The Netherlands – our Road-trip Guide

The Netherlands – our Road-trip Guide

The Netherlands is one of the best places in the world for challenging the irrational belief that ‘flat is boring’. The Netherlands is most certainly not boring – albeit it is mostly flat. Yet this small country in northwestern Europe will continually implore you to stay a while and soak up its culture, its hospitality and its natural beauty.  We have visited on three separate occasions and each time it draws us in like the Pied Piper of Hamelin – we fall in love just a little bit more each time we venture into the land of windmills, canals and clogs.  Check out our Guide to the best bits we’ve found so far, starting with our interactive map below…

 

Interactive Map

Click on the map to explore some more.

 

Basic Information

The Netherlands is split into 12 different provinces – one of which is Holland, which the Netherlands is often mistakenly labelled as. Its name is translated as ‘the lower countries’ because of its topography. According to Wikipedia, only 50% of the land reaches 1m above sea level and 26% is below sea level. Back in 16th century work began to reclaim this lower level land from the sea and their efforts resulted in the polders. This region is typically speckled with windmills and canals as part of their land and sea management. The country has an intricate relationship with the sea, both in terms of protecting its inhabitants from the forces of the ocean and for their ability to trade on the world’s economic stage. Their web of canals and rivers that run from the North Sea through to Germany are critical to their economic status. With fertile soil, the Netherlands is second only to US for the exporting of agricultural and food products. So whilst it may be small, it is a force to be reckoned with.

Interestingly alongside many of their Scandinavian cousins, in 2019 the Netherlands ranked fifth out of 156 countries for happiness and wellbeing, according to the World Happiness Report.  So they are doing something right. 

If you want a real blast of culture, then visit the Netherlands around 27 April. This is their Koningsdag festival. King’s Day is an annual affair, often starting the night of 26 April. Then throughout 27th it is one big party, honouring their King’s Birthday. Since 1885 the Royals’ birthdays have been celebrated and it is classed as a national holiday across the whole country. Each town and region celebrate in different ways, although it is expected to dress in orange, the country’s national colour. Events are staged, parties are thrown and music is put on by local communities. It’s just one of those events that needs to be experienced at least once in a lifetime.

 

 

Our Highlights

My dad used to work for a Dutch company and often he would travel there on business. I have vivid memories of him returning with Dutch gifts for me, one of which was a treasured doll in traditional costume that was packaged up in one of those little plastic tube containers. It was that that piqued my interest for this northwestern European country and to follow in my dad’s footsteps.

Paradoxically, my first trip was also for work – after which we extended our visit to see Amsterdam and some iconic Dutch villages that you see in the brochures. Towns interlaced with canals and protected by windmills offering cheesy delights to hungry passers-by. This was where my love affair for this fair nation began and it is a book that we just keep adding chapters to. 

 

 

Amsterdam

Whilst Amsterdam is the Netherland’s capital, it is not where the Government is located. You will find this at the Hague. Although that has no impact on this stunning watery city that gives Venice a run for its money. Its 17th century Golden Age heritage is clear to see as you weave your way around the network of canals on slowly chugging boats. Towering buildings fringing the canal banks with facades shaped and coloured like variety pack of sweets. Church spires reach high above the city roof-line and bridges interlink streets across the entire cityscape. And bicycles – let’s not forget Amsterdam’s bikes!  In fact it’s hard to forget as they are strewn everywhere. This is the capital’s main source of transport, as indeed it is across the Netherlands. This country seriously knows how to cycle. 

We arrived on a murky day in March and even with soft wafts of fog caressing the water’s edge you could sense the city’s beauty. Flower markets selling every kind of tulip bulb you could imagine from the iconic fields close to Lisse, just  east of the city. Museums galore satiate the appetite of any curious traveller, from Van Gogh to World War 2 Anne Frank’s house. And if that’s not your cuppa, then perhaps a coffee would be better? The Koffie Huis need caution as this is no ordinary tea-house selling cappuccino and cake. Well not that type of cake at least. Amsterdam’s wild spirit throbs in these ‘special’ cafés offering you a warm welcome and a heady experience – if you dare. And the Red Light District seems a perversely voyeur activity although it’s a cultural experience to wander the area and see the ladies standing in the windows as still as manakins. 

Amsterdam can satisfy the needs of every traveller and is a sight to behold. Check out our small gallery below. 

