The Beiras

(4th April to 10th April).

After our extended time in Tomar we planned a series of short stays through The Beiras region.  First stop was to be the university town of Coimbra.

Leaving Tomar we had a tranquil drive through woodland and green countryside reaching the outskirts of Coimbra by the early afternoon.  The free camperstop was located on a public carpark over the river from the peak of the old town where most of the old university faculties reside.

We decided to relax by the river for the afternoon as the weather was getting quite hot.  The river banks were a feast of activities with teenagers showing offs with dives into the river amongst shoals of canoeists from the nearby water sports centre.  Once after a brief pre-loading in the van (warm vinho verde, yummm) we ventured off over the modern foot bridge that spans the Rio Mondego.

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Old town Coimbra in the distance contrasting with the modern footbridge

Passing all the classic old town sights and feeling particularly unfit as we scaled the steep Rua Quebra Costas (back breaker street) we reached our destination Praca de Republica.  This square is known to be the centre of most of the students social activities and is lined with bars and cafes.  It is also the location of the student union which is open to the public.  It seems though that being a student in Coimbra is taken very seriously and commands a certain responsible behaviour and interestingly they all wear their capes and caps, even at night, managing to look like extras from a Harry Potter movie.  Once installed at a square side bar we looked on at some sort of student initiation that was taking place at the centre of the Praca.  This involved a form of hide and seek combined with a series of clapping rituals, all quite unusual and strange to the onlooker.  Overall it seemed innocent and respectful unlike some of the initiations at universities closer to home that involve copious amounts of alcohol and degrading debauchery (something that obviously I have never taken part in……..!?!)

We finally did make it into the student union bar where over twenty years of time came crashing down on me – wow we felt old and completely out of place.  To try to shake this sinking feeling off, after a few cheap drinks, we skulked out of the Union building back to van, only stopping to pick up a doner kebab and fries from a mobile take away van enroute (upon reflection, I am now wondering if that much has really changed….!)

On the search for some tranquillity after our night out in Coimbra we were coast bound again choosing Costa Nova, just south of Averio.   Delightful Costa Nova was certainly peaceful with a great vast beach and a town whose buildings were painted in colourful stripes resembling vertical sticks of rock.  On the evening we managed a sunset backed bike ride to Praia da Vagueira and then to the lighthouse at the village Barra in the opposite direction.

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Stripey wooden clad houses at Costa Nova

It was at Costa Nova where we learned about ‘moliceiros’, which are traditional flat bottomed wooden boats that are used to harvest seaweed and fish in the nearby shallow waters.  These boats have an interesting shape with a tall ‘winkle picker’ type hull which is often painted in bright colours.

After one night at Costa Nova, we left making a city centre drive through of the canal woven Aveiro (dubbed Portugal’s little Venice) to arrive at off the beaten track Bico.  This small twenty house one cafe type village sits on the edge of the Ria, a shallow coastal lagoon.  At Bico, moliceiro’ boats are in constant use by the local villagers to catch fruits de mar and seaweed.  The lagoon is also rich in bird life and to Sharon’s delight a flock of flamingos were feeding in the lagoon just off where we were staying the night.

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Moliceiros, tens of these could be seen in the morning heading off into the lagoon to do a days work.  A touch of the modern way was that they were hooked up to small out board motors.  I found the boats and the life that surrounds them fascinating.

In the evening we walked into nearby Murtosa where we took a drink at the only bar.  This bar seemed to be a throw back from the seventies with a series of faded posters and newspaper cuttings documenting the sporting exploits of the Porto football club hanging on cigarette stained walls.  On our return to Bico village we stopped off at the local cafe to meet a local handy man and two young local guys in their 20/30s.  Through our conversation we learnt that these two guys were fishermen on the moliceiros proving this traditional method of fishing is still commercially used.  One thing that struck me was that these people were not ‘play acting’ at their chosen livelihood, maybe to increase tourism or some sort of weekend hobby (in nearby Aveiro the molicieros are used to ferry tourists around the canals, Venice style).  Nor were they completely out of date people lost out in the sticks clinging onto some dying way of life.  These were normal young men enjoying a cold beer after a days work wearing contemporary fashion and sporting full sleeve tattoos, footballer style. I suppose this shows me how often preconceptions can be way off and that we really don’t know how people live.

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Sunset forming over the harbour at Bico, our place for the night

Nearby coastal Torreira was our next destination after only one night at interesting Bico and this stopover choice was driven by our now need for services.  The motorhome stopover here was free, located in the grounds of a Chapel and boasted not only toilets but also barbecues and wooden table benches in the gardens.

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Parked up at the free aire in Torreira.  It was well sign posted and had full facilities and more

Feeling now quite rested after our three quiet nights on the Beira coast we were ready to change region and our pace of life as our next stop was to be the vibrant city of Porto in the Douro.

 

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Estremadura and Ribatejo

(23rd March to 4th April).

So far over the last 13 months we have visited three capitals so far but Lisbon will be the first of any real magnitude.  As our information was a little sketchy about parking in the city we decided to stay in nearby Sintra and use the train to visit Lisbon.  Sintra itself is a historical town and it was the first time in a while where we have seen sightseeing on a huge scale with many of the visitors spending a day here whilst on a Lisbon city break. Tuk Tuks seem to be becoming very popular and Sintra old town was crawling with them, ferrying people between the castle and the palaces.  Needless to say  we walked the 2 km uphill to visit the castle and the palace but both were paid ticket entry only, so we did not go through to the inside.

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We had to drive through Lisbon to reach Sintra and the roads were busy

We had parked the camper on the outskirts of Sintra (Sao Pedro) within the grounds of the local football team.  These facilities proved to be a busy community hub with all sorts of teams and families using the grounds.  It also boasted a great bar and gourmet hamburger restaurant where I whiled away one evening watching the coming and goings and where Sharon and I reflected on our Lisbon trip over a huge burger (which came with a egg).  It seems grass roots football in Portugal is vibrant and underlines one of the ‘F’ pillars of Portuguese culture (the three F’s, football, fado and Fatima).

The train to Lisbon was quick at around 40 minutes and really cheap (9 Euros return for both of us).  We concentrated our visit in the old historical centre walking through Chuido, Baixa, Alfama, Graca, and Bairro Alto.  Since this was the capital we had decided to blow the normal daily budget and hoped to lunch out.  We eventually chose a Churrassqueria in Alfama where Sharon had grilled octopus and shrimps whilst I went with the feijoada.  Both were very good and surprisingly reasonable considering where we were, in fact I had to seriously push down my beans and pork pieces, there was probably enough for 2 or more people.

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Sharon’s grilled octupus and shrimp

After lunch we picked up the classic tram 28 from Graca all the way to Ourique.  The tram itself was packed and we were crammed in right behind the driver so therefore enjoyed the panoramic view out of the front wind screen.  We were doing well, swinging around the bends enjoying our privileged view point, and as the tram was full the driver did not stop to pick up any more people.  We got off the tram near Estrella and ambled back through Barrio Alto.  It has maybe been 10 years or more since I was last in this night life district and I struggled to remember any of the drinking venues but this is probably more of a testament to the ever changing bar scene in the capital than my ever deteriorating memory capacity.

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Our view of Lisbon through the tram’s front window.  We were pleased that the driver did not sport ‘big’ hair.

Typically for our Lisbon big day out it was raining for most of the time and we pondered whether it was the weather that made the capital feel ‘quiet’.  The bars and restaurants seemed only 20% full, having said that it can’t have been the prices that were putting people off as we managed to buy the cheapest round in Portugal so far in the outskirts of the Graca district:  80 cents for and beer and 50 for a glass of wine.  Now compare that to London!!  Disappointingly witnessing the 2nd ‘F’ Fado escaped us whilst wondering around Lisbon and Alfama particularly.  Surely we can not spend 4 months in Portugal and not hear any Fado!

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Graffiti, Lisbon

From Sintra/Lisbon we diverted back to the coast visiting Peniche were we stayed two nights at the foot of the old town walls with the moat directly behind us.  The rain from Lisbon was still with us making our visit to the old prison in the Fortress a wet one.  My favourite part of this now museum was reading about how the political prisoners escaped only to be re-captured as once on the ‘outside’ they continued their fight against the dictatorship (in some cases multiple times, true dedication).

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Visiting time!  One of the wax work prisoners in the Fortress de Peniche.  The freeing of the communist activists from this fortress was king pin to to fall of the Portuguese right wing dictatorship in 1974.

It was a shame that the weather was passing this stormy spell and it made us visit the local Pingo Doce supermarket to supplement our food afternoon instead of visiting the famed surf beach Praia Supertubos.

