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Lisbon’s comin’ at ya!

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Lisbon’s comin’ at ya!

In Lisbon, a new creative economy is emerging from Portugal’s economic disaster. Smart policy is partly to thank, but then again, Lisbon has few other options.

Lisbon’s Thriving Creative Economy

Will Dyer came to Portugal for the waves but ended up staying for the art. “I was expecting a poor country with a good surf scene, but Lisbon has blown my mind. There is so much cultural stuff happening here,” the 28-year-old from Melbourne, Australia, tells OZY.

He’s decided to stay a month to explore places like the LX Factory, the beating heart of Lisbon’s new creative scene. This once derelict industrial complex in Alcântara, near the port, now looks like a cross between a Western movie set and a trendy East London market, with long, dusty roads and warehouses buzzing with hip restaurants, shops, bookstores and galleries created by ingenious locals and frequented by design-savvy tourists. LX Factory is just one of the many artistic spaces popping up in Lisbon. Like the graffiti that grows on the city’s rundown buildings, a new creative industry is taking over Portugal’s capital.

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“I really do not know any other place with this atmosphere. It’s like a village, but our clients are from all over the world,” says Margarida Eusébio, owner of local interior design firm and concept store Wish.

This creative renaissance, it turns out, is not spontaneous, but rather the product of opportunistic public policy. In times of crisis, most governments take the knife to spending aimed at promoting art, design or publishing. But continental Europe’s westernmost capital decided instead to concentrate scarce resources on its “creative economy.”

There may not be much choice, given the sad state of Portugal’s economy. Still, investing in creativity seems to be paying off. “Lisbon is going through the same process that Barcelona or Berlin went through in the ’90s. It attracts creativity because it unites modernity to a rich cultural past and conveys a captivating liveliness”, says Bruno Gomes from the incubator Startup Lisboa. Creative types now account for some 20 percent of Berlin’s GDP.

And Lisbon’s has perks that established creative hubs just can’t touch. Unlike Barcelona, tourists haven’t completely overrun it. The cost of living is laughably cheap compared to London: $1800 for a small apartment and a $5 for beer, while in Lisbon it’s $470 and $1.50 respectively. And Berlin’s dreary skies can’t begin to compete with Lisbon’s 200 days of sunshine every year. Being a crisis-born agency allows us to adapt better to the market.

To be sure, Portugal’s economy is in the tank, and Lisbon’s creative scene is a lonely bright spot. Unemployment is still at 15.2 percent, GDP is expected to grow this year by just 1.4 percent, and the fragility of Portugal’s banks continues to scare markets and investors.

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The decline of local demand is also clipping the wings of these new companies. That’s why the majority of people roaming the dusty alleys of the LX Factory are foreigners, and many creative startups work mostly with clients from places like the U.K., France, Brazil and even Angola.

Still, creatives say the economic downturn has been good for them. “We wouldn’t have a business if it weren’t for the crisis,” says Nuno Cruces, an energetic 30-year-old who last year co-founded BeeInsight, a software development agency. “When you don’t have anything to lose and no jobs to apply for, you get the courage to create your own thing.”

“Being a crisis-born agency allows us to adapt better to the market,” says Lisboner Pedro Lago de Freitas from branding agency Brandworkers, which has designed PR campaigns for small companies since 2011. “People have lower budgets, meaning they are less interested in working with big, expensive agencies. So we created a small company but packed with talent.”

There are 22,000 ‘creative companies,’ which can now access Lisbon’s more than 20 co-working spaces, four fab labs and 13 startup incubators.

Many young Portuguese are seeking work abroad, but Lisbon might soon attract talent. “It’s the best city in the world to be a creative,” says Natacha Duarte, a busy 34-year-old freelance textile designer who spent seven years working in Spain and creates patterns for labels like Zara. “Lisbon is a great place to live and is not yet saturated like London or Berlin are. New ideas and creative business are always welcome.”

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Lisbon’s City Council is going all out to support it. “The ultimate goal is to create jobs,” says Paulo Soeiro de Carvalho, general director for economy and innovation. “We hope new companies will generate employment, bring investment and help economic recovery.” The Lisbon region already generates about 30 percent of creative employment and almost half the industry’s gross value in the country.

With money short, government strategy is to bring creative players together and nurture a supporting infrastructure. There are 22,000 “creative companies” — from fashion to architecture — and all of them can now access Lisbon’s more than 20 co-working spaces, four fab labs and 13 startup incubators, paid for by funds from private companies, foundations and the City Council, whose flagship project, Startup Lisboa, is downtown.

The growing industry has helped to rehabilitate historic buildings, reuse obsolete infrastructure and turn abandoned areas into ‘creative districts.’

The efforts have earned the city the title of Entrepreneurial Region 2015 from the European Commission.

The council has also packed the city’s calendar with cultural events like the Lisbon Architecture TriennaleLisbon’s Fashion Weekand the Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival. In August, Lisbon hosted the International Street Art Festival and will be home to the Global Shapers2015 in September, Coworking Europe Conference in November and European Creative Hubs Forum in January.

The growing industry has  helped to rehabilitate historic buildings, reuse obsolete infrastructure and turn abandoned areas into what the council calls “creative districts.”

