Bicycling through Alentejo and Beira it didn’t seem like there were many tourists in Portugal. I remember being quite surprised how few tourists there were even in the historic center of Évora. Well, we found them. In addition to Sintra everyone seems to go to Porto and Lisbon. Lisbon, ok, I get it. There are some fantastic museums, and Jerónimos really is one of Portugal’s great attractions (especially if you haven’t been to Tomar, Batalha, and Alcobaça…).
Porto, on the other hand, well, I didn’t quite get it. Locals claimed Porto gets more tourists than almost anywhere else in the world, something I haven’t been able to collaborate with my internet research. But I can hardly blame the locals for thinking so. The streets were indeed crowded with tourists, and there’s not really that much to see in the city.
One of the draws to the city is actually the azulejos (oh my gosh, haven’t we seen enough already??!!). Indeed if you arrive to Porto by train like we did (we left our bicycles in Lisbon), then the very first thing you’ll see are the azulejos at the São Bento Railway Station.
Continuing from my last post… we left Pinhão and the Alto Douro by bus on a slow and very curvy road through (again) endless hills covered with vineyards and schist walls. Our destination was a UNESCO World Heritage Site (again), this time the “Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega Verde”. Prehistoric rock art is not something that I go out of my way to see and, accordingly, there was a lot (for me) to learn.
Along a 30km stretch of the Côa River (which I guess also includes the Siega Verde area in Spain?), archaeologists have found about 96 rock art sites. For me the most amazing thing was that these sites were only discovered quite recently (about 30 years ago) when work was going on to build a dam in the area. Portugal actually stopped construction of the dam and turned the area into an outdoor museum that’s now a (somewhat popular?) tourist site. Wow, how many countries would abandon dam plans to preserve 20,000 year old lines etched into the stone? Very impressive.
Of course, stopping a dam didn’t happen without public pressure and some scandal, the dam advocates keeping the rock art sites secret from the public and the scientific community, then claiming the sites weren’t really as old as the archaeologists claimed. The Côa Valley Wikipedia page describes the case in a little detail. It’s always a fight.
There’s no point visiting the art without a guide. Most of the pictures are of animals, but they’re superimposed one on top of another and vary in size. Our guide had sketches of the art with different colors for each animal, and then he’d trace the entire line on the rock with his pointer. Even then it was sometimes hard to see what he was talking about.
For years my Mom has gushed about Peter and Ben, Ana and Esperanza, the core group of Duende Travel. Duende Travel specializes in walking tours of Western Europe, emphasizing beautiful locations, historical context, excellent local food and wine. When my parents asked Ferda and me if we’d like to join them for a Duende walking tour of northern Portugal, well, we didn’t hesitate to say yes. This tour was the reason that we ended up cycling in Portugal. Our original plans had been to cycle in Morocco and Andalucia.
Portugal’s equivalent of Spain’s paradores are pousadas, essentially luxury hotels in historic buildings. We spent the first two nights of our walking tour at Pousada Mosteiro de Amares, an old monastery in Santa Maria do Bouro near the Spanish border and the Peneda-Gerês National Park where we walked the first day of the tour.
After sleeping in the tent for most of the days of our bicycle tour, Ferda and I felt spoiled at the end of our tour in Lisbon to have a private room with a shared kitchen, bathroom, and washing machine. Haha, here’s the Pousada Mosteiro de Amares:
From Batalha it wasn’t far to Alcobaça, yet another monastery, yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. After so many monasteries, churches, cathedrals, cloisters, one might begin to wonder if it was really possible to see something new in Alcobaça, another building started hundreds of years ago and continued for hundreds of years with a mix of architectural styles that we’re getting used to seeing in Portugal — Gothic, Manueline, Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque.
Certainly from the outside Alcobaça isn’t as jaw-dropping as Batalha, and when you enter, well, it’s another high, narrow Gothic-arched nave — an amazing sense of space that’s becoming normal for us.
Posted in Bicycle touring, Portugal
Tagged Alcobaça, Caldas da Rainha, Carvalhal, Ericeira, Mafra, Óbidos, Ribeira d'Ilhas, Santa Cruz, São Lourenço, Sintra, Varzea de Sintra
Beira felt very different from Algarve and Alentejo. The rest of our bicycle tour, sort of paralleling the Atlantic Ocean from Coimbra to Lisbon, was once again very different from anything we had already seen in Portugal. Traffic was heavier, the hills were steeper, and the scenery wasn’t so beautiful as it’s generally a more built-up and populated part of the country. The monuments, however, wow! — it’s one UNESCO World Heritage Site after another.
We arrived in Coimbra from Penacova via a short, easy, scenic ride along the Mondego River, blissfully not realizing what a challenge the riding would be the two weeks to follow. It’s the historic University of Coimbra buildings that comprise the UNESCO site here. We’ve now visited six World Heritage sites in Portugal (with more still planned…), and the University of Coimbra is the only one where I could say “disappointing”. The star attraction is the Joanina Library, but it’s pretty small, and you only get 10 minutes. I had high expectations remembering the phenomenal library at El Escorial. The Coimbra University sites’ 12.50-Euro-entrance fee, more than double the entrance to most of the monuments, is steep. The roads in Coimbra are steep too, and the university sits on top of a hill.
Here is the main square at the university, Patio das Escolas: