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Portugal Here We Come! Days 1 & 2 by Shelagh Copeland
We embarked on our longest trip yet with great anticipation and in high spirits. Those of us who have travelled north-west before expected our coffee stop to be at one of the usual places on the motorway to Granada but we were pleasantly surprised. We stopped at a beautiful place outside Loja where we sat with our coffee on the terrace overlooking one of the sierras.
After a quick lunch stop at a motorway café we carried on into Extremadura to the Hotel Los Templarios in Jerez de los Caballeros, Badajoz. It so happened that there was a Jamón festival going on that weekend, where products compete with each other, offering the best hams and sausages made from acorn-fed Iberian pork.
So, after checking in and freshening up, some of our party ventured down to the village with Danny, our guide and mentor for the trip. Tortuous could describe the journey in the coach as many roads were closed with the usual illegal parking, but Juan got us there after Danny moved the NO ENTRY signs, only to find most stalls packing up but the funfair blasting out. We did manage to sample a bit of ham though washed down with expensive but basic wine in plastic cups.
We had a most unusual experience that night for dinner in the hotel. Plastic shopping bag in hand, we chose from a selection of fresh meats or fish pre-packed and priced up, plus cheese and wines as we meandered through the “shop” in the corner of the dining room. We took our choice to the checkout, paid for it, then on to the kitchen counter, we then sat and waited while it was freshly cooked and our number was called. A very strange experience, but enjoyable all the same.
The next morning we went on a guided tour of the historic quarter of Jerez de los Caballeros. It was here that the first European to ever see the Pacific Ocean was born, Vasco Núñez De Balboa. It is a gem of a town, with quaint narrow cobbled streets containing three pretty baroque and rococo churches with beautifully decorated towers. In one of the churches we saw a splendid organ which did not function anymore, because during the Spanish Civil War the metal was taken out to produce weapons for the fight.
Among the most important monuments is the Templar Fortress, because Jerez de los Caballeros was named after the Templar Knights who occupied the town until the 14th century. The guides (with the Knights Templar crosses on their uniforms) regaled us with lots of interesting information and funny stories – too numerous to include here – but the one that amused us most was the tale that during one skirmish between the Portuguese and the Moors the Portuguese stole the clock mechanism from one of the bell towers. So the Moors replaced it with a clock stolen from the next village. That begs the question – did they then steal one from the next village and so on, and where did it all end?
At the end of the tour we had some free time for lunch or tapas, and a chance to watch the stork that had nested on top of the tallest tower occasionally allowing one of her little ones to peer over the parapet.
We then carried on and crossed the Rio Guadiana into Portugal for our next stop at Monsaraz in the Alentejo, Portugal, perched on a hill 342 metres above the right bank of the river. This is a tiny, picturesque town made up of white houses with red roofs, wrought iron balconies and elongated chimneys. For those of us who made it up to the castle the view of the surrounding landscape is spectacular. You can see olive groves, winding roads, and the river area towards Spain. But it is quite a walk through cobbled streets and then many layers of steps in the castle itself. Some of us decided to stop at one of the little bars on the way and just enjoy the atmosphere.
Then, onwards to Evora, the capital of Alto Alentejo. Hotel check in was a faff, as due to power cuts some folk had to be moved to the luxury hotel down the street. Once settled some walked around the town with Danny while some relaxed (cheers!) until later when they could explore on their own. Finding a place for dinner was interesting, some bars were closing as others were opening. But as far as I know we all found somewhere to eat before collapsing into bed with exhaustion.
Lisbon & the Alentejo – Evora & More, Day 3 by Wendy Wood
So, on the third day of our journey we have a hearty breakfast before meeting our guide Olga who will be informing us of the delights of Evora, the capital of Alto Alentejo, a city of outstanding beauty, and classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
She led us first through the main square Praca de Giraldo to Praca de Sertoria and into the City Hall containing Roman Baths under the floor from the 2nd or 3rd Century. Olga asked us to take turns walking on the suspended floor above the baths (she must have been watching us at breakfast!)
