Northern Portugal 2016

A week earlier I just had one day off in Paris, so I didn't manage to do much more than to visit three museums there.

I had a bit more time to spend in Northern Portugal (not a lot more - just three days). So I managed to get around more and see and do more things.

I spent the first night in a rather nice design hotel in Porto.

Nothing overly extravagant, just nice and cleanly designed concrete architecture.

The bathroom is in the concrete block behind the bed and there was literally concrete writing on the ceiling. All a bit sparse, but also with lots of light and open space.

Due to the block architecture and the writing on the slabs, being there feels a bit like a cross of Lego architecture and a graveyard headstones. But the cumulative effect is pleasant.

Casa do Conto in Porto Casa do Conto in Porto

I have driven through Porto before, but never really stopped there (except in the stop-and-go of regular traffic jam on the bridges). So I used the opportunity to do the standard tourist thing - the six bridges boat tour.

Railroad bridge in Porto Railroad bridge in Porto Railroad bridge in Porto
Colourful Porto houses Colourful Porto houses Porto abandoned buildings

Nothing exciting, but a relaxing way to sit back and spend an hour. (Though probably more fun when it's not raining - there's a reason why November is not the main tourist season in Porto.)

Next day I wanted to go to another 'design hotel', but I did a detour to look at one of the odder houses in Portugal - the house between the rocks.

(And, incidentally, a beautiful rainbow - if it is raining all day, you may as well enjoy the nicer parts of it.)

Rainbow Rainbow over valley

The house, built from local stones, has been erected between two large boulders on a hill, which gives it an organic, somewhat fairy-taley look.

Casa do Penedo Casa do Penedo

I wasn't able to get close to the house. There's a wide perimeter fence around it, so you can't get closer than about a hundred meters or so.

Casa do Penedo Casa do Penedo

And except for a sign saying (basically) "Stay away" there's no indication of opening times or guided tours or any other information. (Supposedly it operates as a museum, but I could find no sign of that.)

At the far side of the fence, the house between the rocks also has a little shed between the rocks. It is a bit closer to the fence, so it is easier to take pictures, but it is also off limits.

Rcok shed

So all you can do is be impressed by the house, take some pictures and drive on. But it was only a minor detour and a good opportunity to get out of the car and walk around for a bit.

The third 'architectural folly' in 24 hours was this:

Advertised as a 'tree house' it is located on the grounds of Pedras Salgada.

The surrounding area has a bit of a dead-then-revived-now-comatose feel to it.

Originally the place was best known for its water - there are some water wells on the premises and there's also a bottling factory nearby.

Given the size of the original hotel (now a fenced-off ruin) and also the rather posh casino from 1910, it must have been a popular upscale resort about a hundred years ago.

But then going to a health resort with mineral springs fell out of fashion and the place pretty much died.

And then, a couple of years ago, they started to revive it smartly.

Instead of direct renovation and trying to market it as some kind of retro-experience for affluent older people, they added a few stylish 'eco houses' bungalows to the ground and went more for a trendy target group.

And two of the houses are on stilts - the 'tree houses'.

Pedras Salgada tree house Pedras Salgada tree house

I spent two nights on one of them and they are surprisingly roomy.

I expected something similar to the tree houses in Sweden or the glass igloos in Finland - both looking fantastic, but small inside and if you want to go for a shower, you need to go somewhere else.

The tree houses here are fully equipped - separate shower and toilet rooms and a little kitchen area as well.

Inside Pedras Salgada tree house Inside Pedras Salgada tree house

The view would have been a nice view over the town of Pedras Salgadas to the hills beyond - if there had been a daytime view.

But when I was in the room during daytime, it was always overcast, foggy or raining, so the view was ok, but not spectacular.

Pedras Salgada tree house entrance Pedras Salgada tree house Pedras Salgada tree house entrance

It got a bit better during the second night, when the sky cleared up in the middle of the night. Didn't help the view across the valley much, but as there is a ceiling window directly over the bed, it was nice for a bit of stargazing.

I had some activities planned for the day I spent in the area and at first I was not overly optimistic about it.

In the morning it was overcast, the temperature was around 2°C and when I drove to the place where I wanted to stuff, I went through a couple of dense fog banks. Not the ideal conditions for a fun day outside in Portugal.

And when I arrived at Pena Aventura there was a ferocious looking dog waiting for me.

