A visit to Portugal's heart

Gondolas, a gracious palace, recipes and some street crochet...

... let's explore Portugal's heart


Wrong! That's what we were, thinking that Porto and northern Portugal was as good as this country could get. Heading inland would surely be a little more predictable, we thought. Right? Well, not exactly. 

Are you ready for the grab-bag of surprises we found on our next leg of the trip?


Aveiro alert


The north had delivered many delightful experiences, gift-wrapped in sweet flavours and wondrous views but, as we entered the small town of Aveiro on the Atlantic coast, 75 kilometres south of Porto, we discovered that Portugal is the country that just keeps on giving. Especially where something unusual is concerned.

Become famous and your name - and face - might be painted on the prow of one of these colourful boats. This one (above) honours Amalia Rodrigeus, a famous Portuguese singer called the Queen of Fado, the country's favourite folk music, the soundtrack of Portuguese culture.


As we followed our GPS directions to this coastal town, gondolas and canals were not in our thoughts at all, and there was that split second, known to all uber-travellers, that confusing whirl when you think: 'Where are we?', then 'but why do we find these here?'.

These barcos moliceiros were originally used as craft to collect seaweed that had for centuries been used by the local farmers as fertiliser. Now, creatively repainted, these boats have become a tourist lure that brightens up the lagoon and canals of this sunny coastal town.

Unimaginatively, many call Aveiro the Portuguese Venice but although the city is a sister city to eighteen others worldwide, Venice is not included.

Of course there is a semi-serious side to this town, known for its architecture  - ancient and Art Deco - and learned institutions....

....yet even the pathway to the 20th-century Aveiro University is ornamented with Portuguese paving, and a wall or two of colourful tiles, and twe saw several large street sculptures that gave pause for thought.

Back to those bright and beautiful boats - the barcos moliceiros. 

Even if you don't have time to take a trip onboard, at least stroll the canal sides and look closely at the painted prows. Many tell a story.

Some are clever cartoons such as this one where executives, their pockets stuffed with bank notes, lament that they just can't understand how the money has disappeared!

Plan ahead for this place and arrive in time for the early-August regatta. 

More details....





Discovering the Douro

Further north, we find vessels of another kind. These are river ships much bigger than Aveiro's craft, and these will take you eastwards into the upper reaches of the mighty Douro river that ultimately spills out into the Atlantic ocean just beyond Porto to the west.

The Douro meanders between cliffside villages and vineyards, for this is one of Portugal's richest vine-growing areas and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This day was not as sunny as the previous one, but we found a roadside stall selling delicious carb-rich goodies that kept us nibbling for most of the rest of our trip in Portugal.

The 'cakes' were like iced sponge fingers, so of course I had to try to find out how they were made. The family couldn't help me (sign language only goes a short way when trying to extract a recipe) but my searching brought me to this video.... 

As far as I can tell, these are a version of cavacas. Some recipes of the same name create popover-style cakes, but these are like the ones we ate and enjoyed for a couple of weeks.

It is easy to imagine Portugal as a country of vibrant cities, historical buildings, tiled churches, and stunning beaches with the mandatory party-scene nightlife.

There's all of that, but much of the country is still rural. Many parts are wild and inhospitable (think, mountains, waterfalls, dense forest) but much more of it is agricultural. There are even eucalypts growing well here too. Note how tractors are given the thumbs-up to travel on a motorway!

Grapes, olives, vegetables, fruit (stone fruits and citrus) and nuts grow well in the sunny Mediterranean climate and further south we passed through many kilometres of cork tree plantations.

This is old Portugal, along the Douro, and we stopped here for a picnic lunch, peeping through a chink in time, thrilled to see the country as it has been for centuries.

Just an hour later the 21st century caught up with us again as we crossed a bridge over the wide and now-lazy stretch of the Douro river.

Luckily a river ship was passing through a dock at the dam on one side of the river. Five dams in this part of Portugal allow for navigation of vessels up to 83 metres long and 11.4 metres wide. The highest lock is 125 metres above sea level. 

This was a luxury tour, possibly for seven or ten days, allowing the boat passengers a leisurely exploration of the river and the many small towns and villages along it banks. A vineyard tour, then a wine tasting, an evening meal in a castle, olive-picking, all these and more could be on the shore excursion list.

Watching a canal boat or small ship passing through a lock is always fascinating, and soon quite a crowd of us had gathered on the road bridge above to watch. From this vantage point we could see how narrow the lock is, and how the ship slowly, slowly rises as the water level is altered.

If you are a passenger, then the feeling is like being in a giant bathtub as the ship rises or falls. Once the correct level has been achieved, the gates open and the ship sails on. It's a simple but very clever way of making many rivers more navigable.

For those with a spare day (or even a few hours) there are day excursions too, upriver from Porto, some offering a brief time onshore to press grapes and take a selfie to prove it if you wish.

See more....



Coimbra - this country's original capital

By contrast, the ancient city of Coimbra (which the locals pronounce Quimbra), sits above the Mondego river, assured of its well-won place in Portuguese history.

Unpack your most comfortable walking shoes for this place as steep staircases and narrow lanes link the upper and lower terraces. Take a car and park at the riverside, knowing that your best discoveries will be far above you.

Yes, there are souvenirs -  after all, what city in this age of tourist buses and cell phones would waste such an opportunity - but there is a touch of class to Coimbra, and many are artisan and avant-garde creations, some featuring the local produce. For in stance, here, you can buy a pure cork handbag, wallet or purse.

And, just in case you're wondering, cork is durable, waterproof and easy to clean.

Many eras of the city's history are visible as you walk around - art nouveau wrought iron...

...classic Iberian architecture like this boys' school....

...surprising neo-modern murals as you clamber up a flight of steps....

... or a silent old building that was most likely here before the automobile. Notice how the road politely sweeps around it.

All this, and the best of modern engineering.

Here, the Rainha Santa Isabel bridge (Queen Elizabeth bridge), opened in 2004, links the university and commercial  districts of south-eastern Coimbra to the western bank of the river.


Don't forget the food!

With ideal growing conditions, Portugal can produce a wide range of excellent produce. Put these on your shopping list and plan a visit to Mercado D. Pedro V, Coimbra's large produce market to the north of the city centre.

Dazzling colours greet you inside, with almost any vegetable you can think of. Surely the citizens of Coimbra should be among the world's healthiest. 

Then there is the fruit, such as loquats, not to everyone's taste, but a favourite in Mediterranean countries. 

More popular are these rockmelons, and if you have room in your luggage, the traditional terracotta plates and cooking dishes are worth buying. 

Of course no Portuguese meal is complete without a 'dessert' platter of local cheeses, jams and local honey. 

The stallholders are keen to share these unfamiliar cheeses - many of them made with goat or ewe's milk -  and I was pressed to taste several. It was the least I could do to enhance international relations between Portugal and Australia!

Dried salted cod, aka bacalhau, is a staple of many fine Portuguese dishes.

In a separate part of the market, fish freshly-caught overnight, is ready for today's meals...

...along with all sorts of squid and octopus and other seafood.




But wait, there's more....

With a little time on your hands why not take a lazy trip on the river for a few hours.... or go to church?

Coimbra has dozens of churches, cathedrals and monasteries...

...perhaps none as beautiful as the 18th-century Igreja de Santa Cruz, where we marvelled at the wealth of handpainted tiles covering almost every surface...

...and these massive baroque organ pipes.

For others it was a quietly welcome place to simply come and meditate and pray.

Very sensibly, catering to all needs, in the square outside, a restaurant is tucked in beside the monastery, making it an ideal place to relax after a tour.



Adjust your mortar boards!

In this university city, you get used to seeing young people in the street, swishing along, dressed in academic gowns.

Not only was Coimbra once the capital of Portugal, but it is also the home of Portugal's oldest university, and one of the world's oldest continuously operating universities. Begun in the late-13th century in Lisbon, it was re-established in Coimbra in 1537.

Like students anywhere, the badges and various trappings of academia are popular and, in a back street, we came across this shop selling  something to suit every scholar.

