Exploring Tomar, Portugal

We spent only one night in our hotel in Tomar. We checked out the hotel in the morning and headed up the hill in the bus to the Convento de Cristo.

We passed a roundabout in the town on the way to our destination with the following display, symbolic of the Festival of Trays that is held in Tomar once every four years. The festival is to be celebrated this year. Surprisingly, I have not found a location in the Internet with a picture of the roundabout that I have photographed below, although the display can be seen in Google Street view. This is a video from the 2019 celebration. The city appears to come alive during this time! And there are also many people involved in the tray balancing action!

It was a very short drive to Convento de Cristo. It used to be the home of The Knights Templar first, and then the Order of Christ.

The Knights Templars came into being in the early 12th century to protect the pilgrims going to Jerusalem. It was a military order but it included monks. They became powerful over time with the official support of the Catholic church. They expanded into other areas during their existence. They became like a bank for pilgrims, and eventually expanded their banking and lending activities in other domains. They took ownership of properties and businesses of different kinds. They helped Portugal fight the Moors. They also expanded their sphere of influence to the countries of exploration by the Europeans. There were only 9 members when they started. There were about 20000 members at their peak.

There was a room with a impressive roof near the entrance. I have not been able to find the original purpose of this room.

We explored a couple of the many cloisters in this space while Rui spoke more to us about the people who inhabited this place in the past. The cloisters were supposed to be places of quiet and seclusion, where you kept to yourself for the most part. It seems like different cloisters in this place served different functions. This is a picture of the cemetery cloister, apparently a burial site for knights and monks.
This a a picture is of the laundry cloister, where the washing was done.

We next visited another room with an impressive ceiling. This is called the new Sactristy room.

The next place we visited was the round church (Charola do Convento de Cristo)! Rui presented this room to us as a surprise – an element of the tour that you were not expecting that was supposed to take your breath away. And, indeed, this was a unique, grand and imposing room in spite of its smaller floor space. The architectural style in this space is called Manueline. Apparently it is considered a form of gothic architecture. Charola is Portuguese for Rotunda.

We then passed one more cloister, the main cloister (I have seen different names on the Internet: King João III Cloister, The Royal Cloister, The Renaissance Cloister), and then the dining and kitchen area. Here are pictures from this part of the visit.

From one of the cloisters that we visited towards the end (most likely the St. Barbaras Cloister), near the entrance to the facility, we could see the renovation work that was going on on the main building.
We were supposed to see the Chapter House Window (Janela do Capítulo) of this building up close but that was also under renovation. This window is supposed to be a good representation of Manueline architecture. They had hung up a representative picture at its original location instead.

This picture was taken in the space around another one of the cloisters we visited – the Micha Cloister.

The Knights Templar were finally eliminated by King Philip and Pope Clement V (under false charges, it seems) because they became too powerful. (I believe Rui mentioned that the King had to borrow from the Knights Templar to finance the management of his kingdom, and had trouble paying them back.) The Templars themselves were hunted and persecuted viciously in some countries (including burning at the stake!).

The Order of Christ came into being after the end of Kinghts Templar under the aegis of Dom Denis I. Rui called it “Rebranding” The rebranded organization occupied the Convento de Cristo. Some people also transitioned between the two organizations.

After our visit to the Convento de Cristo, we drove back down the hill to the town of Tomar to spend some time there.

We first walked through the narrow alleyways towards Jewish section of town. We were told that Jewish folks came to Tomar at the time of Carthaginians, before the Romans. ((I could not find any independent online confirmation of this. Indications are that most of them came during the middle ages.) Unfortunately, I did not take a picture of our visit to the synagogue. There was a group of children who were having a lesson in this space when we arrived.

The Jews formed a significant portion of the population of the city for some time during the middle ages.

We wandered around town exploring the sights before returning to the bus.

The square in the first picture above is called the Praca da Republica. The church in the second picture is the Igreja de Sao Joao Baptista. The tuk-tuk in the fifth picture is available for a tour of the aqueduct that used to supply the convent with water. This aqueduct was built as recently as the 17th century. I used to think that all aqueducts were from roman times.

Before departing the town of Tomar, we had a little bit of time to walk to the Nabao river to take pictures.The waters of this river eventually feed into one of the major rivers of Portugal, the Tagus.

Helder drove past us in the empty bus on his way to the pickup point while we were walking along the rive to the same location. He was kind enough to pick us up on the way – before the others boarded the bus!

We are next traveling to the town of Castelo de Vide for lunch.

On to Fatima and Tomar

Our next stop was at the pilgrimage center of Fatima, on our way to Tomar – the place we would be staying at that night.

We saw this amusing advertisement beside the highway as we were approaching the town of Fatima.We were told that the city of Fatima, in its current state of development, did not exist until only recently. The city seems to have built up around the center for pilgrimage. Perhaps the above is a sign that the town has finally arrived. (I think I also saw a Burger King on the map!)

We were told the story of the name of the town of Fatima on our way in.

My first impression of the Sanctuary of Fatima was about how massive the open space is. It is said to be much bigger than St. Peters Square in Vatican City.There are three edifices that anchor this space – two basilicas and and a chapel. The Chapel of the Apparitions is at the location of the original church where the apparitions took place. The Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary is the older church, from the 1950s, that dominates the entire space with its size and its sweeping colonnades. The newer Basilica of the Holy Trinity was built as recently as 2004.

The other impression that one gets is that this space appears to be quite “modern” and does not reflect the kind of medieval Portugal that we have been traveling through thus far. You then remember that the events at Fatima took place in the early 20th century. You realize that you are dealing with events that happened recently – relatively speaking. Some of the events of those days are still under scrutiny and there are still developments in this regard today. One may even be able to recognize and understand the mood, the culture, the politics, etc.., of those times – similar to today’s in certain ways. Canonization (sainthood) for two of the children who encountered the miracles happened only in 2017, and is still ongoing at this time for Sr. Lucia, their cousin. Sr. Lucia only died in 2005 at the age of 97.

This is a closer picture of the chapel.

These are pictures of the Basilica of the Rosary.