We moved on to the ruins of the 1st Century Roman Temple known as the Temple of Diana and at 300 m the highest point for miles around. Then followed a visit to the cathedral built in a Romanesque style beginning in 1186, about 20 years after the Reconquest and on the site of the city’s main mosque. (cue for some of our group to head for refreshments)
In the middle of the central nave there is a large Baroque altar with an unusual phenomenon, a polychrome Gothic statue of a pregnant Virgin Mary (Nossa Senhora do O).
This cathedral also houses one of the oldest playable organs in the world, built in 1562.
We move on down the narrow winding streets passing an array of shops containing items made of cork – the material from which most common souvenir items from this part of the world are made. A couple of ladies quickly succumb to the lure of new handbags, one a pair of shoes and even a hat for a gentleman. Unfortunately although there was a cork bikini on sale none of the ladies in our group felt able to try this on.
We next visited the famous 16th century Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) a small chapel next to the church of St Francis. Its walls and pillars are decorated in carefully arranged bones and skulls held together by cement. The number of skeletons of monks was calculated to be about 5000, coming from the cemeteries that were situated inside several dozen churches.Built by a Franciscan monk who wanted to prod his fellow brothers into contemplation and transmit the message of life being transitory, a very common spirituality theme summed up in the motto over the entrance: “Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos” which, roughly translated means “We bones that are here for yours we await”! – Cheerful thought!
We then stopped for a light lunch; the speciality in this area is caracois (snails in garlic butter) and although a couple of brave souls enjoyed these, most resisted the temptation.
We left Evora in the afternoon, and on our way to Lisbon we stopped off at the Cromlech of the Almendres a megalithic complex the largest existing group of structured menhirs in the Iberian Peninsula, and one of the largest in Europe. The construction of these cromlechs, and menhir stones date back to the 6th millennium BC, though they were only rediscovered in 1966.
Then onwards to our final destination, stopping off one last time on this day at the suspension bridge over the river Tagus, originally named Ponte Salazar after the dictator of Portugal at the time of the bridge’s inauguration in 1966, but now known as the 25th April Bridge.
It was based on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and is painted in the same colour. The bridge, and indeed Lisbon is overlooked by a statue of Jesus Christ the Redeemer, similar to that in Rio de Janeiro and is an imposing sight.
We drove through the old part of Lisbon until we reached our hotel VIP Arts Executive, in the new part of the city and thankfully unload our cases before setting out for that most important visit, to a restaurant for dinner and a glass or two of wine!!!
WHEW, and this is only our third day……will we last the pace???
Lisbon and the Alentejo – Lisbon City, day 4 by Ken Cross
Having settled into our hotel on the east bank of the river Tagus in the old Expo 98 World’s Fair quarter, it was time to meet Inga our Danish guide for the next three days.
Vasco de Gama is the favourite son of Portugal and his name dominates the area, from the 145 m tall Torre Vasco da Gama to the 17,200 m long Ponte Vasco de Gama. You can probably even buy a Vasco de Gama pizza!
Portuguese explorers are renown throughout the world and this is a theme would be a constant thread throughout our visit.
Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) the third son of King João I and his English wife, Philippa of Lancaster was a Portuguese royal prince and soldier. His patronage of explorers sent many sailing expeditions down Africa’s west coast. These expeditions were sent to create much-needed maps of the West African coast, to defeat the Muslims, to spread Christianity, and to establish trade routes. Prince Henry helped begin the Great Age of Discovery that lasted from the 1400’s to the early 1500’s. Vasco da Gama, the most feted, was the first European to reach India by sea, linking Europe and Asia for the first time by ocean route, as well as the Atlantic and the Indian oceans entirely and definitively, and in this way, the West and the Orient. This was accomplished on his first voyage to India (1497–1499).