 

Holland’s iconic villages

Amsterdam is without doubt a major draw for the tourist intent on a perfect city-break, although for an authentic glimpse into Holland’s provincial culture, you need look no further than the surrounding villages. Volendam, Edam (yes of the mighty cheese fame) and Monnickendam all to the north of Amsterdam show you the Dutch sea-farers’ life. Where the sea meets the canals, the locals work in harmony with the water, mastering as best they can, the strength of this indelible element.

Mini versions, it seems, of their capital giant, these small villages cry out tradition and authenticity, as their daily work goes on regardless of the onlookers. Whilst there are tourist shops here, it’s done so tastefully and without the all too often cheap tat that they think we love.  

Further west from the city you have the charm of Delft with its wonky church that rivals Pisa and Gouda (pronounced Howda) that will tempt you with their fare at the church square market. And it is a must to buy just a little bit of their nectar produce! Dutch cheese. With rounds of delectable dairy delights, you will be at a loss as to which to buy. Although try the green pesto cheese – it is divine. Either way you will not be disappointed by the exquisite taste of their sumptuous offerings. Beyond the cheese, check out their churches, waterways and cobbled streets that have a knack of transporting you back to some sort of Dickensian era, such is the atmosphere of these amazing places.

If you want a true taste of Holland, these coastal and inland villages are definitely worth exploring. Check out our gallery by clicking on the image below. 

 

 

Holland’s iconic tulips and Keukenhof

One of my bucket list trips was to see the tulip fields of Holland. Known throughout the world for their patchwork quilted fields of colour I could only imagine their beauty. After the joy I experienced seeing Provence’s lavender I knew I had to see the Netherland’s carpet of colour. And so April 2019 we finally managed to get there in our camper. Whilst I think we probably timed it two weeks too late, there were still some amazing blasts of technicolour enchantment. It was everything I had hoped for. And then there was Keukenhof. Whilst the fields may well be the commercial side of tulip bulbs, Keukenhof is all about the mastery of the blooms themselves. A landscape of sheer artistry, as lakes, fountains, curvaceous beds and steams provide the backdrop canvas to these incredible flowers. 800 varieties of tulips and 7 million bulbs conspire with a bit of human intervention to create the joy that you will behold at Keukenhof.

Only open from mid March to mid May, undoubtedly the Netherland’s most famous spring tourist attraction, it is a rare experience that visually will blow you away and give you an overwhelming sensory experience. Check out our tulip video below.

 

 

Zeeland

Staying up north, well west if you want to be geographically correct, there is a region of the Netherlands that is a water power house. A region that has defied nature and resiliently honours their motto ‘I struggle and emerge.’ 

Zeeland is a set of 3 finger-shaped peninsula that have been gradually reclaimed from the sea over time. They are classed as the least populated region of the country, that is until the summertime when their population doubles. Don’t let that fool you though, because Zeeland has plenty to offer the adventurous types. With its intrinsic connection to the sea, Zeeland is well positioned for water sports and you will find this aplenty on each island you travel to. Middelburg, its capital, is a Dutch delight with its clean-line streets, waterways and central plaza. Music vibrates out of the cafés and the cathedral’s imposing stature stakes its claim on the skyline. 

As you ‘island hop’, each one takes on a different feel and yet holding them together are their battle scars and historical heritage. And you might think these rivalling factions are people based, although no! These are wounds from the sea’s impenetrable dominance.  Years of flooding have consistently shaped the land formation, the dykes and technology that now holds the sea firmly at arm’s length. 

A fascinating place that really needs exploring. So don’t avoid this area for the sexier appeal of Holland’s other charms. For more info on Zeeland, check out our comprehensive blog here

We stayed at Wolphaartsdijk, Camping De Heerlijkheid (51.54217 3.78037).

 

The Netherland’s iconic windmills – Kinderdijk

Every image of Holland in particular is framed by a traditional windmill in some form or another. And whilst in other countries they may just now be a pretty feature, for the Netherlands, they still hold an important role albeit they are superseded by the modern structures. One place that must go on your Netherland’s itinerary to really appreciate these mechanical magicians has to Kinderdijk – a UNESCSO site and museum that is free to the public. This area just a short boat ride from the Netherland’s oldest town of Dortretch, and it is a photographer’s haven. With the right light you can produce some stunning images. And the history of this place is so intriguing, as these 19 windmills from the 15th century are working museum pieces, presenting the role they played in securing the safety of the local inhabitants. 

