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Seven great ways to see Porto

In just a few short days it’s possible to get a real flavour of Porto, the city that gave the world port wine.  This vibrant Portuguese city by the sea was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996, but it certainly isn’t stuffy.  It has heaps of character.

Sao Bento railway station

Sao Bento railway station

1.  You can’t do better than a free walking tour when taking in a new city.  It’s a wonderful way to get your bearings.  Turn up at the statue of Dom Pedro iv in Praca da Liberdade at 11.30 or 17.30 any day of the week and you’re in for a fun and informal treat.  Following in the footsteps of our friendly guide, we glimpsed many of Porto’s finest squares; the fragile beauty of the Clerigos Tower; spectacularly tiled Sao Bento railway station; Lello’s bookshop, of Harry Potter fame, and the mighty Cathedral.  Pausing to admire the views and recapture our breath on the Dom Luis Bridge, we looked down on the bustling quayside.  The Metro rumbles past at close quarters and with amazing regularity.

When the 2 and a half hour tour was over, we joined our guide for a meal at a riverside cafe- our opportunity to experience the local dish, the francesinha. (2 thick slices of toast, filled with a variety of meats, smothered in cheese, and served in a bowl of piquant sauce)   The meal was around 7 euros.  With a non- obligatory tip for our guide, and excellent company, it was an extremely good value day.  It can be booked online in advance with Pancho Tours, or you can just turn up.

Yellow open top bus in Praca da Liberdade

Yellow open top bus in Praca da Liberdade

2.  Hop on an open top bus.  If you don’t have the stamina for walking, open top buses are everywhere in this city.  A day ticket will let you hop on and off at will, and you get a commentary along the way.  This is an excellent option if your time in Porto is limited.  The Yellow Bus Official Sightseeing Tours run every day and discounted tickets are often available for online booking.

 

Cable car over Vila Nova da Gaia

 

3.  Take a brief but beautiful cable car ride.  5 euros will buy you a superb view of the riverside.  Even if you don’t have much of a head for heights, you’ll be so busy gazing at the boats and bridges that you’ll have arrived before you know it.  The cable cars run from the far end of the quay on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river.  This is where the wine cellars, or “caves”, as they are known locally, are situated.  After your ride, stroll back down for a little wine tasting.  It would be rude not to, wouldn’t it?

If you don’t mind a struggle back up the cliff on foot, Taylor’s is the view to beat them all, and a lovely drop of port too.  You could cheat and go up by taxi, or just select from one of the many riverside Caves, which include Sandemans and Calem.

4.  Ride the Funicular.  Cross back over the lower level of the Dom Luis Bridge for your next great view of Porto.  1.80 euro will buy you a ride up the vertical cliff face, and into the sturdy old town walls.  You are in prime position from here to visit the Se or Cathedral, with some outstanding views over the city.  Admission is free, but the couple of euros needed to visit the exceptionally beautiful tiled cloisters is well worth the money.

Returning from Foz do Douro (the river mouth)

5.  Rattle along in a tram.  Fancy a trip to the seaside?  A tram ride along the banks of the river to Foz de Douro will give you an entirely different perspective on Porto.  The trams run every half hour and the ride is a delight.  The river gradually widens until it meets the sea and you dismount by the lighthouse.  You can stroll along Passeio Allegre until a bar beckons you in, and sit watching the waves crash to shore.  If you can tear yourself away, the promenade continues past the Castelo do Queijo (Cheese Fort!) and Sealife Centre, to the City Gardens and swimming pool.

A single trip costs 2.50 euros, or you can purchase a day ticket which also gives you access to the Tram Museum, midway along the river bank.

Is this pigeon faster than a Segway?

Is this pigeon faster than a Segway

6.  Splash out on a Segway.   If you’re feeling a bit adventurous, or have some spare cash, a Segway Tour is a pretty cool way of seeing Porto.  Bluedragon City Tours operate a safe and fun way of seeing Porto for around 40 euros.  They even have a sunset tour I wouldn’t mind trying myself.  Be sure to come to a standstill before admiring those views, or you could upend an innocent bystander.

