The Road Less Traveled: Portugal and Galicia
Updated: Jan 11
We visited Lisbon and Porto many years ago, but had never seen the rest of Portugal so our mission over five weeks was to see as much as we could cram in. We also decided to include Galicia as we had never been there, but have loved the other parts of Spain we have seen.
With all the publicity about lost luggage we tried something very new to us and that was traveling with just one carry-on each, an ambitious undertaking for a five-week trip. Since we travel alone, and were not spending more than three nights in any one place, we were not concerned about people seeing us in the same clothes over and over again. We were able to wash socks and underwear at nights when staying two or more days and they were dry by the next morning. Some places offered a laundry service too. In fact, it worked out perfectly, simplified life greatly, and, whenever possible, we will make it our new norm.
We landed in Lisbon not much before midnight to find an all but deserted airport and no lineup at passport control, so were through especially quickly. Not having to wait for a checked bag was a big bonus and we walked five minutes to the Airport Melia hotel (www.melialisboaaeroporto.com).
Our room on the seventh floor was nice and even had robes and slippers plus two mini-bottles of port and a box with four of the traditional Portuguese Pasteis (custard tarts), a very nice touch. The hotel starts the breakfast buffet at 4 a.m., which makes so much sense for an airport hotel and others should take note.
We had booked and pre-paid for a manual Peugeot 308 Diesel with GPS from EuropCar. The clerk gave us keys to the car when I fortunately asked if it had GPS and was told ‘no.’ I explained that I had booked and paid for it and since we would be driving thousands of kilometres, we really needed it. She then offered us two alternatives neither manual. One was an SUV which we didn’t want and the other a BMW One Series at an extra cost of €550. Why do rental companies always do this? As if this wasn’t enough, there was nobody from EuropCar in the parking lot to explain controls on the car, especially the GPS, or to check out any nicks and scratches.
Worked It All Out
Fortunately my wife is a genius at these things and soon worked it all out. If you’ve read any of our previous articles in this series, you’ll know that we always have detailed road maps and don’t rely solely on the GPS. This is essential in planning routes, but many GPS systems offer alternate routes with options of no toll roads or motorways. We headed out, avoiding the motorway as we try to do whenever possible, looking for twisty back roads with light traffic. Our first stop was at the Marriott Resort at the resort town of Praia D’El Rey (www.marriott.com/en-us/hotels/lisdr-praia-del-rey-marriott-golf-and-beach-resort/overview). The hotel is quite beautiful and rambles close to the seashore where they have lots of deck chairs and bar service.
The historic town of Obidos is about 20 kilometres away. Even from a distance you can see the walled city at the top of a hill. The entry way is through a long and crowded cobblestone alley lined with shops and restaurants. It’s very touristy, but fun. Before leaving we sat at a sidewalk cafe for lunch and had a whole bottle of local white wine for an outrageous €16. The wine was actually quite good, reminiscent of a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc but not as citrusy. Portugal has a reputation for being very good value and this, our first experience, proved it true. However, we had a very mediocre dinner at the hotel that night.
The next morning we drove to Alcobaca, a very interesting, historic town ‒ especially the cavernous, but austere, church and the adjacent enormous monastery.
We continued on to Nazare which supposedly has the largest waves in the world reaching 30 metres in the winter, but today they weren’t even 30 millimetres.
Left- The view from the clifftop walk at Peniche.
Right- Barnacles - a local delicacy.
We did not linger long as it was windy and cold, but continued on to Peniche where it’s really worthwhile parking and walking along the clifftop. There are several viewpoints with spectacular views of the waves crashing on the cliffs. Peniche is a fishing town and we dined at Profresco where you can select from a large display of today’s catch of fish and crustaceans (https://profresco.wixsite.com/profresco). We started with a local specialty of barnacles that while tasty I found to be more trouble than they are worth. We followed up with grilled sardines, oysters on the half-shell, razor clams (yummy), and grilled baby octopus. Together with a crisp white wine this whole feast was only €85, including a nice tip. You certainly don’t dine like this in Canada for that price.
In the morning, we set out for Coimbra sticking to back roads and stopping at Batalha where we toured the huge gothic cathedral and monastery. This one too was quite austere, which really emphasized the height of the interior. The Quinta Das Lagrimas in Coimbra is part of the Small Luxury Hotel Group (https://www.quintadaslagrimas.pt/en). It is set in an expansive garden and dates back to the early 14th century. We had the Pedro y Ines Suite, which is round and on two levels with the bedroom upstairs. We were treated to a lovely dinner that night at Arcadas in the hotel by Paula and Fernando Esteves who Torontonians will remember as the owners of Spuntini. They were visiting family who live close by.
Our next overnight was in Guimaraes at the Hotel Oliviera (https://www.hoteldaoliveira.com/en) on a pedestrian alley in the historic part. We toured the Duke’s Palace and the castle ruins and had a great dinner next door to the hotel on the upstairs patio at Rés Vés, We had delicious grilled octopus and Bacalhau (cod) the first of many times we would have this. As a dessert aficionado, I strongly recommend the passionfruit Mille-feuille.
Left- Dinner in Guimaraes
From Guimaraes, we found a wonderful winding mountain road through a heavily forested area, which is why you need an actual detailed road map to see more interesting alternatives to the typically boring highways. We crossed the border into Galicia, the north-western part of Spain, arriving in Vigo where we easily found our hotel, the NH Collection Vigo (www.nh-hotels.com/hotel/nh-collection-vigo). This town turned out to be disappointing with little to see and we could have easily bypassed it and, in fact, the next town, Ourense, also since neither had much to see or do.
Instead, we recommend driving on to A. Coruna, a much larger and livelier town right on the waterfront where we stayed at the Melia Maria Pita hotel (www.melia.com/en/hotels/spain/a-coruna/melia-maria-pita). The town, while busy during the day, really comes alive at night. Speaking of night, nobody seems to dine until at least 8 p.m. and most restaurants don’t even open until then, or even later. There are lots of narrow pedestrian alleys lined with shops and cafes and no shortage of places to have a meal. A five-minute drive, or a pleasant 20 minute waterfront walk from the hotel, is the Hercules Tower, the oldest operating lighthouse in the world. Dating back to the first century, it was built by the Romans.
After two days we had seen all there was to see so we drove on some great roads on the Death Road (Costa de Morta), named for shipwrecks and no reflection on the road itself, all the way to Fisterra, passing through mainly forests and then along the coast. This is the part of the popular Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, so there were lots and lots of walkers from many countries. We stayed at the Semafora de Fisterra (www.hotelsemaforodefisterra.com/en/) right at the very end of land. At first glance, we thought we were in for a disaster as the hotel is a small house sitting atop a craggy hill right next to the lighthouse. But, inside it is very nice. Our room was small but clean and comfy. The small bar area which, like the rest of the hotel is reminiscent of a ski lodge, lends itself to talking to others and everyone is very friendly.
Here, at land’s end, steps away at the cliff top and past the lighthouse, people congregate to watch the sunset as another European day comes to an end. This tiny hotel has a small dining room, but we thankfully opted for one of the small half tables upstairs with perfect views of the sunset. Dinner was wonderful and if you’ve never had razor clams, don’t miss having them as an appetizer.
One day here is enough unless you plan on hiking so we continued on more great twisty roads following the coast and passing through many towns, but not stopping at any until we came to our hotel, the Relais & Chateau, Quinta de Aqua in Santiago de Compostela (www.aquintadaauga.com/en). It’s a beautiful old mansion in a lovely garden.
As the official end of the pilgrimage walk, the town buzzes with activity. The main square was filled with people, mostly ‘pilgrims’ who had done all or part of the Camino de Santiago. There is a bustling market, well-worth visiting and stopping for a snack of any number of local specialties, some familiar and others requiring bravado. At night, the town really comes alive with people waiting for tables at restaurants and groups playing music in the streets.
Moving on to Pontevedra, we stayed in the Parador De Pontevedra (www.parador.es/en/paradores/parador-de-pontevedra) in the historical part of town. We had low expectations, even apprehensions, about both the town and hotel, but were pleasantly surprised by both. The Parador was built in the 16th century on the remains of a Roman villa, but the rooms are comfortable and the bathrooms contemporary. The town is very cute with lots of beautiful historical buildings and churches. Even if churches are not your thing, the historical ones in Europe are usually quite spectacular and well-worth visiting.
Across The Border
The drive to Chaves (pronounced Chavez) across the border and back in Portugal was far more interesting on some great mountain roads. The Castello Hotel (https://castelohotel.pt/) is contemporary and our corner suite on the top floor was spacious with a wraparound balcony. Parking is right underground, but, be warned, and this applies to parking everywhere in Europe, the spots are ridiculously tight so if someone parks next to you it’s a tight squeeze to get in or out of your car.
Chaves is the beginning of Portugal’s N2 road which runs north-south down the middle of the country all the way to Faro on the Mediterranean coast. They say it is their version of Route 66. We got a map from the N2 Tourist Office and walked across the second century Roman bridge to take a photo at the kilometre zero marker of the N2.
Leaving Chaves, we missed a GPS instruction and left the N2 for another road which was fabulous as it twisted and turned through the mountains. We drove through a huge area totally blackened by the bushfires that ravaged Portugal this summer. When Linda lowered her window the smell of burning was still prevalent.
We did meet up with the N2 and arrived at our hotel in Lamego, Quinta da Pacheca (https://quintadapacheca.com) at about noon. It’s set in its own vineyard and has a main hotel part and then a dozen or so stand-alone rooms that look like wine-barrels, one of which we had booked. As ours wasn’t ready, we drove for a half hour on a wonderful road along the banks of the Douro to a small town called Pinhao where we had lunch before another half hour drive to the Quinta da Vallado winery where we did a two-hour tour and tasting of six different wines and a port (www.quintadovallado.com/en).
Back at the hotel, we were taken by golf cart to our wine barrel room. While a cute idea, the execution is gimmicky and poor and we do not recommend them. There is no room to leave even two carry-ons open let alone an actual suitcase. After just one night, we asked to move to the main building and luckily got a room which was wonderful.
The town really does not have much to offer, but is the centre around which there are many vineyards. The hotel also offers a complimentary wine tour and tasting for guests and our guide was both knowledgeable and very entertaining. As with every vineyard, they have a store where you can buy wines and ports.
Above- Madre de Agua Boutique
A new day and a new adventure as the GPS took us to a totally wrong place, but Linda figured it out and we soon arrived at our hotel in Vinho, down a series of very narrow stone-wall lined alleys, but thankfully nothing was coming the other way. Our apprehensions were soon dispelled as we came to the Madre de Agua (https://quintamadredeagua.pt/en/hotel/), a small nice looking building with just 10 rooms. Inside, it is quite contemporary mixing a centuries old stone wall with modern architecture. The Encruzado suite is lovely with light wood furniture and balconies on both sides looking over a vineyard from one and a field with magnificent horses the owner breeds on the other. Being rathe remote, we had a delicious dinner at the hotel in a lovely dining room. Do try the wild boar medallions.
Above- The spectacular scenery on the Serra da Estrella
Incredible Mountain Views
We had selected this stop so that we could spend the day driving through the Serra da Estrella National Park, which turned into one of the best drives we have ever done both from the actual driving part and the incredible mountain views. There was really no straight stretch of more than a few hundred yards, but lots of switchbacks and long sweeping curves. Parts were out in the barren open and others in very heavily forested areas, which with a morning mist looked to be straight out of Lord of the Rings. We stopped to visit the Bread Museum, which while very well done did not take long to tour. We also stopped at possibly the highest point in Portugal in Torre, where there was even a ski lift operating, we assume for pre-season testing.
We had elected a different route south to yesterday’s and are so grateful we did as the narrow road twisted and turned non-stop, up and down mountain after mountain, with spectacular views and virtually no traffic whatsoever. We arrived at Castelo Branco where we stayed at the Reinhardt d’Amelia. Frankly, we needn’t have stayed overnight as the small town really does not offer much in the way of sightseeing. Rather, we should have continued on to Marvao, which sits quite spectacularly at the very top of a mountain and can be seen from long before you arrive. We stayed at the Pousada de Marvao (www.pousadasofportugal.com/pousadas/marvao/). Pousadas are Portuguese government owned places in historical buildings and usually ideally located in the middle of the historical parts of towns. While retaining their original looks and feel, the interiors are updated and are quite comfortable. This small town, like most, is far better suited to walking and, in fact, here you would not want to drive anywhere once parked. The castle ruins offer spectacular 360 degree views of the countryside far, far below.
On the way to Evora, we stopped at nearby Evora Monte where we drove up a single lane road to the all but deserted walled town at the top to visit what we had been told was the weirdest castle in Portugal and it certainly was. It looked as though it had been built of concrete rather than stone blocks. However, it was closed so we could not see the interior.
We continued on to Evora and were grateful to see that the Vitoria Stone Hotel (www.vitoriastonehotel.com) was contemporary. Evora is a larger town with more to see including an obligatory cathedral and the meager ruins of a Roman temple. A large square and several pedestrian streets offer many outdoor dining and imbibing options.
From Evora, we drove south on the N2 to Faro on the Algarve coast where we stayed at a wonderful new hotel, the 3HB Faro (https://3hb.com/en/home/3hb-faro/), located in the centre of the pedestrian shopping and dining area. The hotel is very contemporary and the first five-star in Faro. Our suite, #119, is lovely, large with light wood custom furniture and even on some walls, and, joy-of-joys, a large walk-in shower so welcome after all the ones in tubs. All the fittings, taps, garbage cans, even the tissue dispenser are done in a beautiful brushed copper. The window coverings are all electric and they have the funkiest light switches we have ever seen. There is a rooftop pool and sun deck and bar. The breakfast buffet was lavish and the staff throughout the hotel were the best trained we have seen outside of a Four Seasons.
The historic old town and marina are a five-minute walk away and have many busy patio restaurants. If you’ve never had whole grilled sardines, here is as good a place as any to try them. These are not your tiny canned ones and a serving usually consists of about a half dozen grilled in olive oil and seasoned with a dab of salt. Simply remove the head and tail, split them lengthwise and remove the spine and enjoy, with a crisp white wine is best
We drove due west on the so-called national road to Lagos wanting to see the Algarve coast, which is a non-stop development of hotels and condos not unlike driving up Highway 1 in Florida. Lagos is perhaps the Fort Lauderdale of the Algarve, with a huge marina basin, condo on top of condo, lots of shops and restaurants, and a hubbub of activity.
We did not overnight here, but continued on to Sagres where we stayed at the Memmo Baleeira (www.memmohotels.com/baleeira/) perched on top of a cliff looking due east over the marina and Atlantic. Sleepy Sagres, the southwestern-most point of continental Europe, comes alive just before sunset when seemingly half the population of Portugal descends along a clifftop to watch the sun sink slowly into the Atlantic Ocean. The hordes of camper vans with license plates from France, Germany, Belgium, Holland. and England attest to the popularity of this place ‒ Continental Europe’s Land’s End.
