I'm glad we checked the weather in Portugal online before leaving or we wouldn't have brought the jackets. Apparently it plunges to 15 degrees C at night, and day time max is 28 degrees.
We've hired a Renault for the drive up and down Portugal, and to avoid the hassle of reading maps this time we decided to splash out and get a Garmin Nuvo GPS with the maps for Portugal loaded. After attaching it to the windscreen, you simply program in your destination and follow the spoken driving instructions. The Nuvo was quickly dubbed my "girlfriend" throughout the trip because of her calm, soothing voice. For the drive up to the Rio Douro from Lisbon you spend most of your time on the A1, so it's very hard to get lost anyway.
First night we checked into the Sofitel Lisboa, a very swanky modern hotel on the Avenida Liberdade, walking distance to the Chiado shopping district and the Bairro Alto bar/restaurant district. The buffet breakfast at the hotel's Ad Lib restaurant is to do die for so make sure you include it as part of your package if you're staying there.
We had dinner at a restuarant two blocks away called "Two Old Ladies ", featuring traditional Portuguese cuisine such as monkfish, bacalhau (you will see this dried salted cod fish on every Portugese menu), clams and prawns. OK but not super-exciting.
The following day we left Lisbon and drove to our first stop on the road trip, Sintra.
Sintra is indeed a fairy tale town and not to be missed. We wandered into an art gallery and were immediately struck, not by the art on the wall, but the view out the window, of red-tiled roofs stretching into the distance, and the Royal Palace squarely in our line of sight. Breakfast was custard tarts, sausage buns and bottled chocolate milk from a local pastry on the town square.
Our next stop was Obidos, with its white walls surrounding an ancient castle, but lunch at the Alcaide restaurant in town was average. My bacalhau fritter put me over my bacalhau limit for at least three days.
After Obidos we stayed overnight at Batalha, visited the giant monastery there, and then on to Coimbra.
Our hotel in Coimbra is the Quinta das Lagrimas, a Relais & Chateaux property whose grounds also feature the Fountain of Tears, the location where Ines di Castro was supposed murdered. The hotel also has a house cat that roams the grounds and who seemed to like following me around for some reason.
The hotel's Arcadas restaurant boasts one Michelin star so our expectations were very high, but in the end it was only so-so.
We all said our lunch of grilled sardines and steamed clams at the Praia da Vieira was much better.
It's now day four of the trip and so far we've been to Lisbon, Sintra, Obidos, Batalha, Coimbra, and today we checked into our hotel at Amarante.
Highlights of the trip so far:
- Watching a local wedding in the church of the Monastery of Batalha
- Looking out over the red tile rooftops of Sintra to see the Palace with its two conical chimneys
- Making a detour to Mealhada to eat suckling pig at the Constantino restaurant
- Strolling in the gardens of the Hotel Quinta das Lagrimas and finding the Fountain of Love and the Fountain of Tears (where Ines was murdered)
The room at the Hotel Casa da Calcada in Amarante has a terrace overlooking the San Gonçalo Monastery, and it is by far the best hotel we've stayed in so far. Here's a picture of the terrace, and a view of paddlers on the Rio Tâmega taken from it. Be sure to take a walk along the river bank if you have time.
Next stop after Amarante was the River Douro, and we stayed at the Vintage House Hotel in Pinhao, a quaint one-street town smack in the middle of the Rio Douro port-making district. We've been to other wine districts such as Hunter Valley and Napa, but we love the relative lack of tourists here and the dramatic vista of terraced vineyards huddled to the hill sides on both sides of the river.
There are at least three things you shouldn't miss in the Douro valley:
- a cruise on the river (especially just before sunset); the view of vineyards rising up dramatically from both sides of the river is breathtaking
- a wine tour at one of the many vineyards to observe firsthand how port wine is made (we visited Quinta do Tedo and loved it)
- a meal at a restaurant inside a pier on the river called DOC, in the town called Folgosa (everything on the menu is delicious, but be sure not to miss the pork neck, slow-cooked at 78 degrees for 12 hours)
And if you do stay at the Vintage House Hotel and decide to dine at the restaurant, make sure you sit out on the terrace and not the windowless main dining room.
After a magical couple of days by the Rio Douro, we drove back to Lisbon down the A1 and then flew home.