A Portugal Vacation Review

Our clients tobagganing in Madeira, Portugal
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We love it when clients send us their travel stories, and we're happy to share this Portugal trip review from Neil D. in Weston, MA.
 
Porto, a city of 250 thousand, was quite rundown when it was determined it was going to become the cultural center of Europe in 1999. One of the anchors in this renaissance is an architecturally interesting new symphony hall, Casa de Musica, constructed between 1997 and 2006. This significantly dressed up the contiguous area, which has become a major urban redevelopment with interesting new buildings and well preserved older structures. Much of this renaissance was finished by 2010.
 
The Pestana Palacio do Frexio hotel, where we stayed, is located about two kilometers east of "Old Town" on the Douro River. The building was built in 1742 as a palace, morphed through other uses before being converted to the present use in 2012. 
 
A one hour boat ride on the Douro River is a wonderful way to observe the differences between the renovated structures both up and down the river from the old town, some of which are abandoned, others are ruins, and many that have been renovated.
On a rainy day, we went to the Mercado, which contains many small tapas and stand up restaurants... a hangout for young people and families. Then a tour of Casa de Musica, the large symphony hall completed in 2006 and using many interesting building materials, with rooms overlooking the main performance hall. One of the most amazing rooms I've ever seen has a camera connected to a digital music device. If there's no movement in the room, the room is silent. If you dance, a jazz band starts to play with the same degree of gusto as your movements. If you just raise an arm, then the tone is quite soft.  Raise two arms and the sound increases.  It even has a room that parents can deposit young children while they attend a concert.
 
One of the most interesting areas is on the periphery of Porto along the Atlantic.   It is very upscale with interesting, presumably expensive apartments and magnificent houses and restaurants along an approximately 10-mile sandy beach and large, manicured parks.
 
The Douro Valley is the principal wine producing area of Portugal, with three varieties of port wine: Ruby, Blanco and Tawny.  But the area is much more than that. It is steeped in  history.  Its hilly terrain is easily traversed by major highways but the interesting towns, Roman bridges and interesting railroad stations require a diversion.  Touring in April, northern Portugal's spring, brings forth a plethora of spring blossoms and flowers: lilacs, Scottish broom, heather, camellias, azaleas, pansies and the first green shoots from the Vineyard stocks.
 
In Northern Portugal, the Vidago Palace hotel is a beautifully restored early 20th century palace, converted to a hotel 10 years earlier, situated on approximately 200 acres, with pathways that show off an 18-hole golf course and tennis courts.  Its high ceilings and beautiful frescoes reminds one of a bygone era.  
 
The 14th century castle in Braganca is the best preserved major castle in Europe, and is located in a city that was instrumental in the creation of the Kingdom of Portugal.  Nearby was the town of Mirandela, that features one of the best preserved Roman bridges in Portugal.
 
Instead of traversing the Douro River via boat, we drove along the river between Regua and Pinhao, a distance of 20 miles, stopping for a picnic along the river under a shade tree.  Visible in every direction along the river are the extensive terraced vineyards that may extend as much as 2,000 feet up from the edge of the river.
 
We stayed at Six Senses, a Thailand-owned new chain of upscale spas, featuring the latest in room operating technology and fitness programs.  It is extraordinarily well situated, overlooking the Douro River and the terraced vineyards.  The hotel features fresh wholesome food, some of which is grown on its property, and has an extensive collection of outstanding Portuguese wines.  The hotel's merchandising of the wines would rival anything in Napa Valley.
 
Coimbra was the original capital of Portugal, and the area in which the English and Portuguese forces defeated Napoleon.  It is also the location of the oldest university in Portugal, which was previously the royal palace.  Northern Portuguese are considered the “true” Portuguese, because southern Portugal was occupied by the Moors for 400 years. This distinction was mentioned to us by several people and reminded us of the Mezzo-giorno in Italy.
 
We stayed at Quinta Las Lagrimas, a 400-year old property that has remained in the hands of the same family.  We presumed we slept in the same bedroom that Wellington had slept in when he defeated Napoleon in the peninsula war not far from here.  The property has many historic stories including loves and wars gained and lost. One of the most creative kitchens thus far was in this hotel, much to our delight.
 
Driving from Coimbra to Evora passed near Batalia, where the Mosteiro da Batalha, a masterpiece of Portuguese Gothic architecture, began construction in 1388 to commemorate a victorious battle by the undermanned Portuguese troops, thus preventing domination by the Spanish.
 
Evora is a walled city since Roman times that was heavily influenced by the Moors until their defeat in Portugal in 1147. There is an aqueduct from 15th century as well as a well-preserved Roman temple.  Located here is the magnificent XII-century cathedral and a XVI-century Cappella da Ossos made of 5,000 skulls and bones.  We stayed in what was formerly a large convent, Convento dos Espinheiro, outside of the city that had been converted to a luxury hotel. 
 
Side trips to the historical, fortified towns of Evoramonte and Vila Vicosa return one to the turbulent times of royal succession.  Vila Vicosa is especially impressive with its well-maintained white-walled houses and the magnificent Ducal Court's collection of paintings of historical scenes and period armor.
 
