Category Archives: Cathedrals

Portugal, Guimarães and Car Rental Issues

Castle at Guimarães

Early next morning I picked up the hire vehicle, a small black Smart Car and once I had become more or less 10% accustomed to the secrets of the automatic gear box we set off east out of Vila do Conde.

On the advice of the nice lady at the car hire office we planned to drive twenty miles or so inland to the city of Guimarães which in a survey published annually by the Portuguese newspaper Expresso  is ranked second in the country’s most liveable cities.  As might be expected Lisbon is rated first and Porto only third.  As the first capital of Portugal, Guimarães is known fondly as the place where the country was born – ‘The Cradle City’.

I was enjoying driving this nifty little car but after just a few miles there was a problem.  I always get a problem with hire cars.  I am the most unlucky car renter ever.  No one gets as many issues as I do with hire cars.

A warning light started to wink at me.

I am never completely sure what all these dashboard symbols mean, my first car in about 1974 had just two warning lights – one red one for an overheating  engine and another orange one for low oil pressure but now there is a dashboard with as many flashing lights as the control panel of the Starship Enterprise.  I looked around for the road map to place over it so that I couldn’t see it!

But I have seen this one before in a hire car in Ireland.  One of the tyres was suffering from low pressure so we pulled into a service area, I had a look round and in the only engineering procedure with which I am familiar kicked each of the tyres in turn as you do in these situations and as they all seemed fine to me we just carried on and ignored the irritating little light as though it was an itch that couldn’t be reached and scratched!

Guimaraes Castle

I was glad to arrive in Guimarães without the embarrassment of having to call the emergency services and heading for the old town we eventually found a street with some vacant parking spaces.  To be honest, I am not very good at parking at the best of times, the next time I change my car I am going to get one that does it for you, intelligent parking I think it is called, but the Smart Car at only nine feet long and with no boot and no bonnet is surely the easiest car in the entire World to park.

If it is I did my best to prove that it isn’t.  I don’t like reverse parking, I especially don’t like reverse parking up hill and after I had found a space that I was confident that I could get into I proceeded to make a complete dog’s dinner of the simple procedure.

Lurching, lunging, backwards, forwards and after five minutes or so a small crowd of bemused bystanders were starting to form an audience, people were calling friends on their mobile phones to come and watch, newcomers were using doorsteps as terracing, people were peering over their balconies and I worried that soon we would need crowd control barriers.  It was only with Kim’s assistance that I eventually managed to squeeze it into a space that I have to admit would easily have accommodated three Smart Cars.

Smartcar

I nonchalantly acknowledged the assembled crowd with a casual nod of the head as though to say ‘that’s how to do it’  and the giggling subsided and  it started to disperse and then I tried to explain to Kim that the problem was that parking an automatic car without any form of clutch control was almost as difficult as landing a lunar module on the moon.  She wasn’t listening, she was unable to communicate on account of suffering a fit of uncontrollable laughter.  She said that next time I park a car she is going to make sure that she is wearing a corset so that she doesn’t split her sides.  Kim is always helpful and supportive like this in these situations!

After she had calmed down and recovered  her composure we walked through tidy streets and open green spaces without high expectation of Guimarães but we found a street map that indicated a Castle, a Palace and a UNESCO World Heritage site in the old centre and so we walked to the top of the city and into the grounds of the twelfth century fortress.

In 1881 the castle was declared the most important historical monument in this part of Portugal and in the 1900s a lot of work went into its restoration.  We went inside and were struck by the fact that they hadn’t spent a lot of the renovation budget on basic health and safety.  The Castle is a disaster waiting to happen, with uneven surfaces, irregular steps and almost completely without handrails or safety barriers to prevent visitors accidentally slipping off of the high battlements and becoming a permanent addition to the rocky foundations below.

