Portugal 2006posted by : Jon Kroupa on 09/26/2013
Back in the summer of 2006 my oldest brother Joe, my aunt Janet, and I took a trip to Portugal. This was our first trip together.
We took this trip in August. My brother had lived there for two years back in the early 90s and was eager to revisit it. When I asked him what the weather was like in Portugal he told me it was the same as southern California, such as the city of San Diego (a coastal city). This was before I had much experience traveling with Joe, before I knew the truth was more of a philosophical idea to him than an absolute.
We all tried to meet in Philadelphia for our flight to Madrid, but Joe was unable to make his flight from D.C., so Janet and I ended up getting a hotel for the night and Joe joined us the next day. We managed to upgrade to first class on our flight out.
We arrived in Madrid in the morning, secured our rental car, and then spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to get out of Madrid. Eventually we made it and headed west towards the Spanish / Portuguese border. At some point though we had to stop and sleep for a hour or so, because we were all suffering from jet lag, particularly our designated driver Joe. I recall at some point we stopped for directions or something in a small Spanish town. It almost seems like we stopped to see an aqueduct as well (perhaps in Mérida?). When we parked Joe made a big deal about us putting all our bags in the trunk, saying that thieves were very likely to break into cars. Janet and I were a little skeptical but complied. Upon returning from the aqueduct we noticed the street we parked on had an enormous amount of broken glass. We also saw a car with a window smashed out. I guess Joe isn't completely crazy.
Eventually we crossed the border and made our way to the town of Evora.
We arrived in the early evening. After driving around for a while we eventually secured lodging. We ate at a restaurant which was so-so. In the evening we walked around the old city and saw some of the sites at night and more the next morning. These included:
The Chapel of Bones was the most memorable thing in Evora. It is made of up thousands of human bones.
I would like to note at this time that the temperature was averaging 39 Celsius (or 102 degrees). The average temperature in San Diego is 73 in August.
From Evora we traveled to Lisbon.
The sites we saw:
From Lisbon we traveled to the western most point in continental Europe. We arrived there just as the sun was setting, making it very difficult to get a good shot. This was even further complicated by the fact that my camera battery was dying. We would leave it off for a few minutes, turn it on and try to take a picture before it died again. There was a very nice lighthouse there looking down from the cliffs at the vast Atlantic Ocean.
We stayed somewhere east of Pena and the next day saw:
The Castle of the Moors is certainly an impressive castle. It has extensive walls on the top of a mountainous cliff. There were a few internal structures (and an external gate house) that remained. Most of the interior is granite boulders and trees.
From the Moorish castle we could see a very brightly painted castle on the top of a hill. We went on to discover it was built in the 18th century for the Portuguese Royalty. It has many varied styles applied to it. From Wikipedia:
We traveled to the town of Fatima, famous for visions of the Virgin Mary to three children in the region. These children were immediately place into a convent. Based on the accounts I read in the town, it sounded more like the three children were abducted and forced into the Church's order. Two of children died, in their mid to late teens, and one of the women lived to become a nun.
Fatima is renowned for being a place of healing. People travel from all over and crawl on their hands and knees in order to be healed of their ailments. We saw a number of physically challenged people going through this ritual. It is a somewhat depressing scene. At the end of the 100 meter or so trek they are encouraged to toss candles into a large fire. We stepped in and sat in on a Catholic mass for a few moments, as mass is held in that town every thirty minutes or so.
Fatima was the first (and possibly only time to date) that I have seen actual gypsies. As we were leaving Fatima we bought some groceries and returned to our car. When we got in a gypsy girl came up and started tapping on my window and pointing at our groceries. We drove away.
From here my recollection of events gets a little fuzzy. I know we traveled north. At some point we stopped at what we thought would be a quick 30-45 minute excursion of a monastery. This ended up being more on the order of 2-3 hours as we were delighted to discover not only was the monastery extremely large with lots of interesting features, but it also had a castle built in it as well.
We went through the city of Porto. At one point we stopped and I stood on the beach. This was the only time in the entire trip that the temperature reached 70 degrees. Stepping 100 feet away from the beach returned you to the 100+ degree inferno that is Portugal in August. It was here in Porto that I bought a couple of souvenirs, one of them being a little wooden model of a wine barge, which I still have. I have not made a significant souvenir purchase since in all my travels.
In Barcelos there is a giant rooster statue which is famous (at least in Portugal). In Porto we saw a number of these items as souveniers (and really everywhere). Janet decided she wanted to buy one, but held off figuring it would be cheaper and more authentic to buy it in the town of its origin. In actuality it was more expensive in Barcelos than in any other town we checked.
