Thursday, December 12, 2019

Exploring Portugal - Part 2

On our way to Nazare from Fatima, we rumbled past not one, but TWO UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But we were on a mission, hoping for giant waves and good weather in Nazare, so we had decided we would double back to visit them afterwards.  

First on our list was the Mosteiro de Santa Maria da Vitória, or as we like to call it, That Big Thing On The Hill. As a UNESCO site, it's official name is the Monastery of Batalha, which is the town where it is located. 

You can’t help but appreciate the incredible attention to detail in this architecture.

The monastery is home to “The Unknown Soldiers”, a patriotic place of pilgrimage in honor of those who lost their lives in war and exploration.

There are tons of interesting things about these UNESCO sites and there are folks who have dedicated their careers to learning all about them. I try to pick one or two things to focus on. In this case all I know is that it is spikey and scroll-y and fussy and old and I liked it. Also, it is the burial place of Henry the Navigator, or Infante D. Henrique as the Portuguese call him. 

Henry the Navigator’s resting place at the Monastery of Bathala.

Even though it was a couple of British authors who dubbed him Henry the Navigator, with a name like that you'd think he was an explorer who discovered important things. Although he is an important character in Portugal's Age of Discovery, Henry was a Prince, the son of King John I, and as such had access to money. It was at his direction and patronage that others went out and did the actual exploring, for which Henry gets a ton of credit, rightly so. Through his discoveries new trade routes were opened with west Africa. So, all-in-all, Henry was a pretty good guy and they love him here in Portugal, which is obvious because of all the statues in his honor. They are everywhere!

Next we made our way about 25 kilometers south to Alcobaça where we parked up in the free aire. It was Sunday and most things were closed. We didn't have much food on board, or at least food that appealed to us, so we set off to find a cafe that was open. We had some yummy pizza just across from the Monastery of Alcobaça, the very reason we had come here. Portugal UNESCO World Heritage Site #4.

This was some fun wall art at the pizza restaurant where we ate.

I confess by this time I was a bit monastery'd out, plus, our "Entry Fee" budget had long been busted. Thankfully, UNESCO sites are very reasonable, so since it was raining and gloomy out, we went in to explore. The one neat thing I wanted to see here was the kitchen. I learned from Wikipedia that the monks had a kitchen with a stream running through it, which brought fish from the nearby river right into the kitchen. All the cooks had to do was simply pluck their dinner from the stream and that was that. This would be the kind of fishing I think I would excel at. 

The Monastery of Alcobaça.

We concluded our visit to Alcobaça with a visit to a pottery store where I got to feed my need to buy decorative dishes. I know, I haven't got an ounce of room for them, but they are small and I couldn't help myself. And they are so cute!

A rooster to keep the Chicken company?

It took us ages to decide where to go next. I really wanted to go to Lisbon, but was not looking forward to driving in a big, busy city. But there was so much we wanted to see, I finally decided I just had to buck up and do it. The drive turned out to be nothing to worry about and Lisbon turned out to be one of our favorite places, starting with that statue at the front gate of our campground, the one pictured in our lead shot. I can't see one of these at a KOA, can you?  

Our basecamp while in Lisbon.

The campground had a lot of cats wandering around but this cross-eyed kitty was particularly cute.

With the sun shining brightly we took the opportunity to hop on our bikes and take off for Belém. Not only is there a ton of things to see there, including a couple of UNESCO sites, but also there is the Pastéis de Belém, a bakery specializing in what has to be the national pastry of Portugal, the pastel de nata. We aimed to try a few and see how they fared against the other 10,000 we had already eaten.

So off we went on our bikes, simply assuming there would be a bike path. There was not. In fact, if you map on Google from our campsite to Belém, there is not even the option to choose a bike route. That would have been our first clue had we bothered to look. Suffice it to say, Lisbon is not bike friendly. Also, getting to Belem took us straight downhill and I thought we might have to call a taxi van to get us and our bikes home. But before we actually had to figure that out, there was loads to see. The one issue we had was, how do we get to it? 

