The Summer Palace – A Bit of Paradise in Beijing

The last tourist sight we visited before leaving Beijing was the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace is about 15 km (9 miles) northwest of central Beijing.

The Summer Palace is a huge expanse of gardens, temples and other structures, all dominated by the central feature, Kunming Lake. The Summer Palace provides a welcome respite from the traffic and noises of the city. If I were the Emperor, I would probably find an excuse to spend most of my time here!

Tower of Buddhist Incense, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The Tower of Buddhist Incense sits on Longevity Hill, which was created from the excavation of Kunming Lake in the foreground. We did not have the time to climb up the tower, which would offer great views of the Summer Palace grounds. Unfortunately it was a bit hazy on the day we visited.

The Palace was initially built in 1750 by the Emperor Qianlong, and served as a royal retreat. It has undergone many restorations, particularly after 1860 due to the destruction caused by various conflicts. The person most associated with the Palace is the   Empress Dowager Cixi (officially “Holy Mother Empress Dowager”). She was born in 1835, became a concubine at the Palace and eventually saw her son (and later a nephew) become Emperors. However, she was the real power behind the throne for almost 40 years. Much of the restoration of the Palace took place during her “reign”.

As a tourist, it would be easy to spend a full day visiting the Palace, but at a minimum, allow 3 hours for your visit. Unfortunately it was late in the day when we arrived so we only had a couple hours to explore the surroundings. Since the Palace covers such a large area, be prepared for a lot of walking, climbing and possible boating excursions. (The photos below are in the order of our visit through the Palace Gardens).

Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Just past the East Entrance is the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity (“one who is benevolent enjoys longevity”) used as an administrative area of the Emperor and Empress, where they would receive diplomats and conduct various affairs of the court.

Kylin, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Next to the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity stands this mythical creature, called Kylin, which had the power to punish evil and repel the wicked – not hard to see why! It has a dragon head, lion tail, deer horns, and cattle hoofs, with a scaly, fish-like skin.

Beijing Summer Palace4

Wenchang Tower, largest of six gate forts in the Summer Palace garden. The tower is located near the East Entrance to the Summer Palace, along the shore of Kunming Lake.

Long Corridor, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

A view of the Long Corridor (or Long Gallery), which runs from near the east entrance to the Marble Boat along the north shore of Kunming Lake. Hundreds of paintings decorate the interior. It is probably the most iconic feature of the Summer Palace. The Long Corridor is 728 meters long, or nearly half a mile.

Long Corridor, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

An external view of the Long Corridor.

Long Corridor, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

One of the four octagonal pavilions in the Long Corridor, which represent the four seasons. The decorative paintings along the whole walk are quite beautiful.

Long Corridor, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

View of the ceiling of one of the four octagonal pavilions in the Long Corridor.

Marble Boat, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The Marble Boat (Han Chuan, or Clear and Peaceful Boat) can be found at the end of the Long Gallery, along the north shore of Kunming Lake. It was originally built in 1755. It is quite a sight to behold.

Beijing Summer Palace16

Looking up at the Tower of Buddhist Incense from near the Long Corridor.

17 Arch Bridge, Summer Palace, Beijing, China

The 17 Arch Bridge in the distance – it is the largest bridge at the Summer Palace. It connects Nanhu Island in Kunming Lake to the mainland. (a couple of the arches are hidden by the boat).

The Palace is a bit of paradise in the huge, sprawling city of Beijing, and was one of my favorite places to visit. Bring your lunch and enjoy the scenery and people watching. Please note that the main entrance fee does not include several attractions (such as a boat ride) within the Palace gardens, those attractions will require separate fees.

 

Climbing The Great Wall of China — One of the Must-Do’s Near Beijing

The Great Wall without a doubt is the first thing that comes to mind when anyone thinks of China, possibly second only to Panda bears (which we also got to see, more on that in a later post). It’s probably one of those sights that’s on just about everyone’s bucket list. The Great Wall is very impressive, no matter what small portion of it that you are fortunate enough to visit. On this Sinorama tour, we visited the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall, which was a heavily fortified portion to protect a key route through the mountains on the way to Beijing, 31 miles away.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

Juyongguan section of the Great Wall. We climbed up the Wall seen in the hills behind me. It took us about 1.5 hours to climb to the highest point (not quite visible), moving at a fairly quick pace.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

The steepness of the climb can be appreciated in this photo.

I cannot imagine the labor that went in to constructing the wall through the steep, rugged terrain and other natural barriers for thousands of miles. We found enough challenge in just climbing the section that we did, which was steep enough to be hard on the knee joints coming down.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

Taking a short break on the only semi-level section of the Wall in this area.

North of Juyong Pass is Badaling, also considered part of the same pass, and a popular section of the Wall to visit. Years ago I visited the Mutianyu section, which is a bit further from Beijing.

Juyongguan Pass, Great Wall, Beijing, China

Looking towards the Badaling section of the Great Wall (in the far distance) from Juyongguan section, high above the Juyong Pass.

When we think of a wall, usually we think of a pretty straight line with two sides, and the Great Wall, at least in this part of the country, is anything but straight, partially due to the span of multiple construction eras over the centuries and partly due to the rugged landscape.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

Other parts of the Juyongguan section of the Wall can be seen across the valley.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

Lots of stairs–if your job was to patrol this section, you’d be in great shape!

Wall Facts:

The origins of the Wall date back over a millennia ago, although most of the wall we see today was built during the Ming Dynasty, between the mid 1300’s and 1600’s. The Wall runs across norther China and is about 5,500 miles long, of which about 3,800 miles is actual stone wall construction, with the remaining sections being other types of barriers (ditches and natural landscape). Source: Wikipedia

If you visit the Great Wall, be prepared for a LOT of walking, steps, and tourists, at least in the sections of the Wall near Beijing.

Juyongguan Great Wall, Beijing, China

Some of the crowds making their way up as we were coming down. Get there early in the day if possible!

Great Wall Juyongguan Pass16

Get your souvenirs here!

Of course, there are many tourist shops at each location with food, drinks and souvenirs.

Great Wall Juyongguan Pass1

A view of the little village and shops at the base of the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall.

 

 

 

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Visiting the Forbidden City and Other Sights in Beijing

My first visit to Beijing was in 1997. My, how things have changed in twenty years. I recall back then flying in to a small, drab airport that reinforced the feeling of being in a third world country (the current airport was under construction at the time). There was very limited car traffic and the roads were clogged with thousands of bicyclists. Central Beijing felt like a relatively small city (for China) that was easy to walk.

The city has expanded and changed dramatically in the past 20 years, but even so, the key tourist sights are still there and just as amazing now as they were then. We even lucked out on this last trip and had beautiful, clear weather rather than the common heavy gray smog.

In this post I’ll share several of the sights we visited on the first day of our China tour.

Temple of Heaven

This is one of the sights I had visited previously during a business trip to China (see my post here). The Temple of Heaven is a postcard symbol of Beijing. The Emperor would make his way from the Forbidden City to this temple to pray for good harvests each year.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

A view of the Temple of Heaven.

The thing I noticed on this visit was the many senior citizens playing card and other games along the entrance corridor to the Temple, probably because it was a beautiful day and the Temple’s grounds are a park-like oasis in a very busy city.

Beijing Temple of Heaven8

Playing cards near the entrance to the Temple of Heaven.

Hutong Area

I had not been to this area of Beijing previously and I would have loved to explore it further. The word Hutong refers to traditional Chinese neighborhoods with narrow alleys, streets and homes with hidden courtyards, and that’s exactly what this area is like, along with some pretty lakes and park-like areas.

Hutong Area, Beijing, China

The peaceful setting of the Hutong Area.

Hutong Area, Beijing, China

On our rickshaw ride in the Hutong Area of Beijing.

Beijing Hutong2

Another view of the shops in the Hutong Area.

Many Hutongs have been demolished with the rapid growth of Beijing and the government seems intent on preserving what remains of these examples of Chinese history and culture. We took a rickshaw ride through the old streets and ate lunch here in a person’s home. Some Hutongs date back to the 13th century.

Beijing Hutong Lunch2

Our tour group having lunch (which was one of our best meals) inside a person’s home in the Hutong Area of Beijing.

Tiananmen Square

Beijing is laid out in a series of concentric circles, and at the center of Beijing lies Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen Square is probably best known to people in the U.S. as “ground zero” of the student uprising in 1989, which is known locally as the “June 4th incident”, where thousands of students camped out in the Square and were eventually forced to flee the troops and tanks sent to clear the Square. In the process of squelching the protests several hundred demonstrators were killed.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Beautiful displays in Tiananmen Square in preparation for the National Holidays. The entrance to the Forbidden City is in the background. The Square can hold one million people.

Monument to the People's Heroes, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

The Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square. Dedicated to the martyrs of the Revolution. The monument is 10 stories high. In the background is the Great Hall of the People, used for legislative and ceremonial activities.

Worker's Statue, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Worker’s Statue, Tiananmen Square.

This historic, huge square is surrounded by a national museum, the mausoleum of Mao Zedong, a Great Hall and other government buildings. The Square is used for public events, government celebrations and as the main route for entrance into the Forbidden City, the main attraction in central Beijing.

Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is directly north of Tiananmen Square and it’s called the “Forbidden” City since no one other than members of the Imperial Court or special dignitaries were allowed inside. There is a specific route from south to north that you follow through the Forbidden City, the photos below are in the order of our visit from the south entrance to north entrance.

Tiananmen Tower, Beijing, China

Entrance to the Forbidden City is through Tiananmen Tower, located just to the north of Tiananmen Square.

Meridian Gate, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Meridian Gate is the actual entrance to the Forbidden City and lies north of the Tiananmen Tower.

This was the Imperial Palace of China for 500 years, from the early 1400’s to the early 1900’s. The emperor would live, work and receive audiences here, and oversee the care of his thousands of consorts and concubines.

Gate of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Gate of Supreme Harmony provides access to the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the surrounding courtyards.

Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

After the Gate of Supreme Harmony is this courtyard, with the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the background. It is one of the largest wooden structures in China and the largest Hall in the Forbidden City.

More than a million workers labored for 14 years to build the enormous palace complex and surrounding Tongzi Moat. The palace includes almost 1,000 buildings and covers an immense area. Only the Palace museum, main halls, gates and squares are open to tourists, and disappointingly, in some cases a direct view into the halls for photos was not allowed. I have no idea why. Be prepared for a LOT of walking.

Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

From the steps of the Hall of Supreme Harmony looking southeast.

Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

It was difficult to get a good photo of the interior of the Hall of Supreme Harmony due to barricades surrounding the entrance.

Hall of Central Harmony, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Interior of the Hall of Central Harmony. Once again, it was impossible to get a good view of the main throne area.

