Getting to know Portugal, Part II

Our second journey took place when we returned in the fall to take care of our residency papers and close on the sale of our apartment. We headed north to visit Lousa, the Douro region, Porto and Nazaré. Along the way we also met up with some friends from Canada, Dru and Ted and Kimi from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Lousa was chosen as a break for our drive up to the Douro River, and because we liked the pictures of the Lousa Palace Hotel in this small town just east of Coimbra. Not really a lot to see or do in town, but the hotel is quite something. There are large, elaborate sitting areas, the main dining room is amazing, and the rooms are spacious and wall appointed. And the price is right as well. But again, not a lot to do in Lousa!

It was a very rainy drive up from Lousa to the Douro River, so we didn’t really get to enjoy what is said to be one of Portugal’s most beautiful drives along the Douro on highway N222. But fortunately the weather had cleared up by the time we left, so we did get to enjoy this amazing drive when we followed the river down to Porto.

Our hotel, The Vintage House, was superb. We had a room right alongside the river Douro, a junior suite, that was very nice. The hotel common areas are amazing, with high ceilings in the salon/bar with large wooden beams and quartz rock columns. Beautiful place, although a little pretentious and rather expensive.


Drug and Ted joined us in the late afternoon and we enjoyed dinner together at the hotel. Was good to see them again, although they were quite tired from a full day of traveling. But the next day they were refreshed and ready to explore.

We started off the day by taking the train from Pinhao, up the river to the town of Pocinho. Getting to the train station is quite something; you take a winding staircase that is in the center of the hotel bar and come out as street level next to the train station! And the train itself is quite something, decorated with talavera tile murals portraying common scenes from the Douro region during the wine harvest.

The tracks follow the Douro River, and the ride is spectacular as there is no highway running along the river so not much is developed, except for vineyards planted on the steep banks of the river with an occasional chateau. Beautiful scenic ride. We stayed for a 1⁄2 at the final destination and then headed back, as this was the end of the line. The cost, including return, was just nine euros – highly recommended.

We returned to the hotel and then over to the Symmington Vineyard across the street from the hotel for a tour and tasting. Beautiful new facilities mixed in with much older, renovated buildings. An excellent tour and explanation of the wine making process, followed by a tasting of three of their wines and three of their ports. Wines were decent by the 20-year Tawny really stood out as exceptional.


We then returned to the Vintage House for a private tasting of three more wines and a Late Vintage Port. Great explanations on what are the differences between a Ruby, Tawny, and Vintage ports, and how they are made. We returned to share a bottle of Patrius in the bar and then dinner in the hotel restaurant. What a day!

We drove down the Douro River from Pinhao, and it was an exceptional drive, but in the end, a little too windy for us all. The first half was fine, but then it was time to find a freeway. As it was fall time, the vineyards were turning color, producing vivid yellows, oranges and reds and draped the hills of the Douro valley. There are some amazing viewpoints along the way, but driving as far as Resende may be enough. If you have the time to break it up and make it a full-day event, stopping for lunch along the way, you can go all the way, or perhaps turn up at Santa Maria de Sardoura.

We got lost at one point and took a small road to get back on the highway, and it just kept getting narrower and narrower. To the point that we didn’t think we’d fit through. Ted nearly lost his clutch trying to get through the narrow corners and hills. But we made it.


We arrived in Porto in the late afternoon and got lucky finding out apartment. I knew the route somewhat from looking on Google Maps and Streetview, and we found the place quite easily. Parking was terrible in front of our place, though, so we pulled up in front of a cafe. A guy turned around to look at us and said, “Florence?” This was the guy for the apartment waiting for us. And then someone pulled out right beside us, so we had a parking sport.

View of Porto from Serro do Pilar Monastery viewpoint in Gaia
View of Porto from Serro do Pilar Monastery viewpoint in Gaia

Porto is on the northerly shore of the Douro river, with Gaia on the south shore. Gaia is mostly made up of wine caves, as this is where the port has been stored and aged for centuries. Many of the caves are now fancy display houses, offering tastings of their goods. Makes for a fun afternoon or evening visiting them. It’s a fun city with very friendly people and good food – better than what we experienced in Lisbon! And the prices are better as well. What is most striking is the number of building in disrepair. And then how many, often right beside them, look fantastic because they’ve just been completely renovated. There are areas of Porto (and Lisbon too) that remind me of Cuba. But Porto (and Lisbon) are on the mend. People are investing, buying whole building to renovate them, and they are creating great looking buildings with very snazzy apartments; some for sale, some to rent out. There is construction and cranes all over the place; this place is definitely in a stage of transition.

