Sunday, August 25, 2013

Our time in Portugal

Ahh...that's better...

After a fair bit of "intense traveling" we've had a few days "off" relaxing poolside on the Algarve coast in Portugal and are now on the way back to Spain to continue our travels. But more of that later, we'll let you know what we've been up to since our last post.

Probably one of the most unique looking places we've been to so far, Porto is an old city built up on the steep banks of the river Douro. Famous around the world for it's Port wine, the city has been a mainstay of Portuguese trade for centuries. From a distance the place looks amazing with layers of buildings vying for space on the aforementioned steep banks. As you get closer it loses some of it's shine as you get the feeling it could do with a bit of a scrub down. With probably the highest concentration of fancy looking old buildings we've ever seen, it was hard to know where to look as you wandered the cobbled streets.

To celebrate Miriam's 35th birthday we checked in to a 4 star hotel for our stay here which, after camping and staying in budget "pensiones", was quite a treat, with Miriam enjoying the luxury so much I was starting to fear for my wallet if she insisted on continuing this trend. On the day we had lunch riverside, listening to some great live music. The following day was spent sightseeing and dropping into various wineries, sampling the local produce and learning about the history and manufacture of Port wine.

Billed as the "Venice of Portugal", Aveiro is a small city nicely decorated with canals that whilst pretty and provide a great way of seeing the place by boat, hardly compares to it's Italian counterpart. What it does have going for it however is friendly people. Fortunately for us we had arrived during a(nother) local festival, on asking the guy next to me what it was all about, we were pretty much adopted for 2 days by a local businessman who took us on a day tour around Aveiro & it's surrounding beaches and sites. Not content with this act of generosity he also invited us back to his place for an outstanding meal cooked by his lovely wife. That evening he also sat down with us at a local cafe and mapped out the rest of our Portuguese trip! This was very welcome as we hadn't really done our usual research and this had been concerning Miriam for some time.

An old University town, this place was great to walk around and see more old buildings. The highlight though was an evening spent at a local restaurant listening to "Fado" - Portuguese folk singing.  It may not sound like a great night out but the intimacy of the setting (cosy, dimly lit, stone walled building with no more than dozen patrons), a guy with a great voice and some very intricate guitar work made for a fantastic time.

A hot tip we received from a very friendly hostel manager was that the medieval festival in Obidos was a good night out. Set in an actual castle and complete with knights in chain mail, barbarians, jousting, sword fights, and more roasted meat than  is advisable, it was indeed a great night out - even if finding a taxi afterwards was a story in itself (one that will remain untold though).

This is the big smoke, the capital of Portugal and we were keen to sample it's wares. We'd heard that it was a bit of a party town and we put it to the ultimate test - a Monday night. It did not disappoint as we didn't need our fancy new phone's GPS to navigate to the epicenter of action in Bairro Alto, we simply followed the crowd noise. We rocked up at 12am and it was pumping. An eclectic mix of partygoers were enjoying the restaurants & bars that were serving up cheap drinks & good live music. We picked a (semi) quiet bar to enjoy the acoustic offerings where the friendly bartender shouted Miriam a cocktail that looked & tasted remarkably like the Portugal national dessert - Pastel de Nata.

More technology problems with our brand new phone dying and taking with it about 5 towns worth of photos. A day was spent getting it fixed, the day wasn't a complete loss however, ending on a high note with a meal cooked by ours truly as we had a kitchen for the first time. We enjoyed it so much that we cooked for the following 2 nights as well - a refreshing change from the mostly café food we have been consuming.

Whilst in Lisbon, we took a day trip to a nearby town called Sintra. Home of some of Europe's rich and famous in it's heyday, the place is littered with grand palaces and adjoining gardens. Having limited time and on foot we could only cover a castle and the most eccentric palace/garden. After what felt like about 100kms of walking (most of it uphill) we finished the day of with some great Chinese food and caught the train back to Lisbon.

This is where the weather got hot - Adelaide Summer hot. In 37C heat, walking with our backpacks from the bus station to our hotel to save the $7 fare, might not have been the smartest idea we've ever had, but we were fortified with the thought of a dip in our hotel's pool. Unfortunately we were told we couldn't check in until 3pm so we chose instead to traipse around the town checking off the sights. Big churches, check, Roman temple ruins, check, chapel with human bone wallpaper, check. Relieved to be done with the "touristy" bit, we checked in and headed to the pool. By now it was in shade and after about 2 seconds Miriam was frozen. In the evening we checked out the nightlife but after Lisbon it seemed a bit quiet.

Our last stop in Portugal was a campsite on the Algarve coast, we had heard about a popular seafood festival here and were  keen to sample the fare. We went twice to the festival and ate some pretty tidy shellfish offerings including mussels, prawns & crab - all the while being entertained by local music and a great U2 tribute band.

It wasn't all about the festival though as we did a day trip to a nearby town to see international sand sculptures, again seeing Bono and also Gandhi, Noddy and friends. A slight miscalculation on our (my) part sent us to the wrong place initially and it was a hot & stressed couple that made it back to camp that night.

To counter all the heat and activity of recent days much time was spent lazing poolside at the campsite, sunbathing and reading. This was a fitting way to finish off our Portuguese adventure.

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