Tuesday, July 19, 2011

June 17th - Lamego, Coimbra and June 18th Exploring around Coimbra!

Today it was drive and explore our way to Coimbra.  Its so easy to drive in this country, its so beautiful and all the roads are maintained, whether they are small country roads or highways - we were very impressed.  We stopped at the city of Lamego, known for its 18th century Church and the top of 686 steps - we walked up about 250, took pictures and then walked back down.  (No, not because we couldn't walk up those many steps but we were on our way to Coimbra, we couldn't linger too long, now could we)?  There was also a Castle here but we just did a drive by.   We did stop in the middle of the town, had our usual cafe com leite and walked along the beautiful, flower, tree-lined pedestrian walkway.  Visited another beautiful church!  Lamego is really a very pretty city!

We continued driving southwest towards Coimbra.  At one point, on our left, we passed the Bucaco Forest, we've read its beautiful and made plans to return during our time in Coimbra.

This was the first time that we were actually winging it, we did not have a reservation.  We had a few hotels picked out to choose from but no idea where they were, just knew they were in the Historic area!  Unfortunately, this was a work day and the traffic was horrific and parking non-existent. I ran into one of our choices but decided to keep looking (they did not offer parking or WiFi in our room) so we tried to find the others.  Due to traffic and not knowing our way around we ended up on the bridge crossing the river!  At first it was Oh, NO but it turned out to be a blessing!   I ran into a Tourist Office (on the other side) and asked about hotels with parking.  She circled a few on the map and pointed one out on this side!  We normally like to stay right in the center of town (and not stay in BW) but we figured, we're here lets check it out!  This hotel was on the hill with beautiful views of Coimbra, the river etc.  It turned out to be our lucky day!   Not only did we get 3 nights for the price of 2 but we also got a King Size bed, not very common in these parts.  In fact when reading their literature I discovered that out of 98 rooms, 10 had King Size beds.  I could have kissed the handsome, kind, desk clerk!  We were only a beautiful bridge across from town, had marvelous views and we even had a walking bridge, the best of both worlds!

We enjoyed our 3 nights here so much that we learned a lesson - sometimes staying away from the Center of town and using a BW can be a good thing!

After napping (in our King size bed) we drove into town for dinner.  We had just arrived on the Main Plaza when a group of people dressed in Traditional Portuguese dance costumes arrived and started unloading musical instruments.  (Unfortunately, we had not brought our camera to dinner, big mistake).  I wanted to find out what was going on but Howard was on the hunt for a good dinner!

We wandered thru the maze of streets, there was a lot of street activity - music, food vendors etc.  Just as it started to drizzle we chose a small Ma/Pa restaurant filled with locals, so we decided to give it a try.  We communicated mostly with pointing, the owners little English and our poor Portuguese but we succeeded.  We ended up with Goat Stew, just meat actually, no veggies ;( , boiled potatoes and a salad.  While we were eating the people I had seen in Costumes came down our narrow street playing music and signing.  I had to run out and watch them for a minute.  (The Gods were watching over me).

After dinner we walked around and found more and more entertainment - listened to an orchestra of mostly young people, saw more parades, each group representing a different school, church etc.  I finally asked what the celebration was all about and they told me it was the Festa of San Pedro!  Portugal is a lot more like Mexico than Spain, in more ways then one!  Needless to say we had a fun, entertaining first night in Coimbra!  No pictures but the memory will live on!

June 18th - Exploring around Coimbra and ending the day with dinner and Fado back in the Historic Area

Today we were off to see the Roman Ruins of Conimbriga, one of Europe's great Roman archaeological finds and one of the best preserved in the Iberian peninsula.  In the Iron Age it was a Celtic settlement but in the 1st century AD it was the Romans who turned it into a prosperous city.   We explored ruins of an opulent Villa, one of the largest houses ever discovered in the Western Roman Empire.  It included a bathing complex and a sophisticated heating systems.  There is also a House of the Fountains, which still has pictorial mosaics - a lot of them in almost perfect condition.   We spent a lot of time exploring the grounds including ruins of Temples, a forum, an aqueduct and the elaborate piping system that heated the towns public and private bathrooms.   We also visited the museum on site that recounted the daily life of this town.  It was very interesting and we really enjoyed our visit here!