To match the youthfulness of Coimbra's population, there is always a bar or cafe within easy reach.

The abrupt elevation of the town means that there without warning you happen upon hidden corners with astonishing views, such as this tiny bar-spot, overlooking the river with endless views to the horizon.

It was that time of year, too, (summer) when we visited, and it seemed that the local crochet-ers had got together to conjure up giant cotton lace d'oileys....

...colourful cloths and throws to add some colour to the rather drably-painted alleys.

There were even some quasi-potplants to brighten up the window ledges.

As the sun sets and evening wraps this old city it becomes even more charming. Time to find a quiet bar, a noisy cafe, or a spot to sit and reflect on the many centuries this city has been welcoming visitors just like ourselves.

Maybe its time to slip back into an empty church and listen to the stories it can tell us.



Off to the Palace!

On our way to the palace (oh, how I like that phrase!) we stopped off at another thing we like. Years ago we did a fascinating trip through France visiting the 'sources' of the various well-known waters - Badoit, Perrier et al.

So when we heard that there was a public spring on the way to our hotel (oops, Palace) we had to stop off and see more about it.

In the tiny town of Luso, not only did we see people filling their own bottles from the outlets, but we also learned that this has been a popular watering spot since the early 18th century.

In. true Portuguese style, the story of the spring's history is told on the many tiled panels around the well area.


A healthy snack from the cafe across the street and I was ready to adjust my tiara and head for our royal destination.



Bussaco Palace, here we come!

I find booking accommodation on Booking.com is easiest for me, especially when planning a long trip such as this, where we will be staying in many places. In fact I have used it so much, I am now at 'Genius level', which offers a few extras too.

What's more I have my own code that other people may use to book, and also to get a cash bonus back for themselves.

I had heard about this place, called simply the Palace Hotel and discovered that it had been commissioned in 1888 as a royal retreat for King Charles I of Portugal, who died before he could fully enjoy it.

The plan was to build a new Belem Tower similar to Lisbon's one, but here surrounded by a tranquil green forest. Those 250 acres of woodland were originally planted by Carmelite monks. 

Reinvented in the 20th century, the Bussaco Palace Hotel now has a total of 60 bedrooms and four suites decorated in different early 20th-century styles that give a definite vintage feel to the entire property.

Personally, I found it difficult to choose between the grounds with their magnificent gardens and walkways dripping with wisteria...

...or the formal flowerbeds manicured to the last blade of perfection....

...worthy of a school excursion

The building itself has many drawcards of course, such as these sunny terraces so ornately decorated in the prevailing manner of its time, known as castle romanticism.

Just imagine yourself breakfasting in this spot overlooking the gardens. .

The dining room offers a massive breakfast buffet, and lunch and dinner is also served. Here is a sneak peek at the dinner menu.

A Portuguese palace would not be a grand home without a wall or two of handpainted glazed blue and white tiles.

Stained glass windows are a reminder of the close link between the church and this property. Guests may walk the Via Sacra (sacred road) and explore the Convento de Santa Cruz.

On the uber-ornate facade, a cute pepperpot turret adds a whimsical fairytale charm to the roofline.

Views from the garden are just as captivating with the grand old building in the background...

...or the ornamental lake in the foreground.

And, no, this is not a painting on the palace wall. A gold frame is erected in the garden so that visitors can create their personal 'framed' picture of the palace, with or without their own faces in it!

We wave goodbye to the guardian of the stairs, sorry to be leaving such a richly interesting place.


There is one last thing to see before we turn back to Luso and the rest of Portugal. We had been told to visit this tall cross just a few kilometres from the palace, not only because of its spiritual significance to the original owners...

...but also because of the view it affords over the surrounding countryside.

As we stood there, identifying Luso, far below, and other places we had passed through on our way up, several bike riders arrived. They seemed to feel the same way we did - that this part of Portugal is its true heart.

There's that black rooster, again! And do notice those hearts too.


(Watch out for the final episode of our Portuguese exploration, soon)


Pictures and words: Sally Hammond

Video: Gordon Hammond

Sally & Gordon Hammond travelled independently in Portugal.





































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