Malcolm and I are just home from a twelve day transatlantic cruise that took us from New York to Lisbon followed by a week in Portugal, which we split between Lisbon and Porto.
After disembarking the Azamara Journey in Lisbon, we took a three minute walk from the sea port to the train station where we boarded a train to Porto. The three hour journey was uneventful and after a quick train change in Coimbra, we arrived in Sao Bento, which is an event unto itself. Hand painted tiles cover the walls of the train depot and every tourist entering has the same agenda – selfies with some of the most famous tiles in the world.
It is impossible to get a nice clean shot, but I would be remiss to not share at least one really bad photo so you get the gist of how beautiful this building is up close and personal.
Taxis were lined up outside the station so we grabbed the first available one and set off to our hotel. The ten minute ride gave us a pretty good indication of what we were about to experience, and we were more than pleased that we had chosen Porto to base for a few days. Quaint streets, unbelievable elevations, more beautiful tiled buildings, unique shops and the river; let’s not forget about that.
Porto is a wonderful destination that requires days to fully explore and appreciate, and it is also a great location to use as a base for visiting other intriguing destinations, such as the Douro Valley and Braga. We used a wonderful guide by Patti and Abi over at One Road at a time to visit Braga, and we booked a semi-private tour through CM Tour company for our day trip to the Douro Valley. Both decisions led to great experiences. You can check out Patti and Abi’s blog and their guide to a Braga day trip here.
There are two solid reasons to visit Braga; the Bom Jesus Basilica and the Se Cathedral. It is possible to spend a full day in Braga just wandering about enjoying the city center, gardens and shopping on a swank avenue, but you MUST visit these two amazing sights.
Using our TEP wi-fi device, we navigated our way by foot from the train station in Braga to the city center and the Se Cathedral; the oldest cathedral in Portugal. It was an easy fifteen minute walk. The exterior of the church is fairly unassuming, but that’s not the attraction. The reason to visit here is the massive pipe organ that fills virtually one quarter of the ceiling. I am a huge fan of pipe organs, and this is a dandy. Again, a photo does not do this magnificent piece justice, so you will just have to visit Braga and see it for yourself.
After a leisurely walk through the Jardin de Santa Barbara and a quick stop for lunch, we navigated our way to Central Avenue and caught the #2 bus as Patti and Abi had suggested for a visit to Bom Jesus.
Although many visitors walk the 577 stairs up to the basilica, we opted to pay 1.20 euro each for a ride to the top. After all, the #2 bus had very conveniently dropped us at the funicular, so why not. We did however, walk each and every one of those daunting steps back down. e did however, walk each and every one of those daunting steps back down.
The Bom Jesus is a spiritual place that once encouraged pilgrims to make the journey to the top on their knees in order to experience the pain that Jesus suffered in route to his crucifixion. Whether you appreciate the spiritual significance or not, it is by far the number one attraction in Braga and a must see for all who visit here.
We visited the inside of the Basilica, but it was undergoing renovations, so I skipped taking photos there.
In all, our visit and walk down took about two hours. Back down the hill, we caught the #2 at the same point that it left us and stayed on the bus until we reached the train station for our return to Porto. Day trips do not get easier than this. Thanks Patti and Abi!
Fun fact: the funicular is the oldest still in operation in the world and is powered by water.
It is possible to rent a car and explore the Douro Valley on your own, but we only had one day and wanted to make the most of it. Malcolm booked CM Tour company many weeks in advance of our arrival. At 75 Euro per person, it was a great value for the experience. We were picked up at our hotel around 8:30 a.m. and returned there at approximately 6:30 p.m. Three hours of the day is devoted to driving to and from the Douro Valley, but it was a pleasure to watch the landscape change as we left the city and entered the valley.
This English speaking tour included 4 US and 4 Korean passengers. Our tour guide, Anna was a delight as she remained animated throughout the day. While this is not considered a ‘private’ tour, Anna made it feel personal as she engaged each of us with her attention. A good tour guide can make or break the experience, and we encountered both versions during our time in Portugal. This was an excellent tour and we highly recommend it to anyone wanting to experience a snapshot of the Douro Valley.
The day included tours and tastings at two ‘farms’ or wine estates as we know them, lunch, a 45 minute boat ride down the Douro River in a classic Rabelo boat (that used to carry barrels of port) and a scenic drive through the valley.
The Douro Valley is known for its production of Port wines. In fact, a wine cannot be called a port unless it is produced here. I was under the misconception that all Ports are sweet, after dinner drinks. Not so. I know what I like, but even after touring two estates in the valley, I did not fully understand how to choose a good bottle. This article cleared things up a bit, so take a look if you want to know more about port.
Quinta de Marrocos is a small batch producer that still processes its grapes the old fashioned way, by stomping. If you visit the valley in September, you can take part in the process. Many of the estates in the region offer lodging and I can’t imagine a more romantic setting than this.
The Quinta de Santa Júlia is an elegant estate which offers tours and lodging. The experience here was first rate and it is a place that we would consider staying in the future.
The owner of the estate is quite proud of his beautiful rose garden which slopes down toward the valley at the back of the house. The estate included an abundance of fruit trees, olive groves and even a small chapel that hosts services a few times per year.
The estate tours were heavy on charm and generous with a pour; another reason for hiring a guide! I lost track of how many wines we tasted throughout the day. The fun continued as port wine was served with a traditional lunch of cod fish cakes, and Anna surprised us with yet another sample on the boat ride. Note: We were offered a choice of meat or fish for lunch and we both chose the fish. It was accompanied by a big basket of bread, a creamy vegetable soup, a side dish of rice and beans and a dessert. Not a big fan of the cod fish cake, but seafood in general is what it’s all about in Portugal and we did eventually figure out what to choose and what to stay away from.
On the drive back to Porto, Anna took about a twenty minute detour along the old route (she referred to it as the National) before returning to the express highway in order to share this special treat – a view of the valley and one of the small towns that we had passed through on our journey. It was worth every one of the hair pin turns that we encountered to get there.
Bottom line. If you find yourself in Porto, Portugal, by all means take your time enjoying this amazing city, but don’t forget that there are many great day trips just around the corner. Plan to stay awhile.
“A good snapshot keeps a moment from running away.” ― Eudora Welty
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