There was a multi-track rail system between us and the monuments we wanted to see, and to go around meant biking miles out of our way. Hmmmm. For pedestrians there are stairs and I mean very steep stairs, and we happened to notice a guy with a bike coming up them. On closer inspection, there was a thin tire rail on the side. Bike riders are meant to put their bike tires inside the rail and walk them down with gravity assist. Holy Cow I was sure I would lose control and that my bike would kill someone at the bottom. Those bikes are HEAVY! So much so that I was unable to get mine up the rail, Steven had to do both of them. What a chore! 

The bike rail down some pretty steep steps. I don’t think they had heavy e-bikes in mind.

Nonetheless, we had managed to get ourselves over to the Tower of Belém and the Monument to the Discoveries which celebrates the 15th and 16th century explorers. This is one of my favorite sites in Portugal. Each person represented on that monument tells a story. And interestingly, the monument itself was created as a temporary exhibit for the 1940 Portuguese World Exhibition. Afterward it was destroyed, but a few years later a permanent monument was built. Much like Paris's Eiffel Tower and Seattle's Space Needle, both built as temporary structures for World Fairs, the monument in Belém has become an iconic installation. And who is that man in front? Yep, Henry the Navigator!

The Monument to the Discoveries.

The Tower of Belém. Although there were dedicated bike lanes, most people Ignored them, making it hard to navigate around them.

Linda passes the many tour buses. There doesn’t seem to be an off-season in Portugal!

After visiting the waterfront area, we made our way back through the tunnel, wrestling those heavy bikes up the rail to make our way to the nearby bakery. I stayed with the bikes while Steven stood in line to get our pastries. This little eggy custardy goodness is on every street corner, in nearly every food store, and in IKEA restaurants, too. We have eaten our weight in these little three-bite wonders but the ones in Belém were purported to be the best. And they were. We bought a dozen of them and when they were gone two days later I swore I'd never eat another. Alas....

We had high expectations for these custard treats at Pastéis de Belém and, yes, they were delicious!

Our trip back to the campground turned out to be easier than we thought and we made it back in good time. I guess we have learned a few things about our bikes since Bilbao and the uphill sections were easier for us to manage. Once again, we are loving our E-bikes!

View of Lisbon on our ride home.

To get the lay of the land in Lisbon we took a one hour Hop On, Hop Off tour of the old city. From there we stayed on the bus until we circled back around to the spot we wanted to see , and that's where we got off the bus to walk. We had a great day for it. I admit that I was slow to come around to Portugal, but I realize the weather played a huge role in my mood. Now that we were heading south, the sun was shining and my mood was lifting!  We walked all around and took in hilltop vistas in Alfama, sat and watched the tourists go by on Tram 28 and window shopped for beautiful pastries. We managed to pass them by without eating any, because we had our sights set on Lisbon's Time Out Market, a place with 26 restaurants and eight bars under one roof. The concept is you can try a little of everything and that's exactly what we did. Wow, the food was fantastic!

On the Hop On Hop Off bus.

There are trams literally everywhere you look in Lisbon and they are somehow able to navigate through dense traffic.

Lisbon is a fun city to explore with outdoor cafes seemingly on every street and a touch of Christmas while we were there.

We bought a picture from this artist who was painting with coffee. You can see our picture of a Lisbon tram on the right.

How cute is this Nativity set??

We can’t get away from them! Yay!

This market was amazing. We never saw such a variety of great food under one roof.

Just a sampling of some of the amazing choices at the TimeOut Market.

Cherry liqueur in chocolate cups!! Gulp, chomp, chomp!

By this time we had a favorite taxi driver, Alexander, who was part driver, part tour guide. On our last day he drove us to Sintra, a town about 30 minutes from Lisbon. On the way there he told us all about the royalty that used to come to this area to hunt and many built fabulous castles. Thus, Sintra is a major tourist destination in Portugal. We, of course, are spoiled by places like the Knights Templar Convento de Christo in Tomar where we practically had the place to ourselves, so arriving 35 minutes before opening to find a line snaking down the hill was a little disappointing. Yes, I get that we are also tourists, there's no denying that. Still.... 