Guimaraes Castle

After the castle we visited the Palace and without any explanation there was free admission today but where an officious attendant still insisted on issuing tickets and someone else insisted on checking them.  Inside the Palace of the Condes de Castro Guimarães there was a small museum containing family portraits and other paintings, as well as furniture, china, silver and gold objects and local prehistoric finds.  At just half an hour to walk round it was the perfect size for a museum and without crowds of other visitors to slow us down we wandered from room to room practically by ourselves.

From the castle we followed the cobbled Rua de Santa Maria, that didn’t look as though it had changed a great deal since the Middle Ages, down into the heart of the old town, where there are superbly restored historic buildings including a former sixteenth century Baroque convent of Santa Maria, now serving as the City council offices.

Guimaraes Portugal Kim

At the end of the street were two delightful squares with outdoor cafés and balconied houses, Praça de Santiago and Largo da Oliveira.  At Largo da Oliveira is the Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, with a Gothic shrine standing in front of it. There are many legends about its origins, but a popular story says it marks the spot where Wamba, elected king of the Visigoths, refused his title and drove a pole into the ground swearing that he would not reign until it blossomed and then as if my magic it sprouted immediately into spontaneous bloom whereupon he happily accepted the crown.

We walked right the way through the delightful streets of the old town and then reluctantly left Guimarães, one of the nicest places to visit in Portugal and returned to the car.  Fortunately it was a whole lot easier getting out of the parking space than it was getting in and we drove out of the city and made our way to nearby Braga.

Guimaraes BalconiesGuimaraes street

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Portugal, Porto to Vila Do Conde

Vila do Conde Santa Clara

The following day we were leaving Porto and taking the metro to Vila do Conde.  We thought it might be a good idea to hire a car so I used the Internet and booked a vehicle through Europcar , who in my experience are usually quite reliable and efficient and arranged to collect it from Porto Airport on our way north.

We had a final couple of hours in the city so we took a walk around the local area near to the hotel, a park, a convent and a church, quite different to the busy centre and then approaching midday we made our way to Trindade metro station.

It took about thirty minutes to travel to the airport on the Bombardier Flexity Outlook low-floor dual-carriage ‘Eurotram’ and it stopped every few minutes to pick up and drop off more passengers and it stopped fifteen times before we reached our destination.

I thought using Europcar with an office in the airport arrivals hall would be easy but I was about to be disappointed.  There was no office, just a reception desk and after waiting around for an eternity while the desk clerk dealt with a difficult customer we were directed to a shuttle bus to drive us a mile or so off site.

When we got there the office was ram-jam full and there was a forty-minute wait to get to the front of the line and during this time my patience tank was completely drained dry.  Eventually it was my turn to sign documents and pick up keys but I became uneasy about this simple process when the clerk began to shake his head and sigh.

It turned out that I had reserved a car using Europcar.com when I should have used Europcar.co.uk so I had made a reservation that is only for people from North America.  OK, so what, I suggested that he just amend the booking and we could take the keys and be away.  So he tapped away at his keyboard and scratched his head and told me the price would be higher, almost 50% higher and he was unable to explain to me to my satisfaction why citizens from the USA and Canada could get a better rate for hiring a car in Portugal than those from Europe.

I was so angry that I told him to poke it, reported the news to Kim who was unhappy about this unilateral decision and then we made our way back to the metro station where we queued for thirty minutes to get a ticket to get to Vila do Conde.  Kim was beginning to overheat.  It was like waiting for Vesuvius to erupt!

Cathedral Vila do Conde

Another thirteen stations later we arrived in Santa Clara and negotiated a steep climb up a pot-holed cobbled street to our hotel, the Santana Hotel and Spa. We had been here before so we knew all about it and we especially liked the restaurant but bad luck hadn’t finished with us today and the fine à la carte that we were looking forward to had been replaced by a tourist buffet menu and I began to sense another disappointment coming our way.

As I didn’t have a bucket of cold water to hand it was probably best that we spent some time apart right now so while Kim stayed in the room and went to the spa I took a walk down into the town.