Catch the 202 water-bus from Dordretch and for €8 per person (bicycles are free) you get to explore this incredible UNESCO site. Check out our gallery by clicking the image below.

We stayed at Jachthaven Westergoot (51.813818 4.724003) at the marina.

 

The Netherland’s star-fortresses

One thing you expect to see in the Netherlands are windmills. Loads of them especially up in the polder regions of Holland because of their water-management role. Although what surprised us most, in our third visit to this fair land were their fortresses. Throughout Europe you often see towns protected by the archetypal walled-cities such as Evora in Portugal and Carcassonne in France to name just two. Yet in the Netherlands, they did things slightly differently. With their water affinity, of course it makes sense that they would protected themselves with moats. And moats designed with the most incredible flamboyance.  Whilst they are often best seen from an arial perspective, Heusden, Bourtange and Loevestein are still incredibly beautiful places up close and personal. 

Take yourself back to medieval times, when wars and invasions where prime in the battle for national supremacy and  where protection of your land was a primary goal. What better way to shield yourself from the enemy than with moats and draw-bridges. It’s like something out of a fairytale. And yet today these impressive places still hold the shadows and battle scars in their cobbled streets. 

We stayed at a free camperplaats at Loevestein (51.814377 5.02747). There were two places at Heusden to park overnight; the west car park was only suitable for campers under 6m (51.73496 5.13404)  and the east car park for campers over 6m (51.734599 5.145048)

 

 

Giethoorn

To find the right words to convey the charm of Giethoorn, I would need to use half the dictionary. Adjectives like delightful, cute, serene, peaceful and unique would just be a few. And I’m sure you would be well within your rights to call me a bit gushy. Although visit for yourself and see that it’s true. 

Although Giethoorn is known as ‘Venice of the north’, I think this is wholly inappropriate. Yes Giethoorn has waterways, yes there are no cars here, although Venice it is not. The comparison somehow undermines both stunning locations and Giethoorn deserves a place in a tourist’s agenda, all by itself.

These northern reaches of the Netherlands have a wild feel about them as you see the landscape change from its westerly neighbours. The polders give way to marshland and peat bogs that have served this region so well for hundreds of years. In fact Giethoorn was born from this industry. When local workers started to dig up peat from the soil  they stumbled across remnants of goat horns from animals killed by floods. And from that moment Giet (goat) hoorn (horn) was born.

The 6km elongated village is strewn with narrow waterways, rickety wooden bridges and the most gorgeous thatched cottages, that would look at home on a box of chocolates. With the ‘whisper boats’ that silently glide up the canals, you get a real feel for the peaceful existence in this charming village. Arrive here early before the coach parties of Chinese turn up. So popular is it to this eastern nation, that shop signs are in Chinese and there is a dedicated Chinese restaurant to boot. Apparently it’s all due to the successful YouTube documentary Ni Hao Holland where Cherry, who lives in Beijing, dreams of swapping the stress of life there for the serene life of ‘quacking ducks’ in Giethoorn.

We stayed at Jachthaven Kuiper (52.72141 6.073414), which one of three Aires along the canal that allows motorhome parking. We paid €11 for a pitch and €1 per person with water, EHU and showers all costing extra. Wifi was free. 

Anyway Giethoorn… Go! It’s a must see when you are travelling to the Netherlands and only 90 minutes east of Amsterdam. You’ll love it. Check out our gallery below to see it for yourself. 

 

 

Final thoughts

The Netherlands will always be close to my heart and each time we go, it embeds itself deeper into my affections. And I defy anyone to come to this ‘flat’ land and describe it as boring. The Netherlands is so far removed from boring as you can get. It’s one of those countries that oozes personality and culture and leaves us wanting to return for more delicious Dutch delights. With its ease of access by plane into Schipol Airport close to Amsterdam and by road from UK and Europe, the Netherlands cries out to be explored. And with Dutch hospitality sure to make you feel at home, this charming northwestern European country needs to go on your list, soon! And we hope we’ve elevate it onto your agenda.

 

 

Want to save this for later? Why not pin it?

