From Porto we headed south to Coimbra, home of Portugals oldest University. We visited here on our last trip to Portugal, but didn’t make it in to the famous library because of the crowds, so that was definitely on our list for this time! As we checked out the ticket situation we learned there was a “combined” ticket which included the famous Library, the Palace School, Science Museum, and Cabinet of Curiosities. We really weren’t sure how many museums we wanted to commit to because we had several days of mild, sunny weather but who can resist a Cabinet of Curiosities? Not us.
Coimbra is built on the hillsides that rise up from the banks of the River Mondego, so most days, you climb up to check out the sights. The University is up on the hilltop, our hotel is down by the river. Needless to say, we logged a lot elevation walking around. The Library, the Castle School, and St. Michael’s Chapel – all on our combined ticket – were perched high above the city.
We took the train from Porto for a day trip back to Guimares with the express goal of checking out the museum housed in the Duke’s residence and visiting the Castle of Portugal’s first King. During our visit here in May we skipped this attraction because there was a bus load of elementary students visiting and we thought it would be better to check it out on a quieter day. A mid week day in November proved to be a perfect time to return. We took the bus from our hotel into the historic train station of Porto, Sao Bento Station, where there are usually several tour groups in the entrance lobby to see the building’s tiles. This day, it was much quieter than usual
Guimaraes lays claim to being the birthplace of the first King of Portugal, Alfonso Henriques who unified the area that is now Portugal in the 1100s. The Castle where he was born, and the church where he was baptized remain.
For this trip, we spent the first month or so in Porto and the north of Portugal before heading south. Matosinhos and Porto hold the distinction of being our first favorite spots in Portugal. And, because we had several lengthy stays in the same hotel in Matosinhos, we also made friends with the folks we saw there every day. When people ask us “why Portugal” for the repeat trips the answer always starts with “the people, and the food” and then we go on to discuss the fun things we have done and the places we have visited.
When we arrived back after five months it was nice to be recognized by folks at the front desk who had been so helpful on our first trip, and to have them enforce our “please use Portuguese so we can practice our language lessons” on this trip. When we showed up for breakfast the first day and insisted on trying to say our room number in Portuguese, the giggles we got in response made the “corrections” as difficult to understand as our mangled attempts, but we got better! And, because we got better, we got offered fancy coffee! Getting to chat with familiar people is always a treat for us, and one highlight came a few days before we left when someone came over to say goodbye as she would be on vacation for the next few days and would miss our last day. And then, the night before checkout, a tray with dessert and an envelope was dropped by our room. The envelope had a lovely note signed by many of our new friends! When you travel for months at a time you get a lot of quick interactions with people. But sometimes, you stay in a place long enough to make friends, and those times become the treasures of travel.
We spent almost two weeks just checking out the Porto area this time. The plan was to make some day trips, explore the city some more and generally enjoy the rhythm of the area. We took random rides on the bus, walked a lot and checked out a number of local restaurants and shops. The weather was mild for November, with some rainy days and plenty of sun. We walked along the beach, visited the Holiday Market and sampled the cherry liquor that is served as a shot in a chocolate shot glass. Dan let me do the sampling after the first booth, and I can report that there are differences. My favorite had a hint of cinnamon to spice up the cherry flavor. This post is as all over the place as our time, enjoy!
We learned a lot about the port making process during our stay in Pinhão, and a big part of that process is the aging of the port which takes place down the river. While the grapes are grown, stomped and initially fermented on the quintas (farms or vineyards) further inland along the Douro Valley, the port is stored and aged in cellars known as caves on the shore opposite the city of Porto in Vila Nova de Gaia. Originally the location was selected to avoid taxation, but the riverfront is much less steep and easier to move the cargo and the environment proved to be ideal for the storage and aging. We toured the Grahams Cellar because several folks had recommended it, and it did not disappoint. The location had a great view, the guide was knowledgeable and entertaining, and the tasting introduced us to some very good port. Many of the major Port companies are British owned, and this is one of them. British ownership of port companies goes back to the early 1700s.
The process to make port involves getting the grape juice from several varieties of grapes, then stopping the fermentation after a few days with a distilled alcohol (77%). The alcohol is a standard, required by the entity that oversees the certification of the ports and is a distilled white wine that is neutral in flavor and smell. It turns out that it is produced in Spain, so if you can get someone in Portugal to give you that information it is often accompanied by an eye roll. The alcohol volume of port is 20%, so based on the alcohol level of the fermenting juice, the amount of the distilled alcohol is determined. The stopping of the fermentation keeps the sweet flavors, and then barrel aging process adds other flavors, finally they blend different barrels and years, or not if it is a vintage, and you get port. Well, there’s actually a lot more to it, some science and more art, but that’s the outline. Like beer and wine, we are finding the more we know about Port the more we like it.
There is a gothic church in Porto with catacombs that can be toured. The church has a long history in the city and the interior decor is amazing. There are no photos allowed in the baroque church, alas, because the wood carving was amazing. The catacombs are under a chapel and administrative building that now houses a museum and is lovely space.
