Reeling in a Big One in Southwest Portugal

“Now is no time to think about what you do not have. Think of what you can do with that there is” – Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man of the Sea

With our year on the road quickly coming to an end (they do go quickly), we set off to the southern coast of Portugal for more sun and some cycling along the Rota Vicentina – the fisherman’s trail.

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The trail follows the coastline through the Alentejo and Algarve regions of Soutwest Portugal. We didn’t cycle it the complete route (hiking is the best way to cover it all) but road some very scenic pieces while  adding some mountain biking in the interior and some road cycling through the cork forests to complete a solid week of cycling in the region.

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The scenery is incredible and parts of the trail are quite wild and remote.

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We started in the sleepy town of Grandola and ended in the surf town of Sagres stopping in Porto Covo, Vila Nova de Milfontes, Odeceixe, Arrifana, and Pedralva. Grandola was a mostly forgettable town, but we did have a surreal experience there. The town is small with 15K people but hardly tiny.  When we arrived on a hot Sunday afternoon, there was absolutely no one around. Parks were empty. Streets were empty. The roads had no cars. It felt liked we stepped into a ghost town.

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But as the night cooled, people started to emerge. Most of the other towns we visited were much more vibrant as they were a bit closer to the coast and still drawing many visitors.

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And the beaches that are scattered all over the coast near towns and in remote and seemingly unreachable locations were “filled” with surfers and sun-worshipers.

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But the true gem of this journey was the endless coastline with its craggy rocks, stork nests, beach flowers,and sea vistas. The coastline is  wild, gorgeous and mostly undeveloped…and a sight to see.

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Sagres was a great place to finish up.  It is one of the larger surf towns on the coast and has a number of beaches and surf breaks within walking distance from the center.  There is a castle and ruins and the Cape St. Vincent, only 4km or so out of town, which is the Western most part of continental Europe. There are plenty of restaurants and watering holes and a strange outdoor laundromat that is a great place to meet backpackers and surfers hanging out drinking beer and waiting for their dry cycle to complete.

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The scenery on the southern coast of Portugal was really amazing.  The cycling was a good means to get the views and experience the untamed lands, but if you are after a pure cycle vacation, there may be better spots in Portugal, the North on the Camino route as an example or east of the coast. On this trip, we ran into a lot of dogs – especially on the off-road routes. Most of them were farm dogs defending their turf.  Some were security dogs protecting particularly remote homes.  Most were chained but enough were not that we were a bit on edge from the many encounters each day.  Often there were options to do a bit of riding on the road but because of the lack of options in the areas, cyclists need to share the road with transport trucks.  If you do cycle here, make sure to carry extra water during the hotter months and a bit of extra food because it can get so remote that you can find yourself hours from any option for food or water.

But if you are a surfer or beach goer, rent an RV and head for the coast.  There are so many spots to pull over and spend the night, take a swim, throw out a line, and chill.  It was a great spot for us to spend the last two weeks of this year’s adventure!

 

Thoughts on Lisboa

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things” -Henry Miller

In September, the sun is still out and warm in Lisboa (or Lisbon), and the city is buzzing with visitors and locals enjoying the warm weather. With its fascinating history, coastal neighborhoods and beaches and its gateway access to the rest of the country, Portugal’s coastal capital is a European hot spot. With its relatively low cost of living, it is also a popular spot for travelers looking for bargains (although we found Croatia to be a better European bargain location right now).

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We visited Lisbon twice but both times while entering and exiting the country. So we did not see all the sights or have a chance to visit the beaches in the Northwest (which we would recommend), but we did have enough time to get a good sense of the city and taste plenty of the pastel de natas. It is an incredibly beautiful city with new waterfront boardwalks, ancient twisting back alleys, vast squares and parks and historical buildings. And of course, plenty of hills and trams to help you get up them.

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You can spend days in the city center exploring neighborhoods such as Alfama with its Fado bars or Baixa with its tiled sidewalks and tree-lined boulevards and we did.

