From Coimbra we caught another convienent and affordable train to Leiria. As we walked in from the train station – which was not quite as close to the center of town as we had hoped – we passed through some nice parks along the river, spied the local sports stadium, and saw the castle on the hill above town. Our adventure from the train station was a good lesson in the limitations of using your phone for navigation. We assumed the station would be close in, or have obvious busses, or cabs because that has been our experience so far. Alas, the Leiria’s station is situated on the edge of the city, and away from the central city. There were no cabs waiting to collect random travelers and the bus stop had no information. A quick search for directions on our phones offered no bus options to our hotel, but it was within 3 KM, so we started walking! It was a lovely and doable walk, even with our bags, but a little more than we usually like to take on. We discovered the busses do run from the station to close to our hotel, but for some reason even all knowing Google does not have their routes or timetables. Lesson learned, we’ll either do a bit more research or ask next time!
As we got to the top of the castle complex and wanted to explore the partially restored tower a group of college students asked if we could wait for 9 minutes to go in as they were taking some measurements. We explored the grounds as other groups of students also wandered around. An instructor correctly interpreted our curiosity and said they were devising a plan to rebuild the tower as a class project.
Another day, another delightful train trip! This trip wound through farmland more than from town to town and then along the river. One crop we were able to identify, rice! Figueira da Foz is primarily a beach town, known for having one of the largest beaches in Portugal and all of Europe. Foz shows up in a lot of coastal town names, including a pretty swanky neighborhood in Porto, and it means “mouth of the river.” There are several options for the source of the name of Figueira da Foz, but one of them is that there was a large fig tree near the mouth of the river, so that’s a pretty good reason for the name.
We had a lovely few days in Figueira de Foz, but we apparently didn’t take too many photos. We will try to do better when we go back – because everyone was very nice, the beach was beautiful, and the food was good we will most certainly return.
Aviero is a beach town with a canal! Everyone in Porto referred to it as the Venice of Portugal. While there was a very nice canal, and we have never been to Venice, it seemed as though that claim might be a slight exaggeration. This was another easy day trip from Porto, just an hour’s train ride from the main station in Porto. It was a lovely day for the ride and the tourist information center at the train station set us up with a nice map and tickets to take the canal tour on one of the traditional boats. Aviero’s traditional use for the canal was to transport the salt from the nearby salt flats and for harvesting a specific algae used as fertilizer. The salt process is no longer commercially viable, but they still harvest some in the summer using the traditional methods so the tourists can see how it was done. Nowadays, the boats are used to give tourists a nice ride through town to see the lovely tiled covered buildings.
Aveiro is also home to the first open air mall in Portugal, built in the 1990s and still a bustling place these days. We didn’t make it to the salt flats or the beach on this trip, so we will have to return some day.
We spent most of our time in the Porto area using Matosinhos as our base. From here we ventured into Porto, took our day trips to Braga, Guimaraes, and Aviera, and generally got comfortable navigating the area. It is a busy port city for cargo, cruises, and fishing. And it also has some beautiful beaches.
Coimbra is on every “what to see in Portugal” list. So, we packed our bags and hopped on the train. It was a comfortable and scenic trip south of Porto. The train system was easy to use, convenient, and very reasonable. One of the folks who pointed us to the francesinas in Porto turned us on to the train systems app which made it really easy to find and book our train travels.
When we arrived in Coimbra and checked into our hotel the woman who helped us was so enthusiastic about what we could see and do! We were arriving just as the University term was ending so there were lots of students in town doing end of term activities, including lots of Fado singing. Fado is traditional Portugese singing and Coimbra is considered to be quite the hotspot. While we are still avoiding crowds and stayed away from the really big gatherings we did come across groups of students in their black academic robes singing and playing as we wandered around town. It was very enjoyable.
One morning we set out from the hotel with no plan. Dan said something like “let’s just take a short walk to the other side of the river.” At least we brought the backpack and water bottle because we ended up spending most of the day meandering up the other side of the river valley, visiting an impressive Monastery, and wandering around a new neighborhood.
Coimbra also has a large cemetery with mausoleums that can be seen from the river valley. After spotting them, we put that on our list of places to find. One morning off we went, uphill, in that direction.
Coumbra is a city with a lot of history that also has the energy of a university town. The narrow streets and hilly terrain give you the opportunity to turn a corner and find something fun every time you head out.
We spent a few days in the heart of Porto, steps from the River Douro, Se Cathedral and across the river from the famed river port that stores the even more famous Port wines!
For some reason we often wander into a cemetery if we come across them on our travels, or even as we wander around closer to home. We are interested in how long they’ve been in use and there always are at least a few interesting comments on the headstones.
We had some business to conduct in Porto and the folks we met with pointed us to some authentic franceshina, a local specialty. As we worked our way to the restaurant we heard some chiming bells and stopped to look around. It was an animatronic clock with quite the display. What really intrigued us though was the NO ONE had mentioned anything about this, and we had talked to lots of folks about we should see while in town.
