A week in the Emerald Isle

A few weeks before our return to the US, we decided on the spur of the moment to spend our last week in Europe in Ireland (due to a combination of cheap flights and dwindling days in the Schengen zone). We arrived and departed on gorgeous sunny days – and in between met a steady diet of rain and clouds with occasional sunbursts (and regular infusions of blood pudding in our full Irish breakfasts).

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IMG_2477Our week was pleasant nonetheless, driving roads that were sometimes a touch too narrow for comfort but enjoying friendly people, bucolic scenery, and tasty food. My favorite part was probably the ruined abbeys we wandered through, set in places ranging from a cow pasture to a golf course to the edge of the suburbs and with enough walls and remnants of windows to be a poignant reminder of their past glories.

IMG_2290On day 1, we ate raisin scones with jam and clotted cream as we drove a scenic hilltop road through tussocked high plateaus from Dublin to coastal Wicklow.

IMG_2342On day 2, we hiked for several hours in Glendalough, home to a 7th-century monastery and now to an array of well-marked hiking paths (from which we naturally chose the longest, climbing up out of the valley and to forest roads and the long-distance Wicklow Way before descending back down to the abandoned mine and monastery remains), then spent the night in Kilkenny, a medieval castle town.

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Day 3 took us to the west coast, with stops in Cashel (hilltop castle! ruined abbey!) and Cahir (another castle!) en route. Our lodging for the next three nights was a fabulous B&B with soft sheets and gourmet breakfasts.

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We spent day 4 driving the Dingle peninsula in intermittent rain, clambering out for hikes on the promontories and enjoying views of fields and dramatic coastline. The bonus of all that rain was a rainbow at the end of the day, though we weren’t able to spot the leprechaun.

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We opted for a hike on day 5, walking up the gap of Dunloe for surprisingly alpine scenery and friendly sheep next to Ireland’s highest mountain (just over 3000 feet tall). The walk back down was much wetter than the walk up, and we huddled in our car for a picnic lunch. After a quick stop at Muckross Lake we headed back to our cozy B&B.

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Day 6 brought us back toward Dublin, with a day of driving punctuated by stops in Adare for its castle and ruined abbey (in the middle of a golf course!), Roscrea for a (less exciting) castle and a bookstore, and the rock of Dunamase for an amazing hilltop set of castle ruins with panoramic views before a night spent at an 18th century farmhouse converted to – you guessed it – a B&B.

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I loved the Rock of Dunamase.

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Our last day brought us to Dublin, where Michael met up with former colleagues at LinkedIn, thereby discovering that mutual friends of ours happened to be visiting Dublin at the same time! After a day spent wandering the old streets, visiting some museums, and moving our car between different parking zones, we met up with them for an Escape the Room game. The game itself was unimpressive – we escaped in just over 22 minutes – but it was lovely to meet up with friends for our second-to-last night in Europe.

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On our last day before returning to the US, we flew to Copenhagen for an evening spent walking along the canals and eating dinner at a street food market where we chatted with a Danish family about the Danish crime mysteries we’d been listening to on audiobook as we drove!

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Adios to Spain

With two last days in Spain before dropping off our car in Madrid, we dedicated our time to two of Spain’s – you guessed it – UNESCO world heritage cities. Our first day was spent wandering the streets of Salamanca, where every corner revealed a new ornately carved doorway or window and the spires of the cathedral were visible from all over town. Everything was beautiful and the weather was gorgeous, though we enjoyed the cool air when we stepped in for a tour of the “new” cathedral (from 1512).

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That night we had our first exposure to a real small town: our hotel was modern and spacious, but turned out to be a government-run boondoggle in a town with only 180 residents and whose only restaurant had no chef during the week. We managed to buy some snacks at the grocery store before it closed and had a picnic in our room with chorizo, cheese, marinated anchovies, and piquillo peppers!

Segovia the next day was lovely: compact, picturesque, and not too overrun with tourists. The aqueduct made for a striking entry to the city, while the (inaccurately) restored Alcazar at the other end was a fairytale castle with Moorish influences and fabulous turrets. We ended our tour with one of the best lunches of our trip, a 12-euro menú with smoked salmon salad, steak in roquefort sauce, and arroz con leche (for me) and lentils with chorizo, bonito with balsamic onions in tomato sauce, and ponche segoviano, a traditional cake with strawberries and syrup, for Michael. Yum.