We took the train north of Porto to the city of Viana do Castelo. Viana do Castelo is a beautiful city situated on the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the River Lima. The area is known for fishing and for the jewelry and costumes that are traditionally made and worn in this region. The city certainly lived up to the reputation! The old center was a rabbit warren of narrow streets and lovely old buildings, the river front and the beaches gave beautiful water views and the Santa Luzia mountains frame the area.
There was a fair amount of rain during our visit, so we had incentive to check out a museum or two. The town boasts a Costume Museum that shows the various clothing traditionally worn by people in the Minho region. It also shows the methods for creating the cloth. This region appears to have a history of providing textiles in Portugal.
Given the position of the city on the coast and close to the northern border with Spain, there are forts!
From Viana we headed north one day to check out the border with Spain in Valenca. A nice train ride along the Atlantic coast and the River Minho gets you to this nice city.
Back in Viana do Castelo, we stayed in the Flag Design Hotel in the old part of the city. After we checked in we were treated to a quick tour and some history of part of the building. Originally the town villa of an influential and important family, there was a nicely tiled entry foyer that took you to a winding stair that took visitors up to the reception rooms on the first floor.
From Porto we headed west in to the wine region famous for being the home of Port Wine, and the oldest demarcated wine region. Just as wines from areas outside of Champange, France just sparkle, Port must come from the Douro Valley. But, there is more wine in the region than just the fortified varieties. There is also a lot of olive oil produced here too.
The region is beautiful with a wide, meandering river and terraced hillsides rising up both sides. Early November was well past the harvest this year, but many vines still wore leaves resplendent in their fall colors. We had mild and sunny days for most of our visit.
The wine region not only has all of the production and process rules in place for centuries, it is also a UNESCO site which means tradition is very important. So, grapes are harvested by hand by the women and carried out of the vineyards in baskets by the men. This method is also necessary because of the tight rows and steep inclines in many vineyards-known as Quintas. Many of the vineyards still have the stone walled terraces built by the Romans when they first came to the region in the 2nd century BC. The stone walled terraces are not only historic, they reduce erosion, which is a problem in newer vineyards that are not installing them.
Another tradition is the stomping of the grapes. Not every vineyard or vintage is done this way, but at Quinta da Foz the charming woman helping us select wine proudly declared their wine was made this way. They had some photos of men stomping the grapes and Dan asked where the photo of her stomping grapes was. She said it was a job for men and their big feet!
We learned some other stuff about wine too. They use American root stock because it is resistant to a pest that damages European root stock. There is a fungus that will affect the vines that also hits roses, and shows up earlier on the roses. So, some vineyards have rosebushes planted around the grapes so they know if they need to treat for the fungus. Our guide called them the sacrificial lambs for the wine.
It takes about 3 years for a vine to get rooted and start producing, then the vine will supply a lot of grapes. As the vine matures the quality increases, but the quantity goes down. Old vines, we have learned on previous winery visits, are highly valued and by old they mean over 30 years. Here in the Douro they have vines which are producing at over 100 years.
The vineyards, especially those which grow grapes primarily for Port wine have the varieties intermingled. The winery tour guide may have explained why, but he was also telling jokes and neither of us can remember the reason. Several of the wines we tasted are blends with 20 or more grape varieties in them.
Olive oil is another major product of the region. The olive trees are often planted at the boundaries of vineyards and, increasingly, in place of vineyards as they require less work and money to maintain and harvest. On a tour of the area we visited an olive oil collective and learned about the old process for pressing the fruit. During that tour we learned the difference between “regular” processed and cold processed oil. Cold process is newer, and a much easier and shorter process, which also results in better oil. Apologies to anyone who runs in to us in real life over the next bit, because the factoids I learned are sure to be brought up in conversation.
Our home base for exploring the region was Pinhão, but one day we took the train to Pocinho which is the end of the train line. The tracks hug the river and it was well worth the 2 hour round trip. We got off in Tua, the stop just past Pinhão and hiked a trail laid out as a school project during COVID, which was both a feat and perfect assignment given the lock downs and social distancing in 2020.
On the surprisingly full train from Pocinho, someone broke out an accordion in the car behind us and played some lively music as we rolled along beside the Douro River. They were in the car behind us, but opening the connecting door we could hear the music and even see a bit of the aisle dancing that was going on. This might be Dan’s favorite story of the trip!
When we were planning our trip to Pinhão one of the lodging choices was a houseboat. I was intrigued but would not have booked it left to my own devices. After I mentioned the choice to Dan he was all in! “Of course we should stay on the houseboat! Think of the experience.” So, we spent the week on a really nice, tiny, but nice houseboat. After we adjusted to the realities of a marine toilet and figured out how to get in and out of the bunk beds we settled in and enjoyed the gentle sway of our space.
