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Portugal's perfect Pousadas

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Portugal's perfect Pousadas

I enjoy traveling and seeing new places, and when I come back I often say I will go back there sometime. But life intervenes and I go somewhere else instead. Not this time. I had never heard of the Alentejo region of Portugal a month ago and I did not know what a Pousada was. Alentejo is a hidden gem. It is about one third of Portugal but only contains some seven per cent of the population.

At the west are 100km of beaches but it was in the beautiful rural area that I spent a few days travelling with temperatures in the high twenties under blue skies in October. This was what every fibre of my being needed. And that was before I experienced the Pousadas which are historical buildings; they were once convents or monasteries, which have been skillfully and lovingly turned into magical hotels, each unique, each friendly and each memorable.

The Temple of the Bones in the Church of St Francis in Evora, Portugal.

The Temple of the Bones in the Church of St Francis in Evora, Portugal.

We flew to Lisbon and ideally one should hire a car and plan to stay in several Pousadas with a drive of an hour or two on excellent roads each day between.

You will see a lot of sheep, olive groves, vineyards, lemon trees, beautiful colourful villages and cork trees. Portugal is the biggest cork producer in the world and everything can be made from cork apparently. In one shop I even saw a wedding dress in cork. The only cork I recommend at weddings should make a popping sound.

Our first destination was the southerly Pousada de Beja São Francisco, once a 13th Century Franciscan convent, now a comfortable, marble-floored, 34 room hotel. I inhabited a spacious 'cell' looking out on gardens and the pool. Swim? Yes.

Pre-dinner we sat out on the cobbled streets where Sagres beer was ninety five cent and a half bottle of wine was €3. The Pousadas are, by and large, free of religious artifacts so you don't have any feeling that you are residing in a convent. Rather that you are in very splendid accommodation that is a few hundred years old with a lot of original furniture.

You must visit a vineyard and we went to the excellent Rocim. Nuno, our guide, spoke perfect English and was knowledgeable, interested and interesting. According to him Alexander Fleming had observed that penicillen cures people but wine makes them happy! As he produced glass after glass to taste, I was not inclined to disagree. Seven weddings were booked in over the coming months in this fabulous location.

We lunched at Pousada de Evora Loios which dates back to 1485. Évora is a Unesco world heritage site. The Roman Diana Temple beside it has been there since the 1st Century. The conversions to Pousada are not recent. Many ceased their religious function with the suppression of the religious orders in 1834, when Church property was seized . This one was empty for years and began life as a Pousada in 1965.

We had a good wander around the cobbled streets of Evora with its spacious square with lots of tourists drinking coffee and wine. Down a side street, within the Church of St Francis which is currently undergoing major renovations, is a chapel I will not forget, Capela dos Ossos which translates as the Chapel of Bones, for that is what it is. The chapel was built in the 16th Century by a Franciscan Monk from the bones of about five thousand skeletons buried locally. He wanted people to reflect on the transitory nature of life and its meaning and I did just that.

My attention was focussed by the inscription as you enter which translates as "We bones that are here, for yours await." A stiff drink was consumed on my return to the square. I will not make a pretty skeleton.

John Masterson contemplating his suite at Flor da Rosa

John Masterson contemplating his suite at Flor da Rosa

Our next night of luxury was in Pousada de Vila Viçosa de João IV, a former Royal convent. It was founded in 1514, when the Duke of Braganza decided to build a religious house beside his palace. At the back of his mind was the idea that they would take in the daughters of his second marriage who could not find noble husbands. He was not the only one on a second marriage so many daughters of aristocrats turned up. The highlight for me was the nuns' cage which they were locked in to receive visitors! We strolled down the road to Williams' Bar where three draught beers were had for €6.

At many meals there was talk of codfish which the Portuguese love. Bachalhau is their word for cod and sometimes you see bachalhau dourado which is referred to as Golden Cod. There are literally hundreds of recipes for bachalhau and you will not be in Portugal long without eating it. And it is delicious. I also loved a starter of a poached egg in tomato soup with oregano sprinkled on top. Even I could make that and it would impress.

