Northern Portugal, May 2015

Somewhat surprisingly, this was the first time I ever visited Portugal.

I spent some time in Lisbon airport on some of the flights to Brazil. But never had got around to travelling anywhere in Portugal itself.

My 'base' for the trip was Aveiro, which is about 200 km north of Lisbon. It is not only a good place to stay, but also comfortable starting point to drive to many places in the north of the country.

Aveiro thinks it is loveable

I expected Aveiro to be quite dull and annoyingly touristic.

The primary attraction are some channels (well, for most practical reasons, it's one channel with a sidearm) and some small boats that go along those channels.

And that's it.

There are a couple of different tour operators, but all offer, essentially, the same tour. Same way up and down the channels, same boats, same duration, same points where they turn around.

Boat on small lake in front of hotel Boats under bridge Aveiro boat tour

The tour is kind of pleasant and relaxing, but pretty dull.

And that's pretty much all there is to see in Aveiro.

Which, unexpectedly, turned out to be a good thing.

For most tourists, Aveiro is just a stop on the way. So when the boat tours stop around 6pm, the town pretty much reverts to non-tourist mode.

And as it's a university town, that's not as dull as it might otherwise be in a town of 80000 inhabitants.

It helps that Aveiro has no beaches.

It's separated from the sea by a shallow lagoon that used to be (and partly still is) used for salt production.

So the beaches are about 7 kilometers away, so people coming for the sand and sea are likely to stay in one of the places like Barra. (Slightly famous for having the tallest lighthouse in Portugal.)

Barra lighthouse 62 meters high Barra beaches Barra beach Smaller Barra lighthouse

In Aveiro itself, there are sometimes other events that draw visitors. One was an old-timer rally that was going on when I arrived, but such events are rare.

Aveiro oldtimer rally Aveiro oldtimer rally Aveiro oldtimer rally

In any case, Aveiro is a good starting point for day tours.

The first one took me about 90 kilometers south of Aveiro, to the area around Figueira da Foz.

One of the stopping points there was a former convent (now a ruin), which has been taken over by storks. They use the remains of the former bell towers and a nearby chimney for nesting.

It used to be possible to enter the ruins and take a closer look. But now parts of the building have collapsed and the entrances are now bricked over. But even from the outside, it's an interesting sight.

Convent ruin with stork Convent ruin Chimney with stork nest
Stork flying Convent ruin Stork flying
Stork flying Convent ruin with stork Convent ruin with stork

After that quiet and somewhat contemplative visit to the former convent, it was time to head for something noisier.

Figueira da Foz beach

While Figueira da Foz is usually a quiet seaside town (at least I assume it is), they had some enduro racing competition on the beach when I was visiting.

The track was weaving back and forth across the beach, so there was a lot of driving track in a comparatively small area.

Enduro race track in beach

Lots of fun, noise and kicking up sand.

Enduro race in Figueira da Foz Enduro race in Figueira da Foz Enduro race in Figueira da Foz Enduro race in Figueira da Foz

Accidents did happen, but they were quite harmless. In most cases bikes just got stuck in deep sand and fell over, but that also meant that these were places where they were going slow anyway.

So riders just picked up their bikes and moved on.

It also helped that these were timed trials, so the riders did not usually move as a group. Usually there was enough distance between them to avoid group crashes.

Although sometimes accident did have knock-on effects

For example, this guy didn't quite make it around the corner.

Biker falling off

No problem, though. He just stands up, picks up his bike and is ready to go again.

Biker picking up bike Biker picking up bike

But he is standing in the 'ideal driving line', so the next driver is trying to pass him on the inner side of the curve.

Second driver coming up

Which didn't provide as much traction as hoped for.

Second driver struggling

So he's the next to fall over, while the first biker drives on.

Second driver falling over Second driver falling over

No harm done, though. He also just picks up the bike and drives on, with no more than a few seconds loss on the lap time.

Second driver driving off again

Changing from 'racing spectator' to 'hiking' mode again, I headed off to a Neolithic grave.

Dolmen das Carnicosas

Not that I am particularly interested in ancient burial sites, but Portugal has a lot of nice walking tracks close to minor historical sites.