Ferdinand Magellan a fellow Portuguese explorer who organised the Spanish expedition to the East Indies from 1519 to 1522, resulting in the first circumnavigation of the Earth has been side-lined as he worked for the Spanish!
Because of these explorers Portuguese is listed as the fifth most spoken language in the world, and is the official language of nine countries. Paris has more Portuguese speakers than any European city other than Lisbon.
We learnt all about the historical 1755 Lisbon earthquake which at at 8.7 on the Richter scale was similar to recent ones in Nepal. In combination with subsequent fires and a tsunami, the earthquake almost totally destroyed Lisbon and adjoining areas. Estimates placed the death toll in Lisbon alone between 10,000 and 100,000 people, making it one of the deadliest earthquakes in history.
The earthquake accentuated political tensions in the Kingdom of Portugal and profoundly disrupted the country’s colonial ambitions. As the first earthquake studied scientifically for its effects over a large area, it led to the birth of modern seismology and earthquake engineering.
Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world, and the oldest in Western Europe, predating other modern European capitals such as London, Paris and Rome by centuries and this reflects its “shabby chic” look as we did two walks in the morning, around the uninspiring old quarters of Alfama and Bairro Alto.
Much more interesting was the history, and we had been issued with “Whisperers” by Inga which were like audio guides with Inga providing a running commentary in our ear. It meant you could wander at will, within range, and still soak up the information.
We learnt that the Treaty of Windsor (1386), the oldest in the world, created an alliance between Portugal and England that remains in effect to this day. Between 1580 and 1640 Portugal was part of Spain. Portugal was a Monarchy until 1910.
The October 1910 Revolution saw a new “First Republic” which eventually became a de facto dictatorship until the “Carnation Revolution” of 1974, an effectively bloodless left-wing military coup, installed the “Third Republic”. Broad democratic reforms were then implemented.
We had the afternoon free to wander at will; some headed for the bars or sat in the sunshine whilst others caught one of Lisbon’s famous trams. Some visited the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mary Major (Lisbon Cathedral) or Lisbon castle, the Moorish Castelo de Sao Jorge, standing majestically above central Lisbon and the ancient seat of power for Portugal for over 400 years. At the end of a long hot day Juan and coach were waiting to transport us back to our hotel and another glass of Monsaraz wine.
Lisbon and the Alentejo – Belem, Day 5 by Kathy Moorhouse
Our guide, Inga, was waiting for us holding a bunch of fresh flowers which she explained was to celebrate the beginning of spring, and throughout Lisbon you could see women selling these small bunches, some with a little more vigour than others. We travelled to the westernmost barrio (quarter) of the city and Inga explained about the period in Portuguese history when civil war was rife in Angola, commencing in 1961 and finally terminating in1974 when Angola gained its independence. In one and a half years Portugal had gained 700,000 refugees creating an economic disaster and taking 20 years to stabilise.
On the way west she pointed out a cathedral designed by an English architect and built in 1150 and on completion its first bishop was Gilbert of Hastings an English Crusader. We saw the Basilica de Estrela a huge baroque church built by order of Queen Maria to celebrate the birth of her first son (she had already borne six girls and had made a promise to God that on the birth of her first son she would build a church in marble). But, by a twist of fate, her son died of smallpox before it was completed in 1790.
In Belem (Bethlehem in Portuguese) we saw the Belem Tower or Tower of St Vincent a fortified tower built in the early 16th Century at the mouth of the River Tagus to protect Lisbon. The original was destroyed in the earthquake of 1755 and was re-located to its present site later. Nearby is a monument to the first aerial crossing from Lisbon to Brazil in a biplane by Gago Countinho and Sacadura Cabral which they completed in 1922. Another amazing monument we saw was to Henry the Navigator and his entourage of important people.
