At the beginning of April we decide it’s time to head North again. There’s still a whole lot of Portugal to see and we’ve got a long way to go in the next 6 weeks or so. We’re planning to be back in the UK by mid May. The weather remains very changeable. Some days it’s warm and sunny (18 – 20c), but we have plenty of rain and wind too. We’re still using the heating a fair bit, especially in the mornings …as evidenced by the fact that we run out of gas – again! Our gas supply often lasts us 4 – 6 weeks, but it’s empty after 2. After a bit of investigation, we discover a leak. So that’s why! We fill our gas bottles from an outside connection and hardly ever look into the storage locker itself. It seems that over time some of the connections had worked loose. Now tightened up hard with a spanner and miraculously our gas lasts twice as long again ☺
We stop just outside the small town of Terena at the Lucefecit Reservoir for one night, and enjoy a long walk around the surrounding countryside here; rolling hills, olives, cork oaks, cattle, sheep and goats grazing and more and more wild flowers are beginning to emerge. All topped off by glorious sunshine and blue skies. Alentejo is still doing it for us.
We pass through Estramoz, stopping for a coffee and a wander. Yet another medieval walled town, much bigger than some; a hub for the area with a big weekly market. We travel fast, easily, on the IP2, north towards Portalegre, across flat plains of wheat fields and then begin to climb steeply into the much higher hills of ‘Alto Alentejo’. After ignoring the sat-nav that was determined to take us down a, ridiculous, even for us, dirt track, we find a quiet spot by the Apartadura reservoir for a couple of nights. It feels hot and sunny during the day (23c), but rapidly gets cold at night. We’re at about 800m. There’s lots of dirt tracks around this area providing a choice of walking. Up high, the fields are edged with dry stone walls – it could almost be Wales or the Lake District. After a long hot walk, the reservoir looks so inviting for a swim but it’s sooo cold!
We don’t travel far for the next few days, and visit more medieval fortress towns, in this attractive area, right on the Spanish border. Marvao, above Portagem, is closest to the border and probably has the best location, perched on top of a hill and visible for miles around. There’s even an official motorhome parking up there to entice us, but there’s a freezing wind and we don’t stay long. Castelo de Vide, a little further East, has a less impressive location, but is much larger and the old town is mostly still inhabited. A large section of the town, with its impossibly steep cobbled streets, is the Jewish quarter (where some of their huge number escaped to when they were expelled from Spain, having refused to convert to Catholicism under Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492). If you survive the streets, you get to the ‘fountain of youth’ spring / fountain in a square, where some of the famous totally clear water, that’s supposed to be a cure all, emerges. I drank some – but no dramatic results yet!
There’s plenty more walking routes here too and, as usual for the Portuguese it seems, they are well marked and there’s a map in the villages that they pass through. We spend a couple of days just outside the border town of Galegos and follow part of the “Coffee Smugglers Way”. We pass through cork and olive plantations, attractive sheltered valleys with clusters of small farmhouses and up some steep! cobbled tracks between old stone walls – the medieval roadways used by the locals to smuggle coffee from Portugal to Spain during the Civil War and subsequent dictatorships on both sides of the border (1936 – early ‘70s). Don’t think I fancy doing this route in the dark as they did! We walked across the border into Spain at the tiny village of La Frontera; now a very quiet, peaceful place, before returning to Portugal, leaving the large, gliding Griffon Vultures that inhabit the craggy ridge that forms the border circling high above.
On the 11th of April we finally leave the delights of Alentejo and head into our next region; Ribatejo. The land levels out and we travel West on bigger, faster roads with much commercial forestry. We stop at Abrantes for the night; a biggish, modern place with plenty of ugly flats and all the usual out of town shops. Our parking spot in a carpark on the south side of the River Tejo is quiet and peaceful enough though. The next day we continue to Constancia at the confluence of the Tejo and Zezere Rivers; a nice little place with steep cobbled streets, a river side park and picnic area. We visit the ‘Castelo De Almoral’, east a bit along the Tejo; a tiny castle on a tiny island – a strategic Knights Templar stronghold, before checking out the nearby ‘Albufeira do Castelo de Bode’ reservoir. It turns out to be big let down. Steeply wooded slopes, with virtually no access to the lake itself unless you own one of the many private properties surrounding it and have a private pontoon with speedboat and jet skis to explore. It’s obviously a holiday area and is, at the moment, still shut up. There’s a weird, slightly run down feel to the whole place.. We continue on and finish up at Tomar. And it rains! And it rains!
The next day, we check out the main ‘sight’ here, the ‘Convento De Christo’, one of 3 famous monasteries in the area. More info. here: www.conventocristo.pt/en
One of the many cloistered courtyards was specially built as a place where the poor could come and receive a bread ration from the monks. I couldn’t help wondering if they could have spent the time, and money more wisely? On aid / help for the poor? For instance? There’s extensive gardens to explore here too, but the rain was now truly torrential and we retreated to Heidi for what turned out to be most of 24 hrs.