Pensão Amor in Cais do Sodré is a renovated 18th-century house for prostitutes now with a bookstore and spaces for concerts and ateliers; the old Braço de Prata Factoryis now a legal artistic squat, in Poço do Bispo; the area of Santos is branding itself as Santos Design District; and even Intendente, a neighborhood notorious for drugs and prostitution, is getting a face-lift thanks to spaces like Casa Independente, a beautiful 19th-century palace.

The council is designing several microfinance projects to fund ventures and next year will launch the city’s own crowdfunding platform, in partnership with the philanthropic Foundation Calouste Gulbenkian, the bank Montepio and several universities.

Of course this creative renaissance could eventually boost prices, gentrify the city and price young creatives out of the market. That, however, looks like success and is unlikely to happen soon. Meanwhile, wake up, Barcelona. Watch out, Berlin. Lisbon’s comin’ at ya!

artigo de Laura Secorun Palet publicado no Fast Forward OZY

Source: A Cidade na Ponta dos Dedos

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15 of the prettiest villages in Europe

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15 of the prettiest villages in Europe

Almost everyone loves a pretty village, you know a place where the houses are impossibly perfect and time just seems to stand still. Well luckily Europe has plenty. From dreamy fishing villages to tiny fortifiedtowns, here are our favourite picturesque villages in Europe guaranteed to impress your travel snob friends…

Eze, France

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The ancient village of Eze – with its fabulous views over St Jean-Cap Ferrat – is a more traditional alternative to the glitz and glamour of the Côte d’Azur’s resort towns. Perched on rock 1,400 feet above sea level, the focal point of the village is the ruins of a 12th-century castle. Wander through its labyrinthine streets and then stand back to admire the gorgeous view of the villas that lead down the hillside to the Mediterranean.

Pitigliano, Italy

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Surrounded by woodland and the fabled rolling hills of Tuscany is Pitigliano – an ancient small town built on sheer cliffs. Dating from as early as 1061, the town is filled with Etruscan tombs (which locals use to store wine) which are connected by a network of caves and tunnels. An extraordinary, steep fortress surrounds the commune which ensures its status as one of the most unusual and photogenic towns in the area.

Polperro, England

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The popular English holiday county of Cornwall is filled with chocolate box pretty villages, but perhaps the most beautiful is Polperro. With its narrow winding streets and cottages perched on steep slopes overlooking a tiny harbour it seems to be everyones idea of a picturesque Cornish fishing village.

Hallstatt, Austria

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Often considered to be one of the most beautiful places in Europe, Hallstatt is very picturesque. This is mostly due to its location on a narrow rocky west bank of the Hallstättersee with the sheer rising mountains behind it. Famous for its production of salt, this tiny village was once a settlement that dates back to prehistoric times.

Wengen, Switzerland

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Wengen is an impossibly perfect example of an Alpine village where traditional timber chalets cling to the slopes of the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Yes, it does look something straight out of Heidi and although it’s a little touristy in the summer, in winter the high altitude attracts so many skiers its population increases almost ten-fold. Although Switzerland is famously expensive it doesn’t always have to be, especially if you look around for some late deals.

Obidos, Portugal

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This is an ancient fortified town located in the Estremadura Province. In the 13th century, Portuguese Queen Isabel was so enamoured by the village of Obidos that her husband, King Denis I, gave it to her as a present. Today its perfectly preserved collection of medieval architecture ensures its status as a popular tourist destination.

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Deià, Mallorca

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Deia is a renowned picturesque village – located on the northern ridge of the island – which is known for its literary and musical residents. Positioned in a valley in the shadow of the Serra de Tramuntana mountains, its home to a cluster of stone built houses complete with terracotta roofs which seem to hug the dramatic mountain range.

Ravello, Italy

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The Amalfi coast’s most peaceful and charming resort is easily worth the stomach-churningly steep drive to get to. A favourite haunt of celebrities (Greta Garbo, Jacqueline Kennedy and Tennessee Williams all holidayed here) Ravello is known for its mostly traffic-free lanes, elegant gardens, picturesque squares and its famous vertigo-inducing glimpses of the Mediterranean miles below.

Pučišća, Croatia

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Pučišća is a small and gorgeous harbour town located on the northern coast of the island of Brač. Sheltered by a protective cove and filled with attractive Mediterranean style white and terracotta houses, this kind of place is the reason why Croatia is such a popular travel destination.

Kazimierz Dolny, Poland

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This small historic town has a pre-war, precommunist charm which really draws the crowds. Besides the cobblestone streets, preserved Renaissance buildings and picturesque ruins of a medieval castle the town is also known for its superb panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.

Autoire, France

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Autoire – located in Lot, close to the border with the Dordogne department – has the honour of being titled as one of the ‘most beautiful villages of France‘. A place where little has changed in 800 years, it’s filled with a collection of attractive 16th and 17th century honey coloured houses, a pretty church and central fountain all set with a backdrop of the dramatic cliffs of the Causse.

Carlingford, Ireland

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Just an hour’s drive from either Belfast or Dublin, Carlingford Heritage Village is famous for both its attractiveness and its surrounding landscapes. It enjoys a very beautiful location on the southern shore of Carlingford Lough and at the foot of Sliabh Foye surrounded by Irish myth and legend.

