Custom and package tours in France, Spain and Portugal--art, architecture, heritage, culture, gardens, castles, wine, cuisine--plus river and canal cruise vacations
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Moorish Castle: Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal

Monastery Cloister, Batalha, Portugal

Fatima, Portugal

Fish Merchant, Coimbra, Portugal

Via Sacra, Bom Jesus, Portugal

Fountain, Bom Jesus, Portugal

Azulejos, Catheral of Porto, Portugal

Douro River Valley, Portugal


NORTHERN PORTUGAL

History, architecture and port wine

A travel article by Carolyn Mainguené, Circa Tours

For such a relatively small country, Portugal offers a wide variety of scenery and sightseeing, from the majestic Douro River Valley in the north to the sunny beaches of the Algarve in the south. Recently I traveled from one end of the country to the other, one week by car and the second week by minibus with a group of fellow travel agents. I enjoyed the whole trip, but my favorite part of the country was northern Portugal.

After picking up my rental car in Lisbon, I took a short side trip to Sintra before heading north. Long the summer getaway of Portugal's royalty, Sintra offers the National Palace (still used for official receptions); the Pena Palace, a 19th-century extravaganza of Gothic towers, Moorish arches, and typically Portuguese tiled walls; and the Castle of the Moors. The 15th-century National Palace is very impressive with its painted ceilings, wall tiles from various periods, and enormous kitchen. Next, I took the shuttle bus up the hill to the Moorish Castle. Walking along the parapets of the half-ruined walls, I could imagine the Moors vainly trying to hold off the Christian forces in 1147.

By the time I reached the Pena Palace, it was pouring rain, but I could still appreciate the splendor of the pink and yellow towers - round and square, tall and squat - plus an intriguing carved stone half-human half-beast figure holding up an enclosed balcony.

After spending the night in Nazaré, a fishing village on the Atlantic coast, I visited the Gothic monasteries at Batalha and Alcobaça. Batalha is a remarkable example of the Manueline style of architecture, which is especially visible in the arcades of the Royal Cloister. This style, which was popular during the reign of Manuel I (1495-1521), marks the transition from Gothic to Renaissance in Portugal. It is characterized by carvings of nautical and plant themes, such as mariners' knots, anchors, acorns, corn cobs, and oak leaves.

Next on my itinerary was Fátima, a famous pilgrimage site. In 1917, three children saw visions of the Virgin Mary, who prophesied the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II, the rise of communism in Russia, and an attempt on the life of a Pope. It was truly remarkable to see the number of visitors from all over the world worshipping in the basilica and the chapel - some of them even making their way to the chapel on their knees.

From Fátima I made my way north to the fascinating Roman ruins at Conímbriga and then to the city of Coimbra, home of one of the oldest universities in Europe (founded in 1290). After touring the university with its magnificent Baroque library, I walked through the colorful indoor market, where the local people were buying everything from flowers to salt cod. I have to say that, although salt cod doesn't look very appetizing in the fishmonger's display, it is really quite tasty when it's prepared the right way. (The key is to soak it long enough to get rid of the salt before you cook it.)

Another famous monument is the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte, near Braga. The long flight of steps leading up to the church consists of the Stairway of the Five Senses followed by the Stairway of the Three Virtues. Carved out of gray granite and set off by whitewashed walls, this Via Sacra (Holy Way) represents the spiritual journey of believers who must overcome their bodily senses and practice the virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity in order to attain salvation. Each level has a fountain representing one of the senses or one of the virtues. For example, the fountain representing the sense of sight has a figure of a woman with water pouring from her eyes. After climbing down the stairs, I looked up and realized I was going to have to go back up to get to my car. I definitely did not overcome my senses because my legs complained for the next two days!

For the final part of my week in northern Portugal, I visited the city of Porto and the Douro River Valley. Situated at the mouth of the river, Porto is really two cities - Porto on the north bank and Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank. I was lucky to find a hotel on the south bank that was easy to get to by car. It was just across the street from a Metro stop and next door to El Corte Ingles, my favorite department store chain in Portugal and Spain.

Of course, Porto is the home of port wine. All the major brands are represented by wine cellars or "lodges" where you can taste various kinds of this specialty wine, which has formed a major basis of British-Portuguese trade and partnerships for over 300 years.

Porto has a number of buildings with good examples of azulejos. This word, which is thought to have come either from azul (blue) or from the Arabic for "a smooth piece of terracotta," is now used to refer both to tiles that are used to make large pictorial murals (usually blue and white) and to tiles with geometrical designs that are used to cover entire building facades. The murals in the São Bento Train Station and the cloister of the cathedral are quite detailed. Santo Ildefonso Church has blue and white azulejo murals covering all the outside walls.

One highlight of Porto is the São Francisco Church, which has more gold-covered carvings than I have ever seen in a single church. Nearby is the Ribeira, where you can sit at a sidewalk cafe and watch the boats on the river.

Speaking of boats, one goal of my trip was to visit two of the riverboats that cruise the Douro River. I didn't have time to actually take a cruise, but I did tour the boats and had dinner on one of them. The next two days, I drove along the river about halfway to Spain and back to check out some of the scheduled stops on the cruises. "Spectacular" hardly seems an adequate description of the scenery, which reminded me a lot of the Rhine River Valley in Germany. Olive groves and vineyards seemed to hang from the steep hillsides, often held in place by stone terraces built centuries ago.

On my last day, after getting lost for a while, I finally found the Convento de Alpendurada nestled in the hills. Even though it was getting late for lunch, I was able to eat in their restaurant, which has floor-to-ceiling picture windows looking down over the Douro Valley. What a wonderful way to end my stay in Northern Portugal!

More travel stories

Art & Architecture in Modern Spain | Le Canal du Midi
Rue Cler, Paris | Memories of France | Memories of Spain
The Way of St. James | Paris Parks & Gardens | Northern Portugal

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