A Travellerspoint blog


Lisbon, Porto, the Douro River, and Beyond

View 2019 on mrb430's travel map.

Oh Portugal, we wanted to love you. But as I sit on our balcony in Porto looking at the Douro River covered in fog and clouds I am in wool socks and a down jacket while the rest of Europe is in a heat wave. Your beauty is undeniable, your people are friendly and speak English, your residency requirements are easy but your food and your weather (two of the most important aspects for us) leave a bit to be desired.


Like much of Europe, the cable TV has American content. Unlike most of Europe, it is not dubbed but rather subtitled in Portuguese! As a result, many people learn English from TV and almost everyone here speaks some English. It doesn't hurt that they get a ton of British tourists.

Coimbra is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe and the students here still wear the traditional cloaks. They inspired J.K. Rowling to cloak her Harry Potter characters in similar ones.

Portugal is hilly, mountainous even. We had no idea that virtually the entire country is rolling hills and a range of mountains that even my parents from Colorado were impressed by. Makes for beautiful scenery and challenging walks!

The Portuguese have a serious animosity/inferiority complex towards the Spanish. I can't tell you how many times I heard some disparaging remark about the Spanish - usually said in that "I'm kidding" sort of way where they're really not. Apparently it comes from the many wars and battles between the two historically but I'm thinking in modern times it's also a bit of a defense mechanism to say "hey - we might be small but we count!" Conversely, I'm not sure the Spanish think about the Portuguese much except maybe as a nice place to visit.


Lisbon is a beautiful, historic, and very hilly city worthy of a visit if you find yourself in Portugal. Built among seven hills on the Tagus River, the city spreads up from Praça do Comércio (Commercial Plaza - above) onto each of the hills with the São Jorge Castle dominating the view.

And through the Rua Augusta Arch (which you can and should go to the top of) into the pedestrian streets of Baixa. large_IMG_1429.JPGlarge_ebc3f850-9a54-11e9-ae89-df7fe2e0ab07.JPG

The streets of the oldest quarters are narrow, winding things while the newer areas are full of wide boulevards. The oldest area and the only one to survive the massive Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 is called Alfama and the "streets" and stairwells are a maze of history. The best way to see it is on foot, via the trolleys that navigate its "wider" streets, and the ever present tuk-tuks that zoom up and down the hills.
Hold on! Those tub-tuk drivers are crazy!

If you can, time your visit for June. During the entire month Lisboa è Festa is underway with open area parties organized in each neighborhood almost every night. The streets are festooned with streamers and there are open-air food and bar stands and of course sardines over wood fires!

In the evenings, at the bigger ones, there is live music and dancing.

We stayed in the neighborhood called Barrio Alto where a party begins every night about 10 PM and lasts well into the morning. It's a fun vibe with everyone standing in the streets drinking and socializing. The bars are tiny and really just there to house the live music and serve the drinks. The party is in the streets.


My parents joined us in Lisbon and we began our touring with Viking of the Douro River. It was so nice to spend the week with them and share the experiences and travel. SO glad they could come! As I write this, they are now in Barcelona exploring that city before another cruise in the Mediterranean. Now as ever, they are our role models!

Before leaving Lisbon, we visited the Belem Tower and the Jerónimos Monastery. We also toured Alfama and took a tuk-tuk ride (see picture above).

The highlight though was the river itself. Divided into three main sections, the first closest to Porto and the most developed, the second that has the majority of vineyards for port and wine, and the third that is highlighted by narrow gorges, it is some of the most beautiful scenery we have seen.

Part of the fun is going through the five locks along the river. A first for Scott and I, it was really cool!

My parents did the included tours every single day but Scott and I only made it to a few. The ones we did we really enjoyed: a trip to the Aveleda Winery, the Mateus Palace at Regua, and Salamanca.

I have been drinking Vinho Verde from AvEleda since I was in my twenties so when I saw it was on the itinerary I had to go. It was a beautiful trip as the winery is set amongst rolling romantic gardens that had their hydrangea collection in full bloom.
I made Scott pose with this one so you could see they are bigger than his head!

It was also filled with lakes and little buildings that were beautiful.

And the cellar tour and wine tasting was very interesting!

This is a picturesque palace with an amazing formal rose garden. Lucky us! June is roses month!

The furthest point on the river that we traveled to was only five kilometers from the Spanish border. As a result, we took a day trip to Salamanca, Spain. And for the record, it was warm and sunny and the food was great! Haha! Serendipitously, Scott and I were also able to re-up our phone plans and pick up some medicine.

Salamanca is a beautiful city they call the "gold city" because it is built out of sandstone that oxidizes into a beautiful gold color.

Another highlight is one of the oldest Roman bridges in Europe.

Definitely put this on your radar for a visit to Spain and/or Portugal. I wished we had more time there.


I've learned to never say never but it will be a very long time before we do another river cruise. Although I was skeptical going in, I tried to keep an open mind. Many of you have heard me say I'd never do a cruise (remember never say never) but I thought it would be a great way to spend time with my parents so when they suggested it, we went for it. You've seen the good parts of the cruise above. The river was beautiful and peaceful. The places we visited pretty and interesting. But...

It was a shock to our systems. After being just the two of us for so long, we were thrust into a group of 103 other people in close quarters who were all on their vacation and anxious to chat and get to know each other. It was like going from the hot tub to the snow bank! After getting our schedule down for so many months, you know waking up late, sitting about until noon, exploring our surroundings leisurely, we found ourselves in a world where the perky voice of your program director comes into your stateroom at 8:30 AM reminding you your tour is leaving in fifteen minutes, getting on buses, getting off buses, following a tour guide with a little sign as you speed past the highlights, having the tour guide talking in your ear constantly through the wonders of the audio earpieces, and having every waking moment scheduled. From the time you eat, to the time you socialize, to the times you are entertained, it is all scheduled. We just don't do schedules anymore and it was really disconcerting.

Add to that, Scott was sick most of the time and stuck in the stateroom. He was miserable. The internet was mediocre so he didn't have much to do except binge-watch Clint Eastwood movies (the only real TV station they had was having a marathon apparently). Not sure what it is with him and boats but his track record is not good! This left me on my own to navigate this new and strange world and it had the makings of disaster. In the end, I opted out of a lot of tours and activities and just enjoyed being on the ship alone while everyone was gone. I woke up late, made my own schedule, and recharged for the return of my new 103 best friends. And here I have to give a shout out to the group of six Brits that adopted me the last two days. If you guys are reading this, you know who you are. If not for them, I'm not sure how I would have made it to the end without a total meltdown. So a HUGE thank you to their generosity and kindness. And also to the bartender and musician who gave some semblance of normalcy to my evenings.

I DID get to spend some good, quality time with my parents, though not as much as you might think given the long bus rides and crazy schedules. Next time, I think we should just rent an apartment and hang out together! For sure the food would be better if we cooked it ourselves. We thought the one thing we could count on was a cruise having good food but this cruise even undermined that assumption. My parents and Scott assure me it's better on the big boats but I remain skeptical. And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.


The cruise departed and arrived back to Porto and Scott and I are spending another four nights here before heading to France.

It's our favorite city in Portugal as it combines the beauty of the tiled buildings and narrow pedestrian streets with a sizable city built around the riverfront. Oh, and it doesn't hurt we're off the boat and into our own apartment.

So far we've ventured to the grocery store and to the local cafe but mostly are sitting on our porch catching up on life.

If we ever get out and about exploring before we leave, I'll post a few more pictures.


I really would be remiss though if before I close I didn't mention the amazing Portuguese tiles called Azulejos. They cover the outsides of buildings, the inside and outside of churches and palaces, they are decoration and story-telling. There is even an amazing museum dedicated to them in Lisbon. For 500 years they have been a part of the story of Portugal and their development over that period is a story unto itself and an interesting one at that.

Well the fog has burned off and the sun is out and themes are warming. Time to end and get out and about for awhile. Don't forget to follow us @arrradventures on Instagram for more frequent updates. Next up, Montpellier France and our plans for the fall!

Posted by mrb430 04:46 Archived in Portugal Comments (1)

Impressions of Sintra, Portugal

And Thoughts on Being a Traveler Not a Tourist

View 2019 on mrb430's travel map.


This has come to be a significant difference for us as we strive to live in other countries. Let me explain.

Arriving in Sintra, Portugal was like landing in a town-sized amusement park. It is filled with tour groups, long lines of tourists waiting for buses and to enter attractions, and overpriced cafes all offering the same fare. Don't get me wrong, it is a beautiful town but here is where the difference between being a traveler and a tourist comes into play. We've been doing this long enough now that we are very used to the life of travelers. In other words, staying in different houses and making them our own, balancing eating out with eating in, finding the local things to do and ways to live, taking local transportation, and seeing the tourist sights when and if the mood strikes us. We no longer feel the need to visit every palace, every fort, or every [insert tourist site here] in every place we visit. We often want to just hang out and read, walk the streets "shopping", or sit in the sun with a glass of something. Getting out of the house before noon is unusual and we even spend entire days lounging around our "house" sometimes. This is what it means to live on the road.

The problem when we land somewhere that is so touristy is that we can't find a grocery store, the local transport is crammed with tourists not knowing what they're doing, there are no locals around to interact with and very few, if any, local establishments (aka cheaper and more authentic). You are bombarded by loud, impolite people at every corner and groups walking 3-4 abreast on the sidewalks oblivious to you coming the other direction. Also, housing is much more costly and usually not as nice (for what we can afford), which means not nice to just hang out in.

So, we end up hanging out in the most out of the way place we can find until late afternoon when the tourists are getting back on their buses and then heading out to explore and see a sight or two. I'm sure this may sound snobby. Believe me, I know how fortunate we are to be able to travel the way we do. And I certainly wouldn't want to discourage anyone from being a tourist (although please try to be considerate of others when you are). When you're on vacation, you want the ease of tours and to see the main sights of everywhere you go. You're in a rush. And we used to do that, too. In fact, we will be doing it again as we do our river cruise on the Douro River with my parents this week.

