P from Pioneering in Portugal

P from Pioneering in Portugal

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On my trip to Northern Portugal in 2007, I had the good fortune of having João as my host for a couple of weeks. And having a local hotshot lodge me and show me around, allowed me to say to hell with maps and suffocating public transport networks that make no sense to a foreigners no matter how hard you try. In the case of Portugal, it was more like the lack of public transport altogether, let alone a map. I was incredibly grateful to be able to fall back upon a native Portuguese travel companion with both problem solving skills AND fluent knowledge of the language !

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We kicked it laid-back style while discovering jewel after jewel, hiking wherever my heart’s desire led me. There is something undeniably zen about being able to enjoy the outdoors in all its spring glory. Portugal came to me as a big surprise. I didn’t expect much more than pretty landscapes and some old historical sites in the middle of nowhere but instead I discovered a unique cultural heritage, first class food AND beautiful landscapes. But above all, I met a lot of people who are proud of their country and welcomed me in superb hospitality.

While throwing an attempt to organize my desktop folders (again) last week, I went through old picture collections and decided to share this amazing journey online as well. Unfortunately most of the travel stories and reviews have been lost in the chaos of my mind and/or have not survived the several HD crashes though the years. Add to that the fact that I was very much into (non digital) scrap-booking at the time, not so much into blogging. My interests at that time primarily focused on architecture and art styles (I had “just” graduated from university), not as much on the whole collective experience a country has to offer.

That said, a picture’s worth a thousand words, so what about 50 pictures?!

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My journey started in Porto but we decided to immediately drive up to Guimarães, Joao’s home town, and the capital of Portugal in the 12th century (now an official world heritage site). The first days were integrally spent strolling in and around most of the city’s little districts and outskirts up the hills.

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My first real glimpse of Guimarães was on the Santiago Square, surrounded by some beautiful medieval architecture such as Church of N. Sra. da Oliveira, the Salado Memorial, and the Old Council Chambers.
Outside of the city walls, with a long row of beautiful gardens leading to it, is the 18th century Church of São Gualter with two impressive twin spires.

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I loved the Castelo de Guimaraes, a 10th century palace and the castle, birthplace of Portugal’s first King. The views from up there were amazing! I had seen my fair share of castles and forts throughout my travels, but I was baffled by the serenity of this castle standing majestically on the hillside. The castle, once built to built to protect Christian people and monks from the Moors, was declared a national monument in the 20th century, and got completely restored to its original splendor.

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We then toured around the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza, onto the Largo da Oliveira (the main square in old town), and eventually into the medieval town center to admire the lovely painted houses. The many narrow streets are lined with 18th century houses covered in colorful decorative tile and wrought iron balconies. We stopped in a charming café for coffee and a pastel de nata, a typically Portuguese custard tart.

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Having lived most of my life in a rural area on the borderline of Wallonia, I am pretty much used to narrow countryside lanes, but these townscapes took my breath away. Cobble stoned, steep, narrow with large rocks jutting out from the hillside, surrounded by flowers everywhere. Set amongst vineyards and stunning gardens, especially in Santo Tirso and Santo Torcato, it felt like time really stood still. Dotted with monasteries, little churches and sanctuaries, the outskirts of the city bask in a unique oasis of peace and quiet. All you can hear in 10 mile radius are birds chirping and trees blowing in the wind. It was low tourist season and the places we visited (except Porto) were almost empty of tourists.

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From the hilltop at Santo Torcato, I noticed a church on another hilltop. It was Mount Penha, or so João told me, and the only way to get there was by cable car or by hiking up a steep mounting. 10 minutes of sweating bullets being scared in a wobbly ski lift was totally worth the view. Panning the scenery, I got absorbed in lush greenery, spectacular views of picturesque towns dotted allover the hills at the bottom of the mountain and cute white rolling mountains that cover the whole landscape. At the very top of the mountain was a church surrounded by trails weaving between huge rocks, like a snake through crevices, creeks and trees. Stumbling upon relic filled nooks and crannies, so narrow that I thought a certain points I’d never be able to make my way out again. Yeah, Mount Penha was absolutely breath taking.

