Coimbra University. Seen on a family road trip to Portugal

My guest traveller this week is Natalie Bheeni. She and her family managed to pack in an impressive number and range of sights during their 10-day road trip to Portugal. I don’t think I could manage to fit so much into a single trip but this is proof that it can be done. I rarely travel with children either, let alone undertake a road trip with an almost teenager, so I thought those of you travelling with kids might find Natalie’s experience of particular interest.

Welcome, Nat. Could you tell us a little about you, your family and why you chose to travel to Portugal?

We are a family of three, my husband and I are in our forties and our daughter is almost 13. We are based in the Netherlands at the moment. I am originally from Asia and my husband is from an island in Africa. Coming from a small island, we have decided to make the most of our time here by travelling as much as we can and visiting the different countries in Europe. We chose Portugal as it has several historical connections with where we are from.

Natalie Bheeni and family. Selfie at Evora.
Natalie Bheeni and family. Selfie at Evora.

We prefer road trips as we enjoy not just the destination but also the journey. When we used to live in Southern Africa, the distances between destinations were far and wide and while we enjoyed the open spaces, in Europe there are so many things to see on the way that sometimes we have been pleasantly surprised by our discoveries on the way to our final destination.

As she grows older, our daughter is not terribly keen on long road trips but we always try to find attractions on the way that she would enjoy.

When, where and how did you travel in Portugal?

We travelled to Portugal in July and August 2014, driving from the Netherlands through France and Spain. We spent 10 nights in Portugal before making our way back. Our first overnight stop in Portugal was Porto where we stayed for 2 nights. Our route from Santiago de Compostela in Spain to Porto was through Pontevedra and Viana do Castelo in the morning. We had lunch at Ponte de Lima, then visited Braga and Bom Jesus before arriving in Porto.

From Porto, our next overnight stop was Fatima. As we drove, we visited Aveiro in the morning and the university of Coimbra in the afternoon. Just outside Fatima, we took a tour of some caves in the late afternoon before arriving in Fatima itself in the late evening. We chose to stay in Fatima versus Coimbra as we had read about the candlelight procession which takes place every night.

Candlelight procession, Fatima
Candlelight procession, Fatima. Photo credit Natalie Bheeni

From Fatima, our next stop was Lisbon where we stayed in an apartment for 4 nights. On the way to Lisbon, we visited Obidos, a very pretty town. In Lisbon, besides the usual city attractions, we covered Sintra and coastal viewpoints in a daytrip.

From Lisbon, our next stop was Almancil in the Algarve where we stayed 2 nights. We drove through the Arrabida Park towards the south of Lisbon then got back on the highway as we wanted to stop in Sagres before arriving in Almancil. That short coastal drive which took us through the mountains with very scenic viewpoints was a bonus. From Almancil, our last stop in Portugal was Evora for 1 night. The only real beach we enjoyed in the Algarve was Ilha de Tavira.

Coastline, Arrabida Natural Park, south of Lisbon.
Arrabida Park south of Lisbon. Photo credit Natalie Bheeni

What research, if any, did you do before your trip? Where did you find the most useful information?

We did some research before the trip but not terribly much as this was a last minute holiday.  Our original plan was to visit Ireland but we had visa issues and because I wanted SUN and a lively country, we decided on Portugal. From Santiago de Compostela in Spain, we just made our way down the coast of Portugal and deciding on where to stay was based on what friends had recommended and what we had read by ourselves.

I also like to read travel blogs written by families to get ideas of what to see, where to stay, what to eat etc. That is also how I stumbled onto your blog from which I obtained many tips and ideas!

What were you most looking forward to doing or seeing in Portugal?

The SUN!! And  just having a nice, relaxing family time discovering the historical connections of our countries.

In addition, colleagues from my husband’s work told us of cities and places not to miss!

Did you manage to do all of these things and how did they live up to expectations?

I think we covered all that we had planned except just one place, Guimarães, which we thought we could do on the way to Porto but as we drove down we decided that it would have been too much to fit in.

What was the highlight of your time in Portugal?

The weather was great, especially coming from the Netherlands. The weather was sunny, not too hot and apart from the south of Portugal, it wasn’t terribly crowded.

Which were the most family-friendly places you went to? What did your daughter particularly enjoy?

Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra and  Ilha de Tavira deserve special mention in terms of family friendly places. We did not think much of the beaches in Faro nor Almancil as they seemed ordinary and crowded compared to having to take the ferry across to Ilha de Tavira. The beaches in the Almancil area were too “posh” for us especially those connected to Vale de Lobo.

The ferry to Ilha Tavira Algarve, Portugal
The ferry to Ilha Tavira. Photo credit Natalie Bheeni

We all enjoyed the World of Discovery Museum in Porto, the university library in Coimbra and the caves outside Fatima. The guide there made it very interesting and funny and he switched between different languages effortlessly. We also enjoyed the sand sculpture festival in Pena in the Algarve as well as the monoliths and seeing the cork trees in Evora.

Our daughter particularly enjoyed the swimming pools we had in Almancil and Evora.

What didn’t she like, if anything?

She didn’t like having to walk too much as we found in Sintra which is why we only really visited Quinta da Regaleira and missed the Palace and the Castelo dos Mouros. We also did a lot of walking in Lisbon, especially the Fado area, up and down stairs and “hills” but the views made up for it as well as the little nooks and crannies we found but not for an almost 13-year-old, so when we arrived at the viewpoint of Santa Lucia, we took the infamous Tram 28 to the end of the line then back into the city centre.

What about you and your husband?

The two of us enjoyed almost everything. My husband especially enjoys driving so if we can, we avoid highways unless time is short. He too enjoys finding things like the western-most  point, Cabo do Roca, and Sagres, the southwestern-most point in Europe!

We all enjoyed Lisbon as one of my husband’s colleagues lives there and he was our tour guide for a day.

The drive through Arrabida Park was breathtaking, Porto was fun too when we drove out of the city proper along the coast just as the sun was setting. Obidos, Aveiro, Sintra, Sagres were also places we enjoyed.

I also had one unpleasant experience at the Colombus Shopping Centre in Lisbon – some teenagers or young adults were being very loud at a food counter and as they seemed to be “invading” my space while I waited for my food, I moved. But when I moved for the third time, I just made the comment that they should be aware of others around them. The response I got was unbelievable, the cursing and swearing I heard was very unpleasant. I am just glad my daughter was not with me at that time but it definitely put me off my appetite! It took a lot of self control on my part to ignore them and their derogatory and racist comments.

Traditional Moliceiro boat, Aveiro.
Traditional Moliceiro boat, Aveiro. Photo credit Natalie Bheeni

How did you find driving in Portugal?

Driving in Portugal was fine for us as we are used to more crazy reckless driving where we come from. Driving on the highway and toll roads in Portugal was fine as they were not busy. One tip is to pay for the toll roads at the post office where you can buy a 10 euro card and register by SMS.

Porto is the only difficult place to drive as there are many one way roads in the city centre and some places were hard to find, for example, the road to the Taylors winery. In the end, we found somewhere to park and walked.

Did you pick up any practical tips for travelling in Portugal as a family that you could share with us?

About public transport in Lisbon, it was slightly confusing when we tried to buy tickets via the machine and ended up putting too much money on a daily card. The important thing to remember is that everyone needs their own travel card. The way the machine asked the questions, we thought we could put money for 3 travel cards for 3 people on 1 card but that was not right as everyone who travels has to have their own travel card.

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