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Um jardim no atlântico

Sleep, eat and drink
Olissipo Castelo
Casa da Calcada Relais & Chateaux
Meliá Palácio da Lousã
Casa Das Senhoras Rainhas

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um jardim no atlântico     a journey across portugal

Josefina & Wolfgang Bleier
Austria, September 2012

On our journey to Galicia last year we got curious about the land beyond the Spanish-Portuguese border. Well, since we've never been to Portugal, except for a short trip to Madeira, we have made up our plans and spent our summer holiday in Portugal, Europe’s westernmost country.

Relaxing some days in Lisbon before heading north was ideal to get in the right mood for traveling across Portugal. During a conversation in Lisbon someone has compared Portugal with a large garden on the Atlantic. This is probably the shortest possible portrayal of a country, but in respect of Portugal it is perfectly true. Portugal is among the most beautiful regions of Europe. Stretching from the most southern-west to the northwest of the Iberian peninsular, Portugal is a country shaped by a variety of landscapes and a rich flora with flowers growing almost everywhere.


Lisboa, home of famous explorers

Lisbon - what a fascinating city with an important Moorish past. We stayed in the Olissippo Castelo hotel in Alfama, which is the oldest quarter of Lisbon spreading on a slope between the Castelo de Sao Jorge and the bay of the river Tejo.
Alfama appears like an old village in the city. Its name derives from the Arabic Al-hamma, meaning fountains or thermal spring. Once a respected, rich quarter where prosperous aristocrats lived, Alfama became the district of fishermen and the poor, and the patina of past centuries is visible on almost every building. Luckily it suffered only slight damages during the great earthquake in 1755. With a thing for authentic ambience we found it the most interesting part of Lisbon among those we could see. The unique atmosphere in the streets of Alfama was even more interesting to us than Lisbons monuments and historical buildings. Alfama's neighboring districts Baixa Pombalina, Chiado and Bairro Alto, center of Lisbons entertainment and nightlife, appeared to us rather touristic and commercialized.
Walking in the labyrinth of Alfama’s narrow streets and small squares to Lisbons elegant city center Baixa and further on to Bairro Alto was very enjoyable, but riding the famous “Electrico linea 28” was real fun. From Largo Martim Moniz to the end station Cemiterio dos Prazeres the tram passes many sights of Lisbon, so it was good to have day passes in our pockets, which allowed us to get in and out of the “electrico” whenever we wanted. The mediaeval Castle of Sao Jorge, royal residence until the early 16th century, is overlooking Alfama and gives one of the best views of the city.


Alfama is also the place from which the famous Fado, Portugal’s musical treasure, has emerged in the late 18th century as a bohemian art form and the most authentic Fado bars can be found there. There are two basic styles of Fado, Coimbra and Lisbon. While in Coimbra it is performed by groups of singers (mostly students), in Lisbon it is sung by solo performers. The Fadista are accompanied by two guitarists, of which one is playing the melody on a twelve-stringed Portuguese guitar, while the other one supplies the rhythm on a six-stringed viola. Fado is rather melancholic music, usually about love and pains, expressing sadness and longing for things that were lost or never accomplished. It was Amalia Rodrigues who made Fado known beyond Portugal in the 20th century and became a national icon. Among the contemporary Fado singers Mariza is considered the best of the new queens of Fado.

There are also rumors circulating about an ongoing rivalry between the lively Lisbon and the busy Porto. In Porto some say that Lisbon is spending the money earned in Porto. Since we had to move on towards north we couldn’t find out anymore how the Lisboans think about it.

Douro Litoral - Minho and Costa Verde

Still with the vibrant sounds of Fado in our heads we've set out towards north for our next destination, the gorgeous Douro valley east of Porto. We have chosen the small town Amarante as a “base” for our zig-zag tour up there. Situated about 70 km east of Porto it was the ideal place to make trips to the Douro valley, the Minho region and Costa Verde and - of course - to visit Porto.
The Relais & Chateaux Hotel Casa da Calcada in the heart of Amarante was a great place to relax after a long day trip and enjoy a fine dinner and wines from the region. This hotel with its warm interiors is highly recommended to those who love beauty, golfers and gourmets who appreciate the flavor of delicious food and wines. The standard of cooking, presentation of food and service in the hotel’s restaurant Largo do Paco were excellent and in fact it is considered among the best in North Portugal.

