16 November 2013

Em Porto: Day Trips!

"Here Was Born Portugal"
 We were lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time in Porto -- and I highly suggest at least 2 full days there, if not a third. But it is also a great place to be based, as there are several easy day trips that take you to smaller towns in Portugal -- just a quick train ride away. We were told that we needed more time/overnight stays to visit the Duoro Valley, so we went along with some suggestions provided by the trusty bike rental place guy.

The first we were told to visit was Guimarães, a university town up northeast from Porto. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site (Portugal has a lot of these!). It is about a one hour train ride from Porto -- just make sure you purchase the correct ticket (we didn't), and seemed, to us at least, to be a nice quiet escape from the business of Porto.

Historical Center of  Guimarães
The two sites that we headed off to see were the Palace and the Castle. We discovered that these two terms to not mean the same thing. The Palace was lovely -- it wasn't overly used and then was refurbished and is now just a museum. There is a beautiful chapel full of stained glass windows that was a nice place to just sit a spell. Right up the hill was the Castle...which was largely a shell with a pile of rubble inside. It was perched atop a hill, so clearly at some point it was an important fortress...but now it just looks like a cool place for maybe a live show or a photo shoot!

The town has many cute little shops and restaurants that line the streets on the way between the train station and the Castle/Palace. Also, if you wander a bit around the center, you'll come upon a beautifully manicured street that leads up to a pretty church.

Then, the following day, we headed to Viana do Castelo. About an hour north of Porto on the coast, it is a lovely train ride. For some reason, in my head, I thought we would be seeing a really pretty castle. I was incorrect!

Upon arrival, you can see the beautiful church that sits on top of a very steep hill. We had planned on taking the funicular (the Portuguese love their funiculars), but by the time we got there it was closed for lunch. So we braved a cab ride...and brave it was, as this guy whipped us around the steep hills and curves like they were straightaways. I think we were all holding on for dear life.

Despite the ornate facade, the inside of the church was rather plain. Very pretty, but not crazy. What is really special about this church is the view from the very top. For 1Euro, you can opt for the stairs or the elevator to get there. But, be warned...even with the elevator, you'll still need to climb quite a bit -- including a very narrow and steep spiral staircase. It is worth it for the view, from which you can see the whole city and then some; it feels almost as if, on a clear day, you could see across the seas to the Americas. Getting down from this peak was a little daunting -- I pulled some muscles in my leg doing it! Ouch.

After taking the funicular down from the mountain, we meandered through the old town to find some food and take in the sights. Of all the places we visited, this seemed the least touristed...also the most difficult to find someone who spoke English. My Spanish came in handy, because at least I could read most things, and we found that was more easily understood than our English. This town isn't too big, so it is easy to walk around the old center and see the other churches, municipal buildings, and what not. It felt like siesta time while we were there, but perhaps it is just that sleepy a town!

If you feel like shopping while in Viana do Castela, you're in luck -- there is a large mall right across the tracks from the main train station. If you can figure out how to get over there (read: take the stair overpass or the kind of unsavory looking underpass).

Again, another very worthwhile day trip. While Portugal overall doesn't seem to be too heavily-touristed by Americans (yet), it was fun to really get away from it all into towns that, while they had some tourists, felt more "local."

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