My plan was to climb the hill on the other side of the river to the Santa Clara Convent which was once the largest in all of Portugal but is now no longer used for its original purpose and after spending some time as a prison is now rumoured to be being converted into a Pousada hotel, which is the Portuguese equivalent of the Spanish Paradors.

Next to the convent and snaking north away from the town are the extensive remains of the Aqueduto do Convento, a sixteenth century structure that was built to supply water to the Convent.  At four kilometres long it is claimed to be the second largest in Portugal after Lisbon but I have been to Tomar and their aqueduct is measured at six kilometres.

I am not taking sides, I am just saying!

Vila do Conde Aqueduct shadows

To put things into perspective the longest Roman Aqueduct served the city of Constantinople and was two hundred and fifty kilometres long.  The largest existing aqueduct in the world is the Thirlmere Aqueduct in North West England built between 1890 and 1925 and running one hundred and forty kilometres over and through hill and dale of the English countryside in pipes, streams, tunnels, dams and aqueducts.

The United States has the largest ‘water tunnel’ with a storage capacity of five hundred and fifty billion gallons and providing fresh water to the New York City’s eight million residents. Also in the US, the Central Arizona Project allows passage of water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona and at five hundred and forty kilometres it is the largest aqueduct ever constructed in the United States.

I admired the views from the Convent, walked a section of the aqueduct, found a mini-market for supplies and when I judged it safe to return to the hotel I walked a weary walk back up the hill to the Santana.  Oh how I wished that I had got a car!

Evening meal didn’t turn out to be too desperately disappointing and over an overflowing plate and a jug of cheap wine we made plans to go to the beach in the morning.

Vila do Conde Portugal

Portugal, The Glazed Tile Museum Town of Ovar

Azulejo OvarFish Tile OvarOvar Azulejo Ceramic TileOvar Glazed Tile Museum Town

Portugal, Coimbra to Furadouro

Coimbra Postcard

When we woke in the morning, instead of the blue skies that we had become accustomed to there was a thick mist over the river and the city and it didn’t look like clearing away any time soon.

We had planned to have a final hour exploring the streets of Coimbra but after a second excellent Hotel IBIS breakfast the mist had become a fog so we made breakfast last a while longer, waited around for half an hour or so and then made our way to the railway station and waited for the train to Aveiro.

The plan now was to spend a few days at the coast, relax and to take a break from the city visits.

The train was on time and it didn’t take long to get there and as we crossed a spur of the River Boca and looked out towards the lagoons and the Atlantic Ocean we could have been forgiven for thinking we had been transported to Venice because the city has a very Italianate architecture and a waterway full of Gondolas.

Not surprising then that Aveiro is sometimes called the Venice of Portugal.

Aviero Postcard

Other places have their own associations with Venice – London and Birmingham in England are two examples as are Amsterdam in the Netherlands, St Petersburg in Russia, Prague in the Czech Republic and Edinburgh in Scotland who are all sometimes called the ‘Venice of the North’.  There is a Little Venice in Michigan USA and another in Bavaria in Germany, there is a casino in Las Vegas designed as Venetian canals and there is even one entire country that is called ‘Little Venice’.

The name ‘Venezuela’ is believed to have originated from the Italian explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci who led a 1499 naval expedition along the northwestern coast of South America.  When he landed he saw people living in houses on stilts and using boats that were shaped like gondolas. He thought that the country resembled Venice so he named it Venezuela, which means ‘Little Venice’.  That’s a bit odd I suppose when you consider that Venezuela is nearly two thousand three hundred times bigger than Venice itself!

We thought that we might like to stop a while and explore Aveiro but there wasn’t really time because we had a train connection to make and needed to dash to the Porto Metro line for the train to the nearby city of Ovar.

On first impression we weren’t quite sure what to make of Ovar, it seemed like the end of the World, almost like that scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when they first get off the train in Bolivia and wondered why they had gone there.

