Portugal – the oldest wine region in the world

We had another few days relaxing, exploring and enjoying the company of newly made friends at O Tamanco campsite.  We visited the lovely hilltop castle at nearby Montemor-O-Velho, which is one of the most beautiful (and one of the largest) ruined castles we’ve seen so far in Portugal, with beautiful views over the surrounding marshlands, rice paddies and corn fields.  We did some lovely bike rides, through olive groves, vineyards, rice paddies and forests of eucalyptus and gum trees, past a wonderful ruined convent and also got out on the SUPs, although there was still no surf.

From there we headed north to the beautiful Alto Douro, where a network of narrow winding roads connect terraces of vines, olive trees and beautiful manor houses.  Wine has been made in the Douro valley for over 2000 years and it is in fact the oldest DOC wine region in the world and a(nother) UNESCO world heritage site.  Many of the grape varieties here are not found anywhere else, so it’s been interesting tasting and getting to know more about local varieties and, of course, Port.

The Douro river

The Douro river

We stayed in Amarante, which is on the Tamega river, in the next valley along, which is a great base for exploring the Douro wine region.  Amarante itself is a charming town, set around a medieval bridge, large church and monastery.  We loved the river, which was clean and deep with some great beach areas and swam every evening from the campsite beach.  Amarante is also a bit of a foodie destination, with delicious locally produced cheese, smoked meats and of course good wine.  We fell in love with a small local Taberna where no English was spoken, but which served up platters of meats, cheese and olives, delicious rye bread and very quaffable Vinho Verde wine.

From here we explored the winding, narrow roads of the Douro valley region and visited some of the more famous adegas (wineries), including Quinta da Aveleda, a wonderful estate set in magical gardens, founded in the 1600s and the 18th century Palacio de Mateus (which doesn’t in fact produce the well marketed Mateus rose, but has a completely different range of award winning wines) which is Portugal’s finest example of Baroque architecture, also set in wonderful formal gardens.  A real highlight was a magnificent train ride along the Douro river from Regua to Pocinho, one of the most stunning sections of the Douro, with terraced vineyards snaking up steep hillsides, beautiful white washed quintas, olive trees, passing through tiny train stations dotted along the way each covered in beautiful blue or yellow and blue tiles.

Portugal – the best campsite so far …

We’ve had a wonderfully relaxed week, in the best campsite of the trip so far, a wonderful Dutch run camp just inland from Figueira da Foz in the Beira Litoral.  We’ve met some wonderful people, hosted dinner parties and been invited out to dinner with others and explored the local area, both inland and along the coast.

Sadly just as I was beginning to hone my SUP surfing skills (yes, I managed to catch some waves in Baleal, near Foz do Arelho!) the sea has completely flattened out and there hasn’t been a wave in sight.  Although we’re now staying near the “never ending right break” of Figueira da Foz we haven’t yet had any waves and so have decided to stay another week here in the hope that conditions improve.  We’ve still been active, exploring the Roman ruins at nearby Conimbriga, Portugal’s most extensive and best preserved Roman ruins as well as the University town Coimbra.

The closest town, Lourical, has a large market on Sundays, where we’ve stocked up on local produce and breakfasted on toast and galao coffees (think latte with extra milk) with the locals.  We’ve also passed through nearby Rabacal, famous for its cheese which is delicious and explored Aveiro, home of the ovos moles (literally “soft eggs”) made of egg yolk and sugar encased in an egg shaped communion wafer.

Portugal – surf, Sintra and more medieval magic

Another week has gone by and we seem to have packed in a whole heap, having headed back to the coast to cool down!  Our first coastal stop was the surfing mecca Ericeira, home to several world qualifying series surf beaches and part of the World Surf Reserve.  It is a wonderful town, with a completely different feel to anywhere else we’d visited in Portugal so far.  We arrived the weekend when the Portuguese Surf Film Festival was being held and, as two of the films in the programme were South African, once the organisers found out we were South Africans we were included as virtual VIP guests, as we were the only South Africans in town.  Among the films we watched was the Festival winner, a wonderful Norwegian film North of the Sun, a beautifully filmed documentary about two film school graduates who went to live on a beach in the Arctic circle to surf for 6 months over winter; it was quite magical.  We were pleased that one of the South African films, Kushaya Igagasi, a short film documentary about a surf hostel and school set up in Durban to get street kids off the streets was also an award winner.

Ericeira itself is a lovely town, nestled on sandstone cliffs above some wonderful beaches and filled with whitewashed houses trimmed in blue.  It was certainly the most “happening” place we’ve been in for a while, packed with local weekenders, surfers and with a real party atmosphere.  We did laugh when chatting to one of the Australian film makers we met at the Film Festival, who, just after Leigh and I had been chatting about how lively Ericeira was, told us that he was taken aback by how sleepy it was!  He had just arrived from San Sebastian in Spain; it made us realise that our life on the road is certainly a world apart from our busy London lifestyle!  We got out quite a bit on the SUPs, at various beaches around Ericeira, with me enjoying the protected harbour area and Leigh honing his stand up surfing skills at Praia da Ribeira d’Ilhas, a world surf reserve beach.

From Ericeira we did a day trip to nearby Sintra, a weekend getaway destination for moneyed Lisboetas, who have been coming to Sintra to cool off in summer for centuries.  Yet another World Heritage site, it is quite enchanting: nestled in amongst verdant hills, topped by the walls of a ruined Moorish castle and with several fairytale like palaces dotted in amongst lush gardens and with sweeping views down to the sea, the town is a maze of cobbled streets winding past huge fantastical villas, some now ruined, with steep cobbled roads leading up to the various castles, palaces and convents tucked away in the forested hills.

We have now headed further north to the more laid back (and definitely sleepy) Foz do Arelho, on a wide lagoon which opens on to a long sandy beach.  We’ve enjoyed SUPing on the lagoon and have explored the neighbouring beaches of surfing hotspot Peniche as well as the wonderfully protected large bay at nearby Sao Martinho do Porto.  From here we’ve visited another Medieval gem, Obidos; more touristy than most of the other Medieval towns we’ve visited (no doubt due to its proximity to Lisbon), it is absolutely gorgeous: still completely surrounded by castellated walls which you’re able to walk around, it is a tumble of cobbled streets, whitewashed tile roofed cottages decorated in yellows and blues, high walled gardens covered by bougainvillea, wisteria and honeysuckle, beautiful churches and a hilltop castle.

We continue to be amazed by how much Portugal has to offer: the most varied and beautiful beaches we’ve seen in Europe, plenty of magnificent UNESCO World Heritage sites, dramatic scenery, castles on every hilltop, friendly people and great cakes and pastries!  It’s going to be hard to leave …

Portugal – Tomar and the Knights Templar

Yesterday was another milestone for us – 6 months since we left cold, wet London: we celebrated with a bottle of local bubbles; it certainly doesn’t feel as though we’ve been on the road that long!

3 July 2013: 6 months and still smiling!

3 July 2013: 6 months and still smiling!

We’ve had a wonderful, relaxing week at Camping Pelinos, in the Seven Hills National Forest 6kms outside Tomar.  Tomar is famous for being the seat of the Knights Templar, the order founded in the 1100s by French crusading knights to protect pilgrims, and which quickly became a symbol of Portugal.  The Order played a key role in Portugal’s history and became extremely wealthy thanks to, essentially, protection payments they received.  When the French king (Philip IV) began persecuting the Templar Knights, the King of Portugal played ball by dissolving the Templar Order in 1314, but soon reestablished it as the Order of Christ, which was instrumental in funding the Discoveries; in fact Prince Henry, who we first encountered in the Algarve, was Grand Master of the Order for nearly 40 years.

The amazing Convento de Cristo in Tomar was the headquarters of the Order and is perched on a hilltop overlooking the town.  It comprises a huge monastery, church and a castle and is an amazing mixture of styles, as it was added to and changed over the period from the 1200s to the 1500s.  We spent a (strangely enough rather cool) morning exploring it: it is everything you would expect with a fairytale like castle, surrounded by thick walls and with beautiful gardens and centered around the 16 sided church.  There are numerous cloisters, a huge, beautifully tiled wing containing dormitories and beautiful views over Tomar and the surrounding hills.

The Convento de Cristo was served by a large aqueduct, which was built in the 1500s.  It is at its most impressive about 2kms away from the Convento, where it spans the Pegoes valley in double decker arches, which you are able to walk along for about 1km, where it rises high above the valley.  We are frequently amazed by the town walls, castle fortifications and aqueducts such as this, where you are able to clamber and explore with not even a warning sign or safety rope – Portugal certainly does not share the UK’s views of strict health and safety practices!

We’ve also spent time at the nearby lake – a huge, manmade lake, the Castelo do Bode, which is the source of the main water supply to Lisbon, set in the forested hills of the Seven Hills National Forest.  It’s been the perfect anti-dote to the heat and we’ve had fun doing long swims and SUPing.