 

 

Other posts you might like…

 

 

Flower Power – visit Holland’s Tulips

Flower Power – visit Holland’s Tulips

 

The Dutch province of Holland is famous for many things; windmills, canals and of course tulip fields and Keukenhof. What better way to immerse yourself in Dutch culture than a springtime visit to this northern European destination, becoming part of the visual tulip fairytale. Why not join us on this Bucket List adventure as we share the colourful highlights of this veritable Dutch feast in this visual storybook. 

 

A teary sight

There are a handful of our travel experiences that have made my eyes leak and my first sighting of Holland’s tulips is certainly up there with the best of them.  There’s something very special about that first sight, first taste, first burst of an emotional connection to a new place – once seen, never forgotten.  And that is how Holland’s tulips will be for me. 

Great Easter weather brought the crowds to Holland and I was concerned that it might feel too claustrophobic. Especially as trying to find somewhere to stay was looking tricky. We finally managed to get the last spot in a great little campsite, which happened to be a tulip farm – how perfect was that? From our courtyard position, the vibrant yellow stripes made the darkest of moments light up.  Like an excited puppy ready for its walk, I felt like skipping to my first, up-close-and-personal tulip experience. 

As I stood amidst a field of tulips with the heady scent like freesias, my bucket list entry firmly got a tick and with sighs like a love-sick school girl, I drank in the vision.

Rows and rows of sunshine yellow, deep purple, scarlet and pink stripped flowers filled my sight. And adorably the rogue pink tulip that made its unwelcome appearance in a row of homogenous yellow blooms gave me a sense of allowing myself to ‘stand out amongst the crowd’. 

It was lovely having a field of tulips beside our ‘home’, yet my insatiable appetite craved more. I wanted to expand my experience. So with our bicycles (no electric needed here), we tootled off in search of the technicolored carpets and we were not disappointed.

 

Where to find them

While the corridor of colour reaches from Den Haag to Haarlam, the main concentration of fields can be found between Noordwijk and Lisse. 

And our advise? Park up somewhere and get your bikes out, as the smaller roads between these carpets are often narrow and busy with onlookers. To really experience these parcels of pleasure, riding the excellent network of cycle paths gives a totally sensory experience.  Go to the Tourist Information or any hotel or campsite in the area and you will be given a map that shows you the current year’s fields and the best cycle routes to reach them. And of course they are free to view.

Lisse is the central hub of tulip county and is where the famous botanical gardens of Keukenhof can be found. More on that in a moment. 

 

The fields

Memories of Provence struck me as we started to see acres of multicoloured fields. The lavender just crochets the landscape with its fragrant purple flowers. Holland’s tulips do something similar. Rows upon rows of coloured stripes that would have looked at home woven into Joseph’s Techni-coloured Dream Coat. Farmers walking up and down the rows picking out the anomalies, making perfect lines of tulips. And in truth, I’m sure the display we saw in the third week of April was minuscule compared with two weeks prior. Still, seeing colour combinations sitting side by side showed me how well nature’s palette works. It’s a very special sight even towards the end of the season. Check out our gallery below. 

 

 

When to go

Timing is everything in the world of tulips as Mother Nature has an uncanny knack of following her own rules. The bulbs are driven by the seasonal changes in temperature and how warm or cold the soil is. If the spring weather is warm, then the fields will bloom early and the opposite is true if there’s a cold spell. So it’s best to check a site like this to see what’s happening in the tulip world. 

If you have the flexibility, Holland’s tulips have a three week season and the general advice is to visit mid to late April. Although if you have to stick to more stationary dates, then in March you are likely to see the crocus, the daffodils and the hyacinths, which then surrender their space to the king of flowers – the tulips. Around the same time, especially in Keukenhof, the azaleas and rhododendrons start to display their power, so there’s always something pretty to look at. 

 

 

Visiting Keukenhof’s flower power

Let me paint a picture of your Keukenhof experience.

Imagine being in a 3D artist’s studio with pallets of every colour of the rainbow, with each one having at least 50 shades of gr…. colour!  If feels as if you are in a space of virtual reality or a parallel universe, where colours know no bounds and light has a spectrum to bend the most static of perspectives. 

This 32 hectare ‘garden’ is a pleasure zone offering 800 varieties of tulips alone. Then add the azaleas, rhododendrons, daffodils and hyacinth and you have a plethora of visual delights. The 7 million bulbs are planted at different depths in the soil so that throughout Keukenhof’s season (Mid March to Mid May) a different treat will greet each and every visitor. 