We have returned to Portugal! Porto is our starting point, as it would be a gentle re-entry thanks to already figuring out the transit, and we had a list of things in the region we knew we wanted to see. The decision on where to stay was easy too, thanks to a great experience on our last stay. For those who know us in real life, we do like having our bar preferences known and a familiar greeting. Well, from the “Welcome Back!, how long will you be here this time?” at check in, the “you take one coffee and one tea” at breakfast, the bartenders remembering which beer we preferred-and that they could offer us “guidance” as to which Portugese futbol team was best, the servers all knowing they had seen us before, and the dessert whisperer smiling with glee as she contemplated which desserts to recommend, we certainly made a great decision!
Road Trip! We had an excuse to head west to Kansas City, so we made it a Road Trip! As I looked for things to see and do I found the Illinois River Road Scenic Drive. Peoria is well situated at a wide spot in the river known as Lake Peoria. We shared our hotel with 3 different wedding parties, so it was a very positive vibe as we waited for our “historic” (read small and slow) elevators.
Caterpillar is headquartered in Peoria, and they have a Visitors Center. It is a Cat Museum! Lots of information about the history of the company, how the huge machines are made and used, and hands on ways to see what the innards of machines look like. So, you can see a lot of the equipment with way less mud and dust than you might expect. Plus, they have simulators! You might think the simulators would fairly straight forward, but Lisa can tell you it is easier to wreck the bulldozer (and, remarkably, even the backhoe) than you would think.
We did spend some time on the scenic drive. The road itself
One place of interest listed with the scenic drive is the Dickson Mounds State Museum. The museum is on land formerly owned by the Dickson family. When a family member noticed what appeared to be burial mounds and did some shovel based exploration, they discovered a burial site for the Native Americans who originally inhabited the land. in the early 1900s, he turned it in to a private museum by putting a tent over the remains and charging admission. The one “good” thing was that the remains and artifacts were left in place. Over the years archeologists, historians and others studied the site, it was sold to the state for a museum and a building and interpretive center were built. In the early 1990s the state agreed with the descendants of those buried that the display was not appropriate and updated the museum to focus on the natural history, the human history and the culture of the area. The grounds offer some hiking trails as well, so it is a good stop.
Visiting State Capitol Buildings is a side travel hobby that has been going on for over 20 years, there are only a few left, so there won’t be too many featured on this blog. But, our fall road trip took us through one of the remaining to be seen Capital cities, Jefferson City, Missouri. Our hotel was perfectly situated on a hill opposite of the rise where the Capitol was built. The building was situated above the banks of the Missouri River and is visible from a long way away – intentionally. We lucked out with a beautiful evening view and a nice day for the walk to take our tour.
For this trip, we decided to check out the Queen Mary 2 as transportation, and we booked on the seven-day Transatlantic crossing for our return to the US. My parents had done this trip several years ago and really enjoyed it, we like travelling by ship, and it’s the QM2, so…
In part because of the labor actions impact train travel, one of the strikes was scheduled for the day before the ship was set to sail, we decided to spend some time in Southampton, which was an easy decision because even a quick search brought up plenty to keep us entertained. After all of the historic buildings in London and York, and even after seeing newer neighborhoods in Lancaster built to replace places damaged during World War 2, Southampton definitely brought home just how much bombing the Germans did during the war. There were just enough remnants of the older structures to get a sense of how much was missing.
We also met a friend in New York City. One of my (Lisa’s) friends from my hometown. Another person Facebook has made accessible. While we enjoyed a lovely dinner at a nice NYC restaurant, we figured out he and I had not seen each other since the mid 1980s. Not that anyone eavesdropping on the conversation would think that the way we chattered away. Dan is such a good sport.
We arrived in England with minimal itinerary and plans beyond checking out London and the Museum, seeing our friend in York and getting to the dock before our ship sailed! There were intermittent rail and tube strikes planned during the few weeks we were there which added to the degree of difficulty associated with our no plan planning strategy. So, we decided the easiest thing was to only take direct trains and travel on the non-strike days. Birmingham got on our radar because it had a site where we could use our shiny new British Heritage Membership, it had a direct train from York, and seemed big enough to keep us entertained for a few days. Beyond that, it was going to be an adventure. We got very protective of this city we knew nothing about when the reaction folks had when we answered the question “where are you headed next?” was often “Birmingham? Really? Interesting choice, what are you going to do there?” But we did get one more enthusiastic response from the lovely woman pulling our pints at the pub – “Oohh, I love Birmingham!” When I asked what we should do there, she replied “I have no idea, I went down for an interview, had a really good meal – can’t remember where – and came back, but it was nice.” Good enough recommendation for us.
If you have hung in on this post this long, here is a bonus story. Liverpool has two football teams, Aston Villa and Liverpool FC. During our tour of the jewelry factory we got to the shipping department and were given the option of checking out the shipping room, but our tour guide would not be joining us. Did I mention that they basically turned over the whole place to English Heritage, and by whole place, every item, tool, record, metal shaving, dust, and office decor. Anyway, we entered the room and it was decked out in Aston Villa paraphernalia, posters, articles and player photos from previous decades. Didn’t take much to deduce that the tour guide was a Birmingham FC fan.