This is a picture of the newest church in the sanctuary, the Basilica of the Holy Trinity.The church looks rather cold, and perhaps even forbidding, from the distance, but as more of the details reveal themselves to you as you approach it, it becomes more approachable and inviting. I really liked the inside of the church. In spite of the size, it was felt very peaceful and looked simple, a space that could be used for contemplation and prayer. The space can accommodate about 8000 pilgrims. it is humongous.

The presence of the devotees over the entire space of the sanctuary is notable. You will find them walking from one end of the space to the other in prayer.

Catching one’s attention was the pilgrimage on the knees undertaken by some devotees in the open space of the sanctuary:

The first of the two pictures above is the sign for the PRAYER BEFORE THE PILGRIMAGE ON KNEES, at the location where this devotion begins.
(From the Google Translate app…)
Holy Trinity Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I adore you profoundly.

My heart exults for the many benefits you have bestowed upon me. Help me to repair the evil of my sins with good. Accept this pilgrimage on your knees to the blessed place where Mary communicated to us the certainty of Your Love.

For this sacrifice I implore the blessing of forgiveness on poor sinners so that all, open to the message of the Gospel, may enjoy peace in the present time and one day reach eternal joys. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.


By then it was time to depart Fatima to head out to Tomar, a town that was quite close by. We got a distant view of the Convent of Christ as we approached the town.We were going to visit the convent the next day. We were staying at the Hotel of The Knights Templar for the night. The view from our hotel was of the park and the Nabao river. It looked nice in the evening light.

After checking in, we settled down for a drink at the bar. We then headed out to the dining room of the hotel for dinner. Dinner was a little disorganized as they kept running out of different items on the buffet tables at different times.

After dinner, we went for a walk in the park. It was quite chilly outside by then!

The Convent of Jesus, the place that we were going to visit the next day, was visible from the park, and even from our hotel room.

Coimbra, Portugal

We visited the city of Coimbra next. The name of the town during the times of Roman occupation was Aeminium. In those days, it used to be under the protection of another nearby settlement called Conimbriga, the source of the current name of the city. The city is on the Mondego River, the only river that runs fully within Portugal. Coimbra is said to be the first capital of the Kingdom of Portugal. (It is a little confusing because the same is said of Guimaraes in a Wikipedia article.)

Before crossing the river into the main section of Coimbra, we passed the Portugal dos Pequenitos theme park. This place is apparently also popular with adults. (You can see a reflection from the windshield of the bus of Helder, our driver, in this picture.)

We crossed the Mondego river on the Ponte de Santa Clara (more info here in Portuguese!).

The town center is the first landmark one sees after crossing the river.

The University of Coimbra is the oldest University in Portugal. It is one of the preeminent centers of learning in Portugal.

The university is located on the hill overlooking the river. A Moorish Palace used to exist on the hill in times past. After the reconquest by Afonso I, it became a royal palace. There also used to be a convent at this location at some point in time. The University has been in existence since the 13th century, and moved here permanently in 1537.

Because of construction going on in town, we had to take a roundabout route up the hill to the university. We passed the the city’s railway station on the way.Once up on the hill, we drove past a memorial to people who died in World War I. The memorial was in a park along an avenue called the Avenida Sá da Bandeira. I could not take a picture but you can also see it in this article regarding Portugal’s participation in WWI. Portugal joined this war late, on the side of the allies. Portugal stayed out of WWII for the most part. The country was a haven for refugees. (The movie Casablanca concludes with an escape to Lisbon.)

There was an old Roman aqueduct next to where we were dropped off for the walking tour.

We passed the statue of Denis I on our way into the central quadrangle.The king was responsible for establishing the University.

Some students were waiting for us as we walked towards the university, trying to sell pens as a fund-raising effort for the university. The pens were topped with the colors of the different departments (Faculty of Law: Red, Faculty of Medicine; Yellow, Faculty of Humanities: Dark Blue; Faculty of Sciences & Technology: Light Blue; Faculty of Pharmacy: Purple; Faculty of Economics: Red and White; Faculty of Psychology & Education Sciences: Orange; Faculty of Sports Sciences & Physical Education: Brown).

The students were dressed like they are out of a Harry Porter movie. I suspect that J.K. Rowling could have been influenced by this clothing. Mention was made about the hazing traditions of the university.

We walked to the quadrangle through the Iron Gate, or the Porta Férrea.The quadranglewas completely open except for this single statue of King John III.He was responsible for permanently moving the university to Coimbra.

We got a view of the river from one side of the quadrangle, from behind the statue.

There was no shade in the quadrangle except for that provided by the few trees that were there.

We took a tour of the library, the biblioteca Joanina.

This picture was taken before we entered the main library.No pictures were allowed inside the main library. This historical library has its origins in the 18th century during the age of enlightenment.

Bats are used at night to kill the insects in the library. The books are covered while this is happening. (Only two libraries, both in Portugal, use this system.) The architecture and construction of the library is such that it assures that the inside is temperature controlled. A copy of the Guttenberg bible is in library. Only professors and rectors have access to the books – after approval. There are also places where books can be read within the library itself. Nowadays, book are also available online.

We visited the Saint Michael’s chapel next.We observed the carpet style glazed tile in the chapel, so named because of the designs and the edging of the tile work.

There is a statue of St. Catherine on one side of the chapel and that of Mother Mary on the other.

The organ was impressive.We wanted to visit The Great Hall, called Sala dos Capelos, in the building that used to be the main part of the palace in old times, but it was closed for renovation. We took a detour through the hallways of the Law department instead.

After the visit to the university, we were dropped off at the town center so that we could have lunch on our own. This is where we landed up.

We walked around in the area of the town center after lunch. taking a random detour along a side street to climb up a hill. A cute little chapel was revealed to us near the top of the hill. I found out later that the chapel has been converted into a place for dining, with live Fado music being provided as entertainment.

After this stop, we headed back to the bus to continue with our travels. Our next stop is the pilgrimage center of Fatima.

As we were leaving Coimbra, we got to listen to the song All of this is Fado – a song made famous by Amália Rodrigues. She is apparently well known for the revival of this style of music. Fado is recognized in the UNESCO lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Fado has its origins in the songs of the common people. The themes in the music are said to relate to feelings of longing, nostalgia, etc. Rui compared it to the moods of the blues. During a Fado performance, the vocalist is accompanied by a regular guitar and a Portuguese 12-string guitar. We will be going to a Fado dinner event in Lisbon later in the trip.

Bussaco, Portugal

This turned out to be our lucky travel day. We got assigned front row seats on the bus – just behind Helder! And this also turned out to be a day of significant travel – which made this seat assignment event more noteworthy. We would be visiting Bussaco, Coimbra and Fatima during the day, and ending up in Tomar for the night. We are generally headed south.

I got to take pictures out of the unobstructed windshield of the bus all day – starting with this picture as we left our hotel for the last time. Goodbye Porto!

Rui occupied the seat next to me, giving us an opportunity to chat with him during our travels that day.

Time for some more background information….

The country of Portugal is divided into regions, sub-regions, and districts within the sub-regions. The population is about 10 million today. The country is about the size of Maine.

Cork is the main crop in Portugal. Rice, wheat, corn, cereals, olives. etc.. are also grown.

Here are some pictures from early in the drive.

We passed areas of forest fires that took place in the past that destroyed wide swathes of eucalyptus trees. Turns out that there was a major event in 2017 that brought Portugal a lot of criticism from the world with regards to its cultivation of eucalyptus trees. This article has a link to more of the details of that event, and another disastrous event in 2020.

We got off the highways in an area near Bussaco. This is the Bairrada region of Portugal. This is an area of vineyards. This is a picture in a roundabout in Mealhada, a town that we were passing through. It is a monument to Baccus (Monumento ao Deus Baco). This is an area known for Espumante, the Portuguese sparkling wine. (I found this article on Wikipedia on Portuguese wine in general.) Mealhada is also known for their Leitão, or suckling pig. (We did not get a chance to taste this!)

Soon we entered the mountain range of Bussaco.The hills did not seem to be very high, but we were told that there was a ski area close by. There is supposed to be a diversity of vegetation in the area, including Mexican Cyprus, Oak, Goan Laurel (I found a reference to Indian Laurel on Wikipedia), Cedar, Ginko, Sequoia, Bunya Pine, Eucalyptus, etc. 

The history of the park includes that of the Carmelite Convent. The convent closed down when religious orders were banned in 1834.

We passed through the town of Lazo as we climbed the hillson our way to the Palace of Bussaco. The roads through the woods were all paved with cobblestones.

As we approached our destination, a mention was made of the movie Lines of Wellington, later also a television series, about the Battle of Bussaco. (John Malkovich played The Duke of Wellington in the movie.) The battle took place in this area, and it was a significant event in Portuguese history. British and Portuguese forces fought against the French under Napoleon during this battle and won.

Here are some pictures of what remains of the Carmelite convent, and the Palace of Busssaco and its surroundings. Stone from the abandoned convent was used to build the palace.

The Palace was converted into an exclusive hotel a while back. It seems that they are not too fond of hordes of tourists wandering into their lobby these days.

It was mid-morning by the time we left the palace
to head back to Mealheada, and then get on the main road from Mealheada to Coimbra.

The plan was to do some exploration of Coimbra before lunchtime.

Braga, Portugal

It was late in the morning when we left Guimaraes to head out to Braga. We passed through more of the green Minho countryside along the way, including some terraced fields that I noticed.

Braga used to be called Bracara Augusta during Roman times. It is a religious center for Catholics today, and has been so almost all through its history. It is the oldest catholic archdiocese in Portugal. The Archbishop of Braga has claimed primacy over the whole Iberian Peninsula since the middle ages.

Braga has the oldest cathedral in Portugal. The city is considered a center for the baroque style of architecture.  It is a big and more modern city than Guimaraes.

The primary religion in Portugal is the catholic faith. I noticed that both Guimaraes and Braga have plenty of catholic churches – almost around every corner. The catholic church used to be very powerful in Portugal and also used to play a role in the civil affairs of the country. During the Age of Enlightenment, there was a move to reduce these powers. A stop was put to recruitment into the religious orders in Portugal at some point in time. In 1910, the First Portuguese Republic abolished the policy of having the Latin Church as the state religion, in favor of secularism. However, the right-wing Salazar regime from 1932 to 1974 re-established Catholicism as the state religion. Portugal today is once again a secular state. The laws relating to the existence of different religious orders still hold in Portugal. Diocesan churches exist to allow the population to practice their religion, but the convents and monasteries are mostly unoccupied and sometimes converted to historical sites.

This is one of the churches that we passed as we drove into town.It is the Igreja dos Terceiros (Church of the Third Order).

We had time to walk around a section of town on our own after our arrival. The outdoor cafes were already open and occupied.

I visited the Braga Cathedral on my own.

The style inside the church is baroque. To say that the church was opulent is an understatement! The amount of gold in the choir space at the rear of the church was overwhelming. There were also a few shrines with altars along the sides, and statues of different saints also lined these sides.

After exiting the church, I joined the others in our group for some shopping going on at one of the gift stores in front of the cathedral. There were many mementos made from cork at the tourist stores. Portugal is one of the major suppliers of cork to the world. One of the symbols of Portugal that I got more familiar with during this shopping interlude was the Rooster of Barcelos. Here is the tale of the rooster. You can see it on some of the tea towels in the picture above.

The next stop was for lunch. Lunch was accompanied by the local green wine that the Minho province is known for. Many bottles were put away effortlessly at our table as we dug into our food!We made some new friends during lunch. There was a happy mood as we exited the restaurant.

Rui told us later, perhaps as a joke, that in Portugal a meal without wine is called breakfast!

The next stop was the Church of Bom Jesus up on the hill. It turned out that I had been looking at a different church during the ride into town and thinking that this was going to be our destination later in the day. This is what I had seen in the morning.

I got a view for an instant of the church that we were actually going to visit during the bus ride up the hill.

There was a surprise waiting for us as we drove up the hill. We were going to take a funicular ride up to the church from a point partway up the hill. This was a unique funicular, operated using a water balance! It is the oldest such funicular in the world. Here is a video that I found on the Internet.I stood in the open space in front of the cabin of the carriage as we made our way up the hill – to the stop at the top where our friends were waiting for us.

