Day Trip: Porto to Guimaraes

After a few days of exploring Porto, my cousin left to go back home to the States.  I still had one day in Porto, and then I was off to Ireland.  Since we had explored most of Porto the previous days, I wanted to take a day trip somewhere.  I researched a bit online and picked the first city that sounded interesting.  Guimaraes it was.  The next day I hopped on the train and rode about an hour to this small city.  Once there, I had no idea what to expect, so I found a map of the city and got straight to exploring.  I was able to see most of this small town in a few hours.  There were some very pretty sights, and I discovered a little cafe that sold special pastries made by the nuns at Santa Clara de Guimaraes, a local convent.  However, I did not find the city to be very memorable, and to be honest, I was a bit disappointed.  I was ready to hop on the next train home when I saw something in the corner of the map.  There was a teleferico, a gondola that brought me up to the top of the mountain, and I decided that I might as well give it a try.

I hiked over to the base of the mountain and rode up to the top.  When I got off the gondola, I was met by a forest, huge boulders, a lovely walking path, and these curious yellow and red markings painted every few feet.  Given that I love nature and exploring, and our planned trip to walk the Camino was cancelled, I was delighted to be able to follow some kind of hiking trail.  I meandered around for a while through the forest and found myself in a cement plaza facing a beautiful church that overlooked the whole city.  I was creeping around the church unsure if I was allowed inside when a woman approached me and asked if I needed help.  I told her that I had no idea where I was or what I was looking at and she kindly took me to the visitors center and handed me all the information I needed.  After reading through the visitor’s guide, I learned that I was on Montanha da Penha (Penha Mountain), and a religious hermit had once made this area his home.  Through his work, many monuments were made in the area honoring various religious figures in the Catholic faith, and the trail was made to guide people through the forests to all of his various works.  Now I knew what those markings were for, and I set out to finish the trail.

The trail itself was not very long or strenuous, but the findings I discovered around every corner made it seem like I had been there for days.  The path led me to beautiful monuments and viewpoints, narrow passageways in between boulders, little caves carved from rocks, and through the beautiful forest.  I believe that there are a few campsites available, and I desperately want to go back and spend the night there.  There was a sense of calm all throughout the area, and it was a wonderful way to end my day in Guimaraes.  It was starting to get dark, and I still had a long walk back, so I took the gondola down and caught the next train back to Porto.  This mountain adventure turned out to be one of my favorite parts of all of my time in Europe simply because I was not expecting it, and it was a bit of consolation for our cancelled Camino trip.  The next day, I left Portugal, one of my favorite countries in Europe, for the last time.

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Portugal’s Second City: Porto

After our Camino was cancelled, we planned a last minute trip to Porto as our last stop before my cousin headed back to California.  I had been to Lisbon and Lagos before, and I loved those cities, so I was excited to see what else Portugal had to offer.

We arrived at the Porto airport and walked over to the connecting Metro station.  (I wish American airports were easily connected to the Metro). I just remember thinking that it was the most beautiful metro station I had seen, and I am just now realizing that I had not taken any pictures of it.  Still a little bit disoriented from the flight, I went to take a seat not realizing that the butt parts of the chairs flip up when not in use.  I sat down not realizing that the seat had folded up and sprawled out in the middle of the metro cart.  After that minor hiccup, it was a smooth ride all the way to the city.  We walked to our hostel and found that they were still serving breakfast (praise the Lord).  We stuffed our faces with breads and jams before we set out to explore the city.  Porto was much smaller than I expected, and we were able to see most of the downtown area in the few days that we had.  That first day, we just strolled around the main square, ate Pastel de Nata (how I miss you), and relaxed.

The next morning, after a great breakfast, we set out to see the rest of the adorable city.  Armed with just a map from the hostel and no previous knowledge about the city, we were ready to explore.  I am definitely a born planner, and that is how I explored most of the other cities I visited, but it was refreshing to explore a city without any expectations and no itinerary.  We strolled through the main plazas, rambled down random side streets, drifted along the beautiful river, and (of course) drank Port wine,  It was a day without any particular plan, and it was actually quite lovely.

On the third day we were in Porto, we decided to venture out away from the downtown area.  We took a train to the Palacio de Cristal area and explored the grounds.  After that, we took a cute trolley to the west side and explored their coastal region.  Surprisingly, there were not many restaurants or stores open in that area, probably because it was still pretty cold.

On our way back to the hostel, we happened upon a strange event.  When we got back to the downtown area, there were thousands of students dressed in black robes, top hats, and costumes.  Apparently, there is a yearly tradition in Porto called Queima das Fitas, where students celebrate their near graduation.  They parade through the streets, throw concerts, party, and generally just make a huge ruckus.  It was quite an experience to see, and I’m happy that we were able to witness it.   Another interesting fact I learned was that JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, lived in Porto for a short time.  Many believe that she got her inspiration for the Hogwart’s robes from the attire that these students wear.

The next day my cousin Kim left to go back home to the states, but I still had one day in Portugal before I left for Ireland.  Stay tuned for my mini solo trip in Guimarães, which turned out to be my favorite part of our Porto excursion.

