Things to see in Portugal

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.

Sintra – You Won’t Get Bored Here – Part 2

I had been to Sintra a few years ago while on business to Lisbon, Portugal. I knew one day I would have to come back, and I finally did. It is a short drive (or train ride) away from Lisbon (about 40 kilometers or 25 miles).

Sintra, Portugal

A view of Sintra and the surrounding countryside.

As I said in my original post on Sintra, it is one of the most enchanting towns in Europe, due to its multitude of fascinating sights. I don’t know of any other small town that offers so much for the tourist in such a compact area. Even after spending the better part of two days here this time, there are still things I did not get to see.

Sintra has its roots in Portugal’s Moorish past, dating to the eighth or ninth century. On my first visit I saw the Moorish castle (Castelo dos Mouros, a fine set of ramparts high above the town) and the Pena Palace (Palácio Da Pena), the polychromatic post card image of Sintra.

On this trip I added three more sights:

Quinta da Regaleira. This manor house with its gardens takes its name from Baroness da Regaleira, who bought the property in 1840. This was the summer residence of the Carvalho Monteiro family beginning in the mid 1800’s, and most of what we see now is from the late 1800’s and early 1900s.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

A view of the house and chapel. The chapel contains scenes of the lives of Mary and Christ, and symbols from the Templar Order (Knights).

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

Ornate wood work and beautifully painted walls adorn this bedroom.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

The Hunting Room. The mantlepiece depicts exceptionally well-carved hunting scenes.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

The decorative exterior can be appreciated in this view.

The house exterior exhibits the ornate “neo Manueline” (named after King Dom Manuel I) style, but what really sets this incredible estate apart are the fascinating (and extensive) gardens.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

The Regaleira Tower, which provides a great view over the gardens and sits on top of Leda’s Grotto.

The Monteiros had quite an imagination in creating these gardens – which contain numerous grottoes, underground walkways, an inverted tower (that goes several stories underground), gardens, pools, towers, statues and a chapel.

Quinta da Regaleira,Sintra, Portugal

A view from the bottom of the inverted tower at Quinta da Regaleira.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

One of Quinta da Regaleira’s grottoes.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

Entrance to one of the many tunnels in gardens.

Many of these features contain symbolism from mythology, ancient classical works and the medieval period.

The National Palace (Palácio National, or Palácio de Sintra). The palace occupies a prominent spot in the center of town. It was originally an Arab construction and became the residence of the Portuguese royal family from the 12th century. Later on it became a royal summer retreat. Although the outside looks rather plain, painted white, the interior is something to behold. It has a unique blend of styles, including Gothic, Mudéjar (Iberian Arabic), and Manueline, with incredible collections of tiles and other artistic treasures.

Palace of Sintra, Portugal.

A view of the Palacio de Sintra from the Castelo dos Mouros. The conical towers are chimneys over the massive the kitchen.

National Palace, Sintra, Portugal

The Grand Hall (or Hall of the Princes) at the National Palace.

Palacio de Sintra, Portugal

The Blazons Hall, built during the reign of Manuel I (1495-1521). The ceiling in carved gilded woodwork is crowned by the royal coat-of-arms and is surrounded by the armorial bearings of seventy two noble families. The late 17th to early 18th century panels of painted tiles depict courtly and hunting scenes.

Palacio de Sintra, Portugal

Grotto of the Baths, the decorated tiles depict scenes of nobility, fountains and gardens.

Palacio de Sintra, Portugal

A view of the kitchen.

Palacio de Sintra, Portugal.

Another room in Palácio de Sintra.

The Convent of the Capuchos (Convento dos Capuchos or The Convent of the Holy Cross in the Sintra Hills). This is probably my favorite spot in Sintra and perhaps all of Portugal. This 16th century convent sits south of Sintra about 7 km (4.5 miles). It was abandoned in 1843 when religious orders were extinguished in Portugal.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

Courtyard of the Crosses. The courtyard leads into the Convent and contains three crosses representing Golgotha.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

The Courtyard of the Fountain, where visitors making the long journey to the Convent would take refreshment.

Built among the huge boulders of its hillside location, it embodies the ideal of universal fraternity of the Franciscan friars who lived here.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

The Hermitage of Our Lord in Gethsemane, with frescoes (near the door) of St. Francis of Assisi (left) and St. Anthony of Lisbon (right).

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

A view of the Cloister, a private space for the Franciscan community.

Covento dos Capuchos Entrance2

Entryway ceiling, lined in cork.

