Tag Archives: UNESCO Portugal

Travels in Portugal, Return to Algarve

Algarve map

We left quite soon after breakfast because we had a long drive ahead of us now back to the Algarve.

Once again we had a pleasant journey across the Alentejo region as we headed south along mostly empty roads gliding effortlessly across the wide open plains.  Compared to the Algarve it is a largely undeveloped region where hillsides are as important as beaches, Roman ruins are celebrated as much as golf resorts, rural vineyards promoted as well as luxury marinas – it is, I suggest, a more varied experience.

The Alentejo is also linked to many of the most important chapters of Portuguese history. It saw the birth of Vasco da Gama at Sines and the death of the ‘Holy Queen’ Isabel at Estremoz. It was at Atoleiros that the celebrated knight Nuno Álvares Pereira achieved his first victory in the battle for independence from Castile and it was at Vila Viçosa in February 1908 that King Carlos spent his last night before being shot down and killed by republican activists in Lisbon’s Praça do Comércio the next day.

After an hour or so we left the flat plains behind as we began to climb steadily into the mountains that separate the two regions.  We knew when we passed into Algarve because the roads immediately improved and became busier as we entered the Portuguese poster region.

We planned to have an easy two days before travelling home and had chosen a rural location in a village called Vale Judeu quite close to the busy town of Vilamoura.  We were too early to check in so we went straight to the resort town for lunch.  We immediately wished that we hadn’t.  The official guide boasts that “Vilamoura is unlike any other Portuguese town, gone is the dilapidated charm, replaced with striking perfection, which is simply expected by the super-rich who frequent the marina.”

It is a modern purpose built tourist resort completely lacking in any sort of character.  We prefer ‘dilapidated charm’ and are certainly not ‘super-rich’ so stayed no longer than half-an-hour before quickly leaving without a single glance in the rear-view mirror.  I should have carried out better research.

After arrival at the hotel we took a stroll into the village where we found the dilapidated charm that we like and instead of roving packs of British golfers in between golf courses found an untidy bar full of locals in between food courses so stayed for a while and had a simple lunch.

Portugal Cock

Close by was a restaurant that came highly recommended so after a quiet afternoon around the swimming pool we returned for evening meal.  We shared a simple starter of grilled sardines and a main course of monk fish stew with beans, both delicious.  We had walked eight miles today.

For our final day we made plans to drive east to the town of Tavira, the last big town on the Algarve before crossing the Rio Guardiana into Spain.  We were meeting my blogging pal Jo who I have been friends with now for several years through our web sites.

I was looking forward to Tavira.  In 1965 the artist David Swift who wrote a travel guide to the Algarve said this … “For my money Tavira is the most enchanting town of Algarve.  It stands on two hills on either bank of a river, the Segua which is crossed by a seven arched Roman bridge.  The hills are crowned with castles and churches yet from the middle green fields can be glimpsed in one direction and the sea in the other”.

Roman Bridge

Fifty-five years later I wasn’t expecting it to be quite the same as described but I was delighted to find that Swift would almost certainly have recognised the place that he recommended so highly.  A wide fast flowing river, steep hills, whitewashed shops and houses, terracotta roofs and cobbled streets and still with its thirty-seven churches and a ferry service to the beach islands to the south.  What a delightful contrast to the dreadful resort town of Vilamoura.

ilha_tavira-ferry_boat

We spent a splendid afternoon in Tavira with Jo and husband Mike as our expert guides and as we drove back to our hotel we were in agreement that Tavira is a place that we need to see some more of.

For our final night we returned inevitably to the same restaurant, Kim had a beef steak and I had a salted cod stew.  The Portuguese love cod and it is said that there are three hundred and sixty-five different recipes, one for every day of the year so I thought it was time to try one of them.  I enjoyed it, the fish was firm and meaty but maybe just a little too salty for my taste.  We had walked seven and a half miles today.

In preparation for an early departure we packed before going to bed, I was quite glad actually, it is exciting to travel but it is nice to go home as well!

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Travels in Portugal, Estremoz to Evora

Estremoz,_portal

So reluctantly we left Elvas but although disappointed about that we were looking forward to our next destination, the nearby town of Estremoz.

With some difficulty we found our rural accommodation and after settling in we set off into the town to explore.  I find that I am rarely disappointed with places that I choose to visit but almost immediately I knew that this was one of them.

I cannot fully explain it.  Maybe it was because we had really liked Elvas and this didn’t compare, maybe our expectation bar had been raised too high, maybe it was because we turned up in the middle of the siesta, I don’t know exactly what it was but we just didn’t take to Estremoz.  The guide book said that it was a town of dazzling marble but we found it dull and untidy.  Sorry Estremoz.

Estremoz Street

I suppose it didn’t really help that the accommodation that we had booked and came highly recommended didn’t exactly match the reviews.

We spent an hour or so around the town centre without finding anything of special interest so we hastily abandoned the place and made instead to the old town and castle which are high above.

This was an interesting place sure enough, the original town of Moorish Estremoz settled around the castle sited on the highest point around but very much abandoned now as the town and its residents has had the confidence to leave the security of high walls and battlements and spread out in the modern town below.  The people that are left cling on to crumbling houses with sinking roofs with views of the stars, cracked plaster walls and weather scarred timbers. If this place doesn’t soon get some tender loving care and investment then it will sure enough become a ghost town.

The walk to the top took us through neglected streets and gardens, some youths played football and tinkered with motorbike engines.  Litter collected in the corners.  They eyed us with suspicion.  I eyed them with equal suspicion.  I felt uneasy, I didn’t feel comfortable there.  By contrast at the top was a five star Pousada hotel which to me seemed hopelessly out of place. Extravagance amongst poverty just seems incompatible and wrong.  There was a bar/restaurant with a roof top terrace with good views over the marble quarry spoil heaps and we liked it there so being a confessed hypocrite I booked a table for dinner later that evening.