The Church of Bom Jesus is a center for pilgrimage in Portugal. The pilgrims walk up the steps of the Bom Jesus do Monte staircase as a part of their pilgrimage.The steps start near the bottom of the funicular. The pilgrims can stop along the way to pray at the stations of the cross. The last station is at the altar of the church.It turned out to be a more modern church than others we had visited thus far during our travels. The inside was less ornate than others.

There is a small grotto next to the church on the grounds of the sanctuary. The grounds were interesting to wander in.

This statue of Saint Longinus, the centurion who pierced Jesus on the cross, can be seen in the pictures above and below.

You get a good view of the valley from one of the locations on the grounds of the sanctuary.

This was our last stop in Braga. We started the drive back to Porto, and got back to hotel just before 6pm. This picture taken in town gives you an idea of gas (petrol) prices in Portugal. The prices are in euros/liter.

The city of Porto appears to have all the conveniences that one has gotten used to in the US, including private car hiring services like Uber, and food delivery services such as the one seen in the picture below.

After returning to the hotel, we went out looking for a place to have dinner at. We ended up walking quite a bit along the Avenida da Boavista (the road on which our hotel was located), peering into restaurants along the way. We ended up where the Casa da Musica is located, just before a big roundabout and park, without success. We then walked along the roundabout and got on to the Praça do Bom Sucesso, finally landing up at the food court within the Mercada Bon Sucesso. It was a good walk after a long day!

Guimaraes, Portugal

We had a choice this day of hanging out around Porto on our own, or of heading north on an optional tour called The Medieval Portugal tour. We chose the latter. We would be heading to the Minho province, which is the northernmost part of Portugal, and is considered the green wine center of the country. During this trip we would be stopping in the towns of Guimaraes and Braga. The first stop was Guimaraes.

We heard the following trivia during the bus ride: The people of Porto are called the tripe eaters. They got this name at the beginning of the Age of Discovery, when they used to give away their best meat to the travelers and explorers, and had to consume the leftover tripe for themselves. Porto is now well known for their tripe dish. Francesinha is another dish that comes from Porto.

Guimaraes is named after Vimara Peres, a 9th century warrior who became the first Count of the County of Portugal, a county belonging to kingdoms of Galacia, Asturias and Leon at different times. This county was the basis of the formation of the Kingdom of Portugal in later years. According to this link, Guimaraes was the kingdom’s first capital.

Count Henry of the Portuguese House of Burgundy governed the County of Portugal during the early 12th century. He used Guimaraes as his base. Afonso Henriques, Count Henry’s son, became King Afonso 1, first king of Portugal. The declaration of Portugal as kingdom happened in 1139. At this time they separated themselves from the kingdom of Leon and Castile. They were formally recognized as an independent kingdom by Leon and Castille in 1143.

The longer history regarding the country of Portugal: The Celts were early invaders to the Iberian peninsula. The Roman invasion started in the 3rd Century BC. The Romans took over from the Carthaginians after the Second Punic war. The Germanic tribes, including the Suebi and the Vandals, and eventually the Visigoths, controlled the area from the 5th to 8th Century AD. The Moors came next when they conquered the Iberian peninsula. The Visigoths were able to defeat the Islamic conquerors in Asturias in the 8th century. This was considered the beginning of the Christian Reconquista. The Moors were finally fully vanquished from Portugal in the 12th century.


Rush hour traffic was still in progress when we left Porto for Guimaraes.

The landscape in the countryside after leaving Porto included spring flowers,pine and eucalyptus trees, green vineyards and other signs of agriculture. Industries like textiles, timber (furniture), and food are said to be prevalent in this part of the country. Cities here are centers for services, e.g., banking.

We also encountered stop-and-go traffic as we entered Guimaraes from the highway. We were a little delayed in arrival. On the way to our first stop, we passed the city court with the Statue of Mumadona Dias in front.She was a 10th century countess of Portugal.

We were dropped off on a hill – near the 15th-century palace built by the first duke of Braganza.
The palace is located close to an old hilltop castle from the 10th century.There was a statue of Afonso I of Portugal, the first king of Portugal in front of the palace.We started our walk through town from the palace, heading downhill to a square in the medieval section of Guimaraes. We passed by the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo (igreja means church), with the beautiful tile work on its exterior wall dedicated to The Virgin Mary.There was a park next to the church.

We arrived as a group at Oliveira Square (Largo da Oliveira).At this point we were given time to explore the town itself on our own.

We walked through the alleyways, squares, and other pathways of the medieval town. Here are some pictures.

It was still early in the day while we were there, and activities were just beginning to pick up in town. Restaurants on the side streets were still in the process of opening up for the day. The alleys – with the old multistory buildings with metal railings on the windows, plants growing in pots outside the windows, the hanging laundry, the displays in the storefronts on the ground floors for tourists, etc., gave a nice ambiance to the place.

The somewhat abstract statue in the gallery above is that of Afonso I of Portugal. The last picture in the gallery is of kids from a school on a field trip with their teachers. They were supposed to make a record (including drawings) of interesting things that they saw in their surroundings. (For some reason, the kids in the picture I took were facing a nondescript and uninteresting building that housed a hotel!) I noticed other groups of young people exploring on the palace grounds. It was good to see the young people being given such exposure to their internal history.

The church seen in the distance in two of the pictures – behind the fountain and the large garden – is the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Consolação e Santos Passos. I have also included a picture of the inside of another church, the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Oliveira.

That was the end of the visit to Guirmaraes. We got back on the bus to head out to Braga.

Visiting Porto

This was the view from the hotel room the morning of our first full day in Porto. There is nothing particularly noteworthy about it. It could have been a view in some random city in the world.

The bus that we boarded that morning was being used for the first time on a tour. We would be on this bus for the entire tour. It was a Mercedes Benz vehicle, and it was set up quite comfortably for tours like ours. The seats were comfortable, there was plenty of storage for the luggage in the lower level of the bus, and there was overhead space for hand luggage. The air-conditioning system had individual controls for the air flow. There was a PA system for the tour guide to use, a container up front for cold water bottles supplied by the tour company, and even an emergency restroom (that they discouraged us from using because it meant additional cleaning work for the driver). The bus was so new that they had not yet affixed the seat numbers to the individual seats.

