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HOLIDAY IN PORTUGAL

by Roy Stephens

In the Fall of 2003, my wife Isabel and I spent five enjoyable weeks in Portugal. We found the people most welcoming and the countryside very beautiful. Isabel and I can't wait to return! I am sharing our travel experience with you, in the event you decide to spend your own holiday in Portugal. At the end of this article, you will find links to a number of helpful websites where you will find additional information on the various things I discuss.

We visited in early October. Our stay included a month in a resort in the Algarve and over a week at various hotels and pousadas. We found that most concierges and waiters and many folk in the Portuguese tourist industry speak some English, and were generally very helpful. During our Algarve stay we took a three-day bus tour to Seville, Spain; Gibraltar; and Tangiers, Morocco. We also spent two nights in Evora, a walled city now classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Evora, located in the Alentejo region immediately north of the Algarve, is well worth a visit.

The weather was very pleasant when we arrived in Portugal. However, by early November the nights and most mornings became quite cool, with temperatures in the single digits. A local Algarve resident told us that the afternoons are usually quite pleasant when the sun warms things up, but nights and mornings can be somewhat cool from November through January. The good news is that temperatures in the Algarve seldom, if ever, reach the freezing mark, especially in places near the sea.

The busy season stretches from June through September. During August the area is teeming with Portuguese folk on summer holidays. Everything is packed… hotels, resorts, beaches, tourist sites, and so on. Because of this, I would say that it would not be wise to visit Portugal in August. Mid-September through early November should be quite pleasant and not too busy.

The quiet (slow) season in Portugal starts at the beginning of November and runs through March/April. You are likely to get better deals during this period of time. However, during this time many hotels and restaurants close down for up to three months, due to the slow winter season. A few places reopen for Christmas, but many do not open their doors until February.  Although Portugal is not as expensive as most other countries in Western Europe, if you are trying to get the best value for your money, February through April would be the best time to travel.

Next, we turn to where to stay. Pousadas--what a find! These accommodations deserve a rating of five star and more. Originally set up by the state, pousadas are truly outstanding. There are now over sixty in Portugal. They are usually restored historic institutions such as monasteries, castles, palaces or mansions. They are located either in important places or in the most attractive settings.

We stayed at five pousadas during our visit, and were entranced with every one of them. The restaurant menu in each pousada usually includes regional dishes. The food is of a very high standard, and not too pricey. Their house wines are really inexpensive, but excellent.

We recommend the pousada at Beja. It is a magnificent refurbished convent. Although neither my wife or I are religious we were, nevertheless, enchanted with this establishment. The spaciousness and elegance of the building and its contents, coupled with Gregorian chants softly playing throughout the main areas, were ethereal. It doesn’t get any better! Our stay in the pousada at Beja is an experience we’ll never forget.

Further north, the town of Marvao is a quaint little hilltop village perched (with its castle) about 800 meters high above the surrounding landscape. We could see for miles around from our bedroom window. Our view included some of the distant mountains of Spain.

We asked some of the staff at the various pousadas where we stayed to recommend others. They suggested those in Obidos, Crato (near the city of Portelegre) and Geres - Canicada.

Wise consumers might want to stay at pousadas Sunday through Thursday nights and then save money by staying elsewhere on Fridays and Saturdays. On those days pousadas are at full price and are frequently filled to capacity, mainly with local folk. There is no shortage of excellent accommodation throughout Portugal in the slower (low) season, November through March-April.

For seniors there is ‘great news’ about pousadas...They offer a “Golden Years Promotion!” From Sunday through Thursday, people over the age of 59 can take advantage of a 35 per cent discount on accommodations that includes an excellent breakfast. As of the end of 2003, the deals ranged from 51 to 89 Euro dollars a room per night, depending on the specific pousada. That’s per room, not per person! The majority of pousadas were 61 Euros or less per night per room. Some pousadas extend the Sunday to Thursday “Golden Years Promotion” throughout the year.

You should contact the specific pousada to find out if the Golden Years Promotion is available for the month(s) you are interested in traveling. Specify the “Golden Years Promotion” at the time of your booking. Check out the link at the end of this article for more information.

Most of the time in Algarve, the further a restaurant or accommodation is from the sea and major towns, the less expensive it is. If you're travelling with a group of four or more people, you might want to save a little money by investigating an inland villa with its own pool or other facilities and, simultaneously, have the amenities of coastal towns not too far away. It costs nothing to ask and it could well pay to ‘shop around.’ Remember that, if you don’t search for a decent deal, you probably won’t get one. I've included some useful accommodation websites at the end of this article. When you make inquiries, don’t forget to ask if they are offering any special deals (promotions), or whether they offer a ‘senior discount’ for the time you want to travel. Ask "What is the best deal you can offer?"

