After our one month stay in Porto, we rented a car and took a road trip to check out a few places that are best accessible by car before we headed down to the big smoke - Lisbon.
On Day 1, we headed north through the rain and fog from Porto and after an hour arrived in Ponte de Lima, a very charming town with a Roman and Medieval bridge across the Lima River. It is one of the oldest towns in Portugal and also a main stop along the Portuguese route of the Camino de Santiago. The rain cleared by the time we were ready to leave Ponte de Lima, and from there we kept driving east and reached Ponte da Barca 25 minutes later. Ponte da Barca is much smaller, but nonetheless pretty with its own medieval bridge. Both of the towns were very picturesque and provided us with much needed tranquility after our stay in Porto.
On Day 2, we headed into the Peneda-Geres National Park where we stayed for two nights in the village of Soajo. Peneda-Geres National Park is definitely the highlight of our road trip and also the highlight of our Portugal stay so far. We did some driving around on windy mountain roads and also did some hiking on pilgrimage routes as well as in lush forests. The park not only offers majestic mountain ranges, lush moss-covered forests, beautiful waterfalls, but also has quaint villages living the authentic Portuguese life. It's a fascinating place where you can explore, unwind and revive! We regretted not have stayed longer to hike on more trails and explore more villages.
On Day 4, we drove southeast and arrived in Douro Valley - the very region that produces port wine. Only port wine from Douro Valley can be called "port", just like Champagne can only come from the Champagne region in France.
It must be the local burning-off time after harvest as the whole region was blanketed by smoke which greatly reduced the visibility. It looked bad and smelled bad unfortunately as a consequence. Most of our photos looked blurry as the smoke dulled and blurred everything.
Nonetheless we covered quite a bit of the region by driving and walking including the most famous scenic route N222 which is between Regua and Pinhao. We also checked out a few pretty towns surrounded by terraced vineyards such as Lamego, Amarante and Armamar.
In addition to vineyards, the region also boasts orchards of apples and oranges, and of course olive groves. We saw at some orchards hundreds of crates of apples that had just been picked, and many heavily laden trees with fruits ready to be picked.
We skipped wine tasting due to the driving. The windy roads demanded 100% alert and concentration and we didn't want to risk anything. Despite such self discipline, Google took us onto an ancient road which was 60 degree vertical up the mountain for 10 minutes! I was holding my breath sweating, whilst Brad kept on pushing the accelerator in case the car started to go backwards due to gravity! We did get rewarded with some breathtaking views once up there. Luckily we found the proper road on the way down!
The highlight of our stay in the Douro Valley was actually our guest house where we were spoilt with tasty cakes, port and great hospitality. Before this trip we had never seen nine cakes altogether at breakfast table!
On Day 6 we continued south and arrived in Tomar, known for its history of the Knights Templar. During the 13th century, it was one of the most influential cities on the Iberian Peninsula, being the religious home of the Knights Templar.
We visited the expansive former Knights Templar's headquarters, the Convento de Cristo, which is regarded as one of Portugal’s finest national monuments. The main church with elaborate paintings and sculptures, the Renaissance cloisters and the Manueline nave were all very impressive.
Tomar itself is quaint and beautiful, being set along the banks of the Nabão River and having a charming historic centre and a sprawling park with hiking trails and great viewpoints under the Convento de Cristo.
On Day 7 we first popped into Nazare, a seaside town known for its giant waves and international big wave surfing competition. It was very windy there and surprisingly busy with visitors. We walked to the lighthouse on top of cliffs, imagining those giant waves when the weather permits.
From there we continued south to Obidos, the finest example of a Portuguese walled town. Since the 13th century, the city of Obidos was presented to the Queen of Portugal on her wedding day, a tradition that continued until the 19th century. This royal patronage has left an enduring legacy of pride within the town, and today it is one of the most characterful towns of central Portugal.
Obidos boasts narrow-cobbled streets, traditional painted houses and an imposing medieval castle. It's said there is no better example of a traditional Portuguese town than Obidos.
We enjoyed an afternoon walk on top of the castle wall, which provided amazing views of the town within, the farm lands outside the wall and mountains in the distance.
On Day 8, we climbed onto the Obidos castle wall in the morning to see the sunrise and then headed towards our final destination Lisbon. On the way we did a detour and checked out Azenhas do Mar, a cliff top village with cute whites houses trimmed in blue.
We arrived in Lisbon in the early afternoon. Although warned by the Airbnb host that the traffic and parking in Lisbon is horrific, we found neither out of the ordinary. We figured it must be due to the great reduction in tourist numbers during this COVID era. Later our Airbnb host confirmed that Lisbon is the quietest for a long time and is certainly the best time for us to visit.
So we concluded the eight day road trip with a greater knowledge of what Portugal looks like beyond Porto. As full-time slow travellers it was tiring to be on the go every day like that, but well worth the effort. After the rain and fog of Day 1 we generally had great weather and very few crowds the whole way.
Toll Roads and Toll Payment
As part of the road trip preparation, we researched the Portuguese toll road system which has been subject to a lot of criticism due to its complicated payment options. If not done properly, one can get fined easily and heavily. Foreigners are especially prone to this pitfall due to unfamiliarity with the toll system.
After some in-depth reading and note comparing, we decided the most convenient and possibly cheapest way is to rent a toll tag (or transponder) from the rental car company. You pay around €2 per day administration fee, but it saves a lot of time, hassle and possible fines if you accidentally miss a toll payment.
There are national roads which are free to use, but a lot slower. So as an alternative, those who don't need to rush can always choose the free national roads. The benefit is that you can check out those villages on route, which add some interesting experience.
The toll roads we used were in very good condition and had very light traffic (sometimes we were the only one on the road). There were frequent service centers and petrol stations along the way.
On average our accommodation cost is around USD$60 per night including breakfast, free wifi and free parking. Accommodation types are a mixture of self-contained apartments and guest house rooms. All places displayed "Clean & Safe"logo, provided hand sanitiser and practised social distancing.