I’m travelling to Portugal with my long time friend Sue. If you think that’s confusing you should know that we both had the same maiden name at school (we’re not related), where she accidentally got my German report. She didn’t even study German.
This is, we hope, a relaxing trip. A few days exploring Lisbon and then a river cruise up the Douro.
Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, boasts 20 hills and sightseeing involves several rewarding but exhausting walking tours, as well as a bus trip to the sights around the famous St Jerome (Jerónimos) monastery, the Belem Tower and the galleries further along the port and the River Tagus estuary (and past the Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge). You get a good view of the city and the even bigger, (longest in Europe) Vasco da Gama Bridge as the plane lands. The Belem Tower is suitably photogenic and the Jerónimos Monastery is one of the most beautiful ecclesiastical buildings I have ever seen. The tracery is absolutely exquisite. Our bus tour guide tells us that JK Rowling lived in Lisbon for a while and probably based Harry Potter on the city. I bite my tongue.
The old town, Alfama with its pastel coloured buildings is a must for a wander. We eventually work out how to follow the winding narrow streets up to imposing São Jorge Castle, for great views of the terracotta roofs and the rivers. Many of the facades are gorgeously covered in the azulejos (tiles) for which Portugal is famous and there are also ceramic murals. It’s the festival of St Anthony and the streets are lined with stalls and bedecked with pennants, adding to the festival atmosphere. There are crowds drinking amicably and watching the international football in the larger squares. Fountains and statues abound. I think we probably have had a good stab at most of the hills by the end of two days.
Lunch is ice cream - what else - and evening meals are fish of many kinds, in the local taverns or the al fresco bars.
The next day involves a bus trip to Porto to pick up the boat. This isn’t any old bus. The seats are so wide apart I can fully recline mine - if I want to - and there is fully functioning Wi-Fi. There’s a welcome stop at Coimbra, the equivalent of Oxford and Cambridge in Portugal. The sky is azure and the ornate roofs are shown off to their best advantage, rosy and bejewelled. Students pose for pictures in their black witchy gowns and we are fed fascinating trivia knowledge:
- The capes are highly esteemed and symbolic and have cuts inflicted on them, -made by teeth (I think I got that right?). Left hand side for family, right for friends, middle for lovers. You pay homage by inviting someone to walk on it at family events such as weddings.
- Freshmen are called donkeys – burros.
- The ancient library is highly gilded with gold from Brazil. They keep bats in the library to eat the lice which might damage the books and they cover the tables at night to catch the bat droppings
We embark at Porto to find another festival in full swing. This time it’s St John of Porto and Midsummer combined. There are raucous groups all along the river banks. The local endearing customs from Portugal involve long stemmed garlic flowers that you try and ram up someone’s nose and plastic hammers with which to bop passers-by on the head. None too gently, unless you bob quickly. The fireworks, bang (see what I did there) in front of our boat at midnight are more welcome. The best views of Porto are also to be found from our decks, but we take to the hills again. More tiles, the finest are in the station, churches and markets. The most renowned shops sell the salted dried cod, bacalao, it’s pegged up in lines outside. One café offers delicious little fried potato dumplings stuffed with the cod, an irresistible mid-morning snack. The south bank of the river is lined with warehouses and wine caves selling port. Most of them clearly have English heritage reflected in their names.
Back on the boat there is more excitement. The river is flowing fast to the sea and small flocks of seagulls take turns to squat together on the wavelets and race past. At the bend they fly back and start again. When they get bored the salmon take over and do the same thing, leaping along.
The vessel is palatial. Our cheapest-on-offer cabin is dinky, but has everything we need. There is sustenance available at all times in the shape of the ubiquitous Granny Smith or, the more tempting cakes and biscuits. Lunch is snacks, soup and salad or a full three course meal. Sue is delighted to discover that chips in baskets and ice cream is a possibility every day.
The boat finally sets off on its 100 mile voyage up the Douro (River of Gold) to the border with Spain, but we are not on it. A side trip to medieval Guimares, is offered. Yet another festival – this time most of the townsfolk are garbed in medieval costume and there are markets and much frolicking, including a mock battle.
River of Gold, Portugal
We join the boat upriver for a traditional fado performance (exceptionally mournful singing) and dinner at a monastery. We then cruise slowly onwards through the glorious port wine country, mostly hills and vineyards of various emerald to buttery yellow hues. There are ample locks and bridges to inspect. The boat is really cleverly designed. When we pass under a low obstacles the whole of the bridge collapses into the deck below. The captain just stays in his seat, steering. I don’t understand why he doesn’t turn into a replica of Flat Stanley. Every so often we decamp to visit an ancient village, bakeries, vineyards or a port merchant’s palace. The Mateus Palace and gardens are especially resplendent.
The average age of the passengers on board is probably seventy. A sizeable proportion are American. There is an entertainment team at our disposal and plenty to do on board other than sunbathing. (It’s a very acceptable temperature, but surprisingly windy up top at times.) There is a daily bulletin full of information. It suggests that there are six famous people from Portugal. 'Only six?' we wonder. But we get stuck after Jose Mourinho and Vasco da Gama.
Then the boat turns round at the Spanish border (there's a side trip to Salamanca) and retreats down the Douro to Porto, cleverly mooring at different places on the way back. Before we leave there is the usual captain’s dinner. Much to the envy of the American contingent the captain and the hotel manager come and sit with Sue and I. We attempt to entertain them by telling them about all the famous people they have on board. There is one woman who could pass for Liz Taylor (in a certain light) and another is a dead ringer for Angela Merkel. In fact we have to check that Angela is really still in Germany. It’s a very quick turnaround for the hard pressed crew. They speed our leaving from the now familiar quay at Porto, as the buses containing the next week’s trippers are already on their way.