Also, Sintra is known for its beautiful views of the ocean, none of which we were able to see because the entire area was socked in with fog. We did tour the Pena National Palace which looked like it was made out of Play-Doh. It was so crowded that Steven and I got separated and when he went inside for the tour, he found it so claustrophobic that he was looking for a way to escape. All-in-all, Sintra was the least enjoyable part of our stay in Lisbon. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site (#7, in case you've lost count), so I'm glad we went there even if it wasn't great for us. We know others who thoroughly enjoyed their time there. 

The line in the fog at the Pena National Palace.

The fog gave the place an interesting atmosphere but we were disappointed that there were no views.

This face says it all.

A scale model of the palace

In and around Sintra.

We picked up a new mattress at IKEA while we were in Lisbon!

We left Lisbon with only two more destinations on our journey before we would stop and catch our breath. Both were overnights with just a couple of hours visiting. The first was the historic center of Evora (#8!!) and the Chapel of Bones and the second was Sagres, literally the end of the continent. Henry the Navigator established a nautical school and many of his ships were launched from here. In many places the continent just stops and the ocean begins not with lovely sandy beaches but with 100+ ft. cliffs. Amazingly, despite the dangers, people actual fish from these cliffs. The cliffs are so huge it's easy to overlook them, but then you see a flash of color and zoom in to find several people fishing! 

This was definitely one of the creepiest places we’ve visited so far.

Beautiful views of the cliffs, fort and lighthouse at Sagres.

The Lighthouse of Cabo de São Vicente in Sagres.

We spent the morning watching the fisherman, then made our way to Turiscampo resort where we had a reservation to do absolutely nothing for the next four weeks. I cannot tell you how much we were looking forward to this downtime!

NEXT UP:  Slow days in the Algarve

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Exploring Portugal - Part 1

While in Ireland we purchased our airline tickets home for the holidays flying out of Lisbon. Still on the hunt for a place to settle for a while, it made sense to find a lovely place in south Portugal for a good long sit. We wanted to be well-rested for our whirlwind trip home for the holidays. We will only be at the ranch in Texas for three weeks before returning to Bijou in Lisbon and continuing with our travels. Once again our American friends Shani and Todd offered a suggestion for a place they liked and thought we might too. We did, and booked a month at the Turiscampo resort near Lagos in the Algarve. But before we could settle in there, we had a lot of stops to make and plenty of UNESCO World Heritage sites to see as we made our way south.  

First stop, Porto. It was pouring rain, so grey and dreary. I don't mind a little rain, but this day was just depressing. Before we got to our campground, we drove into town and blew right through the first toll gate. Our GPS said "Stay left." so I did and completely bypassed the toll booths! Ooops! The toll systems in Portugal are legendary. Notice the plural word "systems",  that's because there are two different companies that collect road tolls. Generally, one is nearer cities and has actual toll booths at which you can pay as you go. The other is electronic so the cameras take a picture of your license plate every so often and then you can go online or drop by the post office to pay. It all seems to work very well as long as you have a Portugal license plate. We have French plates, so nothing comes up online. We have no way of knowing what we owe or how to pay. Steven has nearly made a career out of trying to figure this out, but he's sent down an online rabbit hole every single time. We have elected to ignore the whole shebang and see what happens. We might very well receive a bill at our address in France, possibly with stiff penalties, at which point we will plead our utter ignorance. Until then we shall continue on our merry way. 

After attempting to keep a photographic record of all the electronic tolls, we finally gave up!

After a grocery stop we made our way to our campground, which had all the charm of a run down prison yard, which only added to my overall gloomy feeling. Steven was thrilled, because the campground was just across the street from the wild Atlantic Ocean. He wasted no time getting out with his camera. I'm always happy to stay home after a big grocery shop so I can cook and maybe get some stuff prepared for the busy days ahead. 

Our prison wall view in Porto.

This little kitty hung around our campsite. He kinda reminded us of a baby Grumpy Cat.

The sun did try to poke out from the clouds on Porto beach.

The waves of the mighty Atlantic were pretty powerful while we were in Porto.

The wind and waves didn’t seem to bother this fisherman.

