North Portugal, land of wines and traditions.

We arrived on a Sunday afternoon under a blazing hot sun in Porto. We had rented a car with Sixt car rental company, like almost any other tourist that day! A mini van picked up the tourists who had booked a car, just outside the arrivals hall. The mini vans of the other companies like Hertz, Avis or Europe car, waited idle, while the driver of Sixt drove back and forth between the arrivals hall and the rental office 500 m further. In the Sixt offices you had to take a number and stand in line. We were happy with our upgrade to a small almost new Mercedes, but it took an hour and a half before we could finally leave the airport.

Our destination was Armamar where we had booked two rooms with breakfast at the Casa de Sao Miguel Douro. We stopped halfway in Amarante, a beautiful little old town where you can visit the 16th century dominican monastery Sao Goncalo, and a beautiful old bridge over the Tamega river. We did not visit the sights, just stopped for lunch. It was more than 40 degrees outside in the shadow, so we entered a pastelaria, where we could cool down in the air-conditioning. We ordered drinks and pastries with ham and cheese, and paid less than 10 euro for our lunch for four people. Locals had dressed up in traditional outfits for the village feast that evening. We had seen several wildfires between Porto and Amarante, and here ashes from the fires were falling down. Portugal was hit with the worst drought in years and that together with extremely high temperatures and strong winds made for a deadly combination.

Theresa from the hotel texted us some instructions to make sure we would not get lost. The hotel is well signed on the road between the N24 and Amarante, but when you drive down the little road towards Aldeia de Baixo, the hotel itself has no signs. You have to ring the doorbell of the green door left from the chapel (looks like a small church in Manuel style). You then drive to the right, where you find the entrance gate, where there is a sign with the name of the hotel. You can park your car in the back of the building, in the shade of some trees.

Casa San Miguel has eight double rooms in the main building, each with a private bathroom, and breakfast included served in the salon downstairs. The breakfast comprises of freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee, tea, milk or chocolate milk, several kinds of local breads, and freshly baked cakes, cereals, yoghurt, fresh cheese, ham, jam and several local cookies. Casa de Sao Miguel Douro also rents out several holiday houses located on their land, where they grow grapes for wine next to apples and pears. The houses are different in size: with one, two, three or four bedrooms. All guests share three swimming pools, with deck chairs. Best bring poolside towels with you. We had forgotten ours, but Theresa graciously gave us two extra towels. The rooms in the main building are made up daily. If you want fresh towels you have to ask. You cannot lock the room doors in the old part of the house. It feels weird at first, but not having to think about keys soon enough shows its advantages, and we never felt like something would get stolen. We got two rooms in the old part of the building with nice views over the orchards and surrounding hills, covered with terraced vineyards. Here you are in the middle of Douro country.

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On a Sunday most restaurants are closed in Armamar, so we drove to Regua (Peso do Regua), a small town on the border of the Douro, where Mr. Sandeman stands guard from a hill on the opposite side of the river. We entered the Gato Preto (Black Cat) restaurant. We each had a main of steak, grilled bacalhau or grilled Iberico pork, served with some salad and potatoes. We took desserts or coffee after and paid a bit over 50 euro for the four of us. Yes food is really cheap here, and drinks too: 1 or 1,5 euro for a glass of port wine, 2 euro for a glass of wine, less than 1 euro for a coffee, 2 or 2,5 euro for a dessert, and around 10 euro for a copious main course! They often serve bread, olives or other tapas which you will pay for also, but at 1 or 1,5 euro a plate do not really hurt your wallet.

After breakfast the next morning we enjoyed the pool first. When it became really hot in the afternoon, we took the car and drove the N222 between Regua and Pinhão, voted the World’s Best Drive in 2015. And a nice drive it is, following the Douro river bank, great views awaiting after every turn. In Pinhao we first had a drink in style in the library bar of the the Vintage House Hotel, before visiting the little train station with azulejos panels featuring scenes from the peoples daily lives.

A nearby Port shop promoted its wares by offering a small glass of port wine with a ‘pasteis de nata’ to all tourists. We continued the road uphill to Sao Joao da Pesqueira, with sweeping views over the Douro valley. We then drove back to Regua and had dinner at the Panoramic hotel. The food from the dinner buffet was decent, nothing more. Regua seems to offer very little when it comes to restaurants. Apart from its beautiful location next to the Douro it has very little to offer.
The next day started in the same fashion as the first, with some relaxing at the pool. In the afternoon, we first drove to Armamar for lunch, where we took some barbecued meat with fries and salad at a small churrasqueira just at the entrance of Armamar, when coming in via the N 313 from Aldeio de Baixo. Large portions for a small price, and they have a nice terrace where you can enjoy the shadow!