Finally, our last historical visit was to the church and monastery for the Order of St Jeronimo. In 1498 the explorer Vasco de Gama found a maritime route to India and on the strength of this King Manuel of Portugal became a very rich man having the monopoly and putting a very high tax on pepper from the India’s. In 1560 Portugal also had the monopoly on cinnamon lasting for 100 years. In 1501 the King ordered the construction of this building on the strength of the 5% tax, equivalent to 70kgs of gold per year. The building was to offer spiritual assistance to navigators, sailors and to pray for the King’s eternal soul.
We ended our morning with a visit to the famous Casa Pasteis de Belem. A cavernous building with beautiful blue tile decor, seating (and I’m guessing) about 150 people, and renowned for its custard tarts and other pastries. We were shown to our reserved seats and were served with these delicacies of beautiful almond pastry, custard filling served with cinnamon and icing sugar – pure heaven.
After a free-time lunch (and yes we did have lunch), it was back to the coach and back to the city. For those with excess energy it was time to continue exploring Lisbon, the tile museum, the famous Aquarium (brilliant) or frequent one of the many bars. An interesting day out in a lovely area.
Can you believe the highlight of the day for my husband was paying 50 cents to use the men’s loo and being given a receipt? Ah culture!!
Lisbon and the Alentejo – Sintra & Cascais, Day 6 by Kathy Moorhouse
Another half day out with our guide Inga. This time we head north, passing the airport and the famous football stadiums of Benfica and Sporting Lisbon. Just as we were passing the airport and Inga was explaining that the Portuguese airline TAP was fondly known as “take another plane”, an aircraft coming in to land flew VERY LOW over us, and as we looked up the voices in the coach said as one “Oh look, Ryanair”. Enough said.
We headed off towards the Sintra mountain range and the town of Sintra, where Lord Byron and Hans Christian Anderson had spent time. An attractive, narrow and hilly town with pretty houses adorned with blue tiles. The Palacio do Sintra is stunning and dominates the town. It was built in the 14th Century by King Joao 1 on a site once occupied by a Moorish castle and is famous for its tiles produced in Sevilla 600 years ago, and much of its china was produced in Andalucia.
Once inside the only way is up the five floors (not sure of the number of steps, but certainly exceeding 100), and it still has its fortification. There are many stunning rooms, namely: the Hall of Swans – 27 painted wooden octagonal panels depicting swans; the Queen’s Tea Pavilion – beautiful; the Magpies Room, the story relates to King John I who was caught in the act of kissing a lady-in-waiting by the Queen Phillipa of Lancaster. To put a stop to the gossip mongers the King had the room decorated with as many magpies as there were women in the Court – 136.
Another beautiful room is the Coats of Arms room constructed of stucco with its domed ceiling depicting stags clutching the coats of arms of 72 noble families. The lower walls are of deep blue tiles depicting hunting scenes. We moved on, albeit slowly following a group of German tourists, whose guide got a flea in his ear from Inga for his verbosity. It was time to descend and off to our coach, destination Cascais and Estoril.
We drove through some beautiful countryside with mountainous pine forests and lovely homes with well-tended gardens and REAL grass. This is a very wealthy area and has six golf courses much loved by the Scandinavians. As we approached the magnificent Atlantic coastline, Inga informed us that the sand dunes in this area move several metres every year.
After the Second World War many European royalty were exiled in Cascais which in turn attracted the jet-set who took ownership of the many beautiful homes now you see 5-Star hotels frequenting the area. But, this is still a fishing community and a very pretty village with an excellent beach.
Moving along the coast to Estoril, an extension of Cascais, Inga informed us that it has the largest casino in Europe. Reputed to be used by German intelligence during the Second World War it was also enjoyed by Ian Fleming who stayed there, and was subsequently the location used for the spoof James Bond “Casino Royale”. For foodies, the casino has one of the best Chinese restaurants in Europe.
Finally, we said goodbye to Inga and took the autoroute back to our hotel in Lisbon to be met with another intake of pilgrims, this time French.