We were feeling a little run down (lets see today is #38 of being on the road) so we weren't sure if we should drive to the Bucaco Forest or not.  We had come south of Coimbra (about 10 minutes) for the Ruins and the Forest was about 20 minutes north of Coimbra but we decided that sitting in a car would not be much exertion, so off we went discovering more beautiful roads and countryside!

Buçaco is a delightful refuge of cypress groves, ferns, statues, fountains and trails!  The Buçaco Forest was first settled by Benedictine monks in the 6th Century. Later, it was administered by priests from Coimbra Cathedral, and a Papal edict of 1622 declared that women entering the forest would be excommunicated. The Discalced Carmelites, an order of barefooted monks, took over in 1628. They built a monastery and surrounded the 250-acre (105-hectare) forest with a wall. Over the centuries, the monks and the government foresters who succeeded them have planted nearly 400 Portuguese varieties of trees, shrubs, and flowers while importing some 300 species from as far away as Mexico, Chile, and Japan.  I am happy to say that I was not struck down by lightning or anything, so I believe that the Papal edict of 1622 must have expired ;)

Since we were a little run down we mostly just drove around the forest, up the mountain, down and around.  We had to be very careful choosing the roads because if we went down the right side (as we were going up) we would have ended up in another valley, on the other side of the Mountain and far away from our King bed!  As luck would have it (or good navigating-I am the navigator)  we always seemed to choose the right direction and we ended  up at the Tippy Tippy Top of the Mountain where there was a Monument (I'm sure it was dedicated to some Saint or something) and the most marvelous 360 degree views, going out to never, never land!

There were also hiking trails from up here but not really knowing how long it was going to take to get back off the mountain (or even if we were going to take the right turns) we decided not to venture off.  On our way down we did see a Big, Rock Wall with an open gate and decided to stop.  It too had trails and we went for a short hike.  As we were driving down the mountain we could see way off on our left beautiful, huge homes dotting the countryside, this was definitely a wealthy area!
Before going completely down we took a different road and found a Cafe over looking the valley below(opposite of Coimbra side).  I think we crashed a private party but no one seemed to mind.  We bought a snack and sat on a bench admiring the views!

Back at our hotel we were ready for a Nap before going out to dinner and listening to some Fado music.  We wanted a good tasty meal so we chose an Indian Restaurant we had spotted yesterday - our 3rd since arriving in Portugal.  Had a wonderful meal and then walked thru the Historic area - our goal was to find "A Capella" - a tiny chapel that has been turned into a temple for traditional Coimbra style Fado music (different than Fado from Lisbon).
The streets here are all narrow and winding, a little confusing but fun to explore.  But since we had to buy tickets and were afraid that it might sell out we finally asked a family to help us with directions - its good we did we never would have found it!  They were all very helpful - Dad, grandma and mostly Mom who spoke fabulous English!  It was all uphill, we barely had the energy to make it, got a table, ordered a drink and waited for the show to begin.  Before beginning the little place did fill up.  The show consisted of 2 musicians and one singer!  It was an interesting experience but too dull for our liking.  The Portuguese Guitar was wonderful but the Fado was too bland for us!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

June 16th - Èxploring Pinháo!

Woke up to the beautiful views out our balcony windows, what a site!  Breakfast was served on the Terrace, overlooking the Douro River - this is the Life!!  1st on our agenda today was to tour the facilities here at the Quinta.  We had a nice, small group and believe it or not a couple from Utah had numerous friends who lived in San Miguel, at least part time.  This couple had been to SMA many times.  We didn't know any of their friends but from the Colonia's that they lived in we knew they were way out of our league (financially).  Alina, our guide was very knowledgeable - she gave us the history first, then took us to the area where they do the 'Foot Stompin', its all done this way.  The Stompers get about $10US an hour.  She said its getting harder and harder to find people to do it.  Ideally they should all be the same height and weight but nowadays they are just happy to find anyone.  From here went down to the cellar to see the different sized Oak Barrels.  Of course it ended with tasting the wines and port.

