Category Archives: Portugal

Week 4 – Porto, Coimbra and back to Spain

This week we spent a few days in beautiful Porto while waiting for the new van part to arrive, travelled south to Portugal’s leading university city Coimbra and just when we’d finally worked out our ‘obrigados’  from our ‘obgrigadas’ *  we have crossed the border back to Spain.

And the highlights of week 4:

Exploring Porto and the Douro Valley:

The 80 mile drive down into Porto was challenging, following narrow, steep roads with frequent switchback turns round the vine-covered hillsides which overlook the Douro river.

We travelled past acres and acres of terraced vineyards which seemed to cover every slope on the hillsides, like these:


Views over the Douro Valley snapped en route


…and we finally arrived into Porto. It was dull and misty when we got there so it was very hard to capture on camera just how beautiful the city looked.

Grey mist hanging over Porto

Over two days, we tramped up and down the hills and through the atmospheric back streets of this gorgeous city where slum homes are crammed in topsy turvy fashion against elegant mansions and designer shops and the number of decaying and derelict buildings was truly startling.

These sharp contrasts have been a striking feature of our experience in Portugal so, for example, we had wifi on the bus from our campsite to Porto where the signal was so strong, we could download country maps quicker than our home wifi. But soon after,  we could see people seemingly living in conditions of real poverty and it was like stepping back 100 years.

A kitchen break in Porto
A kitchen break from one of the many restaurants in Porto’s Ribeira district


Cat nap in Porto
Cat nap in Porto


Porto university students – in their standard outfits of black suits with capes

Up near Porto University, where these young students gathered, we had another glimpse of the mix of traditional and modern Portugal.  The group in red in the background were doling out ‘free hugs’ – a freshers week event probably and we willingly obliged.

The others, clustered in their black capes and suits, cut very formal figures. First we thought it was for a special occasion, a graduation ceremony perhaps. No, it turns out these black suits and capes (called traje) are frequently worn by the students at Porto and also at Coimbra university where the tradition originated. And if they somehow look familiar – think Harry Potter. Apparently JK Rowling who worked as an English teacher in Porto for a few years was influenced by their outfits for the Hogwarts uniform,

Do please excuse the quality of the photo above which was taken from a distance by mobile phone and then cropped. It is clearly not up to the standard of our resident photographer. This is because Stuart resolutely refused to take a photo of the young female students as requested on the grounds it may have led to him spending the afternoon having an interesting discussion in the local El Nick trying to explain himself.

Learning about Port production in the Douro valley:

There aren’t many ‘must sees’ on our wish list for this trip but going to one of the port houses in Porto was always one of them. I guess because the story behind port production in the Douro valley has so many elements. Apart from the practical stuff like how it’s made, there is the romance and adventure in the stories of those English merchants from the 1600’s making their way over to the Douro valley to secure wine supplies for their home market.


Then there are the standout characters you want to know more about. Like, for example, John James Forrester, a Yorkshire man, who in the 1800’s became a leading light in the development of the port wine production as well as being a noted cartographer of the Douro river.

There are about 60 or so port lodges in the Vila Nova de Gaia area of Porto. All are open to visitors but how do you choose which one to tour? The Sandeman port house was right on the river front near the town centre and looked like a massive, slick tourist attraction. We thought something more olde worldly would offer a more authentic experience and headed to Taylor’s where we followed a self-guided tour through the cave where the vats and casks of port are stored, finishing up with a tasting session.

Chilled white for me, late bottled vintage for Stuart


The archive film shown during the tour which showed how the port was transported down the Douro before dams were constructed and it was still a wild and dangerous river was awe inspiring.  Special flat bottom boats had to be constructed to navigate the waters which ironically ultimately did for JJ Forrester mentioned above. He drowned in the Douro when his boat was hit by rapids.

Anyway, have a look at this archive film I found on You Tube and you get the idea. Skip to the middle to see the rapids – it’s like white water rafting.


And not quite the highlight – what can we say about Portuguese food?

We saw a queue for this place and like pre-Glasnost Muscovites joined it…


…it was for the Cafe Majestic,  a popular eaterie for the Porto bohemian set since the 1920’s and this week our destination for dinner. And now that we are here, is this a good time to raise the sensitive subject of food in Portugal?

The food critic Giles Coren created a social media ruckus a while back when he dubbed Portuguese food as ‘the worst in the world’. Well, we are not quite saying that but let’s say we haven’t struck lucky so far.

