Madam…We only serve Champagne.

These words were uttered by the barman at the Doha Business Class Lounge- and of course madam was only too happy to drink champagne, instead of sparkling wine! The lounge was enormous and offered fabulous food and drink. We spent our time like Ancient Romans lying on the couches and showering ( and eating and drinking) ..probably the Ancient Romans were not that into showering after a long flight or a bit of conquering. Just saying.

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But it was not without some dramas. Initially we were going to spend our 20 hours visiting Doha which we had to have a visa for… Ahh!!..  but dear traveller, you could not get a visa before 30 days of travel.We had been travelling for months, so I had to apply with my trusty ipad 30 days before, on this antiquated application system embedded into Qatar Air. Surprise , surprise it would not accept my highly attractive passport photo-the one that makes me look like and escaped mental patient out on an evening spree. I travel with my ipad only. Well there I was half way through this cumbersome application and there was no way I could minimize the photo on their system.I am sure all you computer nerds could do it, but I was unable to progress…so no visa for Doha.

I am posting totally random photos in this post of our trip as photos of the Doha Airport are not that riveting.

Sagrada Familia Barcelona

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Then I foolishly thought I will contact them…uh-uh…you can not contact them. They never answered the phone in Madrid( the only office in Spain) and never, never replied to the emails. They just sent me these standard replies..”Thank you for your email. ” “Our staff are processing this” Liar Liar, pants on fire! This was from the customer service department, or Lack of Customer Service as I like to call it. Weeks went by and still no response.Then I sent a fax, -no reply-and the day before we left Barcelona  mysteriously our visas were granted.

Girona-the Jewish Quarter

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Our first flight from Barcelona to Doha was held up by hours because (and I find this hard to believe) the ground staff had lost the paperwork! Things were not looking good. Their partners are Sri-Lankan Air and I think we were on that section. They took to poking us to feed us on the 6 hour journey, just as we had gotten to sleep. We arrived in Doha super jet-lagged and disorientated from the poking.

Dali Museum

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Then we had to clear security to GET OFF the plane, as obviously everyone had found a bomb on board. The full catastrophe..belts and shoes off and my knees that go BING had to be checked. We stumbled into the Business Class Lounge and then foolishly thought we would use our hard earned visas to check out Doha. There was 3 hour bus tour that sounded fantastic, which was booked out at 7.00 am!! But Hey you can catch a bus to the Souk instead. Through security yet again.

Poblenou Beach full moon

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Then we were blasted by the super hot temperatures.. I thought I was on Mars and after 5 minutes ( sweating profusely and swaying in the heat, mixed with jetlag) of waiting for the bus that might arrive in the next hour, we decided to call it quits and crawled back into the safety and  air-conditioned comfort of the lounge. Joy of Joys..through security yet again.

Feeling a bit miffed by this stage. I was hoping they would have offered me a camel or a diamond by now, for all the inconvenience. I forgot to add that after our visa kerfuffle I was sent copious apologies, – and I WAS expecting a camel as an act of good faith. Nothing- we couldn’t even get on the bus tour! Then I discovered afterwards they offer free hotel accommodation to entice the tourists in! We did not get such an offer.

Bussaco Palace..OMG is the spelling correct?

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However the Business Class Lounge made up for the disappointment. We found the ‘quiet area’ where there were rooms with lounges, showers and food..did I mention champagne..

To summarise the trip..and I would really like to hear other seniors opinions. so please comment.

  •  Driving was a huge hassle-as Australian seniors, we did  not understand the tolls and it was very expensive when you added everything up. (tolls, GPS and insurance) Some of the narrow tiny lanes in the villages were almost impossible to navigate -It was far cheaper and stress free to use public transport which was very good in Portugal: and then there is Senior’s Discount which is 50%! I did hear some horror stories about the French Railways.