We had so much success with our day trip to Braga, a few days later we headed to Guimaraes, often referred to as the birthplace of Portugal. It was here that King Afonso Henriques was born, and near where Portugese forces expelled the Ottoman forces and Portugal began to assert itself.
There is a Castle and the residence of a Duke that can be toured, but as we approached the site a large group of school children arrived for a field trip. For those of you who don’t know us that well, that means we decided to put those attractions on the list for “next time, a quieter time.” And we wandered a little bit down the road.
After he turned off the organ he explained he needed to get back to the desk, but he left us to explore, and showed us the very narrow stone steps to the bell tower and encouraged us to check it out.
We took the slow train from Madrid to Salamanca, which was nice because the countryside was lovely and the regular speed allowed us to catch more than just a quick glimpse of the stone walls and villages, as well as some cows and blooming fields. The train had two stops in Salamanca and the second was closer to our hotel. What we didn’t know was that the stop was just that. The train stopped, there was a platform, but no signs, no buildings; so it was a good thing some guy on the train told the people in front of us that we were at the last stop and should exit. We followed them. I don’t remember what exactly our plan was for getting to the hotel, a short two kilometers away, but it is good we pack so we can make those walks.
When we were planning the trip we came across several suggestions to add Salamanca to our itinerary, so we did. But, as we walked along a nice but nondescript commercial strip, I admitted to Dan that I forgot why we put the city on the list of places to stop. His response “I’m sure there is something worthwhile here.” That’s why he is the best of travel companions (and husbands). As we got closer to the hotel we started to pass by the amazing buildings the city is famous for and I remembered why we came!
Salamanca is home to two major cathedrals, a university, monasteries and cloisters. The city still has much of the medieval walls intact and a bridge dating back to the days Spain was part of the Roman Empire. We enjoyed several days wandering around looking at the buildings and enjoying the end of term vibe given off by the students. One day as we finished our (too early by Spanish standards) lunch, we realized that all of the folks we’d seen walking around in various costumes were following some musicians down the street in an impromptu parade. Apparently it’s a thing, but we couldn’t find many details about it.
We took the “tower tour” and made sure we got there early to avoid the lines. We were the first to enter and enjoyed poking around the stairways, rooftop walkways, and various rooms and exhibits with very few others. Good timing too, because as we made our way down and out there were several large groups working their way up to the bell tower.
Our original plans for the trip through Spain included Vigo on the west coast, but the transportation just didn’t work out. So, faced with a need to find a way to get to Porto we came across a private tour where a driver would take us! It was only a little more than the other options and took way less time. There was an option to add a “tour” and Dan signed us up for the stop at the town of Cuidad Rodrigo. It was perfect! Marta was friendly, knowledgeable, and was almost s excited we were going to Porto (her home town) as we were.
On the drive to reach Ciudad Rodrigo we passed so many more nesting storks. I started pointing out the ones I saw and Marta, our delightful Portugese driver, was so impressed that when I dubbed myself “stork spotter” she agreed! Dan mumbled something along the lines: they can’t be storks, there aren’t anywhere near enough babies…
We took the high speed train from Barcelona to Madrid, and it was fast! With only 2 short stops, the trip was easy. It helped that I took advantage of the onboard free wifi to put up a blog post. What a great way to travel, too bad we can’t do that in the US because a train like that to Pittsburgh or Indianapolis would allow me to really annoy some of my favorite family members!
We arrived to a rainy Madrid a few hours before we could check in to our accommodations, so we decided to store our bags and check out some of the city. There was a place to store bags a few hundred meters from the station, so we headed over stash our stuff. The whole thing was automated, just select the size locker you need (S,M,L), choose how many hours, a locker magically opens and they email you the code you need to open it with later. Easy peasy! Again, why isn’t this a thing in the US?
We wandered away from the train station and found ourselves near the botanical garden, which those of you who remember the posts from Australia and New Zealand know we are susceptible to, but it was closed for some event. We carried on and found a large city park and spent time wandering there. It was lovely.
We stayed in the “Times Square of Madrid” full of theaters, neon billboards, shops, and action. It was located near many of the highlights of old Madrid, so it was a great, if noisy, location! We inquired at the i-Site (tourist information center) about the Hop on Hop off bus on Saturday but they advised that we should avoid it on Saturday due to a “labor demonstration” and on Sunday for the Madrid Marathon. So, we just started wandering around. We ended up in a local market and decided to buy some cheese and wine at a booth. While waiting in line a man asked me something in rapid fire Spanish. At my befuddled look, he immediately asked me in un-accented English if I was in line. I said yes and then asked him to repeat slowly which he did. He asked where I was from, and then because I said Ohio, he admitted to being from Indianapolis! He said he usually says Chicago because it’s easier. Nice Midwestern chat ensued where I learned he had followed a woman to Madrid (and introduced me to the 6ish year old result of that who was with him). Small world indeed.
The next few days we walked around Madrid, took the Hop on Hop off, found some “outside the tourist district” neighborhoods for low key, yummy food. We also learned that sometimes you need to pre buy the tickets! Oh well, we will just have to go back to Madrid so we can tour the palace next time!