Our driver for most of the tour was Helder. He was fluent in English, and was always smartly dressed with a tie and jacket and black shoes. His driving skills also turned out to be impeccable! Rui and Helder worked as a good team. Because of a regulatory limit on the number of days that a driver could be driving continuously in Portugal, he was not able to drive us on the last day of our tour.

Our local guide in Porto was Katerina. As we departed the hotel, she started talking to us about he city of Porto. The population in the metropolitan area of Porto is about 230,000 people. Porto developed as an industrial city along the river Douro. It is known for its Port wine.

We started driving towards the beach area of Porto. It is called Foz (full name Foz do Douro – Mouth of the Douro).

We got a glimpse of different parts of the city along the way. We drove past an older upper part of town from the later 1800s. There were lovely villas. The newer part of town is more more modern. They seem to be very conscious about pollution and the environment. The Metro buses are being converted to run on hydrogen. There is a lot of focus now on transportation as a part of city development. The younger population has 2-year free bus passes. The weather in summer is supposed to be very pleasant, not hot.

Our drive took us past the City Park that is popular with the locals. The 200 acre park is home to the Primavera music festival in summer. 

Housing can be expensive in parts of town, with houses that cost about 1 million euros and apartments that cost around 6 hundred thousand euros.

We arrived at our first destination at an area next to the Atlantic Ocean.

We circled a roundabout with a statue of King John VI (John is spelt Joao in Portuguese) in the middle.One of the things that John VI is known for is the fact that he fled to Brazil in 1807 when it seemed that foreign invaders might take over the country (I think it was the French that he was concerned about). Brazil declared independence from Portugal in 1822. The move was led by the king’s son, who became King Pedro I of Brazil.

(The history of the royal families in Portugal is interesting but too convoluted for me to try to remember. Rio Pacifico, our tour manager, studied history in school. He felt motivated to give us a lot of historical background, again and again, but it is all too much to remember. There seems to have been a lot of intrigue both within the royal families, and across nation states in Europe. This should not be a great surprise!)

We saw the She Changes sculpture by the American artist Janet Echelman, The sculpture changes shape depending on nature of the wind!

We got off the bus at the roundaboutbeside the Fort of San Francisco Xavier. For some reason, the fort is also called Castello de Queijo, the cheese castle.

In the distance we could see the Porto Leixoes Cruise Terminal.

We were told that surfing was popular in that area, and that there were many surfing schools there.

After this stop, we started driving along the ocean side back towards the mouth of the Douro river. We would then continue the drive along the northern bank of the river to the city center. It was pointed out that trees in Foz neighborhood were brought from New Zealand. Foz used to be a side resort for the rich initially.

The beaches that we were passing had different names like Beach of the English, Beach of light etc.. They are public.

At the mouth of the Douro river, we passed a Fortress – Fortaleza de São João da Foz. The fort was set in that location to protect against Spanish attacks. Trees in the area are from Australia – Norfolk pine.

Also at the mouth of the Douro river, on the other side of the river, we saw the little fishing village of Afurada – with all of its small fishing boats. This village had become a tourist destination, and is easily reachable from Porto. They have summer festival there every year in honor of St Peter, the protector of the fishermen.

On the Porto side of the river we saw the little houses for the fishermen,and even one of the old trams running along the road beside the river.The oldest tram lines in Porto are from the 1870s. They were drawn by mules at that time. The original electric trams used in Porto were from America. The whole setup with the trams, including the streets and the neighborhoods that they ran through, looked very inviting. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to ride them. There is a similar network of old trams in Lisbon.

Across the Douro river is the city of Gaia (full name Vila Nova de Gaia). The port cellars for the port wine that Porto is known for are actually located in Gaia. Gaia has an ancient history even before the times of Christ. The original name of Gaia was Cale. Porto used to be called Portus Cale, no doubt influencing the name of the country today!

We passed under the Arrabida bridge, built in 1963, one of the six bridges that cross the Douro. An additional new bridge is planned in the future for the Metro.

We took a detour away from the riverside through the historical section of Miragaia, an older section of Porto, before returning back to the riverside.It was interesting to see that there were rails for the trams on the narrow street going up the steep hill to the section of Miragaia we were visiting. We even saw some of the trams.

As the road climbed up from the river side, we passed an area of street art subsidized by the city. We were passing by too fast for me to take a good picture. I found this page on the Internet with a sample of this artwork. The paintings are replaced regularly.

We got to a park in a square with trees with wide tree trunks at the bottom. These are sycamore trees which got a disease.The park is called Jardim da Cordoaria.

We passed close to what we were told is considered one of most important towers in Porto. the Clerigos Church tower (construction completed in 1763). (We would walk to the church and climb to the top of the tower later in the day.)

We drove close to the Lello bookshop that JK Rowling used to visit when she lived in Porto. According to the Wikipedia article, she worked a few chapters of her first Harry Potter book in Porto.

One of the things that Portugal is known for are buildings with tile work on the outside. This has been going on for centuries. The tile panels on this building that we drove by were supposedly from the 1900’s.

We drove by the Carmo church (construction began in 1756).and the University of Porto.Both are landmarks in Porto.

We passed the Hospital Santo António, a part of the university’s medical school. We were told that it was one of the best medical schools in Portugal. I was on the wrong side of the bus to be able to take a picture. The building was noted to be in the Neoclassical style (the sign next to the place used the term “Neopaladian style”. The architect was John Carr and the building was built in the late 1700s. Here is a picture from the Internet.

We then drove down back to the road that ran beside of the river. As we waited for the lights to change to get on to the road beside the river, I saw people with backpacks. They were preparing to start the about 240 km long Portuguese Camino de Santiago.

We continued to see the trams running beside the road and the river.

We drove next to a part of town closer to the Ribeira to start our walking tour of the city. We were stopped next to a square with a statue of Henry the Navigator in the center.