Later we went into the small town to walk around, it was quiet, not many tourist here yet.  The waterfront was very nice, small restaurants/cafe's and many boats of all sized.  We grabbed a small lunch and walked around.  After exploring the town we decided to take one of the recommended hikes,  The hike followed the Pinhao river, up slightly on a paved road then down a dirt road and past some houses.  It was a nice hike, perfect way to spend a leisurely afternoon.  We could see a beautiful, old cemetery across the river but unfortunately there was no way to get over there.

Relaxed back at the Quinta and returned to the waterfront for an early dinner and bedtime!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

June 15th - Off to Port Land, the Douro Valley!!

We were off on another beautiful drive!  The Quinta (Vineyard) that we were staying at had sent us directions, but I could see on our map that we could also get there by getting off the main highway and driving more on the small country roads, Howard liked that idea!  It was a little Scary at times, the roads were very narrow and curvy with cliffs, (get the picture) and trucks making delivery's were also using these roads ;( , but it was so worth it.  The views were incredible!  First we were up, climbing, curving around here and there but after 1hr. or so (I really don't remember) we started our decline towards the River.   It was all a total paradise of a drive!  At one point before reaching the bottom we stopped for a cup of Cafe con Leite and a Pastel, both delicious.  We sat outside admiring the views!

In the town of Regua that sits on the Douro River we crossed a small bridge and drove along the river for about 30 minutes to the small town of Pinhao!  We passed many Quinta's, some just working Quinta's, others offering tours and others like ours, Tours and B&B!  We arrived at Quinta de la Rosa, admired the views, left our luggage and walked about 20 minutes towards town, looking for lunch.  After filling our stomachs with a good lunch and Vinho Verde, straight out of the barrel, we walked back to our Quinta to relax.  The grounds had a pool in a very relaxing environment so we headed there in our suits with our towels and books to read.   There we were relaxing on very comfortable lounges, overlooking the river....is this Heaven or what?  We never made it in the pool, not because of the views or the good book I was reading but because the water was really COLD!

That night we went to a recommended restaurant just in town.  We both enjoyed a fresh fish meal and a bottle of wine!  Our waiter was really nice, not something we could say often in Spain ;(.  Back at our room overlooking the river we watched the Full Moon Eclipse from our small balcony but we decided to go enjoy it from the Terrace, it was truly magical!  This Eclipse was only visible from this part of the world, it was not something that our family and friends were seeing from the US or Mexico.

June 16th - Breakfast was served on the Terrace - this is the life!  First on our Agenda today was to tour the facilities here.  We had a nice small group and one couple from Utah had been to San Miguel many times, they had numerous friends there (we didn't know any of them).  Alina, our guide was very knowledgeable-she gave us the history 1st of the Quinta and its owners.  The she took us to the area where they do the 'Foot Stompin', its all still done this way.  The Stompers get about $10US an hour.  She said its getting harder and harder to find people to do it.  Ideally they should all be the same height and weight but nowadays they are just happy to find anyone.  From here we went down to the cellar to see the big Oak Barrels.  Of course it ended with tasting wines and port.

Later we went into the small town to walk around, it was very quiet, not many tourists yet.  The waterfront was very nice, small restaurants, cafes and many boats of all sizes.  We grabbed a small lunch and walked around a little more  before going back to the Quinta to rest....too much wine last night zapped my energy today ;(  .  Went back to the waterfront for an early dinner and an early night!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

June 14th - Off to Barcelos and Guimaraes

When we decided to move to Mexico I decided to collect Roosters-Gallos!  Its better to have fun with them then hate them because they can be noisy, right?  So today we went off the to the city famous for its Roosters or Galos, as it is spelled in Portuguese - Barcelos!  The legend has it that they are good luck, one of the stories being that the Roosters Crow saved a man from hanging to death!

