Friday, 20 September 2013

Travels Up North - 1

When we came to Portugal it was our plan to spend most of our time here in the Algarve but also to use Tavira as a base from which to explore the rest of the country and also some of the nearer parts of Spain.  For a variety of reasons this hasn’t really happened.  We have got to know parts of the Baixo Alentejo very well but trips further north have been few and far between.  We have been birding around the Tejo Estuary and we have been to Lisbon but that’s been about it - until last weekend!

We have just returned from a very enjoyable four day visit to Porto and Northern Portugal where we were hosted by the local Tourism Board and the Porto Convention Bureau.  We were accompanied throughout by José Aragão from Turismo de Portugal, local guide Monica and driver, Ricardo.

Our lunchtime flight from Faro to Porto with Ryanair was very convenient and a perfectly satisfactory experience.  We arrived in the country’s second-largest city with time for just a short tour around the old and narrow streets.  Porto (sometimes seen referred to as Oporto) is a city with tremendous historical interest; it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.  We will have to go back to fully appreciate it and do it justice.

Porto and the Douro River

One feature that we did get to see was the historic São Bento Railway Station, well known for its tile (azulejo) panels depicting scenes of the history of Portugal.  The tiles are said to number 20,000 and date from 1905–1916.

São Bento Railway Station

After the city tour we went to the Cálem port wine cellars where we saw and heard about the production of tawny and ruby ports, LBVs, Colheitas, etc.  We also got to sample a couple of them, something that became a recurring theme of the trip!

Cálem port wine cellar

Dinner was enjoyed at the D. Tonho Restaurant where our outside table overlooked the Douro River and the famous Dom Luis Bridge.
Dom Luis Bridge

We very soon heard about the nickname given to the people of Porto: tripeiros, people who eat tripe!  This refers to a period in history when higher-quality cuts of meat were shipped from Porto with their sailors, while off-cuts and by-products, such as tripe, were left behind for the local citizens.  Although tripe is still a popular dish, neither of us was tempted to try it, probably having been put off by what we have seen on sale in butchers’ shops in the UK.

We stayed overnight at the Vila Galé Porto which is located within easy walking distance of the city’s main shopping area.

The following morning we travelled north by minibus to the Peneda-Gerês National Park, which is the only national park in Portugal and actually straddles the border with Spain.  We met with Paulo and Isobel, guides from Portugal Green Walks, in the town of Ponte de Lima and after stopping off to look at the historic espigueiros in the village of Soajo and a very pleasant lunch, we walked part of the Glacier and Alto Vez trail.  There were 24 espigueiros looking almost like a small cemetery; they are grain stores, constructed from local granite, some dating back to the 18th Century and still in use today for storing and drying maize.  An interesting feature of the walking trail was the grooves that had been worn in the rocks by years of use by heavy ox-carts.


 Peneda-Gerês National Park...


Did we see any birds?  Well, yes we did see quite a number but of the species that we hoped to find in the north of the country, i.e. those that don’t normally occur in the Algarve, we caught just a glimpse of a Coal Tit!

We spent the night at the beautifully located Aquafalls Hotel in S. Miguel da Caniçada, about 30km from Braga.  As so often on these trips, there wasn’t time to sample its many facilities and we even went out to dinner, to the Pousada Santa Maria do Bouro, a 12th Century Cistercian monastery, which was well worth the drive not just for the food but for the ambience and the whole experience.

More to follow...

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