Magnificent barcos rabelos- wooden boats for carrying port, or nowadays passengers

7.  Take a river cruise.  I’m saving the best till last- irresistible views of Porto from the river itself.  As you descend to the Cais da Ribeira, the quayside, you will be hailed by a number of boat operators.  10 euros will buy you a trip on the Douro, passing beneath the bridges and out into the river mouth.  Porto in all its splendour rises above you.  The boats vary in style, but my favourite is the barco rabelo, the grand old wooden boat once used to transport barrels of wine down the untamed Douro.  The port matures in oak casks in the Caves.  Some operators include a visit to a wine cellar in the price, or you can extend the evening with a tasting followed by a Fado Show. (Portugal’s traditional music)

There are many luxury hotels in Porto, but you can also find good value.  I stayed cheaply and centrally at B & B’s Porto Centro, in Praca de Batalha.  If you’ve come for the nightlife and don’t mind a bit of noise, Vivacity Porto, in Praca Guilherme Gomes Fernandes, has cheap but beautifully presented rooms.  Breakfast really isn’t necessary as there are so many delicious pastry options around.

Madeira, pearl of the Atlantic

 

View from the castle, Funchal

 

Madeira is affectionately known as the “pearl of the Atlantic”, but she is without doubt a black pearl.  This volcanic island rises steeply out of the Atlantic to its highest peak, Pico Ruivo, at a staggering 1862 metres above sea level.  The beaches are grainy black sand or pebbles, except in Calheta, where golden sand has been imported.  But it is the fertile lava-enriched soil coupled with a mild Mediterranean climate that makes Madeira the beauty she is.  Flowers bloom everywhere and in April, when the Flower Festival takes to the streets, the island capital Funchal is awash with colour.

Madeira is isolated from North Africa by 520 km and 400 km from its nearest neighbour Tenerife- that’s a long swim!  Just 57 km from end to end and 22 km wide, it’s an easy island to explore, though many never venture beyond the capital.  Year round the cruise ships dock in the deep harbour, and it’s a form of entertainment in itself just watching their comings and goings.  Standing in the harbour you look up, and up again, following the line of the cable car as it winds its way up to Monte and the famed botanic gardens.

Originally conceived to transport people and goods across difficult terrain, today the cable cars are a highly efficient means of scaling the heights and providing tourists with awe inspiring views.  They run daily (except Christmas Day) from Almirante Reis on the front in the old part of the city, between 9.30 and 17.45.  The less adventurous can catch a bus just around the corner.

Don’t miss Monte Palace Gardens.  I had heard only of the botanic gardens and was unprepared for the splendour of this former Consul’s home.  Ponds, waterfalls and chinoiserie give drama to the grounds, while blue and white azulejo tiled panels remind you that this is a Portuguese island.  Koi carps add a flash of colour and there is a museum with gems and sculptures by the northern entrance.

Monte Palace Gardens

Azulejo panels in the gardens

 

Japanese garden at Monte Palace Gardens

 

Of course you’ll want to see the Botanic Gardens, the views down over the city as dramatic as the tapestries of flowers.  The highlight for many is the “toboggan” ride back down from Monte.  You queue a litttle anxiously- will it be scarey?  The “carreiros” chat in their ribboned hats, waiting for the next passengers.  Don’t forget to smile for the camera shot on the way down!  It’ll be over before you know it.  And then you can wander back down through the streets of Funchal, admiring stately and picturesque buildings as you go.

Botanic Gardens

Avenida Arriaga is the main street for strolling, just back from the harbour and lined with glorious jacaranda trees.  The Tourist Information office is here and you come naturally to the Cathedral and the winding streets leading upwards.  Santa Clara Convento is remarkable for its azulejos or you may prefer the imposing Jesuit Igreja do Collegio, on the main square, with its gilded altarpieces dating from 1647.  The old town is full of character and the smell of sizzling espetadas (meat or fish grilled on skewers) drifts from the many restaurants.  Plaintive Fado, traditional Portuguese music, can sometimes be heard.

You have several choices when it comes to sampling madeiran wine.  The Adegas de Sao Francisco is a museum dedicated to the 4 types of madeira- Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malvasia, in a former convent complex.  You may fancy a tour of the famous Old Blandy Wine Lodge, just off Avenida Arriaga.  Or you could take the Funchal winewalk, a self guided walk through the history of wine making on the island.  It takes 90 minutes of walking, plus stops for tasting, buying, etc.  It has the added advantage of starting from the Mercado dos Lavradores, the colourful covered market full of sights and smells.

