When we reach Spain, on our Douro cruise, via a lengthy spectacular gorge, there is an extended day trip to Salamanca. (It's 50 miles from the Portuguese border). This is another university city, lying on several hills by the Tormes River. The University of Salamanca, which was founded in 1218, claims to be the third oldest western university, but boasts that it was the first to be given such status by the Pope, Alexander IV.
The history of Salamanca goes back to pre- Roman times. It was captured by Hannibal, rose to prominence as a hub in the Roman province of Lusitania, and then became a constant battlefield between Christian and Muslim forces, which did little for its population. It developed again, from the twelfth century onwards, as part of the Kingdom of Leon, and then Castile too, and with the growth of the University. The area is also famous for another significant battle - Wellington defeated the Napoleonic forces at Salamanca in 1812.
The architecture of Salamanca is ornate sandstone and there's a spire at the end of every street. These are narrow, leading inexorably to the main square, the Plaza Major, a haven of Baroque design. In 1988, the old city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are two cathedrals, the smaller old and the new. They're connected and you wind your way through, climbing up for views if you're so inclined.
The university buildings on their own are worth the trip. The intricate carvings are described as 'plateresque style'. Tourists are challenged to find the ‘frog on a skull’, above the main entrance, though no-one can explain his purpose. I'm not very good at spotting it and take a close up of the wrong skull. There are more carvings to admire on the Casa de las Conchas. This Gothic style, once knight's palace ( Rodrigo Arias de Maldonado) is covered with over 300 shell carvings. There are more places, some now used as civic offices.
A little further from the centre are the Museum of Art Nouveau and Deco (suitably modelled on the exterior), The Dominican Convent of St Stephen and more churches. There are also numerous pavement cafes and jamon bars.
Although there are plenty of marshals it takes a long time to round everyone up at the end of the day. One lady is totally lost and a couple confess that they didn't go in the cathedral because they couldn't find the entrance. I notice that they found one of the cafes and drank wine all afternoon, without any problem.
Read more about Spain here.
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 is one of the oldest cities in the world, and the second-oldest European capital city (after Athens), by a long way. Under Julius Caesar it was a municipium called Felicitas Julia, After the fall of the Roman Empire it was ruled by a series of Germanic tribes from the fifth century. In the eighth century. it was captured by the Moors In 1147, Afonso Henriques reconquered the city and became the first king of Portugal. Since then Lisbon has been the capital of Portugal.
Lisbon, 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 this part of the city and the even bigger, (longest in Europe) Vasco da Gama Bridge, as the plane lands.
The Jerónimos Monastery is one of the most beautiful ecclesiastical buildings I have ever seen. The Manueline tracery is absolutely exquisite. It was erected in the early fifteenth century near the launch point for Vasco da Gam's first expedition. The monastery became the burial site, or necropolis for the monarchs and for Da Gama too.
The highly photogenic sixteenth century Belem Tower (moved from a small island in the Tagus) marks the departure (and returning point, if they were lucky) for the many Portuguese explorer of that era. Close by is a more recent sculpture, the twentieth century Monument to the Discoveries, which does the same job. this one has statues of 33 renowned Portuguese exploders lining the sides, with Henry the Navigator taking pride of place, at the front.
An even more modern sculpture, is the triangular Monument to the Overseas Combatants. Its unmissable - in size and simplicity -and commemorates all the people involved who have fought for Portugal. Just over the road is another obligatory stop. A shops selling the famous Portuguese custard tarts, Pastéis de Nata.
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. It dates back to Moorish times, when it constituted the whole of the city. We eventually work out how to follow the winding narrow streets, past the cathedral, up to the imposing São Jorge Castle, Many of the facades are gorgeously covered in the azulejos (tiles) for which Portugal is famous and there are also some alarming ceramic murals. Cafes, restaurants, and tiny craft shops proliferate. As do the fado music bars, the mournful music wafting out. To be honest, I'm not sure it's enticng.
Saint George's Castle (Castelo de São Jorge) definitely lays claim to antiquity. Humans have lived on the castle hill since at least the 8th century BC, while the first fortifications built date from the 1st century BC. This hill has been occupied by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, and Moors, before Alfonso finally conquered the land. It's also a great view point across the city and the river.
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, especially down towards the port. Fountains, magnificent buildings and statues abound. I think we probably have had a good stab at most of the hills by the end of two days. There are several ornate lifts, spilling you out onto the terraces above. Not to mention funiculars, trams and buses if you get too weary.