In the afternoon we visited the Casa de Mateus, a Royal Palace, of which the façade is depicted on the bottles of Rose de Mateus, but which are not produced at the Palace, but in the area around. We only visited the gardens, which are worth while a visit. If you have time, a guided visit of the buildings only cost 3 euro extra. Via tripadvisor I found restaurant ‘Chaxoila ‘, on the outskirts of Vila Real, a rather nondescript little town. The restaurant was a great find, it is fantastic sitting under a canopy of vines, the waiters are very professional, do speak English and the food really delicious. We arrived early at 7 PM, but the restaurant quickly filled up afterwards. In the weekend making a reservation is a good idea. We all went for fish and seafood and did not regret it.

The third day also started with breakfast, but instead of first visiting the pool, we decided to reverse the order of the day, since the weather had turned, and temperatures had cooled down. We did not mind at all, and set out to visit Lamego, some ten km from Armamar. A huge stairwell leads up to the18th century pilgrims’ church, Nossa Senhora dos Remedios. The stairs have 630 steps, passing statues, azulejos, fountains, and shady forest areas at both sides. The church features a little new born Jesus, lying in a posh little bed with blankets. For the faint hearted, a road leads up to the church through the forests.

We drove on to Viseu, some 45 km further to the South. We parked our car at the South side of the city, and walked into the old town. We walked the Rua Direita, filled with little tourist shops selling trinkets, and traditional eateries. We went for lunch in café Teatro, were we had a drink and some pastries and pizza. All for less than 10 euro.

The highlights of Viseu are all concentrated around the Largo da Sé, where a column with a cross stands in the middle of the square. On one side stands the cathedral, with a Renaissance cloister gallery on one side. On the other side stands the much younger Miseracordia church in Manuel style, which looks more like a Palace than a church. Next to the cathedral you can visit the Museu Grao Vasco, where Vasco’s paintings are paired with works from other Spanish painters and Portugese primitieve painters.

We had an ice cream on the Praca dom Duarte, where you find a statue of this Portugese king (1433-1438).

We returned to our hotel for some pool time and had dinner in Armamar, in restaurant Clementi. The restaurant does not look too inviting at first, but the welcome is warm and the food really good. And you can have their salad, a welcome change after missing vegetables for days. I felt almost nostalgic, faced with the eighties style salad put in front of me. Desserts are the traditional pudding, caramel pudding, chocolate mousse or fruit salad. Also very eighties! Here they see no need to change tradition. And I can’t blame them, everyone likes this kind of comfort food.

The next morning we left immediately after breakfast, because we wanted to visit the university city Coimbra, which was a two hour drive away. We first stopped at Buçaco Palace and forest, half an hour away from Coimbra. Here Carlos the first huilt a Royal hunting Palace in 1888 in neo-Manuel style, using plenty of baroque elements, and decorated with azulejo panels. The Palace is now a luxurious hotel owned by the Almeida hotel chain. Because so many tourists visit the site, the inside of the hotel is exclusive to hotel guests. But you can visit the outside, and its beautiful gardens. You can make several walks in the forest where century old trees have been planted together with exotic flowers and shrubs. Next to the Palace is the carmelite convent, built in 1628. The doors of the monastery are covered in cork against the could. You can have a drink at the small kiosk outside the hotel.

We continued towards Coimbra, following the road between Luso and Mealhada. We passed several bushfires, most of which where under control and did not worry us too much.

In Coimbra we parked at the university, in the highest part of the city. We were hungry and had lunch at restaurant Alta, where the lunch menu costed 8,5 euro, for bread, olives, a main course, coffee and drinks (wine, beer or soft drinks of your choice). We chose the  cuttlefish stew, served with rice. I can really recommend this small but very good restaurant, for which you just have to walk a bit further than most tourists do, who strand in the bar-restaurant of the Museu Nacional Machado de Castro. ( where there serve a buffet lunch for 9 euro).

We then queued up for tickets to visit the University. We took tickets for program 1, which includes the Joanina library. It also includes the science department, where a small exhibition around science can be visited, mainly catering to children. If you do not have children in your group you can just as well drop this part. You cannot get a ticket for the library alone, it always comes with a visit to the chapel and the university palace. To be honest, those two are a bit of a disappointment, but I think it is organised this way on purpose. The entrance to the library is limited in number, they let in a small group every 20 minutes. That means that you will have to wait one hour or more before its your turn to visit the library. By including other parts of the University to the entrance ticket, the can spread the visitors, and keep them busy while waiting their turn.

The library, one of the finest in Europe, is designed by an unknown architect, and comprises of three connecting rooms, each with trompe l’oeil painted ceilings, and walls covered in book cabinets made of the finest woods. Bats house in the library, so every evening they have to cover the wooden inlay tables with leather covers. Under the library you have a second floor where students can study the books, and in the cellar is the library prison (for book thieves!), and a little souvenir shop.

We took the car and drove to Largo the Portagem, the commercial centre of town. We took an aperitivo in one of the shopping streets in café Nicola.