Lisbon and the Alentejo – Return to España, Days 7 & 8 by Jos Biggs
What better way to start the day than with a hymn? Certainly the Pilgrims thought so, as they massed in the lobby of our Hotel. Their voices rose harmoniously up through the atrium and filled the whole space with gentle melody before they moved on to Italy and an audience with Jorge Mario Bergoglio, better known as Pope Frances.
Suitably uplifted, despite being laden with suitcases and shopping we boarded the bus, said goodbye to Lisbon and headed for the village of Tavira, in the Algarve, on the southernmost coast of Portugal.
Our way took us along the Ponte Vasco da Gama, 148 metres high in the middle, and 17,200 metres in length. The bridge was opened in 1998, and at the time was the longest suspension bridge in Europe.
It spans the River Tagus, Portugal’s longest river, which has the largest tidal estuary in Europe. Consequently, as the tide was out, there was an awful lot of mud, and in that mud there were an awful lot of worm diggers, searching for fishing bait – when I grow up I don’t want to be a worm digger!
We purred along to our coffee stop at a motorway service station named Ars. In front of the café were some anonymous looking sculptures, being studied in depth by Wendy and Bev. I have an inquiring mind, so I asked what they were supposed to be. ‘Umm.’ Bev replied.
‘They’re Umms, to go with the Ars.’ Wendy explained. Of course they were!
Tavira, our lunchtime stop, is delightful, complete with the obligatory cobbled pavements, but very, very hot. The village spans both sides of the River Gilão as it pours into the Atlantic Ocean, and both sides are connected by the Roman Bridge, which apparently has very little to do with the Romans, as the Moors built a new one in place of the Roman one!
Another very attractive feature is the tree-lined Paseo, with its ornate raised hexagonal bandstand in the centre. From the sides water pours through spouts into a little moat, beautifully planted and complete with terrapins and fish.
Grateful for the coach’s air-con, we left Portugal and entered Andalucía, headed for Punto Umbria, and the Hotel Barceló Mar.
The Hotel, which is right next to the beach, and to which it is connected by a walkway, is generally is of a high standard, and the food is – Oh, how I wish I could eat more! Not forgetting the wine on tap!
So Pete and I had an excellent dinner, followed by a good night’s sleep.
Full of a delicious breakfast and not until 10.30, (almost a lay-in) we clambered onto the coach and our group of happy campers settled in for the long drive home.
As we left Punto Umbria the landscape was largely agricultural, with many fields of sunflowers – now I know where all those sunflower seeds in Mercadona come from!
As we sped east we saw convoys of tractors pulling decorated gypsy-style caravans – these were pilgrims going to the village of El Rocio to participate in the Romeria in honour of the Virgen del Rocio. The Virgen del Rocio is a carved wooden statue of the Virgen Mary holding the Christ Child in her arms, and is known at the Virgin of Remedies.
It is estimated that up to a million people may attend the Romeria on foot or on horse. If only a quarter of them were to go on horseback, that would still be a very large muckheap for somebody’s garden!
Juan pulled the bus in to a service station for our lunch stop – Opps! Wrong services. So he pulled out again, and pulled in again 100 yards further on. No, still not the right one! But third time lucky, he pulled in and we got our lunch, which tasted all the better for the anticipation!
Once we had passed Granada the trees thinned out gradually and the countryside became more familiar, and soon we were home again.
An excellent holiday, but nice to be home again – home to a mountain of washing, a huge heap of ironing, to cooking, cleaning, dusting… Never mind, we can look forward to the next holiday now…
On a personal note, I would like to thank Danny for an excellent job and excellent research, as always, Juanito Sin Pelo, our driver, who remained cool under all circumstances, Ken for thinking the whole thing up, and the colossal amount of work he puts in for our enjoyment, and to Bev, who I’m sure must have moments when she could pull her hair out in handfuls!
But also to our travel companions, for their kindness and helpfulness, for the many offers of assistance in many ways. It was a lovely holiday, but without your kindness it would have been so much harder for us – thank you.