It all started with Portuguese tarts – those delightfully eggy, velvety pastries that I just could not get enough of. I succumbed to my fix locally for many years without complaint, but eventually it wasn't enough … and that's how my husband and I started talking about Portugal one blustery afternoon.
It was cold and we were craving sunshine, then the Portuguese tarts came up, and then suddenly we had a list. Nice climate? Tick. Great food? Tick. Wine? Tick. History? Tick. Beaches? Tick. We eventually stopped ticking things off and moved to the planning stage of the trip, deciding a group tour would be the best way to experience all that we wanted to see and do.
We meet the Back-Roads Touring group leader, Louis, and our travelling companions at 9am at our hotel in Lisbon and get off to a great start. Everyone introduces themselves with a short backstory about why they picked Portugal and Louis cracks a few jokes to warm the group up. It is quickly evident that everyone will mesh well.
The no-earlier-than-8:30am starts undeniably help (who actually wants to get up at 7am on holidays?), the boutique hotels we reside in make for welcome reprieves at the end of each touring day, and we don't change accommodation every night – which means more time to explore and less time spent repacking luggage.
My husband and I arrived a couple of days before the tour started to get our fill of Portuguese tarts, called pasteis de natas. We wandered the cobblestone streets stopping at hole-in the-wall cafes to fit in as many as we could; we popped into magnificent churches and simply gazed; we walked around ancient forts and castles; and we may have done a little shopping, all while constantly being dazzled by the sheer number and diversity of colourful tiles adorning the buildings of the city.
We are in the minibus for our Lisbon tour day, so able to get further out, but remain just as dazzled by Lisbon's sights. First the minibus whisks us to the National Sanctuary of Christ the King lookout in Almada to admire the city of Lisbon and the 25 de Abril Bridge below, then we head to Belem, a suburb about 10 kilometres from the centre of Lisbon.
The Belem Tower and Jeronimas Monastery are two of Lisbon's most renowned architectural sights, and as an organised tour group we skip the queue of tourists to enter the tower first, then spend our time admiring the ornate monastery exterior. Both buildings are notable for a Portuguese architectural style known as manueline (Portuguese late Gothic), and our local guide (we are chaperoned by local guides, as well as Louis, in Lisbon, Porto, Sintra and Cascais) delves into the intricacies of the lavish style.
While we stroll and admire the intricate facade of the monastery, Louis disappears to pick up an afternoon snack – Lisbon's most legendary pasteis de natas from Pasteis de Belem, where these delicious tarts have been in production since 1837. We overindulge in the golden custard treats, but somehow find our second stomachs for a dinner of local food while we are treated to an intimate Fado performance (a Portuguese music genre known for its melancholy lyrics).
Lisbon is the first port of call for most people arriving into Portugal, but the countryside and smaller towns offer a different vibe. Sintra and Cascais are close to Lisbon and we visit both the next day, spending the morning exploring the stunning National Palace of Sintra, and then a relaxing afternoon lunching and strolling around the old fishing hamlet of Cascais.
Over the next few days we cover quite a bit of ground, but we do it at an unhurried pace, taking scenic backroads and enjoying leisurely lunches in little towns along the way. Louis explains that he decides where to break as he gets to know a group. Some people like to potter about souvenir shops, others like to eat slowly, while others prefer to spend more time on the bus gazing out the window watching Portugal drift by.
The afternoon of our third day we glide into Batalha just as the hordes of tourists begin to leave. Everyone comes to see the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Monastery of Batalha and our visit is timed for an hour before it is due to close. With the crowds gone and dusk settling in the cool dense night air, the monastery has a special ambience.
Louis cautions us to prepare for crowds the next day when we head to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, a holy site where it is claimed that three children were visited by The Virgin Mary. Thankfully … or not … this is the one day the rains decide to make an appearance. The crowds swiftly diminish and once again we find ourselves with plenty of space to move about freely. Sure, we're decked out in raincoats and carrying umbrellas, but it is often the imperfect days you remember.
Thankfully, the sun shines brilliantly for the remainder of the week. When we overnight in Coimbra, a vibrant university town crammed with students, there is not one cloud in the sky as we explore, although I enjoy my time inside the magnificent baroque Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra the most. I have never seen such an extravagant library – the detail in the frescoed ceilings, the elegant gilt bookshelves adorned in Chinese motifs, and the thousands and thousands of leather-bound books.
Perhaps my most memorable day is our relaxing Douro Valley jaunt, and it all starts with our descent. Our bus driver, Juan Carlos, carefully manoeuvres the weaving roads. Carpeted green hills stretch as far as the eye can see, rows and rows of well-manicured vines trace the terrain, and at the base of the valley the Douro beckons, on which we'll soon cruise.
On board the boat we are spoilt with more vistas as we kick back in the sun, chatting and laughing while our energetic young boat guide jokes as he delves into the history of the river and Douro Valley's port and wine scene.
Of course, no trip to the Douro Valley would be complete without sampling the goods, and that night we reside at the plush Quinta Nova, where we taste the winery's own vintages, learn the production techniques, then end the evening with a fabulous dinner. The only thing that gets us all on the bus the next morning is news of more wine (and specifically Port) in Portugal's second largest town – Porto.
Positioned on the Douro, Porto is technically two cities: the north side is Porto, while the south side is called Vila Nova de Gaia, or Gaia by the locals. Over two blissful days we explore the pulsating city with the assistance of a local guide, we drink port, travel to the beautiful historic town of Guimaraes, drink more port, eat too much, and make sure our last days are as eventful as can be.
Most of our group companions are venturing off to another country – and we, too, have a Spanish road trip booked – but everyone is sad to move on. Who knew "the more the merrier" could apply to travel?
Qantas flies to Lisbon via Dubai. See qantas.com.
Back-Roads Touring seven-day Discover Portugal tour, priced from $3329 per person, starts in Lisbon and ends in Porto. The itinerary covers many of Portugal's most renowned sights, with routes usually travelled on scenic backroads. Six nights in charming boutique hotels is included as part of the tour. See www.backroadstouring.com
Tatyana Leonov travelled as a guest of Back-Roads Touring.
Whether travelling alone or with others, everyone can benefit from being around like-minded people.
ONE LEAD GUIDE
Having one lead guide allows you to get used to that one person and get comfortable asking questions.
Most quality tour companies will use local guides on the ground, so the information they deliver tends to be insider knowledge.
By the time you add up all the inclusions – hotels, transport, guides, meals and so on – you might find that it is cheaper to book a tour.
SAFETY IN NUMBERS
Getting lost or scammed is less likely to happen when travelling with a group.