Mercado dos Lavradores

Mercado dos Lavradores

While you’ve got your walking shoes on, it’s a good time to mention that Funchal has some of the best easy walking on the island.  You will probably be staying out in the hotel district, possibly in the Regency Cliff or Monumental Lido hotel.  A promenade runs the full length of the front from the Lido complex and it’s a lovely stroll into the town, with glorious views out to sea, and places to sit and simply admire.  Keener walkers might want to walk in the other direction, out of town on the Praia Formosa coastal walk.

Of course, many people come to Madeira purely to walk the levadas- the unique network of walks which started life as a means of irrigating this steep and difficult to cultivate island.  A levada is a mini-canal with a footpath alongside (pretty narrow in places) and the walks take you through some of Madeiras most spectacular scenery.  They are graded according to level of difficulty so almost anyone with a love of the outdoors could undertake one.

I wouldn’t really suggest that anybody drive around the island.  The roads are a challenge best left to the coach drivers who spend their lives negotiating them.  For pure value for money I can recommend Strawberry Worlds, whose office is located next door to Monumental Lido.  I have taken both their East and West of the Island tours and had a thoroughly enjoyable day out both times, even though I was “lucky” enough to encounter snow on the peaks.  I will never forget the sight of Porto Moniz and the sheer drops to the sea along the north coast of the island.  Nor the triangular thatched houses at Santana and the wild and beautiful rock formations at Ponta de Sao Lourenco.

Porto Moniz

North coast from Porto Moniz

Ponta da Sao Lourenco

I have to say that Madeira is a very cultured pearl indeed, and that I would love to go back someday- maybe for the spectacular New Years Eve firework display that sees in the New Year in style.  The northern end of the Canary Island of Tenerife is similar in certain respects.  You might like to take a look http://www.travelwkly.com/2011/12/top-spots-to-see-in-tenerife/

Summer in the romantic Alentejo

If you like heat and wide open spaces then Portugal’s Alentejo might just be for you. Cork and olive trees, wheat and vines: all were introduced to these parts by the Romans. Ancient megaliths, menhirs and dolmens dating from 3,000BC dot the countryside.  Fiercely hot in the summer, in spring and autumn it’s a pleasure to climb the winding streets of its medieval towns and villages, and sample some of its excellent red wines.

Praca do Giraldo, Evora

The walled city of Evora lies at the heart of the Alentejo and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s about 2 and a half hours drive from Lisbon, through rolling countryside.  Parking is free in the large open space outside the town walls.  Once through the gate, follow Rua Serpa Pinto inwards to the main square, Praca do Giraldo.  This is where the beauty of the place first hits you.  Moorish arcades line two sides of the square and within them smart boutiques rub shoulders with traditional Portuguese stores.  Pick up a map at the Tourist Information office in the square and follow the signs for the Roman Temple, dramatic ruins dating from the 2nd century.  The temple is believed to have been built for the worship of the goddess Diana.

Temple of Diana and Cathedral, Evora

Sweeping views look down over the town and across the plains.  The Quiosque Jardim Diana is a good place to rest your feet and gaze at the ruins and the asymmetric towers of the cathedral beyond.  If the weather isn’t cooperating, or you have a bit more cash in your pocket, you could have coffee at the pousada, the Convento dos Loios.  A former monastery, it has been elegantly converted into a state owned hotel.  The adjoining chapel, Sao Joao Evangelista, doesn’t look very inviting but inside are stunning floor-to-ceiling azulejos (traditional wall tiles).  By comparison the cathedral seems rather dull apart from the cloisters, but you won’t be disappointed in the University buildings.  The classroom entrances are decorated with azulejos representing the subjects taught there.  What a place to study!

Evora by night

By night Evora takes on a magical quality. The temple and cathedral are spectacularly floodlit and the whole area radiates light.  If you are using Evora as a base you can enjoy wandering in the narrow streets, finding the Agua de Prato (silver water) Aqueduct and the artisan workshops beneath the city walls.  In the last week of June, the Feira de Sao Joao takes place, with folk dancing and singing and hearty Alentejan cuisine.

View from Elvas fortified walls

For an aqueduct on the grand scale you should head on along the N4 towards the Spanish border town of Elvas.  The Amoreira Aquaduct took nearly 200 years to complete.  A staggering height, with 843 arches and up to five tiers it still delivers water across the valley to the fountain in Largo da Misericordia.  Elvas was a Moorish stronghold for 500 years and has some of the best preserved fortifications in Europe.

