Feliz Ano Novo!

For New Year we headed north to the second-biggest city in Portugal – the romantic city of Porto. It’s a beautiful medieval city and also the birthplace of Port wine. The Douro river runs through the city and beautiful traditional boats, barcos rabelos, are still used to ferry the Port wine down stream. These boats line the riverside beneath the Dom Luís I bridge and you can see the boats filled with the large barrels holding the Port wine. The Douro region of Portugal is where some of the world’s best wine’s are produced. There is evidence of wine making in this region which dates back to the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. A great place to celebrate the end of the year and the beginning of a new one!

Unfortunately we only got to spend 2 nights here but managed to see a little bit of the city. We stayed in a gorgeous boutique pensão in the centre of the city. When we weren’t out eating and drinking we walked the city centre admiring the mix of old – lots of beautiful old buildings, Portuguese tiles, old doors and street art.

           

New Years eve was spent with Filipa and friends indulging in a degustation meal beginning around 9pm and finishing around 2am. At midnight, everyone paused from the eating to drink champagne and watch the fireworks visible out the window from our table. Traditionally at midnight the Portuguese eat 12 sultanas, typically called desejos or ‘wishes’, one for each month of the new year, with the chime of the clock. Much more civilised than resolutions! The Portuguese also believe you have to wear blue underpants on New Years eve to bring good luck – they can’t be old daggy ones, they have to be new! After our degustation, we walked a short distance to our friend’s bar which she opened just for us where shots of Pampero rum were downed accompanied by lime segments coated with brown sugar on one side and coffee on the other…..delicious and guaranteed to keep your eyes open a few more hours.

The hangover wasn’t too bad the following day so we drove to the gorgeous town of Aveiro, sometimes known as the ‘Venice of Portugal’ due to the arched bridges over the network of canals and the moliceiro boats. What makes these boats unique are the colourful paintings on their helm, usually religious in nature or humorous and dirty….go figure?

Aveiro is a gorgeous little town. It’s also home to a typical Portuguese dessert called Ovos Moles which is basically an egg-yolk pudding which I can’t say I like…..too eggy for my taste….but the town has other delights such as the beautiful calçada, tiles and sculptures.

After all this, our appetite had returned and we drove out to the coast to Costa Nova for a late lunch. At first you think you’ve driven on to the set of a Disney film or something as all the houses are all vertical or horizontal candy-striped. These houses were originally the old fisherman’s shacks. In front of the candy-striped houses are large sand dunes. Costa Nova sits on a large spit of land and is connected to the mainland by a bridge. It got separated in a massive storm in the 16th century.

Lunch was a delicious splurge of seafood rice with the freshest sweetest prawns I have ever tasted! Feeling better already….is it beer o’clock yet? A good start to 2012.

Happy New Year everyone!

The Beautiful South

Before I blog about Christmas and New Year, I just want to tell you about a 5-day road trip we did just a few weeks before the festive season – a little Christmas present to ourselves. We decided to head south to the Algarve on Portugal’s south coast. To get there we traveled through the Alentejo region, renowned for some of Portugal’s best wines. Alentejo is also regularly called the ‘Tuscany of Portugal’. It is Portugal’s largest region – think rolling hills, grapevines, cork trees, rugged coastlines, traditional villages and farming. The maps shows the regions of Portugal and the arrows shows our overnight stays – one night in Alentejo and then three nights in the Algarve in Portimão, Albufeira then Tavira then we drove back up through Alentejo on the eastern side, along the border of Spain and back to Lisbon. It felt like we were away more than 5 days as we did so much and I took just over 800 photos in 5 days! It was a fantastic trip.

From Lisbon we drove a few hours to a small village called Vila Nova de Santo AndreThis was a good base for us to do some smaller trips to Troia and the nature reserves nearby and ocean beaches. That night we stumbled across an old primary school that had been turned in to a restaurant. It was so quaint and gorgeous. The Alentejo region is renowned for it’s traditional food – black pork (the pigs are black in colour and the meat is more tasty), game dishes, bread, cheese, wines and seafood. We ordered the most spectacular dish of wild rabbit empada – the rabbit is wrapped in pastry with delicious spices and served with pilau rice and salad. One of many of my favourite meals so far in Portugal and we highly recommend this restaurant for it’s fantastic service, local organic food and large selection of local wines. If you’re ever around Cachopos, near Sines in Alentejo, go to Restaurante A Escola. Maravilhosa!