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But getting out of the center was nice.  The Belem neighborhood, a 15 min train or Uber ride west of the city center, is one of the more modern spots of the city with new landmarks and a beautiful path along the waterfront.  And with its many museums, the Jeronims Monastary, and the Monument to Explorers), it is well worth a few hours or more, especially if the museums are interesting to you.

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We spent a couple hours at the Museu Berardo which would be worth a visit if for no other reason to check out the building itself.  But it also houses a great collection of modern and contemporary art.

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Parque das Nações is another neighborhood outside of the city center that provides some different sights and while it is designed for visitors,  the developed waterfront attracts many locals and its size and scope make it feel a lot less crowded than other locations in Lisbon. It is very close to the airport and the train station making it a perfect location if you are transiting.  We flew into Lisbon airport, stayed in the neighborhood for the night and walked to the train station the next day to head out to Porto – it was a very convenient locale with some great running options.

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There are a number of days trips that you can take from Lisbon including beach towns and “mountain” towns (Portugal is not known for its mountains, but locals will refer to their hills as mountains).  We took a 45 min train out to Sintra which is a UNESCO city with a number of castles and ruins. It is incredibly hilly, but for the adventurous, a day of “urban” hiking will reward one with views and vistas that are incredible.

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Lisbon, similar to Porto, is undergoing a boom driven by tourism.  Public works projects, including waterfront development, new transit options, and countless hotel and home renovations are changing the landscape dramatically. From our limited perspective, it looks to be positive change.  Of course, not all are happy. Gentrification, traffic congestion due to development projects, increasing housing and travel prices are some of the challenges.

Nonetheless,  go there! – it is a worthwhile visit.

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If you need some additional motivation, check out Night Train to Lisbon (currently on US Netflix and there is also the book) which is another interesting WWII thriller with some great shots of the city of Lisbon.

 

 

 

Good Reads: A Small Death in Lisbon

A Small Death in Lisbon is a murder mystery story based mostly in Portugal and alternating between modern day and WWII. It is a light and quick read thsmall-death-in-lisbonat mostly follows a traditional thriller crime plot.  You follow the investigation of a murder by two Lisbon detectives on the fringes of their peer group.  There are plenty of twists and turns to keep things interesting as a crime story.  But it will be particularly interesting to those who have visited or are visiting Lisbon with all its references to the city and its neighborhoods, foods and customs. Also, the WWII sub story shines an interesting light on Portugal during that time and as a crucial supplier of tungsten to both the British and Nazi war efforts.

It is a worthwhile accompaniment to your trip to Portugal, especially Lisbon.

Any Porto in a Storm

Port is not for the very young, the vain and the active. It is the comfort of age and the companion of the scholar and the philosopher. – Evelyn Waugh

We are back after our re-entry back to the States. We’ll have a number of updates and a few recaps of the year but look out for a few posts on Portugal where we spent September.  Here is our take on Porto.

We spent most of September in Portugal. It is a great month to visit as the weather is perfect. And although it tends to be a busy tourist time, it is not too hard to find plenty of spots away from the hot spots. Porto, for example, has a number of neighborhoods with hotels that are  only a kilometer or so from the city center but provide a bit more of a local experience.  We spent the better part of the week over two different visits in Porto (an easy 3 hour train ride from Lisboa) and enjoyed the city.  There is a lot of history, port wine production and waterfront to keep things interesting. The small streets with their colorful buildings, tiled mosaics and street art make exploring the back alleys a lot of fun. And the city is also extremely photogenic providing endless vantage points with unique views of the water, its six bridges and the historical monuments and buildings.

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Portugal’s cities are known for its tile work and Porto does not disappoint here. Tiles are used everywhere and are very popular on the sides of homes and buildings.

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Of course, one can not visit the city without tasting some of the port wine that is produced there.  Most of the grapes are grown in the Duoro Valley, and one can take a boat ride up the river to visit the vineyards as a day trip from Porto (our schedule did not allow us to make the trip this time). Grapes are barged down to the city to a number of port lodges that blend, bottle and age the wine.

img_4968img_4969img_4971img_5180img_3732Like many wineries, many of the port lodges (wine making facilities) are quite spectacular and designed to host visitors, Some include hotels and restaurants.  Here is a good list of some of the top ones. We visited Graham’s Port lodge for some tasting and a tour of their facilities.  Graham’s is one of the oldest lodges in Porto and blends some very good port; and was a favorite of Sir Winston Churchill.