We toured the mercantile building, also called the Palacio da Bolsa or Stock Exchange Palace. There was much information about the building that was shared, but I will simply show the pictures from some of the impressive rooms. The building was originally part of a convent. There is a lot of history here that one can read about elsewhere. Hopefully, you can sense at least a little bit of the grandeur of the place in the pictures.

We walked next to the Church of San Francisco. The altar was under reconstruction and was blocked off from view. The two altarpieces on the sides were notable.This is called the Tree of Jesse. It was created by Filipe da Silva and António Gomes in the 18th century and features twelve images of the kings of Judah, on a tree that grows from the lying body of Jesse, and culminates in the Virgin and Child, preceded by St. Joseph.

This altarpiece is dedicated to the Franciscan Martyrs of Morocco and Japan.

There was too much gold to be seen all around in the church! It is ironic, considering that St. Francis lived a very simple life. While the design of the outside of the church is gothic, the insides are all baroque.

We heard about Henry the Navigator as we walked by his statue on our way to the Ribeira after the stop in the church.Henry the Navigator is an important figure in Portuguese history because he is the one who commissioned the construction of a new fleet of lighter and more agile ships that started the Portuguese age of discovery – when they began exploration of other parts of the world in earnest. It started out as an attempt to control the trade routes to the east. The colonization of other parts of the world was ultimately a very unfortunate result of what transpired in history. It is interesting to note that Henry the Navigator did not embark on any exploratory voyages himself.

We walked down to the riverside area of the Ribeira. Across the river was the town of Gaia.

We then walked along the river toward the Ponte Dom Luis 1. The buildings and the general atmosphere in the area were really nice. It would be a good place to hang out for some time.

Katerina, our local guide, left us about this time.

We then crossed the Dom Luis I bridge on foot to the town of Gaia, on the other side of the Douro.

Gaia is known for its port wine cellars. We stopped at the Calem Wine Cellars for a tour. There was wine tasting at the end – which was not a very healthy exercise on an empty stomach. They did not even give us munchies to soak up the wine. It went straight to the head.
The information that we received during the tour was actually quite interesting, but I am not capable of remembering much.

We walked back into the sun after the tour, and after some shopping,and then we walked along the waterfront towards the western end of town where the bus that would take people back to the hotel was parked.

We had good views of the Ribeira along the riverside. This is one of the shots.

Some of us in the tour group who were booked for the Douro river boat ride later in the day, in the evening, decided that we did not want to go back to our hotel immediately. We were going to do some sightseeing on our own until the evening time.

The first order of events after leaving the bus was to get some lunch at the food court that was nearby.

We then took the Gondola ride up to the top of the bridge.We got good views of the Ribeira, Gaia, and the Ponte Dom Luis I as we rode up.

We crossed the bridge on foot. There were views from both sides of the bridge.

The bridge is used by walkers and by metro trains on the D Line. I got a view of the funicular running between the top and bottom levels of the cliff next to the bridge as we were crossing. The bridge in the last picture above is the newest bridge in Porto across the Douro, the Infante Dom Henrique bridge. It was completed in 2003.

Once across the bridge, we continued our walk along the Avenue Dom Afonso Henriquestowards another historical landmark, the San Bento train station. The tiles in the waiting hall of the station are famous.Regional, InterRegional, and Urban trains leave from this station.High speed and international trains do not come to this station. This website has some more information with regards the stations in Porto and the train lines they serve.

We then walked past one of the landmarks in the area, Igreja dos Congregados, noted in guides for the blue and white tiles on its facade.Then it was on to the Clerigos Church on the hill.The direct route to the church was blocked by construction. We took some side roads to get there. It was a steep climb on some of the roads.Once at the church, two of us climbed to the top of the tower to get a view of the entire town. The climb was dicey, getting more and more tricky as we got closer to the top. There was only enough space in the upper sections for one person to get by. The other person had to squeeze into the corner. Towards the top, we walked on steps fashioned out of metal plates instead of the original stairs. This is one of the views that we got.

We walked back down to the Rebeira and the Douro river from the church to wait for the rest of the Gate1 tour group that was coming for the Douro river boat ride. This was the scene on the Ribeira.The landmark at which were to meet the rest of the group was the only pine tree on the shoreline. We relaxed at a table across the pathway near the tree while waiting, watching the foot traffic and other activity.

And then it was time for our boat ride. The boat ride included people who were not a part of our tour group. We passed under all six bridges of Porto, with background commentary being presented in three different languages during the ride – English, Dutch and Portuguese. The last leg of the ride was when the boat turned east at the mouth of the Douro before returning to the Ribeira. The ride provided a different perspective on the views of the cities of Porto and Gaia.

Dinner, after the boat ride, was at a restaurant in the Ribeira.They had the Portuguese version of tapas for appetizers. Bacalhau à Brás and a sliced chicken dish sitting on top of a bed of salad were served as the main dishes. W enjoyed the meal – and the atmosphere.
We did have wine with dinner. In case you are wondering, it was served in the ceramic jugs that you see on the tables. We had some fun speculating about whether one of the employees was from Goa, a former Portuguese colony in India!

After dinner, there was nothing left but to head back to the hotel and go to bed. As you can see from the nature of this blog, it was a full day of varied activities and experiences. There was a lot of information to be absorbed.

The First Day in Portugal

We were accompanied by our friends from Virginia during this trip to Portugal. We have made a few other trips to other parts of the world with them in the past, always traveling with Gate1.

We flew in to Porto, via Brussels. We took an overnight flight from Dulles airport to Brussels, and then we had a short wait in the sprawling Brussels Airport before boarding the final leg of the travels to Porto.Brussels Airport was quite busy even in the early hours of the morning, with people heading in every which direction – quite of few of them appearing to be stopping by the coffee shops and restaurants for their morning pick-me-ups. You could even get beer at that time of the morning, I think!

Large groups of young people passed us by as we rested in a waiting area – listening to the entertainment provided by passers-by playing on one of the grand pianos placed around the airport for their personal playing pleasure.I saw at least two of these pianos in different spots in the airport concourses. The guy in the picture above was playing some complicated classical piece. The second gentleman was waiting to play the piano himself!