Ok so there’s bacalhau a plenty but really, there is only so much salted cod a person can eat. It’s everywhere you look. Here it is on sale when we were at Barcelos market…


It’s also on sale in every shop and supermarket and on every menu. But it was surprising – though maybe it should have been obvious given depleted fish stocks – that this Portuguese national dish is not home grown but is actually imported from Norway.

After that, the only other option offered in the restaurants we’ve been to was frango (chicken) with rice and chips- but in all cases the chicken’s breast appeared to have been served to someone else so all that we got were the legs and thighs with a teeny bit of flesh on them. Fair enough we were generally in very small towns where the choice of restaurants was limited and maybe we just didn’t do enough research to find the right places to eat. Anyway, back to the Cafe Majestic, we ordered pasta.

Portugal’s Cambridge – a visit to Coimbra

In the film ‘A Room with a View’, there’s a joke told about the American father on the European Grand Tour who is asked by his daughter what they saw in Rome. He answers something on the lines – “I guess that was where we saw the yellow dog”.

There’s a risk that my memory of the medieval university city of Coimbra – ancient seat of learning in Portugal for  some 500 years – will be on the lines ‘oh that’s where I managed to order a cheese and ham toasted sandwich for breakfast for the third time’.

Sadly, due entirely to my failure to communicate effectively my order for toast and jam has always resulted in a cheese and ham toastie. I thought I’d cracked it in Coimbra with the aid of the guide book language glossary together with vigorous nods to convey I most definitely did not want ham or, indeed, any cheese with my toast – many thanks obrigada (*thank you when addressing a woman). No joy.  It’s porridge from now on.

And aside from the trivia of my breakfast, what of Coimbra? It was magical at night…




And more gritty by day, especially up by the student accommodation where the political graffiti was everywhere.



Coimbra was also where we had the opportunity to listen to fado music and despite guide book warnings which made it sound like  this mournful music was to be endured rather than enjoyed, it was a good evening’s entertainment, especially the guitar accompaniment. Think of Radio 2 crossed with the Ukranian Eurovision entry with a blast of Christy Moore.


Back to Spain

And so we have left Portugal – possibly to return again – and crossed the border back to Spain. Our first destination was the beautiful border town of Ciudad Rodrigo. Here is yet another photo of picturesque Spanish town artistically shot through tunnel..(bear with us – there are lots more of these to come).
Scenic Spanish town photo no. 407 – this time it’s Ciudad Rodrigo
The view from Ciudad Rodrigo’s city walls


And the photo above was another view – oh look we thought an overgrown bullring. They must have stopped all bull fighting, possibly due to an EU directive. Actually no, a 20-year old American tourist was gored and severely injured by a bull at a festival in Ciudad Rodrigo only last year. So not quite over the sport as yet.

And from Ciudad Rodrigo we headed north where the hills of the Douro valley are far behind us and now all we have around us are the flat plains of the Meseta. What a relief for our van.







And finally, an update on the van trouble:

We had diagnosed that the problem was that the radiator fan wasn’t coming on when it should hence the regular episodes of boiling over.

We ordered a new switch from JK Kampers.  So there it is below, newly installed by Stuart and the offending one sitting on the bumper.

At the same time to help with steep climbs in the future,  we dropped some weight i.e. only had half a tank of diesel, half a tank of fresh water and dumped the bag of BBQ coal.

And the verdict? The jury is out on whether the new switch has actually sorted the problem because we’ve yet to hear the fan actually switch on.. We have been adopting a more cautious driving strategy which has also helped i.e. only driving at 25 miles an hour in 3rd. gear and 35 MPH in fourth, rather than forcing the engine. Fingers crossed!


Week 3 – From Galicia across the border to Portugal

This week as we travelled through Leon into the province of Galicia in rainy Spain, we dared to ‘aire’ it for the first time and we recovered our lost hour of GMT when we crossed the border into Portugal.

And, oh yes, we had some more van trouble. Apart from reversing into a careless tree thus splitting the bumper in two, the boiling radiator saga continued but we’ve now ordered the magic bullet to fix it and it is currently winging its way from JK Kampers in Hampshire to a campsite near us in Porto. But that’s a story for another week.