Large Stone Carving, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Large Stone Carving, behind the Hall of Preserved Harmony. Anyone caught touching this carving during the time of the Emperors would receive the death penalty!

The Gate of Heavenly Purity, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Gate of Heavenly Purity leads to the last set of Halls and Palaces before the Imperial Gardens at the north end of the Forbidden City.

Hall of Heavenly Purity, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

The Palace of Heavenly Purity. Intricate stone carvings are found everywhere in the Forbidden City.

Hall of Union and Hall of Earthly Tranquility, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Hall of Union and Hall of Earthly Tranquility.

Hall of One Thousand Autumns, Imperial Gardens, Forbidden City, Beijing, China

Hall of One Thousand Autumns, Imperial Gardens of the Forbidden City.

While audioguides are available, the English signage is good throughout the Forbidden City. Surprisingly on the day of our visit, the City was not terribly crowded, probably because we were there just prior to the start of the Chinese National Holiday. The palace receives 15 million visitors annually.

2008 Olympic Venues

We made a quick stop at the sight of the 2008 Olympics, hard for me to believe it’s been 10 years since Michael Phelps won a world record 8 gold medals in swimming in Beijing. Of course, the event locations are spread out over a large area, and there is no one location or overlook to view the entire site, but our guide and driver were kind enough to stop and let us at least get a quick glimpse of where some of the main events were held.

2008 Olympic Venues, Beijing, China

A view of the Aquatic Center where Michael Phelps won his 8 gold medals and the “Birds Nest” arena behind it from the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

In my next post, we’ll visit the Summer Palace and the Great Wall.

A Tour of China – Overview

Although I have been to China a number of times on business, I had visited only a few cities and never took the time to be a tourist. My wife had not been to China and since this country was high on her bucket list, we finally took the plunge and did a tour in late September / early October. Overall, the fall was a pretty good time of year to go, the weather was reasonable (not too hot or cold). The only downside was that October 1st is a Chinese National Holiday (celebrating the anniversary of the communist revolution) and the Chinese have eight straight days of vacation time around October 1st, meaning they were taking road trips to the tourist sites just like we were. Luckily, we were able for the most part to stay one step ahead of the local holiday revelers due to our savvy tour guide.

Shanghai China3

Our family with our Sinorama tour guide, Jessie, who was fantastic.

Although I’ve made it clear over the years that I am not a fan of tour groups, we found that a tour was the way to go in China, saving a lot of headaches trying to figure out how to get around this huge, somewhat confusing country independently. We used Sinorama Tours, based in Vancouver, Canada. The tour was an amazing value, largely because the Chinese government subsidizes the tours to promote tourism to China. Our 15 day tour price (approximately, per person) of $1,750 included roundtrip airfare on Air Canada from San Francisco (your departure city may cost more via Vancouver, B.C. to Beijing), all hotels (which were very good business-class hotels), most meals, entrance fees, a 4 night Yangtze River cruise, internal flights (3) and local transportation! Some activities (acrobat show, some dinners and other side tours) were extra. Since the tour company is Canadian, about half our group was from Canada, the rest from the U.S.

Acrobat show, Shanghai, China.

An acrobat show in Shanghai, which was a great experience.

We started our tour in Beijing and ended in Shanghai (other members of our tour group continued on from Shanghai and ended in Hong Kong via a few other stops). You can find our itinerary here.

A few observations about China and this tour:

  1. Soak up the culture. China is teeming with a variety of peoples and cultures within its expansive borders. We were were able to just get a glimpse of its amazing history – take advantage of the local scene where you can, along with the art, museums and world-class sights.
    Shanghai, China.

    A local grocer in Shanghai.

    Xi'an street vendors, China

    Street vendors in Xi’an, one of my favorite cities in China.

  2. A fast developing economy. China is changing dramatically and extremely quickly. What blew my family away more than anything was the fast pace of growth in China – new buildings, highways, airports, bridges, etc. going up all at once and everywhere. The scale of construction activity is really beyond comprehension.
    Chonqing34

    A panorama of the ultra modern central square in Chonqing, on the Yangtze River.

    Wuhan, China.

    New apartment buildings going up in Wuhan, just a small example of the endless construction going on in China.

  3. Weather. Expect that most days will be gray and overcast, due to the humidity and smog (bring an umbrella!). I think the government is trying to improve the air quality, but we had very few clear, bright sunny days.

    Shanghai2

    A pretty rare clear day – a view of the Shanghai skyline driving in from the Pudong airport.

  4. Crowds. Just plan on lots of local people filling the streets wherever you go. Some pushing and shoving is to be expected in really heavy crowds and you just have to hold your ground (somewhat true at airports or on planes too). However, I never felt unsafe or worried about theft, although I made sure I knew where my valuables were at all times and limited what I carried with me during the day. Take the usual precautions with your belongings and you should be fine.

    Terra Cotta Warriors Museum.

    At the Terra Cotta Warriors museum. This was a very light day in terms of tourists!

  5. On the tour, the food is OK. Sinorama runs many tours, and the tour groups tend to eat around the same time at the same locations, sometimes hotels or other venues with large eating areas. Real Chinese food in China is not quite P. F. Chang’s. The quality varied, and we would say it was “OK” for the most part – some meals were good, some so-so, some not so good.
    Beijing Great Wall Lunch

    A typical meal (lunch) layout (most meals came with 5-6 dishes, they are just starting the service here).

    Sinorama admits the food quality varies. Just go with the flow. Common dishes included some bland vegetables, scrambled eggs in a tomato base soup of sorts, fried chicken pieces, occasional other meat dishes, and always a serving of watermelon at the end of the meal.

