Portugal – the boondocks

We can always tell when are back on the road less travelled (for us), we find so many things to take photos of, hence this post is going to be somewhat overloaded with images.

Somewhere we had planned to visit a couple of times but never seen was up the Portuguese / Spanish border at Minas Sao Domingos, a deserted open pit mine which closed in 1966. Since then it has become a popular tourist destination as many of the old mine buildings and the open cast pit are very much in evidence. There is an English graveyard that contains the graves of mine managers and their families who originated from Cornwall. The old pit houses looked well cared for and appear inhabited although there weren’t many people about other than motorhomers.


Minas Sao Domingos

On our way out of Sao Domingos we re-traced our route back to Mertola. A spectacular sight from the approach road, set on a rocky spur overlooking the Rio Guadiana. We spied a road sign for a viewpoint, up a fairly uneven and rocky track, we thought it would be a km or so, more than 7 km later we reached the viewpoint – it was worth it for the photos, not so sure the van enjoyed the experienced quite as much. When we arrived in the town we climbed the cobbled hills  up to the small castle, from which you can view the many white houses and a picturesque church that was once a mosque.


We were going to stop off for a night at the Camperstop in the village, but we met a Brit guy there who was full of telling us how he had been living in his massive Hymer moho, in what was a car-park, for the last 3 weeks and was staying at least another two as it was free.  For us the reason that so many places are putting up height barriers so we moved on and had a stop off Castro Verde instead – not much there but what there is – well kept, a surprising good little municipal campsite, more surprising in that of the 40’ish vans on site over half were Finnish, seemed to be the hip place for the Finn’s to be meeting up. We stayed a few days to do the boring stuff, washing, cleaning, shopping and left with a fresher odour in our wake.

Destination Odivelas Barragem but on route the gorgeous little town of Alvito made us re-consider. We parked up for a lunch stop and a few cars pulled in next to us with folk sporting cameras with lenses like telescopes. It seemed we were on route for the Alentejo Volta cycle race, part of the European tour. Never ones to miss some free entertainment we decided to stick around and watch the race pass (in less than 40 seconds) and stopover on the local barragem at Alvito, followed the next day by a short hop and a stopover at the Pego Do Alta barragem. Portugal has over 300 barragems (reservoir / dams) every few miles a sign points to one, some are magnificent but it does becomes after a while – seem one, seen most of them – due to this we decided no more and aim for the coast again for a while.

Alvito town square

The Alentejo Volta 

To avoid Lisbon or not – yes lets. We took a stretch of tollroad – highway robbers were out at €9 for less than 20 miles. Due to this we took the next exit and the long and winding, and more winding road to Mafra. We probably didn’t save much as a 35 minute toll road journey took 2 hours on non-toll roads – but then again sometimes it’s all about feeling you have won :).

The first sights of Mafra Palace remove any thoughts of tolls, times or distance. It is a colossal building with a limestone facade over 200 metres long with towers at each end, set right in the heart of the town.  It took from 1717 to 1755 to build (the King had promised to build his wife a convent if she gave him offspring – he paid out and then some) and has been both a monastery and a palace.

Lucky for motorhomers there are parking spaces right alongside and opposite these stand the army guards for the barracks at the rear of the palace – safest place we have ever parked yet! Surprisingly there were just a handful of tourist around

Mafra Palace

We were both so impressed with Mafra we decided to backtrack towards Lisbon and see the two of the “Seven Wonders of Portugal” Sintra and Pena Palace. What a bloody nightmare. We being we, don’t park as far away as possible and walk in. Nope we drive in as far as we can, and we see the error of our ways as roads shrink in width and buildings close on our wing mirrors. Luck strikes and we see a signpost pointing away from the medieval lanes but as we turn to it a helpful little GNR fella shakes his head and points us left – great we are now climbing little cobbled lanes that the small family car in front looks rather big on, if I stuck my hand out of the window I could have rung doorbells as we passed.

We achieve the height of Pena palace entrance – and a dead end, so turn around and start nightmare all over again back down the hill, this time with traffic still coming up and having to pull into passing places where they can. Iain spotted a sign for Lisbon, we took it to escape Sintra, left the city and high-tailed back up the coast to Mafra. Lesson learned for the umpteenth time – do not attempt to take motorhomes into medieval towns (but it will happen again).