So you can have a quick stop at the historic site (or just skip that) and then a relaxed walk around the area. (Which, at the end of May, almost always means that you got the trail to yourself).

Surroundings of Dolmen das Carnicosas

Next day I try the same combination of visiting a ruin and some 'themed' walking trail.

The ruin is somewhat more modern than the convent (and does not feature any storks).

The place used to be a pulp mill. I have no idea why it was abandoned. There is a newer and smaller factory still operating on the other side of the river. It seems a bit like it was cheaper at some point to just build a new factory instead of updating the old one.

Or maybe there is just one aspect of the operations that is still profitable, and they are still using those facilities and shut down the rest.

In any case, walking around in abandoned, half fallen places is always interesting, so I spent some time doing that there. (As I was alone, I didn't actually enter the buildings. If something goes wrong, I prefer to have some backup to get help if needed. It still was fun poking in from the outside.)

Fabrica do caima Fabrica do caima Fabrica do caima Fabrica do caima
Fabrica do caima Fabrica do caima Fabrica do caima Fabrica do caima
Fabrica do caima Fabrica do caima Fabrica do caima Fabrica do caima

Just a couple of kilometers away, there was a short walking path referencing some local water mills. The path was following the river on one side, passed the sites of two old watermills and returned on the other side of the river.

Again a nice place to walk and again just me walking there.

Parque Tematico Molinologico Parque Tematico Molinologico Parque Tematico Molinologico

But that was just a short trail, so I drove back to the Aveiro area for some more walking.

There's the São Jacinto Dunes Natural Reserve between Aveiro Lagoon and the ocean.

It's somewhat tricky to reach from Aveiro, as you need to drive around most of the lagoon. It's a 50 km drive.

Or you can take the ferry.

Sao Jacinto Ferry Aveiro Lagoon

It saves a lot of driving time, but it runs quite infrequently on weekends.

Well, it runs on the average about once an hour, but the tricky bit is that on weekends they often just run a boat instead of the ferry. Good for pedestrians, but you are kind of stuck with a car. (At the end of the day, I decided to just drive back the long way round instead of waiting about two hours for the next ferry...)

But before that, I did manage to do some walking in the São Jacinto Dunes Natural Reserve.

There is one primary entry point to the reserve and they are very helpful there, giving advice and handing out a map.

The downside is that the trails on the map don't really match the markings on the trails themselves. But as the trails essentially just consists of two loops and a wooden walkway to the beach area, it's usually pretty clear where you are. So it doesn't matter.

Given that it's a 'Dunes Natural Reserve' it was surprising that the trails mostly went through the woods.

Sao Jacinto trail Sao Jacinto

So there was a lot of shade, which protects nicely against sunburn.

Though it might be worthwhile looking out for spiders...

Sao Jacinto spider nests

Only at the end of the trail, you come to a long wooden walkway that ultimately takes you to the dunes. But you're forbidden to leave the walkway. All you can do is go to the viewing point and have a look at them from there. And then walk back.

Sao Jacinto beach walkway Sao Jacinto beach - no access Sao Jacinto beach

It seemed for a while that the whole trip would end up being just walking around some small hiking circuits and watching minor motor sports events. But then I had some luck with another plan.

I had tried to find some other activities, but it seemed it was either too early or too late in the season for doing stuff. It also wasn't the main tourist season, so some trip operators answered "we don't have enough clients for a tour right now, if we get some other bookings, we'll let you know".

But there weren't any updates from anyone, so I send out some last minute mails and asking about possible canyoning / rafting / quad / sailing / caving / anything options. And was pleasantly surprised when I got a reply stating "We are doing a canyoning tour tomorrow morning. Want to join?"

Turned out that this was quite a coincidence. They had a customer who had been interested in doing an easy canyoning tour. But they had to cancel her tour, as they don't do the tour with just on customer.

So when I asked about possible tours, it not only made the tour possible for me, but they could also call her and tell her the tour was on again. (And the guide didn't have to spend the day in the office, and could go out to the canyon, which he seemed to prefer as well.)

So a happy day was had by all.

The tour took place in the Gerês National Park, which is a great environment in any case. And the canyoning was done at the Cascata do Arado, a series of waterfalls formed by the small Arado river.

Cascata do Arado

As it was a sunny and fairly warm for spring (27°C).