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 or Cambridge in Portugal. Coimbra is the country’s former capital, home to a preserved medieval old town and the historic University of Coimbra and birthplace of six Portuguese kings. In the city’s old town lies the twelfth-century Romanesque cathedral Sé Velha
Built on the grounds of a former palace the university dates back to 1308. This, first Portuguese University, was relocated from Lisbon, where it was founded in 1290. The sky is azure and the ornate roofs and eighteenth-century bell tower. 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:
Porto (meaning harbour), at the mouth of the River Douro, is the second largest city in Portugal. Its English name, Oporto, derives from the Portuguese 'o Porto', which includes the definite article 'the'. We embark on our boat, 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 of the city again. Porto's medieval centre, along the Ribeiro (river) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The designation includes the double deck, huge iron gantries of the Luiz I Bridge, crossing the river here and the Monastery of Serra do Pilar perched up alongside it. The monastery has a circular church and cloister.
Further up the slope, more azulejos; the finest are in the station (Sao Bento), churches (São Francisco Church is known for its lavish baroque interior with ornate gilded carvings) and markets. There's also the reward of the good views across the red roofs of town. The most renowned shops sell the salted dried cod, bacalao, it’s pegged up in lines outside. One café offers delicious little fried potato fritters stuffed with the cod (Pastéis de Bacalhau), an irresistible mid-morning snack.
Descending again, the nineteenth-century Palácio de Bolsa, formerly a stock market, was originally built to impress potential European investors. The north bank of the river is a feast of colour. Ochre and cinnamon buildings, cafes and shops tucked into arches. The opposite side is lined with warehouses and arched wine caves selling port. Port wine, one of Portugal's most famous exports, is, of course, named after Porto. Most of the caves 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 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. This city goes back to the ninth century and is often referred to as the "birthplace of Portugal" because it is thought that Portugal's first King, Afonso Henriques, was born here. It was even, briefly, the first capital of Portugal.
There's a tenth century castle, with splendid crenellations and red turrets, two medieval plazas with cathedrals, churches and the town hall and the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza (also with red turrets). The Gothic Padrao do Salado monument with 4 arches & a cross commemorates a battle victory. There are also winding cobbled streets, cunning timber houses, craft shops and boutiques aplenty. And yet another festival. This time, most of the townsfolk are garbed in medieval costume and there are processions, markets and much frolicking, including a mock battle and people being placed in the stocks.
We join the boat upriver for dinner at a monastery with a traditional fado performance. So I haven't escaped one and yes it is definitely exceptionally mournful - it supposed to be women longing waiting for their men folk who are at sea. We then cruise slowly onwards through the glorious port wine country, mostly hills and vineyards of various emerald to buttery yellow hues. This is the world's first protected wine region, coming under the UNESCO umbrella.
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 a basket and ice cream is a possibility every day.
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.
The first stop proper is at Régua. The attraction here is the resplendently baroque Mateus Palace (just like it's depicted on the Mateus Rosé wine labels). This was the home of the last count of Vila Real. There's the manor, which is a euphemism for the grand seventeenth century palace, the chapel and a winery (of course).
It's set in gorgeous enchanting formal gardens: cedar-lined walkways, exquisite sculpted hedges and statuary and a alke deliberately designed to reflect the palace. Very clever.
Sailing east along the Douro. Dramatic, sheer rock formations, picturesque terraced vineyards, graceful bridges and trestles; There are also ample locks and bridges to inspect. It's utterly gorgeous. And the boat is really cleverly designed. When we pass under a low obstacle, 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.
To Barca d’Alva, not far from the Spanish border. Today's excursion is to Castelo Rodrigo, a historic fortified town (though it's not really big enough to be called a town), 2,200 feet above sea level. The streets are narrow and steep, and the houses sixteenth century. Sinagoga Street was the home of refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. The castle is really ancient - founded in the sixth century, when the land was part of Leon, if legends are to be believed. It's named after Count Rodrigo Gonzalez de Girón.
Then, the boat turns round at the Spanish border, at Vega de Terron, (there's a side trip to Salamanca) and retreats down the Douro to Porto, cleverly mooring at different places on the way back.
Retracing our route, west now, through the quintas (vineyards) to Pinhao. Up to the the little village of Favaios, and one of the last traditional bakeries in the Douro River Valley. Hot fresh bread and more wineries, naturally. Round here it's moscatel. The best part of this trip is the stunning views back down to the river.
We moor at Regua again, but this time we're visiting Lamego. The attraction in this small town is the Baroque Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies. The shrine, decorated with exquisite Moorish style has the most ornate (and steep) staircase, with many flights taking us, breathless, to the top. It dates back to the 14th century and is still used by pilgrims today. There's also the town’s Gothic cathedral and the ruins of a twelfth -century castle thrown in.
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.
Read more about Portugal here
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.