It’s been a while since I interviewed anyone about their experience of travelling in Portugal but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Carolyn’s detailed descriptions, observations and helpful insights.
Note: This interview is part of a series that I conducted with other people who had recently travelled to Portugal, back in 2012-2014)
Hi Carolyn, can you tell us a little about yourself, please?
I am Carolyn Handler Miller, from Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA. I’m a writer who specializes in digital media (video games, interactive projects for the Web, and so on) and the author of Digital Storytelling, a Creator’s Guide to Interactive Entertainment, now in its third edition. I traveled to Portugal with my husband, Terry Borst, a screenwriter and professor at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
When did you travel in Portugal and how long did you stay?
We were in Portugal May 25 to June 5 2014 — ten full days, not counting getting there and back.
Did you come for business, pleasure or something else?
We came strictly for pleasure – no business whatsoever. That’s fairly unusual for us!
What were you most looking forward to doing or seeing in Portugal?
Overall, I particularly wanted to soak up the Portuguese scenery and the ambiance as a first time visit to the country, to learn what it had to offer. I didn’t come to Portugal with a long “To Do” check list. However, there were a few specific things we wanted to do and see.
We both particularly wanted to see the Roman ruins at Conimbriga, since we are archaeology buffs and heard about them through your blog. We spent a full day there and it was totally worth visiting – the mosaics were the best we’d seen anywhere. I was also eager to see Sintra, which looked from the photos I saw like an amazing land studded with gorgeous castles, far better than the fake castles in Disneyland. I was also looking forward to seeing the famous Portuguese tiles and hoped to buy a tile panel for the kitchen of our house.
I also had a special mission: to see Portuguese donkeys. I own two donkeys myself, and had read about the special Portuguese breed, indigenous to this country, the shaggy Mirandese donkey. They have become quite rare and are considered endangered, since they are no longer used in today’s agriculture, where they have been replaced by tractors. Unfortunately, though I did see many horses, I was never able to spot a donkey, probably because we weren’t in the right part of the country. Evidently, they are chiefly found in the highlands in the northeast of Portugal.
I had another equestrian goal which proved to be elusive as well: to see a performance the magnificent breed of Portuguese horses, the Lusitanos. These royal horses were originally trained for military use and their blood line dates back to 1748. Unfortunately, the Lusitano horses only perform their gorgeous aerial leaps and other elegant dressage movements once a week at Queluz Palace. It must be something to see: the men are dressed in period uniforms of the 18th century and they perform in the ornate riding school of the palace.
(Note from Julie: Fellow travel writer Nancy D. Brown managed to see this performance. You can read about it here.)
Whereabouts did you stay?
Once we landed in Lisbon, early in the morning, we immediately rented a car and drove to Coimbra, where we stayed for two days, then drove up to Porto, where we stayed 4 days, and then down to Lisbon, where we stayed another 4 days.
And what sort of accommodation did you have?
We stayed in amazing places! We weren’t on a tight budget, and we got a couple of free nights in Porto and we had upgraded rooms in Coimbra and Lisbon because we joined a hotel group.
In Coimbra we stayed in Quinta das Lagrimas, which was totally fabulous, and not just the old part of the former private residence itself. Also wonderful were our room and the gardens and the food and the staff – it was a dazzling experience! It was an old palace, full of romantic vibes, and we stayed in the old part of the building, in a beautiful room with lovely views of the garden. We particularly liked the way the hotel highlighted the poetic tragedy of the lovers Pedro and Inês, both in the breakfast/lunch room and in the gardens. We first learned of the love story from your blog and it came to life at the hotel – the secret spot where they would rendezvous and the spot where Inês was murdered by envoys of the King, Dom Pedro’s father. We also enjoyed the many portrayals of them in the hotel artwork.
In Porto we stayed at the Palacio das Cardosas, an Intercontinental, where we had a stunning two story suite: a sitting room and bathroom downstairs, and a bedroom and large bathroom upstairs. The hotel was a remodeled palace and extremely beautiful. I loved the lobby, with its elegant black and white glass lamp fixtures. The hotel was well-located on a central square, so we could walk almost everywhere.
In Lisbon we stayed at Hotel da Estrela, once the home of a wealthy Brit, then a school, and now a somewhat offbeat hotel. This last hotel was not as dazzling or fabulous as the other two, and I was a little taken aback to see weeds growing right front of the hotel. The staff also seemed less professional, though quite pleasant. However, we had a spacious room there and a beautiful bathroom, and we liked the Estrela neighborhood the hotel was in.
How did you get around while you were here?
