Porto and Northern Portugal

The Drive:
From Salamanca to Felguiras, Portugal = 3.5 hours.  From Oporto (Porto) to Felguiras = 40 minutes.

If you’re flying into Porto and staying there, most of what you will want to see is within an hour from you.  The exception is the twisty Douro river which extends from Porto all the way into Spain, so depending on what point you are looking for, a drive to a Quinta (port vineyard), could be quite far.

Most of the local highways are toll roads.  In our travels, we averaged 5 Euros each way every day.

The highways system is relatively new and there are many parts still under construction.  This is good because these roads are much straighter cutting through the valleys and avoiding the motion sickening curviness of the mountain roads.  Unfortunately, my GPS had no clue where I was going most of the time.  My iPhone did a little better.  Stupid me didn’t pack a paper map.  I would recommend updating your GPS software, purchasing the most current paper map you can find, and looking on google earth or mapquest to see where you are going and get an idea of the main roads before you head out.  The new roads did cut over an hour off our time just getting to Porto.

The Scenery:  
Portugal is extraordinary.  Rugged, mountainous, beautiful.  Old farm houses on terraced slopes, green fields of sheep, a small herd of goats on a twisty 2-lane road barely big enough for one blocking traffic.  The highway views themselves are amazing and if you end up on a long stretch of twisty-turny, stomach-churning narrowness, your stomach may revolt, but your camera will be pleased.  Rustic quaintness embodied.  The stretch along the river Douro evoked a collective “Wow” from all of us. 

The Time:
Portugal is 1 hour behind Germany and most of Spain.

The Lodging:
Quinta da Nora, our modern, 4-bedroom, 4-bathroom home on a small kiwi farm in Felgueiras was absolutely perfect (we stayed there a week).  It is modern, clean, beautifully furnished, and fully stocked with a very nice kitchen.  There is a small play structure for kids, a nice pool, and a patio with outdoor furniture.  The gardener lives there in the next small house and only speaks Portuguese, but is very helpful and available to fix anything if there is a problem. The laundry room is separate and rustic though very functional.  There is also an old stone home on the property that comes with the rental as well.  It is a bit musty due to it’s age, but it is clean and nicely decorated. 

If you stay in Felgueiras, go to local recommended Restaurante Sta Quiteria or the more informal Restaurante Carvalhinhos.

The Culture: 
Braga is Portugal’s more traditional religous center and the place to be on the week before Easter for the beautiful processions there.  On Easter Sunday, you’ll find restaurants and bakeries in the city center open and people out enjoying the sun.  Fireworks begin early and continue all day long.

On Sundays all year you will find many shops open and restaurants open. 

It seems more rustic — more rooted in culture, less modern.  You’ll see the older people dressed very traditionally with scarves and long layered stockings.  I even saw a lady carrying a large filled basket on her head walking down the street.

Family friendly, Portuguese families are out at all times enjoying the sun.  There area  lot of public parks and playgrounds and people will gather here to visit.

The Weather:
The Portuguese say they have “nine months of winter and three months of hell.”  April was perfect.  I suspect that the harvest in October would be reasonable.  In the summer, however, the temperatures can exceed 40 degrees centigrade, hence the aforementioned expression.  Safe to say you don’t want to go there then unless you’re at the beach or have a pool.  It does get hotter as you travel inland even along the Duoro where the Port grapes are grown.

The Towns:

Barcelos:


Known for the “Barcelos Cock,” a symbol of luck known all over Portugal, on Thursdays you’ll find one of the largest weekly outdoor markets in Europe.  It’s amazing.  Filling the Campo da República in the city center, here you can shop, absorb the sights and smells that are uniquely Portugal, and visit the old town with its monuments and churches.

The market has a bit of everything:  breads and pastries, cheeses and ham, fresh produce, chickens, rabbits and exotic birds, cow bells, rope, clothing and baskets, beautiful embroidered linens at reasonable prices, terracotta pottery sold ridiculously cheap, and the infamous rooster that makes the town famous.  The cool thing about this rooster is that half of them are “unbreakable”  made of hand-painted metal, so no amount of moving will destroy it!