And the highlights for us this week were:

We dared to Aire:

For us relative newbies to the world of campervanning, staying at an Aire overnight and away from the safety of a campsite was a daunting prospect. Aires are designated areas in Spain and Portugal where motorhomes and campervans – not tents – can park overnight for free or for a nominal fee. There are usually no or few facilities and they – in our limited experience so far – are in quite unlovely parts of very small towns which would not be on the typical tourist trail.

And so here we are in the aire at the Spanish town of Ponferrada beside a hostel for camino walkers.

Parked up and ready for an overnight in the aire in Ponferrada- dwarfed by the big white motorhomes



And here we are parked at the Aire in Amoeiro – basically it was the kerb beside the village green. Having studied the owners of our neighbouring van from a judicious distance, we reckon it’s a mobile meth factory.

Our theory was confirmed the following morning. We spent the night parked behind it but at 7 am they started their engine and kept it roaring and running for ages and ages (no doubt cooking a new batch), spewing fumes from their exhaust straight into our van. We couldn’t get their attention – they were probably busy with a big order – so had no choice but to pull off the front screen night blind from our van and re-park upwind.

We saw some more dramatic landscape in Spain like:

Las Medulas – we walked up the steep hill past lines of sweet chestnut trees…


…to view this dramatic landscape which is, in fact, manmade.  Back in the day, the Romans blasted these hillsides asunder  with powerful jets of water when strip mining for gold, leaving this red earth still exposed many moons later.

There was gold in them thar hills – the  strange red peaks of Las Medulas – ravaged by the Romans


The marks of strip mining for gold on the hills

We enjoyed a few treats in Galicia like:

  • a hot spa in Ourense – this was fabulous. Just outside this town on the Minho river, there are natural hot springs where the water bubbles out of the ground at 70 degrees celsius. There a few places you can go to enjoy the thermal springs for free. But we went for the extravagant option and paid 5 euro each to spend the afternoon at a riverside spa where you work your way through 13 different hot pools and waterfalls in a zen-like state.
  • despite visiting Vigo when virtually everywhere was shut in honour of Our Lady of the Pillar or Hispanic Day (memo to selves – do check for national public holidays before visiting a country), this street of restaurants was open so we enjoyed oysters and octopus…
6 oysters for 10 euro in Vigo
6 oysters for 10 euro in Vigo


Washed down with vinho verde
Washed down with vinho verde, these oysters were deliciously firm and very unlike the, um, snot-textured variety previously tasted at home


Plateful of octopus
Plus a plateful of octopus – truth be told this looked prettier than it actually tasted.


whitebait and pimentos patron
and finally some whitebait and pimentos padron to finish.

…all to the tune of ‘Strangers in the Night’.

Being serenaded in Vigo
‘thankyouverymuchladeezngenelmen…and for my next number’  – being serenaded in Vigo

A new country – crossing the border to Portugal

Spain to Portugal - borderless (don't mention Brexit)
Spain to Portugal – borderless (don’t mention Brexit)

Crossing the border from Spain to Portugal is remarkably uneventful. One minute you are in Spain and – zoom – 60 minutes earlier you are in Portugal.  Time to put your watch back. Portugal is an hour behind Spain which seemed most odd given how geographically close they are. At the same time, it was good to reclaim the hour of our year away we’d lost leaving GMT.

And now in the second country of our big trip, our first  stop was at the small town of Barcelos where every Thursday there is a massive market, selling everything from chickens…


Funny but I’ve just gone right off Nando’s

…to roasted chestnuts.


Next stop was  the Parc Natural da Peneda- Geres where we wandered through the tiny hillside village of Lindoso (pop. about 500) and…

The narrow vine covered streets of Lindoso, one of the villages in the Penedes Geres national park

…and we enjoyed a chat with Nuno who runs the interpretation centre there. He explained these intriguing constructions we had seen around the village….



…no, it’s not a cemetery. These are espiguerios are stores for maize. They are on stilts to keep the rats out.


The gaps between the slats of wood allows air to dry the corn.

Of the 60 or so of these stores in Lindoso, only about 15 are still in use for storing maize. Each one is owned by a different family or, as he explained it, in most cases ownership is split between members of a family. Where, as is typical, the family has been dispersed around the world by emigration, that presented a particular challenge when the owners’  consent was needed to move a few of the stores  to make room for the visitor centre. ‘We had one case where the store itself was owned by 7 brothers and the land beneath it owned by another sibling..trying to get signatures from all of them to agree to the move was very, very difficult.”

