Driving around (and around, and around…) Portugal

Portugal may be best known for its fado music, or its deliciously salty bacalhau, or perhaps for the above-average futbol players that it turns out on a regular basis. On a recent long weekend visit to this lovely country, I discovered another defining trait: roundabouts.

We don’t normally drive much on our travels around Europe; we prefer to stay in the city center and use public transportation. This time around, we wanted to see several inland villages and castles, so a car was the best way to go. Since I am the proud holder of an international driver’s license, I was the designated driver. (An aside: has anyone ever been asked to produce this document for anything? A rental car agency, a law enforcement officer, anything? Is an international driver’s license – valid for only six months – even necessary?) Once we were off the highway, we would encounter a roundabout every 800 meters or so. Some had only two or three exits and could have made do with an intersection. In Lisbon, I had to navigate two concentric roundabouts – an inner and an outer rotary, both with multiple exits. I’ll admit that was not my best bit of driving, but I managed. At least twice, I took the roundabout literally, and just kept driving in circles while my co-pilot did some on-the-fly navigation.

There was another unusual feature of this trip: my dear husband planned almost everything. In conversation with other couples, I have found that the responsibilities for planning a trip fall to one person or the other. In our relationship, I’m almost always the planner. In my husband’s mind, if we have a flight and a hotel, a trip is planned. In my mind, we need a rough idea of the transit system, knowledge of some of the major sites, and a dinner reservation for Saturday night. This time, however, he had places he wanted to visit and had mapped out our route for our four days. I got behind the wheel and went where he and the GPS told me.

Our first stop was the Batalha Monastery, which was breathtaking. The construction began in the late 1300s (!) and the architecture reflects the

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The unfinished chapel at the Batalha Monastery

changing styles used over the 150-year construction period. A portion of the church remains unfinished, with the walls opening up to welcome the sky and the weather and the local birds. The Monastery is also the home of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the First World War; the tomb is watched over by guards and by the battered remains of Christ of the Trenches, a statue of Jesus that Portuguese soldiers carried into battle in Flanders. It was a somber and impressive memorial to the losses that Portugal suffered during the Great War.

We drove on to Coimbra, home of the oldest university in Portugal. We enjoyed a great meal at a local restaurant, and discovered that the owner spent more than 15 years living the Netherlands. We also enjoyed the Portuguese price point: a bottle of wine, two entrees, a shared starter and dessert only cost 42 Euro…a big difference from an average night out in Amsterdam. At the recommendation of our hotel concierge (who was also our bartender, although he preferred “mixologist”) we made time in the morning to visit the university. The student prison is no longer in use, but many of the buildings, including the former palace, are still used for formal university ceremonies.

From there, we went to Fatima, a Catholic pilgrimage site where the Virgin Mary appeared to three children in 1917. (For the non-Catholics or the public school kids, you can get up to speed here.)  In spite of my many years of Catholic education, I know Fatima best from the annual Easter airing of the 1952 film The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. Every Easter Sunday of my childhood, we’d visit family friends before we went to my grandparent’s house. Every year, we’d arrive at their home near the end of the movie, just in time for the scene when Mary appears in a great ball of light, causing the residents of Fatima to panic and assume that the sun was falling.

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The Basilica at Fatima

Fatima today includes a basilica, an enormous plaza, and a series of chapels where masses are held almost non-stop. There were also some odd elements, including beeswax candles in the shape of different organs or body parts. These were sold as offerings; you could purchase the candle that matched whatever illness you had, and then cast the candle (prayerfully) into a large fire. We also witnessed a number of women making the journey from the far end of the plaza to the Visitation Chapel, following a white marble path that they traversed on their knees. A penance of some kind, I assume, but it’s not my particular brand of Christianity. I don’t think that God is terribly interested in intentional suffering.

We moved on to the walled city of Obidos, not knowing that our interactions with the Virgin Mary were not quite behind us. As we sat in a plaza enjoying an afternoon drink,

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Obidos prepares for the procession of Mary

we noticed that the locals were busy with flowers and greenery and votive candles, decorating the town. We learned that in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the end of Mary’s visitations in Fatima, a statue of Mary had been traveling around Portugal since 2017. That night it was Obidos’ turn to host Our Lady. Again, processions and statues of saints in glass boxes are not really my thing, but the preparations were lovely. The small town was quiet. Every home and shop put out candles or statues of Mary, and flowers lined the road. A sense of reverence and anticipation settled over everyone as the sun set. Eventually, the procession moved silently through the streets and we went on our way.

In the morning we drove to Lisbon and had a relaxed day that mostly involved sitting in the Praça do Comércio, or wandering the very hilly streets. We dove into Portugal’s lesser-known culinary heritage and had dinner at a Goan restaurant, where we were told (in our case, reminded) that vindaloo is originally a Portuguese dish.