Although we didn't wear our neoprene suits when walking up to the starting point of the tour (we only put them on once we got ready to go), it was pleasant to start the trip with a jump into the cool and extremely clear water.

Jumping in In Arado river In Arado river

The tour was then nicely structured to be suitable for complete beginners.

So on the first 'technical part' we didn't do anything ourselves, but the guide (Ze Lopes) just tied a rope to our harnesses and lowered us (using an abseil knot) down a minor drop. Presumably just to give us confidence in the climbing harness and the general procedure.

As easy as riding an elevator...

Next was a somewhat higher waterfall.

We were still being lowered by the guide (no abseiling or rappelling on our own). But we were no longer just hanging there, but 'walking' down the rock face instead, so we could concentrate on doing just that.

I had done that before on other canyoning tours. Even so it was a good introduction aimed at total beginners in canyoning..

Next stop - down there Walking down next to the waterfall Walking further down next to the waterfall Down in the river Swimming to resting point

As we weren't in a hurry, it was time for a bit of a rest at the bottom before heading on.

Rest time near waterfall

On the next waterfall it was time to do some self-controlled rappelling.

It seems canyoning trips are a bit like dog sledding tours - everyone has their own rules and systems. All of them work, but it is necessary to pay attention to the specific guide and the instructions.

So far, when using an abseil-eight, it tended to be the right hand low on the rope and the left hand gripping the rope above the abseil-eight.

Here, the right hand was at the same place, but the left was going under the carabinier that connects the abseil-eight to the harness and grip the rope below the eight.

The basic idea is that, if you swing sideways and towards the rock face and take one hand off the rope to steady you against the rock face, you still got the other hand on the rope to keep you from sliding down uncontrolled.

That makes sense, but I had never seen that done before.

Canyoning at Geres National Park Waterfall Canyoning at Geres National Park Waterfall Canyoning at Geres National Park Waterfall Canyoning at Geres National Park Waterfall
Canyoning at Geres National Park Waterfall Canyoning at Geres National Park Waterfall Canyoning at Geres National Park Waterfall Canyoning at Geres National Park Waterfall

As can be seen in the pictures, there's still a lot of 'easy tour for beginners' safety built in. Instead of letting the lower end of the rope just hang down, it was secured by the guide and only lowered as needed. So while we did control our own descend, if we would somehow just let go of the rope, we would just have slid down a short bit before being stopped by the rope.

Another variant was used on the next waterfall.

The rappel rope was going down all the way to the water, but we also got a safety line attached to our harness. So in case something went wrong, we wouldn't fall all the way.

Canyoning at Geres National Park Waterfall Canyoning at Geres National Park Waterfall Canyoning at Geres National Park Waterfall
Canyoning at Geres National Park Waterfall Canyoning at Geres National Park Waterfall Canyoning at Geres National Park Waterfall
Canyoning at Geres National Park Waterfall Canyoning at Geres National Park Waterfall Canyoning at Geres National Park Waterfall

From there it was a bit of walking over rocks along the river to get to the next and final waterfall.

Walking Arado river Walking Arado river

As we were no longer in the canyon, out in the sun and still wearing neoprene suits, it got somewhat warm in there (on the other hand, the suits are a great protection from sunburns). It was nice to rest in the river from time to time.

Cooling down

For the last descent, there was a special set-up, using a bit of everything done before and one rope more.

We had one rappel rope, but we were also clipped into a safety line. A taunt line had been set up between the top of the waterfall and a rock below. We were clipped into that as well.

The procedure was to rappel down on our own for a couple of meters, until we were well away from the rocks at the side, then just to let go of the rappelling rope and 'zipline' down to the rock. With the guide using the safety line to slow our descent, so we would not crash into the rock at speed.

Steep (sort of) zipline Steep (sort of) zipline Steep (sort of) zipline
Steep (sort of) zipline Steep (sort of) zipline

After that we were done with canyoning for the day.

All that remained were to take some 'happy survivor' pictures and start the walk back up to the car. (It was parked at about half height of the trip, so that half of the uphill walking was done at the beginning of the trip and half at the end of it, nicely distributing the effort).