And more van trouble leads to an overnight in a hotel…

On the motorway from Barcelos, our van’s radiator boiled over – again. It was raining heavily and getting dark. Here we go again. I felt like this.

One of the fountains at Bom Jesus near Braga - the resemblance was uncanny
One of the fountains at Bom Jesus near Braga – the resemblance was uncanny

We waited on the hard shoulder for the radiator to cool down.  Stuart donned his high vis jacket and kept watch at the back of the van to ensure other motorists  didn’t plough into us. I did my bit from the passenger seat – calling out the occasional word of encouragement whilst working through a packet of salt and vinegar crisps (large) and light holiday reading (Valley of Dolls).

Finally, we were back on the road but the night and the mist had rolled in like so…


There was no aire apparent and no campsites around and no other choice  for accommodation in manageable driving distance except a 4* hotel in the middle of a national park – tough eh? Thankfully as it had just opened, the rate was 70 euro for a room with breakfast so the damage to our daily budget wasn’t too severe. Also we justified it to ourselves by applying the formula – two nights in a car park for free = one night in hotel.

And so it was that we found ourselves later that night, much relieved to have found a bed,  and in the hotel restaurant ordering wine. We’ll have rose for a change, what have you got that’s local, we asked the very keen young waiter.

He returned and presented with a flourish his top choice – it was Mateus Rose. Yes, Mateus Rose – there it was the distinctively flask shaped bottle you last saw in your mother’s house with a lampshade stuck in the top. Good grief we thought – what would he have brought if we’d ordered white wine? Blue Nun or Black Tower?

Well, it seems we are just not savvy enough about current wine trends to know that Mateus Rose has moved on from the  1970’s when it was sweet and sickly and served alongside platters of cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks.  Our waiter was determined to put us right – this was one of Portugal’s best wines and as for a local connection, why just look at the picture on the front of the bottle, that’s the beautiful Palacio at Vila Real which is just down the road.

And so he won us over that night anyway. Mateus Rose was light and slightly fizzy and most drinkable. Of course, maybe it was like those holiday drinks – wonderful when you are away but don’t quite travel well home. Like that bottle of ouzo that sits in your cupboard untouched till you finally donate it to the school tombola.

Continuing the theme next day, we decided to make a detour and visit the Palacia Mateus which is actually in the village of Mateus.

The Casa de Mateus, near Vila Real in Portugal – recognise it from the wine bottle label?

Case de Mateus is an elaborately ornamented baroque house with striking French-style parterre gardens complete with tunnels of cypress trees.

We took a tour of the house along with two Dutch couples who were impatient to get to the wine tasting bit. So when do we get to try the Mateus Rose, one asked our guide. ‘But we don’t make that wine here’ he explained patiently. It seems the winemaker used the picture of the Palacio Mateus on the bottle but that’s all they have in common. ‘That’s industrial wine – we make our own artisan wine here’, he added a bit sniffily.

Our fellow tourists were aghast. “What? Nothing to do with  Mateus Rose – but that’s the only reason we came. Can we have our money back?”

We think she was joking.

And for a photo finish, some more scenes from our travels this week:

The Romans are some boys – this is part of the road which once led from the Peneda-Geres national park (as is today) to Astorga in Spain. We walked some of it.


One of the milestones still left on the Roman Road


Still on the Roman Road


Strawberry tree in Peneda-Geres national park
Penedes Geres National Park in Portugal
Approaching Penede-Geres national park as the sunset hit the mountain


The scallop shell symbol to mark the Camino pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela - you see them everywhere (on the route that is)
The scallop shell symbol to mark the Camino pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela – you see them everywhere (on the route that is)


The very ornate steps at Bom Jesus, just outside Braga. The pic was taken in the nano second when it wasn’t swarming with tourists – and this was October. The summer must be unbearable.


Quite macabre sculpture in the pool in the reflecting pool in front of Casa de Mateus
Quite macabre sculpture in the reflecting pool in front of Casa de Mateus
Poignant sculptures at Vigo station to reflect the high emigration from Galicia
Poignant sculptures at Vigo station to reflect the high emigration from Galicia
Leaving Vigo
Leaving Vigo

And finally the weather…

We’ve had a lot of rain this week but (van geek alert here) it has given us a reason to try out our new awning. And very cosy it is too.

Our Fiamma awning in action
Our Fiamma awning in action