The other unusual feature of this trip was that my husband occasionally busted out his beginner Portuguese, which I found impressive and delightful. He ordered our lunch in Fatima with no hesitation, and while I know it can be stressful for him to speak Portuguese, the waiter didn’t notice a thing, and we got exactly what we ordered. Mission accomplished!

This was our third visit to Portugal. Years ago we spent time in Lisbon and the Azores, and more recently we went to Porto with some friends from the U.S. This time, we saw more of the inland villages and the landscape. On every visit, I’m amazed by the diverse beauty of the country and the relaxed and easy attitude of the people. Many travelers overlook Portugal, and that’s their loss. Each time we go, I discover more reasons to return.

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Oh, Porto

The most recent of our near-monthly travel adventures was a four-day trip to Porto. Portugal is the Mother Land for my husband; his grandparents hail from the Azores, the gorgeous volcanic islands far off Portugal’s coast. We visited and enjoyed Lisbon and the Azores several years ago, but Porto had long called to me, with its promise of hillside towns along the Duoro, and its place as the home of port wine.

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After the rain…

As a holiday destination, Portugal always seems to take second place to Spain. That’s just fine with me, if it means that Portugal’s streets will remain uncrowded, the terraces inviting and the people friendly and helpful.

We were joined on this trip by friends from the U.S. Last year we met up with them in Italy, and when we suggested Portugal to them several months ago, they were more than happy to join us. (Their trip started in Lisbon and continued on after we returned to Amsterdam. And they were quick to tell us that Portugal had overtaken Spain on their list of favorite vacation spots.)

Our itinerary was loose and flexible. On most days our only plan was dinner, and the restaurants had been well-researched by our traveling companions. I’ll admit that when traveling with these friends I tend to take a back seat in planning. We’ve never had a bad meal with them (at least if they selected the restaurant), and their traveling habits include frequent breaks for coffee or a cocktail. It’s a needed balance to my tendency to overdo, over-schedule.

Our first full day in Porto dawned grey and rainy, with a spectacular thunderstorm that literally shook the windows in the hotel dining room. We had a lazy morning and finally headed into the city center when the skies cleared…or so we thought. No sooner had we started to explore then we were hit with a wind-swept rainstorm that turned ourimage umbrellas inside-out and soaked our sporty summer shoes. We ducked into a church to wait out the rain, and not 10 minutes later, we emerged to blue and sunny skies.

Our strategy for the rest of the day was to be sure we were never far from cover. “Cover” in this case generally meant an alcove, awning or tasting room where we could avoid the rain while drinking port wine. It was one of our better plans.

We started at Sandeman’s and seated ourselves outside but under the cover of the portico. Just in case. One whole page of the menu was devoted to port cocktails. Now, I know to some purists this might be a sacrilege.  But I was curious. And my curiosity was rewarded when I was presented with a beautiful port and whisky cocktail with a spiral of orange zest. Delicious. A perfect start to a day of port tasting. Next up was the well-known Taylor Fladgate, which had a lovely tasting room, a English-style rose garden (complete with a peacock family!), and a grassy terrace to enjoy our drinks. We tasted two types of port, complemented with almonds and chocolate. But we weren’t done yet…

Several steep hills and some wandering later, we came across Cockburn’s (pronounced, we quickly learned, as ” Co-burns”). We signed up for a tour, but to pass the forty minutes until the start time, we settled in to the comfy couches and shared two rounds of tastings and some cheese. The tour was ok, manageable mostly because we knew we had two more tasting flights waiting at the end. (For those of you keeping score, that’s three full drinks earlier in the day, plus another 12 glasses of port at Cockburn’s, shared among 4 of us.)

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The rooftop view downhill.

The smooth-talking tour guide may have also been monitoring our intake, as he was easily able to sell us on a 6-bottle assortment. It’s being shipped directly to Amsterdam and should be here next week. An excuse for another party, perhaps?

We eventually wrapped up the port adventure and headed back to the hotel to rest before dinner at the extraordinary, Michelin-star Pedro Lemos. (I feel a sequel coming on. “Porto 2: The Things We Ate”)

What I learned about port – and what I like about it – is its versatility. Port can be enjoyed with chocolate or cheese, paired with nuts or blended with whisky or other liquors. It’s a drink for a cold evening by the fire, or a not-yet spring day on a terrace overlooking a river. It’s an all-purpose pleaser. It’s wonderful on it’s own. And it makes the things you already like taste better and more complex. It’s a sipping wine, the enjoyment of which is not to be rushed. Port is for holidays, for vacation days, and for any days (every day?) you just want to slow down and be transported to a hillside town on the Duoro.