Douro valley

Douro Valley

Croft’s Quinta da Roeda, Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos, Cockburn’s Tua, Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas or the Symingtons’ Quinta do Vesuvio are some of the great names of Port wines connected with the Douro valley. But we were even more impressed by the natural beauty of the Douro and its peaceful surroundings. Driving along Douro’s picturesque riverside locations was absolutely beautiful. The low-impact tourism in this region makes sense and is a great experience. With the grapevines just coming to full maturity the landscapes were tinted in lush green color on vine terraces everywhere as far as the eye could see.
En route have visited the sleepy town Pinhao, which bursts into life every autumn during the annual grape harvest, attracting pickers from all over the country and even from abroad. Pinhao is considered the center of the Port winemaking region. Located 22 km upstream from Peso da Regua, where the river Pinhao flows into Douro, it is a place where the soil and climatic conditions are at their very best and a mecca for lovers of fine wines. Unfortunately we’ve missed to make a short drive to Sabrosa just 16 km north of Pinhao. It is the birthplace of Fernao de Magalhaes (Ferdinand Magellan), who was born there in 1480.

Minho, Ancora

Another day - another place to go. Our next destination was Costa Verde in the Minho, Portugal's most northern region. The small and traditional north of Portugal is a region of contradictions. Pure, lush nature and historical places mixed with both, a bald as well as fertile land.

Costa Verde sand dunes

It is the region where the light and crisp vinho verde grows mainly in the region between the rivers Douro and Lima. Plenty of rain over the year creates the rather damp climate typical for this part of Portugal, similar to the climate in Galicia in the northern-west of Spain.
En route was Viana do Castelo and the church of Santa Luzia, one of the most photographed themes of Portugal's coast. We didn’t take a photograph of Santa Luzia, which typically is arranged as the main subject in front of the picturesque coast of the Atlantic Ocean - too many of such pictures exist. Instead we ended up in Ancora, a small town at the costa verde just a few kilometers south of the river Minho, which also delineates the border between Portugal and the north of Spain. Most beaches at the Costa Verde are not overly spoiled by sun and sand holiday tourism, but some really are, like Esposende, a place we’ve quickly escaped from. We’ve enjoyed the afternoon at the pretty small beach of Ancora, a resort mainly used by locals, and on a hike in the extensive sand dunes further south, which are ideal for people like us who like to walk.

Porto - the city of bridges

A visit to the second largest city of Portugal was a highlight on our tour, to which we have been looking forward for a long time. Porto is one of the major urban areas and commercial centers of Southern Europe and one of the oldest European cities. The citizens of Porto regard themselves as being the economic heart of the nation. As the saying goes, "Porto works, Braga prays, Coimbra studies, and Lisbon spends the money."

Porto, as many other Portuguese cities, can be a nightmare to drive in by car. Especially the touristic districts (the Ribeira and Baixa) are a never-ending maze of narrow streets, where drivers seem to make their own chaotic rules of the road. We’ve followed the good advice of the receptionist in our hotel in Amarante, parked our car nearby the general hospital and took a comfortable ride with the yellow line of Porto’s subway straight to downtown Porto.

Porto at night

The center of Porto, built along the hillsides overlooking the Douro river estuary, is a unique urban landscape. The continuous growth during its long history can be seen in a variety of monuments, from the Romanesque cathedral, to neoclassical buildings and the typically Portuguese Manueline-style Church of Santa Clara. Porto’s historic center is an urban ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value and is registered as a world heritage site by UNESCO since 1996. The picturesque Ribeira and beautifully designed steel bridges became the cliché of Porto. Portugal’s internationally most known export is named for Porto. Guess right, it is the world-famous port wine. On the other side of the Douro river in the city Vila Nova de Gaia the lodges of prominent port winemakers and other fractions in wine production line up on the riverside. It is the mecca for port wine connoisseurs.
We have enjoyed our visit to Porto very much. After a walk through the Baixa, Porto’s center, we have crossed the Douro by foot on the famous iron bridge Ponte Dom Luis I, looking for a place to have a good dinner in one of the restaurants at the riverbank of Vila Nova de Gaia and to enjoy Porto at nightfall. Ponte Dom Luis I and Ponte Maria Pia, a railway bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel, are both extremely aesthetic steel construction and among the most beautiful landmarks of Porto. Both bridges are built as a parabolic arch spanning well 160 meters, and are recognized as great, elegant undertaking of modern art. Ponte Maria Pia was the longest iron arch bridge in the world at the time of its completion in 1877 to cross one of the steepest valleys along the Douro River.
At nightfall, while the sun went down over the Atlantic Ocean and we finished dinner at the riverside of Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto’s Ribeira was a sight to behold. When the sky has darkened and more and more lights went on, Porto has unfolded its beauty in a sea of lights reflecting in the calm river below those aesthetic steel monuments. What a marvellous sight!

Beira Litoral - Serra de Lousa, Aveiro, Coimbra

After almost a week in the north it was about time to continue our journey to Lousa in central Portugal, where we booked a room in the Melia Palacio da Lousa. Lousa is a small, sleepy town about 30 km east of Coimbra. It has only one hotel, so the Melia was quite easy to find by following street signs with the lettering "Hotel".

Located on the outskirts of Lousa, the Melia Palacio is a perfect place to relax in a calm area near the forests of the Serra da Lousa. It was nice to experience such a sophisticated hotel operation in a rural area with mainly young, but highly ambitious personnel still on the learning curve. Nowhere else in Portugal we have received that much attention by naturally friendly staff of a hotel. Occasional difficulties in communication weren't a barrier but sprinkled the right portion of humor to begin the day in a good mood or go to bed happily with a smile in the face.

Serra de Lousa

Serra da Lousa - Talasnal

The day was reserved for hiking, and in the Serra da Lousa there are plenty of options. From the back country of Lousa trails lead to abandoned, "lost" villages in remote places, built from schist rock long time ago in a true harmony with the mountains.
The trailhead is nearby the Castelo da Lousa. The castelo is a medieval, 12th century ruin, standing on a distinctive rock overlooking the valley below. Below the castelo is a fluvial and a restaurant (O Burgo - Restaurante Tipico), the fluvial leads to a natural swimming pool filled by cold mountain water under shady trees. It would have been a good idea to bring swimwear with us, and to take a dip after our hot, sweaty hike in the highlands. The trails lead to several such "lost" villages that were abandoned in the fifties, as the highland farmers gave up living on the mountain top and moved down into the towns and villages in the valley. The lost mountain villages came back to life in the nineties, as owners and buyers alike began to recognize the potential of the stone houses as weekend cottages.

Serra de Lousa

We have decided for a visit to Talasnal and stretched our legs before we hit the trail. It was, however, beyond our imagination how much secluded these old schist villages in fact are. It was a very long hike on stiff trails through the forests of the Serra da Lousa. And yet, there was still enough time to take a walk in the fluvial of a small river without a name. Back at the hotel a beauty sleep was guaranteed to both of us.

Aveiro - the Venice of Portugal

The next day we made a tour to Aveiro, one of the larger metropolitan areas in Portugal about 80 km south of Porto. Aveiro's neat and pretty city center is also known as the Venice of Portugal. Well, let's call it the little Venice of Portugal, as the canals inside the city are by far not as many as in Venice. Nevertheless, the city's maritime activity, the contrasts of its beautiful buildings and the colorful boats - the barcos moliceiros - in the canals are very nice to see. Water is in and around Aveiro, from the city canals to the large lagoon between Aveiro and a headland at the Atlantic.


