Springtime in northern Portugal has meant that I have had everything from 28 degrees and sunshine on some days to 12 degrees with tropical downpours and hail on another day. So, there are not too many photos of me in this first blog post.
Porto is a delightful city - my first time here. Once my calves and feet adjusted to the hills and cobblestone streets, I’ve been enjoying wandering with no specific destination in mind, but just seeing what I discover. The first few photos show the UNESCO world heritage Ribeira district of Porto, located on the banks of the Douro river. I walked across the massive arched bridge, designed by Gustav Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, to get the best views of Ribeira. The funicular back up the hills had long queues, so I walked the 300+ steps up from Ribeira back to the height of the bridge. Another day, I discovered a much more gentle route back up the hill, along some pleasant shopping streets.
Porto has many gorgeous churches, as well as buildings covered inside and outside with painted tiles that are called azulejos. One of the best-known is the Sao Bento train station - the murals here were specifically commissioned to tell the history of Portugal and are in the typical blue and white colours. Another amazing building is the Palacio Bolsa (the stock exchange) where I took a guided tour. The Livraria Lello bookshop is frequently described as one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world - it has a stained glass ceiling and an amazing staircase that is said to have inspired JK Rowling who was living in Porto when she was writing one of the Harry Potter books. It’s so popular that there’s a 5 euro entry fee, redeemable if you buy a book.
I hadn’t realised that northern Portugal is the kick off point for the Portuguese version of the Camino to Santiago de Compostela. On my flight from Melbourne, I met a Sydney woman who was doing a two week camino. And in Braga, I chatted for 90 minutes over lunch one day to a talkative British guy. He was a management consultant, who was semi-retired and regularly came to Portugal to walk one section of the Camino for a week at a time. Instead of being penitent, I have been eating dark chocolate coated nuts! You can enjoy them vicariously through my photo of the shop window.
I spent two nights in Braga, the third largest city in Portugal after Lisbon and Porto. It has been the religious capital of Portugal since the 12th century and it hosts major religious ceremonies during the week leading up to Easter. It is also a university town and when I arrived, I was greeted by student volunteers who welcomed me to town and told me about a free 2 hour walking tour that was offered twice daily. After quickly dumping my backpack in my guesthouse, I joined the walking tour which provided a great orientation. I really liked the mix of historical buildings and modern boulevards, with lots of people out enjoying the sunshine and the public holiday. We also walked past some of the more than 30 churches in Braga! I was interested to learn that the Portuguese flag on the Town Hall was flying at half-mast on Good Friday. Also, in some of the churches I visited, the sculpture of Christ on the crucifix had been taken down from the wall and placed in front of the altar.
About six km from Braga is the famous sanctuary of Bom Jesus. A monumental stairway to a shrine was completed in about 1810. The huge external staircase includes the Stations of the Cross, numerous fountains and other religious symbols. I took the easy way up to the shrine, opting for a water-powered funicular. It was fascinating to see the driver fill a pipe under the funicular with water at the beginning of each journey.
After Braga, I returned to my charming guesthouse in Porto for another four nights. In both Porto and Braga, I chose small guest houses with only about six guest rooms - the staff were incredibly friendly and both places were great value and well located. I’ve included a photo of the sunny, yellow breakfast room in my Porto guesthouse.
From my base in Porto, I made two other day trips - by train individually to Guimaraes, and with a small group tour to the Douro valley wine region, home of port. Guimaraes is called the birthplace of Portugal as it was the home of Portugal’s first king. I visited an impressive palace, replete with medieval tapestries, ornate furniture and weapons.
My Douro valley tour was shared with a lovely American couple from Charlotte, North Carolina, and led by our fabulous guide, Pedro. The Douro Valley is about 90 minutes drive from Porto. In theory, you can take a boat the whole way but it takes 6 hours one way to even get to the wine region as the river has many locks, so driving is a better option. We visited two wineries - a small family winery that was housed in an old abbey, and one of the larger English wineries. The Port Wine Institute regulates everything to do with the production of port in the valley. No irrigation is allowed; instead the grapes are grown on terraced hillsides. Each vineyard has a quota that they are allowed to produce, all wines are assessed for quality by the Institute. I tasted white, pink, tawny and ruby ports and ended up buying a bottle of white port to bring home. The region where port wines are allowed to be produced was declared back in about 1750, so its the oldest DOC protected wine zone, and the largest wine growing region, in the world. We also saw the elaborate tiles on the Pinhao railway station. The day was capped off with a one hour cruise along the Douro river. Our guide was good friends with the captain, so the three of us spent most of the trip on the upper deck, chatting to the captain, and taking turns steering the ship down the river. The wheel was surprisingly sensitive, so you had to be careful not to get to close to the river banks. The 100 passengers, down below from other tours, had no idea that the three of us on our private tour, were sailing the boat most of the time!
Now I’m heading south, hopefully to some more sunshine.