Friendly dog Padro

Pedro is a friendly, laid-back dog, but the teeth that are outside his mouth all the time make him look a bit like he's auditing for the 'Hound of the Baskervilles'. Pedro is also quite a massive dog, which adds to his fearsome look.

But he's a nice doggie...

But I wasn't there for anything dog related, I was planning on three activities.

The first one was rafting in a "Canoa Raft" (a rubber canoe).

Not the thing to look forward to when it is raining and just above freezing, even when you are wearing a wetsuit. (Which they provided - but I didn't know that in advance and was prepared to go in bathing trunks and t-shirt if needed...)

As it was pretty much the off-season, my choice of activities had been limited.

Originally, I wanted to go rafting on a larger raft, but that requires at least for participants - and as I was pretty much the only customer for anything that day, that would have been tricky, as it's not only the matter of paying four times the tour price. You really need (at least) four people on the raft (six would be better, though) to control it.

So they suggested doing a rubber canoe trip, as that required only three people minimum payment (so I just had to pay for three instead of four, for a tour that was slightly cheaper anyway) and could be technically done by just one person plus a guide.

In the end, we went on the river with two boats and four people - three of them being guides. As far as I can tell, the other guides just came along because they were bored and had nothing better to do... (So, technically, we could also have done rafting in a larger raft, but that wasn't foreseeable when I booked and I also didn't really mind.)

By the time everyone was suited up and ready to go, the weather had turned to nice and sunny, so, quite unexpectedly, it was much more pleasant than I had assumed it would be a couple of hours earlier.

Pleasant rafting weather

Really - there was no reason to complain at all, especially for an outdoor experience in late November.

And the rain that had come down in the previous day turned out to be a hidden bonus, since the river had a bit more water, which made the rafting more interesting. (Even though, looking at the marks on the river bank, it can get a lot higher in the main rafting season.)

The rapids on the river were moderate, going from class 1 to 3. So it was a fun trip, not a 'Will we make it without injuries?' kind of trip.

Which is fine by me.

First rapid ahead Entering the rapid In the first rapid In the first rapid In the first rapid

The river is nicely 'paced', with short rapids followed by a stretch of a few hundred meters of calm water before the next rapid came up.

Calm river section

And on to the next rapid.

In the second rapid In the second rapid In the second rapid
In the second rapid In the second rapid In the second rapid

On a calm stretch after a couple of rapids, the guide mentioned that you could also do the rapids outside the boat and it would be kind of a good training in case we would be capsize in a rapid. If you intentionally go down the rapid on your own, at least it takes out the element of surprise and you can concentrate on doing it properly (as opposed to floating there all confused, thinking "What happened?"). Also, you don't need to look for the paddle. (Generally, if you fall in, you should try not to lose your paddle, as that is difficult to retrieve when it floats down the river. You rather let go of the boat than of the paddle, since the boat is easier to catch up with.)

I was a bit surprised that there is no one 'proper' way to float down a rapid.

When I was rafting in Greece a couple of years ago, we did a short "what to do when you fall in" exercise and the advice was that you float feet forward, legs stretched out and stay rigid as possible.

Floating on Lousios River

Here the rule was similar, but not identical. Instead of stretching out both legs, you keep on leg stretched out in front of you (so you can push away from any obstruction you might float towards), but the other leg was bent at the knee and pointing down.

The reasoning behind that otherwise your lower back would be the lowest part in the water, so when you would go over a rock under the surface, you would hit it with your rump. With one leg bent down, you would hit it with the foot first, so you could push away or at least know it was there.

It makes kind of sense, but it is a bit surprising that something as essential as avoiding to get hurt when floating down a rapid has no clearly agreed on 'best practice'.

In any case, it didn't matter much, as I didn't hit any rock when going down the rapid.

And it turned out that even Class 2 rapids look much more impressive if you're not in a raft, but (in this case literally) up to your neck in it. Sometimes it gets (literally as well) right over your head...

Floating down a rapid

In the end, the floating down with the river turned out to be the easy part. The tricky bit is getting back into the boat. Nothing really solid to get a grip and everything is wet and slippery. That's where it was convenient to have a guide to pull me in.

Getting back onto the canoe is difficult

Back in the boat, we went through a couple more rapids.