Porto da Marinha was a random choice picked from the Camperstop Europe book based on the fact that it was free.  Again we managed to park right next to the coast in the bay.  We successfully spent zero money on our walk around the town however we did spend about 30 minutes in an estate agents looking at property options.  Prices obviously vary greatly by region but considering this coast line is a popular destination for Portuguese locals the prices seemed palatable and like wise in nearby Nazare.

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Our view of the bay at Porto do Marinha from the camper stop

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Nazare town and bay

Whilst drafting out a rough travel plan the town Nazare was on the original list mainly due to the name and that more recently it has become famous for having the largest waves in the world.  These waves at times reach 30 metres!  We both really liked Nazare as it has a promenade that is still typical Portuguese and not full of faceless modern bars, has a public market, an old town and a high town reached by a cliff side tram.  Also you can witness the town clinging on to it’s fishing heritage and the fishermen’s wives are still wearing the seven layers of clothing, one for each day their husbands are at sea, which strangely constitutes of short skirts and long socks.  The church in the high town apparently has a sculpture of the virgin made by Joseph himself again making it an important venue on Portugal’s religious tourist map.  This set the tone for our next week’s travelling as we were about to embark on a religious triple header visiting Batalha, Fatima and Tomar.

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A sculpture that mixes the Nazare legend of the deer and the big surf waves.  Sharon is there show relative scale!!

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A Nazare alternative to ‘don’t drink and ride’.  Nazare sea front.

Batalha’s grand cathedral was impressive but there was not much else going on there.  The free parking slot was excellently located near to a Pingo Doce and right next to the cathedral’s grounds.  However, upon arrival I was warned that the chemical toilet disposal hole was blocked, which we confirmed visually (luckily we had had our lunch), and we decided to find an ’emptying’ alternative in the shape of a nearby public toilet which we used and left clean and spotless as we had found it.  The next morning when we were leaving we revisited the service point to empty out the grey water waste tank only to find that somebody had continued to use the toilet disposal, even though it was obviously blocked leaving behind quite a unpleasant mess.  I really do not understand this motorhoming ‘bad’ behaviour.  I am not sure I would want human waste over our local car parks at home so why do travellers choose to do it when they are away (maybe I have just answered my own question..)

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Our stop for the night near the cathedral in Batalha.  The state of the service point made me say ‘holy shit’!

Next up was the much talked about third ‘F’, Fatima, the site where in 1917 three Portuguese children were visited by a vision of the Virgin Mary who went on to re-visit them at pre-organised times to pass on messages about the future.   The once tiny village of Fatima has now been turned into a ‘Catholic’ theme mega park housing a Basilica, churches, museums, and worshipping spaces at the site of the miracle.  It was fairly impressive but the word’s of the lonely planet summarise it best “whatever your beliefs, you can’t help but be impressed by the vast reserves of faith” that has made Fatima a modern pilgrimage site and as many as 6 million people per year descend here.  We did respectfully watch at a distance one of the pilgrims walk around the location of the miracle, now a Chapel, on her knees which was something we were unable to see upon our arrival at Santiago’s cathedral earlier in the year.

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Fatima is on the Camino Portuguese pilgrimage to Santiago route.

The inland town of Tomar only came to our consciousness a few months before at Monchique, as the band Quinta do Bill herald from there.  Once reading about Tomar we released that it is an important city in Portugal’s history and has an impressive Knights Templar fortress/castle containing a Cathedral.  We were lucky when we visited as we gained entrance to the fortress for free as the local community were having an orange festival to celebrate the local fruit.  The fortress buildings and particularly the inside of the cathedral were amazing and in my opinion ‘Tomar’ castle is in the same league as the Alhambra in regards to the visit experience.

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Inside Tomar castle

Another highlight of Tomar was our parking location.  We drove into the town armed with co-ordinates for a public car park only to find a series of temporary white and blue motorhome parking signs at all the major road intersections.  We decided to follow our curiosity and obeyed the signs to be led to a municipal owned campsite.  Slightly bewildered we asked if we could enter and the attendant said yes and that it was free.  It turned out that recently the campsite had failed some sort of inspection and the local council had decided that instead of shutting the campsite during the time it was rectifying the issues, but to keep it open to motorhomers only.  The electric had been turned off and there was not any hot water but apart from this we and a few other motorhomes has a free run of the campsite.  The site itself was well located, had views of Tomar castle in the background and was wonderfully green and full of trees which enticed many birds.  It was so pleasant that we ended up staying five nights relaxing in the grounds and enjoying our food purchases from the local Dia supermarket.

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We chilled out in Tomar on a fantastic closed campsite before hitting the next region, The Beiras.