The lagoon is home of many bird species, and north of Aveiro there are extensive unspoilt sand dunes of the São Jacinto Nature Reserve. On the headland between Aveiro and the Atlantic lies Costa Nova, a former fishing village, which now is a lively beach resort. Hundreds of brightly-striped traditional houses made from wood brighten up the streets facing the lagoon's waterfront. Costa Nova stretches quite long, and even it is easily accessible via Aveiro it's not crowded by cheap mass tourism. It is a leisure area just to relax and feel well, but somehow also spectacular with the rough Atlantic on one side, and sailboats floating in the calm blue lagoon on the other side.
For lunch we passed by at Aveiro's bustling fish market, the Praça do Peixe, where we ate excellent Arroz de Marisco in a big pot for two. Not only because of the delicious seafood and lobster that was inside the pot, but more for the way it was cooked and its marvelous taste this was by far the best casual dish we had on our vacation in Portugal. It is to be mentioned, that sometimes - sad to say - it can be difficult to find tasty, well prepared casual dishes. Unless it is seafood or fish, travelers who prefer meat or vegetarian food may have troubles to find what they are looking for.

Costa Nova

There is plenty to see in Aveiro, and among the famous sights we have visited the Convento de Jesús, which belongs to the famous Museu de Aveiro. Convento de Jesus (The Jesus Convent), founded in the 15th century, is strongly associated to Aveiro’s most influential Princess - Saint Joan of Portugal. The princess was devoted to religion all her life and joined the convent in 1472 to live there until her death. Just next to it is the cathedral Sao Domingos, one of the most beautiful churches we've seen in Portugal.
Aveiro combines many interesting things: the picturesque city center with its impressive buildings, colorfully painted boats in the water canals, traditions and a portion of history and culture. All this, visitors get with a spectacular landscape as a backdrop.


140.000 inhabitants, 30.000 students. Coimbra, once the capital of Portugal, is a university town, a major cultural center and the place where the Coimbra Fado has emerged. Coimbra Fado is a more formal and strict form of Fado, mostly sung by a group male students.
Coimbra is among the most important urban centers in Portugal after the much larger cities of Lisbon and Porto. Because of the cluster of technological firms that have settled in and around Coimbra, it has an important economical role in central Portugal. The university, one of the oldest in Europe, attracts many international students and is visited by tourists for its monuments and history.


Coimbra has a dense urban center and besides of its intense cultural life connected with the University, Coimbra is famous for its monuments, museums, libraries and churches.
The historic center of Coimbra raises on the university hill nearby the river Mondego, on top of which the immense historic block of the Universidade de Coimbra rests. The large campus covers the entire top of the hill, it appears like it is watching over the city. Our walk up the hill through the maze of narrow streets in the old town to the University took much longer than we thought, and unfortunately we arrived there too late for a visit of the famous Joanina library, one of the top libraries in the world. It was built around 1720 in Baroque style during the reign of King João V of Portugal. Nowadays the Joanina library is a Portuguese national monument and one of the university’s main tourist attractions. Its collection of over 200,000 books is of priceless value in any respect. On our way back to the Baixa of Coimbra we could visit Coimbra's old cathedral Se Velha de Coimbra, a perfectly preserved Romanesque building.

Did we mention that we had superb weather during our two week's trip in Portugal? Only in Coimbra a sudden, heavy rain shower washed away everything from the streets of Coimbra's Baixa, and those who could not escape from it into the city hall or into one of the coffee houses nearby Praca 8 de Maio were left soaking wet. There were many left soaking wet.


Back at Coimbra's Baixa we have visited the Manueline-style Monastery of Santa Cruz, best known as Igreja (church) de Santa Cruz. It is the last resting-place of Afonso Henriques and Sancho I, the first two Portuguese monarchs, which also became an important National Monument in Portugal.
As dusk was approaching we were slowly cruising back to our hotel in Lousa, looking forward to an excellent menu accompanied by good wines from the region on the hotel restaurant's terrace. From there, in the forested hills of Lousa, we could watch beautiful sunsets over the town of Coimbra.