Furadouro Stone Fishes

We needed to travel about three miles west to the seaside town of Furadouro and rather unsure and completely disorientated we broke our no taxi rule for a second time in four days and hitched a ride to our hotel, the Furadouro Spa.  The taxi dropped us off outside reception and we went inside to register where on account of a nippy wind coming in off the sea the staff were in thick jackets and expressed surprise that we were wearing our summer clothes when, in their opinion, it was so cold.  We explained about being from England and living on the North Sea East Coast.

After we had approved our accommodation and settled in, good but not as good as the last three in Lisbon, Tomar and Coimbra we stepped outside to take a look at Furadouro.  This didn’t take very long, but we found a restaurant that caught our eye for later on and a nice pavement bar to have a beer and then we made our way to the seafront.

There was a strong wind blowing, towering Atlantic breakers and red flags flapping furiously, rather unnecessary in my opinion because only a crazy person would go into a sea as mad as that.  Only half crazy we went into the sea but only up to our ankles with an occasional waist high splash and we walked the beach for about two miles or so.

Furaduero Beach Portugal

Portugal is famous for its Atlantic beaches which stretch for one thousand, one hundred and fifteen miles and along this coastline are three hundred Blue Flag Beaches which is the fifth highest amongst participating countries but looking at the statistics in a different way and dividing length of coastline by number of beaches, Portugal is way out in front and storms into first place with one blue flag every three and three-quarter miles.

It was certainly storming today and as we walked the salt spray splashed our clothes and the wind whipped sand stung our faces.

We could have walked forever along pristine sands between Sahara like dunes on one side and crashing waves on the other but eventually we reached an agreed point and with only more sand and surf stretching out before us as far as we could see we turned around and returned to Furadoura.  We hoped the sea might be calmer tomorrow and we might be able to go for a swim.

Later we found a back street fish restaurant overflowing with local people so on the basis that this is always a good sign we requested a table and had a first class meal for a very reasonable price and we agreed, as we always do, that we would come back tomorrow.  On the way out we attempted to book a table but the waiter told us they were closed now for an end of summer vacation.

We were having a lot of bad luck with restaurant closures in Portugal that was for sure!

Furadouro fish restaurant

Portugal, The University and Cathedrals of Coimbra

The University of Coimbra Portugal

I liked the IBIS hotel in Coimbra and I especially liked the breakfast, it wasn’t expensive but it was expansive and I probably managed to eat rather more than I should have.

In between return trips to the buffet table we debated our options for the day.  I wanted to return to the University and take the tours but Kim wasn’t keen so we compromised.  I would go to the University in the morning and Kim would find the shops and then we would meet later for lunch.

So we left the hotel and at the busy square went our separate ways and I made the climb to the top for a second time.  I went straight to the University to purchase my ticket because visits are timed and I wanted to get in there early.  I needn’t have panicked because early in the morning it wasn’t that busy and I bought a ticket for fifteen minutes later.

Coimbra University Portugal

I purchased the tour which included the Joanina Library and took my place in the line of people waiting for the same time slot.

Built in the eighteenth century it is a National Monument and has priceless historical value being the main tourist attraction in Coimbra.  The building has three floors and contains about two hundred and fifty thousand volumes and being someone who loves books this place is a little bit of heaven.  The collection dates from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries and represents the finest works from Europe at the time on the subjects of medicine, geography, history, science, law, philosophy and theology.

For old books they are in remarkably good condition, I have books in my own collection which are barely thirty years old and are badly foxed and falling apart.  This is the result of strict atmospheric control, nothing modern however just down to the original construction, thick exterior walls and bookcases which are made of oak which is a dense wood that prevents boring insects from taking up residence.  The books are also protected by a small colony of bats that live in the building and during the night consume the insects that appear that might otherwise damage the collection.

The downside is that the bats make a nasty mess and that is why the library doesn’t open until eleven o’clock.  I won’t go into unnecessary details here.