Pelhourinho in Elvas

A steady climb up through the town brings you to the castle and the impressive ramparts with their endless views.  In Largo do Pelourinho the battered white walls of Nossa Senora dos Aflitos disguise a church whose interior is small but achingly lovely.  Marble columns and azulejos reach high into the cupola.  Behind the church and through an Arab archway the ornate pelourinho (pillory) is a reminder of less happy times.  Elvas is also known for its delicious preserved plums – the original sugar plums after which the Nutcracker Fairy was named.

It’s necessary to return along the N4 and through the marble town, Borba, to my next destination, Vila Vicosa.  Huge stacks of marble in it’s raw state fill the quarries along this route.  When you arrive in Vila Vicosa you can see that it’s been put to good purpose.  The Ducal Palace was the favourite and last residence of the Dukes of Braganca, rulers of Portugal for 270 years. The main façade of the palace is completely covered with local marble and fronts an enormous marble-tiled square. Centre stage sits the 8th Duke, King Joao IV, on horseback. On becoming king in 1640 he was reluctant to leave his country estate to take up the throne in Lisbon.  You can see why -Vila Vicosa with its “white gold” is a quietly charming place.

 

Dom Joao 1v, duke of Braganca, Vila Vicosa

 

The Convento das Chagas sits discreetly in the corner of the palace square.  With unexpected niches and decorative murals, this former convent is another perfectly placed pousada.  It’s a short walk from here to the castle where the Bragancas lived until their palace was complete. Extraordinary that these castle walls once contained the whole of the town.  The Porta do No with its carved knot symbol of the Bragancas was the original entrance gate.  The cemetery is especially beautiful, crammed full of marble tombs and carved religious statuary.

River Guadiana at Monsaraz

Monsaraz next -a tiny hilltop fortress and an unmissable sight.  Just two narrow cobbled streets, secure behind its walls, Monsaraz feels like it sits at the top of the world.  Climbing up to the castle and keep, the views are glorious out over the River Guadiana and the vast waters created by the Alqueva Dam.  In such a tiny community there is just space for two lovely churches. In September the spectacle of the bullfight comes to the courtyard below the keep, and the sky explodes with fireworks.

Estalagem de Monsaraz is a tiny hotel, but the poolside views are glorious.

Just south of Monsaraz you can cross the river over the bridge to Mourao, with spectacular views, and back across the Alqueva Dam.  Cruise boats operate on the dam, bliss in a hot summer.  The route heads back to Evora via Portel, or you could step back in time in Serpa, a delightfully sleepy walled town.  Nearby larger Beja contains the 15th century Convento de Conceicao, source of more fabulous azulejos, a gilded Baroque chapel and the regional museum. (all closed Mondays)

So many choices, but if you enjoy wine, a visit to one of the many local vineyards is a must.  A heady way to put romance into the Alentejo!

 

Who can resist the Algarve sunshine?

With more than 300 days of sunshine per year, the Algarve in Portugal is one of Europe’s top beach destinations.  The golden sands, tinged with the red of the cliffs in the Central and Western Algarve, wrap all around Portugal’s southern coast.  As you fly into Faro airport the sea sparkles below you and the offshore islands of the Ria Formosa invite closer inspection.

 

Vilamoura marina

 

There’s something for everyone here.  Busy resorts like Albufeira and Vilamoura are for those who like a lively time, with plenty of bars and restaurants.  The marina at Vilamoura is enormous and filled to the brim with gleaming yachts.  It’s a great place to grab an icecream or a glass of wine and indulge in a little people-watching.  Who knows which of those yachts might have a celebrity owner?

 

Town walls, Lagos

 

Further west, Lagos has a good mix of old and new, including city walls that date from 16th century.  Many of the houses are covered in the distinctive tiles that are a common feature of Portugal.  Prince Henry the Navigator based many of his journeys of discovery in Lagos and there is a replica of the caravel, Boa Esperanca (Good Hope), in the marina.  It was also the base for the slave trade, and the oldest slave market in Europe was founded here in 1444.  Prince Henry received one fifth of the selling price of every slave, helping to pay for his voyages.  Notable churches are the Igreja de Santo Antonio, with its gilded wooden carvings and 18th century blue and white azulejo tiled pictures, and Igreja de Santa Maria.