The drive up there was absolutely beautiful, rolling hills, tall trees, homes, farm lands dotted here and there.  Once you are out of the big cities in Portugal you are out in the beautiful countryside.   In less than an hour we found ourselves in this historic town that sits on the Cavalo River and is connected to the town across the river by a Medieval Bridge built in the 14th Century.   We started our exploring by the river at the ruins of the Palace of the Barcelos' Counts built in the 1st half of the 15 century and a National Monument since 1910, it is now the Archeological Museum of Barcelos.

As we left the ruins we spotted our first Galo, the are large statues and very colorful, it was fun having my picture taken with them throughout the town.  We continued walking thru the historic streets and in to the Town Center.  It was a nice stroll, this is a very nice, well kept town.  We found a beautiful garden, many fountains, gorgeous Church and of course more Galo's here and there!   We stopped for coffee and a Pastel de Nata.  I did a little shopping - I had to get some Galo souvenirs!  Barcelos was a very nice, quaint little town and we could have stayed longer but we still had Guimaraes to visit (we were told it was even nicer) so we decided to go there and start our visit with lunch.

A view of the town across the river!

GUIMARAES - the Birth Place of Portugal
The drive to Guimaraes continued to amaze us, I can't stress how beautiful this country is!  Another plus for drivers is that the highways are exceptionally well organized, the toll booths, signage etc..  We arrived here hungry, not a good way to arrive anywhere, it makes it a little hectic.   Parked by the Igreja de San Pedro and wandered into the historic part looking for Cheers, restaurant recommended by Peggy and Eric.  We found the Plaza but unfortunately they were not open that day so we continued looking.  Just walking thru the town was a feast for the eyes (no pun intended), narrow, winding streets lined with very old buildings, churches etc.  In another small plaza we found a wonderful restaurant, Pimenta Moscada, serving Frango (chicken) as their Menu of the Day.  We ate like Royalty, now we are ready to explore!

We walked the beautiful streets towards the Castle, built in the 10th Century.   We've seen many Castles but we just don't get tired of them (plus its good exercise to walk up and down the many steps).  We walked all the way up to the very tippy top and pretended we were searching for the enemy, in this case we only spotted groups of noisy school kids on tours with their teachers.  Luckily we were able to enjoy the Castle without them.  The views from here were incredible, we could see the Palace and St. Miguel's Chapel, all in the same area.  From here we walked to the small Chapel, built in the beginning of the 12th Century and then continued on to the Palace, built in the 15th Century.  Since 1959 the Palace has been a Museum open to the public, housing a collection dating from the 17th and 18th Century. It includes wooden furniture, tapestries, porcelain and weapons from the 15th and 16th Century.  The Palace had its own small Chapel with beautiful Stain Glass windows.
View of the Palace from the Castle

A Room in the Palace!

We found a charming outdoor cafe right across the street from the Palace and decided to have an afternoon drink - Howard had his favorite, Cerverja and I mine, Vinho Verde!  I also found myself a Handsome Knight -

The views from our table were beautiful, this truly is a very quaint, charming city.  Hard to believe how old it is, it is so well kept up.  It is a Medieval town but its origins go back to the 10th Century.  After relaxing (resting our feet) we wandered thru more of the narrow streets, viewing many historic buildings, fountains, statues, Churches, Monasteries, etc. you could feel the history all round us!

We were in our car headed back to Porto when we spotted a sign for the Teleferico (Cable Car) that takes you up the mountain.  We looked at each other and said "Why not?".  We had about 30 minutes before they closed, giving us a little time to explore up at the top.  The ride (view) was spectacular and we enjoyed a short hike at the top to the Sanctuary, more magnificent views from here!

We drove back to our Castle in Porto very happy campers, what a fabulous day!