© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.
The Roman temple at Évora, reflected in a rain puddle.
Grapes on the vine, Portugal.
My wife and I were missing our dear friends, the Bustins, whom we met in Abqaiq in 2010 and with whom we had traveled in Syria, Lebanon, South Africa, Tennessee, and California. One year after they moved permanently to Portugal, we planned a two-week visit with them in September 2023.
In their first year living in Portugal, the Bustins have entertained family and friends, taking them to some of the top Portuguese tourist sites in and around Lisbon and the nearby medieval town of Obidos. Ann and I had visited Portugal back in 2007 and had seen many of those same attractions. So, it made sense that we would venture to new places on this trip.
Skilled itinerary planners, the Bustins created a full schedule for our September 2023 fortnight. We were taken to beautiful mainland attractions, including medieval towns, beaches, mountains, monasteries, palaces, a 1,000-year-old university and a cork factory. Mid-way through our visit, we hopped a plane to the Azores Islands, 900 miles due west of Lisbon in the Atlantic Ocean. (Our Azores trip will be given the attention it deserves in Part 2 of this series.)
During our tour, I found the Portuguese language to be particularly difficult. I speak basic Spanish and I’ve been told that my accent is not bad. I thought I would be able to learn some of the language. When I was preparing for the trip, I attempted to master some useful Portuguese words and phrases but failed miserably. Hopefully, this won’t happen to you. But never fear, English is widely spoken all over Portugal.
Our Mainland Itinerary
- Home base, Lourinhã
- Atouguia da Baleia
- Praia do Baleal
- Monastery of Batalha
- Cork factory tour
- Palácio Hotel do Buçaco, Luso
Home Base, Lourinhã
The Bustins live in a beautiful townhouse development with spectacular views of the ocean and the surrounding rural countryside. The sleepy town of Lourinhã, with its shops and restaurants, is minutes away by car. Also nearby, at the bottom of steep cliffs, is Praia Peralta (Peralta Beach).
Ann and Gayle
View from the terrace.
The great room.
Atouguia Da Baleia
This is a sleepy village steeped in history. Notable attractions include the Igreja de São Leonardo (Church of St. Leonard). We strolled across the central plaza where bull fighting took place centuries ago. A kind caretaker showed us around the church, pointed out a whale bone displayed in one corner, and recommended a visit to the town’s museum.
Dating from the 12th century, the Igreja de São Leonardo, in the old town of Atouguia da Baleia, is the oldest Christian church in the municipality of Peniche. According to tradition, this Gothic church dedicated to St. Leonard was built from the bones of a whale that was washed ashore by the ocean. 
Igreja de São Leonardo and the giant whale bone.
Praia Do Baleal
After a short drive, we arrived at a narrow sandy isthmus and waited at a very long traffic light that controls the one-lane road onto and off tiny Baleal island. Soon we found an outside table at the Taberna do Ganhao, recommended by neighbors of the Bustins. At the busy establishment, situated in a prime corner location overlooking the beach, we sat outdoors and ordered their specialty, fresh calamari, paired with Aperol Spritz cocktails. Later we hiked to the north end of the island past the Chapel of Santo Estevao and looked out to the rocky Ilha do Fora.
Baleal beach sits at the opposite end of the wide bay, around 3 miles from the town of Peniche. The sandy beach here connects the island of Baleal to the mainland around 100 metres away. Baleal is a flat clean beach popular with local families and, even more so, surfers. The variety of coastline here means there are waves suitable for all levels of surfers and varied weather conditions. 
Taberna do Ganhao
Ilha do Baleal
Praia do Baleal
Chapel of Santo Estevao
Ilha do Fora
Nazaré, Sitio District
High above the fishing village and tourist town of Nazaré is the Sitio District, a clifftop plaza featuring the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Nazareth church, the Forte de São Miguel Arcanjo (San Miguel Fort) with its magnificent views of Nazaré town and beach.
The Giant Waves of Nazaré
The main attraction of the Sitio District is the view of the coastline and the giant waves that appear in the winter from October to January. A Portuguese surfer, Hugo Vau, is said to have set the world record by surfing a wave 35m (114 feet) high at Nazaré in January 2018. 
The day we visited the sea was calm. We walked down the winding road to the fort that was built in 1577 and visited the museum honoring the surfers who have survived the famously big waves. Surfboards and explanatory plaques line the walls.
Site of the big waves.
Sanctuary of Our Lady of Nazareth
Dominating the large plaza is an ornate hilltop church, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Nazareth. The annual religious festival was taking place that day, and local women were dressed in traditional costume.
Lady of Nazareth church.
Monastery of Batalha
The next day we drove one hour to Batalha and its famous monastery. A masterpiece of Gothic art and designated as a UNCESCO World Heritage Site, the Monastery of the Dominicans of Batalha was built to commemorate the victory of the Portuguese over the Castilians at the battle of Aljubarrota in 1385. It was to be the Portuguese monarchy's main building project for the next two centuries. Here, a highly original, national Gothic style evolved, profoundly influenced by Manueline art, as demonstrated by its masterpiece, the Royal Cloister. 
Monastery of Batalha
Our first overnight venture with the Bustins was to the southern city of Évora, a two-hour drive from Lourinhã. On the way, we stopped to stretch our legs at the small, picturesque village of Arraioslos, known for its tapestry rugs and ceramics. First stop, a visit to a local pasteleria for milk coffees and the traditional pastry called pastel de nata (Portuguese egg custard tart). During our visit, we became quite familiar with these delicious tarts.
We continued to Évora and checked in at the Noble House hotel, which is set in a 17th-century manor along an ancient cobblestone alleyway. Right away we took a walk up the hill to see the Roman Temple and visit the Igreja Dos Lóios and 600-year-old Palacio Cadaval. We saw a contemporary art exhibit at the palacio and the gorgeous azulejos (blue tilework) inside the Igreja Dos Lóios.
The azulejos in Igreja Dos Lóios.
In the city’s historic center, and its highest point, stands the ancient Roman Temple of Évora. Built in the 1st century AD to pay tribute to Emperor Augustus, it served various purposes over the centuries such as the city vault and a slaughterhouse. 
Roman Temple of Évora
Nearby, whitewashed houses surround the Cathedral of Évora, a massive Gothic structure begun in the 12th century. Down the road, the Igreja de São Francisco features Gothic and baroque architecture along with the skeleton-adorned Chapel of Bones.  In the 16th century, Évora was a wealthy city and the cemeteries were taking up valuable real estate. The monks decided to relocate the bones and put them on display based on the ossuary of San Bernadino alla Ossa in Milan, Italy. 
Chapel of the Bones
Cathedral of Évora
Noble House lobby.
Taberna Típica Quarta-feira
My favorite meal in Portugal was at a modest, family-run tavern, down a quiet, residential Évora back street. As we approached the restaurant, we joined a queue. Surprisingly, Chef Joao stood at the threshold, greeting each of the 28 guests lucky enough to have secured a coveted 7:30 p.m. reservation for the single seating that night. With a fixed menu that changes daily, the centerpiece is always the tender black pork. We were brought a continuous parade of dishes, and the waiter kept our wine glasses full. Chef Joao stopped by our table several times to chat and tell us about his family’s history as the evening progressed.
Chef Joao visits our table.
Cork Factory Tour
Before the drive back to Lourinhã we had a private tour booked at a local cork factory. The fascinating process of this time-honored industry was explained in detail. I never realized the wide range of cork quality used in bottling wine and spirits. We learned that cork trees yield their first harvest after 25 years and then farmers wait another nine years for the next harvest. Each tree can live between 150 and 250 years and is harvested around 15 times during its life.  After the tour, we browsed in the gift shop that offers a wide array of items made with cork such as lampshades, purses, and furniture.
Cork factory tour.
Seated on chairs made of cork.
Palace Hotel Do Bussaco
Our last two days in Portugal took us to a remote fairytale palace deep in the mountains to the north near the town of Luso. Our overnight stay and dinner at the Palace Hotel do Bussaco (also “Buçaco”) were spectacular. We felt especially fortunate to have stayed there, as we were told the hotel was to close within days to undergo a major renovation.
The Palace Hotel of Buçaco was built between 1888 and 1907, designed by Italian Luigi Manini in a Romantic, Neo-Manueline style, evoking the 16th-century architecture that characterized the peak of the Portuguese Age of Discovery. 
Palace Hotel do Bussaco
Our final stop was Coimbra and its historic university, founded in 1290, situated in the medieval city center. Classes were in session and students were everywhere dressed in their distinctive Harry Potter-esque uniforms, floor-length black capes clasped at the neck. It was the start of the school year and upperclassmen were overseeing hazing rituals, ordering incoming freshmen to perform embarrassing but harmless tasks. We saw a single-file parade of new students, each bent at the waist and connected by rope, being marched down the street while a particularly verbose upperclassman shouted insults and commands.
Having booked in advance, we visited the King João Library (Biblioteca Joanina) attached to the university. It is one of Europe's best surviving Baroque libraries, displaying 40,000 books. The zealous doorkeeper closes the door at every opportunity to keep the humidity out  and photography is strictly prohibited.
The resident bats — who live in the building, but not the library itself — are well cared for and appreciated. They eat insects, providing a chemical-free way of protecting the books.  I noticed that the tops of books and cabinets were covered by protective tarpaulins to facilitate the cleaning of bat droppings.
Coimbra city and Mondego River.
After an exhilarating and rewarding fortnight, we caught a 3:30 a.m. ride to Lisbon Airport for our return flight to the USA. Obrigado, Bustins, we had a fabulous time!
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Part 2 – Five days in Portugal’s Azores Islands