We’ve started our IndieRail trip in style. After two days of luxury exploration, we headed south to Lisbon to get to know Portugal’s capital.

Monday 10/9: As part of the travel bloggers’ conference we attended last week, Turismo de Portugal and Porto e Norte organised a variety of press trips for the bloggers to go on. Craig and I (and 18 others) chose the Grapes and Sailors option, which took us to the Douro Valley, Guimarães, Braga, Ponte de Lima, and Viana do Castelo — it was a busy couple of days.

After a two-hour drive from our starting point in Porto, we arrived in Pinhão in the Douro Valley, where we hopped on a rabelo boat for a cruise down the river. These boats used to be used to transport port from the vineyards in the Douro Valley down to Gaia, where it was aged before being shipped from Porto.

Cruising the Douro River at Pinhão.

Lunch was a delicious three-course affair at the Vintage House Hotel, after which we were given a tour of the hotel itself. From there it was a one-minute walk to the Pinhão train station, which is beautifully decorated with tile paintings depicting the winemaking process and traditional life in the Douro Valley.

Our next stop was supposed to be Guimarães, but the bus broke down about twenty minutes from our destination. Our fantastic guide Marta kept us all entertained while we waited for the replacement bus, and reorganised the schedule so that we wouldn’t miss out on anything. Instead of the tour then, we checked into our hotel, the Pousada de Santa Marinha da Costa. Pousadas are Portugal’s equivalent of Spain’s paradors, and are all unique buildings transformed into luxury hotels. This one in particular is a 12th-century convent, complete with cloisters.

Castle of Guimaraes.

At dinner (at Histórico by Papaboa in Guimarães) we got to know some of our tour mates a bit better — Lauren from Spanish Sabores told us about her Madrid food tours, and Dan, Flora, Craig and I got into a long conversation about all sorts of things.

Tuesday 11/9: Since we’d missed our Guimarães tour yesterday, we had to make an early start to squeeze it in. It’s an amazing city — not only is it a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s also European City of Culture for 2012. I really like the symbol they’ve chosen to celebrate this last achievement: it’s a heart with a L-shaped notch that looks like a keyhole. We visited the castle, the ducal palace, and the medieval city centre.

Next up was Braga, European Youth Capital in 2012. It’s the religious centre of the country, with a huge range of churches and sanctuaries. We visited Bom Jesus, the most famous of the sanctuaries, which is situated at the top of a large hill. To get there, you can choose to climb the 600 steps to the top or jump on a funicular railway. We did neither: the bus dropped us at the top and we walked down, past the impressive fountains on each level of the staircase.

The historic centre of Braga was nice too, as was lunch at Mar de Sinos next to the cathedral.

Marta gave us a bit of free time at our next stop, Ponte de Lima. Craig and I used the time to make a video, explore the church, check out the 14th-century bridge, and have a beer.

Bridge and church in Ponte de Lima

Our final stop was Viana, where we saw a bright-green bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel, visited the church, and enjoyed the atmosphere of the small town.

Did I say that was our final stop? It wasn’t. Up on the hill behind the town is the sanctuary of Santa Luzia, which is a copy of Paris’s Sacre Coeur. Marta let us have just 15 minutes to explore it, which wasn’t enough! When Craig and I went in, there were two or three people already in there — and one was a nun taking photos. I figured if she was happy to do that, I could too.

Our accommodation for the night was another pousada, situated just uphill from the sanctuary. We had the most amazing view from our bedroom window, and were welcomed to the hotel with a glass of the region’s specialty, Vinho Verde wine. (Cheers, Dad!)

View from the pousada in Viana.

Dinner was at Camelo Restaurant, back down the hill in Santa Marta de Portuzelo. The friendly staff plied us with traditional delicacies such as about 12 different tapas, including tripe. I’ve always shied away from tripe, thinking that there was NO WAY that I could ever like something that looked like that — but it was delicious. So was the “pork-blood rice” (I think Marta could have translated the name a little more delicately), which I managed to convince four people to try.

Wednesday 12/9: After breakfast with the best view ever, our tour was all but over. Our driver Bruno dropped some people off at Porto airport, then took the rest of us to the city centre for a very short interview with a local TV channel.

Craig had a coffee with Lauren while I headed off to buy a new t-shirt, then she went to the airport and we walked to the bus station. I know our trip is called IndieRail, but the bus was a lot cheaper — but possibly not the best option in this case.

We bought our tickets for “the next bus” at about 1:05pm, and the time on the ticket was 1pm! When we boarded, our allocated seats were taken, so rather than causing a fuss we sat at the back between a Portuguese couple and a single guy. There was only one stop, at Fatima, and I got off to use the toilet and buy some food. When I got back, an Asian guy was sitting in the Portuguese girl’s seat; she looked stunned when she saw him there. It turns out that there was a problem with the computer and the bus was overbooked, leaving one person (the Portuguese guy) without a seat. We only managed to get away from Fatima after a fair bit of discussion and shuffling around.

Lamp in Alenjado house on the food tour.

We arrived in Lisbon at 5pm with no place to stay and a 7pm appointment — not ideal. We used our Droam to get online, and got a couple of addresses of cheap hotels in the area. After a walking in the exact wrong direction for a few minutes, we bagged the last room in a pensão right on Rossio Square. We just had time to shower before heading out the door again to join our tour — and we even arrived on time!