Sagres was our last stop before driving into Lisbon, which is also the only stretch we did on a highway, a toll one I should add. We stayed at the historic Hotel Britannia (https://lisbonheritagehotels.com/hotel-britania/) in a very nice art deco suite on the top floor. In long bygone years, this hotel has hosted Henry Miller and Graham Greene and was the trendy place for writers and playwrights. It’s well located just one block in from Avenida de Liberdade, the main trendy street lined with all the upscale boutiques.
Lisbon, like most European cities, is a walking city and a car is a hindrance. It’s very hilly so a good pair of comfortable walking shoes is essential, and ladies, don’t even think about Louboutins. It’s really worthwhile getting the Lisbon Card (www.esnlisboa.org/tiqetsas). In addition to free or discounted entrance to lots of places, it gets you free train travel to neighboring Cascais and Belem.
Lisbon is crammed with shops, and sidewalk restaurants abound on every street and alley. At night you often find sidewalk entertainers particularly at the many squares. We sat at one when a group of young male break-dancers from Brazil performed. They were excellent and drew a large crowd so having a seat and dining, and drinking of course, while watching was perfect entertainment.
Another fun dining venue for lunch is the Time Out Market (www.timeoutmarket.com/lisboa/) across from the train station. It’s a variation on London’s famous Burroughs Market started by Jamie Oliver. A large hall is filled with stalls offering an enormous variety of food and drink, all tested and approved by an independent board for authenticity and quality.
It’s well worth the 40-minute train ride out to Cascais, but do sit on the left side going and the right coming back for the best views. It goes every 20 minutes so if there are no seats don’t stand, but wait for the next one. Cascais is an upscale, seaside town, so very touristy and busy. As expected, there are cafes and restaurants literally everywhere and all are doing a thriving trade. If you’ve over-eaten at lunch, as we certainly did, it’s about a half-hour pleasant walk to Boca do Inferno (mouth of fire) where the sea has carved a scene out of Dante’s Inferno from the cliff face. For the less physically inclined. there are lots of cabs.
Back in Cascais we had a wonderful seafood dinner on the patio at O Pescador (http://www.restaurantepescador.com/en/).
It’s also worthwhile taking the streetcar or train from Lisbon out to Belem where there is a huge monument. You can take an elevator to the top for great views of Lisbon and the surrounding area. There is also an ancient fort and lots of stalls selling food and drink ‒ try the passionfruit caipirinha cocktail.
Our best restaurant find, actually recommended by friends, was Sacramento (www.sacramentodochiado.com/pt.html) with a very pleasant ambiance and great food. Worth mentioning, and a significant contributing reason for the enormous number of tourists, is the very reasonable cost of almost everything in Portugal, but none more so than dining and wine. You can get a very good bottle of a robust red from the Douro region for $30 to $40. As you’d expect seafood, both fish and crustaceans, are on every menu and there is always something for the carnivores too. Try the Bacalhau or salt cod ‒ a whole cod coated in a salt crust which the waiter breaks open at your table.
Above- Bacalhao or Salted Cod - another Portuguese delicacy
English is widely spoken and we found the people to be very friendly and helpful. Except in Lisbon and Faro, we ran across very few people from Canada or the United States and those we did tended to be young people on a budget. We can certainly recommend adding Portugal to your bucket list. Lots of trans-Atlantic flights from Canada connect through London’s Heathrow so if you are overnighting try the Sofitel right at Terminal 5. There is no more convenient hotel, and you can take your bags without even going outside. The rooms are very good and there is absolutely no noise from the planes. Our all-time favourite breakfast chef is Eddy who can put a smile on the face of the biggest grouch.
This series of ‘The Road Less Travelled’ is for those who truly want to experience the culture of other countries, something not so easily done in the large cities. If you’re not an adventurous driver, don’t be put off by the routes we have taken because there are often easier ones. Some of the web links are only in Portuguese, but they will give you eMail addresses and booking links.
See you on the road.
The husband and wife team of Peter Volny and Linda Goddard are inveterate and adventurous travelers with almost 160 countries under their belts. Their next trip is to Africa.