We drove to each of the three major destinations in our rental car. In the cities themselves, we walked a great deal and used public transportation (the Metro or, more exotically, in Lisbon, the trolley cars (eléctricos in Portuguese), which were especially enjoyable and reminded me of the cable cars in my home town, San Francisco, California. Number 28 stopped close to our hotel and traveled through some of the most historic parts of Lisbon – wonderful!
We also rode up in the handsome outdoor multi-story elevator (the Santa Justa Elevator), built by an apprentice of the same gentleman who built the Eiffel Tower. There was a long wait for the elevator and someone tried (unsuccessfully!) to pick my purse while we were waiting in line. Nevertheless, there were great views at the top as well as some interesting history, including the great Carmo Convent destroyed in the earthquake of 1755. We arrived at twilight, just as the lights in the city below were coming on, and it was magical!
In Porto, we walked across the Dom Luis bridge to the Gaia side and then used a ski-lift like conveyance that took us down to the port warehouses, where we sampled lots of port. We did drive around Coimbra, mainly to get to the Roman ruins and did TRY to drive to the university, but we never could find a place to park. The car was a definite handicap there. We took the train from Lisbon to Sintra and back, an easy trip.
What research, if any, did you do before your trip?
We used your blog and your book on travel tips – both extremely helpful! I also talked to friends who had traveled in Portugal, poked around on the Web, and bought 3 guidebooks, which I leafed through in advance.
Where did you find the most useful information?
Your blog was particularly helpful, as were tips from friends. We decided to go to Portugal on fairly short notice, so didn’t have time to do much research. Once there, the guidebooks were helpful.
Of the places you visited, which would you recommend to other travellers and why?
Aside from the Roman ruins at Conimbriga, another highlight of Coimbra was a visit to the old convent of Santa Clara, built early in the 14th century near the Mondego River. The convent had been repeatedly flooded and had to be abandoned in 1677, but the church was recently restored. During its years of use, the nuns had a second floor built in the church to be above the water and had to climb up a ladder to the higher floor in order to hold their services.
In Porto, I really enjoyed wandering down the Rua das Flores, with its pretty shops, down to the river. Many of the buildings along the street had exteriors completely covered in beautiful tiles. And we also discovered a puppet museum there, which was fun to visit. We also went to a concert at the ultra-modern Casa da Musica, which served as a striking counterpoint to historic Porto.
Our Lisbon hotel was within walking distance of the very pretty Jardim da Estrela and the towering Basilica da Estrela, where we climbed to the top (more stairs than I would have liked!) to take in the views. Also nearby was the Mercado, a farmers’ market type of enterprise, with many booths to buy fruits and vegetables and cheese, and were you could order dishes cooked to order.
In addition, we took two interesting day trips.
The first was to Amarante, an enchanting town in the Douro valley. We drove there from Porto, and it was one of my favorite days in Portugal. The old town, which is said to date back to the fourth century BC, sits on the banks of the Tamega River. The river runs right through the town, and is crossed by the ancient Ponte de São Gonçalo. There are no “must do” attractions in the town, aside, I suppose, from the old church, Igreja de São Gonçalo, and a modern art museum, the Amadeo Cardoso Museum, which unfortunately we missed. But there was enormous pleasure in just wandering through narrow, hilly streets of the town, walking over the old bridge, and eating lunch on a terrace overlooking the river.
We were there just a few days early for the major town festival that honors São Gonçalo, held every year early in June, and decorations were already strung along the street for the festival. Evidently it is a fertility festival and in this case, Christianity seems to have either adapted an ancient pagan fertility celebration or have created a new one. São Gonçalo was famous for encouraging young women to find marriage partners, and he arranged parties and other festivities to help the girls meet potential husbands. In keeping with the fertility theme, I was startled when I looked into the alluring window of a pastry shop and saw a São Gonçalo cake, shaped like an erect phallus! It definitely made me curious to know how else this festival is celebrated!
Our other side trip was to town of Alcobaça, to see the medieval monastery. The main reason we went to see Alcobaça was because this was the endpoint of the tragic story of Pedro and Inês, the location of their tombs. The tombs drove home the point that these were real people (he had been a long-ago king of Portugal, from 1357 to 1367; she had been the beautiful lady in waiting of Pedro’s wife, the Queen). It was touching that on the tomb of Inês, which Pedro had commissioned, she wore a Queen’s crown, although she was never crowned in real life. Interestingly, there is no proof they ever married, though Pedro claimed they had secretly wed.
Although I enjoyed seeing the monastery, I would have liked to have seen more there about how the monks who resided there lived. It made me curious about their daily routines. What did they do, besides pray? Did they work in the garden, create illuminated manuscripts, teach, produce beer? What did their music sound like? What did they eat? What did their garments look like? Everywhere we went in Portugal, we saw the architectural remains of monasteries and convents, but never learned much about these people who devoted themselves to a rigorous religious lifestyle. Maybe there is a museum that portrays all this, but if so, I never came upon it.