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  • Portugal is still cheaper than Spain, but prices are going up rapidly.
  • Avoid major capital cities unless you like navigating large groups of European Bogans on their pensioner bus trips.
  • AIRBNB is no longer the cheapest accommodation now they are adding all their extra fees.
  • Favourite places..well Monsanto was up there as well as Bussaco Palace, Afurada the fishing village and the Stroganov Hotel and the dolmen in the middle of no-where…loved that dolmen…IMG_6188
  • How does one ring Australia when using a local sim on a mobile and staying in an Airbnb with no landline phone? In particular a 24 hour secure bank or insurance number? I could not do it on skype or messenger on my ipad. I have since  been informed that the Australia Post has a viable and good option.
  • The crowds on the move are becoming horrendous and taking the pleasure away from travel. In the early 70’s it was just the adventurous hippy types and the very rich who travelled and now everyone is doing it. Cruise ships disgorge 1, 000’s at each destination, sometimes 3-4 ships at one time. It does not cost much for retired Europeans to take a bus tour to other parts of Europe , and they do.

The big burning question..is where to go next??Asia does not really appeal but I like to escape Australia in our winter..Any ideas?

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DALI in MY MY MY GIRONA and POBLENOU BEACH.

imageDali’s Theatrical Museum in Figueres is a few hours out of Barcelona, and on the way we also visited the incredible medieval city of Girona. Apparently it is now famous for having been the latest setting for Game of Thrones , which I have never seen! It is also where the book ‘Perfume’ was set.

imageThe Jewish Quarter has been preserved since the Inquisition when the Jews were expelled until post Franco. The warren of narrow streets were blocked, and surprisingly only unblocked in the mid seventies! Quite incredible. The perfect setting for the Game of Thrones.

imageGirona was settled by the Romans and the city walls are built on the early Roman stones. Intricate cobblestoned roads and pathways add extra intrigue to this quaint town on the River Onya. The architecture is a mixture of Roman, Gothic and Medieval.. It also was a pleasant respite from the very crowded, pushy and HOT Barcelona.

imageThen it was on to Dali’s town of Figueres and his Theatrical Museum. Probably not as shocking or outrageous as it was when he opened it..and NO we did not see The El Gran Mastubador. The museum was overcrowded and very hot..full of pushy sweaty tourists, which I am sure Dali would have enjoyed. The cadillac was at the entrance.imageMuch of his better work was missing from the exhibits, but there was still plenty to see, and plenty of other tourists to push. His jewellery was quite impressive. We were on a day tour and met a NZ couple who were impressed that The Panama Hat looked like Kif Richards. We thought they were bogan farmers from NZ, but apparently they were huge Rolling Stones fans..you never can tell.

imageWe then moved to Poblenou Beach and a quaint B and B one block back from the beach. It was complete bliss after Barcelona which was crowded, hot and hassly. In fact I think I will avoid majot tourist towns from now on as I find it all so unpleasant and not an enjoyable experience at all. I am so glad I travelled a lot when younger, and experienced a lot of fabulous places without other tourists.

imagePoblenou Beach is about 30 minutes out of Barcelona and is becoming the ‘IT’ area. A former working class industrial location by the sea, now being renovated and renewed. It is so hip ALL the lifesavers on the beach have man buns.The Ramblas was authentically local,  with no touts or tourist hustle. Locals strolled the promenade and sat discussing the local goss. There were outdoor tables festooning the shady Ramblas, whereas the city was just so HOT.

imageThe beach was packed until the full moon was up and shining. No-one seemed to have a job to go to the next day. Music was blaring and the party was happening, but we couldn’t stay up after a jug of sangria.

imageNow we are off to Doha..waiting in the Qatar Air lounge and winging our way home… Cheers!

GAUDY GAUDI in BEAUTIFUL BARCELONA.

imageMy last day in Porto there was the usual thick blanket of sea mist, that pervades the coast of Portugal, where the Atlantic meets the rivers. A micro- climate, but an hour away it can be scorchingly hot. The large intimidating seabirds squark and swoop, they are much larger than our seagulls.

I stayed in a chain hotel which I rarely do..The Novotel,at Porto Gaia  and I enjoyed the air-conditioning and the pool, but probably not the crying children. It is very much a family hotel, and I did feel out of place on my own.

I also spent a lot of time in shopping malls, trying to sort out IT problems. For me this has been the most frustating aspect of travelling as a senior..when things go wrong. Apparently the Apple man told me, you should never upgrade your IOS on hotel WIFI (did you know that) . I jammed my phone yet again, by doing what the settings told me to do! Aahhh!