Mittenwald, Germany

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Mittenwald is where ‘Old Germany’ stills exists. Traditionally very Bavarian, its has gorgeously decorated houses, painted facades and ornately carved gables. The painted buildings are exceptionally pretty so take your time to stroll around while doing a spot of shopping at the same time.

Crupet, Belgium

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Crupet is a small pretty village set in a woody valley of Wallonia and surrounded by a large moat. Dating from the 13th century its famous for its beautiful castle and its grottoes. Although the medieval Crupet castle can’t be visited (it’s privately owned) it makes for an extremely photogenic backdrop.

Fjallbacka, Sweden

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Fjallbacka is a dreamy fishing village which is also a gateway to Sweden’s most westerly islands, The Weather Islands. Soon you’ll also be hearing a lot more about this tiny village – the forthcoming feature film and TV series, The Fjällbacka Murders – are currently being filmed here.

Source: www.globalgrasshopper.com

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Falling in love, and longing, in Lisbon

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Falling in love, and longing, in Lisbon

The tram twists and turns up and down the hills of Lisbon. Views open up in all directions — the Tagus River sparkling below, the tumbledown facades of once-grand townhouses, laundry-laden balconies and wrinkle-faced women gazing wistfully out their windows.

My Angolan-Portuguese husband is snapping photos. I have my headphones on, tuning out the forgettable narration and tuning in when a fado comes on. The melancholy trademark music of Portugal helps me in my quest, propels me toward an understanding of what I’ve come here to seek.

We are on tram 28, a rickety vintage car that has been winding its way through Lisbon’s streets since 1928. Only, this isn’t the real deal; it’s an ersatz version that travels a slightly more scenic route and comes complete with an audio guide, so that tourists can understand the sights they’re passing.

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The starting point is Praça do Comércio, an expansive waterfront square on the Tagus, also known as Terreiro do Paço. Recently restored, it now showcases sidewalk cafes, restaurants and museums and, on sunny days, crowds of camera-toting visitors and a few Lisboetas passing through.

Then it’s off to the hills of Lisbon, with their aging beauty concealed in the steep maze of alleyways, and back to the mosaic-paved streets and neoclassical architecture of Pombaline Baixa, the city’s elegant downtown district, built in the 18th century after the devastating 1755 earthquake.

I stopped counting my visits to Lisbon years ago; there were too many to keep track of. It’s become one of “my” cities. For my husband, who spent 14 years in Portugal, it’s a second home. So what are we doing on a tourist tram?

I’ve come on a curious mission: to find a key to a sentiment that’s been haunting me since I discovered the country in 2005. That first time I laid eyes on Lisbon, I felt a peculiar kind of wistfulness. I’d never before set foot in Portugal, so there was nothing to be wistful about. But the feeling was present, it was potent, and I found it quite odd. En route from the airport, I remember seeing shabby porticos, a palm tree here and there poking out of spaces between abandoned buildings.

On that first trip, I came with a boyfriend. As we explored Lisbon, we fought. A lot. Instead of setting out to unlock the secrets of this striking city, I spent almost the entire trip feeling sad. Yet the sadness was tinged with strangely sweet undertones.

A couple of months after our return to New York, that relationship ended. Our parting had nothing to do with Portugal itself. But the end of that romance meant a beginning of another. Only now I was in love with a city, my blossoming affair with Lisbon infused with bittersweet emotions.

Portugal’s loss

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A couple of years later, I landed in Lisbon at 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Everything was still half-dark, slow, still. Fado was playing on the taxi radio. And there it was again, that same wistfulness. I could recognize it so clearly as the car glided through the empty streets.

Only by then, I knew its name. I was feeling saudade, the famed Portuguese word that has no apt translation. You could describe it as a profound state of longing for someone or something you love, while knowing deep inside that he, she or it may never return. It’s the love that lingers after someone is gone. It’s a mix of emotions — happiness because you once had this person by your side, and sadness because you don’t anymore — and it triggers the senses in poignant ways.

Although the word first appeared even earlier, it’s often said that this yearning stems from the 15th-century age of discoveries. This was the golden era when Portuguese explorers set sail for far-flung seas, many disappearing in storms, others dying in battle or starting new lives elsewhere. Those left behind suffered from saudade, the nagging sense of absence, the wishful longing for what is gone. Saudade became a thread that runs through all aspects of Portuguese society, the foundation of its mentality, a tune that always plays subtly in the background. It has become a Portuguese way of life.

The former colonial powerhouse ruled a number of countries and imposed its culture on lands as far away as India (Goa was a Portuguese enclave), China (Macau belonged to Portugal until 1999), Brazil, Angola (and a string of ex-colonies across Africa) and Uruguay (Colonia del Sacramento in the country’s southwest is a replica of a small Portuguese town). After this period of power and wealth, Portugal was hit by the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, which lasted from 1926 to 1974. Hundreds of thousands of Portuguese citizens left the country during this time. There was that longing again, for the motherland, as emigrants set up new lives elsewhere.

Then the dictatorship fell and the former colonies got their independence, after nearly six centuries of Portuguese rule. Decades later, Portugal is one of the poorest members of the European Union. The country once had it all, then lost most of what it was proud of. No surprise, then, that saudade is omnipresent, shadowing every step.

