the sea on all sides fills every room and we are buffeted by the wind once on the top, looking out across the Tagus River and northwards to the expansive 25th April Bridge. Walking the short distance along the river promenade, we next arrive at the 17 feet tall ‘Monument to the Discoveries’, a modern stone statue bearing sculptures of famous Portuguese explorers. After another beer stop, we find the darkness descending and the other nearby attractions all closing. We stroll to the train station and catch a local slow train back to the Baixa. Our evening meal is at one of the many street cafes in the Rua Augusta. With the fall of darkness, the unfriendly atmosphere has returned. Again, we are openly offered drugs in the street and most of the restaurants almost drag you in off the street to eat. We play cards and drink in the hotel bar this evening – it feels much safer knowing there is a police officer stood outside the entrance!

09/02/11 ~ Lisbon to Porto
An early starts sees us through the rush hour traffic and on to the A2 motorway heading north towards the border, only 65 miles away. The route runs close to the coast, but with only glimpses of the sea, the road climbs and falls through eucalyptus forests, deep green in colour, with gorges and river valleys almost constantly in view. We stop for coffee at Coimbra, a sizable town a hundred miles north of Lisbon. In the town centre, we find attractive well-kept narrow pedestrianised streets. Every other shop seems to sell rugs of all colours and styles. After a coffee, we stretch our legs around the town centre before returning to the car for another hundred miles of driving.

By lunch time, we are in Porto and homing in on our hotel. We locate the road with ease and are initially concerned that we appear to be staying in a rough area, however the road is very long and quite respectable by the time we arrive at the Hotel Sao Jose. With most of the day still left for exploring, we are shortly out on foot to explore. It is immediately apparent that Porto is a much friendlier town, with many more old buildings. Pride in appearance is also evident, as is a predilection for decorating their buildings with blue and white tiled mosaics. Our circuit included the town hall building followed by lunch at a street café (meat in pastry similar to a sausage roll and pizza). We then climbed the Torre dos Clerigos, offering the best views of the town from the 75 metre high upper level. Continuing downhill to the cathedral, we visited the cloisters and museum; more blue and white tiled pictures but relatively simple stone structures and shapes again, not the ornate cathedrals seen in other countries. Next, the descent to the river steepens with a long flight of steps and narrow streets reminiscent of the Alfama district of Lisbon. An archway opens out on to the Douro river front. At last, there is an abundance of restaurants and bars, however all too far from the hotel to be viable for an evening meal. Nearby, the river is spanned by the two-tier Dom Luis I bridge, an iron bridge built in 1886, carrying traffic across the river on two levels.

Refreshed, we find there is a newly commissioned funicular back to the cathedral level of the town, however the unhelpful man in the kiosk is not interested in getting us on board. We start the long climb up the hill to the Santa Clara church, tucked away behind the police station. Inside, we find the most ornate carved and gilded interior, dimly lit and tranquil.

Heading up hill toward the hotel again, we find the smartest bar we have seen yet in Portugal, the Tribeca Jazz Club. We effectively spend the rest of the evening here, unable to find a restaurant in the area. The food and wine are both excellent, but we retire before the live music starts at 10.30pm.

10/02/11 ~ Porto to the Spanish Border
Our flight is scheduled for the afternoon and we need to return the hire car by 1pm. We set off early again, heading north to complete the coastal journey. The border is only 60 miles north, but with two motorway routes to get there, we are able to make an interesting loop of it. Going north on the A11, we weave up through the mountains again with similar scenery to the drive to Porto. We leave the motorway to visit the small town of Viana do Costelo, however the Tom Tom leads us astray and we find ourselves driving round in circles on dirt tracks, separated from the town. After twenty minutes, we find a tarmac road and head back to the motorway. Closer to the Spanish border, the road becomes the N13 and as we arrive at the bridge across the Minho River, we stop for one last coffee in the small pretty village of Vila Nova de Cerveira. This ancient border post is being regenerated, but the 12th century castle is badly neglected, despite being a national monument. We cross the bridge into Spain to find the same situation on the north side of the river.

We take the A3 inland motorway south to Porto, with no time left to stop anywhere. An hour and a half later, we are sat in the airport drinking our last beers of the holiday. The final taste test settles it; Sagres tastes better than Super Bock. In summary, Portugal is very different from Spain, despite their proximity. The Algarve shares similarities with the Costa del Sol, but that is where it ends. We have fulfilled another long term intention and agree that the Algarve would be visited again and perhaps some of the eastern border area.

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