It is simple, small, very picturesque, and feels like something right out of The Hobbit. Many of the rooms (especially the dormitories) and corridors are tiny.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

Dormitory corridor. Note the ceiling and door frames decorated in cork.

The unusual extensive use of cork (that’s where the name ‘Capuchos’ comes from) throughout the monastery was for insulation, sound proofing and decoration.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

The Chapter House, with cork entry way.

We were given a brochure as a guide and allowed to wander the site on our own. Be sure to explore the nature trails above the monastery for a few other interesting sights.

All added up, I’ve spent about three days in Sintra and I could have easily spent one or two more. This is a special place. For more information on Sintra, visit www.sintra-portugal.com

Sintra – You Won’t Get Bored Here

A view of the Palacio Nacional de la Pena from the Moorish Castle.

A view of the Palacio Nacional de la Pena from the Moorish Castle.

Sintra, Portugal is packed with interesting sights and is only about 45 minutes by commuter train from Lisbon. I took a day trip to this enchanting town over a weekend.  I wish I had had another day at least. There are at least six primary sights to visit in this town, and in my available 2/3 of a day, I chose to visit two of them, the Moorish Castle ruins and the Palácio da Pena (Palácio Nacional de la Pena), since it’s a postcard landmark of Portugal. (For a map of Lisbon and surrounding area, click here.)

Sign listing all the sights in Sintra.

Sign listing all the sights in Sintra.

Other options to visit are discussed below.

Sintra has been the playground of royalty and the rich and famous for centuries, hence the collection of very interesting and unique sights here.

Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros) Ruins

On the Moorish castle ramparts.

On the Moorish castle ramparts.

Another of the defensive towers at the Moorish Castle (Atlantic Ocean in the distance).

Another of the defensive towers at the Moorish Castle (Atlantic Ocean in the distance).

A view of Sintra and beyond (looking northeast) from the castle walls.

A view of Sintra and beyond (looking northeast) from the castle walls.

The ruins (9th century) have a commanding view of Sintra and out to the Atlantic Ocean.  I recommend visiting here if for no other reason than for the views.  There is not much left of an actual castle, but the defensive walls and towers have been restored and make for a great walk, with LOTS of stairways up and down the hilly terrain. Wear comfortable shoes and bring water.

Palácio da Pena

This structure looks like something out of Disneyland. It sits on the site of an old monastery built in 1503, which was later largely destroyed by earthquakes and lightning.

View of the palace from the extensive wooded surroundings.

View of the palace from the extensive wooded surroundings.

Parts of the old monastery have been incorporated into the current structure which was built in 1844, as a romantic ideal of royal palaces—it’s a blend of Gothic, Moorish, Renaissance and Baroque influences, not unlike the fanciful Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria. The reason to visit is mainly the interesting blend of architecture and less for the historical value.

Another view of the interesting architectural styles at Pena Palace.

Another view of the interesting architectural styles at Pena Palace.

Be forewarned, pictures are NOT allowed inside and cameras are everywhere. I didn’t notice the cameras and took a couple pictures, and then two seconds later a security guard was after me and made me delete the pictures off my camera. First time that’s ever happened to me. The extensive trails and grounds of the Palace are worth exploring, there are some good views of the Palace available from the wooded trails on the grounds.

In addition to these two sights, here are other major highlights in Sintra:

Palácio Nacional de Sintra: Home to the Portuguese monarchy for eight centuries. A lot of the visible artwork today was completed between 1505 and 1520.

Looking down on Palácio Nacional de Sintra (middle right of picture) from the castle walls.

Looking down on Palácio Nacional de Sintra (middle right of picture) from the castle walls.

Palácio de Monserrate: Built on the ruins of a 16th century chapel and a neo-gothic palace and transformed in 1856 by a Brit, Francis Cook, this palace is heavily influenced by Moorish and Gothic architecture. There is an extensive botanical collection and beautiful gardens here.

Quinta da Regaleira: A very weird palace, built in 1904, with lots of tunnels on the grounds and full of symbolism in the elaborate decorations.

Convent of the Capuchos: A 16th century (dates to 1560) Franciscan hermitage, showing life as a friar with chapels, living areas, dormitories, and a library built into a hillside.

Practicalities 

The train to Sintra leaves from the Rossio Station in downtown Lisbon, right next to the Rossio plaza. The train makes a number of stops, but the journey still only takes about 45 minutes, and trains leave every 30 minutes. The historical center of Sintra is just a 5 minute walk from the train station.

