We are back from our great trip north. In four days, we covered much of what we hadn’t seen before, but came back feeling like there is still much left to see. Sadly, this will most likely be our last trip in-country that we’ll do before heading home — how time has flown!

Thursday night, we set off on the two-hour drive to Coimbra, arriving at our charming little funky guesthouse by the university just before sunset. We jettisoned our bags into our rooftop room (which had a spectacular view from the bathroom, of all places — best seat in the house!), and went out to see as much as we could before dark fell.

It was quite cold, so we soon ducked in to the restaurant that our hostess had recommended. That turned out to offer a huge amount of food (main entree plus a large buffet of cooked veggies, rice, and delicious soup) for a very reasonable price, all with a chatty waiter to boot. What a deal! As it was by then already very late, we called it a night after dinner and hoofed it back up the hill to our hotel.

The next day, Friday, we spent mainly in Coimbra, as we wanted to avoid running into the Pope and his followers again in Porto that day. So we took our time exploring Coimbra, which turned out not to be a difficult task. There was much to see, including the university, of course, and the famous library, one of the oldest in the world, housing 400,000 books over three very carefully climate-controlled floors.

The books and the library were themselves impressive, but by far my favorite part was their method of pest control: bats! They actually keep a flock of bats in the library, which lived behind the shelves and came out at night to eat any beasties bent on eating the books. I was fascinated by the concept of bats flying around this ornate old library. Fabulous!

As if bats in the library weren’t enough coolness for the day, our next stop (after a stroll through the botanical gardens and lunch in the university cafeteria — when in Rome, you know) was a drowned convent down in the river valley. Seems the people who planned this nunnery did so in the summer, for when the river flooded, it covered the convent and left it to sink in the mud when the water drained. They built another story on top of it to avoid the river, but only succeeded in making the whole thing heavier and sink further into the mud. Hello!

They eventually abandoned the convent and built a new one further up the hill, and the old building sunk further and further into the mud until it was finally excavated in the past decade or so. Before clearing it out, only the top story of the church and about two feet of the bottom level were visible, with none of the nun’s living quarters showing. So they were surprised to find the living quarters more or less intact, complete with tile work and intricately carved columns. The place was simply fantastic, with ghostly columns and lacy stonework covered with beautiful patterns of brown where the mud had lain. Bats in the belfry and a drowned nunnery! Ah! So awesome.

We continued on our way up the coast via a stop in a small town called Aveiro, which is known as the Venice of Portugal. Our guidebook told us that the river it was built on had been silted in during a huge storm in the 16th century, and the town had almost been completely deserted when someone decided to build canals through to the sea. Once again, Aveiro became a popular spot, which you can see by the largely 19th century architecture there.

Here are some of the many pictures we took in Coimbra and Aveiro:

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By this point in our trip it was actively raining again, so we had a quick coffee and set off back on the road to Porto. By the time we arrived, it was once again nearly sunset, and I was starving and unable to take anything else in. After trying and failing to find first one and then another restaurant, we settled for the next one we saw open, which turned out to be once the guidebook had recommended anyway. What’s more, it had perfect food for us both — ratatouille and polenta for me (this in a country where vegetarian options are few and far between), and steak with Brazilian black beans and rice for Gabe. Perfect.

Much fulfilled and happy, we went back to our hotel, which was a grand faux castle stuck right in the middle of a very run down and workaday part of town. It was completely unexpected and delightful, and although the rooms were slightly dated, it was very fun to wake up in the morning and walk out to find a castle (complete with its own detached chapel!) on your way to breakfast.

Saturday we spent exploring Porto, on another very breezy and chilly but luckily clearer day. The Beaux Art buildings were in full effect here too, and you’ll see from my pictures that I was more than enchanted by the houses there. Many of them were falling down and abandoned, with broken windows and “For Sale” signs on many of the finest houses. That made me sad to see, but I couldn’t help entertaining fantasies of buying an old house there and fixing it up… hmm.

We did our guidebook’s walking tour, which showed us some of the most amazing azulejo tilework we’ve seen yet, one on a church and one in the main Porto train station. We also saw a church that was completely encrusted with gold leaf inside, which made me kind of ill, and then ended our tour with a slow and overpriced lunch at a touristy restaurant overlooking the river.

Next up, a boat tour, accompanied by some quiet Japanese tourists and a trio of very loud German students, who did not once stop talking long enough to appreciate the views around them. Oh well. We at least enjoyed seeing six of the bridges that span the Rio Douro in Porto, although we were thoroughly frozen by the end. By then it was time to retreat and regroup for a bit, so we took the little funicular railway back up the hill and headed for our castle.

Much rested, we went back out later to do a Port wine tasting. We sat next to a group of four British men, who had clearly been drinking for quite some time, and proceeded to have a hilarious and raucous couple of hours. Gabe got the full flight of ports, while I only tried the whites, but both came with little dishes of goodies to increase your taste experience: for the tawnys, there was a piece of chocolate. For the reds, a dried cherry. And for the whites, a dried apricot. I loved the intermingling of tastes and sensations — brilliant idea. With the Brits to provide us with entertainment (and how!), we passed a lovely and alcohol soused evening.

Here’s pics from our day in Porto — I’ll continue uploading more as I have time:

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Sunday, we left Porto early to drive down the Douro valley, which is the main port grape growing region. It resembled a cross between Napa (lots of vines) with the Columbia river gorge (steep hills and water), which made for a spectacularly beautiful combination — helped along by the clearest day we’d had yet, for which we were grateful. The area was also very fertile, with little pocket gardens tucked into every spare corner of land.