Then I had been attempting to contact Qatar Air to sort out a transit visa, which would not upload with an ipad. You can not contact these people. They never answer the phone, and do not reply to emails. It is like so many of these online organisations( airbnb and uber etc) everything is fine until you have a problem and then you can not speak to anyone. We may well be sitting in Doha airport for 24 hours!

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Barcelona is HOT , and as expected very crowded, and far more expensive than Portugal. Las Ramblas no longer has the multitude of performers and musicians, apparently they now have to pass an audition to perform.. But the drinks are still expensive, I had the most expensive glass of sangria ever!

The bus tours, while touristy and kitschy, always orientate me to a city. We did it on the day it rained…oh those weather gods! But it was still very humid, and the photos are very dull indeed. When it is not raining the heat is overwhelming, and we tend to hide indoors in the afternoon.

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Park Guell was so horrendously hot- all that cement, I thought I would faint among the millions of tourists, all pushing and yabbering. All tickets to the Gaudi sites are now bought online to ensure you can get in, at an extra 5 euros a go. Park Guell was once free. I just managed to get a ticket for 3.30.. Very much mad dogs and tourists out in the Spanish sun.

imageimageLa Pedrera was a little less frantic and was cool inside, except on the roof…ooff it was hot. His mosaicked ventilation shafts and huge attic acted as great insulation. What a fabulous set of apartments they were. Of course I had to go to Sagrada Familia, and only just got a ticket for that. They were turning very disgruntled people away who had not booked. It was still a bunfight and the skip the queue tickets still required queuing in the sun..well that was money well spent!!

imageimageWe knew it wouldn’t be the best time to visit Barcelona, and it has been way too hot and frantic. I am also a bit over cheap paella, sangria and tapas. We are moving to a beach suburb of Poblenou which should offer some respite, but first we will visit Dali in Figueres.

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WILLY WONKA in VIANA do CASTELO.

After a decadent and opulent might at Bosacco Palace we came down to earth by catching the train ( seniors special) to Porto and then a second train to Viana do Castelo in the ,Minho,  at the top of Portugal. It was so easy, cheap and stress free compared to hiring and driving a car in Europe.

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Viana do Castelo was once a Roman settlement- hence the origins of its name- Diana. It has a beautiful medieval centre with Rococo and Manueline architecture. It is also popular with pilgims on the walk, the Caminho de Santiago, and the home of umbrella street. How can you not love a town with umbrella festooning the narrow cobbled lanes. I remember the name of this town by thinking of Australia’s athlete Rob de Castello.

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It has a pronounced folkloric tradition of crimson and gold regional costumes, especially during the Festival of Our Lady of Sorrows complete with huge puppets or gigatones, and big heads or  besudos. The happens in August and we were lucky enough to see some early marches leading up this event. Even the Portuguese bagpipes.

image We were booked into the O  Laranjeira and arrived after a long journey at the Hotel Laranjeira, which looked the same on google maps. They are two separate establishments, back to back but owned by the same family.. We had a huge altercation with the owners son, after he had ignored us for 20 minutes. I had the audacity to interupt his Portuguese male pontification and demand his attention. He went ballistic and the family threw us out! I thought afterwards it might have been for our own safety as he was like Faulty Towers on acid.They also refused to tell us where our hotel was. It was very distressing, disturbing and frightening and we nearly went to the police.

We found the other hotel in the next street and wished we hadn’t. It was up 3 flights of stairs and small and noisy. The Panama, after one night in a palace was picky, picky, picky!

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We were not feeling overjoyed with Viana do Castelo at this stage, but it really is a very quaint town. Then the weather gods who can be complete bastards, decided over a game of pool, to change the weather to cold and wet. It had been scorchingly hot in the interior of Portugal and we were looking forward to some beach time on the coast. There was nothing we could do but drag out the leggings and jumpers.

After 3 days which we had booked, we were able to move out to the fabulous and wacky Chocolate Factory or the Fabrica do Chocolate. How we wanted the Willy Wonka room, but we got the Dali room, apparently he loved chocolate. It was wonderful- quiet, comfortable huge beds and magnificent food,, including gluten free for the Panama. In many places we had to drag our own stale gluten free bread along, even the beer has gluten in it.