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And the following morning we bid farewell to Spain, dropping off our car at the Madrid airport and hopping on a flight to Dublin. The RyanAir checkin and boarding processes left a lot to be desired, but our “randomly assigned” seats turned out to be an exit row, including a window seat, so the flight was very comfortable. If only I knew where to find inexpensive and delicious gazpacho in the grocery stores in Ireland …

Our last few days in Portugal

We’ve had an amazing time in Portugal. The scenery is beautiful, the history is rich and well preserved, the countryside is dotted with picturesque villages, and the people are friendly. Portuguese is close enough to Spanish that we can make ourselves understood and can understand others when they speak slowly (or, even better, when things are written down). Everything (outside the biggest cities) is a great value – $35 for a hotel room with a private bathroom, including a basic but extensive breakfast; $1.20 for a beer; $6 for a good meal at many of the simpler restaurants, and $12 at the expensive ones. You could live like a king in Portugal for the price of a day in many US cities. It would also make for a great destination for an independent biking vacation – tons of paved roads with hardly any motorized traffic link villages with cafes and small guesthouses, so you never have to go too far before finding your next destination.

Screen Shot 2017-05-07 at 10.39.53 PMSo we’re sad to be saying adeus to Portugal (albeit excited to return to the land where gazpacho is sold in quart-size milk cartons in grocery stores, and where even small towns boast a churreria). With four days left, we headed to Guimarães, yet another UNESCO-listed town, and then to Portugal’s only national park, the Parque Nacional de Peneda-Gerês.

En route to Guimarães, we stopped for lunch in Amarantes, where we ate lunch by a beautiful old bridge and chatted with some Dutch bicyclists who’d ridden into town on a lovely rail trail, the Ecopista da Linha do Tâmega. (We’ll have to come back and ride it another time!)

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Guimarães itself is UNESCO-listed as “an exceptionally well-preserved and authentic example of the evolution of a medieval settlement into a modern town.” Indeed, it was interestingly different from the other old towns we’d visited – as the self-proclaimed birthplace of Portugal, it never fell to neglect and its streets were a mix of medieval alleys, Baroque mansions, and late-19th-century three-story buildings. The weather was lousy, so I didn’t take many pictures, but Michael did snap a shot to show my disappointment that the castle had closed for the evening, and I took a few photos of impressive historic buildings:

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From Guimarães we drove north to the spa town of Gerês, our home for the next two nights of hiking in the national park. IMG_2107Unfortunately for us, we’d failed to consult the weather before making our reservation, so we ended up with two somewhat stormy days. We made the most of it, though, braving some sprinkles for a 2-hour hike on the first day. After about an hour of saying, “we ought to do this more often,” as the rain largely failed to materialize, it started to hail and we began to hear rumbles of thunder. Needless to say, the weather made photography nearly impossible, but we actually had quite a nice – if wet – walk.

IMG_2216Just as we returned to our hotel, the skies cleared and we drove up out of town to a viewpoint over the lake and valley, then wound our way into a tiny village where a pen held goats with the most amazing sets of horns!

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The following day we decided to follow the Geira, an old Roman road that wound its way from Braga in modern-day Portugal to Astorga in modern Spain. We ended up hiking four separate segments: a loop trail near Terras de Bouro that incorporated two sections of the Roman road; an out-and-back in Campo de Gerês that had been partially submerged by the damming of the river; and a wooded segment with a spectacular river near the border with Spain at Portela de Homem. Each varied in how intact the road itself was, but the mile markers were remarkable, often inscribed with praise for the Roman ruler du jour. The villages along the way were interesting too, with elevated granaries in the gardens, as shown in the pictures below.

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The road home was spectacular too – not Roman (thankfully!!) but winding over the mountains strewn with large boulders and affording fabulous views down over the valley below. Oh, and with both individual cows grazing and a whole herd being shepherded down the road to town.

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Today’s walk, on the segment nearest the Spanish border, took us to a gorgeous river:

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And although we crossed over into Galicia at the Portela de Homem, we wound our way back into Portugal for one final night here in Bragança, stopping en route in the Parque Natural de Montesinho for a short two-hour hike to a medieval bridge and views of the countryside. One more Portuguese dinner, and we’ll be back in Spain for two nights before heading off to Ireland!

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Vines and sunshine

On the way to the Douro Valley, we wandered the historic town of Trancoso, formerly a center of Portugal’s Jewish population and now surprisingly bustling and non-touristy for a well-preserved medieval town. We wandered town and scaled the castle walls for panoramic views before lunch at a central restaurant, then drove a few miles north to the tiny village of Moreira del Rei, where the traces of a 10th-century castle built into giant boulders and a large collection of rock-cut tombs made for an interesting interlude.

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Once in the Douro Valley, we were amazed at the change in scenery and population density: from a barren plateau to a lush green valley of vineyards and olive trees. We stayed in the town of Tabuaço, perched high on the southern side of the valley, and discovered a great restaurant with menu options like spinach tortellini in garlic tomato sauce providing a welcome respite from the meat-meat-meat of typical Portuguese food. Michael’s veal was pretty delicious too. (We ended up returning the next night as well, for more tortellini, freshly fried thick potato chips, pork medallions, and a delicious crunchy chocolate cake. It’s quite a pleasure to have a three-course meal, topped off with a glass of port and accompanied by wine, for only 35 dollars!)

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But we weren’t in the Douro just for the food, and the next morning we drove down to the bottom of the valley and along the river to Pinhao, the historic center of the port-growing region and the starting point for our walk. The trail took the direct route out of town, climbing mercilessly upward steeply in the heat. It was so steep that we actually paused to consider whether we should continue, given the strain on our knees coming down. But we continued onward and were soon rewarded with a narrow country lane through the vineyards, lined on both sides by stone walls and with spectacular views of the valley below.

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As we climbed farther, we could see all the way across to Tabuaço – and despite losing our trail partway up we managed to rejoin it before entering the town of Provesende, our final destination. The village is now virtually abandoned, but was once a thriving town with twelve different noble families each occupying a manor house carved with a coat of arms above the doors. Most were now just empty shells, the paint chipping and the roof often caved in or missing entirely.

Apparently it is now a sleepy town except when package tours come to town – as we drove out of town the next day we saw a $6000 11-day river cruise advertising a day in “the remarkable village of Provesende, showcasing the Portugal of yesteryear. Wander the atmospheric streets of this quaint village with the locals as they proudly introduce you to their way of life – including their local bakery.” It’s said to be a great way “to immerse yourself in the local culture” despite being “a specially choreographed experience only open to Scenic guests.” I’ll take a hike and independent exploration any day!

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The views remained fabulous as we wound our way back down to Pinhao, and – ensconced in a good audiobook – we decided to go for a drive around the valley, winding up at an atmospheric castle and then on a narrow road across a one-lane stone bridge back to Tabuaço. Luckily for me, Michael likes driving all these winding roads – and we got back just in time to watch a soccer match over dinner at our restaurant.

The next morning we had a few more fabulous views of the valley and a guided tour of another tiny abandoned village, Barcos, by one of its residents who took an interest in us!IMG_2088

The road out of town was quite the adventure too – a narrow cobbled one-lane street with old stone walls on both sides!

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As we departed the Douro for lands further north, we thought about how different it was from the wine country we know in California and from the wine country we’d biked around Laguardia: a steep-sided valley, with terraces cut out of every hillside to grow the thousands of vines, each terrace so narrow that it often held only a single vine wide. Labor intensive – but beautiful!

Hiking the Serra de Estrela

Manteigas is the heart of the Serra de Estrela, a range of mountains in Portugal with its own brand of bottled water and the (self-declared?) highest village in Portugal, at an elevation of 1050m (3150 ft). After a morning of rain spent in the cozy lounge of our guesthouse, we glanced over the maps of the 14 designated hiking trails and spent our first afternoon on a short hike up a cobbled road through vineyards and then along a dirt road high above the valley with dramatic views back to town and a herd of goats accompanied by an elderly shepherd.

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That night, after a dinner of a pork and white bean stew that turned out to be a specialty of Manteigas, we plotted out our hike for the following day: a loop up to the Poco de Inferno, the well of hell. And just in case we had extra energy, I packed along some of the maps of adjacent hikes branching out from along our loop.

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We walked pleasant forestry roads up to the waterfall and series of crystal clear pools that had been named hellish rather than heavenly for reasons not apparent to us. There was even a lovely elevated mirador. (Sure, we could have just driven up there, but what’s the fun in that?)

A smaller trail branched off from the parking lot, winding uphill to the top of the waterfall and through rocky outcrops with fabulous views across the valley and into the high plateau. So fabulous, in fact, that when we got to the hike that would loop back to Manteigas by a more circuitous route, adding about 10 miles to our walk, we decided to go for it.

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And what gorgeous scenery it was! We followed the ridge for the first mile or two, with views all the way to a snowy mountain range in Spain and back across the plains to Monsanto and beyond. Leaving the ridgetop, we descended into a wide, high plateau scattered with the ruins of abandoned farms. It’s hard for us twenty-first century urbanites to imagine how folks lived up there for so many centuries, through frigid winters and profound isolation, but survive they did, with stone homes and rock walls to testify to their past presence.

