When I stop to look back on my best Portugal travel experiences over the year, I’m always slightly surprised, and pleased, to rediscover precious moments. I usually start the year with a wish list of places to go and things to see and do and looking back at this year’s I’ve managed to do most of them, except for the two most colourful displays of street decoration.
Of course, plans change and opportunities arise throughout the year so many of the places I actually visited never made it onto my official wish list but were well worth the trip.
In no particular order, here are ten of the highlights from my Portugal trips in 2015, some of which I’ve already shared with you and others I haven’t. Yet.
Hopefully, you’ll find inspiration or evoke travel memories of your own.
1. Snow in the Serra da Estrela
I joined a walking group with the aim of getting to know the glorious Estrela mountains better. The first of these walks ended up being a hike through the snow and ice, a veritable winter wonderland. Serendipity at its best, and a rare opportunity to play in the snow in Portugal.
Read more about it: Snow Hiking in the Serra da Estrela Mountains: An Unexpected Treat
2. Braga Romana
Braga has a reputation for its numerous churches and sanctuaries but the Romans established the city of Bracara Augusta long before these buildings appeared. In celebration of this heritage, Braga holds an annual Roman festival each May and this year, I finally got to experience it. One thing’s for sure, you won’t go hungry if you go – there are food stalls in every square, many serving spit-roast pork.
As you might expect, characters dressed in traditional garb roam the streets. The highlight was the colourful procession where each of them, from gladiators to dancing girls and fauns to fools, paraded through the historical centre. And the ginjinha (cherry liqueur) stalls.
See other things to do in Braga in this article
3. Thermal pools and tropical gardens
This year was my first, but by no means last, trip to the Azores. Among the best of many special moments is the day spent in Furnas. The slight chill of intermittent rain enhanced the experience of the thermal pools at Poças Dona Beija and made the tropical gardens of Terra Nostra even more dreamy and atmospheric.
Read all about it here: Steamy Furnas: Fun in the Azores Whatever the Weather
4. Almourol castle
I’d been wanting to visit this little castle, which sits on an island in the River Tagus, for ages and now I have. To get to it, you need to take the colourful ferry boat from the riverside for a journey that is short but allows you to see the structure from various angles. After that, it’s a brief walk through prickly pears to the castle itself, which has been largely reconstructed. Although there’s no information or exhibitions inside, the views up and down the river are worth the visit.
Having just translated a travel route that highlights the defence structures built by the Templar Knights during the Reconquest of Portugal, it was easy to appreciate the strategic significance of Almourol castle in protecting Portugal’s newly formed borders as the Christian army pushed ever southwards.
5. Beaches, flowers and dragons
At Easter, I finally got the chance to sample parts of the Rota Vicentina, a series of hiking paths that run from the western Algarve through the western Alentejo. This was my first experience of the west coast beaches and I was hooked at the first sight of the wild, rocky Castelejo beach in Vila Bispo.
The day that made me want to skip along the trail, however, was the one I spent on the coastal path from Odeceixe. Not only is the sandy track lined with beautiful wild flowers, the jagged rock formations of the cliffs and surging, frothing ocean are wondrous to behold, especially the dragon-shaped one.
More details here: Walk in Odeceixe to Discover Dragons and Beaches
6. Swimming in waterfalls
Another unforgettable moment in the Azores was swimming in the Poço do Bacalhau falls in Fajã Grande on the island of Flores. After heavy rains, the force of the water tumbling from the great height of the cliffs towering above was too strong for me to get under it. Feeling the spray on my face as I lay back in the water looking upwards at one of nature’s magnificent works was more than enough.
Find out more about my adventures in Flores here: Flores, A Fabulous but Foggy Island in the Azores
7. Making Portuguese corn bread
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Caminha this year but if forced to pick a highlight, I’d go with the experience of making broa, traditional Portuguese corn bread in the Serra d’Arga. It’s not every day you get the chance to knead dough in a villager’s smoke-blackened kitchen or seal a wood oven with mud! The resulting bread may not have been the best broa ever but the lunch it formed part of was simple yet delicious.
Curious? Read about it here: How to Make Portuguese Corn Bread (Broa) the Traditional Way
8. Walk on the wild side of São Jorge
Of all the walks Dori and I attempted or completed in the Azores, my favourite has to be the PR1 on the island of São Jorge. We were blessed with a warm sunny day, which helped, but from the moment we began to see the views down the mountains to the ocean, I was hooked.
Clusters of blue hydrangeas on the surrounding slopes looked like waterfalls and it was easy to imagine how many real waterfalls there would be during winter months.
The descent through fields and patches of forest is truly beautiful but was surpassed by the wild, jungly greenery cloaking the cliffs once we reached the isolated village and volcanic pool at the bottom. If you’ve seen Lost, that’s the kind of scenery I’m talking about.
9. River Paiva boardwalk
My friends and I were lucky to act fast when we heard about a brand new 8 km wooden walkway along the River Paiva. It’s a feat of engineering and the previously inaccessible views are stunning.
The surrounding countryside near Arouca makes me want to go back to try other walks in the area and it’s still possible to enjoy the river on a whitewater rafting experience, among other adventure activities.
Read more here: Tips for the River Paiva Boardwalk in Arouca
10. Tomar tray festival
One of the events on my wish list for 2015 was the Festa dos Tabuleiros in Tomar, an unusual event that only takes place every four years. Having missed it in 2011, I was determined to see it in person this time.
With hindsight and the benefit of experience, I would do things differently if I was to go again.
However, the sight of all those women, young and old, balancing staggeringly tall, heavy trays laden with bread and flowers is a true display of determination, endurance and skill.
Of course these are but a small selection of the wonderful moments I’ve had during my travels in Portugal. As you can imagine, I was spoilt for choice in selecting these few.