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We caught the funicular to the top of the hills. It is reputedly the steepest ascent in the country. We were not there to see the church but the Celtiberiann ruins of a Citania, or fortifed village and the stunning view of the Lima River and the coast. Portugal is not good with signs for tourists and we had trouble locating it because it was CLOSED for a 2 hour lunch break! Who does that? No information, it just what we were told by the staff at the Pousada. The Pousada was another magnificently expensive hotel with views to die for, but isolated from the town.

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Despite all the setbacks we did like this sleepy town. The Panama ate his way though a mountain of seafood, in particular the Polvo or octopus. We had our morning coffees at the local bakery with gluten free cakes., they got to know us..” Our regular please Antonio.”

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Then back on the train with our seniors discount, to Porto, as the Panama was flying out to Sweden for a week. This time we stayed in a fantastic part of town near all the hipster bars and the famous Lello Library..Livraria Lello, a Gothic 1906 building whereJK Rowling supposedly gained her inspiration for Hogwarts. As a result it is tourist central with queues and a 4 euro admittance fee. I am still highly amused that her first Portuguese husband must be regretting his divorce. It all happened before she became a success, and he was violent drug addict.

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Our hotel was another mistake..you win some, you lose some. Tripadvisor reviews are not always accurate. It was the Grande Hotel de Paris, one of the oldest hotels in Porto which in our opinion was no longer grand, but with a bit of money poured into it, it could be Grande indeed. They refused to guarantee a quiet room as the reviews had mentioned noise from the trendy bars, but we did get a quiet room out the back. It was all very antiquated and twee. The lift didn’t always work- we got stuck in it twice. Towards the end they jammed a bit if wood in it to make it work..high tech. Of course they did not supply gluten free, which was disappointing, as it wasn’t cheap.

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Our final night in Porto was spent at a Fado performance and a magical dinner overlooking the Douro River watching the Ribera old town light up. It was finally a warm night,and the crowds tumbled over the promenade, sauntering in and out of the many bars and cafes lining the river.

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Next stop..BarTHelona…

 

 

 

RUSSIAN BORDELLOS and BUSSACO PALACE.

imageContinuing on with our trusty driver- (making our journey so much easier and about the same price as a hire car) we travelled through small Portuguese villages with low stone walls, ancient vineyards and olive trees. The sleepy towns were deserted, except for a few old widows and shepherds.

We were off to the Stroganov Hotel near Oliveira do Hospital, but actually located in a small hamlet of Fiais de Beira, way off the normal tourist trail. I had found this hotel on the internet and the decor was so amazing, that I just had to stay there. The Stroganov Hotel was once owned by a Russian Officer Grigory Alexandrovich Stroganoff who had fallen in love with a Portuguese aristocrat Juliana de Almeide e Oyenhausen.While it is supposed to celebrate their love story, Juliana died in 1864 and the house was built in 1898, so the dates do not match, but it makes a good yarn.

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The little village of Fiais da Beira is in the middle of nowhere, but the restored mansion is magnificent. It is a Trompe -l’oeil fantasy. Frida Kahlo meets a Russian Bordello, and it is so over the top and just bordering on bad taste, almost in the syle of ‘NARCOtecture ‘ the tacky taste of drug barons. We loved it.

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No expense has been spared on the restoration. We suspect a bit of Russian mafia money as there was no-one else there. It was bit weird eating in the fabulous restaurant, alone. Portugal is full of these crumbling mansions waiting to be restored and if I was 20 years younger I would be restoring one, probably in the Algarve. The gold plastic, the ornate tiles, embroidered jewels, satin drapes and vibrant colour schemes made it one of the most unusual places I had stayed in.

imageHowever the real highlight for me was stumbling across the Anta da Caveda an ancient stone dolmen or burial chamber, reputedly  6,000 years old, just sitting at the edge of a vineyard. We had to really search to find it , and we walked past it twice. There are no signs or information.

imageWe stumbled around very old pathways and vineyeards, past crumbling stone walls, and ancient wells, long forgotten. It was a magical mysterious path to the dolmen. We had just about given up, as the directions we were given were sketchy, and then we found it! Originally they were covered by earth and grass so they were more hidden. Some believe they were not burial chambers but energy transmitters. Either way we were blown away by it. There were no other tourists, in fact the fields were deserted. I had seen dolmens in other parts of the Celtic world which were crawling with busloads of tourists, but Portugal has not succumbed to this as yet.