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Following occasional blazes and the topo map on the hike brochure, we eventually left the ridgetop and slowly descended a dirt road high above the valley floor, with views of the high mountains, of the river below, and of an impressive aqueduct across the way. It was none too soon when Manteigas came into view, and when we shortly thereafter rejoined our intended (and much shorter) trail we stopped for a snack to renew our energy for the final descent to the river and climb up into town. Exhausted and hungry, we settled for an early pizza dinner rather than waiting for real restaurants to open, which let us collapse into bed early after a long day’s hike!

It’s been a lot of fun to spend so much time in the outdoors, and Michael and I are already talking about how we can fit more outdoor adventures into our day-to-day lives when we settle into Seattle. Hooray for discovering a whole new state’s worth of hiking, camping, and biking!

But for now: onward through Portugal. Tomorrow we head through the high, barren plateau of the Beira Alta to the lush wine region of the Douro Valley, where various expensive tour companies do lots of hiking excursions that lead us to believe there must be nice walks!

The ruins of Conimbriga and moods of Monsanto

The only problem with planning to do lots of hiking and biking when you’ve been leading a relatively sedentary lifestyle for the past three months is that, the day after your first long hike, you find yourselves sore and exhausted and lazy. To our credit, we actually did make an effort to rent bikes and go for a long ride in Lousã, but the municipal bicycles had been loaned out to a school program and wouldn’t be available until the afternoon, which we not-so-unhappily used as an excuse for a day of rest.

A rest from vigorous exercise, that is. We drove from Lousã to Conímbriga, the most complete set of Roman ruins in Portugal, with fabulous mosaics to complement the incredible aqueducts we had seen in Mérida last week with Tiffany. Between the many school groups, we had the place much to ourselves, though it’s still hard to imagine what the place would have been like during its heyday in the 3rd and 4th century AD and what the peasants living in the area in 1000 AD thought about the ruins around them. Those mosaics, though!

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We took the scenic route again, stopping for lunch (stewed goat and octopus rice – not common proteins in the US!) and a castle visit in the town of Penelo before driving what turned out to be a ridgetop road with panoramic views of valleys on both sides and down onto a wide plateau where we could see our destination, the town of Monsanto, clinging to a boulder-strewn mesa. The photo below shows our home for the night, a tiny cottage in the middle of the old town.
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Look at Pinterest results for Monsanto and you get an idea of the town: perched most of the way up this rocky hill, with the creative residents using the giant boulders as part of the walls of their dwellings. Our little cottage, for example, had a huge rock leaning over the toilet and impinging on the kitchen ceiling.


The night we arrived was overcast, but the sun broke through just before setting and bathed the town in an unworldly auburn light.

In the morning the town had an entirely different ambiance as it was shrouded in thick fog. We clambered up to the castle, barely able to see from one side of the walls to the other, making for some eerie views of old tombs and amazing rock formations but no panoramic views of the valley below.

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Given the weather, we scrapped our plans for a long hike from Monsanto and instead walked around the village of Idanha-a-Velha (“the old”), a quiet town with storks nesting in the church steeple, stepping stones across the river, and an old Roman bridge and walls. One highlight was the ancient olive press on display, with huge tree trunks to crush the olives, and another was a huge collection of Roman epitaphs carved into headstones. Perhaps most impressive were the beautiful roses, covering walls here and throughout central Portugal.

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Two towns over we picnicked on the square of Penha Garcia, near the Spanish border, where a local 80-year-old struck up a conversation in Spanish (and when we said we were from San Francisco, asked whether that was in the region of Madrid or of Cáceres!). Lunch over, we hiked up to the old castle and through new and different rock formations to the old mill town (where an old man with a fistful of keys opened up the millers’ houses and showed us a working water mill!) and fossil area, where the trails of trilobites were visible in many of the rocks along the trail. It was pretty neat, but the wind and gathering storm clouds told us we had better hightail it back to town, and we made it to the car just as it started to rain a little harder.

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The rain lasted only a few minutes, but we still had two hours of driving ahead of us, so we set out on the road. The drive was uneventful except for a town festival that drove traffic to a complete standstill in a tiny village, with everyone from miles around parking on the shoulder and then walking down the main road to what turned out to be a folklore festival centered on some kind of stew.

And so by late afternoon we arrived in Manteigas, another hiking destination in the heart of the Serra de Estrela, where we had booked two nights so that we could sit out the day of rain before going on a long hike. After a dinner of wild boar stew (Michael) and pork stuffed with local sausage (me) we marveled at the cold mountain air and enjoyed the heat from our warm radiators as we went to bed.