This past October my wife and I took a comprehensive three-week guided tour of Portugal, starting out in the Algarve, traveling north through the interior as far as the Douro valley and Geres National Park, then heading south down the coast, ending in Lisbon. When we initially chose Portugal as our destination, friends remarked “Three weeks in Portugal! Will there be enough to do?” I confess that when we originally chose Portugal as our destination, we had only a vague idea of the cultural and scenic riches in store. We can now attest that Portugal has it all. Small in area, it nonetheless offers amazing variety–gorgeous beaches, beautiful mountains studded with medieval walled villages, breathtaking vistas of river valleys, arid land with expanses of cork and olive trees, lush wine estates, unusual and sometimes quirky World Heritage sites, and two fabulous cities. Looking back, three weeks was barely enough time to accomplish all we had hoped to do.
I. The Plan. As return clients of Zicasso, we have come to expect that they will put us together with top-notch tour directors, and the company that designed our tour of Portugal was no exception. This company is first rate in every respect. The travel planner, co-owner and director, was first in touch by email, offering a preliminary itinerary based on the general specifications we had given. We then had an extended, very productive chat by phone. The travel planner’s charm and enthusiasm came through instantly, and it was evident that she knows Portugal like the back of her hand. She is a great listener, and picked up right away on our interests and touring style. We were less interested in relaxing at the beach or in wine tastings, and much more in visiting museums and exploring picturesque villages and historic sites. We are generally driven to squeeze in as much as possible in the allotted time, and presented her with a sizable list of towns we would like to include. The travel planner was back in touch the next day with a thoroughly revamped itinerary that incorporated virtually everything we had wanted to do (excluding just a few places that were not feasible due to time and distance). On tour this plan proved to be extremely well constructed, ambitious but do-able, keeping an energetic pace and having an occasional long day. This plan was ideally suited to us, and we loved every minute.
II. The Tour. When we arrived at the Lisbon airport, the travel planner and co-owner were there to greet us. The travel planner had prepared a very handy comprehensive guidebook that included the complete itinerary, descriptions with historical background, maps, vouchers, and pertinent details such as hotels and times for pick-ups. She also provided a portable wi-fi hotspot that was a real boon throughout the tour. Although the itinerary was charted out in great detail, it was still flexible, and guides introduced additional attractions based upon our interests.
The travel planner and her staff were at the ready to address any questions or concerns that arose. When we decided at the last minute that we wanted to tour the amazing caves off the coast at Lagos by speedboat, even though a kayak adventure had already been booked, the travel team made sure that happened. And they were always happy to attend to special arrangements and details. When I wanted to make a reservation at a fine restaurant for my wife’s birthday, they secured a reservation at one of the top spots in Lisbon. The staff there was thoroughly aware of the occasion and gave us a table in a special alcove. I sensed the travel team's guiding hands in making this evening so memorable. These are just two examples of the great care and responsiveness of the travel planner and her team.
III. The Guides. Although the travel planner offered the possibility of a self-guided tour with rental car, we opted to have a driver-guide with us from start to finish, a luxury that we consider well worth the added cost. The travel planner ensured that all the transition points were seamless; without fail every guide was waiting for us at the appointed time. We had a total of six driver-guides during the tour, each a local in the area we were touring. Each was a unique and charming individual. All were polished professionals who loved their country and wished to share its history and beautiful sights with the visitors. All had a perfect command of English and were wonderful people with whom we have formed lasting friendships. Our experiences with these people were indeed the very heart of this tour. We feel intimately acquainted with the Portuguese people, their history, and their culture.
Our first guide introduced us to the prehistoric menhirs outside Évora, a fascinating cork factory, a very authentic Taberna, and the lovely family pottery makers of Sao Pedro do Corval. We also explored the wonders of Évora itself, with its narrow winding streets, aqueduct, beautiful churches, and the famous chapel of bones.
The next focused on Portugal’s rich history, from the Neolithic rock art at Foz Côato Roman ruins at Mértola and Ammaia, with marvelous museums explicating their significance. He took us to fortresses and castles built as bulwarks against the Spanish at Mértola, Castelo de Vide, Marvão, and we walked castle walls and climbed up many a keep; he led us through picturesque medieval villages, often perched on a mountaintop, and greeted his friends in these sites. The town of Piódão, built entirely of schist, was unforgettable, especially with its lights at night. A wine making tour was very educational, and followed by a tasting. At the end of our stay, he took us to an unforgettable evening of fado music and dinner.
Our next guide played recordings of fado music during our travels, and we became enamored of the legendary Amalia Rodrigues and other performers. We cruised the Douro Valley with its lovely vineyards, took a gondola ride in Aveiro, toured the sumptuous library and tiled rooms of the University of Coimbra, and explored the city of Porto, with its impressive Casa de música and a wonderful museum. It seemed that everyone was a friend of our guide!
The next guide led us through the breathtakingly beautiful Geres National Park, where he lives. He gave a botanical tour during a hike, and also stopped at a little stone village with a population of 15.
Our next guide took us to lovely churches, such as that in Batalha, and the polygonal oratorio of the Templar Knights in Tomar. We toured the huge palace of Mafra, the deserted Roman ruins and museum at Conimbriga. and the picturesque villages of Óbidos and Nazaré.
And our last guide gave us a wonderful overview of Lisbon, with highlights the Jerónimos Church and Monastery, the National Tile Museum, and the best pastel de nataof Portugal! On another day we ventured out to the Palace of Queluz with its lovely gardens, and the impressive National Palace of Sintra, her home town.
IV. Hotels and transportation. The hotels were excellent and varied—the luxury resort-spa in the Algarve, a wonderfully located hotel in the center of Porto, an intimate little hotel situated among the vineyards of the Douro, a former convent transformed into a lovely hotel, and modern lodging with a gorgeous view of the city of Lisbon. We were presented with alternatives for every town and had a part in choosing our hotels. All of the cars used were spacious, air-conditioned, spotless, and new.
V. Summary. This was one of the best tours we have ever taken, perhaps the best. Everything, from start to finish, was perfect. We would love to return, and, if we do, we would hope to book the tour again with this great company!
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