Portugal

May 26, 2022

Cruise on the Douro River after exploring central Portugal.

No surprise that Portugal has become so popular, not only with tourists but with the many northern Europeans and North Americans buying homes here.

Portugal has the best weather in Europe, plus friendly people, good roads, charming old towns, tasty cuisine, and scenic vistas!

I visited Lisbon long ago, but I’ve been wanting to return to see more. So I went north from Lisbon and later joined a cruise up the Douro River.

Despite my great fondness for Portugal overall, I have to say that the city of Lisbon itself, while not bad, is not quite in the league with more charming capitals like Madrid, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, or even Bratislava.
Lisbon does have (like just about every Catholic city in Europe) incredible, huge, old, ornate churches. Above is the beautiful Igreja de Santa Maria de Belém.

Portugal's most epic explorer — Vasco da Gama who sailed to India around the Cape of Good Hope launching the Portuguese empire in Africa and Asia — is buried here.

Sepulcher of Vasco da Gama carved with ships and globes. Alas, Magellan did not make it home from the Philippines.

As a kid in rural Texas I was interested in world explorers. Hmmm. Might that have foretold anything?

Speaking of the Portuguese Empire (arguably the first multi-continent empire and one of the longest, lasting almost six centuries)... it's amazing that this was done by such a small country that had only about three million people. (vividmaps.com)
Monuments like the "Padrão dos Descobrimentos" here in Lisbon often feature its "glory days" when Portugal was leading Europe in exploring the world and building its large global empire.
During those centuries, a main residence of the Kings and Queens of Portugal was a large palace in Sintra. I thought this view of the old town (with ruins of the old Moorish castle on the hilltop) from the palace was prettier than the palace itself.
Built nearly 900 years ago, the majestic Convento de Cristo was the headquarters of the Knights Templar who were fighting to drive the Muslim armies out of the Iberian peninsular.

While the Moors had ruled southern Portugal for centuries, they never truly conquered the northern part. And in a crucial battle near here, the Knights defeated the Moors and the tide soon turned toward "re-Christianizing" Portugal and Spain.
Farther north is Coimbra, famous for the University of Coimbra, the oldest and most prestigious in Portugal and one of the oldest universities in Europe. Got to tour some stunning buildings on its campus (at the top of the hill in this photo).
As part of a university initiation tradition, friendly students were walking around Coimbra wearing silly attire.
Like nearly every place I visited in Europe this summer, Coimbra had lively pedestrian streets in the heart of town.
Farther north is Guimarães, with a wonderful old town within its medieval walls. On the right is its Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Consolação.
Still farther north is Braga where the must stop is the Bom Jesus do Monte basilica with around 600 zig-zagging steps from the city below.
I think this colorful little park was in Braga too, but it was not uncommon to see well landscaped public gardens.

Douro River Cruise

Time to join Noble Caledonia's cozy cruise (76 guests, mostly smart, funny, well-travelled Brits) on the Douro River.
Gliding up the Douro river valley, you'll see beautiful vistas nonstop. As you go upstream, you'll see fewer towns and villages — and more vineyards.
This is the breathtaking Carrapatelo lock, the tallest in Europe. It lifts boats 115 feet. Ominously, its unusual design is called a "guillotine." Locks are always kinda weird and remarkable to me, and this one was the champion.
Going under low bridges is also breathtaking and even more fun than locks. If you stand up at the wrong time, the bridge (not the lock) will indeed serve as a guillotine. But, if none of the crew are looking, you can cautiously touch the bridge as the boat barely slips underneath.
I would have enjoyed this seven-day cruise just relaxing and enjoying the scenery of the Douro valley, but we had interesting excursions every day too.
One day we visited the old baroque Casa de Mateus and its elaborate gardens. Above is my photo of the 18th century manner house along with the famous drawing (minus chapel) that is featured on Mateus wine bottles. The interior was fascinating and the extensive gardens were phenomenal.
Another day trip was to Lamego to visit the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies, an important pilgrimage site in Portugal since the 1500s. 
The navigable part of the Douro river ends just before the border with Spain. From that point, a superb day trip was to the nearby historic and beautiful Spanish city of Salamanca. Extraordinary architecture with a grand cathedral, of course, plus a huge Plaza Mayor and other charms such as the Museum of Art Nouveau.
Many vineyards along the Douro valley.
Looking back at the Douro on the way to the old fortress town of Almeida near the Spanish border.

After the cold, rainy weather on the Greek isles, the perfect sun of Portugal was appreciated even more. It made the week-long cruise and the pre-cruise journey from Lisbon to Porto even better.

I want to return to visit the popular Algarve region in the far south of Portugal.