The craftsmanship here is beyond description as the blend of flower beds, pathways, lakes, rivers and sculptures just hold your interest for hours. The colour combinations and flower varieties will take your breath away. Then in a flash you realise that these treasures are just temporary – a mere three weeks. Somehow this impermanence adds to the experience as you acknowledge the huge eraser that will certainly wipe out this picture perfect painting in a matter of months. 

Every year new themes are built into the Dutch gardens and for 2019 it was Flower Power – the strength of flowers. Their ethos is using flowers to connect people from across the world who come together to enjoy the gardens. And just walking through this landscaped haven, you really get that power sinking deep into your heart. 

Whether you have children, disabled family members and or dogs, Keukenhof accommodates us all in their beautifully crafted gardens. Easy to navigate paths weave from one section to another, with water features, sculptures, a maze, restaurants and boat rides if you wish. Keukenhof is a must. 

Here’s just a few of the 800 varieties that I captured on our visit. Click the image below for our Gallery.

 

 

Keukenhof practicalities

You can buy tickets either on line or at the entrance, (on line being €1 cheaper.) Prices on line are:

€17 per adult;      €8 children aged 4-17;     infants aged 0-3 are free

Allow at least three hours to wander around this world of artistry; take time out and rest your feet by enjoying a mint tea and apple pie, perhaps partake in a cornet of homemade fries and mayo or just sit and contemplate at any one of the hundreds of benches dotted around. This is not a place to rush. Although come early if you want to beat the crowds.

It will be busy; an average of 1.4 million people visit during this tiny botanical window, so be mindful of this. Although despite the crowds and Instagram dressed models, the flower combinations are so mesmerising that they transport you to your own personal Narnia where the crowds are mere dots of colour.

And finally don’t worry about the weather. Whilst you may think that brilliant sunshine is the only way to see this divine garden, the rain creates such a photographic canvas with the drips of water from the petals, enhancing every shot. 

 

Our Keukenhof visual storybook

My instinct says that to inspire you to visit, words alone will not suffice. A sensory experience such as Keukenhof needs multimedia, so sit back and indulge for a few moments as we attempt to capture the images of this wondrous and magical place. Check out our gallery below by clicking on the image and then sit back and watch our short video.

 

 

 

Practical tips for your visit

Given the small window for Holland’s tulips, putting some plans in place before the spring hits Northern Europe is wise. So check out these Top Tips.

  1. Book your trip between end of March and end of April.
  2. Leave booking your Keukenhof tickets until a week before you visit so you can check the forecast.
  3. Book accommodation well in advance, whether that’s a hotel or campsite. If the weather is particularly good or you plan to visit over Easter then this part of Holland attracts many visitors. 
  4. It’s worth remembering that the dates for schools’ Easter holidays differ across Europe, so there could be a three week period where visitors take the opportunity to travel here. 
  5. Many of the blooms in the commercial fields are farmed for the Tulip Procession which is generally mid April. (2019 it was April 13th). It’s a procession of floats and cars decorated in flowers and this famous carnival travels from Noordwijk to Haarlem starting at 9.00am until the early evening. For more information, click here.
  6. Many of the fields are accessible for photographs, unless the farmers are feeding or de-heading the plants.  So respect their signs for privacy.
  7. Remember that these fields are working farms.
  8. Don’t pick the flowers, unearth the bulbs or run between the rows as you may damage the plants.
  9. Hire or bring your own bikes as the cycle paths are so good, extensive and flat that getting around this area is easy. 
  10. Take the opportunity to visit the coast whilst in the area as there are miles and miles of golden sandy beaches.
  11. Arrive at Keukenhof early to avoid the tour coaches that generally arrive between 1030 – 1100am.
  12. If you can time your visit around 27th April, then why not extend your stay and experience Koningsdag – King’s Day. Now that is a real cultural explosion. 

 

 

Want to save this? Pin it for later….

 

 

Other posts you might enjoy…

 

Norfolk, Norwich & the Norfolk Broads

Norfolk, Norwich & the Norfolk Broads

 

Norfolk – East Anglia

Norfolk, nestled in the East Anglian region of England does not jump to mind when thinking about the UK’s top tourist destinations. Although with only 100 miles separating it from London, Norfolk offers the visitor a rich and surprising blend of history and incredible natural beauty. Check out what we learnt about the area after our visit during Easter 2019. 