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A Weekend in Lagos, Portugal

We were coming down to the wire.  It was the last two weekends before our glorious semester in Spain ended.  Our last big trip was a weekend with Discover Excursions in Lagos, Portugal.  It began with a night in Sevilla where Discover would be picking us up the next day.  This trip had been planned very last minute, so we picked the cheapest hostel we could find.  Big mistake.  After arriving in Sevilla, we got into the first cab we saw and gave the driver the address to the hostel.  It turns out he had no idea where it was, and he just kept driving around in circles, and then he still made us pay for that ride.

Finally, we were able to find a decent taxi driver, and we arrived to the hostel.  It was on some tiny little street alley in the farthest part of town, and the building was dingy, cramped, and old.  When we were finally given the keys to our room, we were directed to the top floor of the building.  Okay no problem, we can climb stairs.  Problem. These stairs were made for the typical Europe skinny person, not American students who had eaten double their weight in gelato and chronically overpacked.  I’m pretty sure that our room was some sort of illegal add-on to the building because we were literally on the roof of the building, and our set of “stairs” was nothing short of a fire escape ladder.

Price over comfort? Maybe not in this case.

The only savior was the man working at the hostel (possibly the owner?).  He was extremely hospitable, patient, and willing to answer any questions we had.  Thankfully we were only there for the night.

The next morning, we headed over to the wonderful city of Lagos.  Portugal was one of my favorite countries, and I could not wait to go back.  We arrived in Lagos a few hours later to find it cold and windy.  Unfortunately, that was pretty much how the weather was the whole semester given we were there in the winter months.  This California girl was not happy.  However, we made the most of it and got ready for our Sangria Cruise.  The first two hours of the cruise were enjoyable as we had unlimited sangria, new people to mingle with, and the gorgeous ocean.  I was even brave enough to jump off the bow of the boat.  The water felt great, but you would probably get hypothermia if you stayed too long.  However once you mix a boat, wind, and alcohol, you have got yourself a ship full of sea-sick college students.  I spent the whole ride back intently focusing on the distant shoreline to avoid thoughts of vomiting and nausea.  Let’s just say the restroom had become an exhibit of the courageous battle between the human stomach and the forces of mother nature.

Thankfully the night did not end with that sour note.  We all headed to town to find some much needed food.  Now if you know me, you probably know that I am not much of a vegetable person.  I will eat them because it makes me feel better about myself, but rarely do I actually spend money on it at a restaurant.  It has always blown my mind how much a simple salad costs at restaurants.  It is literally just leaves with a pretty serving of sauce on top.  Don’t waste your money on it.  You might as well go to the nearest tree with a bottle of ranch.  Anyways, I had been missing my typical diet at that point because my friends unfortunately were the type to order the dreaded salad at restaurants.  (I still love you guys despite your strange eating habits) So I had been wanting something a bit meatier, and what could be better than an old fashioned burger.  Who would have thought that you would find one of the top rated burgers in the world in a tiny town in Portugal.  Well that was exactly what happened when we found Nah Nah Bah.  Apart from their hilarious menu, the ambiance was very relaxed and beachy.   We ordered the famous Toucan Burger and waited what seemed like two hours for our food.  Fortunately it was worth the wait.  Haley and I made the mistake of each ordering our own burger.  Those suckers were ridiculously huge, and somehow I managed to force myself to finish it without throwing up.  After our dinner, we headed over to a club where we were able to see our ridiculously attractive tour guides get funky (yes I know I have a boyfriend, I still love you).

We spent the whole next day at the beach, relaxing, playing volleyball, and of course having more sangria.  When we got hungry, we waltzed over to the nearest restaurant.  What followed was a two hour crying fest in the middle of the restaurant.  It was our last big trip, and it was just hitting me that we would never be able to hang out like this again.  The friends I had made in Spain came from all different parts of the US.  Sarah came from Washington, Haley came from Chicago, Athena came from Boston, and Nicole came from New Jersey.  Of course I was all the way on the other side of the world in Los Angeles.  It is so sad to think that you will make many friends in your life, but you will only be able to see a handful of them on a consistent basis.  These were the girls that I was able to explore the world with.  They were the ones who watched me make mistakes, mature, and figure out a new perspective on life.  We shared something that no one else would understand, and I would probably only see them once a year if we were lucky.  It was all too much to handle, and I let it all out with my tears.

To top off the day, we watched the sunset at the “End of the World,” a famous cliff side that is the most southwestern part of Europe.  The enormous sun melted into the never ending ocean, and the cliff side slowly turned to black.  It was at that moment I realized just how lucky I was, and I promised myself never to take this for granted.

The next day we went to the prettiest beach I saw in Europe.  It was beautiful not just because of the water, but also because of the rock formations and the hiking trails that you could explore.  Sarah and I were the two people in the group who liked hiking and exploring, so we spent the day finding little caves and walking along trails.  It was a great way to spend the last day of our last trip.

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