LAGOS - ILA NOVA DE MILFONTES - COIMBRA - CONIMBRIGA - AVEIRO - PORTO - REGIO
Text and Photos: Tony Steurer
Tony is an ultra-experienced traveller who has been to over 110 countries. Having lived in Kuala Lumpur for many years, he is currently based in Munich.
Arriving in Lisbon in early April 2019 on Ryanair. Weather cool and windy with light rain showers for the days ahead. Hotels can be pricey and somewhat old-fashioned, but there are plenty of Airbnb’s, so I reserved a nice apartment near Rato station. Metro tickets cost 1.50 EUR per ride or 1.33 EUR with a rechargeable ticket. Long queues at the ticket machines at the airport.
Because of the rain I resort to self-catering: A kilo of tiger prawns in the supermarket is 9-11 EUR, big choice of mostly local wines. In the city centre and in the Old Town (Alfama) hardly any changes since my last visit in 2007. Steep and narrow alleys, some with lots of wild graffiti. The new extended cruise terminal can handle 4 cruise liners at any given moment.
Santa Justa Elevator, Lisbon
The queue at Torre de Belem demands patience, one hour wait. Low cost airlines arrive at a frequency of one every ten minutes. I saw two ocean liners cruise the Tejo estuary.
In Baixa Alto a large bar-cum-restaurant scene is firmly established, mostly catering to tourists. Not many locals left here, and money can be made by renting out apartments to visitors. Night time is noisy.
There are some historic elevators and short, very steep trams in the alleys around. The old trams are rumbling across the hills, mostly used for sightseeing. Architecture is characterised by the manuelistic, late Gothic style which originated here in the 16th century and named after the local architect Luigi Manini. Domestically manufactured shoes can be a bargain. Products made from cork like handbags, shoes, purses seem popular. Still a lot of traditional owner-run shops, not many chain stores. In the botanical garden some free running chickens.
Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, Belem/Lisbon
Coffee culture is deeply rooted. Taking a coffee standing (mostly a brew named Galão) and a custard tartlet (Pastais de Nata, about 1 EUR) is cheaper than sitting down. Everywhere in the country an espresso (Bica) costs about 0.50 and 1.50 EUR, depending on how touristy the place is.
After 4 days the weather slowly improves. The Expo area (Vasco da Gama metro) full of interesting modern architecture. Nearby the awesome Oriente station, designed by Santiago Calatrava.
Oriente Station, Lisbon
The locals appear fairly relaxed, always ready for a chat. Tourism has brought some visible wealth and higher real estate prices, depending on the area. The country doesn’t have much of a manufacturing industry, rather it is craft or trade and farming (vineyards, olives, cork, vegetables, fruits). Many smokers. Weed is consumed openly. Many drugs are legalised.
National Theatre, Lisbon
Local train to Sintra (UNESCO site): Colourful, decorated houses cascading down slopes. Tree ferns and palms. In the centre the Palacio Nacional de Sintra (entrance 10 EUR), whose construction began in 1261. Another striking example of the manuelistic style with added Moorish elements. Colourful, diverse interior rooms and ceilings, the kitchen with two huge chimneys.
Quinta do Regaleira (entrance 8 EUR) is a playful fairy-tale garden, planned by Manini and a Brazilian coffee baron. In the manor house stunning, enormous frescoes and venetian glass mosaics. In the garden the 30 m deep initiation well (with inner spiral staircase leading down) plus a grotto labyrinth, cave galleries, small lakes, and a park full of overgrown vegetation.The town has lots of crumbling but also exquisitely restored houses. At night, when the day trippers have gone, most windows stay dark. From my hotel room splendid views on the Moorish fort high up on the hill with the Atlantic looming in the distance.
Initiation Well, Quinto do Regaleira, Sintra
Local train through seemingly endless suburbia along the Atlantic to Cascais. Pleasant, well-tended place with wonderful old villas, a fort full of art galleries, chic modern hotels in historic walls, dreamy alleys in the old town and mundane areas along the beachfront. Nice walk along the beach promenade to neighbouring Estoril which appears more generic.Back in Lisbon to get a rental car. Driving in Lisbon is not a pleasure as road directions are often unclear; plenty of one-way streets, chaotic even with GPS. At the petrol station: petrol means ‘gasoline’; diesel means ‘gasoleo'. Strangely, they also sell another type of fuel called 'diesel' which is meant for agricultural machinery. I get told that many foreigners get into engine trouble because of this rather confusing assortment.
Driving out eastwards on no-toll-roads through extended vineyards into Alentejo province. Now sunny and dry, with temperatures still rather fresh in the evenings. Evora (UNESCO site), a wonderful town with narrow lanes; a roman temple in the middle, opposite the cathedral. Roman thermals, pleasant little squares, and churches like the famous bone chapel.