Joanina Library Coimbra University

For such a famous building the tour was over really rather quickly, rather disappointing really, the main library room, down to a study room and some exhibits and then down again to some grim cells where in the past misbehaving students were sent to reflect and repent.  They don’t use them any more because I guess they would be full to overcrowding every night.

The tour included entrance to an ornate chapel which didn’t really strike me as anything particularly special and then the old Royal Apartments which are now the main celebration and awards ceremony rooms for the University where there were some fine views from the top across the whole of the city and beyond.

After the University my ticket was good for entrance to the Science Museum just a short walk away and determined to get full value for my purchase I went there next.  I am not really all that keen on science, at school in 1970 I failed every single science ‘o’ level – chemistry, physics, biology, chemistry with physics and physics with chemistry – the list was endless.  The following year I had a shot at the allegedly much easier subject of General Science which it was said that a ten year old with a toy chemistry set could pass but I failed that as well.

chemistry set

After ‘o’ level and if you were staying on at school students were separated into sixth form Arts and sixth form Science.  I didn’t have to spend very much time deliberating the matter!

The only thing I ever really liked about science was the Science Museum in London and I remember going there several times as a boy, unfortunately the Science Museum in Coimbra wasn’t nearly so interesting so it didn’t detain me for long.  Next to it was a Natural History museum which had an enormous collection of stuffed animals which I imagine can only be of great interest to a taxidermist so I didn’t stay there very long either.

Instead I made my way down from the top of the hill to rendezvous with Kim as arranged stopping briefly on the way down to visit the old (Romanesque) and the new (Portuguese Colonial) cathedrals, nothing special about either of them but both worth a courtesy visit.

Coimbra Cathedrals

Back at the river we met as planned and stopped for a brief lunch before taking an afternoon stroll along both sides of the river with good views of the old city of Coimbra especially from the west bank.

I was dreading the next job which was to go and buy railway tickets for the next stage of our journey to the city of Ovar just south of Porto.  I thought that it was quite likely that I would explode with impatient rage if I had to queue at one of those awful ticket machines but it was a lot more civilized in Coimbra and there was a proper ticket office and no great line of people.  I bought the tickets and went for a beer in the sunshine  to celebrate.

Later we went back to the same restaurant and over a second excellent meal we declared the whole visit to Coimbra to be a complete success and we looked forward to the next day and three days and nights at the Atlantic Coast and the seaside down of Furadouro.

Coimbra Portugal

Portugal, Coimbra Pictures

Coinbra Wall Art MuralCoimbra Wall ArtCoimbra Univerisity

Portugal, Tomar to Coimbra and the story of Fatima

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After a final breakfast at Conde de Ferreira Palace we checked our bags and documents, left and walked the short distance to the railway station and waited with a handful of other passengers for the train to Lisbon.

We weren’t going back to Lisbon of course but first had to go south to make a connection for a train to our next destination – Coimbra.

We were a little early but sat in the sun until departure time and then climbed on board and enjoyed the short journey to Lamarosa where we switched trains to Coimbra.

After a few stops we pulled into a station for the town and pilgrimage site of Fatima and I mention this here only because a few weeks earlier we had visited Ireland and been to the pilgrimage site of Knock which has a very similar story.

Greetings From Knock

In the spring and summer of 1916, nine-year-old Lúcia Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco were herding sheep and later claimed that they were visited three times by an apparition of an angel. They said the angel, who identified himself as the “Angel of Peace” and “Angel of Portugal“, taught them prayers and to spend time in adoration of the Lord.

Then, beginning in the spring of 1917, the children reported more appearances of the angel and starting in May 1917, they cranked the story up to a new level to include apparitions of the Virgin Mary.

Fatima Children

These little children look trustworthy enough don’t you think, would they make up such a yarn?  If my children came home one evening with such an unlikely tale I would tell them not to make up ridiculous stories and to forget all about it or they wouldn’t get any supper.