    Chonqing17

    We found an EXCELLENT noodle shop close to our hotel in Xi’an.

    Learn how to eat with chopsticks! We also wandered around and found some excellent small restaurants on our own.

  6. As part of the tour, expect some visits to local businesses. This is the part that I usually hate with tours, the “forced” shopping and feeling that you must buy something to support the locals. However, over 15 days we only visited a few factories: silk, cloisonné, jade, terra cotta, and some other art shops. Not too bad for the length of the tour, and few of these workshops were quite interesting – we even bought a few things!
    Terra Cotta Warriors.

    At the Terra Cotta Warriors shop in Xi’an, where you can buy a statue for your home, not far from the actual Museum.

    Cloisonné factory, Beijing, China

    Workers (I would call them amazingly skilled artists) at the cloisonné factory near Beijing.

    Beijing Cloissonne Factory1

    Finished product at the cloisonné factory.

  7. The tour provides excellent transportation. We had large, comfortable tour buses in each location and the three flights within China were comfortable. As stated above, China is developing rapidly and every city we flew into had a new, huge, modern airport.

    Beijing China airport.

    Interior view of the Beijing airport.

My future posts will focus on the sights we visited. Once again, I commend Sinorama for their excellent work in accommodating such varied tourist needs and coordinating so many logistics.

More Day Trip Options from Porto: Lamego and Santa Maria da Feira Castle

If you’re up for a very full day trip from Porto, Portugal then consider adding a visit to the town of Lamego after Guimarães. After our visit to Guimarães Castle and the Ducal Palace, we continued on to Lamego, which is 119 km (74 miles) east from Guimarães. This drive is quite pretty, winding through the hills and valleys of the Douro Valley, the great wine producing region of Portugal.

Our primary reason to visit Lamego was to see the Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios (Our Lady of the Remedies), an 18th century Baroque church which sits on St. Stephen’s Hill (a pilgrimage site), with a fine view of Lamego. This church is on one of the routes pilgrims have taken when traveling to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. It is known for its beautiful stairways and decorative landings leading up to the church itself.

Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, Lamego, Portugal

View of Lamego from the Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios.

Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, Lamego, Portugal

Interior view of the Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios.

Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, Lamego, Portugal.

One of the nine landings and some of the 686 steps which climb St. Stephen’s Hill to the Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios. Many of the landings have beautiful tile artwork.

Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, Lamego, Portugal.

A view of the stairs and landings leading up to the Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios. Each September, as part of the Festa de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, some pilgrims will climb the stairs on their knees.

In addition to the Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, Lamego has an interesting and very historic Cathedral, which dates from the mid 12th century. It is located in the heart of the town, a short distance from the bottom of St. Stephen’s Hill. Its construction was commissioned by the 1st king of Portugal (Afonso Henriques).

Lamego Cathedral, Lamego, Portugal

A view of the Lamego Cathedral. The bell tower on the right dates from the early 1100’s.

Lamego Cathedral, Lamego, Portugal

Interior of the Lamego Cathedral.

Lamego Cathedral, Lamego, Portugal

The decorative door portals on the Lamego Cathedral were completed in 1514.

Lamego Cathedral, Lamego, Portugal.

A closer look at the 12th century bell tower of the Lamego Cathedral, which also served as a prison starting in the 1400’s.

Another gem in Lamego is the Chapel of São Pedro de Balsemão (Chapel of St. Peter). This ancient chapel (which dates to 600 CE) is a bit hard to find–it sits below the main town in a little narrow valley, but we managed to find it.

Chapel of São Pedro de Balsemão, Lamego, Portugal.

Exterior view of the Chapel of São Pedro de Balsemão, which belies its 1500 year-old interior.

Chapel of São Pedro de Balsemão, Lamego, Portugal.

Interior of the Chapel of São Pedro de Balsemão. Stones from a nearby Roman Villa were used in its construction (the tomb is from the 14th century, a Bishop of Porto).

Chapel of São Pedro de Balsemão, Lamego, Portugal.

This statue of Mary, found in the Chapel of São Pedro de Balsemão, was sculpted from white limestone in the 14th century.

On the fastest car route from Guimarães to Lamego lies the town of Vila Real. This town is home to the scenic 18th century Mateus Palace. This palace is privately managed and is quite pricey to visit, so we stopped only for a quick walk in the gardens and to view the exterior of the palace. It was a worthwhile stop.

Mateus Palace, Portugal

A postcard view of Mateus Palace.

Mateus Palace, Portugal

Exterior view of the chapel of Mateus Palace.

Mateus Palace, Portugal

View of the neatly manicured gardens of the Mateus Palace (the palace chapel is in the background).

Mateus Palace.

A little fountain and statue in the gardens of Mateus Palace.

Mateus Palace, Portugal

Another view of the gardens and surrounding countryside of Mateus Palace with my wife and mother-in-law.

Santa Maria da Feira Castle

This little town and castle is in a completely different direction from Porto than the sights mentioned above. Santa Maria da Feira is directly south of Porto about 32 km (20 miles). The reason to visit this town is for its historic castle, which although small, is  pretty classic-looking and worth a visit. There has been a fortress on this spot since the 10th century, it was a strategic stronghold for the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors. The current castle dates from the 1400’s.

Santa Maria da Feira Castle, Portugal

Exterior view of the Santa Maria da Feira Castle.

Santa Maria da Feira Castle, Portugal

Another view of the castle from the side opposite the first photo.

Santa Maria da Feira Castle, Portugal

The roof of the castle – my mother-in-law in one of the castle’s towers.

Santa Maria da Feira Castle, Portugal

Courtyard of the castle.

Santa Maria da Feira Castle, Portugal

View of the town of Santa Maria da Feira from the castle roof.

During our visit to the castle, they were setting up for a Halloween party, what better place than an actual medieval castle!

 

 

 

 

Guimarães Castle, Portugal.

Guimarães Castle and Palace – A Great Day Trip from Porto and the Birthplace of Portugal

For a pleasant day trip from Porto, Portugal, try Guimarães. This town is about 55km (34 miles) northeast of Porto. Guimarães is considered the birthplace of Portugal. Although Portuguese dukes declared independence from this location as far back as the 12th century, true independence would not happen until the 17th century.  As with many cities in Europe, the history of Guimarães dates back to ancient times, at least to the Roman period. The site of the castle and palace, called Holy Hill, is steeped in history too. I always love when several historic buildings are part of the same property.

Guimarães Castle and Ducal Palace, Portugal

This little chapel, Church of São Miguel do Castelo (near Guimarães Castle), dates back to the 10th century (unfortunately it is not open for visitors).

The castle and palace described below are next door to each other and near the town center.

Guimarães Castle

This castle is very small, mainly a crenelated wall with eight towers and a small tower keep in the center. In spite of being small, it is a national symbol of Portugal’s founding and struggle for independence.

Guimaraes Castle, Portugal.

Interesting to see how the existing huge rocks were incorporated into the castle walls.

Guimaraes Castle, Portugal.

The tower keep at Guimarães Castle also incorporates the original hillside stone.

You can partially walk around the castle walls, which provide a good view of the palace and surrounding countryside.

Guimarães Castle, Portugal.

View of the Ducal Palace from Guimarães Castle.

Guimaraes Castle, Portugal

A view of the wall walk and a tower at Guimarães Castle.

The best views of the castle are from the exterior. It was built originally in the 10th century to protect against the Norsemen and Moorish invaders.

Guimaraes Castle, Portugal

Exterior view of Guimaraes Castle.

Ducal Palace of Braganza

The palace is more interesting than the castle, with a large interior courtyard and rooms that make you feel like you’ve been transported right back to the 1400’s. The style is reminiscent of French architecture, and the whole palace looks like it belongs in Northern Europe.

Ducal Palace of Branganza, Guimaraes, Portugal

Exterior view of the Ducal Palace of Braganza.

Ducal Palace of Braganza, Guimaraes, Portugal.

Courtyard of the Ducal Palace of Braganza.

Ducal Palace of Braganza, Guimarães

Another exterior view of the Ducal Palace of Braganza.

Great tapestries hang from the huge room walls, and the furniture fits the palace’s original period pretty well.

Ducal Palace of Braganza, Guimarães, Portugal

A hall in the Ducal Palace of Braganza, with massive tapestries.

Construction began in the early 15th century, as ordered by the Alfonso, Duke of Braganza.

Ducal Palace of Braganza, Guimaraes, Portugal

Great banquet hall in the Ducal Palace of Braganza

Ducal Palace of Braganza, Guimaraes, Portugal.

Another hall in the Ducal Palace of Braganza.

Ducal Palace of Braganza, Guimaraes, Portugal.

Room in the Ducal Palace of Braganza.

Ducal Palace of Braganza, Guimaraes, Portugal.

The chapel in the Ducal Palace of Braganza.

The palace has been reconstructed over the years and served as a residence for the President of Portugal in the mid 20th century.

Guimarães, Portugal.

This little square is next to the castle and palace. It has a statue of Dom Afonso Henriques, who was born in Guimarães and was the first king of Portugal (12th century). (Parking was available on the street right by the square).

In addition to the castle and palace, Guimarães has a quaint town center and a convent (Misericórdia), which we did not take the time to visit, since we wanted also to visit a few sights near Lumego on the same day. Lumego is 119 km (74 miles) east of Guimarães.

Dom Luís I Bridge, Porto, Portugal

The Sights of Porto, Portugal

Porto is one of the smaller great cities of Europe and slightly off the tourist radar, perhaps because it’s a bit isolated at the northwestern end of the Iberian peninsula. I think it’s a more interesting city than Lisbon, although it shares some similar physical characteristics, such as being located on a river and close to the Atlantic Ocean.

We spent a couple days in Porto, visiting sights in the city and the surrounding area. I’ve listed below a few things to see in Porto. In my next blog post I will cover some of the surrounding area.

Porto Train Station, Portugal

Interior of the Porto S. Bento Train Station – art work is everywhere you go in Porto.

Be warned, Porto is a hilly town and you will get your exercise walking up and down the city streets!

Porto,

One of the many narrow streets in Porto.

Douro River Cruise

The Douro River is a major feature of Porto, dividing the city into two halves – north and south. The river is a transportation hub and much of Porto’s restaurant scene and nightlife centers on the river front. After arriving in Porto and getting settled in our apartment, we strolled down to the waterfront and chose one of several available river cruises for the evening. The cruise was about an hour long. It’s a great way to get a feel for the city and life along the waterfront.

Porto, Portugal

A typical river cruise boat on the Douro Rive (part of Porto’s old city wall is visible on the hillside).

Porto, Portugal

A view of Porto’s river waterfront, looking north. Porto’s cathedral sits above and behind the construction crane.