It's just that now constantly interacting with people that are in a rush, on a deadline, and often a little lost can be tiring, stressful, and frustrating when all you want is a relaxing cup of coffee in a quiet cafe before you start your day or to stroll slowly down the street from your house to that cafe without having to elbow your way through. This could be an American "personal space issue" but as we are American and we do consider forcing others off the sidewalk rude, it's irksome. I will admit I've come to a point where I just keep walking at them and will actually run into them if they don't make space. I learned this in Malaga as it's the norm there and while I feel distinctly un-American it also makes me feel like I'm winning small victories for civility every time I do it. We've already started veering more and more away from these places and this way of travel and you will likely see that trend continue in our future.

And then there are the social media effects and, in my mind, they are twofold. And let me first say that I know we participate heavily in social media and so are as much to blame as anyone at this point. The first issue is that so many of the most famous places to visit anywhere you go are heavily represented in gorgeous, photo-shopped photos on the internet. If you look at too many of these in your research, eventually getting to the real thing can be a let down. In a way, you've already been there so you kind of say "yeah, looks just like the photos". I would really suggest you avoid this by using tour guides more and the internet less.

The second issue is all of the people at all of these sites trying to recreate these awesome photos for their own social media posts. The endless posing and the seeming lack of interest in the thing itself other than for its InstaGram-worthiness is unsettling. It also leads people to be very selfish. They seem oblivious to others that are taking pictures and will walk through or stop in the middle of someone else's shot to get their own. This could also be an American "personal space issue" but nevertheless. I think its this quest for the best photo that makes people fall off the edge of the Grand Canyon viewpoint - Darwin Award anyone? For us, it means taking a lot less pictures at these "prime" spots, trying to focus on why we came and what the history is instead of on getting the best photos. It also drives us to the less touristy and more out of the way things to see. You may see these changes in our future posts.

Ok, enough on that. Just wanted to share some of the reality of choosing life on the road, trying to actually live in the places we visit, and the implications.


But, like I said, Sintra is a beautiful place with an interesting history and many fine sights. Sintra, as with most of the Iberian Peninsula, was first inhabited very early and changed ownership with the Romans, Moors, and Catholics among many others over time. Because of the devastating Lisbon earthquake in 1755, not much is left from these periods except the ruins of the Moorish Castle that dominates one of the tallest hills...

...and the Palace of Sintra that started as a moorish palace and dominates the town square with its two iconic towers.

The small streets, winding walkways, and beautiful old walls are likely also a result of the moorish influence.

Sintra today is the result of Portuguese and European aristocracy rediscovering Sintra in the early 19th century and building their summer palaces (huge houses) there. This was the height of the Romantic Period of architecture and literature and the cooler climate and green mountains appealed to those tastes. We could see why. Sintra is built among the towering hills of the Sintra mountains and the roads and walkways are steep and winding. It makes for incredible views as the various palaces peek out in layers up the hillsides.

The two we visited were the Pena Palace and the Quinta da Regaleira. One of the best parts of the Romantic influence is all of the huge gardens and green landscapes associated with it, which turned out to be our favorite parts.

The Pena Palace was built by Ferdinand II and is the height of Romantic Architecture. It's at the very top of the highest hill and the trip up on the bus is along a very narrow, winding road through green gardens and forests. It is a fairy tale palace of color and texture. Everywhere you look you think "this is the vision of a palace that a little girl has in her fairy tale dreams".

It was so windy and cold at the top of this highest peak that we felt we would be blown from the ramparts! We were happy to head away from the crowds and down into the enchanted gardens. They imported plants from all over the world such as giant Sequoias and Australian Tree Ferns. It is a fabulous place and so worth a visit!

This palace is especially nice because you can walk to it from town. The palace is beautiful with richly detailed carvings inside and out.

But again the gardens were the highlight.

There are towers and plazas and two grotto systems that travel from one place to another in the gardens through tunnels underground. To enter one, you climb down into the famous Initiation Well. The design and execution are as detailed as for the house.

Yes, the pools are literally covered in violent-green algae. Made it a little surreal like there was a carpet you could walk out onto.

All in all Sintra is worth a visit as long as you know what you're getting into. We moved on to Lisbon and are really enjoying the city and again being in a place large enough to absorb the tourists and give us space to move and live. As an aside, the only place we've visited so far that Scott can really see himself living for any extended period of time is Amsterdam, DESPITE THE CRAP WEATHER. I think a large part of that is that it absorbs the tourists well and there is so much area that's really beautiful but outside the main tourist zone that you can be a "local". Stay tuned for more on Lisbon in our next post.

Don't forget to follow us on InstaGram @arrradventures for more frequent updates.

Posted by mrb430 03:51 Archived in Portugal Comments (3)

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