Experience Portugal – My Top 10

Urooj at the Moorish Castle

Posing after a 2km hike straight up a mountain to the Moorish Castle in Sintra.

Portugal is an incredible country. It’s greatest treasure is perhaps its warm and welcoming people. But there’s so much more to experience and discover here. Between July 27 and August 10 I traveled across the country starting at its northern border, with Spain, all the way down to Lisbon traveling both along the coast and to cities inland.

I started the trip by taking a bus to from Santiago de Compostela (Spain) to Valenca. There I conveniently transferred to train going to Viana do Castelo. During the trip I also visited Ponte de Lima, Porto, Coimbra, Lousã, Évora, Sintra and Lisbon. My adventures in Portugal ranged from culinary to intellectually stimulating, awe inspiring to physically challenging, spiritual and educational.

It is tough to pick just 10 of the many incredible moments in Portugal. These photos  are arranged in the order in which I visited the destinations rather than priority. To see more photos, please visit me on Flickr or click: www.flickr.com/uroojqureshi.

 

No. 1 – Panoramic Views from Santuário de Santa Luzia

Offering one of the most beautiful panoramas in the world, the Basilica of Santa Luzia sits majestically on top of the Santa Luzia hill overlooking the town of Viana do Castelo. Viana is a historic port town in the northern region of Portugal at the mouth of the river Lima – A place from where several great Portuguese explorers set sail to discover the treasures of our world. To visit the basilica from the town you have the option to walk up the hill through a beautiful park or hop on to the rail car for 2 Euros and climb up in roughly 10 minutes. Trust me, wait till you see the view from the top!

Santuário de Santa Luzia, Viana do Castelo

 

No. 2 – Day Trip to Ponte de Lima

I was thrilled when a wonderful Portuguese couple offered to drive me to Ponte de Lima for a day trip from Viana. This is a beautiful village founded as a celtic settlement and developed by the Romans. For me it was significant also because the village is an important stop for pilgrims walking the Camino Portuguese. Though I did not spend a lot of time there, the landscape surrounding the picture perfect medieval village made a lasting impression in my mind and heart. The highlight though was the scrumptious food and the intriguing rich, grainy wine that the locals recommend for a long, healthy life.

The Bridge of Ponte de Lima

 

No. 3 – Admire the Ribeira of Porto

Oh Porto! Looking for a romantic destination? Forget Paris, go to Porto! The city is one of the oldest European centres and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Porto is rich in culture offering a complete sensory experience through art, cuisine, history, architecture, natural wonder and a lot more. The people here are warm and welcoming unlike any other metropolis I have ever visited. 2 days were just not enough to visit Porto but I did manage to pack a lot in and form some wonderful friendships.

Heritage building on the Ribeira, Porto

 

No. 4 – Experience Fado in Coimbra

Whether or not you understand Portuguese you cannot help being overcome by the deep feelings inspired by melodies of Fado. Fado is simply a form of music, call it “Portuguese Blues“. The poetry and music of Fado is strongly embedded in the story of Coimbra itself. The city is home to one of Europe’s oldest academic institutions, the University of Coimbra. What I loved most about this city is how the “university culture”  and students are celebrated by the entire community with strong sense of pride. “Regular” people like to behave and even join in on student activities. So cool!

Fado performance at the Santa Cruz Cafe, Coimbra

 

No. 5 – Hiking in the hills around Lousã

One of the most incredible experiences I had was the day I went exploring the Schist Villages in the hills around the town of Lousã. Picture this – a historical 10th century castle in the middle of forest with a gorgeous monastery adjacent to it and a beautiful river flowing in between. Continue imagining, this view from different distances as you hike on the edge of narrow trails in the surrounding mountains. All of a sudden you discover an abandoned village with houses made of schist. There is an eerie silence around you and no sign of life anywhere. You are alone, in nature, with the remains of civilizations lost in time. Peace and beauty surround you. I was there, living in that moment.

Arouce’s Castle, Lousã

 

No. 6 – Discovering the City of Explorers, Lisbon

The capital of Portugal, the city of explorers, Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world predating London, Paris and even Rome by hundreds of years. The first thing I realized when I arrived in Lisbon was its multicultural character. I enjoyed many conversations here about global politics, society, arts and culture while experiencing exquisite culinary masterpieces with significant monuments of world history surrounding me. There’s lot’s to discover here! Oh, and if you are here at the right time of the year, it’s a great place for shopping in my opinion.

Lisbon Tram

 

No. 7 – Exploring the Tower of Belém

In the case of the Tower of Belém the picture is really worth a thousand words for I can’t find the right words to express it beauty. Belém is a short distance outside of Lisbon centre – It took me about 45 minutes to get there on foot and roughly 12 minutes by tram on the return. The tower, located on the Tagus River was built in 16th century as a part of a defense system to protect Lisbon during the Age of Discoveries. The structure and views from within the tower are just as spectacular the architecture as you see it here.

Belém Tower

 

No. 8 – Travel back in time to 4,000 B.C. at Cromlech of the Almendres

When I heard about the prehistoric sites of Almendres dating back to 3,000-4,000 B.C., I just could not resist arranging a visit. So despite temperature reaching up to the high 30’s (in Celsius) during the afternoon, I decided to rent a mountain bike in Évora and set out to find the multiple sites in the region. There was certainly an odd feeling, an energy that was both a little creepy and thought provoking that I felt at the various sites. During my expedition I even found the remains of a castle from the Bronze Age in the hills when I got lost looking for a funerary from 4,000 B.C.. For me these sites are a real treasure that tells the story of where we come from and how we may have got here.

Cromlech of the Almendres, near Évora

 

No. 9 – Sunset in the medieval streets of Évora

When you arrive in Évora it fast becomes clear why the city is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I pictured myself living in medieval times walking down narrow cobblestone streets that opening up to picture perfect squares, centers of commerce and social exchange. The people of  Évora were extremely friendly and welcoming. Oh, have you ever seen the sun set from the streets of an old medieval city? Check it out:

Sunset on Medieval Streets, Évora

 

No. 10 – Welcome to a fairy tale

It’s not “like” a fairy tale, it is one! I heard about Sintra from Portuguese people as I traveled down the country. A place from another time. A reality that only existed in cartoons and fairy tales when I was growing up. A land of full-scale castles and fortresses strategically placed in forested hills. There were at least 4 main palaces and 1 castle built at different times by different conquerors and monarchs. I had the time to only visit one, so I picked the one that looked most like a castle I would draw when I asked to draw such a structure as a child – the Moorish Castle. It was like being in a childhood dream, hiking up to the castle overlooking the entire region, climbing walls, finding secret passages. What a day!

The wall of Moorish Castle, Sintra

 

I hope that you have enjoyed reading about my experiences in Portugal. There are many resources available for those planning to visit. I arrived with little information but found my way around without much hassle. Normally I would arrive in a new city and go straight to the local tourism office to get information, maps, and tips on the best places to eat and visit. Most Portuguese speak at least some English and are always happy to go out their way to welcome you and ensure you have an excellent time in their country.
Portugal travel guide by Lonely Planet
If you ever have any questions please drop me a line and I would be happy to lend my experience to guide you.

 

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