Paddling down a rapid Paddling down a rapid

There were also a few quiet bits in between and we also had a quick look at the local birdlife, such as the egret flying over us.

Enjoying paddling on the river Egret over river

But as this was canoe rafting, the next rapids weren't far away.

Paddling down a rapid Paddling down a rapid Paddling down a rapid Paddling down a rapid

At about halfway point, we had a short stop on the shore for a quick snack and some bottled water.

Rest area

Then it was back to the river and into the rapids again.

While the first time of leaving the boat and swimming in the river was intentional, the second time wasn't.

We went down this (fairly easy) rapid.

Harmless looking rapid

The rapid itself was no problem, but the water then hits a rock (the one in the middle left of the picture) and is diverted mostly to the left. So all you need to do is stay in the main current and everything is fine.

What you should avoid is to stay on the outer edge of the current and be pinned by it to the rock.

Because, what than might happen is that both people in the boat might try to paddle on the same side (as there is a rock on the other) and if the canoe leans a little sideways into the water, and the river pushes against one side, with this result:

Falling into the river Falling into the river

At least I didn't let go of the paddle...

Getting out of the situation went without a problem.

The guide and I were now floating in the main current, so we were swept away from the rock and down the river (pulling the boat with us), so we just waiter until we were in calm waters again, turned the canoe the right side up and got into it.

A short stretch of calm water and on into the next rapid, this time without any problem.

Another rapid down the river

After a couple more of these, I could see a bridge coming up ahead, signifying the end of the tour.

Bridge over river

Rafting tours often start and end near bridges as they are usually good access point for cars to drop and pick up the rafters. Partly because bridges are obvious points where rivers and streets cross, but also since there are often some access paths down to the river from the time where the bridge has been built.

So all that was left to do was to find a convenient spot to land, get the canoes on solid ground, deflate them and wait for being picked up.

Second raft ready to pass us Canoe pulled on shore End of the rafting trip

Once back at their location, it was time for a bit of a rest and a short lunch before going to the next attraction, the 'Fantasticable'.


The 'Fantasticable' is a zipline that begins somewhere up the hill across the valley.

Zipline over valley

The zipline is the cable to the right. The line with the red and white balls is just to keep planes from flying into it.

I had done a really long zipline in Brazil the previous year, which was almost two kilometers long (1900 meters of cable). The one here in Portugal 'only' has 1538 meters cable length, but from a practical point of view, it doesn't make much of a difference. (In Brazil, you are at most 130 meters above the ground during the ride, while in Portugal the biggest distance to the ground is 150 meters. That doesn't make much of a practical difference either.)

What makes a bit of a difference is the position you fly in.

In Brazil, you wear a normal climbing harness and fly in a 'sitting' position.

Here you are on the zipline in a lying position, which gives more of 'flying' feeling.

It is also a bit more aerodynamic, so you travel at slightly higher speeds. (About 110 km/h, while Brazil had about 95 km/h. I thought at first that might be to the altitude difference between start and end points, but those were about 180 meters in Brazil and 160 meters in Portugal.)

So, all in all, it's about as good as the zipline in Brazil, but a lot closer to home and easier to get to.

You get to wear something that looks a bit like a cooking apron.

Zipline wingsuit

When I looked at it, it seemed mass manufactured. It didn't look like something where someone just built a dozen or so, just for this single purpose. So I asked what it was and it turned out that this is was essentially a wingsuit. Without the wings, obviously, but the same basic structure.

And it doesn't look quite as baggy when you're actually using it. There's a little metal bar (hanging behind my legs) which you push with your legs and which will stretch out the 'apron' into something a little more aerodynamic.

The wheeled 'trolley' is put on the cable and you're suspended from it by a front and a back rope.

You also get a small 'sail' attached to your back, the size depending on your weight and whether you plan to fly with your arms next to your body or whether you will stretch them to the sides.

This will regulate the speed, so that the arrival speed is (reasonably) constant around 45 km/h and you don't stop a couple of meters short of the destination and slide back down the cable to the lowest point.

I asked: Rescue is surprisingly low-tech. If someone slides back down the cable, the guy at the end puts on a climbing harness, puts a trolley on the cable, clips himself in and slides down to the person being stuck. I would have assumed that there is a rope attached to him and he would just clip himself together with the client and someone would pull both of them in. But he just wraps his legs around the ropes above the client and then pulls both of them to the end of the cable, just by pulling himself along the cable. (Which must be hard work, since he obviously need to pull them upwards all the way.)