Best dessert was encharcada made with eggs, sugar and water and maybe some lemon zest. From the texture I was sure there was some fruit flesh in the mix but I was told definitely not. It seems to curdle in a way that gives the texture and it is difficult to make. This is an original recipe from the nuns who lived there and who had a lot of eggs to use up. And also try pao de rala, a tasty breadlike dessert made with sugar, eggs, almonds and pumpkin. Moreish.

On the road from Vila Viçosa to Estremoz we visited a marble quarry which was enormous. Looking down 300 metres gives me vertigo. Most Portuguese marble is white or pink, but there is some green and black.

With all that food exercise was needed and for €24 we canoed on the river Seda and even went up three waterfalls. Our guides were brilliant. (See www.azenhasdaseda.com). We were pleasantly exhausted but we did not know the treat that lay ahead in our final resting place.

Ah, the splendour of Pousada do Crato Flor da Rosa. The Order of Malta called it home in the 14th Century. Today it is a must visit hotel with 24 rooms and three suites in the Castle tower. I will book the top one on my next visit. I will skip straight through to a suite.

At least in my own head I deserve the very, very best!

GETTING THERE

Each Pousada is different but they have the pleasant feel in common. There are nine Pousadas in Alentejo (www.pousadas.pt), each with wonderful traditional menus and wines.Booking is easy on www.pousadas.pt with a wide range of prices beginning at less than €100 for room and with lots of options in the €150 to €200 range.

Aer Lingus has daily flights Dublin-Lisbon and weekly flights Cork-Lisbon and Cork-Faro (March to October) www.aerlingus.com

by John Masterson in Independent

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PORTO IN THE TOP 10 ROMANTIC DESTINATION

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PORTO IN THE TOP 10 ROMANTIC DESTINATION

According to the 10 best Reader's choise Porto is one of the most romantic destination. The voting is currently running to choose the top 10 romantic destination but Porto is already well ranked. You can vote once per day for your favorite Under-the-Radar Romantic Destination until voting ends on Monday, August 3 at noon ET. So VOTE PORTO!

Known not only for the wine produced here, Porto also gave the country its name, derived from its history as the Roman settlement of Portus Cale. Sprinkled like medieval jewels on a rocky gorge carved out by the Rio Douro, Portugal's second largest city combines the best of Old World charm with modern-day comforts. Designated a World Heritage City in 1996, the 2,000 year old city offers a host of sightseeing options - best seen on foot as most of the monuments are located in the hilly city center. History buffs are sure to enjoy a tour of the Baroque churches, museums and a walk through the ancient Ribeira district, where laundry is still washed in the river and hung there to dry. Wine tours are offered at several wine distilleries. Porto's sleeping scene offers a wide selection, from venerable city center hotels, boutique gems and a 5-star resort with a unique wine theme throughout. Evening entertainment can be found in Fado clubs, wine bars and Jazz and Blues clubs.

Source: 10 best.com

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Best beaches in Europe 2015

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Best beaches in Europe 2015

Europe is blessed with many beaches of coffee-table book beauty, but it’s the sheer variety of them that sets it apart. From Caribbean-quality strips of sand and glinting water to storm-sculpted collisions of land and sea, few parts of the world offer beach lovers such breadth of choice.

Whether you’re looking for somewhere to surf (or learn to surf), an all-rounder to please the whole family, a moody backdrop for a solo stroll, or just a to-die-for spot to lay your towel, you’ll find it somewhere in our selection of Europe’s best beaches for 2015.

1. Jaz Beach, Montenegro

Jaz Beach - why would you settle for a music festival anywhere else? Image by ollirg / Shutterstock

Jaz Beach - why would you settle for a music festival anywhere else? Image by ollirg / Shutterstock

If you’re looking for solitude, it shouldn’t be your first choice – but if you like your beach holidays to come with a little adventure, a spot of culture and plenty of partying, broad and sandy Jaz Beach on Montenegro’s gorgeous Adriatic coast is the place to be. This summer, Jaz will host the second Sea Dance Festival (seadancefestival.me/en – July 15-18), whose inaugural edition was voted the Best European Medium-Sized Festival at the European Festival Awards 2014.

Earning bonus points for location, Jaz is just outside Budva, a mini-Dubrovnik with a charming Old Town and a citadel that turns into a stage for the Theatre City open-air performances throughout July (gradteatar.com). For adrenaline junkies, there’s more fun to be had: day-trip options from Budva range from rafting the Tara Canyon to paragliding over Mt Lovćen.

2. Peniche, Portugal

A surfer riding Peniche's famous 'supertubos' wave. Image by Francisco Caravana / iStock / Getty Images

A surfer riding Peniche's famous 'supertubos' wave. Image by Francisco Caravana / iStock / Getty Images

The port of Peniche and its eponymous beach is renowned among surfers – and this year it hosts one of only two European stops of the World Surfing League (Oct 20-31 – worldsurfleague.com). But this rugged headland, which juts into the Atlantic about 60 miles northwest of Lisbon, is worth a visit even if you’re not bringing a board.

While seasoned surfers and bodyboarders head for the west coast, and in particular the ‘supertubos’ – large, tube-shaped waves – off Medão Grande Beach, the sheltered bays of neighbouring Baleal are ideal for beginners, families and general lounging around. History buffs will love Peniche's old town centre (which includes historic churches and Peniche Fort, built in the 16th and 17th centuries, used in the 20th century to detain political prisoners, and now a museum), while divers can catch a boat to the clear waters around the Ilhas Berlengas nature reserve just off the coast.

3. Rondinara Beach, Corsica, France

The setting of Corsica's Rondinara is almost as stunning as the beach itself. Image by photovideostock / iStock / Getty Images

The setting of Corsica's Rondinara is almost as stunning as the beach itself. Image by photovideostock / iStock / Getty Images

Let’s dispense with the idea that Rondinara is in any sense undiscovered. In high season (July and August), a flotilla of fancy yachts drops anchor here, while the powdery sand disappears beneath a mass of bronzed French bodies. Corsica guards its gorgeous beaches jealously, though – and rightly so. Rondinara, which lies at the end of a nondescript road off the N198 midway between glamorous Porto Vecchio and historic Bonifacio, is no exception; careful management ensures this is a sumptuous spot despite the footfall, a perfect horseshoe of sand enclosing a shallow, limpid blue bay set like a jewel amid hills of reddish rocks and dusty maquis.

Rondinara’s sheltered location means it’s free of all but the most child-friendly waves, another boon for families staying at the well-organised campsite nearby (camping-rondinara.com). The beach has plenty of parking for day-trippers and a restaurant on the sand serves up food and drink between May and September.

4. Cale Goloritzé, Sardinia, Italy

The effort of reaching Cala Goloritzé is half the fun. Image by elisalocci / iStock / Getty Images

The effort of reaching Cala Goloritzé is half the fun. Image by elisalocci / iStock / Getty Images

Beach perfection comes in many forms in Sardinia. But for sheer drop-dead beauty, few places can rival Cala Goloritzé; a tiny inlet of bone-white pebbles overshadowed by towering, macchia-clad rocks, it's one of a series of beaches on the Golfo di Orosei's dramatic coastline.

It's not your classic poster beach with silky soft sand and a palm-fringed backdrop; rather, its appeal lies in the drama of its setting and its turquoise waters. There are only two ways to reach it: by boat or on foot. Most people cruise in from Cala Gonone, but for a truly memorable experience, you can trek down an old mule tack from the Golgo plateau some 400m above. And if that's not climb enough, once you make it down you can join the local climbers and pit yourself against the beach's rock spire, the 148m-high Aguglia.

5. Vik Beach, Iceland

Gothic and other-worldly: Iceland's Vik Beach. Image by marchello74 / Shutterstock

Gothic and other-worldly: Iceland's Vik Beach. Image by marchello74 / Shutterstock

With black sands, mists and tales of trolls and sea monsters, Vik Beach (Reynisfjara in Icelandic) is the antithesis of its Caribbean counterparts. Found at Iceland’s southernmost point – the wettest place in the country – this wind-beaten volcanic beach has a gothic, other-worldly feel, underpinned by local folklore. Look west to spot the Trolls of Vik (Reynisdrangur), craggy stacks of basalt said to be the petrified remains of three Icelandic trolls. At low tide, explore caves composed of cooled lava; legend has it their geometric columns once sheltered mythical creatures. Keep your eyes peeled for puffins nestled in the nearby cliffs – the area is a haven for seabirds.

Vik village and Reynisfjara are easily accessible from the main ring road and make a great final pit stop before heading back to Reykjavík. Stay at Icelandair Hotel Vík and spend an extra day touring nearby Mýrdalsjökull glacier.

6. Bantham Beach, England, UK

Devon's Bantham Beach is an all-rounder with waves, sandy spots, dunes, rock pools and more. Image by Ann Taylor-Hughes / iStock / Getty Images

Devon's Bantham Beach is an all-rounder with waves, sandy spots, dunes, rock pools and more. Image by Ann Taylor-Hughes / iStock / Getty Images

The south west of England is spoiled for rugged beaches and some of the country’s best – Woolacombe, Croyde Bay and Saunton Sands among them – are found in North Devon. But they have a rival to the south... Bantham Beach, which lies in the South Hams, is a true all-rounder: surfers love its reliable waves; families come for the winning combination of sand, dunes and rock pools; and walkers admire its drama as they pass by along the South West Coast Path (southwestcoastpath.com). For added interest, visitors can hop over to neighbouring Bigbury Bay and visit the elegant art deco Burgh Island Hotel; cut off from the mainland at high tide, this glamorous throwback once hosted the likes of Agatha Christie, Noel Coward, and Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson.

Bantham forms part of an estate owned by the same family for a century until it was sold for £11m last year. The new owner, who beat competition from the National Trust to buy it, has promised to be a similarly conscientious custodian. Let’s hope so.

7. Sandwood Bay, Scotland, UK

Beaches don't come much more dramatic than Scotland's remote Sandwood Bay. Image by richsouthwales / Shutterstock

Beaches don't come much more dramatic than Scotland's remote Sandwood Bay. Image by richsouthwales / Shutterstock

First things first: for all the efforts of the Gulf Stream, the waters off northern Scotland are very cold indeed. To swim here, either hardiness or a wet suit will be involved. But beaches aren’t just about sunbathing. They’re about the dramatic meeting point of land and water, and Sandwood Bay, at Scotland’s remote northwestern tip, is a magnificent case in point.

Getting there is half the fun: the beach is a four-mile walk from the nearest road, the path winding through moorland and grassy sand dunes. When the view of the mile-long beach, overlooked by the limestone sea stack of Am Buachaille, finally opens up it feels like ample reward. This sweep of sand has cliffs around it, a freshwater loch at its back and faces on to waters that stretch to the Arctic. Tall tales of ghosts, shipwrecks and mermaids add garnish, but most people find a tramp around this beautiful place poetic enough.

8. Cala Macarella, Menorca, Spain

Cala Macarella is one of the hidden delights of Menorca. Image by tagstiles.com - S.Gruene / Shutterstock

Cala Macarella is one of the hidden delights of Menorca. Image by tagstiles.com - S.Gruene / Shutterstock

The Balearics often get a rough ride, brushed aside by independent travellers as a fast-track to package holiday hell. But Menorca – the shy little sister of Mallorca – is not only a cracking deal for families, with its gently shelving beaches, low-key resorts and waters made for snorkelling, it also hides some of Europe's finest beaches.

One such secret is Cala Macarella, a horseshoe-shaped cove in the island's south-western crook, where cliffs draped in pines and holm oaks enclose flour-white sands. Get there bright and early, or linger to see day fade into a pink-tinged sunset, to experience it at its silent best. What else? A photogenic walk over the cliffs brings you to the tinier, quieter and just as lovely Cala Macarelleta, where nudists top up their all-over tans.

9. Voutoumi, Antipaxi, Greece

Look down on dreamy Voutoumi while sipping an ice-cold Mythos. Image by Netfalls - Remy Musser / Shutterstock

Look down on dreamy Voutoumi while sipping an ice-cold Mythos. Image by Netfalls - Remy Musser / Shutterstock

Seen one Greek Island, seen them all? Antipaxi, the pipsqueak of the Ionian Islands, might just surprise you, with some of the most gorgeous beaches you're ever likely to clap eyes on.

Dangling just south of Corfu and easily reached by hydrofoil to Paxi then taxi boat, this tiny island is a walkable four-by-three kilometres and home to a year-round population of... 20. But what a beauty it is: cloaked in vines, olives, orchards and wildflowers, scalloped with pearly beaches, and lapped by a sea that fades from turquoise to indigo. Nowhere will leave you itching to leap in like Voutoumi, an arc of ivory-white pebbles and sand, where you can lounge in seclusion before trudging up 200 steps to a taverna for calamari and an ice-cold Mythos overlooking the beach.

10. Curonian Spit, Lithuania

The Curonian Spit contains Europe's largest moving sand dunes. Image by Tatiana Rodionova / iStock / Getty Images

The Curonian Spit contains Europe's largest moving sand dunes. Image by Tatiana Rodionova / iStock / Getty Images

Dividing the Baltic Sea from the Curonian Lagoon that stretches from Lithuania into Russia, this sliver of land is one endless expanse of beach. Mile upon mile of fine white sand awaits those looking for a real escape. This landscape itself, however, is not so sedate. Lush forests and grasslands attract an array of winged wildlife, earning the Curonian Spit a reputation as a birdwatcher’s heaven. Amid this terrain you can marvel at the spectacle of Europe’s largest moving sand dunes. For superb views over this Unesco World Heritage site, hike to the summit of the Parnidis Dune, a great spot to catch the last golden rays of the sun before it dips gently below the horizon.

Thanks to Lithuania’s inclusion in the eurozone earlier this year, it is easier than ever to travel around the region. Tread carefully – metaphorically and literally – if you do go, though: responsible tourism holds out the hope of safeguarding this fragile ecosystem; anything else will only speed up its destruction.

Source: Lonely planet

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36 Hours in Lisbon

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36 Hours in Lisbon

Everything old is new again in the Portuguese capital. Throughout the hilly metropolis on the Tagus River, fading structures and spaces are being stylishly reborn. Once-forlorn neighborhood markets have undergone ambitious renovations and currently form the city’s newest hot spots for dining and drinking. Formerly decrepit townhouses now harbor Lisbon’s chicest indie shopping centers, and the once-dodgy docklands boom with emergent night life in multiple guises. Even the city’s dowdy, underused central square and adjacent waterfront have been spruced up for lounging and strolling. At the same time, the city’s classic historical charms, from art museums to industrialists’ mansions, remain beautifully intact, complementing their rejuvenated neighbors.

FRIDAY

1. Sights and Suds | 4 p.m.

For years, the monumental 18th-century square called Praça do Comércio was surrounded by dull government offices and blighted by construction sites for sewage and transportation projects. In the last few years, however, the square’s icons — an ornate triumphal arch and a statue of King Dom José I — have been refurbished, and a host of new cafes, bars and boutiques has moved in. The outdoor terrace of the Museu da Cerveja, a beer museum (forgettable) and bar (worthwhile), has lovely views along with beers from Portugal, Brazil, Mozambique and other Lusophone lands. The dry and yeasty Templarium (5 euros, or about $5.32 at $1.06 to the euro) offers a window into another compelling development: an evolving trend of Portuguese microbrews.

2. Riverside Renaissance | 5 p.m.

Seedy, stinky and garbage-strewn, the neighboring waterfront strip languished for years. Thanks to a recent municipal cleanup, the seaside is now frequented by joggers, strollers, cyclists and picnickers who take advantage of the new tree-lined path, gently graded stone steps and kiosklike cafes along the riverbank. Art-world denizens might recognize the colorful ship called Trafaria Praia. Covered in traditional blue and white tiles and filled with twinkling installations evoking the sea, the ferry was conceived by the artist Joana Vasconcelos and formed the Portuguese pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013. At 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. from March through October, the boat offers a one-hour scenic ride.