It rained and rained! Enough now!! We didn’t venture out much for the next couple of days. Eventually we head East towards Nazare on the coast. Open countryside seems minimal, and what little there is, isn’t doing it for us – maybe it’s just the endless rain? We pass near Porto de Mos, the biggest quarrying area in Portugal, where much of the black and white granite sets for the pavements everywhere! come from .. We stop at Alcobaca, home of another huge monastery www.mosteiroalcobaaca.pt It’s still! Raining. Alcobaca is one of Iberia’s greatest monasteries and totally dominates the town. It’s Cisterian austerity makes everything seem scaled up a level, very much in contrast to Tomar. Housing as many as 999 monks at any one time; they held Mass, non-stop, in shifts ! The party ended in 1834 with the dissolution of the religious orders, believed, probably rightly? To be becoming too powerful.
We have coffee and ‘cake’ in the adjacent square. Invented by the nuns in their corresponding convents, the traditional sweets are all very eggy yellow. The whites being used to whiten their ‘habits’. There is interestingly no wheat flour in most of them either. Instead they make much use of spaghetti squash or almond or bean flour – and very good they are too.
Eventually the sun puts in a showing, and we head for the coast. Wow! Blue sea and sunshine – seems a long time since we saw it last. We spend the weekend in Nazare before moving on. It’s popular and busy, and you can see why.. We wander the streets of the old town, where ordinary life still goes on, despite it being such a tourist trap these days. There are lots of restaurants, offering charcoal grilled ‘catch of the day’ fish – all done outside as you’re walking past – well, rude not too. Simply delicious!
Many of the women still wear their traditional dress here – an odd ensemble! Shortish skirts, Long, woollen ,patterned socks, Aprons, Woolen shawls, Headscarves (often highly patterned) ..and a lot of them are selling the traditional snacks of ‘frutos secos’ = various dried fruits and nuts, and of course the ubiquitous Lupin beans (which are growing on us). The old men are making brightly coloured, replica fishing boats to sell, and other women are hawking rooms – apparently they’re usually pretty good value and would probably give us a bit more of an authentic feel.
We spend the next week heading slowly north, up the coast, in the dull and greyness. The whole area is covered by sand dunes and forests with only a few pockets of development. Most of the coastal places are still closed up – and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a wild and wooly coast, with an angry, crashing sea a lot of the year. Sand encroaches several streets, if not miles, inland, and people obviously spend their lives sweeping it out of doorways. JCBs are needed along the fronts where walkways and even some of the seasonal beach cafes can be all but buried! We learn that this whole area was planted by hand at the end of the 19, beginning of the 20th C, to hold back the forever encroaching sand dunes and create some viable agricultural land out of a once huge infertile river delta. The timber is now also selectively harvested. Interestingly the locals have the right to collect wood from the forests for free – unlike most places these days! Well I should think so too!
We continue up the coast, stopping at Figueira Da Foz for a night, before heading inland to Coimbra, Portugal’s ‘second city’, where we stay at an official stop in the riverside park next to various boat clubs. It’s a very popular spot and we’re tightly packed with the neighbours, but there’s a grassy picnic site under trees just opposite with views of the old town and a pedestrian bridge to get there in about 10 mins walk. We spend several days at Coimbra. We wander the ridiculously steep, ancient cobbled streets of the old town. The famous university here totally dominates the place; both with it’s huge buildings and with its influence on life here. 1 in 3 people here is a student! Many of them still wearing the traditional black, including woolen cape (in this heat? It’s 30+C!) along with coloured sashes or ribbons showing their branch of study. We resist the temptation to ‘do the sights’ of the Old University, which seems particularly expensive at €7-10 each (and we’ve seen pictures of the ornate library which everyone talks about), and decide instead to just ‘absorb a bit of life’, and end up giving the equivalent of our entrance fee to a couple of deaf/dumb students campaigning for better housing. Let’s just say they were very persuasive (especially the one who kissed Peter’s arm lots 🙂 ). We also sampled another traditional Fado evening; a different type, particular to Coimbra this time. Not so impressed – but perhaps that was more down to the location (‘A Capella’, an old chapel with harsh acoustics), and the performers/musicians (Amateurs from the university)? It was there we met Micheal Angelo and Ana, a couple from Lisbon, who were perhaps surprised by our interest, given that we couldn’t understand a word. They, however spoke excellent English and we clearly passionate about the music and it’s part in Portuguese history and keen to share their knowledge. We left with a list of some of their favourite Fado singers and groups to look up and an invite to stay with them at their home if we’re ever passing through Lisbon. More Portuguese hospitality!