Further on to Monsaraz (another UNESCO site): Phantastic location on a mountain top, 360 degree views over plains, lakes, and nearby Andalucía. Car park in front of the village, walking only over wavy, ancient plaster stones. Just 3 parallel streets, whitewashed houses on both sides and a massive fort.Moura, another clean, small town, hardly visited. Interesting here is the fort and a small Moorish enclave full of flowers inside the old town.Next stop Serpa, again hardly any tourists in sight. Pleasant small town with big citadel. The entrance is through a cleaved tower, a result from the last earthquake. With complete old city walls and antique aqueduct gallery, this place is atmospheric and full of style.Drive through undulating countryside, with eucalyptus and pine alleys, lots of stork nests on telegraph poles. Once I counted 12 breeding couples in a row!Overnight in Mertola, picturesque in a bend of the Oeiras. Marvellous whitewashed old town on a hill, completely enclosed by the old walls of the citadel above. Life pretty much dies down after dark.
Curvy roads and covering some altitude before descending down to the Algarve. Around nondescript Faro seemingly unplanned development with houses and hotels but barely any high rises. The old town of Faro is surprisingly atmospheric around the Largo de Carmo.Western Algarve around Lagos gets more pristine. West of Sagres lies Cabo Sao Vicente with steep cliffs and heavy surf below. Overflowing carpark.The coastal road north is quiet and green, with lots of sharp turns. Vila Nova de Milfontes has a phantastic setting with many beaches, choices between wild breaking of waves and quiet ones. Large cork oak forests.Back in Lisbon I drop off the car. Visit the magnificent Calouste Gulbenkian museum with park.
Bus to Coimbra (about 2 hours, 14.50 EUR). The large university campus dominates the hill (UNESCO site since 2013), the old town hugs the steep slopes beneath.In the pedestrian zone I find Comur, a shop looking like a chapel, which sells only sardines in tins, in all imaginable variations, for instance buying a tin with individual birth years, going back all the way to 1916. Most expensive is a tin of boneless fillet for 22 EUR!An old cafe uses a former church with cross shaped vaults. Narrow 6-7 storey high houses line the streets and squares.The university complex encompasses the former King’s palace (10th century, starting in 1131 as residence, therefore the first Portuguese King’s palace) with halls and multi-coloured ceilings and the King’s chapel. Most impressive the organ from 1733 with 2000 pipes.
Joanina Bibliotheque, Coimbra
Highlight is the Joanina Bibliotheque from 1717, housing 60, 000 books predating the 18th century, in three mighty rooms with an abundance of ornamental ceiling paintings, golden wood, like the inside of a baroque church. Bats live within and keep moths at bay. In the basement are former prison cells for recalcitrant students. 12 EUR entrance fee.Nearby an antique viaduct and the botanical garden. The Science Museum (18th century) is the oldest in the country and still sits in its original building. Among the exhibits are complete skeletons of blue wales and hippos.
Day tour to Conimbriga: remains of a Roman small town; mosaic floors plus the remains of forum, thermal baths, and houses.Regional train to Aveiro (1 hour, 4.50 EUR). Modern city with a network of canals in the centre. Gondolas that remotely remind me of Venice plough the canals. A bit like Amsterdam or Murano as well. Very popular amongst domestic tourists.
On with regional train to Porto (1 hour, 4.25 EUR). The old town (UNESCO site) sits on steep slopes, framed by the narrow valley of river Douro. Lots of squares, large and small. The upward sloping Aliados square resembles the Wenceslas square in Prague with imposing historical architecture (town hall, luxury hotels, head offices). The number of (antiquarian) book shops is astonishing. Theatres and concert halls. Everywhere construction activities. Erecting the cranes in the narrow lanes appears challenging. Lots of the old houses stand empty, slowly crumbling. Even in the central shopping street some houses have a ground floor shop but are rotting upstairs!Tourist queue in front of Cafe Majestic, an old pompous hall of mirrors and gold.
Porto. Old Town
In front of Livraria Lello; an old bookshop with an amazing spiral staircase that provided inspiration for Harry Potter films. The queue is about 50 m, entrance fee/voucher is 5 EUR. Inside the crowds are neck and neck. Porto has a truly individual flair, bolstered by countless cafes, restaurants, bars. The bridges across the Douro are remarkable, the tourist area mixes port wine museums with bars.In the modern parts of town I find the Palacio da Musica, a cube full of concert halls. Nearby the amazing Cimiterio de Agrimonte, initiated in 1855, houses graves for poets, writers, artists, musicians…. Their mausoleums have pointed roofs, crosses, stone figures and all together they form a unique skyline. It’s part of the ’European road of cemeteries’ (no kidding) and still free of any tourists!
Cimiterio de Agrimonte, Porto
Regional train to Regia (2 hours, 9.90 EUR), along the Douro. The river (897 km from spring to mouth) slowly flows through a mostly deep and narrow valley. Plenty of terraced vineyards almost everywhere. Well known port names have their historic estates here, some turned into posh hotels.Travelling with a boat upriver, passing locks. Pretty, sleepy places. Back to Porto, then heading north with a public bus to the Spanish border (another story)
Ponte Dom Luis I, Porto