Porto, Portugal

One more view of Porto’s riverfront, note all the little booths selling food and trinkets along the bank.

Douro River, Porto, Portugal

A beautiful sunset frames the famed Dom Luís I Bridge which crosses the Douro River in the heart of Porto, connecting the north and south sides of the city.

Close to the Dom Luís I Bridge on the north side of the river are many restaurants. Just across the river on the south side are the famed Porto wine cellars. Admittedly, it’s a little touristy around here, but there’s a fun ambiance and it’s a great place to spend an evening.

Porto,

Near the Douro River, restaurants get set for another evening of busy service.

Historic Churches 

There are a number of beautiful churches in Porto, many of which date from the early – mid 1700’s. They are easy to spot with their blue decorative tile exteriors. With our tourist map in hand, we explored about a half dozen churches, a few of those are shown below.

Porto,

Straight ahead is the Igreja dos Congregados, one of the many decorated churches in Porto (S. Bento train station is on the right).

Igreja de Sto Ildefonso, Porto, Portugal.

Exterior of Igreja de Sto Ildefonso. Many of the churches from the early 18th century have beautiful tile work on the exterior.

Igreja do Carmo0

Side view of the Igreja do Carmo, another 18th century church in Porto.

Igreja de San Francisco, Porto, Portugal

The somber exterior of Igreja de San Francisco (which dates from the 14th century), does not give any clue as to what awaits the visitor inside.

Igreja de San Francisco, Porto, Portugal

Interior of Igreja de San Francisco, with some of the most ornate Baroque decorative woodwork I’ve seen in a church anywhere.

Igreja de San Francisco, Porto, Portugal.

A close-up of one of the altars in Igreja de San Francisco.

Irgreja e Torre dos Clergios. Porto, Portugal

Exterior of the Irgreja e Torre dos Clergios, which also dates from the early 18th century. The church and tower, as the name implies, are connected and both are well worth a visit.

Igreja e Torre dos Clérigos, Porto, Portugal

Interior of the Igreja e Torre dos Clérigos.

Torre dos Clerigos, Porto, Portugal.

A view of the Torre dos Clerigos, which dominates the Porto skyline. It can be climbed for great views of Porto.

Porto, Portugal

View from the Torre dos Clerigos. The 12th century cathedral is in the center of the old town.

Porto Cathedral, Porto, Portugal

The Porto Cathedral, which dates from the latter half of the 12th century.

Porto Cathedral, Porto, Portugal

Interior of the Porto Cathedral.

Porto Cathedral, Porto, Portugal

View of a portico of the Cathedral, with decorative tiles that were added in the 17th century.

General City Views and the Dom Luís I Bridge

The Dom Luís I Bridge connects north and south Porto and was built in the late 1800’s. One of the bidders on the project was none other than Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, although he did not get the job. This bridge is the signature landmark of Porto and dominates the riverfront views of the old city.

Dom Luís I Bridge, Porto, Portugal

A view of the Dom Luís I Bridge and Douro River, looking to the old part of Porto, on the north bank.

The bridge can be walked on either the upper or the lower level. The upper level provides great views of the city for the pedestrian (and carries trains across the river), cars use the lower level as well as pedestrians.

Serra do Pilar Monastery, Dom Luis I Bridge, Porto, Portugal

A night view of the Dom Luís I Bridge, looking south. The building behind the bridge is the Serra do Pilar Monastery.

Livraria Vello Bookstore

The Livraria Vello bookstore is another famous landmark of Porto. It dates back to the late 1800’s, and is one of the oldest bookstores in Portugal and is considered one of the top three bookstores in the world. I’ve read that it served as inspiration for the Harry Potter books, as the author lived in Porto for a period of time and spent time here before writing the famous story.

Livraria Lello Bookstore, Porto, Portugal

Inside the Livraria Lello Bookstore, 2nd level.

Livraria Lello Bookstore, Porto, Portugal

The famed staircase inside the Livraria Lello.

Livraria Lello Bookstore, Porto, Portugal.

Another view of the Livraria Lello Bookstore.

Due to the store’s popularity, you have to get a ticket to visit the bookstore at a specific time, these can be purchased online. Also nearby is a fun gift shop with a whole variety of nicknacks.

Porto Souvenir Store, Porto, Portugal

Porto Souvenir Store

Our Apartment in Porto

As usual, Robyn found us a great place to stay in Porto, an apartment right in the old city on the north side of the river and close to all the sights.

Porto, Portugal

Robyn on the balcony of our apartment in Porto, which was a 5-10 minute walk to the riverfront.

Porto, Portugal

The kitchen of our apartment in Porto.

Porto, Portugal

Looking out on the street from our apartment in Porto.

Alcáçova Palace, Coimbra, Portugal

Coimbra, Portugal – Home to One of Europe’s Great Universities

Our last stop between Nazaré and Porto was Coimbra, home to one of Europe’s oldest universities and the former capital of Portugal. The university was founded in Lisbon in 1290, moved to Coimbra, then moved back to Lisbon and finally back to Coimbra for good in 1537. The university has an ideal setting–it makes its home in the Alcaçova Palace, which sits on a hill in the old quarter of Coimbra overlooking the Mondego river. About 20,000 students attend the university from all over the world.

Coimbra, Portugal

A view of Coimbra from the Alcaçova Palace.

Mondego River, Coimbra, Portugal

A view of Coimbra University buildings and the Mondego River in the distance.