View of Sintra.

View of Sintra.

The sights are relatively close to one another; however Sintra is hilly and even after you arrive at a site by bus or taxi, there are some steep walks in front of you, at least up to and through the Castle ruins and around Pena Palace. Bus 434 will take you from the train station to Pena Palace. If you enjoy walking, take the bus up to Pena and walk back down to the town. You can get individual or combination tickets for the various sights. It cost €16 per person for the Moorish Castle and Palácio da Pena.  For more information on this area check out:  http://www.parquesdesintra.pt.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar, Portugal

The Templar church (Oratory) was also a defensive tower, it has 16 sides, and was next to an exterior wall. The interior (see pictures below) is amazing.

The Templar church (Oratory) was also a defensive tower, it has 16 sides, and was next to an exterior wall. The interior (see pictures below) is amazing.

Huge fortress walls, a Templar castle-like church and a huge late-Gothic monastery all in one.  What more could you ask for? That’s what you get with the Convento de Cristo, in the town of Tomar, Portugal.

The entrace to the 12th century circular church from the 16th century chapter house.

The entrace to the 12th century circular church from the 16th century chapter house.

The circular ambulatory in the 12th century church.

The circular ambulatory in the 12th century church.

The 8 sided center column fans out to the 16 sided walls.

The 8 sided center column fans out to the 16 sided walls.

The fortress grounds and convent sit on a hill overlooking the town of Tomar—the walls are visible from the train station.  Ever since I got a book about the Great Monasteries of Europe (by Bernard Schütz) many years ago, I’ve wanted to visit Tomar. With my love of medieval history and interest in the Knights Templar, Tomar is a must do, and I finally had the chance to visit in 2012.

Tomar is 2 hours by train (137km) northeast of Lisbon.

Tomar is 2 hours by train (137km) northeast of Lisbon.

The fortified walls and entrance to the monastery.

The fortified walls and entrance to the monastery.

The original fortress was a Moorish settlement (9th to 12th centuries), and the Knights Templar made Tomar their headquarters in 1160. The Templars were heroes at the time due to their role in the Reconquista, helping push the Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula. The Knights brought with them architectural refinements from the Middle East (from their time defending the Holy Land) and the fortress structural design was considered ahead of its time for western Europe.

The intricate carvings of the main entry way into the church and chapter house.

The intricate carvings of the main entry way into the church and chapter house.

The highly decorated exterior of the 16th century chapter house addition.

The highly decorated exterior of the 16th century chapter house addition.

The famous chapter house west facade window, 1510-1513, late Gothic “Manueline” style (after King Manuel), symbolizes the Tree of Life or Tree of Jesse from the Bible.

The famous chpater house west facade window, 1510-1513, late Gothic “Manueline” style (after King Manuel), symbolizes the Tree of Life or Tree of Jesse from the Bible.

When the Order of the Knights Templar (or Order of the Temple) was disbanded in 1319, the fortress of Tomar was turned over to the Portuguese Order of Christ, becoming its headquarters in 1357. King Manuel and King João III in the 16th century added extensively to the site making this a very large monastery—the artistic work speaks to the wealth of Portugal as a world power at that time.

The monk's cells were finished around 1543 – 1545, the tiles are from the 17th century.

The monk’s cells were finished around 1543 – 1545, the tiles are from the 17th century.

The refectory was finished between 1535 – 1536 by King João III,  reserved for reading during meal times.

The refectory was finished between 1535 – 1536 by King João III, reserved for reading during meal times.

The kitchen of the monastery (16th century).

The kitchen of the monastery (16th century).

Tiles in the Portocarreiros Chapel, built 1626.

Tiles in the Portocarreiros Chapel, built 1626.

Practicalities:  Tomar is an easy day trip from Lisbon. It’s about a 2 hour train ride (€9.75 each way), and the train leaves from Station Apolónia (eastern side of Lisbon). It’s about a 15 minute hike from the Tomar train station up the hill to the Convento de Cristo. The entry fee was €6. There’s a lot to see, so allow at least a couple hours. I kept finding new cloisters (courtyards), rooms, and unique views and architectural features of the buildings at every turn.  The signage is comprehensive and in English. If you get hungry, there is a café on the site as well. Be sure to stroll out and see the terraces, gardens, walls and an aqueduct that was built in the 17th century and finally gave the monastery a consistent water supply.

