After the uplifting experience of the Camino de Santiago I was not sure if I would be fully able to appreciate my visit to Portugal. I was, once again, leaving a familiar environment, close friendships that I had developed across Spain on the Camino to enter a whole new world. Trust me, Portugal and Spain have their own unique identities.
I consulted the tourist office for the north of Portugal in Santiago de Compostela to determine my first destination and the mode of transportation. While the information I received was accurate, it was not the most efficient. However, the journey is all about the experiences that you are presented with and in this case the experience was good.
I took the only bus available from Santiago de Compostela for Portugal. I was to travel by bus to Valenca, just on the other side of the border, and then switch to a bus or train (the option I opted for and recommend) to make my way to Viana do Castelo.
My original plan was to spend just one night in Viana and leave for Porto the next day. However, on that first night I met a wonderful couple from the city who offered to show me around the region. We set up a time to meet after lunch at the cafe where we met from where they would drive me to Ponte de Lima, a beautiful medieval town (also a stop on the Camino Portuguese) about 25km from Viana. Where else in the world will complete strangers meet you and take time out of their life to show you around and treat you like family (Portuguese hospitality is the subject of another post altogether).
From Viana do Castelo I hopped on to a bus to Porto, the second largest city in Portugal and the only place in the world where the “real” port wine is produced. I can not say enough about Porto. In fact in the future if I had to make a choice between Paris and Porto, I would choose Porto in a heartbeat. The city has a wonderful creative vibe with a cool, welcoming attitude. It’s no surpise I formed some wonderful friendships in this city. I also probably gained a few pounds tasting the delicious food, in particular the sweets from this region. Even the wine they produce (aside from the Port) is naturally sweet in this region.
The next stop was perfect to help move on from Porto. Though Coimbra was not on my original itinerary it is one of the places where I will certainly visit again. The inspiration to visit Coimbra came from a very special person I met on the Camino and it is no surprise that it immediately felt like home. The city is the site of one of Europes oldest universities. What I love about Coimbra is that everyone in the city joins in and celebrates its heritage as a center of learning and university life. Men and women, young and younger get in to the spirit of student life by participating in arts such as Fado (Portuguese blues supposedly developed by nostalgic university grads) and dress up in black capes.
While in Coimbra I visited the town of Lousa to hike in the mountains and visit the remains of medieval towns with houses made of shist (shale). Though this site is not a UNESCO heritage site, it certainly deserves to be protected and promoted. The hike was challenging and isolated. It was a day of real adventure (once again is a subject of an article on its own).
After three nights in Coimbra it was time to make my way to the big city, Lisbon, the City of Explorers and the capital of Portugal. Lisbon is one of the oldest commercial centers of Europe. It was a global hub long before cities like London and Paris made a name for themselves. Lisbon is like a mixed salad of cultures with people from around the world adding to its flavour. Throughout the city you can see the remains of its majestic past and convergence of culture and knowledge. There are many sites to visit in Lisbon and one can dedicate an entire week to just visiting the city and not be fully satisfied.
For me Lisbon was a bit overwhelming and crowded, so I head inland to one of Portugals best preserved medieval towns – Evora. The entire town is designated as UNESCO World Heritage site and for good reason. It’s a town with an rich history. As one local put it, Portugal once ruled the world with the Moorish knowledge of math and astronomy, Jewish wealth and understanding of commerce, Roman military knowledge and Portuguese passion for adventure. All these people and cultures have left their mark on this small town.
Just outside Evora is are the remains of one of the first farming communities from 6000 B.C. There are several sites scattered in the region predating the Stonehenge in the U.K. To visit these sites you must have a car or my preferred mode of transportation, a mountain bike. Evora is a must visit for the active visitor to Portugal.
Tomorrow I return to Lisbon after a wonderful break in Evora. I hope to explore Libon a bit more and perhaps visit the fairy tale town of Sintra before hopping on plane headed for Africa on Friday.
I have been in the company of scholars in some of the best schools in the world but the most useful lessons I have learned are from fellow travelers. Keep learning!