Tag Archives: Car Hire Portugal

A to Z of Balconies – Guimarães in Portugal

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. That is what you call ‘Flower Power’.

Read The Full Story Here…

Travels in Portugal, Time Zones and Revisits

Algarve

We arrived at Faro airport as it was beginning to get dark and by pure chance managed to walk to our accommodation without making any serious mistakes.  We settled in to our basic accommodation and the first thing that I remembered not to do was to change the time on my watch.

Normally travelling to Europe involves adding an hour on but not so Portugal because along with Ireland and Iceland, Portugal is the only other European country that shares Western European Time with the United Kingdom.

Looking at a map of European time zones this looks odd but there is an explanation.  France, The Low Countries and Spain should sensibly be in the western zone but during World-War-Two the Nazi occupiers changed France, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg to Central European time for the convenience of Adolf Hitler in Berlin.  For the sake of consistency Nazi sympathiser Franco changed Spain at the same time but anti-German Salazar of Portugal stayed as they were.

Time Zones.jpg

I got caught out by this several years ago when I first visited Portugal.  When we landed in Porto I instinctively added an hour and thought nothing of it.  During the visit however something puzzled me because all of the clocks seemed to be an hour behind and even at the railway station the displays said four when our watches said five.  I thought that this was strange so asked an official who confirmed that it was indeed four and smiled when I showed him my watch and suggested that it was five.  It turns out that we had been an hour ahead of ourselves for almost two days and this explained why it was still light at half past six at night in January, why the restaurant staff were surprised when we turned up for dinner an hour early, why the breakfast room was empty at six in the morning and also why it was so cold when we went out sightseeing in the dark.  This, let me tell you was a most disorientating experience and one thing is certain, I will never make a Time Lord!

For my first meal in Portugal I had imagined grilled sardines or piri-piri chicken but there was an absence of restaurants at the airport site so we had to settle for a burger and fries in a nearby American diner which I have to confess was really rather good.

Algarve Sardines

The following morning I collected the hire car from the airport but there was a problem because I had made a mistake with the start date.  Here I was making sure I had got the time right regarding the issue of the hour but I had somehow managed to be a complete twenty-four hours out on the car hire and I should have been there the day before to collect it.

Anyway, we sorted it out, the car was still there somewhere waiting for me and after the staff located it handed over the keys to a street scarred Peugeot 305 we were soon on our way heading west away from Faro.

I had visited the Algarve twice before, the first time in 1986 on a road-trip with pals and then in 1994 on a family holiday so I was curious to see if the southern Algarve was anything like I remembered it to be.

The first stop was Albufeira which once had a thriving fishing industry but sometime in the 1960s turned to tourism and began a hotel building programme to attract visitors from Northern Europe.  I remembered sitting on the promenade drinking beer and looking over a beach where there was still some working fishing boats to see.  There is no room for boats on the beach anymore because today it was completely covered in sun-beds and parasols and flanked by bars and tourist shops.

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Actually I didn’t find that it changed a great deal except that it was so much busier than I remembered.  We stayed for a while, walked through the shopping streets of the old town through the tunnel cut through the rocks for fishing boats that no longer use it and down to the beachfront.  On the way out we stopped briefly for an excellent light lunch and then left and continued west towards our destination, the seaside resort of Carvoeiro where we would be staying for three days.

In 1986 I stayed in the small village of Alcantarilha which I remembered as a single street dusty little place with one shop.  Not so any more as it has grown into a big holiday village and I quickly abandoned any thoughts of attempting to find the villa or the shop.  The villa I know is still there because I know the people who live there but I imagine the old shop to be a modern supermarket – ALDI most likely.

This was the shop…

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My plan was to drive through Armação de Pêra which in my memory was a pleasant fishing village with a big sandy beach but from the main road all I could see was a string of tall hotels and a sprawl of holiday accommodation so I abandoned that idea as well and drove on to Carvoeiro and hoped that this may not have changed too drastically since 1986.  But of course it had…

Old Carvoeiro

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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 Balconies

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