Wild rabbit empada for two

The following day we ventured off along the spectacular coastline of Alentejo to some of  the most beautiful beaches I have seen. First stop was one of my favourite places, a little seaside town called Porto Covo. It’s an old fishing village still blessed with cobblestoned streets with the gorgeous cottages in blues, reds and whites.

           

Porto Covo harbour

As we drove further south we made stops at Vila Nova de Milfontes, Zambujeria do Mar, Odeceixe and we just made it to Praia do Amado for sunset. The coastline became more rugged and wild and I was starting to wish we had more than just five days. Part of me was also wishing it was summer, but then again, summer brings hoards of people and turns the whole south of Portugal in to a totally different place. The peace and the solitude along the beaches and in the villages was perfect – as long as we were sufficiently rugged up!

Vila Nova de Milfontes

                   

Odeceixe
Praia do Amado and local canine taking in the view too
Praia do Amado – the Algarve west coast

We sped along a dirt track to just get to Praia do Amado in time for the sunset. It was the most amazing orange colour against the sandstone rocks. We were the only people there apart from a little dog who whimsically stared out to the sea, enjoying the sunset, the peace and the sounds of the ocean as much as we did.

That night we slept in a funky little boutique hotel in Portimão, after navigating the labyrinth of one way streets. It’s the Algarve’s second largest city. It used to be a major fishing port and once had a large cannery, which is now part of an excellent exhibition in the local museum. I loved the harbour area of this city. You could feel the maritime history and its trading connections to the rest of Europe. The south of Portugal is also home to thousands of storks. Anywhere you see a large electric pylon or old chimney stack, just cast your eyes upwards and you will see some. About 10 years ago these birds were in serious decline in Portugal but they are now off the endangered list due to concerted efforts by the power companies to make the electrical pylons safer for nesting. The stork nest can be over 2 metres in diameter and there are now over 4,000 storks year-round in southern Portugal. Another factor has been the introduction of the Louisiana crayfish which reproduce very quickly and has given them an extra food source. They are amazing birds and I love seeing them up there, knowing the two of them have a little baby in their midst.

Portimão harbour

                  

The hooks from the old cannery

The next stop, heading east along the south coast, was Albufeira. The old fishing port has unfortunately been replaced by an ultra modern marina filled with flashy million dollar boats. It’s a town dedicated to tourism and in summer the cheap package deals and cheap food and booze bring hoards of Europeans. I loved it but still wondered how different it would be in the summer. It has beautiful white washed buildings and many many beautiful beaches and we enjoyed another fantastic sunset at beer o’clock, at Praia Grande. After dinner, we wandered the deserted streets, walking down to the main beach for a sangria or two at Filipa’s friends restaurant. Many of the bars and restaurants were closed for the winter season.

Albufeira
The white washed apartments waiting for the summer influx
The beautiful beach of San Rafael in Albufeira
Praia Grande – Albufeira

Traveling further eastward the following day we stopped at Cavoeiro to an interesting place set in the cliffs called Algar Seco which had pounding seas and dramatic rock formations. It was fun exploring all the caves, blowholes and watching the waves crash against the cliffs.

Algar Seco at Carvoeiro
Algar Seco

Another stop was made at Praia da Falésia, a beautiful golden sandy beach which holds precious childhood summer memories for Filipa and then to the glitzy and glamourous marina of Vilamoura for lunch. This marina can berth over 1,000 vessels and in summer it’s the place to spot the rich and famous of Portugal and Europe. Cristiano Ronaldo is often seen here as he owns a bar with Luís Figo, another famous Portuguese football player.

The next two nights we stayed in a self-contained cottage in Tavira which was just gorgeous. I’d heard lots of great things about Tavira, so I had high expectations and I was not disappointed. It’s a very charming little town, still rather untouched and unspoilt by tourism. The old town is a maze of little cobblestoned streets with gorgeous shops, cafés and restaurants. Ponte Romana is a beautiful 17th century arched bridge crossing the river which runs through the town and out to sea.