An air of nostalgia

I’ve always loved wistfulness. I have a soft spot for nostalgia, the bittersweet remembrance of things past. Perhaps it was the saudade that seduced me to Lisbon in the first place. I love walking through the city’s half-empty streets on a quiet Sunday afternoon, past yellow funiculars and wobbly trams, the peeling walls filled with street art that makes you stop and think, the light reflecting off pastel-colored rooftops.

I love hearing fado from the bars of Alfama, the city’s oldest hilltop quarter. I love the laundry lines zigzagging across slim alleyways and staircases that seemingly lead to nowhere. I love the unexpected squares filled with palm trees and colorfully dressed African vendors. I love nibbling on pastéis de Belém custard tarts in the namesake district overlooking the Atlantic.

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I’d been hooked by saudade so strongly that a couple of years after that first visit in 2005, I returned to Lisbon to spend a summer month by the Tagus. I didn’t know that fate had something else in store. I met that something else outside a corner bar in the form of the man who’s now my husband.

While our relationship was still a transatlantic venture with an uncertain future, I decided to spend a few months in Lisbon. I left New York and found a pied-à-terre on the top floor of a ramshackle building in Bairro Alto, a quarter known for its languid days and raucous nights. From one side of my living room I could see São Jorge castle atop Alfama and, if I leaned out the window, the Tagus on the other side.

A lot happened during those four months. Most memorable was my fall down a flight of stairs, on my behind the entire way, which led to a fractured bone and painful bed rest for weeks afterward. It wasn’t the tumble per se, but at some point during those four months it dawned on me that, although I’ll always love Lisbon, it wasn’t going to make the cut as my primary home.

But the relationship continued. Hoji, my new boyfriend, eventually moved across the Atlantic, then became my husband. My love of Lisbon remained. And my obsession with saudade never faded. So, nine years after my first visit, I returned for a couple of days and set out to seek saudade. It felt like a mystery that I simply had to solve.

Seeking saudade

So there we were, on tram 28. The idea was that if only I looked at Lisbon with fresh eyes, I’d finally “get” saudade, put my finger on where it comes from and what it means.

In Santos, the waterside quarter with 19th-century warehouses and wrought-iron balconies, Hoji showed me the spot where he’d performed stand-up comedy for a while. I spotted A Barraca, a 1930s cinema refashioned into a cultural space, where I’d once gone to dance the tango.

We passed Estrela Hall, built in 1906 adjoining the British church and cemetery and converted in 1947 into a theater housing the Lisbon Players, an English-language amateur drama group. Hoji had performed here once, and I’d gone to the premiere with my broken sacrum, sporting a donut-shaped orthopedic pillow to sit on.

The tram zipped past Bairro Alto Hotel, where we were now staying, a boutique hideaway nestled between the chic neighborhood of Chiado and the boho Bairro Alto. Our second-floor room with plush touches overlooked Praça Camões, a square dedicated to the Portuguese prince of poetry.

Just down the hill was Cais do Sodré, the train station serving westbound suburban routes. For years, the riverside district around the train station had been a seedy spot with lackluster back streets haunted by sailors and ladies of the night. A couple of years ago, it turned into boho-chic central, playing rival to Bairro Alto up the hill.

The tourists on the tram looked bored and sleepy as the two of us rode up and down memory lane. The sun was bright. In Alfama, with its crooked streets and gabled houses, I recalled that first visit with my ex, when we’d seen the tail end of our relationship at Palácio Belmonte, an exclusive 10-suite hideaway in a 1449 palace atop ancient Roman and Moorish walls. Then we zipped past the walk-up apartment that Hoji and I rented for 10 days after our Cape Verde adventure last winter, when my mother came to visit, fulfilling a long-held dream of hers. “The city looks ghostly and sad, yet so pretty,” she kept saying, in different ways. To our right, we passed the Santa Luzia Belvedere, a lookout with a view toward the Alfama rooftops, the river, the dome of the National Pantheon, all framed by grapevine-draped lattices and tall palm trees.

As the tram moved, our stories — my own, my husband’s and those we shared — intersected. It felt as though the history of Lisbon was being woven through the experiences we’d once lived in the city.

In the formerly working-class Graça quarter, the tram rode past a pink building where we’d once spent Christmas with Hoji’s friends. Azulejos, the painted tin-glazed tiles that are the emblem of Portugal, reflected the sunlight beautifully. We hopped off at Largo Martim Moniz, a once-sketchy square where up-to-no-goods gathered and the two of us used to meet by Hotel Mundial, on the southern end. Now with Lisbon at its most multi-culti, the recently revamped square has gotten a new lease on life: It hosts pretty fountains, a fusion market with kiosks hawking global fare and Chinese groceries, Turkish kebab houses, Indian restaurants and African stores around the edges.

A mood of melancholy

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The next day, we rose to rain clouds that hung heavy over the hilltops. The weather suited my saudade-seeking mission. We strolled to the Fado Museum, housed in a pink building near the waterfront. Fado, which in Portuguese means fate, was born from the songs of saudade. The Portuguese sailors who crossed the globe in the past brought back tales of unknown cultures. Out of these tales rose songs that spoke of danger-filled voyages, homesickness, loneliness and the volatility of nature and fate. So where else if not in this museum would I find the key to saudade?

We found listening stations, an old gramophone, dusty records, video clips of fado performances, a 19th-century square piano and a vintage Portuguese guitar. A wall inscription read: “Fado is a poem that can be heard and seen.”

But nowhere could I find a mention of saudade. There was only one painting that spoke of the sentiment, a 1913 triptych called “O Marinheiro,” an oil canvas by Constantino Fernandes, depicting the life of a sailor. The central panel shows an arrival, or perhaps a goodbye, and it’s steeped in saudade.

Leaving the museum in an irritating drizzle, we walked back toward Bairro Alto in a mood of melancholy. A crowd of tourists was crammed inside Conserveira de Lisboa, an old-school canned foods store from the 1930s known for its colorful hand-wrapped cans of seafood based on the shop’s own recipes. We popped in to see the cobblestone interior and the wooden cash register and to grab some lime-marinated sardines and cod in olive oil and onions. Despite the tourist jam, there was still a whiff of saudade inside

Outside, the drizzle dragged on. The next day, it was time to move on. The saudade mystery lingered, and part of me felt that my pursuit had failed. I was no closer to “getting” saudade. I knew that the moment I left Lisbon, I’d feel that yearning again.

But then a new understanding emerged. Had I unraveled the puzzle, saudade would be gone. And the very point of saudade is that it stays on, lingering until the moment I’m back in Lisbon, and beyond.

Source: www.washingtonpost.com by Anja Mutic

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Portugal off the beaten track

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Portugal off the beaten track

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Most Brits head to the Algarve when they go on holiday to Portugal, but it's safe to say they're missing a trick. The relatively unkown area of Alentejo is wildly beautiful, relatively tourist-free, and provides a wonderful alternative to the well-travelled coastline Brits know so well.

First things first: this region is vast. This off the beaten track area covers one third of Portugal but has a population of just 700,000 (ie, just seven per cent of the population). The emptiness becomes increasingly noticeable as we drive further away from Lisbon and approach our destination, Amieira Marina on Lake Alqueva. By the time we arrive, there's hardly a soul around, and this solace continues throughout our stay (we didn't encounter a single diner in either of the restaurants where we enjoyed our evening meals).

It matters not, though. In fact, that's why we're here, a hardy bunch of journalists bought to discover the region and spread the word of all the area has to offer. Alqueva is Europe's largest manmade lake, covering 250 square kilometres (most of it in Portugal but some of it in Spain too) and as soon as we arrive we begin to discover all sorts of things about the region's fascinating history. This area was only dammed in 2002: until then this was one of Europe's most arid, drought-ridden areas. The dam, which reached its current water levels in 2010, was built to provide irrigation and boost local industry and tourism.

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And it's this watery haven that will provide our accommodation during our stay: a houseboat on the lake. After the obligatory training and sailing lessons, we're keen to set out into the large expanse of water. The boats have a maximum speed of 10mph (probably to prevent the tourists from pretending to be James Bond in a speedboat – shame!) and the fastest never feels like more than a mooch. The lake suddenly feels even bigger as we travel from place to place at a sedate pace.

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Fascinating stops abound. First there's the rebuilt village of Luz, which is an eye-opener. The building of the dam meant that the original village had to be submerged and its inhabitants relocated to a new village, complete with a reconstructed church and cemetery. The museum here is fascinating and includes a room showing footage of the villagers before and after their home was sent to its watery grave: the final goodbye to the old cemetery is moving beyond belief. Windmills and even a castle are now submerged in the lake's depths: it could be a scuba diver's dream if someone wanted to develop it.

In the afternoon we drift off to the medieval hilltop village of Monsaraz which has amazing 360 views over the whole region. Walking around the old castle remains, we're lucky enough to be treated to a spectacular rainbow in the distance, and take many stunning panoramic photos.

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Nightfall brings fresh excitement for us all. Alqueva is a stargazer's dream: it was the first site in the world to receive the Starlight Tourism Destination awarded by the Starlight Foundation, supported by UNESCO. In other words, it is one of the rare places in Europe where light pollution is still minimal, and it has cloudless nights for more than half the year. The hotels in the area have been lent high-tech telescopes and I am astounded to be able to see the rings of Saturn as I gaze through one of them.

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Our trip isn't complete without a visit to Evora, the state capital, a UNESCO Heritage-classed town that is a great mix of Roman ruins, medieval walls, crumbling megalithic structures and 17th century palaces. Here you'll find lots of shops - it's the most touristy part of the region. Many of the items on sale are made of cork, which is grown a great deal in the region. You'll find cork bags, mats, wallets, hats and clothing... we even spot a cork wedding dress!

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This town is also home one of the strangest places I have ever been: a creepy chapel made out of human bones called Capela dos Ossos, created in the 17th century by Franciscan monks. As the town expanded beyond its medieval walls the graveyards outside them were dug up so they could be built upon. Rather than letting all the bones go to waste the monks used them to cover the walls and pillar of the surch to remind anyone entering that life is a fleeting thing.

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As we head home to the airport I think about who I'd recommend Alentejo to. It's certainly for those who like a bit of peace and quiet and who are keen to visit a relatively little-known part of Europe, ripe for discovery. The sedate lifestyle, fascinating history, beautiful landscape, starlit skies and laidback people make it a place to remember, and brings a lovely change from the usual hustle and bustle of Europe's more touristy destinations.

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Photos by: Getty, Alamy and Melinda Rogers

Source: www.flightjumpr.com by Melinda Rogers

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Douro: where Port Wine Grapes are Grown

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Douro: where Port Wine Grapes are Grown

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Douro region

We inch up the serpentine bends, pulling the car precariously close to the side of the narrow road closer to the river, as an SUV returning from the mountain, hurtles down in haste. We draw in deep breaths, keeping our eyes as wide open as the glare of the sun will allow. Below us lies a latticework of vines growing in schist rock terraces, arranged at pleasing angles.

As if splitting the mountain interface, the mighty Douro river carves its way, flowing between Portugal and Spain. The river has witnessed the efforts of man and vine for more than 2000 years; in 1991 the Alto Douro was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the long tradition of Port production and the resultant development in infrastructure in the area.

Visit to Douro
Douro wine valley

We stop off to the side of the road as safely as we can, one of us keeps an eye out for possible oncoming traffic, the other takes a few photographs. The Douro wine valley is as spectacular as they say, but even in the heat of summer, there are very few tourists. There are a number of rural houses across the river, some with a noble edge, and they cast ethereal shadows in the flat green waters. The terrain is unique and I feel a growing curiosity about the history and people who live and work here.

While the grapes for some incredibly good table wines, of which we have had the pleasure over three months of living in Portugal to sample, are grown here in the Douro, the region is most famous for excellent Ports or fortified wines. In picturesque Oporto, one of our favourite Portuguese cities which lies at the basin of the Douro, you will see prominent signs advertising the names of Port wine cellars. Port is stored in these cool cellars, but in order to get there, trucks must traverse the precarious journey down. We are told that it isn’t uncommon during harvest season for more than one collision or for a truck to tragically take a tumble over the side.

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Tourism to Douro

In the old days, barrels of pressed grapes were transported by rabelo along the unpredictable Douro.

At various estates or quintas, you may still find rudimentary chapels built in the old style – these were houses of worship where the stewards of those small vessels would come to pray for safe passage.

At Quinta do Crasto, we are taken up to admire the views of the valley from the pool area before our tasting commences and the eye is tricked into believing the pool flows into the Douro river.

It is here that we are reminded what we have been told before, that as popular as Port is, it isn’t so with the Portuguese. Rather, it’s an English custom that seems to live on; naturally much of the port produced is for export. The Douro developed the first appellation system, a wine classification to distinguish the three regions in which the grapes are grown. This was developed 200 years before the French system!

View toward Douro river

Later on at Quinta do Nova, we both agree that this could be the very spot for a renewal of wedding vows, except we both know we have family who wouldn’t commit to scaling the hills to get here. Lunch is an elaborate affair paired with the estate’s wines, under the shaded pergola.

Portuguese Port Wine
Wine Tasting

After a day of exploring, wine tasting (the driver must opt for sensibility, the roads aren’t worth the risk), and taking in views we head back to the beautiful CS Vintage House Hotel for a nap and a shower before dinner at Rui Paula’s DOC, a sleek and modern restaurant with an excellent reputation, on the water’s edge.

Wine tasting in Portugal
Holiday at Douro

And tomorrow? We’ll blissfully do it all again.

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Douro tourists
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Portugal: a Destination to Discover!

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Portugal: a Destination to Discover!

Vacationing in Portugal is not just about Lisbon and Porto.  While I agree that these cities are definitely must-sees for first-time visitors, I have to admit that for even a small country, you are really missing out on so much more if you don’t venture beyond these areas!  If you take a look at this Basic Regional Map, Portugal is firstly divided into 5 distinctly different geographical regions, but then these are further split into.

Sub-Regional (Right) & District (Left), with the districts named after their capital city.  These smaller divisions represent how even more different they are from each other within not just geography, but also architecture, culture and cuisine (including wine!).  That then gives you a perspective of just how much of Portugal you’re actually missing out on experiencing!

I read recently that it used to be that most tourists in general searched for a vacation spot according to the three S’s- Sun, Sea and Sand, which is still apparent on Portugal’s long coastline for being a tourist hot spot.  But now, more and more people are shifting to looking for a vacation with the three L’s- Land, Lore and Leisure, meaning they prefer to stay in a place that best represents the land around them, to learn about the place’s history and folklore while being able to enjoy it through relaxing leisure activities. And for me, this one seems to fit my natural inclinations very well.

For the last 3 years, Miguel and I have maintained a tradition of taking two mini-vacations around Portugal, one in the summer (June/July) and one in the winter (November/December).  And each time, we have made sure to go as deep into the country as we can, in search of finding a hotel that provides those three L’s, along with some other preferences we have.  For example, a comfy bed is a must, as I don’t know how one can relax on vacation without a good night’s sleep!  Also, we prefer a room with a balcony, specifically one with a great view of the land around there, so I guess you could say we normally tend to go to the mountains.  And lastly, if we go in the summer months, a hotel with a pool is usually nice to have.

All of this you can easily find in a hotel using my favorite search site, Booking.com, just put in your dates and type “Portugal” as your destination then scroll down to the map and Portugal Overview where you can search by cities or provinces/regions or even closest airports.  You can also check out Wonderfulland.com which recommends great Portuguese guesthouses and pousadas (luxury boutqiue hotels built within hisorical sites like castles, monasteries etc.) or Pousadas.pt directly for the entire list of pousadas.  However, I find that these sites tend to be pricier to book with for the same hotel that you can almost always find on Booking, so I suggest that if you find a hotel on one of those latter two sites, look it up on Booking next to compare prices before reserving.

So now you may be asking yourself, when do you recommend the best time to go?  What do I look for exactly?  Well below are the guidelines I like to go by when choosing a hotel:

My Guidelines For Picking The Right Getaway Hotel in Portugal For You:

1. Avoid going in August at all cost!

EVERYONE in Europe goes on vacation in August, so most hotels, especially on the coast, are 2-3 times more expensive than other months.  And even if you’re willing to pay the money, it’s almost guaranteed that your hotel will be packed to the brim with lots of families and screaming children….not exactly ideal for a relaxing getaway, you’d almost be better off staying at those people’s empty homes!

If you want the beach without so much of the craziness, try booking in late September/October when it’s still quite warm most of the time and the water has had the opportunity to heat up all summer   Just saw a room at a 5-star hotel in Sagres for more than a €100 less per night in mid-October than if you had booked it in mid-August!  And of course, staying during the week versus the weekend will always be cheaper.

2. Always check the hotel’s room photos carefully to see exactly what you’re sleeping in/on.

I’ve encountered some gorgeous little hotels in the most absolutely beautiful locations to find out that their rooms look like creepy medieval dungeons.  Maybe some people think it’s cool sleeping on a 500yr old piece of history but I prefer my relaxing getaway bed NOT to be a rock-hard tiny mattress that’ll break you’re back as you stare up at a giant gnarled black crucifix.  About as romantic as staying at your deeply-religious grandmother’s house for vacation….Pass!

3. Order your search results by highest rated, NOT most popular.

You don’t necessarily want the most popular hotel, especially if the popular vote comes from families with screaming children.  However, you do still want an overall high rating for your hotel to begin with, as this usually narrows down your search to places with high-quality service and facilities.  I usually tend to not go below about a 7.7 out of 10.0, however I have found exceptions to that before.  If you want to really be sure, read several of the comments from past guests, making sure to read specifically the comments from your specific guest profile.   As I said, it may be great according to families but not so much for young couples looking for a relaxing, romantic getaway.  Also, older couples and families with small children tend to complain the most about any little thing, such as rating the place a 5 out of 10 just because there was no TV in the room.  I think these are unfair complaints when they could have easily chosen a different hotel with those desired features beforehand, instead of crapping on an otherwise fantastic place to stay!

Bottom line, if you spend a little extra time searching, narrowing down and looking in detail at the placese  you have in mind, you’ll have a better chance of choosing the right hotel in the right area that you´ll be satisfied and happy with after. 

So, are you looking for some recommendations to start with? Well, if you have similar preferences as the ones I stated above, then check out the 5 hotels below that I’ve stayed at on my mini-vacations in the last 3 years!

Hotel Folgosa Douro-Folgosa, Douro Valley (Norte) | http://www.hotelfolgosadouro.com/en/

This small but modern 3-star hotel was just a little over a year old when we stayed there for the first time in November, 2009.   Situated in the tiny village of Folgosa, near Peso da Régua, it’s in the heart of Douro wine country.  Which is what we mainly did on our vacation there, spend the day driving up and down the mountains exploring the area and checking out the all the wineries and vineyards and the breathtaking views of the valley.  We liked this place a lot for it’s location right on the river with a great view of the mountains and neighboring villages.  The cleanly decorated rooms have comfy beds and nice mood lighting and the bathrooms have huge bathtubs that made for a great bubble bath to soak in after a day of wine tasting in the colder months.

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The staff were very nice, offering us a complimentary glass port upon arrival and were very accommodating throughout our stay.  The small restaurant serves inexpensive, good food presented nicely in front of their large window with a great view of the river.  And if you’re willing to splurge, you got the famed Restaurante DOC by Chef Rui Paula just across the street from the hotel!

Hotel de Caramulo-Caramulo, Viseu (Centro)

This hotel is basically the only one perched at the top of the Caramulo mountains, just outside of the town of Caramulo.  Don’t be turned off by its lower rating, this is mainly because the hotel is on the older side and some of the facilities need some fixing up but they have plenty of other reasons to make up for it.  The rooms are modest but large and if you book a room with the “Valley View”, you get two double door windows opening up to a large balcony with a table and chairs and of course that GORGEOUS VIEW.  The balcony was also great sitting out there in the evening in our hotel bathrobes and slippers breathing in the delicious mountain air under a star-filled sky with the towns all lit up below.

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If the view still isn’t enough for you, the hotel has a fully equipped gym, spa, sauna, steam room and both an indoor and outdoor pool.  The restaurant is a bit pricey but has good food, however their adjacent lounge/bar has a great mini-menu of soups and sandwiches and afternoon tea goodies that are great to spend a quiet, relaxing afternoon/evening with still that great panoramic view of the valley. 