There are three main sights for the tourist in the University:

Joanine Library. This 18th century library is the star tourist attraction of the university, and it is stunning. The library contains 250,000 volumes dating from the 15th century. Great care is taken to maintain an environment needed to preserve the old texts, including the housing of a small colony of bats that prey on the paper-eating insects that could destroy the books. Of course, cleaning up after the bats every day is no small challenge!

Joanine Library, Coimbra University, Portugal

A view inside the Joanine Library.

Coimbra University Library4

Another snapshot of the library, showing the table where old texts may be read.

Note: The rules state very clearly as you enter the library that no photos are allowed and they are serious about this. I took a few photos (above) on my phone and shortly thereafter I was quickly ushered out of the library. So, be warned! Also a ticket is required for entry to the library, and you are given a specific time to enter, with perhaps 10-15 other people.

São Miguel Chapel. This chapel was built in the early 1500’s and is quite beautiful with decorative tiles and a grand organ dating from 1733. The chapel is sometimes rented out for weddings and other events.

São Miguel Chapel, Coimbra, Portugal

The altar in the São Miguel Chapel.

Sao Miguel Chapel, Coimbra University, Coimbra, Portugal

A view of the tile work in the São Miguel Chapel.

Sao Miguel Chapel, Coimbra University, Portugal

The 18th century organ in the São Miguel Chapel.

Alcaçova Palace. Since Coimbra University occupies the buildings of a former palace, a few other rooms are open to tourists, most contain displays of local history.

Coimbra, Portugal

Courtyard and grand hall of Alcáçova Palace, home of Coimbra University.

Alcaçova Palace, Coimbra, Portugal

The grand hall of Alcaçova Palace where doctoral students defend their dissertations.

Alcaçova Palace, Coimbra, Portugal

Spear display in Alcaçova Palace.

Outside the university in the Old Quarter of Coimbra, we made just one other stop, to visit the “New” Cathedral (Sé Nova). This cathedral, built in 1598 is not exactly new, but relative to the old cathedral, known as Sé Velha (from the 12th century), I guess we can consider it new!

Sé Nova Cathedral, Coimbra, Portugal

Exterior view of Sé Nova Cathedral

Coimbra, Portugal

The altar in the Sé Nova de Coimbra.

Sé Nova Cathedral, Coimbra, Portugal

Chapel in Sé Nova, Coimbra.

If you’re on your way to Porto, the town of Coimbra is definitely worth a stop. I wish we had had more time to explore this old city.

Conimbriga, Portugal

Conimbriga – Portugal’s Best-Preserved Roman Ruins

On our way north from Nazaré to Porto we stopped at the site of a Roman settlement in Portugal, known as Conimbriga, which is about halfway between those two cities (roughly 110 km or 68 miles either way). The history of Conimbriga actually dates back well before the Romans, to the Bronze and Iron ages. It was an ideal location, on a plateau that was easy to defend and good access to water.

What remains are the Roman-era ruins, of which 17% have been excavated, leaving a lot more to discover. The visible ruins date from about mid 1st century CE to about 500 CE, when the Roman empire finally completely collapsed. Although most of the structures are pretty ruined, enough remains to get a feel for the wealth and prosperity of Conimbriga in its prime.

Conimbriga, Portugal

The gate and road into Conimbriga. The original city walls were smaller and encircled a much wider area. The town’s fortifications were strengthened around a smaller portion of the city in the 3rd century CE.

Conimbriga, Portugal

These structures, which include shops, baths and houses, are just outside the town’s walls, which form the backdrop.

The largest aristocratic residence, known as the House of Fountains, sits just outside the walls. It was constructed around 200 CE and excavated in 1939. It has a huge courtyard (or peristyle) with pools, fountains and beautiful mosaic floors in its rooms. Unfortunately, it was largely demolished when the defenses of the town were strengthened and building material was needed. The remnants of this 35,000 sq. feet residence are still interesting, protected by an overhead shelter.

House of the Fountains, Conimbriga, Portugal

The courtyard of the House of the Fountains, with its pools and small fountains. It must have been very impressive 2,000 years ago. Note the mosaic floors around the perimeter of the pools.

House of the Fountains, Conimbriga, Portugal

A view of some of the rooms in the House of the Fountains.

House of the Fountains, Conimbriga, Portugal

A closer look at the frescoes and mosaic floors in the House of the Fountains.

There are remains of other buildings inside the city walls, including a forum, basilica, and other dwellings. The Romans were amazing engineers and builders, their ability to construct a city layout with infrastructure that is still partially intact today speaks to their skills.

Conimbriga, Portugal

This structure is known as the House of Cantaber, constructed about 100 CE. The columns surround the peristyle (courtyard). The city walls are right behind the house.

Baths, Conimbriga, Portugal.

A view of private baths at Conimbriga, the foundations here date from the 3rd and 4th century. The hexagonal tanks were heated and held hot water.

Conimbriga, Portugal

Detail of the mosaic floor of the aptly named “House of the Swastika”, excavated in 1940. (The infamous Nazi adaptation was reversed from this much earlier version)

Conimbriga, Portugal

Another view of the ruins of Conimbriga.

Conimbriga, Portugal

The remains of the Baths of the Aqueduct (the wall behind the raised floor was the aqueduct, and the raised floor covers part of the baths).

In addition to the ruins at Conimbriga, there is a small museum on the site, and there are a few other small Roman ruins north and south (Alcabideque, Rabaçal and Santiago Da Guardia), indicating the expanse of Roman civilization in this part of Portugal.