For dinner we chose restaurant Passeite, a small restaurant run by a young Dutch-Portugese couple who own an olive orchard. They serve traditional food with a modern twist, very tasteful, and word had spread already, because the place filled up quickly, and not long after we came, people waited outside for a table. We shared a few different plates, and had orange cake as dessert.

On the way back to Armamar we had a bit of a scare. We took a wrong turn and ended up heading towards the A1 for Porto instead of the IP3 to Viseu. So we decided to turn right in Mealhada. This way we could get on the A 25 to Viseu via Luso and Mortagua over the N234. When driving just a short while in the direction of Luso we realized that the wildfires we had seen that morning, had worsened. The smoke became thicker as we got further. We decided to continue anyway since we kept crossing cars coming from the other direction, and other cars also kept continuing in the same direction as us. Around Luso the smoke was really bad. We kept the windows closed and turned of the ventilation. We eventually reached the other side, where we actually also saw fire, but by then we had passed the worst. But you suddenly realize how it feels to have wildfires closing into your home, really scary!

Friday we spent lounging by the pool, had lunch in the local restaurant Ponto Final in Armamar, and a coffee at pastelaria ‘Apple’ where you have free wifi). We ended the day in style with a self made dinner of gin-tonic or gin-ginger ale with tapas (cheese, ham, saucisse, olives), melon, bread, port wine and a dessert of rice pudding, by the pool in the light of the setting sun.

We hadn’t seen Porto yet, so our last day was reserved to see this bubbly, young and hip city. We left for Porto after breakfast and arrived around lunch time. We parked our car North of Praça de Liberdade.

We walked down Av. dos Aliados and turned right into Praça de Dom Joao I, to get a coffee in the famous Café Majestic, an art nouveau jewel that opened in 1921. The interior is beautifully renovated into its old splendor, and your coffee immediately tastes a lot chiquer.

After this welcome refreshment we walked down the R. de 31 de Janeiro, and entered the famous Sao Bento train station, decorated with huge azulejo panels.

We walked up to the Torre de Clerigos, and adjacent Clerigos church. I was far too hot to climb the Torre but we visited the church. Full of expectation we walked into R. das Carmelitas to see the Famous Lello and Irmao bookshop. We were disappointed seeing the huge queue in front of a small boot that sold entrance tickets to the bookshop.

We decided to skip it, took a look at the Igreja do Carmo with a beautiful azulejo panels on the side wall, and the Igreja dos Carmelitas. We were hungry and walked back in the direction of Torre Clerigos.

A Vida Portuguesa is a nice alternative to the Lello bookshop, this beautiful shop sells products made in Portugal, great if you are looking for an alternative souvenir.

My eye fell on Restaurante Bar Galeria de Paris, up on the same street. The place is decorated with all kinds of antique and brocante, and you can have lunch for only 4,5 euro, dessert, soup and coffee included. You only have to pay for your drink. They always have a vegetarian alternative next to a meat and a fish dish. Great deal and a great atmosphere.

Well refreshed we walked down the Rua de Tras and into the R. da Flores, the first a traditional street with wash lines above you, the second a street with beautiful buildings and a church with museum. We visited the Igreja Monumento de Sao Francisco, of which the inside is decorated with 800 kilo of gold leaf. With the same ticket you can also visit the Catacombs under the church, the cities’ former burial place, where thousands of human bones are buried, stored to await Judgment Day. The tombs in the walls hold members of the former Franciscan order. An eery experience.

Next to the river is the lively Ribeira with numerous café’s and restaurant. We chose Ribeira 50, located on the first floor, with a great view over the Douro river, the Luis I bridge and the Port houses on the other shore.

We crossed the Luis I bridge, taking the lower crossing, while the children took the higher crossing and enjoyed the view over Porto from Igreja da Serra do Pilar.

Going back we walked up the stairs to the upper part of the city. (you can also take a small tram-lift if you do not want to climb the stairs). But believe me, it is not too bad to climb the stairs.

We walked past the Sé, the cathedral of Porto, on our way back to Praça de Liberdade. We took our car and drove to Matosinhos, an area of Porto North close to the beaches of Foz. Here you find one seafood restaurant next to the other. We chose ‘O Antonio’, since many locals already sat there. The restaurant is not too big, so better come early. The fresh fish is laid out at the entrance. We shared grilled squid, grilled octopus, grilles sea bass and grilled sword fish, served with potatoes and salad.The fish was very fresh as if it had been caught that same morning, and the desserts were also very good. The service was super friendly and they do speak English.

 

We drove back for our last night at Casa de Sao Miguel Douro, and after enjoying our last breakfast the next morning, packed up and drove to the airport where we returned our car to Sixt car rental without too much hassle. We had a last Portugese lunch at the airport, which was for  airport food really good and really cheap. After that we flew home completely content and relaxed.

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