Younger folk might prefer to stay in one of the larger centers in Algarve like Faro or Albufeira which have bars and clubs for a young crowd, but we sought a quieter venue. Before we went, good friends strongly recommended condo rentals at Rocha Brava. They told us that it was a relatively quiet spot.

Next time we're in Portugal, we would probably stay at the lovely little seaside town of Luz that we discovered for ourselves in the western Algarve.  It is a most serene spot in the quiet season, and not too far from the lovely town of Lagos. We would use Lloyd Limitada, a local agent in Luz, to find accommodations. Their email address is Lloyd@mail.telepac.pt These folk are English, so there would be no language problem.

Algarve Restaurants:   The most enjoyable meal that we had during our stay in the Algarve was at a restaurant on the road from Portimao to Monchique. The establishment is called O Cacador and is located on the east side of the road about 5 kilometers (3 miles) north of the little town of Porto de Lagos. There is a large colored cart out front. We had the house specialty, roasted buck (deer) and suckling pig. The meal was incredible value for the money-- indeed a true bargain. Together, with drinks the total bill was 33 Euros.

For a rather extravagant and sumptuous meal (28 Euros per person, including wine), one could eat at Quinta Sao Bento. The restaurant was once the summer residence of Portuguese royalty and is found north of Monchique on the road to Foia mountaintop, the highest point in the entire Algarve. Quinta Sao Bento is on the left hand side of the road driving up the mountain, and is not too far from the summit. It is is filled with antiques, and is really very elegant. Some of the windows provide excellent panoramas over the landscape far below. Quinta Sao Bento also offer accommodations, but the place is a little off the beaten path for us. I imagine that it would be somewhat pricey, too!

As I have already mentioned, many places are closed November through the end of January.

Rental Cars: It may be prudent to arrange for a rental car in Portugal with the same people who handle your airfare. Some companies, however, offer monthly deals. If you intend to rent a car for a month or longer, it could pay to deal directly with the car rental company. However, if your stay will be less than a month, it is probably better to use your airfare source to make the arrangements. Always ask if there are any special deals for the time you will be there, and whether any of those deals are better than the senior discount.

Driving in Portugal: Generally speaking, the roads in Portugal are good. Seat belts must be worn at all times in both front and rear seats. You must always carry your passport and car documents with you when driving in Portugal.

Passing another car can only be done to the left. Some of the local folk will also overtake in the most inopportune parts of country roads. It pays to keep an eye in the rear view mirror to anticipate the unexpected. To start with, it would be prudent to stay on the right hand lane of motorways.

You would be surprised how fast many people drive in Portugal, especially when you consider the cost of gas--in the fall of 2003 the cost was close to a Euro per liter for unleaded petrol (gasolina sem chumbo).

Laundry: Make sure that there are decent laundry facilities wherever you stay. Laundromats are quite infrequent throughout Portugal, as well as at resorts and hotels. Some establishments can charge hefty fees to do laundry. The resort we stayed at in Alvor wanted 4 Euros to launder a shirt. We felt that was a little steep.

Some places will be more reasonable with handling laundry, and charge by the kilo. Of course, one can economize by doing hand washes in the bathroom or kitchen and using the balcony to hang your clothes to dry during the heat of the day.

Tipping: Salaries and wages are quite low in Portugal compared to other Western European countries. Perhaps that is why prices are generally lower there than in most other places in Western Europe.

Wherever we were, we left a Euro dollar every morning for the maid and received clean sheets and towels every day in return. We were advised to only give waiters a 10 percent tip, not 15-20 percent, as we would back home. We paid all tips in cash rather than on a credit card.

Taxi drivers, should also be tipped 10 percent.

We gave baggage boys a Euro per suitcase, and gas attendants half a Euro if they were attending the pump. Likewise, for toilet personnel who handed out paper hand towels.

Everyone we tipped seemed happy and gracious for our generosity. It doesn’t cost a lot to be nice!

Out of town tours from the Algarve: These can be arranged at just about any travel agency in the Algarve after you arrive. Best Day Travel Agency offers a three day Gibraltar-Tangier-Seville tour at a very competitive price. It is better than Mega Tours by quite a substantial amount of Euros.

Both tour groups stay the two nights at the same hotel and give tourists exactly the same accommodations, breakfasts and evening meals in Algeciras, Spain. Remember that it’s your money to squander.

We felt that the three days away to be well worth the expenditure.

If you go to Tangiers, the tour will probably include a visit to an up market Moroccan carpet cooperative. If you contemplate buying a carpet, keep in mind that you’ll be dealing (bargaining) with true professionals. It’s their daily routine. One man in our tour group bought a carpet for $400. The bargaining had started at $2,000!

Be prepared to be a good haggler, as bartering is a way of life for Moroccan vendors. After some lengthy haggling, you’d be wise to state your final price and then walk away.