 

Norfolk countryside – a few surprises

During a trip to UK’s easterly edge to celebrate a friend’s Birthday, we were about to experience something pretty unusual for us; excitement and anticipation for an English excursion. Don’t get me wrong we will always be British and in good weather England is a very special place to visit. Although since we hit the road three years ago, our draw to European shores has distanced us from Britain’s best bits. And so it was lovely to have this reconnection with our homeland. 

Apart from a work trip to Norwich, neither of us have dipped our toes into this region of the UK. Norfolk was a stranger to us and we were looking forward to getting to know it better, all be it only for four days.  We have learnt though, that sometimes a brief visit is all you need to whet your appetite and spark a desire to return. 

Whilst our visit to the county of Norfolk really piqued our curiosity, our passage towards Norwich didn’t inspire us. We had been warned that Norfolk was flat and boring – would our experience be different? We hoped so. We arrived at a campsite in Salhouse, just outside Wroxham on the Norfolk Broads and checked out the map. There certainly seemed to be plenty to do in the area. So with bikes at the ready, we headed into the countryside. 

 

 

Our first surprise was how quaint the Norfolk villages are. With images being conjured up of Thomas Hardy’s Dorset, thatched houses were aplenty creating something that was quite literally ‘far from the madding crowd’. Traditional village pubs, quintessential churches and the odd Brewery thrown in for good measure, all combined to make this a world far removed from the smoke-filled skies of London. 

With quiet and flat roads for exploring by bike and walks through the many Broads that speckle this area, it is a joy to wander through what feels like a timeless part of the world. Woodbastwick is a delightful traditional English village, Salhouse with its thatched church and Horning set in the heart of the Bure Marshes Nature Reserve carry you away from the commerciality that so often pollutes our lives.   

 

Check out our gallery by clicking the image below.

 

The Broads National Park – for messing about on the river

Norfolk’s most famous landmark is its Broads – 125 miles of navigable waterways that although are man-made have a really unique feel to them. The Norfolk Broads are incredibly special as, unlike their canal cousins in the beating heart of UK’s industrial heritage, they have no locks. Just twisting water courses that wind their way through old peat bogs that have been reclaimed by man’s farming and rising sea levels. Although it is worth pointing out that they were not a recent creation. This reclamation took place in medieval times, so these are seriously ancient waterways.

The now classified Broads National Park is the only park in the UK that has a city in its midst, making it quite unique.  It has an area of 117 square miles covering both Suffolk and Norfolk, and within its boundaries it has 7 rivers and 63 Broads, of which 13 are navigable. Tourism has flourished in the area as yacht racing and boating holidays have almost swamped the Park. Speed restrictions are now in place on craft using these incredible waterways and police regularly patrol the Broads – now there’s a job to have. 

To create a visual image of the Norfolk Broads, let me paint you a picture. Imagine golden reed beds fringing the rivers and lakes, gently crafted by the winds that blow in from The Wash. Chocolate-box cottages border the riverside with not a garage in sight. Just boat sheds that perch on stilts housing every shape and size of vessel you can imagine. Watery cul-de-sacs have been shaped to create what many call mini Venice. Although for me it’s more like The Netherlands both with their rivers, windmills and landscape being so iconic. 

And then there’s the boat-watching. The pleasure cruisers, sailing boats and paddle-steamers all call this place home, chugging up and down the rivers looking for a slice of tranquility. And yet, even in April the river was buzzing as busily as a bee-hive coming out of hibernation making people’s antics quite a source of entertainment as they tried to hone their navigation skills. 

And how could I forget the wildlife that the Broads have in abundance? Herons stand erect like something out of Jurassic Park, waiting to catch their prey. Canada and Grey-lag geese fight for their territory and, if you are lucky maybe you will see an otter as it stealthily glides between the reed beds. Buzzards soar above you and swallows skim the water in front of boat’s bows mesmerising your gaze. They all contribute to making a magic potion that once consumed allows you to seriously lose yourself. 