So in the late afternoon we returned to the accommodation that we didn’t really like very much and spent an hour or so around the swimming pool that only someone with a disease death wish would have considered using.  I understand that Lord Byron used to swim the Grand Canal in Venice but I doubt very much that he would have risked this stagnant water. We sat and swatted away the flies, drank some wine and waited for evening and a return to the castle restaurant which turned out to be excellent despite the fact that some people thought it was acceptable to smoke cigarettes in the room and the owners and staff didn’t seem to mind.

Estremoz Sunset

The food was good, Kim had roast lamb Alentejo style and I had black pig pork cheeks. It was quite expensive. We had walked nine miles today.

We slept well but at the breakfast table there was a plague of flies of Biblical proportions which meant that everything was completely inedible including the tea and coffee so we abandoned it as soon as we could, paid up, left and set off or the city of Evora. We didn’t even look in the rear view mirror as we left, we were just glad to leave. Sorry Estremoz.

Just a short ride out of the town we arrived in the small town of Evoramonte with an impressive castle sitting at the very top so we left the main road and drove into the village and took the single track road to the castle. Inside the walls was a small community with a church and a graveyard, more crumbling houses and a few tourist shops.

Evoramonte Castle Walk

The castle is rather unusual, it doesn’t look like a medieval castle at all but more like a German World-War-Two concrete bunker or a modern farm grain silo, very stout and very strong but also very ugly. We paid the entry fee (senior’s rates) and climbed to the top. There were some magnificent views over the plains of Alentejo but today was exceptionally windy and as a gale whistled through the stone battlements it was even quite difficult to retain balance and not get blown away and over the top.

Evoramonte was an interesting short stop over but now we continued our drive to Evora, the capital of the Alentejo region and the largest city in Portugal south of Lisbon, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had high expectations of Evora as we drove in and found our hotel close to the centre.

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Travels in Portugal, Preparation and Arrival

Algarve Postcard Map 3

We generally take our main annual holiday in September. Sometimes we go to the sea, usually the Greek Islands which are our favourites and sometimes we travel.  This year we decided to travel and we chose to go to Portugal.

There are organised guided tours available for this sort of thing but we prefer to make our own arrangements and not be restricted by a holiday company schedule and inevitable stops at shopping centres and outlet factories that suit the Company but not the Traveller.

In 2017 we travelled through Northern Portugal using the trains but this time we planned to go South where the railway network is difficult or practically non-existent, so this time we were driving.  Our plan was to visit the Algarve region and visit the towns and beaches of the south and west and then head inland to the historic towns of Beja, Evora, Estremoz and Elvas and also to spend a few days in Extremadura in Spain.

In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting.

Sardine Cans Portugal

I started as usual with the Human Development Index which ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed amongst other criteria from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income. Portugal is ranked forty-first which is quite low, especially for Europe but it is improving and is up two places from the previous year.

Although it is in Western Europe (in fact it is the most western mainland European country) Portugal did not begin to catch up with its neighbours until 1968 after the death of the dictator António Salazar, the Left Wing Carnation Revolution of 1972 and eventual entry into the European Community in 1986.

Unhappily, the European economic crisis has had a negative effect on Portugal’s position in the Europe Happiness Index and it is rated at only fifteenth out of thirty which is one place behind the United Kingdom.  Finland is the happiest and Albania (no real surprise) the least jolly.

The Country has fifteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites and our previous travel took us to six – The Tower of Belém in Lisbon, built to commemorate the expeditions of Vasco da Gama, The National Palace of Sintra, the Convent of the Knights Templar of Tomar, the University of Coimbra, the Historic town of Guimarães and the Historic Centre of Porto.  This time we would add two more, the Garrison Border Town of Elvas and its Fortifications and the Historic Centre of Évora.

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 all participating countries but looking at the statistics in a different way they get even better and dividing length of coastline by number of beaches, Portugal is way out in front and storms into first place with one proud blue flag flapping away every three and three-quarter miles or so.

When it comes to wine, screw caps have all but completely replaced the cork. Interestingly 35% of the World’s cork forests and 50% of World supply comes from Portugal so there for the time being the cork stopper still reigns supreme even in the cheapest bottles of wine.

My next measure is always the Eurovision Song Contest and Portugal has participated in the annual contest forty-nine times since its debut in the 1964.  Up until recently the country held the unfortunate record for the most appearances in the contest without a win but they put that right in 2017 when they won in Kiev with Salvador Sobral’s entry, “Amar Pelos Dois”.

Algarve Map Silves Electricity Boxes

In my research I have discovered some more impressive statistics: Portugal is ranked third in the Global Peace Index, just behind Iceland and New Zealand.  The index gauges global peace using three measures – the level of safety and security in society, the extent of domestic and international conflict and the degree of militarisation. Portugal for example was one of only a few European countries that escaped involvement in the Second-World-War, the others were Spain (even though they supported Nazi Germany), Switzerland (only in theory of course because they did a lot of Nazi banking and gold trading), Sweden and The Republic of Ireland.

On the subject or war and peace, the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance (Aliança Inglesa) ratified at the Treaty of Windsor in 1386, between England and Portugal, is the oldest alliance in the world that is still in force – with an even earlier treaty dating back to the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373.  England (UK) and Portugal have never been on opposite sides in any military conflict which is a very impressive statistic when you consider that in that time England (UK) has at one time or another been at war at some time or another with almost every other European country.

We left the UK from a dreary, overcast Manchester Airport in late afternoon and in less than three hours later we were watching a glorious sunset from a hotel balcony in Faro in Portugal.

I like Portugal and I was glad to be back.

Algarve Map on Beach Towel

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