Did you pick up any practical tips for travelling in Portugal that you could share with us?
The one thing that caused us a huge amount of distress were the traffic circles, and I wish we could have avoided them! This was our first time driving in Europe and they really frightened the wits out of us. We brought our GPS with us but the directions it gave were incredibly confusing and we both held our breath every time we entered one. I never heard my husband curse so much as when we were caught in one of those miserable circles. But if you are driving, there’s no way to avoid them, and by the end of the trip we were somewhat less terrified of them. Driving in Portugal, outside of the main cities, was otherwise quite easy.
In Lisbon, in the neighborhood where we were staying, almost all the restaurants were closed on Sunday night, including the restaurant of our hotel, and we weren’t prepared for that. We had to walk a fairly long distance to find one that was open. So it’s wise to prepare for Sunday nights and ask your hotel for advice on where to eat then.
Is there anywhere or anything that was a letdown?
I’m sorry we ran out of time to go to the coach museum and sorry we didn’t have time to spend more than one day in Sintra or hear more Fado. But I think that’s a typical situation for any place that you visit and like – you never have enough time to do everything! Nothing was a letdown.
What about the food – did you try any local dishes? Any you’d recommend?
We really enjoyed the local food and tried many Portuguese dishes. The cheeses were wonderful, especially the sheep’s milk cheese, and we must have had about a dozen of the alleged one-thousand different ways the Portuguese prepare dried cod. I had a dish of creamed cod for lunch one day that was incredibly decadent and delicious, baked with bread crumbs on top. We enjoyed grilled sardines several times, and other seafood dishes, too. In fact, the seafood was so good that we almost never ate meat or chicken as a main course, and didn’t miss it. The pastries were amazing, as you have frequently mentioned in your blog. Every town seemed to have its own specialty, and we tried as many as we could. There were luscious looking fresh figs in the roadside markets we passed and I wish we had bought some, but figs can be messy to eat, so we were too practical on that score. I regret that.
Did you buy any souvenirs?
As mentioned above, I really wanted to buy a panel of tiles but couldn’t, because I couldn’t find a way to ship the tiles home. None of the stores where we saw them would ship them to us. However, we bought some beautiful embroidered pillowcases for our guest room from a woman who had made them herself, and she was very excited and proud to know they were going to be in a bedroom in the USA. We bought some CDs of Fado music and a few small pottery objects, but nothing major.
What would you do differently if you could do this trip over?
I’d want more time to explore the country and wouldn’t mind more time in every place we visited, starting with Coimbra. Ideally, I’d like to explore more of the Douro Valley and also visit the highlands. I feel after this trip, I’ve seen something of the major cities, but I’d like to get out to the small villages and the countryside and spend more time in less populated places. And I would certainly like to find those elusive donkeys and horses and find a shop that would ship a panel of tiles!
Did you encounter anything unexpected?
One thing we hadn’t expected to encounter was the enormous amount of construction and renovation going on everyplace we visited; there were work crews and huge cranes everywhere. It looked to us like Portugal was going through some good boom times, after the recent difficulties with their economy. We were also pleased to discover how many people spoke English. We never had any problems communicating except for a couple of times away from the major cities, and eventually we always managed to have a satisfactory exchange, sometimes with the help of a third party.
It was also pleasing to see that the old parts of the towns and cities retained their architectural integrity, with no modern high-rises jarring the skylines. The old neighborhoods reminded me somewhat of where I live in the United States, Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is extremely protect of its traditional architecture and does not allow high rise buildings. So I know how difficult it can be to maintain the historic look of an old city. And, speaking of old, it was surprising to see how many Roman ruins there were, often in unexpected places, like in the middle of a street in the Alfama district or underneath the flooring of the Sé (cathedral).
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I was extremely taken with the Portuguese love stories we heard about during our stay. The most riveting of all, of course, is the tragic story of Pedro and Inês. But I also enjoyed hearing about the great modern Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa, and the love of his life, Ophélia, and the impossibility (in his eyes) of marriage, because of his modest income, though they remained devoted to each other for decades.
A third great love story, perhaps more a story of devoutness, features the nuns of the Santa Clara convent in Coimbra. Despite the repeated flooding of their convent, and despite the fact that they had to build a second floor of the church in order avoid the water, so they could hold services, they held fast to their convent for over three hundred years. In my mind’s eye, as I studied the handsome old church, I could see a long line of nuns in bulky habits, standing in the pouring rain, ankle deep in water, patiently waiting for their turn to scramble up a tall ladder into their second-floor sanctuary. What a unique story of devotion!