 

We stayed at Salhouse Lodge, a small and basic campsite just a 15 minute cycle or 7 minute taxi drive away from Wroxham.  It is here that you can hire day-boats from £20 for 1 hour in low season to £80 for 4 hours in high season.  From here you can also stay or have lunch at the riverside Wroxham Hotel, take a train inland into Norwich or out to Cromer on the east coast.  Wroxham is a great central place to explore the Norfolk Broads and if you go, you must check out Roy’s at least once! 

Have a look at our gallery of the Norfolk Broads below.

 

Norfolk’s capital Norwich

Norfolk’s draw may well be of the watery kind, although don’t underestimate Norwich.  Having been a couple of decades ago for work, I have no lasting memories of the city other than the incredibly long drive to get there from Cheltenham.   Still a revisit with our friends gave us an opportunity to explore its landmarks and Saxon and Norman influences.  In our three years of full-time travel, we have learnt to keep our minds open and curious as this is how treasures can be found. And this mindset served us well for our short visit to Norwich.

Heading out on the hourly train from Wroxham, for a mere £6.50 return per person we were soon hurtling towards this cathedral city. My research told me that there was a castle to explore, The Lanes, a river and of course the Cathedral. With my pinned map of highlights we set off for a walking tour so we could, at the very least, get a flavour of this East Anglian city.

Once the second most important city after London thanks, in part to its lucrative wool trade, Norfolk’s Norwich packs an historical punch. With Anglo-Saxon heritage followed by a strong Viking influence and Norman conquests, its colourful past has shadows and treachery fringing its edges. Jews once settled here and then were subsequently massacred after their suspected involvement in the murder of a Norwich boy. Norwich, it seems, created itself as a centre for strangers, welcoming French, Dutch and Flemish amongst others, each nation bringing their own skills to add to Norwich’s tapestry. Of particular significance were the Flemish pet canaries, that they began to breed locally in 16th century. Interestingly their legacy continues today as we see Norwich adopting the canary as their mascot and their football club has the canary as their emblem. Isn’t it great to know the source of such traditions? 

In addition to Norwich being the only city in England to be contained within the boundaries of a National Park, it also:

  • is the most complete medieval city in England
  • has the most medieval churches of any western European city, north of the Alps
  • has the largest permanent undercover market in Europe
  • has the second largest cathedral spire in England and Europe
  • was voted the happiest place to work in 2016; and in 2018 the best place to live in England.

Now that’s some boasting. 

 

So if we have enticed you just a little, you’ll not be disappointed by our Top 7 recommendations to add to your Norwich visit;

  • The 12th century Norman Castle, which is now a museum (52.628773, 1.296308)
  • The Cathedral and its grounds (52.631761, 1.301027)
  • The undercover market and old town gaol (52.628515, 1.293226)
  • The Lanes, a series of pedestrian alleys with cobbled streets and artisan shops (52.629103, 1.293279)
  • Elm Hill, the most famous street in Norwich – a cobbled street dating back to Tudor times (52.631309, 1.296643)
  • The Halls, the best and most complete example of a Friary complex in England (52.630973, 1.295577)
  • The river walk which is easily accessed from the train station.

 

Have a look at our gallery of Norwich below.

 

Check out our video footage, giving you a glimpse of our four day visit to Norfolk.

 

 

Closing thoughts on Norfolk

Ok, so we recognise that we didn’t see a great deal of Norfolk, although our introduction to this region was surprisingly positive. When looking to explore the vastness of English beauties, it’s easy to be swayed by perspectives that consider Norfolk to be flat, boring and too far to drive.  Although after our four days in the Norfolk Broads area, we have been so impressed and really want to challenge the ‘backwater’ reputation that East Anglia has had to suffer in the past.

We have come to appreciate flat in our three years of full-time travel, as every landscape has something to offer. And with flatness comes a whole unique perspective like no other. And the Broads themselves, well they are just a water maze of intrigue and natural beauty akin to the Netherlands. Norwich we have seriously underestimated and with its rich tapestry of history and evolution, this city has so much more than just a shopping experience. 

And that is before you have even begun to explore the coast, which will be our next journey – another time. For now, we will look back at our Norfolk exploration with fondness and step forward with a desire to promote it as a place to visit. 

 

 

Want to save for this later? Why not pin it?

 

Other posts you might like…

 

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.

 

Pin for later…

 

Other posts that may interest you…

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. 

 

Save it for later?

 

Other posts you might enjoy…

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. 

 

Why not pin this for later?

 

Other articles that might interest you