|Subject: Travels in Portugal chapter 3 of 3|
>From Coimbra we did an excursion to Bucaco to see the Bucaco Forest. This forest is about 24k from Coimbra; it's a religious place with over 700 species of trees. My info says it was a refuge for Christians in the 2nd century. There were Benedictines there and in the 1600s it was sold to the Carmelites, who introduced the species of trees. At one time, women were forbidden in the forest. There are many paths and stairways through the trees leading to various vantage points where, I'm sure, there would have been marvellous views if the sky had not been overcast and hanging with mist... But the feeling of peace there and the birdsong are magical. There is also a Carmelite monastery on the grounds of the Hotel Palace de Bucaco, which is an extraordinary structure set in the midst of the forest. It was built as a royal summer residence in the early 1900s, and opulent is the word for it. Surrounded by flower gardens and topiaries and patterned hedges it truly looks royal--lots of turrets and gargoyles. Inside, more antiques than you could hope for, and chandeliers everywhere. Suits of armour, huge scenes constructed in azulejos tiles. This was our splurge and we stayed there (39000$00 PTE), though I confess we taxied to Luso for a very enjoyable, simple dinner at Restaurante O Cestero.
Our last stop before returning to Lisbon was in the walled town of Obidos, the postcard town. It's said that when King Dinis married Isabel of Aragon in 1282, he gave Obidos to her as a wedding gift. The guidebooks will tell you that it's nice to stay there at night and enjoy the atmosphere after the tour buses leave. Good friends of ours told us they would love to return there for a week. So, we booked 3 nights to rest and relax before hitting the big city and home.
Although it's a lovely town to look at, we both felt that one night would have been enough. There may be 20-30 small pottery/craft shops along the main street, but they all sell the same photo books and ceramics. Only 1 or 2 have anything a bit different.
You can climb the castle walls, take lots of photos and visit the one small museum. You can set your watch by the arrival and departure of the tour buses. But there is little to do and there isn't much quiet for relaxation in the daytime (or at night during our stay).
Perhaps the most disturbing thing for us was the overwhelming mustiness of the town. It didn't actually rain while we were there but everything smelled damp--churches, stores, the museum, and the accomodations. There were many, many signs for rooms to rent, so we set out to explore and get a home with character. The extremely helpful people at the turismo held our bags for us and gave us maps with names of places and prices. But they all smelled mouldy, even some that were upstairs rather than ground level. It was in this search that we had our only encounter of the unpleasant kind, with a very pushy woman who became abusive to my husband when I said I would like to continue looking at other rooms. (I have her name on my list of naughty people to avoid). Eventually we gave up on character and went to the Albergaria Rainha Santa Isabel (Rua Direta) where the rooms were fine but they could only take us for one night. We stayed instead at the Albergaria de Josefa de Obidos (just outside the walls). It was clean, with a good breakfast, but the only room we could get was small and dark, without a balcony, and the cost was 12000$00 PTE. The staff was polite, multi-lingual and helpful.
The food highlight of the town for us was a tiny wine bar in a side street called the Adega de Ramado. This is a family run establishment with indoor and outdoor tables. The swordfish we had would melt in your mouth and the grilled meats were perfectly done. Service was excellent and they were very welcoming.
Be warned when the turismo staff tell you that you can hike to the train station with backpacks. Someone might be able to do this, but not us. We did a trial run empty handed and it was an athletic feat. Uphill through the walled town, along a winding dirt road, then down what they called a pathway with stairs to the station. This was really an overgrown path that was no longer easily visible, and the stairs were a sequence of rocks, some of which were a goodly drop below the previous rock. Then over the actual tracks to the unmanned station. Quite the scramble. Well worth the $3 (Canadian) we paid the taxi driver next day!
All in all I'm glad we saw Obidos but for us it was one of those places that did not measure up to our perhaps unrealistic high hopes.
Over all, we found the bus and railway systems to be the best we've encountered. Whether we just picked the right days or places I can't say, but the connections worked really well. The longest wait we had was 2 hours (once) for a bus, and it was a scheduled wait, not a late bus. Things leave when they say they will and arrive almost on time. People are helpful and get the message across to you somehow, whether this involves taking you by the hand to the right bus, or something more surprising, like our experience in Lamego. We were planning to bus to Coimbra on Sunday, so went to the bus station on Saturday to get info. A nice man got us to understand that the bus would leave at 5 pm the next day, and that there would be no people working at the wickets--get a ticket on the bus. We arrived the next day just before 4:30 to find a bus leaving for Coimbra (a different line, but we didn't realize that then) and in a panic, we ran to the driver, who loaded our backpacks in the luggage bin. When we went to get on the bus, he and the ticket taker wanted our ticket, not the money my husband was getting from his wallet. After a lot of Portuguese conversation and waving of arms between the two men, and our feeble attempts to explain that we'd been told to get tickets from the driver, he waved us into seats and started up the double deck bus. We didn't know what was happening. He proceeded to drive the whole bus (which was almost full of local people) to a small store, where he took my husband inside to a counter where he purchased tickets to make us legit. Not one word from the passengers, not one angry look, just a lot of fuss from the crowd gathered on the tiny street to look at the out of place bus. This is how I'll remember the wonderful Portuguese people!
For anyone visiting Portugal who plans to use a calling card from home (especially from Canada) take heed. Sprint Canada assured us that the card would work throughout Portugal. It worked for us in Lisbon, and it may have worked in other large cities, but in smaller towns--no good! Normally we would use local cards that you insert into a phone in that country, but we read about Portugal having several systems and thought that we would rely on our calling card, which had worked in other places. After much frustration, and being told, in Portuguese, by many kind people to add another 0 or use one less 0 or add a 1 after the 0 (or before it), we were finally told that small places do not have the phone system to use these cards. So I suggest making other plans/or learning more about those various Portuguese cards.
Though we research in many guidebooks as well as on the web, I will note that I was glad that one book we took with us was the Eyewitness Guide. Not only is it beautiful but the Lisbon map was a huge help and the cutaways and floorplans were excellent. We found that in many places they had floorplans and info available in 3-fold flyers that were sold at the gift shop of the museum or church. However, the info in the Eyewitness was as good or better, and when you consider getting in a line-up behind all the people from 1-2 tourbuses who are asking questions of the one clerk, you save time by not waiting for the flyer.
Finally, if anyone would like specific info on anything I've mentioned, feel free to contact me with questions. I've just tried to hit some points that I think might be helpful, but everyone has their own interests and tastes. Things change from day to day, season to season, so even comments like those made about the air in Obidos would likely not apply at some other time. Portugal is a wonderful country, with great people. Anyone visiting there will benefit from the experience and have a good time. Happy travels,
Collette Saunders Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada