Douro Valley’s Alchemy – Pinhão

Douro Valley’s Alchemy – Pinhão

Portugal… Name three things it is most famous for… The Algarve’s coast and golf courses may be, surfing on the wild west coast definitely and….. of course the Douro Valley and its Port. 

Who can go to Portugal and not be enticed into the world of this rich tawny nectar that has a subtle elegance like no other drink? If this your preferred tipple and in fact, even if it is not, why not explore the Douro Valley and its magical energy that will have you submissive to its power! Come with us as we sample just a tiny part of Portugal’s third largest river and its elixir of red loveliness as we take a little detour from our route north, to Pinhão.

 

 

Picture Perfect Douro Valley

At 557 miles long (897km) Portugal’s Douro Valley competes with the Tagus and Ebro rivers for supremacy. And with its curvaceous mountains arching above the sparkling blue waters and acres of fertile terraced farms, it may win. Tuscany has its rolling hills and larch trees framing the landscape although the Douro has a canvas with a 3D quality that if it were a book would most certainly jump out at you. 

There is nothing flat or bland about this landscape. Carved, chiselled and moulded, these ridged hillsides have been shaped by hand to maximise the soil’s nourishing minerals and the sun’s rays. If there was ever an epitome of man and nature working in harmony, the Douro would be it. Our blessing is the result of this partnership creating the most sensual flavour of Port imaginable.

 

 

Whenever you visit, the Douro will offer you something enchanting.  In early spring the shade of new terraces being crafted into the hill side create their own vision as the season takes hold for another year.  As the summer months approach, new growth begins to alter the view as vines begin to bear fruit and flourish in the Iberian sun. Can you imagine autumn and how the vines change into golden and deep red hews? How incredible this changing tapestry is. Each season a different perspective, each year a new vista as the land shifts to man’s demands. This really is the ultimate living landscape.

With its origins in Spain, the Douro courses its way through the valley until it reaches its final destination at Porto and its paternal Atlantic. And along this entire stretch of waterway, vineyards stand proud as they perch on the ridges high above the water’s edge hoping to attract the sun as it warms the soil and sweetens its fruit.  This is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world and the Douro has also made it into the World Heritage list – just two reasons alone for making a visit here.

 

 

Douro’s Alchemy – Pinhão

So what of Pinhão? Well it might be small in stature although this gorgeous and typical working town really packs a punch. As you travel up the river or on the N222 east from Peso da Régua, you’ll not miss this thriving heart of the Douro valley. On the northern banks of the river, this town scales the slopes, optimising its position for the passage of the sun. 

As we approached it by road we were welcomed by the town as it clings to the sides of the mountain with boats buzzing up and down the river. Its bridge that magnificently arches over the sparkling blue waters, is larger than life. As you cross it, you enter a world of local industry, productivity and pride as the farmers tend to their land, their vines and their produce. There is so little tourism here, despite the three daily cruise boats that moor up overnight waiting for their passengers’ Quinta tours. We spotted only a couple of tourist shops which was so refreshing. I’m sure during the high season this might well change although for early spring it was lovely to walk around the town without that commercial edge. 

To make the most of your visit, here are 7 ways to fill your time in this little part of heaven. 

 

1. Drive the N222 from Peso da Régua to Pinhão

Whilst perhaps not specifically ‘What to do in Pinhão’, given that the N222 route east from Régua to Pinhão is one the best routes in Europe, it has to be on your list of ‘must do’s.  From Peso da Régua, you take a right turn before the two iconic bridges from where you begin your enchanting journey. Although only 30 minutes driving time, this is one of those roads you need to savour as if it were a divine glass of Port; unlike a chaser that is downed in one, this route demands to be sipped with an awareness of how it affects you. And visually it certainly delivers.

A full view of the Douro is seen at all times as you weave around the architectural mountains that hold such precious secrets. The vista comes alive when we see sailing boats and cruise boats navigating the water looking for their own version of paradise. As you turn left towards Pinhão on N323, your destination is in sight; the allure of Pinhão soon becomes evident as you see this small town clinging to the mountain side offering its magical invitation to sample something so much more than its Port. Your road trip, whilst short, gives you such an amazing introduction to the soul of the Douro and cannot be missed.  If you need more convincing, check out our gallery below by clicking the image.

 

 

2. Visit the viewpoint of Casal de Loivos

High up in the hills above Pinhão you will find the secret gem of Casal de Loivos. This is an incredible panoramic vista across the Douro mountains and river. Not only will you be breathless from the climb or cycle up there, the scenery will steal your words and your breath. See the river snaking around the natural curves in the valley that it has carved over thousands of years. Observe the iconic sculpting of the land for the vineyards which are more shapely than a buxom lass. This picture perfect view will leave you in no doubt about the Douro’s majesty.

A word of warning. Whilst the viewpoint is only three miles away, it is at least a mile and a half of gruelling almost vertical roads. There is a longer route that you can take by taxi, car or bike, although, if like us you take the short cut, be prepared to either be extremely fit or have your electricity on full power. It was one of the most challenging cycles we’ve done for a long time. 

 

 

3. Take a Port tasting session at Quinta do Bomfim

Of course a visit to this region would not be complete without a tasting session. And what better a place than the family run and high class Quinta do Bomfim. Run for generations by the Symington family, this stunning Quinta (farm) has poll-position right along the northern shores of the Douro. This traditional estate with its white-washed walls, terracotta roof tiles and wisteria dripping pagodas, is a joy to visit.

You enter the Reception area and are greeted with the warmth of a family member and offered the options. You can have a guided tour, which you must book ahead of time or simply sit out on the terrace with views over the river and enjoy a tasting session. There are a number of tours you can enjoy depending on your time and interest. Starting at €17pp (which includes tasting) you can explore the processing area, see how the vines are nurtured and how the red alchemy is created. 

We visited at the end of March and arrived at the Quinta at 1530. There was a tour we could have joined at 1630. Although on this occasion we decided to sit outside and enjoy the spring sunshine. We had a menu of Ports and wines to choose from and together with the team’s insightful descriptions we headed for a 20 year-old Vintage Ruby, Dow’s Tawny and Dow’s 1992 Special Edition Tawny. Each glass was amply filled and you can choose to your palate or your purse. Of course there is a shop should you want to take a bottle or two home. What a lovely place to come and experience the history of Port and how this Quinta conjures up their own special little bit of heaven. 

 

4. Take a trip on a traditional Robelo boat

Walk along the riverside promenade and you see traditional barrel carrying boats – Robelos and less traditional craft waiting to take you for a toodle up the river. There’s no pressurising, no offensive pushy salesmen trying to get your business. You can take a trip for an hour for €10pp or 2 hours for €20pp and a free glass of Port.  It’s a lovely way to spend an hour or two and you go east along the river, beyond the passage of the cruise boats. It’s a great perspective to see the valley from the river watch the cormorants and red kites make the most of the Douro river’s treasure. 

Check out our short video footage below.

 

5. Eat traditional Portuguese food

It was my birthday whilst we visited, so we were  looking for a nice place to grab some lunch. And there are some bars along the riverside and a hotel up by the bridge. Although our eyes were caught by a lovely riverside establishment – The Writer’s Place. Housed in a traditional Portuguese railway worker’s home, this family-run restaurant pride themselves in home-cooked food, great views across the river and great service. There’s a range of meals available and if you visit you will be satiated without doubt.  

 

6. Pop into the Train Station for a story of the Douro

Who would have thought that a train station could have told such a story? Well Pinhão’s certainly does. Over and above it being a place to take the train to either Porto to the east or Pocinho this station is like a storyboard. Around the entire outside of the station are archetypal blue Portuguese tiles each one depicting an element of life on the river and amongst the vines. It’s beautiful to see and very atmospheric. Oh and whilst you’re there, there is a little Port shop that sells a wide variety of bottles that have a slightly cheaper price tag than perhaps those of the individual Quintas. 

 

 

7. The Butcher is a must

After Port tasting, you could be forgiven for thinking the gastronomy experience was over. Although no.  If you cross the road from the station, you will find the three, red canopies of the local Butcher. Yet he is no ordinary Butcher. This is another place where fine art is practised, the art of smoked meats. Qualifier Quinta das Borracas is a special visit because the minute you walk through the flyscreens, it is as though you have entered an entirely different world. A small counter is filled with meats and goats’ cheese of every dimension and hung around the walls are every shape of smoked sausage you can possibly imagine. Lady Gaga would be  proud to be seen in this place for sure. 

As you approach the counter you are instantly greeted by Senhor, who brings out a sheet of paper and starts to carve small samples of the cured ham and sausage that he proudly displays in front of you. Then a silver, metal urn appears with two small mugs. And he deftly pours two glasses of white liquor, which is his own apple and honey wine and is as chilled as a winter’s day. It accompanies the meat you are sampling so nicely. And for only €18.50 per kilo for the thinly sliced  meat, you are drawn in by the flavour and it is futile to not make a purchase, which will not break the bank.  And served with crunchy bread and some cooling melon, you have a wonderful reminder of your visit to this tiny artisanal butcher that you could so easily bypass.  Put it on your list and savour the flavours of his artistry.  Check out our little gallery below to whet your appetite.

 

 

Parking and Staying

If you come to Pinhão by road, do bare in mind that there are not many places to park. It’s a riverside town so space can be at a premium especially during the busy season. There are some places along the water’s edge and also up on the main road. 

For campers and motorhomes, we did see some vans parked at the far end of the waterside promenade, although the road down is steep and narrow for vehicles longer than 7.5m.  We spent the night around the corner, across the tributary (41.1868, -7.55087), which out of season is fine. Although once the main cruising season begins, the area is swamped with coaches waiting for the hotel boats so they can ship their visitors to their Quinta tours. 

If hotels are more your thing, then there are a number of hotels we saw, including the Vintage House Hotel by the main bridge and the LBV House Hotel at the other end of the town. Here is a list that might help you make up your mind. 

 

 

 

Our closing thoughts on Pinhão

Pinhão specifically and the Douro as a whole are wonderful places to visit.  We so nearly missed it off our list as we journeyed north. And boy are we glad we didn’t. So whether by cruise, by road or by bike, allow the Douro to warm your soul with its poetic hillsides and musical tones as the river carries you through a living and breathing land. Allow the magic of Pinhao to wash over you as you absorb its authentic charm and feel like your life has been blessed with just a little bit of alchemy.

 

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Our Portugal Road-Trip Guide

Our Portugal Road-Trip Guide

Portugal, a gem on the western edge of the Iberian Peninsular may be the farthest west of its European neighbours although don’t let its distance fool you. This is a chocolate-box of goodies that, once you open will have you hooked. After 40 days and 40 nights exploring this Iberian beauty in March 2019, we have plenty to share of our adventures both inland and along its award winning coast.

Whether Portugal is new to you or may be just a little known, let us inspire you to consider travelling to this western treasure. Sit back and indulge yourself in thoughts of how Portugal could become your next expedition as we share our route highlights, discoveries and delights.

 

14 things we learned and discovered about Portugal 

1. Portugal’s countryside so often felt like the ‘green, green grass of home’. With rolling hills and a lusciousness that had a feel of UK, Portugal had an instant appeal. No parched lands; instead acres of green pastures that felt instantly comfortable.

2. Portugal has a strong affiliation with UK dating back to 1386 with the Treaty of Windsor. That alliance is still in place today and so the two countries remain intrinsically linked and there is evidence of this everywhere. From red pilar boxes and telephone kiosks to the warmest welcome from a gracious population.

3. Like every country Portugal has its motorway network, some of which are payable. Although for the whole of our 40 days we navigated our way around the country without touching one single motorway. 

4. On paper the Portuguese language may look similar to Spanish, yet the sounds are completely different. Although with a few basics we were understood. That said a lot of tourist Portuguese speak English, whilst the locals in towns do not, so be prepared. Check out our Getting by in Guide to languages, where you will learn essential phrases for Portuguese on Page 55.

5. Portugal has a rich cultural and historical diversity. With influences going back to the Romans and through to the bloody battles between the Moors and Christians, scars are etched into every town.

6. Portugal has the best coastline we have seen throughout Europe. If you want long stretches of iconic golden sands, that would feel at home in any Caribbean Holiday brochure, come to Portugal.

  1. Portugal has been shaped by seismic activity for thousands of years due to the close proximity of a number of major fault-lines, evidence of which you can see all around the coast. In particular, the earthquake of 1 November 1755, which destroyed Lisbon, impacted hugely on the Algarve coast thanks to the resulting tsunami. The more recent tremor of 1969 further moulded the coastline and the threat of earthquakes remains a constant threat to the Portugal landscape. So be mindful of this as you hike the coast.
  1. From a gastronomy viewpoint, Portugal will not disappoint. You must try Naters; a sweet pastry tart filled with cream-custard. They are a delicious if not a decadent treat. Then there’s the fish, which with a coastline as extensive as Portugal’s, you can guarantee taste and quality.  And do not forget the Douro Valley for its tawny and ruby alchemy – Port. This is elegance personified and is a Portuguese must.
  1. Portugal is a proud nation with values that give it an authentic and classic feel. Families are honoured, the earth is nurtured and respected and their heritage fiercely protected. Everywhere we travelled there was a depth and character to their towns, traditions and people. Sometimes those invisible yet intrinsic features of a country are what create the meaningful memories of a trip.
  1. Cork production is a major industry, especially in the Alentejos and Algarve regions. Roads are bordered by cork oak trees that stand naked; their bark stripped for this local commodity that, once processed is made into all nature of products from shoes, handbags and bottle stoppers. Check out Loulé for its cork selling shops which will have you mooching for hours.

11. Whilst Portugal’s flag may well be green and red, be in no doubt that yellow is more akin to Portugal’s natural hew – especially in spring. From the tiny yellow balls of the evocatively smelling Mimosa and the Ice flowers along the coast, to Lupins and Daisies – yellow covers every vista you see. 

12. I learnt that with so much time on the coast I became really dehydrated, despite drinking four pints of water a day. Being in the salt air, so consistently does make hair and skin dry out – so drink plenty of water.

13. Intermarché is well set up with washing machine facilities (€4-€8 for a wash and €2 per 20mins to dry). Some even have drinking water, waste and toilet cassette dumps too. Also if you travel in a campervan, then most of Lidl supermarkets have motorhome specific parking bays.

14. Camping is cheap in Portugal. For 40 nights we spent less than €100, which makes it by far the cheapest country we have stayed in. 95% of our overnight stops were either free because we camped wild or in cheap Aires. We had one night in a commercial campsite which cost us €25, although it did have every facility and activity you can imagine.

Click on the image below to see our floral gallery

 

 

Our interactive route map

Over 40 days, whilst we travelled around 800 miles, we really didn’t even scratch the surface of this fair land. Still it has made enough of an impression that we will return without argument or dispute. 

Below you will find our comprehensive Interactive Route Map that shows you the routes we took, our POI and the overnight stops that we called home. Click on the map to see the detail.

 

 

Getting the most from your trip to Portugal

There is so much gorgeousness we could share with you, that it’s difficult to know how best to present it. So after much deliberation, we have decided to structure it shaped around Portugal’s mainland regions – well the ones we visited! Each section has a Quick Reference Guide so you know what to expect (based on our experiences). 

As we haven’t seen the whole country, a guide like this is always a little bias and incomplete. Although our intention is to simply share our love for the places we explored, and hope it might inspire you to visit some of those off-the-beaten-track places that we loved so much. 

 

Portugal’s sunshine state – Algarve

Quick Reference Guide 

  • The central area of Algarve is great for golf courses, marinas and nightlife
  • Capital Faro, is the main airport servicing the region
  • West is best for dramatic coastal scenery
  • Alvor is where we found some of the best rock formations – go at low tide to walk amongst them
  • Algarve has one of the world’s Top 100 Beaches – Praia de Marinha
  • It has some of the best coastal hiking using way-marked walks
  • Is one of the most built up and touristy regions of Portugal
  • If you love water sports or want to visit the famous caves, it’s best to visit from May to September when the weather calms. Winter and early spring is great for dramatic waves and so is often too rough for boat trips
  • Cheap Aires for campervans are available throughout the region ranging from €4 – €9 many with electrical hook up 
  • Eating out is cheap and fish is particularly good along this southern coast. 

 

Whilst Portugal’s Algarve is one of the most ‘go to’ destinations, there are so many more delights along the coast and inland that will enrich your visit. For example the authentic and cultural joys of Loulé with its Saturday market and traditional way of life. Or try Silves with its ancient walled city and castle that is the largest of its kind in the region.

Paradoxically not all of Algarve’s draw is the golf courses and nightlife. Go west and you will be treated to an art form fit for a king. It has a coastline carved by the ferocity of Mother Nature; from Armacão – Lagos you will be awed by the sheer beauty of this coastal artistry. Known as the Rocky Algarve, the coves, caves only accessible by boat, and cliffs will have you kneeling in some sort of bizarre ritual of respect. Such is the beauty of the rock formations along this coast that they seriously compete with those we saw in New Zealand. 

So if you are a photographer, nature lover, geologist or hiker, the Rocky Algarve will have you speechless. Here, we have profiled five hikes that will take in some of the best scenes along this coastline – there are more although sadly a foot injury prevented any further exploration. 

Do check out Alvor, which is a stunning little seaside fishing town. It comes with a diversity that will entertain all manner of visitor. From its coastline extraordinaire to its white sandy beach and lagoon to the genuine fishing culture, Alvor will steal a little of your heart. The fishing community is key to this little town, away from the commercial hub. The community of fishermen’s huts that provide shelter from the sea’s wroth and the atmospheric estuary, offer a great composition for any artist at sunset. The cobbled streets of the old town are pretty much wall-to-wall restaurants  although out of season it is cute, if not a bit touristy. Check out A Tascado restaurant (R. Pedro Alvares Cabral 19).

Sagres is the furthest point southwest of mainland Europe and so a visit to its fortress and lighthouse is a must for this reason alone. For a mere €3 you can enter the grounds and loose yourself for an hour in the maritime history that goes back centuries. The limestone pavement reminds you of nature’s role in the region and the kamikaze fisherman that hang off the 100ft cliffs looking to catch their supper will colour your visit beautifully. 

Before you leave this seaside town, visit the São Vicente lighthouse, if only to take your first glance at the Wild West coastline that has wind and surf as it natural sculptures. Framed by the pink, yellow and purple Ice flowers, you will feel drawn to move north as the salt air massages your face with anticipation.  

Check out our gallery by clicking on the image below.

 

Wild West Coast

Whilst geographically not classed as one of Portugal’s regions, it seems important to have a section dedicated to this incredible stretch of land. It touches each of the country’s five mainland regions so seems worthy of specific mention.

Quick Reference Guide

  • Approximately 500 miles in length from Cabo de Sao Vicente in the south to Caminha in the north
  • Home to the largest surf in Europe – Nazaré where the World Championship are held in October
  • There are few signs of mass tourism along the southern shores – just quaint fishing villages
  • Fishing has been a crucial way of life here; look out for ancient Islamic village at Amado Beach
  • Roads are lined with mimosa and eucalyptus trees
  • Wild camping is tolerated along much of the coast – just be mindful of the National Park restrictions in high season
  • Bird life and photography opportunities are enormous, especially rock nesting storks  
  • Getting around Lisbon can be tricky – head inland to Évora to avoid it and its toll bridges
  • Has the best and most diverse coastline we have ever experienced
  • Visit the unique town of Costa Nova and her candy stripped fishermen’s houses
  • Great area for cycling with its quiet roads and coastal boardwalk routes

In all our years of travel we have been blessed with some incredible coastal scenes from India’s Goan beauties to New Zealand’s belles… And yet nothing prepared us for the raw essence of Portugal’s western coastline. Battered by Atlantic winds and views out towards US, this route will stun you into silence. There are two major hikes from Sagres that show off the full extent of this coastline’s magnificence; The Heritage Way and The Fisherman’s Way. The latter particularly has become a bit of a pilgrimage by backpackers as they make their way towards Porto Covo in the north.

The biggest difference between the west and southern sibling is its quietness and the lack of tourism. I recognise that we visited out of season, yet this aside, there are no high-rise hotels or gated residential estates, south of Lisbon at least. Just Portuguese working towns who go about their business to the exclusion of visitors. Partly because so few come this far north as they choose to hug the southern coasts. Although we implore you to check out this area. 

Explore the coastline and learn how ancient and modern fisherman live their lives. The remains of an Islamic fishing village can be found at Amado Beach just south of Carrapateira and a more modern view of life on the ocean waves is hidden in an alcove just south of Almograve. Watching how the fishermen navigate the treacherous waters around this volcanic coast is mind-boggling. You cannot miss the evocative and visually appealing fishermen’s pontoons at Carrasqueira just ten minutes from Comporta. Their rustic wooden platforms that extend out into the lagoon is a masterpiece waiting for the amateur photographer, capturing the essence of their formidable mariners’ lives.  

And if you happen to be bird-lovers, then watching the kites and storks will be timing-wasting enough. Especially unique is to see the storks nesting precariously on pillars of rock on the coastal edges, seemingly blissfully unaware of the danger of their house of choice. It is here that the battle between life and death is played out as peregrine falcons attack the storks in search for their precious eggs as a breakfast treat. The best place for this theatre ensemble is at Sarbadão Lighthouse, just south of Almograve Beach, which is pinned on our map. 

Another great place to watch the storks’ antics is at Comporta, just south of Lisbon and the Sebútal peninsula. This small fishing community, amidst the salt flats, dunes and lagoon, seem to have adopted the storks as their emblem and fiercely protect the nesting pairs. Church towers, roof-light windows and pylons are acceptable residences for these magnificent birds and you can easily while away an hour watching their territorial antics. 

The Wild West characteristics alters so dramatically like the chapters of a thrilling novel. From the south with its craggy rock and inhospitable landscape looking like something from the moon to the miles of golden sandy beaches further north. Dunes, pine forests and eucalyptus dapple the landscape and you can be in awe at how the coastline changes its look more often than a Kylie Minogue concert. Try not to miss out the charming villages of Vila Nova da Milfontes, Porto Covo and Peniche. Further north towards Porto, you must see Costa Nova, which is iconic for its candy stripped fisherman’s houses that have centuries old tales of mariners’ lives. 

Click on the image below to see our gallery of this wild west coastline 

 

Alentejos

Quick reference Guide

  • Portugal’s largest region, spanning the whole width of the country
  • Roman hub Évora is its capital
  • Cork production capital of the country
  • Neolithic evidence strewn throughout the inner uplands around Évora

 

Alentejos encompasses both the joys of the coast and ancient history that combine to honour deeply held traditions and cultural heritage.  If you travel along the eastern edge where Portugal rubs shoulders with its neighbour Spain, you can imagine the intrigue that this is likely to offer. Battles for supremacy and territory, fortresses for protection and towns set to historical high alert. Whilst we didn’t see much of this eastern bord, we did have our first steps on Portuguese soil at Mértola. 

Nestled in the heart of the Natural Park, its lofty position high above the river is the epitome of this fortress style town. Its castle walls still in tact, its cathedral sat on the site of an ancient Mosque and its Roman bridge giving you just a few clues as it to its historical heritage. 

Further west unfolds more Roman secrets – who knew their armies travelled so far west to conquer, build and dominate. Évora is a classic example of this. Capital of Alentejos, Évora has amazing city walls, museums to satisfy the curious and the remains of a Roman temple. Its central square is charming as you settle for a coffee and a Nater and just around the corner the must visit Chapel of Bones.

Click on the image below to see our gallery

 

Central Region 

Quick Reference Guide

  • Home to the Surfing Capital of Europe, Nazaré
  • Costa da Roca is the furthest point west in mainland Europe closely followed by Peniche
  • Check out the amazing geology of the Peniche peninsula 
  • If the weather is calm, catch a boat for €25 to the island of La Berlenga
  • Watch the windsurfers on the sheltered waters of the lagoon at Figueira da Foz
  • Visit the most beautiful and authentic walled village of Obidos
  • Drive the inland Atlantic Ocean way and see the devastation of the 2018 forest fires
  • Visit the charming village of Costa Nova and her candy-stripped fishing houses
  • Pop across to Aveiro, which is known as Portugal’s Venice with its small canal network
  • Drive inland to Viseu, which is the centre of granite production and explore its ancient buildings and street art
  • Take the N2 route and enjoy its beauty

 

Perhaps you are or have visions of becoming a surfer dude – and if so then Nazaré has to be a destination stop for you  and your board. This home to the largest waves in Europe – scaling a humungous 30m. With its unique factors of on-shore winds and underwater topography, it creates perfect professional surfing conditions and is why the European Championship are held here every October. What a spectacle that must be. 

For geologists, once more this coastline will regale you with its tales of evolution as strata form the most incredible pieces of natural art out on the Peniche peninsula. Their composition seems so different to other craggy areas of the coast further south, leading to a thesis or two from the academics about the different seismic influences in this region over the epoc. 

For lovers of history and culture, a short trip to Obidos will certainly appeal. This picture postcard walled city is charm personified and whilst compact and bijou, scale its walls and you will see how size has no impact on this village’s delight. Cobbled streets, terracotta roofs and rustic buildings give a medieval feel to it, coming straight out  of a Dicken’s novel. We had too little time here although enough to entice  us to return. 

We absolutely adored the coastal route north where our final coastal destination was Costa Nova. Shaped along a narrow strip of sand dunes, with golden sands one side and a lagoon the other, this town proffers more maritime history. Over and above this, visually  this  place is one that Instagram must surely adore. With its candy-striped houses it felt like you had walked on the film-set of a Willy Wonky candy making factory. It was truly  magical to see how the fishermen lived centuries ago in their brightly painted houses. What a delight it was to cycle around this appeal and almost delicious town. Do check out the fish market where you will be amazing by the variety of marine life  you can purchase. Clams were our gift of the day – truly delicious.  

Viseu – whilst its superficial greyness and busyness didn’t do much for its reputation, when you enter its hub, it was quite lovely. The vernacular that takes you just 200m uphill is the first surprise – second is that it is free. The route scales you up to the hilltop, on which the museum and cathedral are based. The gardens and parks built within the bosom of the city are charming and the riverside is just cute. Whilst you might imagine the street art having a negative visual impact, I actually think it is quite an endearing feature to the town. 

Click on the image below to see our gallery

 

Northern Region

Quick Reference Guide 

  • Porto is the capital of this region
  • Home to the famous Douro River valley and its Port drink
  • Find a Quinta and do some Port tasting along the ancient river as it carves through 586 miles
  • Continue your N2 route through the most beautiful mountain ranges
  • Visit Lamego and the Nossa Senhora dos Remedios
  • Turn right before Peso da Régua and drive along the Douro Valley’s most beautiful route N222 to Pinhão
  • Catch the train from Pinhão to Pincho – one of Europe’s most beautiful train rides €7.80 pp
  • Take a boat ride from Pinhão up the Douro river €10 pp per hour

 

Whilst Porto may well be the biggest draw of northern Portugal, if cities are not your thing, then a quick calibration of your compass to the east will reward you plenty. You have the central draw of Lamego, which is certainly worth a visit, in our book. Its characterful and pristine old town are gorgeous and its fountain clad avenue that leads the eye and the feet towards the mammoth 686 steps up to the Church of our Lady of Remedies which will get your heart pumping.  

And then you have the Alchemy of the North…. The Douro Valley. This depicts everything you can imagine about the partnership between man and nature working in harmony. With nature’s role taking the lead part in this staged masterpiece, you will be rewarded with fertile soils, carved terraces, curvaceous lands and a network of vineyards. Clinging to every inch of this landscape looking to capture the sun’s powerful rays, these vines are the very source of the tawny nectar that graces our table with cheese. Port, that magnificent and elegant tipple stakes its claim to the Douro valley and with the sparkling waters of the river, this must surely be some sort of Utopia. At the beating hub of the valley is Pinhão, a classical working town where the locals collaborate with each other and the land to produce not only history and a productive export, they also create a cultural experience for the visitor. Pinhão and its Douro is a must. Check how to make the best of our visit by clicking here. 

 

 

 

 

And finally…  Portugal’s answer to Route 66  – N2

The longest continuous road in Portugal, the National route N2 is a must if you enjoy getting off the beaten track. Whilst the newly built motorway infrastructure may well be favoured by those who need to travel far and fast, it will certainly not enrich your life like the N2. Covering around 450 miles, this road covers the full length of the country; north at Chaves to Faro in the south. Winding your way through valleys, forests, mountain ranges and river floors, this is a beautiful road to encounter, in part or as a whole. 

We drove two sections of the route; the first was south from Almodõvar in Alentejos to just north of Loulé. The second was north from Viseu to Chaves as we finally and with heavy hearts, exited Portugal back into the arms of Spain. 

We thoroughly enjoyed this exhilarating drive which is favoured by motorcycles and bicycles although can equally be relished by drivers too. Passing through such gems as Viseu and Lamego, it is just worth a cruise.

 

Some practicalities

Before we leave you with temptation running through your veins, let us leave you with some practicalities about your stay in Portugal. Whether coming by camper, plane or cruise liner, here are some tips that might be helpful. 

 

  • Fines are heavy if you enter a motorway by mistake without a vignette. Not all tolls are manned, so either set your navigation to avoid tolls or buy a vignette that will last for the duration of your stay. We decided against it as we didn’t feel the need to use them although your circumstances might require faster travelling. Check out this website for comprehensive guidance about Portugal’s Toll Routes.
  • Wild camping in Portugal is easy and profuse especially along the west coast where the volume of campers diminishes. We saw plenty of people parking in forbidden areas, which seemed to be tolerated out of season. I suspect the further into April you go, the trickier it becomes. Parking is not allowed in National Parks, so beware of the GNR’s presence and ensure no ‘camping behaviour’.
  • Portugal caters well for those on wheels as there are very cheap Aires along the coast and towns inland, which will cost you between €4 – €9 per night with services.
  • Most towns have speed restricting traffic lights. So as you approach they will turn red and then immediately green.
  • Drivers are sedate and respectful we found, making travelling through Portugal very pleasurable.
  • We were lucky with the weather when we visited, although if you visit during winter and early spring, be prepared for a variety of conditions. Layers is the name of the game. Being on the Atlantic, it is often windy.
  • Portugal is on Western European Time (WET) – so operates the same as UK time, and an hour behind its European cousins.
  • Portugal has a wide variety of Supermarkets from Lidl, sometimes Aldi, plenty of Intermarché (which was more expensive than Lidl) and a few Leclerc in larger towns/cities. Pingo Doce was a nice store that was generally cheaper and slightly better quality than Lidl.
  • Petrol and Diesel was more expensive than Spain – averaging around €1.39. The cheapest we saw was €1.23 at an Leclerc in Santagem and the most expensive was €1.45.
  • LPG was available throughout the country, although not at every garage. We had no problems with filling up our Gaslow tanks.
  • If you want fresh produce there are markets everywhere – some towns have their own market halls for everyday fruit and veg, whilst others have special Saturday markets. If you want daily bread, go to a Pandeira.
  • Credit cards are widely available although we suggest you take plenty of coins for Aires, washing machines and for tips.

 

Closing thoughts

Portugal wowed us. After a visit 15 years ago, we experienced the central Algarve with its golf resorts and marinas, which weren’t our cup of tea. Years on, with less stressful lives, more time and an open mind to travel diversity, we have been able to appreciate the Algarve. More than that, we have been able to relish in the fruits of Portugal’s inland gems and road less travelled destinations. Portugal has definitely leapt ahead to warrant a place in our Top 5 Favourite European countries. We have really appreciated its natural and cultural joys. We hope if you have the chance to come, that you too may feel inspired to travel this amazing country and feel richer for the experience. 

 

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7 Highlights of Évora

7 Highlights of Évora

Come to Portugal and immerse yourself in so much more than golden sand between your toes. Whilst the beaches entice any sun seeker, Portugal cries out to be heard on the historical stage. A saunter inland will open up a history lesson that will give your Portuguese experience a depth and context that will not disappoint. And it is the Alentejos region’s capital Évora that offers our classroom today… Come on in and check out our highlights of this ancient capital steeped in Roman and Gothic ghosts.

 

Where to find Évora

 

Évora is one of those places that whilst is built up on the outside, offers a compact and charming presence on the inside, sheltering its Roman ruins, cobbled streets and ample churches by protective city walls. Évora sets the scene for battle, conquests and supremacy which vibrate in its very foundations. And such is its importance that it has earned itself UNESCO status and is a member of the Most Ancient European Towns network according to Wikipedia.

No more than 2 hours away from Lisbon, Évora is in easy reach, albeit probably not in a day trip. We headed east from the coast at Comporta for a bit of a beach break and found some amazing off-the-beaten track routes through rural Portugal. Surrounded by landscape littered with ancient megaliths, Évora has a real tale to tell going back 5000 years!

The Roman’s took charge of Évora in 57BC where baths and much of the city walls remain as a testimony to this period. Nearly 600 years later the Moors conquered Évora and they ruled for over 400 years until the Portuguese took charge in 1166. Much of Portugal under the reign of King Alfonso was released from Moorish rule and its identity today is significantly shaped by this epoch. Since then Évora has endured more battles and each time it seems that this small town has been a stalwart standing the test of time and war. 

With Évora’s colourful past, each building knits together a visual storyboard to entertain its visitor and these are the magnets that draw thousands of tourists each year. We took our bicycles in to the city, which is not to be recommended as the streets are steep, cobbled and a lot of them are one-way making it difficult to reach places. So we suggest using the map below to do a self-guided tour. Click on the map for an Interactive Tour of Évora.

 

Évora’s 7 Highlights

 

1. Aquaduct

The Roman Empire is known for its engineering prowess and the aqueduct is one of their legacies still visible today. And Évora’s aqueduct is a great example of their genius. We were lucky enough to be able to park alongside this magnificent and ancient symbol and just a two minute stroll through the city gates, and you can walk the length of the structure to its origin (38.57596, -7.91292).  What is lovely to note is how the houses are built into the arches. There are examples of this throughout the town; modern supporting ancient, what an interesting symbiosis. (38.57147, -7.90975)

 

 

2. Praça do Giraldo

Évora’s beating heart can be found in the Giraldo Square. Not really square, more of an oblong, although characterful none the less. It is here that you will find the Tourist Information office which we suggest is your next station stop for a map. A useful phrase is Posso ter uma mapa por favor? Can I have a map please? (38.57063, -7.90941)

From here you can look up towards the regal Saint Antonio church, which has so much personality yet is dressed in simplicity compared to the Gothic architecture that frames the Square’s edges. Giraldo invites you to stop for a coffee and people watch or may be indulge in a Portuguese Nater, especially good if you have a sweet tooth.

 

3. Roman Temple and Cathedral

Perhaps one of Évora’s most famous landmarks are her Roman ruins. (38.57259, -7.90729). The temple known as the Diana Temple is in the heart of the museum quarter and somehow conveys a robustness about the Roman Empire. It has itself so much history with its identity changing throughout the centuries. Its role has evolved from being part of the castle, an abattoir and a log store. The ruins are in a remarkable condition and with the backdrop of the Cathedral and the little park, it’s a lovely area to hang out for a bit.  Do check out the view from the edge of the gardens, overlooking Évora’s rooftops and to the city’s exterior. 

 

4.  Town Hall and Roman baths

This old palace is now home to the political hub of the town and its area. This is a magnificent Square bordered by a church and financial buildings.  Entry into the Town Hall is permitted for free, as are the Roman baths, which we wish we had visited. (38.57228, -7.90963)

 

5.  Chapel of Bones

Aside the Roman ruins, Évora’s other significant draw is the Capela dos Ossos – Chapel of Bones. (38.56873, -7.90884)  For a €5pp entry ticket you can get access to this most eery and yet fascinating place of worship and meditation. This tiny 16th chapel in the grounds of the Church of St Francis is a thought-provoking visit. Built by monks as a solution to the growing number of cemeteries around the town; they interned the bones and in a bid to honour the dead, decided to put them on display within the structure of this building. 5,000 corpses today form the fabric of the chapel; bones and skulls don the walls, the pillars and the architrave. It is the most bizarre form of art; art that holds a message for its viewer, prompting them to think beyond the visual display in front of them – the transitory nature of life. The Chapel makes you reflect on the journey of life and how we rush through the days without pause for the moment. It’s a sobering visit. 

 

6.  Church of St Francis

Whilst dropping in to pay your respects to the bones, you may be forgiven for feeling so overwhelmed that you miss the Church of St Francis, which is the main body of this area. It sits on the roots of a church dating back to 1200’s. Its Gothic design is impressive and as you walk into the longest nave of any Portuguese church, its gilting will wow you. There’s gold everywhere. It really does deserve a short visit. 

 

7.  Cycle/Walk around the city walls

After the reflections from the Chapel of Bones, heading to the gardens just beneath the church brings your mind back to the beauty of the world. (38.56734, -7.91001).  There were lots of repairs going on when we visited, although I imagine it is full of splendour in the summer months. With its bandstand and peacocks, it’s a lovely place to wander. And from here you can access part of the upper walk around the walls, feeling the past beneath your feet. And then continuing your route on the lower level, you can trace your steps back to the beginning of your walking tour and end up at the aqueduct once more.

 

 

Évora – our conclusions 

If you love history, culture and context, then Évora will be a great place to visit. If you need a break from the coast, Évora will satisfy your need for curiosity – just for a day. Its cobbled streets are not just atmospheric, they are a piece of history’s jigsaw that will leave you understanding just a little more about Portugal. It will leave you richer for standing in the footprints of our ancestors before we head back to the inevitable draw of the western sunsets and crashing waves. We highly recommend this little detour in your Portugal tour. 

 

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Sightseeing Silves, Algarve

Sightseeing Silves, Algarve

The ancient capital of Portugal’s Algarve, Silves may sit inland 10km away from the golden beaches and rocky coastline, although don’t be fooled, this town packs a mighty punch.  Whether it is history, archeology, bird life, street art, walking or cycling, this Algarvian town has it all.  And Silves is definitely worth a diversion away from the sand between your toes.

Like so many coastal destinations, the real joy of a country’s culture and natural beauty can often be found just a little way inland. We found the same in Spain and France. And Portugal is no different. At one end of the Algarve you have the lure of Loulé and at the other Silves. Both will delight you and transport you back in time as you immerse yourself in just a little bit of Portuguese history.  

Our first visit to the Algarve was not blessed with joyous memories; in part I think this was just the space we were in 15 years ago, deep in the seat of our corporate merry-go-round. So revisiting of this part of the world seemed important to test out our past perceptions and reconnect with the country’s true values. 

As we approached Silves after a week along the Rocky Algarve, the hilly fortress and cathedral stood proud and providing a vista that we were sure would surprise and delight. Although as we drove over the bridge and along the outer rim road, there was definitely a deja-vous moment. Slowly memories popped in my mind as we moseyed past the Parça Al-Mutamid and flash backs of our previous visit tumbled back to me. We had been here before…. so what new adventures could we have all these years on? Well plenty I can tell you, so if you’re ready, let me tell you a bit about what you can experience in two or three days in this little gem of a town.

 

What to see in Silves

1. The Castle

Well as obvious as it might seem, the castle is an instant draw. What is it about castles and their ancient history that bring out the intrigued historian in us? With its renovated walls that surround a large part of Silves in a protective embrace, you instantly get the feeling of tales of old. Battles, slavery, and torture – who would have thought that this tiny town could have such a story to tell.  A story that takes us back as far as 8th century when the Moors were the dominant force building their fortress on Roman fortifications. Although it has had some renovation work through 20th century, the castle is the largest in the Algarve. For €2.80 you can enter the castle and walk around its walls and take in the panorama in front of you. Or simply keep the statue of King Sancho 1 company, slayer of the enemy in 1189 and admire the castle from the outside with its blossoming cherry tree and blue sky background giving instant photographic appeal.  

Check out our gallery below…

 

2. Sé de Silves

Whilst you are perusing the magnificence of the castle’s conquests, you cannot ignore its Gothic neighbour. Silves’ Cathedral requires some neck straining as you gaze to is tower pinnacle. It was built in 13th century and despite being damaged by the earthquake in 1755, it has been rebuilt keeping its Gothic features. It is now on the Portuguese National Register of Monuments list and is thought to be one of the most significant Cathedrals in the region. Reason enough to take some time to admire it.

3. Street Art

As you wander around this compact and bijou town, you will be impressed by its colourful facades. The streets are undoubtedly full of history which somehow still feels etched into their brickwork. Although a more modern feature stands out from the ancient tales; the street art. Now I must stress this isn’t graffiti, this is genuinely beautiful pieces of art. From the Firestation, to the Electricity boxes and the walls adjacent to the Parça Al‘Mutamid. They each have their own narrative to tell and demand to be admired. 

3. Roman Bridge, Parça Al’Mutamid and Artaska Café

With a town so steeped in Arabian legend, it seems hard to imagine the role the Romans had on the area well before they conquered Portugal. Although their legacy is still in tact by way of the Ponte Romana, which today is being restored. It is a grand feature of the town, spanning across the Arade River and creating a stunning vista along the river walkway. 

Immediately opposite there is a famous landmark, although not in the same guise as its historical cousins. The Café Art’aska is a huge building that whilst dishevelled in nature has a real vibe going on. On a Sunday night this is the place to hang out and listen to some jamming and even partake with your own penny whistle if that takes your fancy. Imagine on a warm summer’s night, strolling along the Arade with the rhythm of music floating through the air. And add to that the chatter of storks that fly above you, who also call this place home, and you will instantly notice the appeal of this ancient capital grow, slowly and surely.

A short walk up the road will bring you to the Parça Al’Mutamid. This long stretch of park is so characterful and colourful. With its palm and pomegranate trees, fountains with floating figurines that depict characters from Silves of yesteryear and Muslim buildings that transport you back to an Arabian night, it feels quite surreal. It was created as a tribute to the Lord of Seville, Al’ Mutadid who conquered the Silves in 1053 and his son Al’Mutamid who was put in charge of the town at the tender age of 12! It’s Islamic feel is evident everywhere and you can almost imagine that you are not in Portugal at all. 

Check out our gallery below.

 

What to do in Silves

Apart from the obvious walking tour around the town or may be the Archaeological Museum if that’s your thing (37.188967 -8.438888), there are a couple of other things to whilst you are in this area. 

1. Partake in a Port Experience 

You can’t come to Portugal and not dabble in a bit of Port. When I saw the advert for a Port Experience, I was in! This is part of the culture and it had to be done! Well that was my excuse anyway. Crazily we didn’t ask the price and being next to the castle we did give a momentary thought to the bill at the end, although hey! So they arrived at our table with three ample sized glasses of port to try; a Tawny, a White and a Rosé. And we ordered a fig cake, which is also a local delicacy. Figs are super important to the Portuguese economy. Well the Port was delightful and we enjoyed it enough to purchase a bottle of the Rosé which appealed to both our palettes. The whole experience, which whilst sat underneath the shade of the castle walls, listening to the storks go about their business, cost us €10.00. The bottle we took home was only €9.50.  One word of warning. If you’re going to order the fig cake, make sure you share it with someone otherwise the laxative effects the next morning could have you running for the loo. 

2. Take a walk up to the windmill

The walks in the area have huge potential for those who love a good ramble. It’s not far out of town before you find quiet roads, gently rolling hills and miles of hiking opportunities. To reach the windmill (37.203102 -8.435254) you wander through countryside strewn with lemons and orange groves bordered by wild flowers and herbs. At the right time of year, the smells are just amazing as the orange blossom tantalises your nostrils. It’s a bit of a steep hike up to the windmill, although the views from here are just amazing. From the town it’s only about 45 minute walk, although lovely none the less. 

3. Cycle to Arade Reservoir

Equally rewarding is the 12 mile return cycle ride that takes you through rural villages who survive on their agricultural trade up to the source of the Arade river. The reservoir offers gorgeous views of this water scape and to sit beneath the pine trees and take in the vista or cycle some more around the plentiful footpaths, will certainly while away an afternoon. 

 

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Where to stay and eat 

1. Camping 

As we travel in our campervan, staying at Silves is easy. There’s two great little Aires, one either side of the town. Parque do Castelo is an excellent and well run Aire for €9.50 which includes EHU and free wifi. Showers are extra – 50c per person and washing machines €4. You are within walking distance of the town and the Windmill from here.

The second official Aire is beside the river on the other side of town (37.185115 -8.445415). I’m unsure of the prices or services.

If you wanted to go wild, then you can stay outside of Silves some 6 miles away, by the Arade Reservoir I mentioned earlier. There are two spots; one just beneath the reservoir (37.236863 -8.378789) and another at the top of the hill in a small parking area that has some views. Neither have services, although these are available in Silves for a small fee. 

2. Accommodation

If you are looking to stay in a hotel or Air BnB, then check out these options with Booking.com

3. Somewhere to eat

We love France’s style of Plat du Jour – often a canteen affair with basic food cooked well for a phenomenally cheap price. Well Portugal has these too. We were recommended to go to Casa Velha, which is opposite the Town Hall in Silves. They offer, every day a three-course meal for just €7.50, including wine/beer/port. Just asking for the ‘Camping Menu.’  Whilst the food is never going to be gourmet we thought the ambiance of the place and their service was great. Their fish dish was amazing – Portugal seriously knows how to do fish. 

Check out our gallery below.

 

Our conclusions on Silves

On our travels we continue to love heading inland to experience the heart of a country and its rural culture. It is here we find hidden gems that seem to only fall to the cutting room floor and not make the glossy magazines. We feel that way about Silves. Charming, characterful and full of charisma and most definitely worth the detour for a day or two. Walk the cobbled streets and listen to the chattering storks whilst knowing that somewhere, somehow Muslims, Roman and Christians placed their feet upon the same stones as you.  

 

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5 Algarve Coastal Hiking Trails

5 Algarve Coastal Hiking Trails

Portugal’s Algarve coastline is ready to astound you, appeal to your inner artist and challenge you in more ways than you can imagine. Join us as we hug Portugal’s coastal fringes in pursuit of visual experiences that are set to blow our tiny minds.

We’ve seen some stunning sights around Europe over our three years on the road, although none so evocative for me as the rich experience of the coast. There’s something that grabs me deep within when I hear the sound of the crashing waves pounding against the rocks, the seagulls’ cries as they skim above the brilliant blue seas and the contrasting colours of the sand against the ocean. It truly brings out the poet in me and I find a seaside fix almost a necessary dosage to my inner happiness.

So you can imagine my delight when we started to explore the craggy Algarve coastline. From a previous holiday 15 years ago we knew that the south west was pretty spectacular, although had no idea about the bits in between. It was like visiting Willy Wonker’s Chocolate factory. 

We have hiked the coast, taken a gazillion photos and exclaimed in sheer delight at the wondrous sights before our eyes. Mother Nature playing a starring role in her shaping of this most southerly coast of Europe. Here we share our thoughts on the routes we’ve taken from Algarve central at Armacão de Pera to Alvor. 

 

Portugal’s Coastal Geology

Now I don’t intend to complicate matters with the composition of this Algarve coastline. Let’s keep it simple! This coastal region is a predominantly limestone with karst features along this southerly edge, blended with rich mineral deposits. Whilst over thousands of years, the land has been battered by winds and waves that sweep in from the Atlantic Ocean, the Algarve coastline is also significantly shaped by seismic activity due to the Loulé fault that lies through the region.  There is also a fault line that lies off the coast and these have had and continue to play a huge part in the shaping of this coastal beauty.  The Lisbon earthquake was a massive event in 1755, although in 1969 the Algarve was hit particularly hard. Smaller events are noted and undoubtedly affect the coastline together with its weather buddy. (For information of Portugal seismic activity you can check out this website which gives up to date information.)

During the winter particularly the seas take on a personality that seems something like a tempestuous teenager. Enormous waves forming way out at sea, roll in tune with the fresh winds as they hammer their way to the coast. Crashing and thumping their full weight onto any shore and cliffs that happen to get in their way. This southerly coastline slowly buckles beneath its force and decades worth of natural forces slowly make their mark on the landscape. Leaving for us a stunning coastal perspective that puts one of its beaches in the Top 100 Best Beaches in the World. 

So geology lesson over, let’s place our focus on the beauty that these natural forces continue to carve for our delights. For this particular post, we explored what is known as the Rocky Algarve due to the craggy and gnarly limestone artwork that is evident here. Giant and sheer cliff faces defy access to those who wish to conquer the land and yet conversely the little bays, coves and caves that have formed thanks to the relentless pounding of the seas, is enough to have your heart melting. 

 

Our 5 Coastal Hikes

 

1. Armacão de Pera to Galé

Easy beach walking up to 6 miles return (approx)

Heading east to west, our first hiking recommendation is from Armacão de Pera. This is a tourist town just 50km west from Algarve’s capital Faro. From its peninsular at Galé, this arcing bay is wall to wall sand that can often look like a scene out of a Desert Monthly magazine. With mounds of sand moulded by the incessant winds that blow on-shore, camels are the only thing missing from this evocative painting. The town, whilst certainly a tourist hot spot, has its areas of authenticity; namely the fishermen’s huts from where they still launch their boats from the sandy shore as there is no harbour here in Armacão.  Beach walking is extensive around here and it is possible to reach Our Lady of the Rock fortress and peninsular, which offers great views back across the town. Although a little bit of road walking is necessary to reach it.

 

2. Alabandeira to Our Lady of the Rock

Medium difficulty – some clambering required. 75 mins duration and 4 miles return

We wilded overnight at the parking here for two nights. What an incredible spot with waves crashing to the twin beaches below. At low tide they are worth checking out. Just thirty seconds to the west you will find the most incredible archway that offers great views up and down the coast and it is especially beautiful at sunrise.

The walk to the east from the parking area took about an hour and fifteen, including photostops and using the orange dots that mark the way, you can deviate to the edge of the cliffs for some amazing views. There’s a number of blow holes that you can just about see into on tip toes and the cliff line and secret beaches are incredible. There is one point where you are required to climb down the cliff on a rough path, and then scale up the other side. At times the path is narrow and eroded, although unless you have vertigo is doable.

The destination is Our Lady of the Rock which is a peninsular on which a fortress was built to protect the area from pirates. A chapel was also built here, which was partially destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. The 16th century chapel stands today and has the most staggering views perched on this small peninsular at the mercy of the sea gods. And as such it is a monument of Public Interest Patrimony. 

The walk back will take you significantly less time without the indirect route and photos  – I made it back in 30 minutes. 

Click on the image below for our Gallery of Pictures.

3. Albandeira to Benagil Caves

Easy to medium difficulty, 5 miles return taking 2.5 hours 

Heading west from the car park area, you get a chance to savour the magnificent view of the archway, which like most things looks so different at various points in the day

The views will have you wowing pretty regularly and with a path that is continually bordered by wild juniper bushes sheltering all sorts of wildlife, you will be in for a natural world treat.

There is one part of the walk that has the feel of someone’s back garden, as the path becomes landscaped and walled with the most divine wild freesias creating a heady scent that boosts any weariness that you may be experiencing.

Just around the corner comes one of the main sections of the walk and a big bucket list tick if you are determined to visit every one of the 100 Best Beaches in the World – Praia de Marinha. Used on advertising for the Algarve, this beach can easily rub shoulders with the best that Malaysia and New Zealand can offer. Steep steps carry you down to the beach from the cliff top and at low tide you are able to walk to the famous M Rocks.    

Continuing on from there, you eventually reach the famous Algar de Benagil. This is the must see of the area and sadly during the winter season when the seas are rough getting entry into this sea cave by boat or canoe is a no go. Still being able to get a glimpse of it from the clifftop gives you a suitable tease for what might be beneath you feet and have you rushing back to see it in calmer seasons.

Click on the image below for our Gallery of Pictures.

 

4. Alvor to Portimão 

Easy to medium difficulty, 7 miles one way taking 2.5 hours

Alvor has a brown sign off the main roads – we like brown signs as it always means there’s something pretty to see. And Alvor is delightful. It has many features; the town, which is predominantly restaurants enticing tourists to sample their fare. Then there’s the harbour and fishing area, where the traditional Algarve fishermen’s sheds take the beach hut to a whole new level. With locals chilling or mending their nets, this is a bit of culture right before your eyes. Alvor also has its sandy beach, its peninsular and then…. Then there are the rock formations. Of all the sections of coast we saw this was our favourite as at low tide you could get down and personally with these naturally carved pieces of art. Arches, stacks, tunnels and cliffs that look like Leonardo has painted its intricate layers of gold, yellow and orange streaks. Set against the blue ocean and the green juniper shrubs, this place will wow you. I felt like a child at a fun fair – not knowing which way to turn and certainly not wanting to leave. 

Up on the cliff tops, you can then walk miles – sometimes slightly inland, sometimes hugging the edges of this precarious landmass that is surrendering slowly to the sea. Whilst the sea may ebb and flow from your view, you will still be captured by the fields of wild lupins and daisies. Hoopoes and finches flying around you as you meander around the coast towards Portimão. A stop for lunch at one of the beaches is a must surely? 

And as you see the skylines changing from the natural architecture of the cliffs to modern, high-rise tourist homes, the feel of the coast does change. Although I still found myself marvel at the show th coastal fringes displayed.

However you feel about tourist destinations, Praia de Rocha will certainly help you overcome any dislike you may have the towering giants looking for the picture postcard view. The beach stretches out for 1km with its curvaceous bay and golden sands inviting you to strip off your shoes and walking socks and get down and dirty on the beach. Allow the grains of sand to wedge between your toes and feel the warmth of the day’s sun on the souls of your feet. Or if you prefer there is a boardwalk you can promenade along instead.

At the end of the beach, the personality of the area changes to a high class marina with identical apartments lining the water’s edge. Across the water you see Ferragudo and yet another masterpiece in the Algarve coastal gallery.  At this stage we decided to organise a taxi back, using the Uber app. For €7.71 and 10 minutes we were soon home with our feet up and a refreshing cup of tea. 7 miles was more than enough for one day.

Click on the image below for our Gallery of Pictures.

 

5. Carvoeira to Ferragudo

Cycle route taken – 10 miles round trip 1.5 hours

After the miles we walked this week, Myles’ foot injury from two years ago came back to haunt him – so no more walking for a couple of weeks. Instead we took to our bikes instead to capture the Carvoeira coastline. 

From our campsite we cycled 10 minutes into the village, which is charming. Its one way cobbled street, lined with elegant shops leads down to a pedestrian area full of vibrant bars. The golden sand beaches just implore you to place your naked feet upon its velvet covering.

If a beer tempts you, then succumb and people watch – even in February there was plenty going on. We continued up the west side of the village to catch a glimpse from the vantage point. Taking the quiet roads we cycled through the very neat and very smart area on the outskirts of the village, home to millionaires we’re sure. 

The Arriba da Salgadeira peninsular is amazing with views east and west show-casing its magnificent cliff face and hidden bays carved out by the pounding seas.

Our final destination was the Torre do Lapa, which is a 17th century watchtower, protecting the locals from pirates. It is one of many similar structures located along the coast, which on in the event of danger would send out smoke or fire signals to the other towers so they could keep alert to the dangers. From here we were able to cycle the 3 miles back to to the campsite happy in the knowledge that we had seen a bit more of the coast, without putting any pressure on Myles’ injured foot.

 

Practical Tips for Hiking the Algarve safely

As with any type of hiking, a few basic rules and common sense apply. Although given the precarious geology in the area it is worth being a little more alert to the dangers than on some other coastal routes.

1. If hiking out of season watch for slippery rocks as whilst the days are warm even in January, the nights are cold and there is often a dew.

2. During winter hiking take plenty of layers. The winds along this exposed Atlantic coast can be harsh, so be prepared.

3. If hiking in the height of season take plenty of water. Whilst there are cafés on some of the routes, dehydration can be a big issue, so walk responsibly. 

4. You are walking in an area with seismic activity, so be mindful that tremors could happen at any time and create crevices in the rocks.

5. Keep away from the cliff edges – whilst it is tempting to get up close and personal, the cliff fringes are delicate. 

6. There are areas that have been cordoned off with wooden barriers. Observe them, they are there for a reason. In the Benagil area there are fines for anyone caught climbing over the fences.

7. Make sure you wear solid walking shoes and not the flipflops we saw so often! The cliffs are stoney and uneven, so caution is required. 

8. There are orange blobs and arrows to follow so you shouldn’t get lost, although I suggest taking your phone with the app maps.meFor walking this is far better than Google Maps as it shows footpaths and will guide you back should you loose your way.

9. As so often stressed in any nature walk, “Take only pictures and leave behind only footprints.”

 

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Loulé – Algarve Authenticity

Loulé – Algarve Authenticity

The Algarve’s inland gem, Loulé is set apart from its tourist coastline cousins and was our first reconnection with the region after 15 years. Would our disappointing memories from that package holiday be erased, replaced by a more mature travel perspective? And would Loulé be our first healer? We really hoped so.

Our entry to Portugal from Spain was 40 miles inland away from the Algarve’s Atlantic coastline. And whilst I had my heart set on revisiting the craggy cliffs and rock artistry from Portimão to Sagres, we consciously chose to avoid the full length of this southern most region.

Loulé would be the first dipping of our toes in the Algarve’s proverbial waters, and after a recommendation to visit, I hit the research jungle drums, to find out more. I was captured by the phrases “authentic Portuguese village”, “not a tourist destination”. Now that was my kind of place.

 

Mértola

Although before I launch into regaling you with our tales of this fine town, let me tease you with a little preamble. Inland Portugal was a soothing introduction to our uncertain return. Winding our way through the curvaceous lands towards the Alentejos region, Mértola and its Natural Park of Guadiana was our first station stop. This Islamic icon initiated our Portuguese history lesson. Mértola, perched high above the river that courses its way to the Atlantic, is a walled city that houses Arabic tension and Christian dominance from way back in 10th century.  It was a lovely place to check out for a couple of hours. Here’s a little taster in a gallery below. 

 

N2 – Portugal’s Answer to Route 66

As keen motorbikers back in the day, our route south towards Portimão was shaped by the lure of Portugal’s answer to the famous Route 66. The N2 was in spitting distance from Mértola and this route had our names written all over it. The N2 glides from Chaves in the north to Faro in the south of the country, covering some 450 miles, tip to toe. It is classed as the longest continuous road in Portugal, winding through 4 different mountain ranges and crossing through 29 different municipalities. We joined it at Almodovãr and soon found ourselves snaking through the oak forest landscape that was as curvaceous as Marilyn Monroe. I could see why this is a Mecca for motorbikes. Traffic, now diverted onto the toll motorways for quick access north and south, leaves this road quiet, free and magnificent to drive. With the cork industry evident thanks to the half naked oak trees lining the roads, we wound our way to Querença having had a rich hour’s drive on this ‘not to be missed’ route through Portugal’s beating heart.  Click below for our gallery.

 

 

Loulé, a town of authentic charm

So back to Loulé and the reason for writing today. We love the charm of authentic villages. Communities where the locals hang out for morning coffee, buy their fish from the daily market and gratefully sell their wares to any passing trade. Would Loulé satisfy our search for such genuine communities?

Our arrival to Loulé initially didn’t give us the image we had hoped for. Although we have come to appreciate that, just like a cracker, it is what is on the inside that really counts. We found ourselves a safe place to park (37.13815, -8.02614) just a few minutes walk from the southern gate of the city walls and got our Maps.me route at the ready. In my research I found a great blog from the Algarve Tourist that acted like our own personal guide, giving us all Loulé’s POI and their relevant coordinates. What a find that was, as wandering aimlessly irritates the pants off me.

Yet our self guided walking tour was anything other than aimless or irritating. It was a joy to experience its cultural diversity, seeing Portuguese and North African residents live in harmony together. To feel the vibe of locals going about their daily lives without the intrusion of coach tours was a privilege. I’m sure tourists exist in the summer, although Loulé seems unrelentless in its desire to stay true to its authentic roots. With its cobbled streets that entice you to explore the local artisans, brightly coloured houses holding centuries of history and small bars and cafés tucked away in corners, Loulé is charm personified.

The arrival of Arabs in 8th century gave Al-‘Ulya’ its first real identity as a fortified city and many of its features still remain today such as the Islamic Baths, the bell tower of St Clemente church and the Muslim cemetery in the park across from the tower.  Although from mid 1200’s until 19th century Loulé’s character altered hugely as economic crises in the country impacted on its development and Christian dominance took hold of its architectural and cultural evolution.  Finally today’s finely tuned community fuses diverse inhabitants who are set on making Loulé home, irrespective of history’s struggles.  Click below for our interactive Walking Tour of Loulé.

 

 

Our Top 10 Sights

1. St. Francis Catholic Church

Set on the modern fringes of the town, this 17th century church looks plain and easily missable, although there will be crowds of people around its doors, so you’ll know you have found the right place. Although it is the inside that is meant to the main attraction. Unfortunately we couldn’t get in on our visit. 

 

2. Walk down the elegant shopping street Rua 5 de Outubro

As you head across from the Church, take the Outubro street which takes you down the tantalising shopping centre. Unlike so many other cities or towns, this is a short lane full of smart boutiques and shops selling a huge range of cork products. Cafés line the streets and with the artistry on the cobbled floor, you will experience shopping like never before – and guess what? So few tourists too. 

 

3. Take a peak at the Conceição Chapel

Whilst perhaps plain on the outside, it is inside the the view will amaze you. Sadly you’re not allowed to take pictures, although with an Alter full of gold and the walls of intricate blue images, this tiny space is quite incredible.  Conceição is a big lesson in never judging a book by its cover. 

 

4. See the excavation works at the Islamic Baths

We were lucky on our visit as the major excavations of these ancient Baths had an open door for us to peak through. It is a major project uncovering the remains of the walls and they are unearthing a significant piece of history. Hopefully you will be lucky too.

 

5. Bicas Velhas Fountain and Castle

Just behind the Islamic Baths, you will find a fountain that dates back to 1887 and that supplied the local population with their water. Look out for the four spouts one of which was made from smelting one of the bells from the Mother Church.  

And around the corner, you will find the Castle fortress and its museum. Its origin dates back to 2nd century when the Roman’s had a presence here, then the Moors more specifically took control until 1249 when the Portuguese gained control from the Muslims. You can visit from Tuesday to Friday from 10.00am – 1.30pm and 2.00pm – 6.00pm and on a Saturday from 10.00am – 1.30pm and 2.00 – 4.30pm. There is an entry fee of €1.62.

 

6. “Espirito Santo” Convent

This 17th century building is iconic, if not for its history than for its 45ft Pine tree, which rises from the centrepiece of the building. Initially occupied by Franciscan Friars, the convent evolved into a shelter for unprotected women and yet it was only in 1711 that the Pope recognised it as a religious sanctuary. The earthquake of 1755 had a devastating effect on the convent and had to be rebuilt and today it is now the home of the Art Gallery. You can walk into the inner court and crane your neck skywards to see the enormous Pine tree even if the Art Museum is not your cup of tea. 

 

7. Câmara and Municipal indoor market

After walking through the alleyway to see the back of the Convent (take note of the best public toilets in the square here that I have even had to visit) you will come out to the main N270 road through the town. And you won’t miss it – the elegance of the Town Hall and the unmistakable pink facade of the indoor market. The market is on every day and offers you a range of fish stalls, at least 20 butchers around the outside and an array of other yummy goodies to tempt you. Although if you want a bigger market experience, then come to Loulé on a Saturday when the Farmers’ and Gypsy market become the places to hang out. Check out our gallery by clicking below.

 

8. Medieval cobbled streets 

As you meander your way from the market towards the Igreja de São Clemente, towards the south side of the town, take some time to wander your way through the narrow, cobbled streets where artisans have small shops and café bars sell their tapas the locals. Here atmosphere is intimate and warm as daily life just toodles on by without a care for the visitors passing by. 

 

 

9. Igreja de São Clemente

As you walk away from the market, the Bell Tower of the Church of San Clemente is your call, visible way above the reaches of the medieval houses. The square that the church calls home is full of interesting points and it is worth glancing upwards as you marvel at the bells that toll around Loulé’s rooflines. The church was built on a mosque and has survived three earthquakes so has many tales of survival and perseverance to tell. 

 

10. ‘Martim Farto’ Townhouse and Muslim Cemetery 

Opposite the church notice a very different style of house, which is thought to have been a noble-man’s dwelling constructed in 18th century. With Baroque style architecture the house holds an interesting story; Martim Farto a counsellor and representative from the King’s Court was said to be godfather to most of the children christened at the time. To the left of the building also check out the unique chimney, which is so different to those seen around the country.  Also you will see the cemetery that is now a public garden and that can be enjoyed by all in the town.

 

More to see…

Whilst Loulé as a town is worth seeing in its own right, there are some special times to come visit and experience a cultural uniqueness.

 

Carnival time

If you can time your visit around 3-5 March you will experience the flamboyant carnival that grips Portugal at this time of year. Loulé has a reputation for being one of the best in the Algarve. Just check before you go as the annual carnival dates do change according to Easter calendar.

 

Market day

If you want to explore Loulé in the relative privacy of your own company then go Monday to Friday, as Saturday the place changes personality – it’s market day. Not only do you have a Farmers’ Market there’s also a Gypsy Market too and people come far and wide to visit. So expect more crowds, although what an interesting experience that would be.

 

So Loulé? What’s our verdict?

A delightful and historic place to visit way from the coastal crowds, that hums to the sound of Islamic and Christian war-dances that have scarred the ancient landscape. And yet paradoxically, peace and harmony now reign through the quiet, cobbled streets. For such a small town it has a big personality which will charm you and we highly recommend a visit.

 

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