Always remember that anything you decide to buy involves your own money, so always keep in mind the difference between what you ‘want’ and what you really ‘need.’

The street vendors in the Casbah at Tangiers will incessantly follow and hound you. They appear to come out of the woodwork from nowhere, when you least expect it. They will pester you and bargain relentlessly. The nearer you are to the boat for your return to Europe, the less money the street vendors will accept for their attractive copper bracelets and other merchandise. It would, therefore, be wise to make your purchases as late as possible.

Duty Free Shopping: It would be wise not to buy alcohol on your way to Portugal, as it is far less expensive in Portugal than in North America. Their prices are also less than airport duty-free shops at both ends. The larger supermarkets (mercados) have a great array of wines and liquors for sale at very reasonable prices. A decent bottle of Portuguese wine can cost as low as two or three Euros.

Things to take for any trip abroad: Spread goodwill! Be a decent ambassador for your country. Take some little gifts or mementoes (like key chains or pins) to give to people to show your appreciation for their assistance. It won’t cost much and you are sure to feel better for doing it.

For your own personal needs it may pay to take some clothes pegs, a few coat hangers, a corkscrew and a decent can opener, plastic bags (especially zip lock ones), Scotch tape, stomach (and other) medication, a small first-aid pack, a travel iron, electrical adapter, and so on.

If you are carrying things such as scissors, carry it in your suitcase and not in your carry on luggage. After 9/11 such objects are confiscated from hand luggage by airport security-that includes even the tiniest pair of scissors.

Electrical outlets in Portugal are recessed about an inch into the wall. You may need an extension pin for your adapter. To avoid frustration with electrical adapters we bought a hairdryer in Portugal for about 14 Euros.

On our next trip to Portugal, we will probably arrange a flight to Lisbon and spend five nights there to allow for sight-seeing. Most likely, we will arrange our Lisbon accommodations via the Internet. Many of Lisbon’s streets are one-way, narrow and/or congested, and isn’t easy getting around for tourists who are unfamiliar with the layout. Therefore, on our next trip we will use public transportation (subway and street cars) for sight seeing around the city. On one of those days, we will catch the train to Sintra.

When our stay at Lisbon is over, we will have prearranged to pick up a car rental and drive to Luz in the Algarve, where we will have acquired our accommodations through Lloyd.

We would probably stay two or three weeks in Luz and then head for pousadas Sunday through Thursday. To economize, we would stay elsewhere on Friday and Saturday nights when things at Pousadas are busier and their rates higher.

One Friday or Saturday, we would plan to arrive at Monsaraz, a quaint little town high on a hilltop east of Evora, in the afternoon to enjoy the tranquility of the small village, its narrow streets and castle. You should see the lovely little town of Monsaraz--it is gorgeous!

If time permits, we would attempt to stay at some, if not all three, of the recommended pousadas mentioned earlier, those in Obidos, Crato (near Portelegre) and Geres – Canicada. We can thoroughly recommend the pousadas at Beja and Marvao, mentioned above and the one at Condiexa, not far from Coimbra. It is most elegant.

Instead of going through a travel agency, you can make many travel arrangements on your own via the Internet, thereby conserving some of your hard earned cash. Investigate prices or deals that may be available, as well as things to see and do in Portugal. The links below should be very helpful to you when you plan your trip.

If you achieve some success through your own efforts, perhaps you will be thoughtful enough to share the knowledge you gain with friends. Maybe, you will even write some notes for a seniors’ magazine, information letter, or a website such as this.

RESOURCES:

Here are some links to help make your planning easier. We suggest that you copy and paste the longer addresses into your browser. Following the list of websites, you will find some useful Portugese terms.

The nationwide number for police and ambulance is 112.

Here are some links for Portugal’s current weather conditions-- http://www.wunderground.com/global/PO.html; http://weather.noaa.gov/weather/PT_cc.html; http://www.portugalbyclick.com/portugal_travel_info/Weather.htm

Here are some websites for Portugal’s climate-- http://travel.yahoo.com/p-travelguide-519341-portugal_climate-i; http://www.allrez.com/static/PORTUGAL/climate.asp; http://home.online.no/~nancys/portugal/country/climate.html

Here are some websites for general information on Portugal-- http://www.portugal.org/tourism/websites.shtml; http://portugal-info.net/; http://www.portugalinsite.pt/default.aspx?lang_id=2; http://www.geocities.com/~tomstravel/; http://pwp.netcabo.pt/0215153401/index1.html; http://www.portugalvirtual.pt; http://www.250000.co.uk/global/Europe/Portugal/index.html

The following website gives two star and one star attractions for all of Portugal-- http://www.planetware.com/ratings/R-P.HTM. This website lists the main places in Portugal from A to Z; http://www.iexplore.com/dmap/Portugal/Where+to+Go;$sessionid$44MGERAA AIZX0P2MN5XCGWQ.