Sunset upon Ponte Romana

                  

We saw many beautiful places – a haunting beach in the winter called Praia do Barril which has a graveyard of anchors. To get there you catch a small train across to another little island. We also caught the boat over to Ilha de Tavira one day and walked around the deserted islands resort and beach.

We also had two amazing meals whilst we were staying here, the first at a restaurant called ‘O Pedro’ in Cabanas (a short drive from Tavira) where we ate Conquilhas (tiny cockles in a white wine, garlic and herb sauce which are amazingly sweet and so delicious). This was first course. For second course we shared a Cataplana de Peixe. A cataplana is a large clam-like cooking vessel which in this instance contained four types of steamed fish, red peppers, garlic, prawns, potatoes and onions. A-maz-ing flavours! All washed down with a bottle of wine from the region. Heaven! The second meal was at a gorgeous little restaurant called ‘Aquasul’ in the heart of Tavira old town. Very cute, great service, delicious organic food – tuna and prawn skewers with cous cous and roasted vegetables and a to-die-for wood-fired pizza. Someone call Greenpeace and roll me back in to the ocean!

Our last day and we visited a beautiful local waterfall ‘Poço do Inferno‘ (Hell’s Well) surrounded by beautiful orange and olive groves and where a broken pale in the fence meant that we had the sweetest oranges I’ve ever tasted for the trip back. Another treasure was the teeny tiny village of Cacela Velha with it’s colourful houses, scruffy looking dogs and gorgeous ocean views.

View from Cacela Velha

                

A cottage in Cacela Velha

Reluctantly we headed inland traveling north towards Mértola in Alentejo. To cheer ourselves up, we bought some local chouriço, cheese and bread for a picnic overlooking an old mining crater in São Domingos. Sounds strange I know but the mine closed in the 60’s and whats left is a deserted, eerie yet interesting place to explore old crumbling buildings and rusty machinery. The mine is over 150 years old but I read that mining has taken place here since Roman times. The colours were amazing.

We really weren’t ready to go back home but we made one final stop in the beautiful town of Evora, one of Portugal’s most beautiful medieval towns. The town sits inside a 14th century stone wall with beautiful narrow lanes and striking architecture.

We only had time to see the Templo Romano – the remains of a Roman temple dating back to the 2nd or early 3rd century and one of Portugal’s best preserved Roman monuments. It’s 14 Corinthian columns have survived so well as the temple was covered up by a wall in the Middle Ages to form a fortress and it wasn’t uncovered until the late 19th century.

A long blog post I know, but I felt like I didn’t want to leave anything out because it was all so beautiful. Just consider yourself lucky I didn’t post the entire 800 photos!

Sweet Temptations

After spending a few days in the village we headed due west to the central coast. On the way we stopped off in the beautiful city of Coimbra. This is the ‘Oxford’ of Portugal, being a very old and distinguished university city. It has one of the oldest universities in Europe, the University of Coimbra, as well as it being the oldest in the Portuguese-speaking world, dating back to 1290.

We spent the day just wandering through the streets and along the river Mondego. It was a crisp winters day and the sun was out and Portugal is the most wonderful place to just wander and enjoy the architecture and café culture.

I was privileged to see some traditional calçada guys at work fixing up some broken pavement and some gorgeous Portuguese men sitting on a bench sharing a moment and a laugh. I would love to have known what they were talking about.

We hung around to see sunset across the river and then meet Filipa’s cousin who is studying at the University of Coimbra for a coffee, before we drove on westward to the small coastal town of Figueira da Foz. We were suitably hungry by the time we got there so Filipa took me to the renowned local Forte Santa Catarina restaurant…..renowned because of it’s Rodizio de Marisco, or ‘Never-ending, all-you-can-eat platter of Seafood’ all for 18 Euro ($24) per person.

On the platter were heaps of these strange things called Perceves, otherwise known as Goose Barnacles, thanks to Wikipedia. They basically live on rocks, like most barnacles do, but only really exposed coastal areas as the perceves depend on water motion for feeding. They are widely consumed here and in Spain and considered a delicacy. You squeeze the leathery tube near the shell-like claw and then twist to suck out the flesh. Up close they look rather weird and scary and daunting to eat. Lucky Filipa was with me. The taste was like the sea, very briny, and the texture like a mussel or clam.