Dona Ana beach, Lagos

Far out at the western tip, Sagres has the remains of a 17th century fort and a giant wind compass marked out on the ground.  It’s mostly breezy here, particularly at the lighthouse at Cabo St. Vincente which marks Europe’s most south westerly point.  The surrounding beaches are flawless and cooler in Summer.

Many local festivals take place in the Algarve, particularly in the Summer months, and are a great source of free entertainment.  “Carnaval”, to signify Lent, is widely celebrated with processions.  The best known is in Loule, a traditional town not far from Faro airport.

Faro itself has an interesting old town, with narrow cobbled streets and artisans at work.  Climb the clocktower of the cathedral for beautiful views out to the islands.  Boat tours run from the far end of the marina out to several of these- a great day out with a fine beach to enjoy.

Faro old town and marina

Going east, the fishing port of Tavira is a lovely town, with many restaurants and cafes along the tree-lined riverside, and tucked more cheaply into the back streets.  The remains of the castle has a shaded garden and views over the pretty tiled roofs and out to the salt marshes, teaming with fish and birds.  A ferry from the quayside will take you across to the island, where 7kms of sparkling sand await.  One of my favourite ways to end an Algarve day is sitting outside Cafe Anazu with a glass of fine port, looking across the river at the churches and water tower as dusk descends.

Tavira at dusk

Where to stay?

Depends on your budget.  In Tavira, Hotel Porta Nova is a very reasonable and central choice.  If you favour the luxury end of the market, the pousada, Convento da Graca, will not disappoint.  In Lagos, Casa Paula is a great base for a good price, with lovely rooftop views.  There are numerous high-end options too.

Lisbon, Portugal – charm is everywhere

The coastal city of Lisbon is one of the world’s oldest cities. This fact draws many travelers to this beautiful Capital City of Portugal, with its unique and charming atmosphere.   It is not unusual for temperatures in Lisbon to be close to 20°c (68°f) in the middle of winter, and this agreeable climate rightly incites people from around the globe to come and delight themselves in Lisbon Portugal Holidays.

Tourism is a very important part of life in Lisbon and sight-seeing tours are abundant. Two of the most renowned sights are listed as World’s Heritage Sites by UNESCO. They are the Tower of St. Vincent, a fortified tower built directly on the beach in the form of a small castle, and the Jéronimos Monastery, where the unusual Portuguese Manueline construction style is appreciated by all.  Not only does the splendid architecture in these two memorable monuments captivate tourists, but onlookers often find themselves left in awe in front of these large and ominous structures.

The city is also famous for its Vasco da Gama Bridge which is 12km long, making it the longest bridge in all of Europe. There are also interesting shopping walks available, mainly in the Chiado area of Lisbon, where a mixture of modern and old-time shops are located and anything from books, garments, and even pottery can be bought.

Several methods of transportation are available in the city such as funicular railways and the traditional tram tour. Car rental in Lisbon Portugal offers the possibility of visiting the different beaches in the area, as well as smaller towns nearby, which each possess interesting spots you don’t want to miss.

Lisbon airport is easily accessible from the city and arrival and departure flights from around the world are readily available.  Many travelers book flights for Portugal during the summer vacation period, making the city very busy throughout this period. Lisbon cheap flights can be acquired with more ease during October or November, and in Portugal, these months are still comfortably warm for perfect vacations… Cheap Flights from London to Lisbon can be found during this period for about £63 ($101).

Hotels in Lisbon Portugal offer enjoyable conditions for business and vacation stays alike. Affordable hotels can be found in beach towns close to Lisbon.  One such hotel is the Amadora Hotel where lodgings are situated 15km from the center of the city, with easy accessibility using public transportation. Rates start at £26 ($41). Luxurious hotels are also obtainable which offer excellent possibilities for a very agreeable stay. The Four Seasons Hotel Ritz has long been considered to be among the finest five-star hotels in Lisbon and it is situated in a very attractive setting, with rates starting at £345 ($556).

Words which best describe Lisbon, Portugal, are charming and fascinating — a truly eventful city which combines a unique atmosphere of by-gone times found in the ancient Portuguese-style buildings with a lively, friendly people of today. The beaches are also exceptional, making every stay in Lisbon a chance to fulfill many outstanding dreams.