Your favourite nifty traveller (that’s me, of course) arrived in Porto, Portugal, Tuesday evening and through the help of the internet, a map, and the kindness of strangers, managed to navigate the metro and the bus to reach the Porto Youth Hostel at around 9:00 pm. I scrounged up a towel (they don’t usually supply them to the dorms but I had my ways), called my TC to confirm that I had arrived safely from London, and fell into a deep sleep.
In case you are wondering about the Portal Youth Hostel (part of a Portuguese group of hostels called Pousada Juventude), it was clean and bright, the staff was helpful, and it had beds and showers. Otherwise it was pretty spartan. For the traveller on a budget it is a good place to stay, however, you need to bus 4km to get to the centre of Porto.
Porto itself is a beautiful city. I unfortunately arrived in the centre during siesta (12:00 to approx. 2:00/2:30 pm daily) and on a national holiday, so several attractions I did not get to see because they were closed. I was able to go inside the large Se (cathedral) which dominates the Porto skyline, and to climb the Torre dos Clerigos, the large tower which allows a view of the city and also of the Se. I purchased a Porto card from the very helpful tourismo beside the Se, which provided me with free admission and discounts at main attractions, as well as free public transport in the 24 hours from validation of the card, but as many attractions were closed and I only needed to take the bus twice, I think I would have been better off to save my 8,50 euros and pay admission for the few attractions I visited.
Wasting my money aside, I am very glad I decided to continue my adventures from London in Porto. It is a beautiful place simply to walk around (I organized my journey so that I could take the bus to the top of the Ribeira district and walk down, towards the Rio Douro, and avoid too many uphill climbs). The Ribeira district, with its narrow cobblestone streets and tiled buildings snuggled closely together, is the reason I decided to visit Porto, and I was not disappointed. As per my Lonely Planet: Portugal‘s suggestion, I finished my little walking tour in the evening by walking across the Ponte de Dom Luis I to the other side of the Douro. There I found one of several waterfront restaurants where I could sit on a patio as the sun set and enjoy a nice glass of port.
Well, I wish I could say I enjoyed a nice glass of port. As it turns out, I do not like port. It is too sweet and too syrupy for me. But when in Porto…
Thursday morning my 40 lbs. of bag and I boarded a bus to Guarda. I had intentions of visiting the Parque Naturel da Serra da Estrela, and Guarda is one of the small cities that borders the park. I had no problems with the bus, or with checking into the Residencia Filipe (recommended by my Lonely Planet and also by me…nice private room and bathroom, with breakfast, for less than I am paying for my Lisbon hostel). The minute I got into my room I washed my socks and underpants and hung them on a makeshift line stretching from the wardrobe to the bedpost. Clean laundry! Heaven.
That, however, is where my luck ended. The women in the Guarda tourismo were incredibly helpful, but there was nothing they could do to fix the following:
To hike in the Serra da Estrela, you must go to the town of Manteigas. Buses to Manteigas leave Guarda in the afternoon, but only go from Manteigas to Guarda in the morning. It is therefore impossible to take a day trip by bus. It was suggested that I go to Manteigas that afternoon and return the next day, but as my underpants were hanging wet on the line in the Residencia Filipe, I thought it would be a bit gauche to check out at that point. I could travel to Manteigas the next day (Friday) but as buses do not run from Manteigas on the weekend I’d be stuck until Monday.
In the end I decided to extend my stay in Guarda, bus to Manteigas Friday, make the most of an afternoon there, and swallow a 36 euro taxi fare to head back to Guarda after a lovely day of hiking (I needed to be in Guarda to catch the train on Saturday). What a great plan!
No. The bus to Manteigas was lovely, though I found myself fearing for life and limb as we navigated hairpin turns and narrow mountain roads, with a rock face on one side and steep cliffs on the other. Once in Manteigas it turned out to be–SIESTA! The tourismo was closed! My Lonely Plantet gave me no map! The town did not have signage to mark their hiking trails! I ate my lunch in the sun and waited for the tourismo to open. When it did, I almost cried when I realized the women in the office spoke no English. There were English maps, but although they listed the forty kinds of flora you might meet on your journey, the maps themselves were badly pixelated and did not tell you how to get to the start of the route (besides a land location: 40 degrees west, 700 m altitude, etc.). It also appeared as though you could not reach the start of these trails from town, you had to reach them by car. I suppose I could have taken a taxi to one of them, but at that point it was too late to start a 5km hike far from town when I wanted to return that afternoon.
It is then that I went outside and DID cry. To have gone all that way, and spent all that money and effort to see the Serra da Estrela and not be able to was very disappointing. I walked up and down the road a bit for an hour or so and did get a nice view of Manteigas and the valley below, and I suppose a small Portuguese mountain town is not a terrible place to spend an afternoon. But I had envisioned myself clambering over the granite boulders I had seen on the mountainside, buffeted by mountain winds and scorched by the heat of the sun in a cloudless Portuguese sky. Instead I was scorched on the sun on a small Portuguese mountain highway. Close, but no mountaintop for me.
My misadventures were caused by a lack of planning on my part and a lack of adequate information on the part of the Parque’s publicity department and tourismos and although it seemed silly to spend two nights in Guarda to see a park I didn’t see, I do not regret visiting the town at all. It was incredibly relaxing, and although I wasted a lot of time on misadventures, the centre was just small enough that there was plenty of time to see every single attraction Guarda had (the museum, the beautiful medieval Se, the judiaria, the towers, and the old town gate). I believe if I have a chance to return to Portugal in the winter, I would love to bring a car and skis, more money, and my TC and really see the Parque properly.
A note about the judiaria: during the time of the Spanish Inquisition, north eastern Portugal was one of the last holdouts against the Inquisitor zeal and many Jewish families fled to mountain towns like Guarda from Spain and southern Portugal. In the end, unfortunately, the Inquisition reached them even there, but the historic Jewish quarters remain. The small dilapidated buildings and narrow winding streets were one of my favourite finds in my explorations of Guarda.
Part of travelling is, of course, moving on, and as Saturday morning dawned bright and beautiful, I boarded a train for Lisbon, watched the landscape become flatter, the earth become pink (yes pink!) and then orange, felt the weather become warmer again, and readied myself for the adventures of NiftyNotCool to continue…
In case you’re wondering about me and the granite boulders, I saw some large ones beneath the Torre de Menagem in Guarda. I could have taken the stairs up to the tower like any old sucker, but not this gal. I climbed those boulders like a champion, and reached my mountaintop after all. 🙂