Saturday, April 23, 2011

Portugal by bus

It's true, instead of renting a car, we traveled around northern Portugal by bus. I previously vacationed in Portugal in October 2006 and rented a car to tour the southern part of the country. That worked out great, but for this trip Greg & I opted to use Rede Nacional de Expressos bus company as they have conveniently translated their website into English and you can purchase tickets online as well as print them in advance. For an average 23EUR/$32 for two people per sector, we were able to travel from Lisbon to Nazare to Coimbra to Porto.
scenery on the bus ride from Lisbon to Nazare
One of the advantages of traveling by bus is that both passengers can enjoy the scenery without having to worry about directions, tolls, traffic, etc. We were even able to reserve our seats online, using a seat map similar to what the airlines use. As the buses were practically empty on all of our routes, we reserved the front row for every trip to maximize the view and decrease the odds of me getting motion sick.

With the high cost of fuel in Europe, it makes sense to avail yourself of public transportation options whenever possible. However note that in my upcoming Spain & Paris blogs I will go into detail about why we decided to rent a car in both of those countries.
the bus station in Porto - not as bad as it looks!
All of the bus stations were walking distance to the city center so we didn't have to pay extra for a taxi or other method of transport to our hotels. While the buses were very modern, clean & comfortable, they did not have toilets although on longer routes the driver would announce when there is an opportunity to get off for a few minutes at a particular station (where there are free toilets).

A few general observations on Portugal:

*I had forgotten how different the Portuguese language is from other Romance languages. For example, as a French speaker and experienced world traveler, I can also converse in basic Italian & Spanish. However, there are very few words in Portuguese that I can easily comprehend.
the off season in Nazare means it's too cold to swim but the tradeoff is an empty beach
*We encountered significantly fewer tourists in Portugal than we encountered all over Italy (and afterward, in Spain & France). As of 2009, tourism represented only 6.5% of Portugal's GDP versus approximately 10% in Italy, 11% in Spain and 11% in France. Interestingly by comparison, tourism accounted for only 2.7% of the USA's GDP in 2009.

*Technically we were traveling in the "off season" which meant better availability and lower accommodation prices. Our average housing cost per night was only $55 for a private double room and in all but one place that included breakfast. 
a filling meal for under 5 euros per person; Portuguese food features a lot of potatoes & rice
*We discovered that the cost of dining out in Portugal is much less than in other EU countries. By eating in "locals only" restaurants/cafes, we could enjoy a 2-course meal with bread & choice of beverage for only 5 euros per person. The comparable cost in Spain was a minimum of 10 euros per person, and it's even more in France (where we are now).

*As there were so few tourists, we also enjoyed the undivided attention and familiarity of restaurant owners, particularly in Nazare & Coimbra. At O Varino in Nazare, where we were the only guests besides one local guy, we were treated to a complimentary glass of port along with a tray of olives to start our meal. We accepted our host's recommendation and ordered the house specialty "shrimp salad" (Greg) and monkfish stew (me). When I expressed my disappointment that mine didn't come with fries, the owner brought me a huge platter and didn't charge us for them.
thumbs up for the yummy food at Ze Manel in Coimbra
In Coimbra, we dined at Ze Manel dos Ossos, where not a word of the menu was in English so I simply asked the owner to bring us a couple of house specialties (which ended up being a roasted lamb followed by pan-seared pork with pickled garlic). As we arrived just before their afternoon closing time, we had the pleasure of being the only guests in the restaurant while the staff enjoyed their own lunch/dinner at a table adjacent to ours. The food was plentiful & delicious and we were shocked when the bill was only 22 euros, including a huge carafe of wine! 
ready for a group port tasting at Sandemans
*One of the most enjoyable things we did in Porto was to sample some of the local port wine. We paid 9 euros each at the city's visitor center for a tour & tasting at three wine lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia. We did not get to choose the wine lodges as only three currently participate in this offer which represents a savings of approximately three euros versus booking the tours independently. First, we had a very informative tour followed by a video and tasting of two ports at Sandemans, then a similar tour & tasting at Offley and finally, Ferriera. Interestingly, as our tours were scheduled in the late afternoon progressively nearer to closing time, we found the second & third tour guides to be less & less enthusiastic/informative. Luckily our best experience was our first and we focused on enjoying the tastings at the last two places. As port averages 20% alcohol, that wasn't too difficult!
a few too many port tastings???
I will let my photo albums speak for themselves regarding everything else we did or saw in northern Portugal. My overall suggestion is that if you want a taste of Europe minus the hordes of tourists and for overall better value for your $$$, try Portugal!


1 comment:

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