This was the scene next to the boarding gates.
Almost all of people that I saw in the airport were not masked, an indication, I think, of the exhaustion in the minds of people regarding COVID.

We were still adjusting to the difference in time zones.

The flight from Brussels to Porto was short and uneventful. From the aircraft tails that I saw on the tarmac at Porto, I got the impression that the city was probably a popular tourist destination for tourists from Europe.

Once disembarked from the plane, we were able to do directly to the baggage carousel to pick up our bags. We did not have to go through an immigration process, and only then realized that the passport stamp for our entry to the European Union had taken place earlier in Brussels.

We were the only folks being picked at that time up by Gate1 for transportation from the airport to our hotel. Once we left the highways closer to the airport, I could not help but notice that we were were being driven over some cobblestone backstreets closer to the hotel. The common presence of cobblestone streets and sidewalks in towns was something that one eventually got used to during our travels in Portugal. I found it charming.

The hotel was located in a part of town that was somewhat commercial, but not too busy. Unfortunately, it was not within walking distance of City Center, the place where most of the tourist activity was centered.

We were met by our tour manager, Rui Pacifico, upon entry into the hotel. The cheerful young man with his long hair and smiling face was super friendly and helpful. We got to know him better during the rest of the trip.

It was too early in the day to check in to our rooms. We went out to lunch. We had our first dining experience in a restaurant. We started our process of getting used to the way things are handled while eating out in Portugal. I ended up over-tipping, but that was not necessarily a bad thing. The staff was very nice to us – welcoming us to their country.

Since we still had time before check-in, we went to the local grocery store to get some supplies for the next few days. Would bananas and chocolate be considered essential? Perhaps, in some families!

Both shopping and dining were convenient in Portugal since our credit cards worked without any issues.

We had thought about going to the City Center before the welcome dinner that evening – just to kill time and get our first experience of the city, but we changed plans and decided to rest up in the rooms that we were about to check into instead. We did not want to be too rushed on the first day.

The welcome dinner was a nice event. We got to meet a few other folks who were traveling with us for the first time. It was also the beginning of the ongoing wine-drinking sessions at meals, and the ongoing making of new friends. The cod fish that was served was great. Portugal is known for its fish, and that is what we consumed a lot of the time during the trip. I cannot remember what the dessert was that night, but I am sure there was some. There was always dessert with dinner!

We had the group orientation after dinner – getting more specifics about the nature of the tour, and also learning about who the other travelers were in the tour group. There were 42 of us, another large group just like during the trip to Morocco. The biggest sub-group in our tour was from Los Angeles. We also got our badges and our audio units for listening to the guide when we were traveling and off the bus. We headed back to our rooms after that. Our bodies were still in a different time zone – earlier in the evening than our normal dinner time – but we were tired after our travel.

As is normal with Gate1 tours, we were going to get a very early start for our activities the next day. Our tour bus was going to leave the hotel at 8:30am. We were expected to be on the bus by 8:15.


We returned a few days ago from a visit to Portugal. We were on an organized tour exploring the country from north to south, starting from the city of Porto and ending up in Lisbon. We stopped at many interesting places along the way, learning about the country, and experiencing it. We spent hours wandering leisurely through narrow old cobblestone streets of many an old medieval town, streets that were lined with old buildings of character – with their distinctive metal railings and the occasional laundry hanging out to dry. We also visited bigger and more developed cities and experienced the difference between the new and the old. There is something fundamentally similar about the tourist experience wandering the streets of both the older and newer towns in Portugal regardless.

We visited many old churches – in different styles, monasteries with their dormitories and cloisters, palaces, and castles – all over the country. We even passed through a national park, drank many a bottle of wine with our meals, and also sampled the unique cuisine of this small country, which we were told was about the size of Maine! We learnt about their history, which perhaps bears some similarity to the history of many other countries in Europe – the movement of people, the conquests, the local kings and queens and their kingdoms, the development of nation states, the nature of their explorations of the rest of the world, etc.. We learnt about the kind of things – their stories, products, etc.. – that are a part of their culture and their economy.

The towns that we visited were typically full of tourists just like us. The towns centers and their squares were full of shops for tourists, cafes, bakeries, ice cream stands and restaurants – with outdoor seating under the large umbrellas that provided shade. There were the street entertainers. There was generally a atmosphere that I typically do not experience when visiting towns in the US. I especially enjoyed having that cold beer with my lunch, perhaps concluding the lunch with a shared dessert and a cup of espresso.

And, all along the way, there were other unique experiences and quirky stories that added additional sparkle and spice to our travels.

One has to eventually breakdown the details of these travels further, but a list of the places we visited, with a few sample pictures is perhaps a good place to start.

Porto and Gaia

Guimaraes and Braga

Bussaco Park and Palace Hotel




The Convent of Christ on the Hill

Castelo de Vide



Cascais and Sintra

Alcobaca, Nazare and Castelo de Óbidos

They have a saying in Portugal that the Portuguese go to Porto to work, Braga or Fatima to pray, Coimbra to study and Lisboa to party! They have it all covered!

It was a fun trip, and quite a different experience from that of the trip to Morocco.

Casablanca, Our Last Stop

We left Essaouria early in the morning.We had a long drive ahead of us, and the rest of the day after our arrival in the city was the only time assigned for a tour of Casablanca. It was quite obvious that Casablanca not meant to be a highlight of our visit to Morocco. It did not bother us that this was the case since we had already explored the heart and soul of the country over so many days. (I will note that Rick’s Cafe, a popular destination for tourists to the city because of the movie Casablanca, was not even on the itinerary!)

Our departure from Essaouria actually ended up being a little later than planned since our luggage was late being delivered from our rooms to the bus. Youssef explained that hotels were short staffed because of the effect of COVID.

There had been a overwhelmingly positive response when Youssef asked if folks wanted to see the movie Casablanca on the bus. (I might have been the only one who said no!) The blinds were all drawn to darken the interior of the bus as the movie was played during the morning drive. I had to pop my head behind the blinds to look out and take some of these pictures.

I enjoyed listening to the dialogue in the movie even though I was not watching it. There are so many memorable lines!

Since this was our last day together in Morocco, we started saying our farewells to the people who had taken care of us during the tour – our driver Youssef, and our helper Rashid – at our stop for lunch. Youssef and Rashid had kept us out of trouble, and had gotten us, and our luggage, safely and securely to all of our destinations. They had done a remarkable job!

The land looked flat and dry as we got closer to Casablanca. There were rolling hills and farms. We could see donkeys, and occasional cows and horses. There were no camels here – like in the eastern parts of the country.

Things began to get quieter on the bus as we approached the city. In the short period of time that we had been together we had gotten to know most of our fellow travelers, and we would actually be missing many of them as we departed for our individual destinations.

The city of Casablanca was given its name by Portuguese in 1500s. The original name, Casa Branca, translates to The White House. The city was abandoned after an earthquake and rebuilt by the locals with the name Dar al-Bayda, which also means The White House. The city has suffered occupation by a few European countries during its existence, including the Spanish, and even the Vichy French during WWII.

Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco. It is considered the economic “beating heart” of Morocco.

As we were entering the city, we drove next to the beach and a posh section of city. That whole area looked very clean.

The first stop in town was to take a walk along a section of the Boulevard de la Corniche next to the sea. There was nothing culturally or historically notable. It was more of a break from sitting in the bus – to stretch our legs.

The lighthouse in the distance in the picture above is called El Hank. It is the tallest lighthouse in Morocco.

After the walk, we were driven further north towards other parts of town. Casablanca was looking like a very modern city so far.

Our next stop was at the Hassan II mosque. This picture was taken as we approached the area of the mosque.Hassan II is the biggest mosque in Morocco. Unlike most mosques in Morocco, it is open for non-muslims to visit. It was built during the years 1986 to 1996. Because the government lacked sufficient funds at that time, its construction was funded by money contributed directly by the people. Folks received a receipt for their contributions, no matter how small it was.

I learnt that the three spheres on top of the minarets of mosques were meant to represent three religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Some mosques have a 4th sphere (for the important books of Islam), and others 5 (for the pillars of Islam).

We were scheduled to just see the mosque from a distance, but some people were also interested in seeing the inside of the mosque. Youssef had heard the message and internalized it, but he also was constrained to follow the itinerary that had been set for the tour.

Our next stop was the Notre Dame De Lourdes church, built in 1954 by the Franciscans. The sides of the church were of stained glass.We were told that there was a depiction of Satan on one of the stained glass windows. (I do not remember now why that piece of information was considered significant enough to convey.)

We were told that there are still Franciscans in Morocco, and that they do social work. There was a chorus practicing in the church while we were there. They looked like visitors from other parts of Africa.

Christians live under certain constraints in Morocco, and their numbers are small. They are not allowed to proselytize.

Later on in the evening, we did pass another massive cathedral building that has not served its original function for many, many, years. The building stood out against the background of the blue of the evening sky as we drove by.

We church was located in the Habous quarter of the city. (Habous means endowment.) This area was developed for needy people during the last century. The architecture is typically Moorish. Property in this part of town is now apparently considered highly desirable in spite of its origins.

The palace was supposed to be close by but it was not on the itinerary.

Before we checked into the hotel, Youssef made a last minute arrangement for some us to see the inside of the mosque. What a guy! We were squeezing in some time to try to get back to the mosque. It was touch and go, but we got there on time. He twisted enough arms so that we could buy the entrance tickets on our own quickly at the last minute, and then jump onto electric carts that would take us to the mosque itself in a timely fashion.

Once in the mosque, we rushed off to find a tour group with a guide who was speaking in English. Unfortunately, our guide was not easily understandable – in fact he was indecipherable!I have to point out that there were at least a few women in our tour group who chose to wear a shawl over their heads as a sign of respect. I thought this behavior was commendable.

The building was immense. The roof can be opened to allow the air from the outside to enter and circulate within the building. The movable roof is operated electrically.We went down to the basement of the mosque where they have the area for people to do their ablutions before prayer.

This picture is of one of the entrances to the mosque.The door is massive!

Youssef was waiting for us with the bus after the tour of the mosque, after first having dropped off the others who were not coming on the tour at the hotel. We were taken to our hotel. There would be a dinner that evening to celebrate the end of our time together.

We drove to a restaurant for the farewell dinner. Many people dressed up for the event. We stopped at Mohammed V Square on our way to dinner. There were a lot of people out on the square having fun. A person dressed in a gold covering sat on a bicycle pretending to be a statue!

A tram line ran on the road next to the square.

On the other side of the road was the new Opera House, still under construction.

Again, my impression was of Casablanca being quite a modern place.

We continued to the restaurant after the break. We had to walk the last few yards to the restaurant because the road was blocked off on account of an accident.

The dinner was a relaxed affair. The musician who was entertaining us was singing songs that we could also join in. One of our friends from Arizona pulled out her smartphone to get the lyrics to the songs and also started singing beside me. That was fun. At some point, a couple in our group decided to dance to a Latino song that was being sung. They managed even though there was not much space for them to move freely.

We had to depart the restaurant much too early because people had flights to catch soon after returning to the hotel and picking up their luggage, i.e., they would not even be occupying the rooms in the hotel for the night!

There was a feeling of sadness as we began to make our way back in the bus to the hotel, and as we said our goodbyes and left each other’s company for the last time at the hotel. In a matter of a couple of weeks we had all become connected in some way.

And what about Youssef, our tour manager! What an amazing person. He managed our large group seemingly effortlessly, but there was so much of coordination work that he was constantly doing behind the scenes. He never showed a moment of frustration or impatience, always had a smile on his face, and took care of us individually, answering our every question, and going beyond the call of duty to satisfy our desires and needs. What a sweetheart. During the bus trip back to the hotel, he wished the group adieu, thanked us for visiting his country, and asked us to talk about his country and let others know about his people.

Youssef was there the next morning at 4:30 am, with some packed breakfast which he had made last-minute arrangements for with the hotel, to send us off on our way to the airport. We are going to miss him.

We were on our way out of Casablanca even before the sunrise.