Main cloister—started in 1530-1533, under King Joao III (1521-1557), considered a masterpiece of the European Renaissance.

Main cloister—started in 1530-1533, under King Joao III (1521-1557), considered a masterpiece of the European Renaissance.

References: Signposts throughout Convento de Cristo.

Belém—The Launch Point for World Discovery

Just southwest of the heart of Lisbon, Portugal along the Rio Tejo (River Tagus) is the suburb of Belém (or Bethlehem). This spot was the launch point for many voyages of discovery in the 1400 and 1500’s. In 1498, Vasco da Gama sailed from here and was the first to circumnavigate Africa via the Cape of Good Hope, thereby establishing a sea route to India. Reaching India was of course the goal of Columbus in 1492 when he sailed west and landed in the Caribbean. This feat would soon make Portugal the leader in world trade, displacing the Venetians who ruled the merchant routes in the 1400’s. At Belém, the river becomes wide as it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  Don’t miss visiting Belém on a trip to Lisbon. For information on Lisbon and a map of sights I visited in Portugal, click here.

View towards Lisbon and the River Tagus from the Belem Tower.

View towards Lisbon and the River Tagus from the Belem Tower (the Discoveries Monument is in the distance at the river’s edge).

Getting to Belém

It is easy to get here from central Lisbon. Lisbon has a great subway (Metro) system.  Take the Metro to the Cais do Sodre stop and then take a bus right outside the station (about a 15 minute ride) to Belém just along the river front. There is a lot to see in Belem. Since I just had a couple hours, I visited the Belém Tower and the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos.  You can get a combination ticket to theses sights for 10 Euros, there is a kiosk at the monastery.  In addition to the main sights, there are some beautiful gardens along the river front and the town is worth exploring too, with several restaurants nearby.

The gardens and fountain in front of the Belem Monastery.

The gardens and fountain in front of the Belem Monastery.

Belém Tower (Torre de Belém)

This tower is a symbol of Lisbon and dates to 1515—it was a defensive structure protecting the harbor of Lisbon. The tower’s decorative stone work is considered a classic of 16th century military architecture. It sits in the Tagus River’s edge, just in the water although when built it was on dry land—the water level has risen over 500 years. You can climb all the way to the top (6 levels, a great view from the roof level) and at each level there are exhibits about the history of the world explorations that began from Lisbon.

A view of the Belem Tower (built in 1515).

A view of the Belem Tower (built in 1515).

It was here where I learned why Brazil speaks Portuguese and the rest of Latin America speaks Spanish–due to an agreement (the Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494) by King Manuel I (1469-1521) of Portugal and the Crown of Spain. They drew a north-south line 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands (off Africa), which was halfway between the Cape Verde Islands (Portuguese) and Columbus’s initial claims in the Caribbean for Spain. This line happened to run through eastern Brazil, although they didn’t know it at the time.

The intricate stonework of the Belem Tower.

The intricate stonework of the Belem Tower.

Belém Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jeronimos)

This is where the explorers and merchants would worship prior to leaving on long voyages and upon their safe return. The monastery was established in 1496 by King Manuel I, and the church was constructed in 1501. This masterpiece is considered one of the great architectural achievements of the 1500’s. From a technical standpoint, it was so well constructed that it survived a devastating earthquake in 1755 that leveled most of Lisbon. The “Manueline style” of decoration and architecture is an acknowledgement of the King’s influence. Vasco de Gama’s tomb is here.

The intricate decorations above the doorway (south portal).

The intricate decorations above the doorway (south portal).

Inside the Sacristy with many paintings.

Inside the Sacristy with many paintings.

Interior view of the church.

Interior view of the church.

The cloisters of the monastery. The tracery decor is Manueline style.

The cloisters of the monastery. The tracery decor is Manueline style.

Discoveries Monument (Padrāo dos Descobrimentos)

Built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, the great uncle of King Manuel I. Just east of the Torre de Belém is the Discoveries Monument, paying homage to the many explorers and discoveries to come from Portugal. Inside is a multimedia exhibit on the history of Lisbon.

The Discoveries Monument. Henry the Navigator leads the way.

The Discoveries Monument. Henry the Navigator leads the way.

There are also several museums in Belém, including the Museum of Coaches (beautiful decorated old royal coaches), and the Maritime Museum; given more time these would be worthwhile to visit.

References:  Great Monasteries of Europe, by Bernhard Schütz, Abbeville Press Publishers, 2004; informational plaques at Belém Tower.