The AlgarveYou may avoid visiting this honkey-tonk coastal area if you just go to the worst parts of Florida where there are beach bums living on the cheap, many retired wanting a mild climate, and tourists looking for an inexpensive vacation. We were warned that in the summer there are a massive number of young people that come that does not enhance the area.  Many buildings are defaced with graffiti, unlike in northern Portugal.  
 
The only saving grace was staying in the Bella Vista Hotel, located near the midpoint of the Algarve coast at Portimao, and which has a one star Michelin restaurant.  The hotel decor seems a blend of Venetian contemporary/Miami Beach rococo.  But the hotel was situated on the water with a private beach making it an oasis.
 
To the east of Portimao are uninteresting coastal towns of which the more interesting are Tavira and Fero, which retain some of their charms by being fishing villages.  Tavira also has an interesting castle and a beach island accessible by boat.
 
To the west of Portimao, the coastal area is marginally better at the fishing port of Longa, where Henry the Navigator inspired exploring the south Atlantic along the African coast in the 14th century, and made major contributions to navigation.  On the western coast was the Fortaleza de Sagres, a perfect spot for our picnic on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. 
 
For 600 years, Sintra has been the summer haven for the kings of Portugal.  As a result, there are numerous palaces and important large residential structures for the kings' friends, nestled into the wooded hills and very winding roads surrounding Sintra.  These roads are just wide enough for a horse drawn carriage; two cars cannot pass.  About a one-hour drive from Lisbon, there are many weekenders walking the narrow roads leading to the important tourist destinations, as parking is limited and the police redirect traffic, which confounds the GPS.  Nearby are the beachfront towns of Cascais, the furthest western point in Europe, known for its surfing and beaches. These beach resorts are a much higher caliber than the Algarve, attracting a better quality clientele. 
 
We stayed outside Sintra at Penha Longa resort, located in a hilly, forested area, and with all of the typical American resort amenities, including 36 holes of golf, and accordingly, a number of Americans, unlike all the other places in which we stayed.  There are several upscale hotels in Sintra that may have been more interesting. Still the hotel staff could not have been nicer and they gave us a bouquet of roses to honor our wedding trip. 
 
In the 18 years since first visiting Lisbon, it is changed to the point of almost being unrecognizable, except for the many 18th century buildings and castles.
 
Excellent museums dot the Lisbon landscape, covering considerable subjects given Portugal's important contributions to history. For those interested in maritime history and the impact that the Portuguese explorers made to navigation, a visit to the Maritime Museum is a must.  Watching the world renowned Lusitanian horses train and preform is also a unique experience.  There are a number of Michelin-starred restaurants, as well as those featuring excellent seafood.
 
Another day was spent touring the 11th century Moorish castle, Castelo St Jorge, that was well preserved but still undergoing an extensive dig.  The castles, in general throughout Portugal, are better preserved than in other countries.  An excellent interactive video portrays the history of Lisbon; it is located near the waterfront at Praca do Comercio, and includes the recreation of the 1755 earthquake that killed an estimated 90 thousand of 270 thousand people.
 
The Gulbenkian museum's extensive collection of Asian and European art from 5000 BC requires hours to just walk through the buildings and gardens.  Another, Palacio dos Marquesses de Fronteria, is a beautiful, restored (or in process) 1670 former hunting lodge, featuring exquisite Delft tiles describing some family and Portugal history. And the king had dinner there once. In Portugal, no one was allowed to use china from which the king had eaten, so one room was decorated with mosaics of china… broken after the king left. 
 
Our hotel made dinner reservations for a Fado performance, sentimental sailor/folksongs originating in late 17th century, that feature soloists accompanied by a 12 string Portuguese guitar. 
 
We had initially reserved in the Sofitel hotel, because it was closer to the center of the city. That was a mistake: noisy, dark, poor room layout, small rooms and overpriced! We moved after one night.  The excellent Lapa Palace, located in the embassy area of Lisbon, will remain one of the best hotels in which we stayed in terms of food, service, ambience, view of the Targus river, lovely gardens, and very comfortable rooms.
 
Funchal, the principal city in Madeira, is a gem.  Approaching Funchal by air, two hours from Lisbon, shows the south Island side with terraced houses and mid-rise apartments and a high quality housing stock, using most of the lava formed island discovered in 1418.  Walking around the town exhibits a lively, clean place, with well maintained buildings and a market filled with Madeira grown bananas, vegetables and locally caught fish. The old town is packed with lively restaurants, many of which have outdoor seating along a pedestrian only pathway.  Madeira is known for producing embroidered linens, none of which are inexpensive.  The restaurants are unusually good compared to other places visited in Portugal.
 
The area outside greater Funchal is sparsely populated in part because of the very steep, high mountains that look like the spine of an extinct species.  Many of these range from near sea level to 6,000 feet.  The north side of the island is cold, windy with the force of the Atlantic waves crashing the shores.
 
The Belmond Reid's Hotel is the premier hotel on the island, established in 1891, with a gentile quality of a bygone era, situated on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic with many sub-tropical gardens.  High tea in the afternoon, dinner dancing in one of the four restaurants, two outdoor pools with one heated warmer than the other, a salt water pool, ocean swimming for the brave make this one of the most enchanting hotels ever.
 
Neil D., client of Heidi Hoehn. Contact her to learn more about TravelStore's Portugal vacation packages today!