The funny thing is the name perceves is very close to another Portuguese word, percebes. Translate the first word to English and it means ‘barnacles’ but translate the second word to English and it means ‘understands’. In some places the locals try and translate their menu into English. If traveling through Portugal, you may just see some “understands” on the menu.

Understands

Figuiera da Foz is a gorgeous town and has a giant sandy beach which reminded me a lot of Santa Monica in L.A. but so much more beautiful with no people on it (in winter). In summer, the town turns in to a holiday mecca and surfing destination. The beach here is the largest in Portugal at 3 km in length. It’s also very wide and takes about 5 minutes to reach the water.

Figueira da Foz coastline

We only stayed here one night and one day but I loved it, a beautiful place to visit and we will definitely be back.

Of course, on the way home, more pit-stops for food and coffee. This time at a very famous pastry shop in a very small village, Tentúgal, called A Pousadinha. There are a few famous desserts here, one being the Queijadas de Tentúgal and also the Pastel de Tentúgal. Both use copious amounts of sugar and egg and pastry. Oh my. God.

The amazing and interesting thing about this place is that the recipes date back to the 16th century when these sweet temptations were first made behind the walls of the local convent, Convento do Nosso Senhora do Carmo. The place got the name doce conventuaís, ‘sweet convent’. What do you call a nun with a sweet tooth? A Carmel-like. Sorry!

And because it is coming up to Christmas you also see many Bolo do Rei, or King Cake, throughout Portugal. It is eaten up until the 6 January (the day of Kings – a biblical reference to the Three Kings) and it resembles a crown covered in crystallised dried fruit.  Just like the Australian plum pudding, the King Cake used to contain a small ‘prize’ but has now been forbidden due to safety reasons. It also used to contain a ‘bean’ and whoever had the slice with the bean in it had to buy the cake the following year.

Bolo do Rei

Merry Christmas everyone!

Sea of Tranquility

I discovered after a visit to the Lisbon Oceanarium that photographing marine life through thick convex acrylic is not easy. So I put together a video instead to give you a much better idea about how great the aquarium is. It’s the second largest aquarium in Europe.

It’s a huge place, featuring over 450 different species. The central tank is about 5,000 cubic metres and 23 feet deep.

Credit to Filipa for her beautiful footage of the white jellyfish that I used in my video.

You may have spotted the very unusual Sunfish (or Mola Mola) on my video. Its one of the few aquariums in the world to house Sunfish due to their demanding requirements of care.

Two sharks and a Moray eel

There was also a great temporary exhibit featuring many different kinds of turtles but by far, the highlight for me were the lontras, sea otters. So entertaining. So cute. Very content to just lie on their backs posing for the crowd. The ambience of the place is really nice too. As you wander around the place, all you can hear are ocean sounds, crashing waves, wind, whale and dolphin calls, birds.

It’s a lovely tranquil place to spend a cold, grey winter afternoon.

A Land of Fairytales – Part 2

Back to Sintra the following day to see some more of its beauty and another beautiful day it was. We decided to start at the Castelo dos Mouros on the top of the hill, overlooking the township of Sintra. It dates back to the 9th century when the Moors built it containing two walled sections with a total perimeter of about 450 metres.

It is surrounded by beautiful parkland on one side and a sheer drop on the other. Its place on top of the hillside overlooking Sintra with it’s turrets, ramparts and towers really accentuates the romantic character of this place, particularly when enshrouded in rolling fog and mist.

There’s nothing much to do here but just wander the perimeter, climb and explore the towers and turrets and admire the breathtaking views. You can see all the way out to the Atlantic on a clear day.

View down to the town of Sintra

View from Parque de Pena

After some lunch we headed to Parque de Pena, where you can find the Palácio Nacional de Pena, a completely over-the-top Romanticist palace crossed with a little bit of Disney. If I had to choose, this was probably my favourite place. It’s pure fantasy!

Upon arrival at the park gates, there is quite a hike, but well worth it, up to the palace through the beautiful woods or you can take a little carriage bus up there if you’re feeling lazy. The palace is situated 450 metres above sea level and is perched high above Sintra.