The tour was the Urban Adventures Fado and Tapas tour, and it was really good. The guide was friendly and knowledgeable and we got excellent seats at the fado bar despite showing up 20 minutes late. I found the fado experience very similar to the boliche we went to in Buenos Aires to listen to tango — it was a tiny bar, packed with people, and the musicians squeezed themselves into a corner and played with passion. I loved it when the barmaids joined in for one song, and the second male singer really worked the crowd: the tune he made us sing is still kicking around in my head. Plus, our tour mates were awesome, there were some really interesting people on it.

Thursday 13/9: Since checkout was at 12, we took the opportunity to have a sleep in for the first time in ages. We left our bags in the hotel and found a cafe to get a bit of work done — the last few days have been so crazy busy that we haven’t done anything. In fact, we now have a lot more to do, since we want to write about our experiences while they’re still fresh in our minds.

After a couple of hours of work, we had a simple lunch in a different cafe then picked up our bags and went back to the first cafe to do a bit more work. Our couchsurfing host, Jorge, had asked us to meet him in Martim Monez square, which is not far from Rossio Square, and it was a really nice place to spend half an hour or so — it’s filled with fountains and we sat on the edge of one and watched people walking, cycling and playing through another one.

Yellow tram in Lisbon.

Jorge picked us up and took us back to his place, which has awesome views over the city and the river. He suggested we have dinner in a local restaurant, which he said had average food at a good price — lies! It was great food at an amazing price. We paid less than €15 for all of us to have a full meal and a drink, and coffee afterwards. And it was tasty.

Friday 14/9: Jorge had to work, and we planned to do the same during the morning. However, Craig got a message from Paul (who we’d met at TBU) inviting us to go on a free walking tour with him and and his wife Angie… In half an hour. We packed up quickly and ran down to the nearest metro stop, but we had to wait seven minutes for the next train. Eventually we arrived though, only ten minutes late, and joined the tour just before it left its starting point. The tour took us through Barrio Alto and the downtown area of Lisbon, and the guide taught us a lot about the history of the city.

She left us in the Praça do Comercio, conveniently near the ViniPortugal, where we could do a free wine tasting, which of course we did. After that, Craig, Paul, Angie and I walked back through Rossio and Restauradores squares to a cafe Craig and I had seen on Thursday, that did a good menu del día for €4.

Angie was feeling tired and thinking about heading back to the hostel, but through gentle peer pressure we managed to convince her to come with us to Belem to try the famous pastéis de nata. The tram trip took about 40 minutes, but it was worth it for the delicious delicious pastries we got as a reward at the other end. We ate them in a park across the road from the bakery to get away from the crowds of tourists and hordes of volunteers soliciting donations to save the animals.

Pastéis de nata.

Craig and I had promised Jorge that we’d make dinner, so we didn’t have time to explore Belem. Instead, we all hopped on a bus back to the central city, where we said goodbye to Paul and Angie. We stayed on the bus until we found a supermarket, then headed home to cook our signature South American meal, featuring pebre and causa rellena. Jorge liked the pebre so much that he even drank the juice left over at the end of the bowl after we’d finished the solid bits.

After dinner, Jorge took us for a short walk around his area, and we ended up having a drink in a cafe in a nice garden called the Campo de Santa Clara.

Saturday 15/9: We’d planned to spend the day exploring, but we were foiled by the heat. We did head out for a couple of hours, to visit a huge flea market called the Feira da Ladra, but we went home for lunch.

In the afternoon, Jorge invited us to accompany him to the opening of his sister’s art exhibition in Torres Vedras, a small town about 45 minutes’ drive from Lisbon. It’s a pretty little town, as we discovered after parking by the wrong town hall building (there are two) and having to walk through the town centre to the exhibition space. We met Jorge’s sister, Isabel, then wandered around to look at her beautiful ceramic sculptures. I really liked how she’d combined elements of old wooden furniture with bright ceramic pieces.

Linda, Isabel and Jorge at the art exhibition.

After a couple of hours enjoying the work and picking away at the tasty snacks Isabel had organised, we headed back to Lisbon, with a stop at a hilltop cafe for beer with a view along the way. Craig stayed up late to get some work done; I finished up a couple of videos then turned in.

Sunday 16/9: We left the house later than we’d planned and headed straight to the National Pantheon, which is housed in a beautiful ex-church and which is free to enter before 2pm on Sundays. We admired the architecture, visited the tomb of fado singer Amália Rodrigues, and checked out the views from the top. Next we walked downhill in the general direction of the centre of town, and stumbled across the Fado Museum — also free to enter on Sunday mornings. We spent a pleasant half hour learning about fado, then had a simple lunch in a small bar before wandering around Barrio Alto. We had to go downhill then severely uphill again to reach the castle, which we decided not to enter. Instead, we walked back to the Pantheon, where we’d seen a folklore festival being set up earlier in the day. We watched a few numbers after waiting half an hour or so for the action to start, but it wasn’t as impressive as we’d hoped — the sound guy really massacred the sound, for one thing.

Folklore festival.

Next, we recorded part of the podcast in the Santa Clara gardens, but the folk music and screeching kids made it a little difficult. Plus the microphone batteries ran out — on the whole, not a win.

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Your thoughts on "Travel diary: Porto, North Portugal, and Lisbon"

  • Thanks for the mentions in your travel diary! Looks like you guys really enjoyed Lisbon. It was so great meeting you and hope to see you this winter in Cadiz!

    on September 19, 2012 at 5:22 pm Reply

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