Drenched to the skin on a dark October morning, we left Jalón and the rain behind on our way to Salamanca, the first stop before our destination of Portugal. We arrived in Salamanca 10 hours later with just enough time to walk into the old town and see the beautiful old buildings lit golden and rose by the setting sun.
Next morning we were on the road again early, heading for Porto and putting our watches back by an hour as we entered Portugal. The landscape changed almost immediately from the flat, grey scrub of Leon to densely-wooded mountains. As we crossed the Rió Duero, these finally gave way to the all-important steeply-terraced vines, turning rusty-coloured in the autumn sunshine. Stopping for lunch in the World Heritage medieval village of Guimaraes, with its timeless stone buildings and delightfully cheap restaurants, some of us managed to drag ourselves away from the culinary delights of lunch with sparkling vinho verde (it’s come a long way since the ‘80s), for an uphill walk to the 10th century castle, home to the first king of Portugal.
An hour later and we were in our hotel in Porto in time for dinner.
Porto is stunningly situated on the banks of the Rio Duero. Consequently, the streets are very steep. Dating from the 13th century, the old centre of Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Due to rent controls, when many tenants paid only two euros a month, landlords could not afford to repair their houses. With no private or public money sadly this has resulted in many lovely old buildings literally falling down. One of the few of the old buildings not in ruins is the beautifully tiled train station.
The Duero is the oldest wine-producing region in the world and Ramos Pinto’s bodega was our next, much anticipated, destination. The bodega is housed in a lovely early-20th-century building, full of hand-painted tiles, original posters and beautiful carved furniture.
We were given a chocolate to eat while tasting the red port. White port has only been produced since 1936 as, due to the civil war, the British could not obtain sherry.
Two port tastings later and full of bonhomie and good cheer, we boarded a boat for a trip down the Duero. The rest of the day was ours to explore this fascinating city at our leisure. No visit to Porto would be complete without an expensive coffee in the famous Majestic Cafe where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book (she was an English teacher in Porto)and to see the beautiful library which featured in the films
Leaving Porto in brilliant sunshine, our lunch stop on the way to Lisbon was Nazaré, once a fishing village in a picturesque setting on a beautiful beach but now totally given over to mass tourism with simple fish restaurants and lots of souvenir shops. The mouth-watering smell of barbecuing sardines floated on the breeze and they figured on all the restaurant menus.
Óbido was our last stop before Lisbon. Another UNESCO walled Medieval village it had a Roman aqueduct, cobbled streets and upmarket souvenir shops. A street away from the main tourist area and we were able to experience the silence of a quiet square.
Another of Obido’s claims to fame is the production of a cherry liqueur, Ginja, which they serve in little chocolate cups. Suitably imbibed and refreshed we reached our hotel in time for dinner.
Lisbon is a city of wide-open spaces, huge parks and majestic buildings. We enjoyed a couriered tour in our coach with Paola giving us an interesting background on the current political and economic situation in Portugal, post-dictatorship. Walking around the oldest part of the city and dodging three-wheeled, brightly-painted tut-tuts, she explained the history and conventions of Fado. A photo stop for the famous Belem Tower allowed for a much-needed coffee, cake and comfort break.
16th century Jeronimo’s Monastery was impressive with its soaring columns and stunning stained glass windows, impossible to capture on my iPad. Vasco de Gama is buried here. Heads bursting with information overload on everything from the opening times of every monument, museum and church to the routes, times and costs of the buses and trams, our next stop was the fishing resort of Cascais with its beautiful sandy bay position and pretty architecture.
We all ate the obligatory sardine/fish lunch and, with seats in full recline, made our way back to Lisbon. Our coach dropped us off in the main shopping district, a lovely, bustling area with up market shops, cafés, patisseries, triumphal arches, trams and beautiful buildings. A free day in Lisbon allowed us to see the castle with its fabulous view of the town, ride in a take-your-life-in-your-hands tut-tut, visit the cathedral, one of the numerous museums, or just stroll around the streets.
Early next day, we left for Toledo in the rain, but we had gained an hour’s sleep as the clocks went back. The sun was out by the time we reached our first comfort stop and by early evening we were settling into our modern hotel in Toledo. Lovely rooms, comfortable beds and good wifi connection – it was a shame about the food, best described as school dinners for the masses.
Refreshed next morning by a good night’s sleep and a surprisingly good breakfast, our charming guide, Carmen, gave us a fascinating insight to the history, myths and legends of Toledo as we walked up and down the cobbled old streets of the walled city.
We then had a couple of hours’ free time to further explore, have lunch and buy last minute souvenirs before starting back for home. Peter broke up the journey for us with another of his excellent quizzes and we had to dig deep for some of the answers! This has been a most interesting and enjoyable holiday. Our thanks go to Paco and Rolf, our Gandia Tours driver and guide, to Peter for keeping us amused, to Sandra and Bob for their excellent organisation and to the 53 U3A members for being such a lovely, sociable group.
(see more photos in the Gallery)