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Port wine is a perfect way to start or finish a good meal. Production is quite different than most wines as it blended using up to 135 different grape varieties and then fortified with alcohol.  Out of the three types of port – ruby, tawny, and vintage – vintage tends to be the best and will age quite well. Port is available around the world, but it is worth grabbing a bottle during your visit here as the selection and pricing is quite good if you avoid the tourist shops. (Tip: once open, store your bottle in the fridge. Ruby will last for 6 weeks and the others up to 4 months).

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The Livraria Lello bookstore is a worthwhile stop while in Porto.  It is said to have been a source of inspiration for J.K. Rowling during her writing of the Harry Potter stories.  She lived in Portugal for some time and was said to visit this book shop often. Its architecture as well as many of its student customers, donned in their school uniforms complete with capes, are familiar images to readers of those stories. (Note: the shop can get busy and due to its size it often requires waiting in a line outside).

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Navigating the city center is easy on foot, but streets can be hilly. It is definitely worth getting out of the center for a look around.  Directly across the river is the neighborhood of Vila Nova de Gaia, where there are a number of restaurants and port lodges and its location provides some great shots of Porto city.  Further afield, west along the river and north on the ocean provide some interesting perspectives of the city that are much less touristy.  You can take a tram out to the lighthouse to check out the beach or rent a bike and head along the boardwalk and chat with the local fishermen found up and down the coast.  We put on our running shoes and ran out to the coast along the river a number of times, and it was a great way to experience local life.

img_4883img_4898There are plenty of good eats in Porto, and we enjoyed a number of dishes.  Our favorites included the vinho verde – a young, bubbly green wine perfect for the hot days; bacalhau – salt cod that is prepared in many different ways including some tasty stews (the fish mostly comes from Canada and Norway nowadays, but the Portuguese now how to prepare it); and tripas a moda do Porto which is a bit like the Portuguese version of cassoulet.  Get out of the city center and off of Trip Advisor for eating in Porto. Take a walk down side streets or head west a bit and look for a crowded local taverna for a bite. (We found Uber the most efficient way to move about in the city).

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We would not recommend eating at McDonald’s here or back in the States but their location in Porto needs to be visited.  Zoning laws in the city require that the outside facade of original structures must be left as intended, and details inside historical buildings must be retained.  During a tough time during the city’s history, McDonald’s was able to purchase an old art decco building (there are a lot in the city) that was a very popular night club in the past.  The resulting restaurant is one of the most opulent McDonald’s you will ever visit anywhere in the world.

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The hype on Portugal in the travel industry right now is extreme and you can most appreciate it’s impact in the two large cities- Porto and Lisboa.  Development is booming. Historical renovations, public transport projects, boardwalks and waterfront land development projects are everywhere in the two cities.  It will be quite interesting to visit in 3-5 years when a lot of these projects will be complete.

 

Bom Caminho! Portugal’s Camino Way

The Camino Way is an historic pilgrimage route (over 1,000 years old) to the alleged burial site of the apostle St. James. St. James’ remains reputedly lie within the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.  Some years ago, Chris and I biked the Spanish Camino Way (aka Camino de Santiago) from Pamplona, Spain to Santiago de Comp0stela, Spain which is still one on our short list of the best biking experiences.  There are trails all over France, Spain and Portugal that lead to the tomb of St. James.  So when we decided to spend some time in Portugal in September, we looked into biking the Portuguese Camino Way starting in Porto, Portugal and ending in Santiago de Compostela.

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The scallop shell is the iconic symbol of the camino, and is used with the yellow arrow to guide pilgrims heading to Santiago de Compostela along its many different routes. Painted on trees, sidewalks or tiles, the yellow scallop shell (and/ or yellow arrow) helps pilgrims find there way to the next village.  There are many stories tied to the significance of the scallop shell. In French, the scallop is called Coquille Saint Jacques.  We love this system as it typically (not always) makes for easy navigating and you can travel for hundreds of kilometers without a map or GPS.