Agreeing that all the historical culture was well over-rated instead we visited Buddha Eden, the largest oriental garden in Europe. Possibly one of the best places we have been recently, €4 each, free parking and a  over 35 hectares of gardens created as a reaction to the destruction of the Buddhas of Banyan. There are oodles of Buddhas – ranging from a few feet to some over 21 metres high and 700 startling blue terracotta life-size soldiers, and when that all gets overwhelming there are Modern, African and Contemporary sculpture gardens containing over 200 sculptures set around 1000 palms.

It is a surreal place, at bit of the Far East in Portugal, with some Africa thrown in. We absolutely loved it, taken for what it is you cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer number of sculptures, Buddhas etc.  And if that doesn’t tickle your fancy it is part of a vineyard and they sell their own wine at very decent prices.

Next stop, Obidos, wiser this time finding a small German owned Camperstop a few miles out of the village where the kindly owner was happy to ferry us around on a taxi service for a few Euro, instead of us driving up lanes more suited to a pony and trap.

The town itself is jaw dropping, completely surrounded by a crenellated wall, the historic centre is a labyrinth of cobblestoned streets, alleyways and steps. The whitewashed houses have splashes of yellow and blue painted edgings and flowers spilling out of every possible window and to top it off there is a pretty spectacular castle at the top.

The main street is full of tourist shops, the tour buses come in, for an hour its manic, then they go and its bliss. We read that many people feel its too touristy so miss it out visiting – a top tip from us – don’t miss it, – no matter how many people are there it is beautiful and worth the effort to see it.

Every shop sells shots of the local cherry liqueur from tables outside on the street. These are poured into small chocolate cases, you drink the liqueur then eat the cup – Iain was in liqueur / chocolate heaven.

The other main attraction in the area is Peniche, set on a headland and surrounded by sea. It is still very much a working town which mixes with several campsites and a good deal of watersports but doesn’t have any of the charm of the inland villages.  More to our liking was the surfers haunt of Baleal, a few miles along the coast. White sand, a few bars and cafes and a minimum of 50 surfers in the sea at anyone time. The actual island is reached over a causeway, we didn’t attempt it – the tide was coming on and I could picture the headlines as we floated away!

Iain improving his surfing at Peniche

At this point the plans fells by the wayside, they had been to visit the canals of Aveiro and then Porto and head North to Vigo. But we happened across a website detailing the Ecopista Do Dao. Basically a 49 km cycle path on a old railway line, tarmac all the way running from Viseu to just outside Coimbro.  We took the Atlantic coast road up, much quieter than the Algarve, still plenty of people around but not as many high-rise hotels and we found camping costs half of those in the South.

It would be remiss to not mention the weather – the further North we went the hotter it was. We left Obidbos and it was 25 / 80 degrees – by the time we reached Combrao it was up to 28 / 85 degrees. Hate to say it, but it was too hot! We even went in the sea (briefly and paddling) at Pedra De Ouro, for the Atlantic in March is was warm enough. I wasn’t as impressed when a massive wave caught me unawares paddling and I got soaked head to toe :(.

We skirted around Coimbro city as we have visited before and took a detour to a former monastery at Lorvao instead.  We went in and asked if we were allowed to look around, the amazingly kind gentleman offered us a personal tour for €1 each. We spent the next 50 minutes seeing and hearing a very detailed description of every artifact, we could probably produce our own guide-books as there is really very little we don’t know about the place!

Home for the weekend was one of the best places we have every stayed -Terra de Iguanas. Many places offer a bread service, where your rolls are delivered for a few cents daily. Here they gave us a bag of 6 rolls each morning for free, proper home brewed coffee, wifi, showers,  etc. etc. €10 a night!  Add to that our wonderful hosts offered a service to take our bikes up to the start of the cycle path at Viseu so we could pedal back.

So we spend my 54th birthday cycling the 54 km from Viseu back to the campsite, it was a bit breezy but other than that a perfect ride. All along the track the old stations are in the process of being converted to cafes or other municipal buildings, we even came across a train and carriages at one stop.

Its nearly time to start the long trek North so today we ambled up through Northern Portugal. We stayed off the main roads and took minor roads through the Serra De Estrela mountains, hardly any traffic on the roads and loads of places to just stop and look at the incredible scenery. We ended our day at the teeny town of Meda,  there is a clocktower on a rocky outcrop at the highest point of the town, from there the view stretched out across to the Spanish border, impossible to capture on camera, one of the most mind-blowing views we have ever seen.

The view from Meda