The next day we finally did have a few hours of partly cloudy skies, so we hopped on our bikes fully intending to ride into old town Porto and see what there was to see. We made it to a marina before we realized all the bike routes into the city were blocked off for the big Porto marathon event. So we turned around and rode the opposite direction. The ride was great, but we were right by the oceanfront the whole time. The thing I don't like about a wild ocean is that we are basically riding in a cloud of salt. My skin felt sticky, my bike was covered, Bijou was covered. Yuck. I'm sad to say that after three days I was more than ready to move on even though we had seen very little of Porto. There are just some places we look forward to but, for whatever reason, things just don't work out. Charleston, NC was another one of those stops, but at least I feel like we'll get back there some day. This is likely it for Porto. 

All dressed up to ride into downtown Porto!

So close and yet so far! We weren’t able to make it to the city because of the big marathon so we settled for this view.

Steven tried roasted chestnuts for the first time. Verdict: meh.

In between sun bursts and rain showers and more electronic tolls, we made our way to the very old city of Coimbra, pronounced "Qweem-bruh". From a distance, the old city looks like a multi-tiered wedding cake, with the University of Coimbra, one of the oldest and continuously operating universities in the world, at the top. There is a Medieval feel about the place so of course the university is a UNESCO World Heritage site. At certain times throughout the year and during ceremonial events, the students wear black robes. It is said that this is where JK Rowling got her inspiration for the uniforms for Hogwarts. We only saw a couple of students in robes, but I can imagine how cool it would be with all of them floating around in flowing black robes. 

Just a few steps from our aire, this amazing view of Coimbra.

We saw this on the street. Not sure which Camino it’s for. Maybe the Portugal route.

This store is made to resemble the university library. In actuality it is a canned fish store.

Quaint streets on the way to the university.

Well-weathered sculptures near the university.

University students - not a black robe in sight!

These two were the only students we saw wearing robes. 

Tourists in the grounds of the university library.

Beautiful view of Coimbra at night.

One unique feature in Portugal is the basalt and limestone sidewalks, or Calçada Portuguesa. Sidewalks are typically hand-laid with rough squares of stones, sometimes in beautiful mosaic patterns. In a city as old as Coimbra, these sidewalks are a bit crumbly. I thought it would be neat to have a little limestone square as a souvenir, so I plucked a random (loose) block off the street and put it in my pocket. It is not unusual for me to collect little stones or rocks from places we visit and I thought nothing of grabbing this one. When we got home, I put it on the table and went about my day. But there was something about that rock, something that seemed to say, "I don't belong here" and it bothered me. Later in the day I thought, what if that little rock puts a spell on me, then Steven said, "That rock is going to haunt you." OMG, I hadn't said anything to him about how I was feeling, but he was feeling it too! I said, "I KNOW! YOU HAVE TO TAKE IT BACK!!" So the next day, Steven trudged up the hill and returned that little rock to the place from whence it came. Whew! I am not really a superstitious person, but I knew that rock did not belong with me! Weird, huh? 

The wayward rock returneth. The spell was broken.

We stayed at a wonderful free aire in Coimbra right on the river. It was the first time in a while that we did not have electricity and when Bijou suddenly shut down her 12 volt system, we knew something was wrong. We found a nearby motorhome repair place and called to see if they could get us in the next morning on our way out of town. They could, so off we went. Turns out all that rattling around on bumpy roads in Ireland had knocked some fuses loose and our alternator had not been charging the batteries as we drove. That was an easy fix. Also, we had recently lost use of our back-up camera and it too was a loose fuse. After about 50 minutes of diagnostics and fixes, they sent us on our merry way, no charge. How nice is that?

The repair shop was a little out of the way. We had to double check the GPS!

Bijou gets her electrical system checked.

A couple of hours later we were set up at the free municipal aire in Tomar, which was interesting. In its glory days this was a full-fledged campsite with all the amenities, including laundry service. Then, for whatever reason, it shut down. But the city, recognizing that campers spend money in their town, kept it open as a free aire. There are some services, including cold-water showers, trash, black and grey water areas, and so on. Basically, there is no electricity. Folks come in and just park in whatever wonky way they fit, so it can look a bit odd, but it's walking distance to everything so what's not to love?