Here is a website that lists the various monuments and sites of Portugal; http://www.ippar.pt/english/monumentos/monumentos.html. This website contains opinions of individuals about specific places in Portugal; http://portugal-info.net/guestbooks/index.htm

The following websites display maps of Portugal--http://www.portugal-hotels.com/portugal-hotels/portugal_en.php; http://www.rooms-europe.de/english/portugal/map_portugal.html; http://portugal-info.net/maps; http://www.lonelyplanet.com/mapshells/europe/portugal/portugal.htm

Here are websites with suggested itineraries--http://www.ibertours.com.au/selfdrive3.html; http://www.alltravelportugal.com/Portugal/Car_Rental/Driving_Trip_Planner.htm; http://www.frommers.com/destinations/portugal/0235022927.html 30.

Below are some useful links to help you locate accommodations: http://www.turihab.pt/uk/inicio.html; http://www.villa-vacation.com/Vacation_Rentals/Portugal.htm; http://www.a1vacations.com/Portugal.htm; http://www.inn-portugal.com/inns; http://www.manorhouses.com/manors/index.html; http://manorhouses.com/hotels/hotelindex.html; http://www.specialplacestostay.com/maps/portugal/index.html; http://www.portugal-hotels.com/portugal-hotels/portugal_en.php; http://www.ownersdirect.co.uk/Portugal.htm; http://www.grupofbarata.com/UK/default.asp; http://portugal-info.net/index.htm; http://www.rooms-portugal.com

Here are some websites for Algarve information--http://www.algarvenet.com; http://www.searchalgarve.com/Travel_and_Tourism/Lodging; http://www.algarve-web.com/index.htm

Here are some websites for golf in Portugal--http://www.portugalinsite.pt/canal/defaultRG.aspx?idc=426227&lang_id=2; http://www.portugalvirtual.pt/_golf/index.html; http://portugal-info.net/info/golf.htm; http://portugal-info.net/golfcourses/lisboncoast.htm; http://portugal-info.net/golfcourses/ammaia.htm ; http://portugal-info.net/golfcourses/costaprata.htm; http://portugal-info.net/golfcourses/costaverde.htm; http://portugal-info.net/golfcourses/transmontana.htm; http://www.algarvegolf.net/index2.htm

Here are some websites for car rentals in Portugal--http://www.portugalvirtual.pt/50travtransp/televan/; http://www.portugal-linha.pt/car-hire/

Here are some websites for car rentals in the Lisbon area--http://www.carrental2u.com/lisbon.htm; http://www.all-inclusive-car-hire.com/lisbon-airport/index.shtml

Here are some websites for car rentals in the Porto area-- http://www.rental-car-search.com/cars/OPO_porto/discount-car-rental.html; http://www.all-inclusive-car-hire.com/porto-airport/index.shtml

Here are some websites for car rentals in the Algarve--http://portugal-info.net/rentacar/index.htm; http://www.all-inclusive-car-hire.com/faro-airport/index.shtml; http://www.farocarhire.com; http://www.commercially.net/faro_car_rental_28.html

If you have any specific query, the Fodors Forum website allows you to ask questions for other folk to respond to--http://www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=2

You can gather quite a lot by using the pousada website--http://www.pousadas.pt/contents.html; http://www.pousadasofportugal.com/index.html;

“Golden Age Promotion” for Portugal’s pousadas-- http://www.pousadas.pt/14programas/ouro.html

Here are 2 websites for currency conversion-- http://www.xe.com/ucc; http://www.x-rates.com/calculator.html# Other

Recommended Guide: The Green Michelin Guide for Portugal is well worth the investment.

You should be able to accumulate a lot of general information from the above websites. The better you do your homework before you leave, the more you will get out of your trip.

Here are a few Portugese words that you may want to know:

Surely, if you only learn one Portuguese word, it has to be thank you. It never hurts to say the magic word: males say ‘obrigad-o’ and females say ‘obrigad-a’; yes/no = sim/nao; do you speak English? = falas Ingles?; how much does it cost? = quanto custa?; I do not understand = nao compreendo; good morning/day = bom dia; good afternoon = boa tarde; good evening = boa noite; hello = ola; you’re welcome = de nada; I’m sorry = desculpe; please = por favor; toilet = sanitas; drug store = farmacia; butter = manteiga; milky coffee = café com leite; meat = carne; beer = cerveja ;white wine = vinho branco; red wine = vinho tinto; exit = saida; bread = pao; menu = carta; bill = a conta; water = agua; post office = correio; house = casa; cathedral = Se; church = igreja; gas (petrol) = gasoline; unleaded gas = gasolina sem chumbo

Enjoy!


 

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