If you love people and enjoy seeing the unique dress and look of different cultures, you’ll love it here.  Many vendors are old – 70’s, 80’s… may be older.  They are small and wrinkled wearing layers and layers on a day that I felt warm in a light jacket.  Simple shoes, wooly socks, skirts, sweaters, aprons, scarves around their heads, bright, animated eyes, laughter and smiles.  The ladies look like a storybook nonna.  Nothing modern, nothing frivolous, yet life in their eyes that implies an interesting story or a shrewd bit of wisdom.

On one side of the Campo is old town and the Bon Jesus.  Two large roosters stand apart in the open plaza there, symbols of their city and country alike.  The old buildings touch each other – tall structures with balconies and colorful tile facades.  Everything is clean and bright.   There is a garden and a shady area just to the left and beyond that a simple cafe with outdoor seating that serves really delicious french fries, sandwiches, ice cream, and good coffee among other things.

Grocery in Barcelos:
E.Leclerc
Lugar de Vessadas
4754-909 Barcelinhos
A nice grocery store with a bit of everything.  They do not permit photography in their store, especially in the fish market.  CC friendly.

Braga:

The Bon Jesus:  In the hills above Braga is this Catholic pilgrimage site overlooking the city.  It is a “must see” place.   Breathtaking.  No, this isn’t “just another church,” and really, you don’t even have to go inside.  Just walk.  The grounds and gardens are beautiful.  A long staircase cascades down the hill with a series of different fountains at each level and beautiful statues.  The details are almost overwhelming.  There’s a water powered tram that will take you from the bottom to the top, but the stairs are easy and fun.  Kid friendly, this is a place where they can run a bit.  There’s a “cave” of sorts, a nice cafe with a fantastic view serving snacks and drinks, and, if you walk up the little path behind the church, you’ll find a small lake where you can rent a rowboat for 30 minute increments. 
Pack a picnic.  You could easily spend the whole day here just exploring and relaxing.  Portuguese couples did just that while I was there.  If you’re short on time, you can get there, walk down and up the staircase, skipping the little lake in an hour.  The inside of the church is small, so won’t take long and there is a nice souvenir shop, but the prices are higher than you’ll find in Barcelos or Porto.  There are two roads leading up to the church, so if you find yourself on an extremely narrow steep residential road, do know that a very wide, tourist friendly road isn’t far off.  You just have to find it.  ;)

Sameiro:  Another of Portugal’s pilgrimage sites, this beautiful church is only 3km away from the Bon Jesus and has an even better panoramic view of the area.

In the city of Braga, there are many, many churches and a very nice pedestrian-only city center.   In the main square there is a McDonalds in addition to the many other eateries.  You’ll also find a great bakery just off the square on the main street.  Parking isn’t too difficult and there are plenty of men walking around looking for tourists.  They will point out a parking spot for you and help you park, but do expect a small tip for it.


Towns Recommended by locals:
  • Amarante is a charming medieval town with a nice golf course
  • Guimarães is known as the “birthplace” of Portugal (I’m sooo sad I missed this one!).  Here you can see Castelo, a 10th century castle considered the cradle of Portugal, the old town center listed as a UNESCO world heritage site,  the Pousada de Sta Marinha (both historical and a favorite restaurant of locals),  the Acquapark which is small, but clean, and the Penha church where you can take a cable car for another great view.  Favorite restaurants include:  Restaurante Marisqueira Londrina – fabulous,  Restaurante Villa Fiori – wood oven pizzas,  Restaurante Pousada de Sta Marinha – historical monument and 5 star hotel, Restaurante Monte dos Leitões – delicious wood roasted suckling pig “Baiirrada style,” and Restaurante Baptista – delicious portuguese cuisine.
  • Vigo – Port town in Galicia, Spain  (The Spanish border isn’t far away)
  • Santiago de Compostela – An absolutely stunning town and Catholic pilgrimage site.  Worth the drive if you have extra time.

The Beaches:

Esposende:

50 kilometers north of Porto, this is where the river Cavado meets the Atlantic ocean.  A fishing town, it is small, simple, yet beautiful.

Down a small pedestrian ally across from the church, you’ll find fancy chocolate shops and boutiques and cafes.  Front and center, at the water’s edge, there is a nice grassy area and a huge playground where families spend their afternoons.  It’s a very quiet, comfortable place to spend an afternoon for stress-free travel.

The beach is nice and quiet.  You won’t find a lot of shells, but the sand is nice.  There’s a large pile of boulders on the river side with hidden “rooms” for kids to play in.  The large beach side restaurant on the north end of the town is convenient and decent.  I recommend the pizzas and milkshakes.  Steer clear of the large onion covered fish.  It looks and smells a lot better than it tastes.

Restaurant recommendations from locals:  
Restaurante Bar da Praia at Praça das Lampreias – stunning location, modern cuisine includes pizzas, but also portuguese dishes
Restaurante Hotel Suave Mar – Great portuguese food, strongly recommended

Beaches Recommended by locals:

  • Povoa do Varzim – beach resort featuring a classy CASINO
  • Ofir – Close to Esposende, this stunning beach is surrounded by lovely pine forests
  • Leça – Near Porto, this is the site of a famous Tea House designed by world renowned architect Siza Vieira.  If you go here, eat at:  Restaurante Os Rapazes for fabulous seafood.
  • Moledo – Very close to Spain, this beach attracts the Spanish as well as the Portuguese
  • Afife – Close to Viana do Castelo
  • Praia da Luz ‘- a favorite spot in Porto
  • Cortegaça – This fishermen’s town lies to the South of Porto – “simply a little treasure waiting to be discovered”

The River Douro:

Like Germany’s Mosel, this river winds between vine covered hills creating an absolutely stunning view, but an often painfully long drive.  There are many new roads which make getting around easier, but to drive any real distance along this river could take a very long time due to the narrow roads and many curves.

That being said, go there.  If you like Port wines, find a quinta and visit.  The area is worth a look and the local vineyards are a lot of fun to visit.

My suggestion?  Quinta do Tedo near Vila Seca.  (2 hours from Felgueiras)

I don’t know if you could find a more perfect spot.  The tasting room looks towards the valley of vine covered hills rising up from a smaller river, the Rio Tedo.  It pools wide in this place, calm, more lake-like than river.  Everything here is done by hand or horse or feet.  All organic and done the way it’s been done for years.  Behind the Tedo lies the great River Douro which is the view from the back side of the tasting room and the “cellars” below it.

The owners are Vincent and Kay Bouchard.  Vincent is from a long line of French wine makers.  Kay is Californian.  They are both very friendly and welcoming as are their staff who speak English well.   Come in the fall to pick grapes and, if you’re lucky, see the traditional “lagar” – stomping of the grapes which is still done by foot.

At this Quinta, you can taste wine, port, and olive oil and it’s all delicious!  Free shipping to Germany for orders over 100.

Close to Vila Seca is Pinhao with the “most beautiful train station in Portugal” which is pretty and simple, but not worth the drive unless you’re close already.  Other than the train station and the pretty drive to get there, there isn’t much to see.

Peso dá Régua is a nice larger town.  There’s a long building along the main road riverside with several different restaurants and shops inside.  In the center, there is a run down shop full of oddities including the old baskets that are still used by many vineyards to collect the grapes.

The Port, Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia:

Vila Nova de Gaia

Just opposite the river from Porto lies Vila Nova de Gaia, the mirror of Porto from where you can appreciate the grace and beauty of this Portuguese city more than from within the city itself.  This is where the port rooms are and this is where you can lose yourself in the stunning views of Porto itself.

If you like Port wines or want to try them, come here.  All the biggest names in port wine have cellars and tasting rooms here.  Many wines are even produced right here, the grapes transported from the quintas farther east down the river, stomped here, stored here, and bottled here.

The tiny streets are difficult if not impossible to navigate, narrow, winding lanes with stone walls on either side allowing no room for driver error, so a larger car will boast “battle scars” from a trip well taken.  Better to park below and walk – there is a nice parking garage right next to the river. 

If you know nothing about port, you’ll be fine.  Take a tour or two and you’ll be an expert by the third tasting.

Grahams is owned and run by the Symington family, and is, according to our tour-guide, the only family run Port producer in Portugal.  A tasting includes a free tour where you’ll see a short movie about the history of port wine and Grahams then walk through the cool dirt floored rooms of barrels and through the families cellar to see their private collection.  The tasting room is large and very classy, but the staff are friendly and the entire experience is very kid friendly.
Taylor’s also has a cellar tour and a very nice tasting room.  There is a nice garden with Japanese chickens and peacocks running free just behind the tasting room, a nice diversion for restless young children.  For arguably the best view of Porto, dine on the patio of the restaurant where the prices are a bit high, but the food and service are well worth it.  If you like duck, try the duck in port sauce with a delicious spinach and garbanzo bean puree (Magret de Pato con molho de frutas vermelhos e Vinho do Porto, quenelles de grao de bico e espinafe).  Really flavorful and delicious.

For more port tasting, just walk along the waterfront.  There you’ll find many tasting rooms (Warre’s, Sandeman’s, Cockburns, etc) and maps to find more hidden along the hillside.  Traditional boats are ready to take you for a river cruise.  Most of these are free for children and include a tour or tasting at one of the tasting rooms.  There are small cafes, ice cream shops, a small play ground, and a small grassy area here as well, so it’s a nice walk.   From this side, you can easily walk to the large steel blue bridge that spans the Duoro and find yourself in Port for more tasting and another day of things to do.

Porto
Porto is absolutely beautiful and I had very little time. It is profoundly sad.  Just go and wander.  Up on top of the hill are so many beautiful places to explore, you could easily spend a couple days if you want to see everything, but then, just walking and soaking it in is nice too.

The waterfront or “Ribeira” is easily the most iconic spot in Porto and one of the most touristic.  It’s an easy stroll along the water by beautiful old buildings and through a maze of tiny alleys lying just behind.  There are some real treasures here.  For dining right there along the water, go to Chez Lapin, a local icon for over 70 years.  The food is absolutely delicious and the service exceptional.

Chez Lapin
Rua dos Canastreiros, 40-42, Porto 4050
Phone: 22-200-64-18
*The Coelho Chez Lapin and the Novilho V. Porto are both very good!  Plus my girls loved the tuna that they bring out as an appetizer and they were great about bringing out more.  My youngest ate that with bread as her meal and was very happy.  CC friendly.

If you are a boat collector or just think a completely handmade wooden ship would be cool, walk along the Rue Da Fonte Taurina, a narrow alley just off of the Placa da Ribeira.  There’s a tiny little shop here where you can see a father and son working together creating these absolutely beautiful works of art.  Wonderful ships both traditional to Porto and grander.  They take cash only, but can ship and do package their boats very, very well.

Great souvenir shop:
O’ Cantaro
A Lada 50/56; Porto
In a narrow ally behind the riverfront shops in that first block near the bridge.  This place has exquisite pottery, jewlery, and a myriad of other tempting finds.  Great prices and friendly service as well.  CC friendly.

Other places to see in Porto:

  • Jardim do Palacio de Cristal:  A beautiful garden on top of one of Portos hills.
  • Torre dos Clérigos
  • Estadio do Dragão – FC Porto’s stadium has a great shopping mall adjacent to it
  • City Center – praca liberdade
  • Mouth of Douro River – Foz Douro
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