April 25th. “Dia da Liberdade’. The anniversary of the ‘Carnation Revolution’. The almost peaceful revolution and overthrow of Salazar’s right wing authoritarian regime in 1974. There were almost no shots fired, and only 4 casualties, when the people took to the streets to celebrate the end of the dictatorship and war in the colonies. Carnations were put in the barrels of guns and pinned to the soldiers’ uniforms. We went looking for the action. Not a great turnout considering it was a mere 42 years ago. There was FAR more interest in the ridiculous ‘Colour Run’ held the previous day, with more than 40 thousand runners! Still, there were marches and people handing out carnations, and slogans shouted by various union groups. And traditional singing and dancing in celebration. Bagpipes were played, and what looked remarkably like Scottish dancing was danced. More Celtic connections (to go with the male voice choirs of Alentejo), origins of which we don’t really know.
There’s probably plenty more to say about Coimbra, but time to move on: Into the mountains. We head through Oliviera Da Hospital, stopping for lunch at an excellent new Motorhome service point, complete with shaded picnic site – shame about the noisy church bells every quarter hour though – don’t think we’ll stay the night! We climb up, up, up into harsh, rocky barrenness. Through the highest village in Portugal; Sabugueiro, where apparently there’s a good bread museum, which we missed. Woolen blankets, hats and sledges! are on sale in the roadside shops. No sign of snow – yet. We stop at the Comprida Reservoir in the icy cold wind for a look see at the spectacular ‘infinity pool’ of a reservoir. Not seen one like that before – it’s built out on 3 sides, to extend the capacity. There’s virtually nothing above us in Portugal other than swirling clouds. We were hoping to do a walk, but it’s late so we delay ‘till the next day, spending the night here at 1594m high. Down to 5C. Heating was needed! At night it’s beautifully silent and dark and we’re blanketed with hundreds of stars. A rare occurrence these days – shame. Who needs all those street lights?!
We wake up above the clouds. The valley below is full of white ‘cotton wool’ as we set off on a cold, crisp morning, in search of ‘Baragem Dos Conchos’ ..to see a hole! Part of the impressive interlinked drainage channel system between various reservoirs up here. It was only a small hole, but quite impressive non-the-less. ..and the isolation, ..and the clear clear air, ..and the silence. We like. Soon the grey swirling clouds return, and we get back just before the rain sets in. We head on, up, over the top of the highest point in Portugal; Torre, at just under 2000m. There’s still a bit of snow up here (and a hopeful sledge renting shed), but we don’t linger, and instead head down, following the mad, hairpin descent towards Manteigas, and pull off down a dirt track with various walking routes signposted. Another stunning ‘Heidi spot’ with views of the mountains and the valley below. Another starry night, followed by a beautiful, crisp, clear day. And another walk. There’s virtually no one about, and we enjoy the silence and the sight of birds of prey, circling high above us.
We explore a bit more around the Manteigas area, but most roads around here are tiny and steep with very few passing places. Not ideal for a motorhome. It’s time to cover some distance anyway, and we reluctantly leave this beautiful area and hit the road. Leaving the mountains behind , we stop at Gouveia for the night, and then head north, crossing the swollen River Douro at the hydro electric dam, just beyond Villa Nova de Foz Coa. There was supposed to be a much bigger reservoir here, but they found some ancient cave paintings which stopped the work. You have to go on an expensive guided tour into the national park here to see them – maybe another time. We join the boring, empty motorway now, and travel fast up to the Azibo Reservoir for a couple of days before moving on again to Braganca via the ‘scenic route’, through more mountains, covered in bare, but obviously cultivated trees – we think chestnuts?
Braganca has a huge market going on, taking up much of the town, along with various fetes, live music, crafts, food and drink. We manage to negotiate our way through the busy, narrow streets and up to behind the castle / citadel to a free aire. Apparently this is the largest market in Portugal, taking place every year in the first week of May. If you like endless choice of ‘the same old tat’ then you’re in the right place! We stop and listen to some rather raucous and out of tune folk music, which all the oldies seem to be enjoying and move on to some Labour Day speeches, unfortunately all Greek (sorry, Portuguese) to us, before returning to the relative peace and quiet of our spot by the citadel.
Monday 2nd May is our last day in Portugal. We treat ourselves to lunch out at a recommended traditional mountain restaurant; wooden beams. ‘Presunto’ hams hanging along the walls.. Yummy, very tender mix of traditional pork and wild boar with various cured sausages and cheeses as starters. Not much veg. in sight – a real carnivore’s haunt. Then, with full tummies, we leave via the ‘back door’ on the EN218-3, through the tiny border town of Rio de Onar and its adjacent Spanish counterpart. Most of our maps showed no road here. Just a single small sign marks the border. There’s no one about apart from a single old lady in black, staring as Heidi squeezes between, what is only a handful, of ancient wooden houses and onwards to Spain. Four and a half months in Portugal. Not nearly long enough! We’ll be back.
Don’t forget a map of our complete route can be found here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1ymzS6pFRHp4LYX2NeuDVuhMzaVY&usp=sharing GPS locations, photos and extra infos by clicking the pins