The entrance to our aire in Tomar.

Our purpose for visiting Tomar was a trip to the Convento du Cristo, the spectacular ancient seat of the Knights Templar. This would be our second UNESCO Heritage Site in Portugal and it was absolutely amazing. We had the place to ourselves on a beautiful sunny day, which was perfect. And, wow. I can't begin to tell you how beautiful this place was, but Steven can, through his fabulous photography. If you ever plan a trip to Portugal, don't miss this one!

On the way to the convent. A swan kindly swam into view for this photo.

Down by the waterfront in Tomar.

We weren’t kidding about these stone sidewalks being everywhere.

The weather cooperated nicely for our first glimpse of the convent.

A very impressive and imposing exterior.

The real highlight was inside with its ornate walls and glorious architecture.

We could not have asked for better light during our visit. 

The scale and beauty of this place took our breath away.


A large eating hall. Normally, a place like this would be teeming with tourist but on this morning, it was just us a a handful of other people.

Did we mention the wonderful light??

We enjoyed lunch after our visit and this time I decided to venture out of my comfort zone and try something different. It's funny, but as we travel, I have discovered that I am not as adventurous of an eater as I thought I was. Steven, on the other hand, will try anything once. That works out because I can taste his then get my own if I like it, or not. But for this lunch, I ordered a steak with mustard sauce. It was okay, but I wouldn't order it again. Of course it all came with French fries, or chips as they call them here. Honestly, no continent in the world has latched on to the lowly fried potato like Europe. It comes with everything, sometimes in a double or triple portion. There is a reason people here use the expression "cheap as chips". Good thing we like them. 

Later in the afternoon we packed up and headed to our next stop, Fatima. Our aim here was to visit the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima. This is said to be one of the most important international sites for religious tourism hosting more than six million pilgrims each year. Now, I love a good pilgrim site as much as anyone, but I am drawn mainly to Medieval sites primarily for their historical significance. Fatima was created based on apparitions purportedly seen about 80-100 years ago, and it has grown into a massive, modern spectacle. For me it is a bit cold and impersonal, perhaps a bit manipulative and devoid of any emotional significance. I found the whole thing a little outlandish, frankly, but to each his own. Perhaps in a few hundred years when the whole thing is crumbly I might enjoy it more, who knows. One great thing about such a massive place is that there is plenty of parking and at this time of year it was mostly empty, so plenty of space for overnighting in a motorhome!

The Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima.

We definitely enjoy visiting places like this when it’s not filled with tourists.

Inside the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, a more modern structure sharing the grounds with the Basilica. It seats 10,000 people.

A modern sculpture at the entrance of the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.

The earlier rain created nice reflections in the evening light.

Pope John Paul II

Night views of the Basilica.

Known as “The Pyre”, pilgrims keep the fire perpetually burning by adding candles and offering prayers.

We left one spectacle in hopes of seeing another, this one, compliments of Mother Nature. We went in search of 100 foot waves in Nazare, but it was not meant to be. The waves in Nazare on the coast of Portugal are renowned, and when conditions are right, draws surfers from around the world eager to take on the challenge. We arrived on a relatively calm day, so I will point you to this fantastic story produced by 60 Minutes Australia so you can get an idea of the wave action and the surfers who take them on. Yikes!

This is what we came for!! (Not our photograph)

The sea was a bit more subdued when we were there.

We did manage to see a few decent sized wave crashes, though, so all was not lost.

Looking down at Nazare.

By the time we reached our campground in Nazare we were ready for a rest and needed to get some laundry done. Our campground was interesting, in that it was nestled among gigantic pine trees which mottled the light. There was room for hundreds of RVs, but there were only about a dozen. It was a peaceful, three-day stay after which we hit the road ready to take on more sightseeing. 

We had fog at our campground in Nazare. It was a little eerie, especially given that the whole place was basically empty!

It was still a lovely place to get chores done and relax.

UP NEXT: Portugal, Part II - More UNESCO Sites & Henry the Navigator!