I confess that I am rather sceptical about these stories, I think it is something that is mostly good for tourism and rather conveniently the two boys died soon after in the flu pandemic that swept across Europe after the First World War so could answer no further questions on the matter.  The Virgin Mary and her miracles were not much help to them were they!

Lúcia became a Nun and took a convenient vow of silence on the matter although she did write an account of three secrets and passed this to the Vatican for safe keeping.  All have now been revealed – a vision of Hell (not difficult with a good imagination) the end of the first World War followed by a second (revealed in 1941 so a bit of hindsight might have helped) and a vague warning about persecution of Christians.

The widely reported sightings were the catalyst then for the tiny village of Fátima to quickly become a major centre of Catholic pilgrimage. Two million people visited the site in the decade following the events of 1917.  In 1930 the Catholic Church officially recognised the apparition events as “worthy of belief” and granted a papal indulgence to pilgrims visiting Fátima.

Fátima today is the most visited Catholic Pilgrimage site in all of Europe, I’ll say that again – the most visited Catholic Pilgrimage site in all of Europe,  with even more visitors every year than the Vatican, Lourdes or Santiago de Compostela.   The most visited Catholic Pilgrimage site in the World is The Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in Mexico City, where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared in the sixteenth century (yes, you’ve guessed it) to a poor peasant and estimates for annual visitation to the basilica run as high as twenty million, which is a figure getting close to the entire population of Australia.

The most religious country in Western Europe is Malta where in a survey in 2010 95% of the population said that they were practicing Catholics.  Nearby Italy (where the Pope lives) only managed 74%.   Portugal registered 72% and was fifth in the list. The least religious countries are all in the north where over 80% of respondents in Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Sweden all said that religion isn’t very important at all.

Interestingly this survey didn’t seem to include the Vatican State where I imagine the response would surely have been 100%.

Fatima Portugal

Today many thousands of Portuguese Catholics make the pilgrimage to Fátima. The German couple at breakfast in Tomar visited one day and reported that there were eight hundred buses in the coach park all bringing visitors to the sighting of the Virgin Mary.  Not all that surprising really because 2017 is the hundredth anniversary of the sighting, specifically the 13th October.

The Virgin Mary had promised a miracle for the last of her apparitions and on this date a huge crowd of possibly hundred thousand people turned up. What happened then became known as the “Miracle of the Sun”.

Knock Holy Shrine 02

Various claims have been made as to what actually occurred during the event. The three children who originally said that they saw Our Lady of Fátima reported seeing a panorama of visions including those of Jesus, Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and of Saint Joseph blessing the people.

According to accounts, after a period of rain, the dark clouds broke and the sun appeared as an opaque, spinning disc in the sky. It was said to cast multicolored lights across the landscape, the people, and the surrounding clouds. The sun was then reported to have careered towards the earth before making its way back to its normal position.

Could this be true, I don’t know. Maybe it was just an ordinary sunset.  I keep an open mind on the matter of  Marian Apparitions, does the Virgin Mary every now and again keep randomly appearing to people in remote towns and villages, maybe!

Anyway this being the hundredth anniversary of the miracle the pilgrimage town of Fátima was planning the Mother of all parties to celebrate.

Fatima 100 year anniversary

After Fátima the train passed through several more towns and villages before arriving in Coimbra where we took a taxi to the city centre IBIS hotel.

I hate taxis, I am a very nervous taxi passenger, I am petrified of the metre which seems to rack up charges at an alarming rate, faster than the acceleration of an Apollo rocket on its way to the moon and I spend any taxi journey fixated upon the clock.  I am almost as afraid of taxis as I am of dogs, but that is another story.

As it turned out, the journey cost less than €10 so I was panicking about nothing really and soon we had checked in, approved our room and were ready to visit the historical centre of Coimbra.

Coimbra Mosaic

* A Marian Apparition is a reported supernatural appearance by the Blessed Virgin Mary. The miracle is often named after the town where it is reported.