Estremadura - Obidos

Obidos was our last destination in Portugal before we returned to Lisbon. Obidos is a small medieval town 90 km north of Lisbon. But Obidos isn't only pretty, nice or interesting - Obidos is a very special place. Firstly because of its history and unique location, secondly because of the wonderful saltwater lagoon nearby Obidos, and thirdly it is special to us because we will never forget the odyssey searching for our small hotel Casa Das Senhoras Rainhas.

Obidos - the wedding city

The town of Obidos is a well preserved example of medieval architecture, built on a hilltop and encircled by a fortified wall of a castle. Already from a distance Obidos stands out as a special place. The limewashed walls of the buildings are shining in brilliant white and almost every roof has got red color. Obidos' narrow streets, its squares, the huge wall and its castle are unique, making this town a popular tourist destination during daytime. But at night, when the crowds are gone, streets and squares turn into calm, inviting places to stay.


Getting to our hotel in Obidos was an odyssey. Despite three unsuccessful attempts to get to our hotel guided by our GPS device, we were able to find the gate in the wall that leads into the town only with the help of a taxi driver who came with us in our car. I was quite hesitant to drive into that tiny hole in the huge wall, which the taxi driver told us is one of the gates to Obidos and nearest to our hotel. Only because I didn't want to look like a wimp I drove into that little black nothing that even made a ninety degree turn inside the wall. Anyway, we've made it to our hotel without damaging the car, but when we arrived I was completely stressed-out and soaking wet. Later that day we were laughing so much when we saw plenty of colorful traces left by cars that scraped by the wall at this gate.

Walking in the cobbled streets of Obidos one finds extensive evidence of past civilizations. From hidden corners and high-walled gardens to the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque features, Obidos is a work of art that was created, destroyed and rebuilt throughout centuries. It is not for nothing that Obidos has been elected one of the seven wonders of Portugal. Obidos has often been patronized by the Queens of Portugal, giving it the informal title Vila das Rainhas (town of the Queens). The Church of Santa Maria was the setting for the wedding of King Afonso V to his cousin, Princess Isabella of Coimbra, on 15 August 1441, when they were both still children.
Each year in July the castle of Obidos hosts a medieval market. For two weeks the spirits and traditions of medieval Europe are in Obidos. Heraldic flags, entertainers and stall holders dressed as merchants, jugglers, soldiers and more set the mood together. Visitors can shop traditional handcrafts and watch medieval shows and a costumed parade in the narrow streets of Obidos.

Lagoa de Obidos

The Lagoon of Obidos is among the most beautiful natural resorts we have seen on the western Portuguese coast. Not only because the whole area is a beauty of nature, but also because nature has applied a great concept. While the large, calm lagoon invites for kayaking, sailing, rowing or hiking, the Atlantic sends huge waves onto the coast, which flow into the lagoon's shallow waters where it joins with the Atlantic. The entire range of colors appear different, somehow with a touch of pastel, most probably because of the water mist in the air created by the surf.

Laguna do Obidos

Lagoa de Obidos is considered the largest and most beautiful saltwater lagoon in the Iberian Peninsula. The lagoon is located between Cape Carvoeiro and Sao Martinho do Porto Bay. It occupies a shallow depression and is separated from the ocean by a sandy barrier with about 1.5 km in length. In this barrier, a tidal inlet is artificially maintained, which ensures water and sediment exchanges between the ocean and the lagoon. The inlet location and dimensions vary with time.

Laguna do Obidos

The lagoon extends into a forested area well 5 km inland where it has several lonely bays and isolated branches. It is a very calm area: here some people play, there some men catch fishes, others are kayaking and we were just hanging out to watch the peaceful scenery. The lagoon is also home to many bird species, fishes and even Flamingos. It's calm water and the safe, sheltered beaches are ideal for walking, playing or just sitting and bird watching.

Laguna do Obidos

The beaches and landscapes around the Lagoon of Obidos are fabulous and uncrowded. We have enjoyed it so much. It was the perfect place to completely relax and lengthen our remaining time in Portugal at a spectacular coast of the Atlantic Ocean.

Coming to think about it…, entire Portugal is a perfect place to relax, isn't it?
Of course, it is a large garden at the Atlantic, as they say.

Adeus Portugal!

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