Places to Visit in Central Portugal (Tomar, Alcobaça and Batalha) – Part II

Portugal is home to some of the most famous medieval-era monasteries in Europe. On our last trip, we were able to visit four of them. A primary reason for our two day stay in Nazaré was to visit three of these monasteries: Alcobaça, Batalha and Tomar (the fourth monastery is in Belém, near Lisbon, I have written a little about it here). It might be possible to visit all three in an extremely rushed day; however, I would suggest visiting Alcobaça and Batalha on one day (both are pretty close to Nazaré) and then see Tomar on the second day, with a visit to Almourol castle before or after (these two sights are just 32 km (20 miles) apart).

All three monasteries in this post are well worth visiting. For sake of time, I would prioritize Tomar first (it’s the furthest away and has the most extensive set of rooms that can be visited), Alcobaça and then Batalha.

Tomar (Convento de Cristo)

The town of Tomar, known for its unique monastery (called Convento de Cristo), is one of the signature sights in Portugal. The main chapel dates to the 11th century and the walls surround the monastery complex are much older. Convento de Cristo is extremely unique because of its circular, fortress-like chapel, and its long association with the Templar Knights.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar

A view of the walls surrounding Convento de Cristo in Tomar.

I had the privilege of visiting Convento de Cristo a few years ago, and I was just as amazed visiting it again on this trip as I had been previously. The site is extensive, and consists of visiting the chapel, cloisters with several levels, kitchens, refectory, dorm rooms, meeting halls and other places, including the exterior gardens.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar.

The circular (16 sided) Templar chapel of Convento de Cristo.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar, Portugal

Interior of the Templar Chapel (Charola), Convento de Cristo.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar.

The elaborate entrance to Convento de Cristo, Tomar.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Detail of the Manueline sculptures (16th century) which decorate the Convento de Cristo.

Allow at least two hours for your visit. The site is well sign-posted with English explanations.

Note: Several years ago, I visited Tomar as a day trip via train from Lisbon (see post here). This is very doable. However, if you have more time, a road trip is better, since you will be able to see more sights along the way. Since my family had not been to Tomar, we made this sight one of our destinations out of Nazaré. It’s only 77 km (48 miles) directly east of Nazaré. This monastery sits on a hill overlooking the town, and parking is available off the road part way up the hill.

Tomar Aqueduct

Also, just north of the town of Tomar a few kilometers is an old aqueduct, built in the 1590’s. Visiting it is free, it goes right over and next to the road. We saw it on the map and made our way to it after our visit to the monastery. It was built to provide water to the monastery.

Tomar aqueduct, Portugal.

A view of the aqueduct near Tomar. You can take a walk across the top.

Alcobaça

This Cistercian monastery is just 16 km (10 miles) east of Nazaré and takes its name from its location at the confluence of the Alcoa and Baça rivers, which provided a water source for crops and the monastery residents. Construction began in 1178 and now the monastery is surrounded by the old town of Alcobaça.

Alcobaça monastery, Portugal.

Exterior view of Alcobaça monastery.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

A view of the Cloister of Silence, built in the 13th century.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

The massive and austere interior of Alcobaça Church. The vaults are over 20 meters (65 ft) high.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

Alcobaça’s refectory (where the monks would eat their meals). From this pulpit, there would be scripture readings to those gathered.

Alcobaca Monastery Kitchen2

Everything in Alcobaça is on a huge scale. This is a view of the massive kitchen.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

Reliquary Chapel, built between 1669 – 1672, part of the Manueline Sacristy. There is an additional fee to visit this chapel, but it is well worth it. Seventy-one terra cotta busts adorn the interior.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal.

The dormitory, one of the oldest parts of the monastery.

The adjacent town of Alcobaça also deserves at least a short walk, it has a scenic center.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

A view of Alcobaça town.

Batalha

Founded in 1386 by King João I (who is buried here), to commemorate a battle that led to Portugal’s independence from Spain, this site is of national importance to the Portuguese. Construction went on for hundreds of years and was never completed. This monastery is 32 km (20 miles) northeast of Nazaré. It is considered one of the finest manifestations of gothic architecture in Portugal. This monastery was nearly in ruins in the early 1800’s, and thankfully it has been restored and is now a museum.

Batalha Monastery, Portugal.

A view of the north side of Batalha Monastery.

Batalha Monastery, Portugal

Another view of the exterior of Batalha Monastery.

Batalha, Portugal

The intricate detail carvings over the entrance to the unfinished chapels (Capelas Imperfeitas) at Batalha.

Batalha, Portugal.

A view of the unfinished chapels.

Batalha, Portugal.

The soaring expanse of the main nave in the church at Batalha.

Batalha, Portugal

Door carving at the entrance to the cloisters.

Batalha, Portugal.

A view of the cloisters at Batalha.

Batalha, Portugal.

The Chapter House at Batalha. Its ceiling covers a large expanse and has no central support, an engineering feat in the early 1400’s. Soldiers can be seen standing as honor guards in this room by the far wall, stationed here in remembrance of the war of independence from Spain.

Practicalities

We visited these monasteries in October, and none were very busy. You can get a ticket that allows you to visit all three of those discussed in this post for a discounted rate. A senior rate is also available. Buy your ticket at the first monastery you visit. There is a direct train to Tomar from Lisbon (I recall that there were only one or two stops along the way), and it’s an easy day trip from Lisbon. Travel to Batalha and Alcobaça is a bit more complicated from Lisbon via train (it requires bus travel too). A rental car is by far more convenient.