First glimpse of Palácio de Pena

A newt under a window

It was built in the 1840’s by German architect Baron Wilhelm Eschwege for King Ferdinand and Queen Maria II. It became the summer residence for the Portuguese royal family and the last family member to live here was Queen Amélia in 1910 before leaving the country in exile. During the 1910 republic revolution, the monarchy was deposed by a military coup and the monarchy was never restored again in Portugal.  The palace was purchased by the State in 1889 and after the republic revolution it was classified a national monument and turned in to a museum.

The palace is a crazy fusion of styles, a mixture of eclectic Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Gothic and Islamic influences. King Ferdinand had exotic taste and probably would have been described as flamboyant but he wanted an extravagant love nest for him and his Queen.

My Rapunzel

Almost the entire palace is built upon rock. There are drawbridges, studded archways, a clock tower, turrets, terraces, chapels, circular towers and rainbow coloured outer walls. The palace is built within 200 hectares of the most wonderful and enchanting forest. King Ferdinand ordered trees to be planted from many distant places like China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and North America. A labyrinth of paths leads to many beautiful locations throughout the park. Again, we found the park the highlight of the visit. One path took us to a huge crucifix high up on a hill.

From here we got the most breathtaking views back to the palace.

Palácio de Pena

The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling through the forest, getting lost, exploring the many flower gardens, discovering hidden gazebos and fountains and photographing the beautiful flora and fauna.

And we also thought it would be a really great place to film a movie. So here are our first few attempts…..okay, so we thought it was funny. Apologies in advance….clearly too much time on our hands.

A Land of Fairytales

A land of castles, fairytales, palaces and princesses exists about thirty minutes outside of Lisbon. It’s a township called Sintra. It’s one of Portugal’s biggest and most popular tourist attractions and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Around the 9th century, the Moors built their castle (Castelo dos Mouros) on top of a nearby hill. In the 11th century, a lot of the town was built up by Arab geographer Al-Bacr. Hans Christian Anderson found literary inspiration here and Lord Byron christened the place “glorious Eden”. Later it became the residence of the Portuguese royal family, which attracted many wealthy aristocrats who built huge mansions in the area.

Looking up at the Castle of the Moors

It’s a mystical, romantic and totally extravagant place that you need at least two days, if not more, to see it properly. Not only are there many buildings (palaces, castles, chapels, monasteries) to see and explore but the gardens surrounding them are truly spectacular as well and you could easily spend a whole afternoon exploring just one of the many enchanted forests surrounding each palace.

Day 1 we started at Quinta da Regaleira which basically translates to Regal Farm. Hardly a farm, this place was spectacular, quirky and pure fantasy. It was built just before the turn of the 20th century in Roman, Gothic and Renaissance styles. It is also known as ‘The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire’ named after the first owner António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro. The ‘farm’ contains a magnificent palace with beautiful turrets, gargoyles and towers. There are five floors within and there is also a separate chapel.

The Palace of Quinta da Regaleira
View of Quinta da Regaleira from the Castle

But for us, the gardens were the highlight with its mysterious wells, underground grottos, statues, lakes and gazebos. There are four hectares to explore and an underground tunnel system leading to different grottos, the chapel and a tunnel that opened out to the dubiously named ‘Initiation Well’. An immense stone staircase spiralled 32 metres skyward.

The Initiation Well
The Initiation Well

After many hours exploring the park, we went on to the next, to the Palácio de Monserrate (Monserrate Palace).

It was built in the mid-1800’s and they are currently renovating the inside of the palace. Its architecture is reminiscent of a combination of the Taj Mahal and the Duomo in Florence. It’s simply breathtaking. It was once the former private residence of an Englishman, Sir Francis Cook.

Again, the lush gardens were the highlight for us. There are fabulous pathways leading in many different directions to romantic subtropical gardens, lakes and waterfalls. It was a beautiful summers day and we just enjoyed the sunshine and getting lost in the 30 hectares of gardens.

It was an afternoon of fun in the sun but it nearly ended in disaster though as we took a short cut through the Mexican garden full of yuccas, palms and cacti. The tread of my shoes served no purpose as I lost my footing and went so close to tumbling down the decline covered in cacti.

Stay tuned for Day 2 of our visit to Sintra…..