Once the guide on the top end of the cable has connected all the ropes and made sure that everything is fine, the safety hook is removed from the cable.

Time to fly.

Zipline starting point

The first bit is just skimming over the treetops before, after about two hundred meters, the valley opens up under you and you can enjoy the scenery.

Zipline front view Zipline back view

Nice views and really fun to do.

Zipline fisheye Zipline fisheye

The braking system at the end needed to be effective, since you still arrive at some speed (my speed was between 40 and 50 km/h at the end)

In Brazil, you arrived with about 20 km/h, so it was enough to have a 'brake block' on the cable with a rope at the end that someone held via a pulley (like a belay system). That slowed you down over a couple of meters and then the cable went close enough to the ground that you touched the ground at walking speed and just walked a couple of steps and then stopped.

Other systems for smaller ziplines used padded crash pads or self-braking with a (gloved) hand on the cable.

But all of them are better suited for lower speeds - you don't really want to crash into a (even padded) wall at 50 km/h. And (even with a helmet on) you do not want to hit it head-first anyway.

And as you are in a lying position, there's not much you can actively do anyway.

The braking system is conceptually like the one in Brazil, just more refined.

There's a wooden 'brake block on the cable here as well, but it is connected to four ropes (partly elastic) which are connected to some counterweights that pull you back. The main benefit of this is that the deceleration is controllable, so that the braking is quick, but constant.

It still is a bit worrying the first time - on the first run, the first thought when approaching it was "Should I really still be this fast?" (and you hope that this is not your last thought as well),

And while the stopping is still a bit abrupt, there's no sudden ''deceleration shock', so it isn't uncomfortable.

After arriving and getting back on the ground, I got ready for another go.

Although I needed to wait a bit - the ride itself takes just over a minute, but the driving time between the ends of the cable is about ten minutes, so I needed to wait for the guide from the top end to get back and pick me up again.

But I was in the convenient situation of being the only customer that day, so I could immediately go for the next ride down the cable. In the main season, they can do about 170 rides a day and they fill quickly. So you can end up being able to have just one go. Or find out that you got one at 11:15 and the other at 17:30. While I could just go and say "I want to do another one right now."

As in Brazil, I rode the zipline three times, which seems to me to be the optimum.

Zipline video
(Video, 39 MB, 67 sec.)

Also, sunset was approaching (it was after all November, so the days weren't that long) and there was one more thing I wanted to do while the sun was still up - the 'Alpine Coaster'.

Basically it's like a one-seater rollercoaster (technically it's a 1.5 seater rollercoaster, as you can seat a child in front of you - you have to supply your own kid, though))

The main differences between this and a 'proper' rollercoaster is that roller coasters usually have the lift hill at the start, while here it is at the end of the track. And rollercoasters usually have just one car on the track at any time.

Since this one could have multiple 'sleds' (as they were called) on the track at any time, they were equipped with brakes, so they would not run into each other.

There were also a few safety regulations, so you shouldn't get closer than 25 meters to the sled in front of you and they had warning signs, telling you to break before each section of the track.

As I was the only one around (they unlocked and turned on the attraction specifically for me), I didn't have to worry much about running into someone else, but on the first run, I still obeyed all the 'brake now' signs.

When getting ready for the second run, I mentioned to the guide that this was fun, but a bit slow in parts, so he said "Well, you don't have to brake...",

Advice taken, I didn't brake on the second run at it was much better that way.

This might be a good place to say "Don't try this at home!", but if you got a rollercoaster at home, you probably don't need my advice. The more appropriate rule is "Ask the guide" and if the guide says it's ok, it will be.

Alpine Coaster video
(Video, 35 MB, 59 sec.)

Not the most exciting things of the day (if you start the day with rafting and ziplining 150 meters above the ground, a rollercoaster down a hill is going to have a hard time competing), but a good way to 'ride into the sunset' (even though that was really on the other side of the hill) and finish the activities of the day.

The only thing left to do was to drive back to the 'tree house', have a nice dinner at the nearby restaurant and go to sleep while watching the stars above.

Quite a good day.

Next morning, the only thing that was left was to drive away through the foggy landscape.

Foggy valley in Portugal

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