There was a clear and disheartening difference between the Douro valley and the southwestern Algarve region that we explored back in January. Down there, it was painfully obvious that most of the traditional livelihoods had died out, people had left the countryside for the cities, and tourism was the main industry. In the Douro though, all the towns we drove through seemed a lot more vibrant and well to do. Clearly wine is one traditional industry that has successfully made the transition into the 21st century.

From there, we turned south to the mountains that run close to the Spanish border, the Serra da Estrela. Our drive took us from the verdant green of the Douro down into a set of drier, much more sparse hills. We stopped for lunch in a town called Viseu, which the guidebook promised was as good as Coimbra, but tourist. While that sounded promising, we had to disagree, as we both enjoyed Coimbra a great deal (bats! nunneries!), whereas Viseu not much different from many of the other towns we’ve visited. It didn’t help that it was a Sunday and no one was around, but even so, we weren’t well impressed.

Back on the road once more, we started up to the mountains. Soon we were doing tight switchbacks among steep, rocky inclines, with views back over the valley from which we’d come. Whereas the hills around the Douro were all green and bursting with life, up there it was much more like the Sierras — scraggly dry plants, pines, and a dusting of wildflowers that I’m sure will be gone in a month’s time. It was a different kind of beauty, for sure, but beautiful nonetheless.

Suddenly though, we turned the corner and started downhill, and everything was green again. Spring arrives later at that altitude, so all the maples were bright and painfully green, the fruit trees were blossoming, and the wildflowers were everywhere. The town we were staying in, Manteigas, was tucked into a valley some distance down from the highest peaks. Since this is a big area for skiing during the winter, surprisingly, we actually got off-season rates for our hotel.

We had some pretty amazing hotels on this trip, but this last one took the prize. It was a huge old manor house that had been converted into a guesthouse, and because of this week’s spate of flight cancellations, we had the place almost entirely to ourselves. (That didn’t seem to affect tourism elsewhere, as Porto was crawling with other foreigners.) Many of the decorations in the huge cavernous house were original, mostly religious imagery and ponderous, dark wooden furniture. Our suite though had big windows that looked out over the mountainside above the town, and let in the sound of the mill stream that bubbled through the center of town. Perfect.

Once again, we dumped our stuff and went out to explore. We didn’t need to go very far to find excitement, as there was a surprise waiting in the hotel’s little garden just across the street. In the garden, they had a very mucky pool and a very, very large dog named Beiras (the area these mountains are in are called the Beiras, so a citizen of that area is a Beiran.) He was a Portuguese mountain dog, which are native to the Serra da Estrela mountain range.

I’d read about them in the guidebook, so was delighted when Gabe found this wonderful specimen of canine as he was unloading the car. Beiras was immense, more like a bear than a dog, and so phlegmatic that he was practically flatlined. We rolled him around and roughed him up for a while, and I was totally in love. I was only glad that we never saw any of the puppies for sale, as I don’t think I could’ve resisted. And that would’ve been an interesting challenge indeed…

After making friends with Beiras, we went for a stroll around town, mostly along the footpath that ran along the mill stream up through town. We eventually got lost and had to ask for directions back to our hotel, which were gladly provided by a trio of ancients. They were thrilled to meet Americans, particularly ones that spoke Portuguese, and regaled us with tales of their friend’s grandson who was dating an American, with lots of drama — obviously. We did eventually extract directions from them, with lots of toothless laughter in between.

Our dinner that night was an unexpected pleasure. The restaurant was recommended by the owner of the house we were staying in, which he’d said was behind a bar down the street. You had to walk through the rather nasty looking little bar to get to the dining room, so I didn’t expect too much from it. As soon as we sat down though, I was pleasantly surprised. The windows looked out over the entire valley with the setting sun in the distance, the light vinho verde was excellent, and the food delicious. Like I said, totally unexpected, just like the hotel and the entire town.

Yesterday we set back out for Lisbon, via further exploration of the mountains. We found our way up to a waterfall named the Poco do Inferno, or Well of Hell, which we’ve now added to our Infernal collection along with the Boca do Inferno that doused Gabe back in November. We ate lunch by the River Zezere, which felt like something out of a movie: large white boulders, rushing water, little stone huts perched on the sides of the valley. It was one of those perfect moments where everything just felt right in the world.

We also stopped at the Torre, the tallest peak in Portugal, which was covered in trash, piles of dirty snow, and Spanish tourists. Slightly anticlimactic. The drive up there was worth it though, as the greenery soon dropped away again, leaving a moonscape of glacial destruction, huge boulders strewn everywhere.

Then it was time to head back down to earth, and we were soon speeding our way down the motorway back to Lisboa. By this point the temperature in the valley was up into the 80s — nearly thirty degrees difference from what it had been when we started our trip on Thursday. We were hunting through the trunk for sandals, when for the first few days, it was jackets we were looking for. Apparently summer comes with a vengeance here!

Our last stop was at a small town just an hour out of Lisbon, where we were promised we’d find a castle on an island in the middle of the river. And so we did: a castle. On an island. Surrounded by evil looking cacti and two boats full of soldiers doing training drills — as if it weren’t forbidding enough! It added the perfect surreal twist to end our trip on, and we turned for the final long hour home, eager to get back to our little flat.

So ended our final trip around Portugal. It was rushed, and we could’ve spent much longer everywhere we went, but I think it gave us a great overview into the northeastern part of our adopted country. Despite being far smaller than the state we live in, this trip was a study in the contrasts embodied by Portugal: hot and cold, high and low, green and barren, bustling and deserted. What a wonderful, enigmatic, odd little country this is!

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