As we traveled further north and into the mountains the weather turned a little bit cooler. This would have been a relief except for all the forest fires. Apparently people get bored in August in Portugal, and like to set things on fire. On one news report there were at least a dozen fires simultaneously across most of the country. At one point we literally drove through a forest fire. In the United States the roads would have been blocked off, not so in Portugal. Both sides of the little mountain road were burning. Even with the windows rolled up you could feel the intense heat from the flame. We just drove through it and continued our trek into the mountains.
On the border between Portugal and Spain we visited a natural hot spring, said to rejuvenate the body and soul. In what was at least 105 degree weather we were given near boiling water in glasses and expected to drink it. The absurdity of the situation caused us all to laugh in hysterics for a few minutes.
Sometime during the trip we saw what Joe describes as the perfect Fairy Tale Castle. I would say that it is fairly impressive.
We saw the castle in Guimaraes. We saw at least another castle made primarily out of sandstone. This castle had a lot of stone picnic tables and benches carved into the walls around the inner courtyards.
We stopped at some Roman ruins in Conímbriga where I was disappointed to learn that most columns are made out of brick pie pieces and then covered with plaster. This ruin was developing a restoration in one section that was rebuilding a large columned forum.
We went to a library in Coimba, which was well spoken of in our Let's Go Portugal guide book. This "library" cost 8 euro a piece, consisted of two small rooms, and was over in less than fifteen minutes. This became the measure of how bad something is on future trips. How does this overpriced short experience measure up to the library in Portugal?
Most of the time we ate from the grocery store, but on at least one occasion I insisted we eat at a restaurant. This place put bread on the table (which they later decided to charge us for) and refused to give us tap water. Joe speaks fluent Portuguese, but even after multiple requests the waiter would not bring it to us. And thus we experienced the European abhorrence for customer service.
Joe talked about Bollycaos like they were the greatest snack ever conceived. If you imagine a stale hot-dog bun with a smear of chocolate in the middle, you would first, be accurately imagining a Bollycao and second, be accurately imagining how terrible it tastes. Needless to say, the experience was less than satisfying.
Another time we got some chicken from a street vendor in Chaves. We stopped by a river that had an old Roman bridge across it. My only recollection of this experience was the chicken was extremely greasy.
Joe also talked about rock bread. I can only assume it is called that because it is indistinguishable from a rock on the outside. The taste is awful. We bought some and sat by a river to eat it. When we discovered it was inedible (also called the first bite) we tried feeding it to the pigeons. When the bread landed the wrong side up (as in the crust side up) the pigeons wouldn't eat it, because they couldn't tell it apart from the gravel.
At some point we discovered McDonald's was selling two ice cream cones for 1 euro. After that we stopped at every McDonald's we could find. As I've said before McDonald's is the American's best friend when traveling abroad. It is a place where you can get free water (with ice!), a free restroom, and an air conditioned environment. This replaced our need to buy ice cream from the street vendors every couple of blocks (which we had been doing).
Only a few things stand out to me about our lodgings in Portugal. I know that we always scrambled to find something in the evening (not uncommon on our trips).
At one point in east of Pena we drove around for hours looking for a place, stopping occasionally to call the place from a pay phone. The next morning we bought a phone card for 10 Euro, and for the remainder of the trip ended up only using 2 Euro or so on the balance.
At one point we stayed in a two bedroom apartment in a hotel. The two rooms were separated by French doors. In one room, located next to the bed, was the tub / shower. It had a meager little wall around it, and provided no privacy. We took turns showering with the other two waiting in the other bedroom with the doors closed.
Each morning I would wake up and take a cold shower, having sweated all through the previous day and night. I would exit the shower and dry off. Within a few minutes of exiting the hotel I would immediately be drenched in sweat again. The combination of the heat and the humidity meant I was a walking sponge every day of the trip.
When it came time to return to Madrid to fly home, we were unable to find a hotel near the city. We drove for at least an hour or more outside of the city before finally finding a hotel at or after midnight. We then had to wake up at six or so in the morning, in order to get back to the Madrid Airport, check-in, and make our flight. I believe we also got first class on the way home. I was so tired I had no opportunity to enjoy it.
While making our way back to Madrid we saw the walled city of Àvila and made a vow to come back to Spain some day and experience them. We realized that dream in 2012.
When I went back to work people asked me how South America was. I explained that I went to Europe, but they said Portugal was in South America, because they speak Portuguese there. This was a sad day for the office.
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