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Fellow pilgrims are typically super friendly, and part of the etiquette on the trail is to greet fellow pilgrims with “Buen Camino” or in Portugal “Bom Caminho”.  Traditionally, the camino was done for religious reasons.  Today, folks from all over the world walk or bike the camino for a variety of different reasons- spiritual experience, health reasons or social aspects.

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We started our mountain biking journey in the charming city of Porto known for its port wine production.

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But before biking out of Porto, we picked up our camino passports at the Se Cathedral. Hotels, restaurants, bars along the camino have stamps for the passports verifying the distance and noting the days.  The Se Cathedral is in the Romanesque style built between the 12th and the 13th century.  (The Portuguese Camino was used by Queen Isabel of Portugal in the 13th century crossing North Portugal and South Galicia, Spain.)

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Our first destination on the camino after leaving Porto was Barcelos, Portugal.  This was supposed to be a relatively easy ride the first day, but it took us a little while getting out of Porto dogging tourists, cars and buses.  Once out of Porto on the back trails to Barcelos, the trail was quite peaceful dotted with beautifully tiled cathedrals along the way.

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Barcelos is a relatively small village in northern Portugal with a rooster as the town’s symbol and the unofficial symbol of Portugal.  The legend of the rooster is tied to a pilgrim on his way to Santiago de Compostela who was wrongly accused of crime in Barcelos and sentenced to death.  The pilgrim repeatedly voiced his innocence and swore to the proof of his innocence by pointing to a cooked rooster and said that the rooster would crow at the hour of his hanging as proof. As he was being hanged, the roasted rooster appeared and stood up on the table in front of the crowd and crowed just as the pilgrim predicted. The judged realized the mistake and rushed to save the pilgrim.

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From Barcelos, we headed out to Ponte de Lima, Portugal- the last village in Portugal before biking over the Minho River which divides northern Spain and Portugal.  Lucky for us, there was an end of summer festival happening in the small village of Ponte de Lima. The village was packed with festive decorations, activities and locals.

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The following day, a rugged path along a small stream among grape vines took us over the Minho River into Tui, Spain for the evening.  However, before reaching Tui, we had a steep and challenging climb in front of us.  The biking distance from Ponte de Lima to Tui was not far, but the terrain was challenging and we ended up biking about 5-6 hours that day. The charming, walled city of Valence (an old Roman village) on the eastern side of the Minho river in Portugal was on the agenda for the day.

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When we crossed the border into Spain (Spain is in a different time zone than Portugal), we lost an hour which we were actually pretty happy about since Spain does not eat until late (very late by US standards around 10-11 pm at night or midnight in major cities) and we were hungry after the big climb and a solid day of biking.  We were also thrilled to be back in Spain for a few nights.  It gave us an opportunity to practice our Spanish, eat wonderful Spanish food and enjoy the vibrant Spanish culture.

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Bridge over the Minho river which is the border between Portugal and Spain

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From Tui, our next destination was Pontevedra.  We spent a Sunday night in Pontevedra and while it is a fairly good size city (about 83K people), it was pretty sleepy.  Restaurants, shops, bars are closed on Sundays in most of Europe.

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Burgo Bridge built in 12th century near the former site of a Roman bridge that gave the city its name, the “old bridge”  (Check out the Camino shells that mark the bridge.)

From Pontevedra, we headed to Lestrove, Spain for one night.

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From Lestrove, we had about a 3 hour bike ride to our final destination, Santiago de Compostela.  Once we arrived in Santiago de Compostela, we headed to the Pilgrims Office to obtain our certificate given to pilgrims that hike or bike 100 km or more.   The journey from Porto to Santiago de Compostela took us 6 days over about 185 miles.

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While the Portuguese Camino Way was a great experience, for those that are considering doing the camino, we would highly recommend the northern Spain route over the Portuguese section.  The villages, the scenery, the food, history and culture we found more interesting on Spanish Camino Way (aka Camino de Santiago).  It also had more pilgrims (at least when we did it) but not too many which is part of the experience. But if you are looking for another Camino segment, this is not a bad one.