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Hotel El-Rei Dom Manuel-Marvão (Alto Alentejo)

This was the last hotel we stayed at back in early December and also our first time vacationing in the region of Alentejo.  I must say, we couldn’t have picked a worse weekend to go, with the cold, rain and immense fog, it made it hard at first to appreciate one of the best aspects of the hotel (room) and area-the view!  But thankfully the fog did clear up enough for us to enjoy it and I can say it was definitely worthwhile after that.   

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This is only one of two hotels (the other is the pousada, which has a much lower rating) that are located in the historical village of Marvão, perched at the top of a large hill, complete with the ancient ruins of a castle. This makes it a perfect location to walk through the village and explore the castle and take in all the incredible vistas without ever having to worry about transportation.

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Most of the rooms are small and a bit old-fashioned in decor, but the added rooftop terrace of a superior double room evens it out.  The restaurant also serves good food, especially at breakfast and the staff are very hospitable.

Quinta de Moçamedes- São Miguel do Mato, Viseu (Centro)

Quinta de Moçamedes- São Miguel do Mato, Viseu (Centro)

This cozy, 10-room guesthouse located in a tiny aldeia (village) was rebuilt out of a 12th-century stone manor house and is run by incredibly hospitable Antonio Borges and his family, who live on premises.  All the rooms are spaciously decorated with extra-comfy beds and some with a private courtyard or an outdoor terrace overlooking the countryside.  Our room was located in the original stone house so we had the delight of the thick stone walls keeping our room naturally cool during the day and snuggly warm at night. 

The family puts out a simple but homemade breakfast every morning with local fresh fruit and fresh baked sweets and though there is no restaurant, you can request to have a meal prepared for you in the dining room or you may be invited to dinner instead, if they are already cooking for themselves.  This is what happened to us and the rest of the guests the first night and we had a casual, yet delicious family-style dinner, complete with Antonio and his family, they made everyone feel right at home! 

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The estate has an outdoor pool and you can also get recommendations from Antonio on local sports activities to do, such as hiking, horseback riding, canoeing, rafting, rapeling, BTT and more.

Casas da Lapa- Lapa dos Dinheiros, Serra da Estrela (Centro)

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This tiny 8-room boutique hotel was built totally out of local stone and is perched high up in the Serra da Estrela mountains at the top of the tiny aldeia, Lapa dos Dinheiros.  The super comfy rooms are stylishly decorated with even softer beds and furniture and all are equipped with jacuzzi bathtubs. 

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The outdoor pool has a great view of the valley and village below and since the hotel is so small, you almost feel like you’re the only guest there!  There are also two rooftop terraces for guests to sit out and relax on, sunbathing or taking in the great view.  The staff and service are impeccable and still retain the warm, local friendliness.

Breakfast is great and showcases a lot of local goodies, lunch is available and dinner can be arranged for you on their front terrace at your prior request.  The night that we arrived though, it was already quite late, but the staff the kind enough to offer us the dinner menu that another group of guests had requested before so we lucked out!

Outside the hotel, you can walk up and down the historical cobblestone streets of the village and there is a praia fluvial (“river beach”) a short drive/walk down through the woods with a crystal clear mountain lake with a local “pub” that’s great to watch the moon come up over the mountain at night   And of course, this place is perfectly located to explore all around the beautiful Serra da Estrela mountains and surround villages.

Boa Viagem & Happy Vacationing!

Source: http://americaninportugaltours.com

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The Lisbon Charms

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The Lisbon Charms

Lisboa's neighbourhoods of Belem, Alfama, Chiado and Baixa as well as the Paula Rego Museum in Cascais, are the five tourist attractions in the Portuguese capital recently elected by the Associated Press.

Bestowed with "a special charm" that attracts "more and more visitors", Lisboa has been featured in the international agency's free weekly travel guide published in early 2013. In the guide, the Associated Press (AP) reports that the city has a good offer for hikers, a peaceful way of life, low crime and lots of history. The agency also stresses the "famous Portuguese hospitality" and "exceptional seafood in restaurants."

In Belem, the AP highlights Jeronimos Monastery, the gardens and the maps of sea voyages along the riverside promenade. "The Portuguese like to think (of Belem) as the starting point [ground zero] of globalization," the agency says, noting that the Discoveries Monument pays tribute to Portuguese heroes like Vasco da Gama. The guide also mentions the "famous and irresistible Belem pastries," the 25 de Abril Bridge, which says it is very similar to the Golden Gate in San Francisco, USA, and the "giant statue of Christ that stands watch over the city from the south bank of the river."

In Alfama, AP praises the neighbourhood's typical streets "that ascend towards the castle, where archaeologists have found traces of occupation from the 7th century BC."

Downtown Lisboa, or the Baixa as its is locally known, is another of the free destinations that AP recommends a visit, having been rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake, in a "rare geometric pattern." In this area, the guide advises tourists to visit the antique shops and admire the black and white decorated cobblestone pavements.

In Chiado, described as a neighborhood of the 19th century Belle Époque, "when writers and artists gathered in cafés", highlights include the café "A Brasileira", with the statue of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

Finally, the AP guide praises Paula Rego, described as one of the most famous modern artists, and recommends a visit to the museum with her name, in Cascais, in the Lisboa Region.

Source: www.vivainportugal.pt

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