3. Food Court | 8 p.m.

Is there one place in Lisbon where you can dine on raw veal, tinned octopus meat, shaved ham, stewed clams, mango ice cream and cherry-flavored ginja liqueur? Why, Mercado da Ribeira, com certeza. Half of the 19th-century structure — still home to myriad produce stalls — was taken over in 2014 by Time Out magazine and elevated into a hangarlike, neo-industrial food court where top Lisbon chefs, favorite restaurants, upscale food shops and multiple bars ply their goods. O Prego da Peixaria serves succulent warm beef sandwiches on soft Madeira flatbread like the Betinho (8 euros) — slathered in melted cheese, barbecue sauce and cured ham — while Tartar-ia transforms uncooked meats and fish into sculptural and sublimely seasoned creations. The tuna tartar (12.50 euros) comes with ginger, creamy avocado, radish and black sesame seeds.

4. Louche Lounge | 10 p.m.

A tidal wave of new bars continues to wash through the waterfront streets of the Cais do Sodré district. The naughtiest nights unfold at Pensão Amor, which suggests the tufted salon of a debauched baron. Nude portraits, Orientalist paintings, mounted stag heads, leopard-print banquettes, Kama Sutra manuals and even a tarot reader pack the rooms, while the extensive menu of classic cocktails animates the evening with concoctions like the Corpse Reviver #2 (gin, Cointreau, Ricard, Lillet Blanc and lemon juice; 12.50 e

SATURDAY

5. Arts and Craftsmanship | 11 a.m.

Some of the best things in life are not free. Qing dynasty Chinese porcelain vases. Paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Younger. Marble water basins from Versailles. Luckily for Lisbon visitors, the late businessman António de Medeiros e Almeida had deep pockets and a thirst for exquisitely wrought items, resulting in a late 19th-century mansion overflowing with decorative arts. As you stride over the marble floors of Casa-Museu Medeiros e Almeida, you can appraise yourself in gilded mirrors by Thomas Chippendale, walk past 19th-century carpets woven in the Silk Road city of Samarkand, worship at a carved altar from a church in Goa and admire an intricately decorated sky-blue porcelain bidet.

6. Surf and Turf | 2 p.m.

Pig is big at Charcutaria Lisboa, where aged, air-cured hocks of acorn-fed porco preto (15 euros per 100 grams) are finely sliced into fatty red ribbons. It’s just one of the many boutiques and food stands — from sushi stalls to juice bars — in the recently revamped Mercado de Campo de Ourique, a soaring 1930s market. Shrimp is big at Mercado do Marisco, whether boiled with sea salt (9 euros) or pan-fried in garlic and butter sauce, while Atalho do Mercado adds turf to the surf in the form of lamb chops (10.50 euros), smoky-succulent picanha beef sandwiches (5.70 euros) and other meaty treats.

7. A 21st-Century Souk | 4 p.m.

Resplendent with horseshoe arches, geometric mosaic floors, Arabesque swirls of chiseled plaster and other Moorish flourishes, the disused 19th-century mansion across from Praça do Principe Real was reborn in 2013 as a neo-sultanic “Conceptual Shopping Gallery” called Embaixada. The stately rooms are occupied by local Portuguese boutiques and brands such as Urze, which sells elegant Portuguese wool goods, and Temporary Brand, a concept store stocking everything from canned sardines to silver hightops by iShoes.

8. Drop In on the Neighbors | 5:30 p.m.

Almost next door, Entre Tanto is another historical townhouse that has been similarly upgraded into a stylish haven for local indie shops and designers. Within the rambling warren of rooms you’ll find Fresh, a brand of handbags that mix clear acrylic surfaces with traditional textiles, as well as Nichts Neues, an emporium of retro cinema seats, industrial lamps, midcentury modern Scandinavian furniture and other vintage treasures. To help you clean up after your ramblings, Patine stocks soaps, lotions, shower gels and more from Portus Cale, a venerable manufacturer based in Porto.

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