Portugal is a land of mesmerizing beauty and rich cultural heritage. What better way to explore the hidden gems than by car. While we cover Sintra and Porto in separate blogs, this blog talks about places to stop during the journey. They include walled historic towns, fairy-tale palaces, medieval alleys, dinosaurs, beaches, monasteries and a lot more. Join us on the journey.
Obidos Portugal: A Journey Through Time
Obidos Portugal is a small, lovely, beautifully restored 14th-century walled hill town that is about 90 km north of Sintra. Its whitewashed houses and red tile roofs surround a lovely 12th century castle.
See our blog on Obidos for more on this pretty town.
Alcobaca Portugal: Home of a Beautiful Monastery
Heading north about 40 km north from Obidos is the picturesque town of Alcobaca. The main stop is the Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaca (Alcobaça Monastery). The World Heritage Site was founded in 1153 and is Portugal’s largest church. A sheer scale of this Gothic structure is impressive. Also impressive are its soaring columns, a vaulted roof, and intricately-carved tombs of doomed lovers.
The details are amazing. Don’t miss the carved doorway to the sacristy, both of the cloisters, the huge, walk-in kitchen chimney, and the water facets protruding from carved human faces. Kings Hall contains terra cotta statues of Portuguese kings and a series of tile panels commemorating the coronation of King Alphonso.
Pegadas de Dinossauros de Vale de Meios (Dinosaur Footprints)
Enormous sauropod dinosaurs once roamed the earth. These lizard-like dinosaurs grew to almost 100 feet in length and were among the largest animal to have ever lived. We made a detour to stop here to see a number of fossilized Sauropod footprints that were encased in limestone along several trails in the area.
The monument has some of the longest known set of such tracks in the world—482 feet in length. Most were formed about 200 million years ago (in the Jurassic Age) when the area was a coastal plain. The tracks can be followed via a series of wooden walkways. While interesting, it sounded better than it was….unless you are a dinosaur fan.
Nazare Portugal: A Pretty Fishing and Beach Town
A 15 km detour west lies Nazare, a picturesque beach and fish town along Portugal’s Atlantic coast. Take the funicular up a steep cliff to the Sitio viewing point for beautiful coastal views.
From the center of town, you can glimpse sea level views of waves crashing against the rocks and also find dozens of fresh seafood restaurants.
We topped for lunch at Masr Bravo restaurant. Although it was packed and the service was slow, we enjoyed our meal of orders of Ameijoa clams with delicious garlic and olive oil. We added two glasses of white wines: a Douro Valley Planalto and a Vinho Verde (green wine) with its characteristically fresh, fruity, acidic, and slightly bubbly taste. While the wine was OK, we will probably stay with slightly more mature whites.
The initial master of the Knights Templar founded this pretty town. At the top of the town is a castle that houses the huge 15th century Convento do Cresto and its gardens which originally was the home to a prince who served as governor of the Order of Christ. In 1495, King Manuel expanded the site to create a large convent. While the convent is impressive for its size alone, it also has two particularly impressive features:
- The incredibly restored church with its beautiful two-story internal cupola and the frescos, sculpture and carved wood details in and in the room surrounding the cupola.
- The beautiful Renaissance-style Main Cloister with its double arcade and graceful helix staircase.
Among the convent’s other interesting features are its several other clusters, the marble floor of the New Sacristy, the 40, roughly 20×20-foot cells in which the friars slept and the central heating system intended to keep them warm and the Refectory in which they ate.
Ourem: A Glimpse To the Past
This medieval walled hilltop town of Ourem overlooks the modern town in the valley below. It served as a fortress since prehistoric times. The current castle (Castello da Ourem), built by a Count in the 12th century was steadily enhanced to its greatest beauty in the 15th century. Then the hilltop village and the castle fell into decline. The reconstructed structure maintains the three-towered wall of the original. While the visitor center unfortunately closed early the day we were there, we were able to walk around the structure which was interesting, but less than impressive.
Since we were already in the hilltop village, we decided to pick up a fast meal at Taverna da Matilde. After a standard cover of bread and olives, we shared a dish called white bacon (which turned out to be bacon fat on toasted bread—not bad, but not good) and two ham and melted cheese sandwiches on toast, which were tasty.
Fatima Portugal is the home to the Sanctuary of Fátima, an important Catholic pilgrimage site where a 10-year old girl claimed to have witnessed apparitions of the Virgin Mary on the 13th day of six consecutive months.
It contains two basilicas that draw millions of pilgrims and travelers each year.
See our separate blog for more detail on Fatima.
Batahla’s crown jewel is another World Heritage Site, the huge Mauneline Gothic Dominican abbey. Its construction started in 1386. Subsequent kings continually expanded it over the next two centuries. The Founders’ Chapel with the tomb of King Joao and his wife, is extraordinary with its intricately carved stone details. The almost haunting Unfinished Chapel was abandoned in favor of work on Lisbon’s Jeronimos Monastery. Don’t forget to visit the monastery’s two cloisters and the view of the steeple from them.
Coimbra Portugal – The Birthplace of Kings.
Continuing north is Coimbra, Portugal’s former national capital and the birthplace of 6 kings. The city’s pretty old town contains old buildings and monasteries that line its main commercial center and surrounding streets.
Its Coimbra University is one of the oldest universities in continuous operation in the world. Get tickets in advance to see the magnificent Joanine Library with its intricate woodwork and stunning frescoes.
See our separate blog for more detail on visiting Coimbra.
Although the area is known for its roasted piglet, we stopped here to explore the Bacaco Palace. This fairy-tail palace was a huge, 260-acre monastic retreat from the 6th though 18th centuries.
Take time to explore the many trails in the National Forest of Bucaco. See our separate blog for more on this beautiful area.