Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Where were we headed, Croatia or Portugal?

One of the hot travel spots in Europe to visit is Croatia and Slovenia. There is a lot of attraction to the ancient coast cities of Split and Dubrovnik. Thus we had planned for most of a year to do a road trip with our frequent traveling companions through the two eastern European countries. It is a good thing we are flexible as at the last moment our friends were unable to join us. Wanting to save that adventure for the four of us, we opted for a driving trip of Portugal as we had always wanted to return to Portugal for greater exploration after a brief cruise ship visit to Lisbon a few years ago.

Whenever either flying to or from Europe we try for a few days in London in order to get a full fix of theatre and museums. On this occasion we also had a chance to have a long delayed visit with British friends who we met a few years ago when we were both traveling in Costa Rica. Meeting people when traveling, and then making life long friendships is one of the bonuses of world travel. With our friends we enjoyed the back-roads of Southern England, the Southern coast, their wonderful home, and favorite pubs.

Now on to Portugal! As you know, Mary Ann and I are pretty venturesome judging by our driving experiences in Chile, Costa Rica, Continental Europe, South Africa, Ireland and Great Britain. Usually our biggest crisis is airport arrival and getting to our first hotel or destination. At the airport in Portugal we got lost going from the terminal to the car rental pickup lot. Geez! Of course we then became lost leaving the airport and nearly ended up wandering Eastern Portugal by incorrectly crossing the Tagus River, instead of finding our way northward. I’m sure you will be surprised to learn that the “Judge” really doesn’t handle these mini-crises very well. I guess that is why it important to have a calm, cool, and collected spouse navigator, who is only partially, map challenged.

With a few unintended side-trips behind us, we eventually landed on the Portuguese freeway system and made our way to Óbidos. Our itinerary was to generally drive around the country in a clockwise direction. The country is 380 miles long and 140 miles wide so if you want to get to any region quickly it is easy to do on their excellent limited access freeways. Their sign and roadway marking system is as good as any country in the world, which makes planning and executing a road trip that covers most of the country in a couple of weeks a breeze..

The plan was to spend one or more nights in Óbidos, Coimbra, Évora, Tavira, Salema, and Cascais (a beach suburb of Lisbon). In some cases we spent multiple days in a location and used it as a base for exploration in the region. I am a great believer in guide-book research in order to generally develop a road trip itinerary. For this trip I used Frommer’s Portugal, Rick Steves’ Portugal, and Insight Guide Portugal. Each guide book will bring different resources and perspectives to any trip. One is never enough! To give you just a flavor of each of the areas we visited:

Óbidos – This folklore castle hill village is an easy drive north of Lisbon so makes a great stop on your arrival day in Portugal. It is near the northern coast beaches and fishing villages. One of those nearby fishing towns which is a “must see” is Nazaré, just a few miles from Óbidos. Other interesting close-by towns are Fatima and Batalha. Óbidos has a picturesque main pedestrian street going up the hill to the castle; all loaded with regional craft shops.

Coimbra – This delightful walking city is famous for the University of Coimbra, the leading university of Portugal. We love university towns because of the many young people and the usual vibrancy of the community. The city has several outstanding shopping boulevards in the old town, with the University situated on the hilltop above. We used Coimbra as a base for a drive north to Porto, the country’s second largest city and the center of the port wine business. We then returned to Coimbra via some very interesting back roads through the Rio Duoro river valley...

Évora – Driving from Coimbra to Évora is very interesting as you can take the back roads through the mountains (only a few side trips dead ended in dirt paths) and then down into the central heartland of the Alentejo region. Here you will find interesting agriculture and cork tree forests. Évora is a must visit UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a museum city enclosed by ancient walls and cobblestone meandering streets climbing up the hill through Moorish arches to the hilltop cathedral.

The Algarve – The south coast of the country is the Algarve region. We covered the entire region from Tavira, near the Spanish border to Sagres, the western most point of Europe. We stayed in Tavira and in Salema, both on the recommendation of Rick Steves. The entire area is a favorite vacation beach area for Europeans. The larger cities of Faro, Albufeira, and Lagos are a bit grimy, although Lagos has a very nice waterfront harbor, promenade and shopping street.

Cascais – West of Lisbon, but within a short train ride, is the jet set beach region known as the Estoril. We stayed in a very nice hotel on the beach in Cascais and then explored the royal town of Sintra, Estoril, and into Lisbon for day trips. It was an easy hop from Cascais to the Lisbon airport, so we ended our trip with no further driving trauma!

Driving trips, wherever you might find yourself in the world, can be the easiest and least expensive way to explore and to learn about the country. If you can drive on a US freeway you can drive anywhere in the world. Give it a try.

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