Hills and Head Space: Learning to Relax in North Portugal

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

Henry Miller

The main difference with heading off on a two week jolly, rather than a period of travelling, is the amount of time you allow yourself to relax.

During my five month adventure, I found it difficult to allow time just “for me.” I realise this seems at odds with the whole concept of “solo travel” and, you know, the fact that I was often travelling alone, but I felt guilty when I didn’t go out and explore the beautiful areas I was luckily enough to visit, so I didn’t take that much time out.

Besides, no-one can really relax in a hostel dorm, can they!?

As mentioned in my previous blog post, my accommodation in Penela is simply stunning and the home of my good friend – and housemate’s – mum and partner. It’s such a beautiful part of the world – all winding hills and blue skies – and I am truly lucky to be able to spend so much time here.

It’s a different pace of life, this holiday malarkey. I wake up in the morning – naturally, no alarm – with the sunshine streaming through curtains left slightly ajar, and I feel rested, content. I feel happy. Then I meander down to the kitchen where I make a strong coffee, pick up my book and head out towards the terrace. There’s nothing on the itinerary but relaxation.

Now I don’t know about you lot, but I can often struggle with this. I’m not used to simply doing nothing. I like to explore the place where I am staying, obsessively, often by foot and often for hours at a time. As it turns out, it is not “nothing” that I am doing; I am having “me time,” I am chilling out. It is the crux of the holiday, this chill out, and I must admit, I feel pretty fantastic for it. It was exactly what I needed before heading back to Manchester and starting the great search for a job.

The weather has been pretty fantastic, making for excellent conditions to sit out and sunbathe.

Having said all this, we woke up yesterday to a particularly overcast day, and didn’t feel much like hitting the pool and the aforementioned flaming ball of fire in the sky seemed to be taking a siesta of its own. After ten days of chilling out, it was time for a bit of adventure, not to mention exercise since I’ve done nothing but shove roll, after donut, after crisp in my mouth. So with that in mind we headed into Coimbra for an explore.

Navigating the streets of Coimbra proved to be quite amusing, but we safely found a car park and headed into the old town.

Walking down the city’s narrow, windy side streets is a bit like stepping back in time. The buildings are narrow, colourful, some look like they’ve been decorated with tiles from an ornate bathroom, others are duck-egg blue or pistachio green. The pavement is made up of cobblestones and is incredibly dusty. You may even occasionally come across a pattern in the cobbles.

Coffee in Portugal is cheap. Not only is it cheap but is strong and far tastier than anything you could possibly order in Starbucks. I ordered a coffee crema from a vintage tea room and it came in a small espresso type glass with a tonne of whipped cream and powdered chocolate. It was delicious – not bad for 90c.

 

Surprisingly Coimbra has a fair amount of street art. However, unlike cities like Melbourne, Berlin and even London, there seems to be no real desire to keep this isolated to one place or even make a feature out of it. As I have mentioned before, I really like unusual street art, posters or even the odd bit of graffiti and I really liked the juxtaposition of modernity and old world.

Coimbra is full of winding alleyways and steep flights of steps – be warned, flip flops will be dusty and the descent back to the main city streets will be slippy and perilous.

Having said this, the journey to the top of these streets is worth it for the beautiful buildings you’ll find and the abosulutey stunning views.

Tip: If Museums aren’t your bag, you should still enter the grounds of the university museum as the viewing platform offers a perfect vantage point for snaps.

Follow the signs for the university on the way up, and you will be directed to a stunning cathedral building. During your stroll through Coimbra you may spot students dressed in what looks like Harry Potter style garb (capes and all). This is the traditional uniform of the students who attend this prestigious university (the oldest in the world) and, although you might be surprised to see so many around during the summer months, they are usually selling postcards and bookmarks to fund their overseas Erasmus years. If a student moves to stop you, take the time to talk to them and hear about their trips – they only ask for a small donation and will chat to you and answer questions about their city.

Have you ever visited Coimbra? What did you think? How do you like to explore cities? Do you have any recommendations of things to do in the Coimbra area? Do you find it difficult to relax when travelling and are you always on the go?

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Perfect Portugal: Porto, Panela and Coimbra

“It’s bloody hot” has become a phrase we’re all used to shouting out since we arrived in Portugal. “It’s like being on the surface of the sun,” is another. And, while we’re all often prone to exaggeration, it is quite possibility the hottest place I’ve travelled to in a while. Despite the searing high temperatures in Bali, nothing can quite top the ball of fire currently raging above in the sea-blue skies of Portugal. As I write this I am currently stashed away in the air-conditioned dining area of my accommodation – the new home of my friends’ mother and partner, a two building villa-type-affair complete with pool and an acre of lush green land – hiding from the heat.

Its 5 pm and the temperature is still a just-about-bearable 37 degrees.

Hidden high in the hills, approximately 40 minutes outside the historical town of Coimbra (home to the world’s oldest – and Portugal’s most prestigious – university, Panela is a sleepy, traditional haven where the friendly locals speak very limited English but are more than happy to engage in a lengthy chat with you anyway (after a slow walk back from the local shop with my friends’ mother’s neighbour, Aminda, we’d learned through lots of pointing, gesturing and guesswork, that her daughter was currently holidaying in the Algarve, she was about to have a knee operation in September and, most importantly, we were walking on the wrong side of the road and into oncoming traffic)

While this particular holiday is more about spending time with great friends and lounging by the pool (oh and also dog sitting two very beautiful Portuguese puppies which was one of the main reasons my friend is holidaying here for two weeks and we get to tag along) we have also done a bit of sight-seeing. Luckily for us, my friends mother very kindly left us the use of her car to get around the area (being high up in the hills and all) and my friend, Jess, has picked up driving with ease despite the insane driving methods of some of the people on the roads.

Our first road trip was to the nearby town of Panela where a local market is held every day (think more east-end stall full of questionable dresses and wicker baskets and less fresh-food markets). Navigating the sloping hills and tiny, bendy roads – not to mention finding a parking space close to the market and the nearby castle – was an adventure in itself but completely worth it once we’d parked up and began to explore the area.

Panela is beautiful. Full of cobbled streets and blanketed with traditional orangey-red topped buildings, it’s a bit like stepping back in time. After exploring the market we decided to head up to the castle as we’d been told the view was pretty stunning. And it didn’t disappoint.

The castle appears as if from nowhere, just above the rooftops of one of the sunny cobbled streets. Although not large in stature, the castle is full of charm and takes only a few minutes to walk around. The views from the highest point are stunning and worth the short trek.

There are a few cafes dotted around the town but the locals seem to congregate around the three small catering vans at the entrance to the market, sitting on plastic white chairs and chatting animatedly to one another. The smell of roast chicken permeates the air, wafting deliciously from the metal carts serving as rotisseries for mouth-watering chickens which the locals eat along with fresh bread and red wine (all before 11 am). Although we didn’t get to try this particular chicken, we did head towards one of these vans where – in broken Spanglish and much gesticulating – we ordered strong espresso from the smiling woman behind the counter, then sat and listened to the hum of people going about their everyday lives, chatting and working. My favourite way to spend time when travelling somewhere new.

Have you visited Portugal recently? What did you think? Have you holidayed somewhere remote and local? Do you prefer spending time absorbed in local life or do you prefer bustling cities and bright lights?  Get in touch and leave a comment below or come say hello over at Facebook or Twitter (@EmmaYatesBadley)