Canyoning happy customers and guide Canyoning happy customers and guide

On the way back, we took it slow and had stops to take in a somewhat wider view of the Gerês National Park than the one we had from within the canyon.

Geres National Park viewpoint Geres National Park viewpoint Geres National Park viewpoint
Geres National Park viewpoint

After the day of canyoning, I did some more relaxed activities on the next day.

I started with a visit of a science museum, the Visionarium. The visit was interesting at first, but got into a bit of a decline the more I went upwards.

At the ground floor, they had a great exhibition that linked science to Portugal's seafaring past. So the exhibits were mostly about navigation and mechanics, using (kind of) practical examples. Such as demonstrating the amount of force required to move barrels up various inclined slopes.

Museum barrel pull

Or the center of gravity and the resulting balancing problems with a partial ship model.

And explaining levers with this door, which I liked, as I didn't see in advance what this was about.

Door with three knobs

Once you open the door, you see a sign asking you which of the handles you used and whether you even tried using one of the others. And only then there's an info table that explains that we tend to understand levers intuitively, but rarely pay attention to the principle behind it. Which makes the physics (literally) behind the door more interesting than it would be without having to open the door first.

But the next floor up was mostly concerned with magnetism/electricity and human senses. And these experiments were the standard experiments and measurement / presentation tools that most other science places have as well. (Like a wire stretched over a compass and when you turn on the electricity, the compass needle moves. Or a microphone that you talk into and your soundwaves are displayed on an oscilloscope.) All scientifically worthwhile, but they lacked the 'story' the exhibit on the ground floor had. And they felt more like something you do for education value than something you do for the fun of finding out.

On the top floor, the theme was outer space.

And this suffered a lot from not being able to do any experiments on site, so everything was just photos, texts and some videos. All could have been easily consumed at home and none providing a proper reason to visit a museum.

So the best experience is probably to just visit the ground floor and then leave.

As it was not far away, I also visited the Castle of Santa Maria da Feira.

Castle of Santa Maria da Feira Castle of Santa Maria da Feira Castle of Santa Maria da Feira Castle of Santa Maria da Feira

Not much to see there except for the castle itself (so no museum, art or furniture inside it), but it's an impressive one anyway.

Next to the castle was some advertising sign for the "Zoo de Lourosa" ('only 15 minutes away'). As I didn't have any other plans for the afternoon, I decided to go there.

It took me a while to find it, since the poster didn't provide an address and my navigation system didn't know of it. So I just drove to the nearby town of Lourosa and then drove around more or less at random until I spotted a sign for the zoo.

But even following the signs, it wasn't that easy to find the zoo even when I reached it.

It's has a bit of an understated appearance.

This is the main entrance.

Zoo de Lourosa

The entrance isn't the orange door with the no-parking sign.

But it is at least a hint that the zoo is here.

The real entrance is the little opening in the concrete wall, with the small blue sign on top of it (which reads, partly overgrown 'Entrada').

The number of cars parked down the street also gives a bit of an indication how popular the place is. (And that is the available parking space, it's not as if there's a big "Zoo parking here" parking lot behind me. The writing on the doors is really the only sign that this is a zoo.

Well, in the end it turned out that it wasn't really a zoo (at least not the kind I expected), but a bird park. (Too be fair, the Portuguese sign calls it "Zoo Lourosa - Parque Ornitológico", so it's not like they are trying to mislead visitors.)

In any case, for a bird park it's a decent one, with a strong bias towards 'colourful' birds (lots of parrots) and a 'fierce creatures' mentality. (There is a warning sign at the cassowary enclosure that these are the most dangerous birds around and that more injuries and deaths of bird handlers have been caused by cassowaries than by any other kind of bird. A statement that seems to be based more on folklore than on actual fact.)

But, in any case, if you like bird parks, it's worth a small detour when you're visiting the castle or the science museum. But not much more.

In any case it's nice, relaxing and quiet (except for the bird shrieks, of course). And I assume they like seeing a visitor from time to time (I was there for about an hour and I was the only one visiting. So it's not a crowded place. Hence the large amount of parking opportunities outside.)

And that was pretty much the end of my first visit to Portugal.

Drove back to Aveiro, had a nice dinner later on and drove to Porto the next day to fly home.

Back to other travels