Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Portugal: Holidays in Portugal

     The train rounded a bend and there it was...the Douro River, one of Portugal's most important and the site before us was breathtaking.  The river was wide and the vineyards planted on the steep hillsides were the making of an incredible view.  We chugged along on the regional train continuing upriver to our destination, Pinhao.  Staring out at the beautiful scenery before us, I began to unwind and truly relax.

     That's not to say that I had been uptight for the days previous to this one.  We had arrived in Portugal seven days before and it had been a jam-packed, city-driven holiday, thus far.  We had had wonderful experiences, met friendly people, ate some really interesting dishes and seen some jaw-dropping sites but I had not yet made a connection...and that was weighing me down.

     Confused?  Some people travel for the adventure.  Some travel for the education.  Others travel just to say that they have been there...done that.  What I finally discovered is that I travel because I want a connection to a place...I want to pretend that for a brief period of time, I live there.  I want to relish in the culture, savor the cooking and, more importantly, I want to want to come back - even if I never have the opportunity.

     So far, I liked being in Portugal.  But I didn't want to live there and I wasn't sure that I wanted to come back.  Then, we hit the Douro River and I started to make a connection.  It was because of the countryside.  It was so beautiful and peaceful and it "spoke" to me.  We arrived at our winery hotel after a 90-minute train ride from Porto and our two-story accommodations looked directly onto the river and behind us were the vineyards.  Nevermind, that most of the guests appeared to be American and must have read Rick Steves' Portugal guidebook.  I quickly pushed all of that aside and savored the experience.  The weather was warm enough that breakfast and dinner were served outside on the veranda.  The pool was a cool respite each afternoon when the temperatures climbed.  After the initial check-in, the place was incredibly quiet.

     Quinta De La Rosa is a working vineyard which produces port and wine.  In the family for four generations, the owner is quick to point out that they are a winery first and a hotel second.  After a packed house at dinner the first night, we climbed the stairs to the veranda the second night to discover that we were the only ones dining that evening.  We were thrilled.  We were not looking to discover the area - only to absorb it.  It was perfect and after thirty-six hours, we were looking forward to perhaps returning in late September and taking part in the annual stomping of the grapes.

The flat bottom boats is how they used to transport the port downriver to Porto.
Train Station in Pinhao - beautiful
     We had flown into Porto a week earlier and taken a train to Lisbon, where we met my sister.  Our massive apartment in the Alfama district had views of the Tagus River and was strategically located less then 500 meters from a train station.  We enjoyed our first meal at a small, neighborhood restaurant.  The owner indicated in English that she had two main courses that afternoon...grilled steak and grilled sardines.  We took one of each and a bottle of the local wine, vino verde or green wine.  Sardines are a local delicacy here and they are not the tiny, little fish that come those roll-top cans.  These are fish about the size of six inches which are grilled, whole with olive oil and salt.  Delicious and extremely popular.  What was incredible about the Alfama was the fact that the narrow streets were crammed with  grills and outdoor restaurants.  The vibe was that of a huge street festival...all the time.  And it smelled of charcoal and stale beer! We later learned that most restaurants did not have actual cooking kitchens so the main dishes were made outside on grills and accompanied by simple, boiled potatoes, rice and beans or salad.  Fascinating.

     We spent the rest of the first day learning more about Portuguese food and wine by taking a three hour gourmet walking tour through some of the other districts of Lisbon.  We sampled a serrano-like ham that came from pigs who only fed on acorns.  Dear Daughter became a big fan of fried cod croquettes.  Dear Sister passed her port along to me, exhausted from her travels.  During our Lisbon-stay, we saw a lot of sights including an incredible monastery in Belem but we all agreed that the walking tour was by far the best.

Sampling smoked ham in Lisbon
The tower in Belem

     After three nights in Lisbon, we boarded the train and headed north to the university town of Coimbra.  While Lisbon was a huge city and hard to get to know, Coimbra was the exact opposite.  Scheduling another organized walking tour of the city, we were thrilled to have the university guide all to ourselves on our two hour walk.   Mia, a second year student majoring in Tourism, expertly led us around the city and gave us insights into university life.  We learned about the Fado music of Coimbra, a sort of folk music that is sung only by the university men (in order to woo girls) and listened to an hour long concert.  We laughed as we entered a local restaurant for dinner...where only hours before...we had dined for lunch.  Hey, it is what we could find and we knew it was good and reasonable.  Accommodations that night was at the lovely Palace des Lagrimas, where we slept soundly in upgraded "spa" rooms.  Dear Husband and I even enjoyed a glass of champagne with our breakfast the following morning.
Main Square - Coimbra
Not Harry Potter - but Dear Daughter in University Robes

     Next stop was Porto, an hour train ride north.  To keep costs reasonable, I had researched affordable accommodations and found Residencia LIS.  Although not in the historic area of the city, it was easily reachable by bus and the owner was a welcome surprise.  After hearing about our visit to Coimbra, he broke out signing the Fado song of Coimbra - right there at the reception desk.  He gave us maps and told us where to go, what to do and which metro or bus to take.  He placed small bottles of port wine and sponge cake in our rooms to enjoy after our sightseeing and even recommended local restaurants within walking distance.  Upon our departure, he apologized for not being able to drive us to the train station himself and presented with another bottle of housemade port and handpainted tiles. 
One of the tiled facades in Porto
Family Picture - Douro Boat Ride

     Our goal for the first afternoon in Porto was to take a boat tour to view the six bridges which span the Douro River - touristy but a smart move.  The main bridge was designed by Eiffel and Dear Daughter informed her aunt of other structures that we have seen that were designed by him.  How many 11-year olds can do that?  The following morning, fueled by a simple but satisfying breakfast, we toured a few more churches (there must be one on every block in Portugal), and explored the library which was the inspiration for Harry Potter's Hogwarts (amazing) before heading out to the coast to see the ocean and beach.  The weather was spectacular and we enjoyed the walk along the ocean.  

     On Friday, we said goodbye to Dear Sister/Aunt as she headed back to Lisbon and we, upriver.  After our restful two nights at the winery, we were back in Porto for a final evening before returning to Germany.  I had very high hopes for the evening, especially when I learned that it was the holiday of St. John.  Dinner reservations were made at the Taylor Fladgate Port House, a beautiful structure with spectacular views of the river.  The intent, after enjoying a traditional Portuguese meal, was to stay to watch the fireworks which would commence at midnight.  While the meal was tasty (sardines, again), it was nothing fancy and by 10:30 pm, we realized that we could not stay awake long enough to watch the fireworks.   As most of the streets in the area were closed, we decided to walk back to our hotel.

View of the Port Houses and Eiffel's Bridge - Porto

     The next hour was amazing.  I think that all of Porto had descended or were descending to the river to watch the fireworks.  Most people, old and young alike, were carrying toys that looked like little plastic hammers.  Extremely popular; we now know the reason why.  Party-goers walk down the streets and greet one another with a friendly hammering on the head.  No, it doesn't hurt - except maybe for your each "hit" is accompanied by a high pitched squeak.  The streets were filled with people - bonking each other on the head and laughing.  Smiles - everywhere - people just having fun.  And yes, we now are the proud owners of three hammers.

     The other amazing site was not the fireworks (which we never saw) but the luminaries that floated in the sky above our heads.  Shaped as small hot air balloons, they were set off all over the town (by anyone willing to try) and the sky was flooded with these floating lights.  Again, it was an amazing spectacle which I took to bed as I tried to sleep that evening.  One thing I didn't realize was that the holiday of St. John STARTS at midnight - it doesn't conclude with the fireworks.  At 6am, the music was still going on at venues around the city and no amount of hotel soundproofing could possibly work.  Exhausted from a lack of sleep, we headed back to Germany - which greeted us with cloudy skies and cool temps!


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