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After a few days and nights in Guimarães living like a true local, we drove to Bom Jesus, an 18th century pilgrimage sanctuary with a striking Baroque stairway, on top of a hill overlooking Braga. Beautiful wide stairs go from the church down the hillside to the outskirts of Braga. I also insisted on taking the long road back because I wanted to sit down in the Santa Barbara flower garden for a sketch and to just look at people strolling by.

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It is such a lively town with a beautiful historic center, tile covered buildings and large open squares. We walked around, explored the downtown streets and visited the 11th century cathedral Sé.The Sé is a must-see. It is believed to be the oldest cathedral in Portugal and still shows off the original Romanesque structure. We were lucky, while taking a look around, somebody started playing the colossal baroque organ and it has a great sound! It’s very pretty as well, decorated with carvings of various cherubs.

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After dark, the stoic town turns upside down, with a rich nightlife thanks to its many university students, even though you don’t say from the pictures ;).

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We had discussed going further up North for a couple of relaxing days in Viano de Castelo and then continue onwards to Parque Nacional Peneda-Gerês, but I didn’t count on a tootache to… kick me in the teeth. Hur hur. So instead of enjoying a couple of days on the Portuguese beach and trading cultural for natural instead, I spent a couple of days it in bed with painkillers and antibiotics after an emergency stop at the health clinic’s dentist.

Due to time concerns, we started our descent southwards instead of North, as soon as I was able to get out of bed, we made it down for a quick stop in Vila Real, and further down to Porto.

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Porto, built on the banks of the Douro, is an ancient port steeped in history and tradition. It is a highly colourful, atmospheric place that has become known for its monuments by renowned architects. It is the second-largest city in Portugal, after Lisbon, and one of the major urban areas in Southern Europe.

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Time for some city sights such as Porto Cathedral, Majestic café, Lello bookshop (whose interior was an inspiration to author JK Rowling), amd Sao Benito train station whose atrium showcases 20,000 hand painted tiles depicting key historical moments in Portugese history.

Porto suprised me with a couple of incredible Art Nouveau gems. And you know how much Vixxie loves her Jugendstil.

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And what combination does my heart beat fastest? That’s correct, books + Art Nouveau. Porto gives you: Library Lello

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If you want to visit all the style icon churches of Porto, I advise you to take a pair of walking shoes, because you’re in for quite the treat!

Church of São Francisco

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Church of Saint Ildefonso,  Sao Benito train station and neighbourhood churches in the same style.

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Clérigos Church

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Porto Cathedral

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The city itself is a mixture of ancient and new, rural and urban. It is a beautiful city that seduces its visitors slowly, with its winding streets, ancient buildings, and academic traditions.

“Porto works, Braga Prays, Coimbra studies, and Lisbon gets the money” goes the saying, and as far as Coimbra is concerned, this is totally true. Perched on a hill overlooking the Rio Mondego, Coimbra is sort of the Oxford of Portugal.  It has the second largest of the 15 public universities in Portugal, as well as one of the oldest in the world. It also houses another amazing library.

It has an “old world” feel to it; quiet, peaceful and elegant.  It sits on top of a hill, above the town, with views down the coast and along the River.

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Cute view from down at the river Mondego:

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From Coimbra, it’s only a small drive to Figueira De Foz. I figured that if I didn’t get to stop by Viano De Castellano, I would just visit this popular holiday destination near the sea. It is a coastal city with several beaches, summer and seaport facilities but it also has one of the biggest casinos of the Iberian Peninsula … isn’t that the perfect closure to the perfect holiday?

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The city is particularly enchanting around sunset… and impressive how the colour palette changes over just a couple of minutes.

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I really fell in love with the “old world” charm of Portugal – the towns, the cities, the people and the food. I can not wait to return soon, as I’ve got a city trip to Lisbon coming up soon.
Who knows, if I ever have another couple of weeks spare… there is still a Southern part to explore !

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