View from our apartment
View from our apartment

Our apartment was nothing special, on top of Porto, on the 4th floor with no lift. Sparsely decorated with the bedroom/bath on one floor and a kitchen/sitting area above. There is a coffee shop below where young and old men hang out and the young one’s are terribly loud. Thankfully it is just during the day time. Ted & Dru, however, have a great place – Casas do Porto – next time for us!

The next day, to get to know Porto better, we took a “Tuk”, which is a motorcycle triped with room for four people behind. Like a motorized rickshaw. The guide was great, knew his history and we quickly got to know Porto, with a 90 minute tour. Porto is a great town, not very big, at least the core, old town area, so one can quickly can become familiar with the streets and places to see.

That evening we met up with Kimi and later Ted and Dru, for dinner in Gaia at the Duorum restaurant. Great dinner with a wonderful waitress (Fabiola) who walked us thru green wines, ports and her favorite whites and reds. We had the Bacaulau and it was superb.

The next day we traveled to the coast with our friend Kimi, who had met up with us in Porto, and walked from the industrial park in Matosinhos, along the coastline back to downtown Lisbon, passing through also the seaside neighborhood of Foz de Douro. We stopped along the way and had a wonderful seaside lunch with vinho verde, with risotto, caprese salad and shrimps. We continued, walking nearly into Porto before catching a cab back to our apartment. Lovely promenade with many beachside restaurants. Great walk or bike ride. We enjoyed the experience so much we did it again the next day! We especially enjoyed Fox, sort of the Cascais of Porto.

The following day we woke up to rain. So we left early for Nazaré, walking the streets of this popular seaside town. Had a fish lunch along the beachfront promenade, (in which they overcharged us), bottle of vinho verde (Arco Novoa) and then went back to the hotel for a water and body massage. Wonderful activity for a rainy day! We finished off with dinner at the hotel, involving a shrimp pasta (wonderful!) with a very nice Altana 2011 Douro wine. Discovered that Altana is produced by the Symington Group, where we did the tour of their port wine tour.

  1. Take a Tuk Tour. These are the small vehicles you see throughout the city. They are offered in Porto and also in Lisbon, and they are a great way to easily get around the city, learn about the city from the driver, and visit the spots that should be visited.
  2. Walk the Pont D. Luis Bridge, over into Gaia and walk up to the monastery to get a great photo op of Porto.
  3. Visit the west coast beaches and Foz, by taking the 500 bus or the trolley. Both run along the coastal highway.
  4. Visit a Porto Cave. There are many and they all seem to be trying to outdo one another with the presentations. They are all located in Gaia, some along the waterfront and others on the hillside in behind. If with friends order one of each of a 10, 20 and 30 year to share, so you can see the difference time makes to a tawny port. And take in a tour so you’ll better understand the differences between a ruby, tawny and vintage port.
  5. Visit the Lello & Irmao Bookstore, the woodwork and staircase are amazing.
  6. Boat Tour up the Douro. We didn’t do this (next time) but it looked like fun, and it is a beautiful river valley.
  7. Train ride up the Douro Valley. We did this from Pinhao to Pocinho and it was great. The whole ride may be a bit too much, but better than trying to drive the whole thing.
Nazare, view from hotel Miramar
Nazare, view from hotel Miramar

Our hotel was the Miramar Hotel, which is situated on a bench overlooking Nazare and the ocean. Quite incredible views from most of the rooms, the restaurants and especially from the indoor pool. Would return, but not during the weekends or high season as it would get noisy from kids, especially in the pool areas. But worth it for the view. Nazare is the home of one of the biggest waves in the world, created by an underwater canyon just off of the point of Nazaré. Certainly not happening when we were there, but we’ll be back when it is.

Part III of our trip continues here.

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