But there was more to come. Our driver whizzed us on toBussaco Palace. This would be my second visit to this amazing hotel, once the hunting lodge of the last king of Portugal.

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It was a scorching hot Saturday afternoon, and the forest and moss covered grottos of the palace grounds were crawling with tour groups and picnicking locals. It was cool in the shady nooks and by the magical lakes and hidden waterfalls.

imageBut we  were not alone. There was a huge wedding in progress and part of the palace had been sectioned off, which was annoying. Always check for weddings when booking at the palace! ..old Portuguese saying!

The palace is decorated in the Manueline style with amazing blue and white azulejos of Portuguese explorations and naval battles, intricate marble stairs,suits of armour and has a slightly shabby but classy air. Thankfully our room was far away from the wedding reception.

imageWe had a stunning dinner in the refined elegant dining room, we chose to eat outside in the conservatory, and a bottle of the Bussaco Vintage wine. We met some interesting fellow travellers while being entertained by the wedding guests and their drone. What is a wedding without a drone!

imageThe next day our driver took us to Coimbra where we caught two trains to Viana do Castelo at the top of Portugal, in the Minho. Please note I had to prove we were seniors this time to get our discount!

ROCKING ON in MONSANTO.

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What an unfortunate name- Monsanto! Stone houses which merge into the massive boulders, strewn and lodged high up on the hillside. Picnic at Hanging Rock ( the movie) meets Fred Flintstone. It is believed that neolithic culture was able to take root and  shelter here, in the safety of its many caves and crannies. Then came the Romans, the Visigoths and the Moors. So many ancient battles were fought on this hillside and in the medieval Knights Templar castle which sits atop this eerie village.

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The rocks absorb the heat, and it was 40 degrees in the Idan- A- Nova in the interior of Portugal. We climbed the hill to the castle at 7.00 pm when we thought it was cooling down..6 random crazy tourists out in the heat. We were not prepared for radiated heat from the rocks and we were delighted we were not storming the castle, as we had to have little rests on the way up! The showoff millenials raced past us..as we huffed and puffed in senior style.

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Monsanto is very isolated and is very hard to get to without a car. We were fortunate  enough to get a driver to take us there and back, for a reasonable price. It was STRESS  FREE and we didn’t kill each other attempting to read the GPS on a manual car on the other side of the road..and then there was nowhere to park in the village. Our driver owned the B and B we stayed in, or his maiden aunts owned it and relied on him to speak English. He was also a middle-aged bachelor who was firmly under the thumb of the ‘Aunties’. They also had long conversations with us in Portuguese oblivious to the fact we understood very little. In fact I think they spoke in a dialect.

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The village is inhabited by elderly folk as all the young ones have left to find work in the cities. The years of isolation have made the town a little weirdly introverted and insular. However tourism is now starting to make an impact on the place and many of the old historic ‘schist’ houses are being restored. A few old ladies sat in the shade of the boulders making small dolls to flog to tourists.

Restaurants were hard to find, and on the night we were there only one was open, and charging far too much for basic Portuguese fare. AND no sangria..this has been the start of a pattern, and so close to Spain….but Vinho Verde was flowing. There were 20-30 tourists there who would have been miffed if this one restaurant had not been open..another captive audience under the castle.

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Finally the temperature cooled and we were able to stroll through the unusual and picturesque stone walled village,down the dark narrow alleyways and  past the ancient stone crosses( in case you forgot that this was a Christian town) without passing out. Many of the cave house had been used as pigpens but were now on display for the tourists. There is even an Airbnb called the cavehouse, but it requires a 2 night stay, which would be an overkill in place like this. The church has a cockerel on its spire, the symbol for Portugal.

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We had breakfast next morning under the watchful eye of the ‘Aunties’ and many religious artefacts, icons and paintings. We were then driven from this unique village, voted the most Portuguese Village, to Guarda. We were then met by a second driver who took us on to Stroganov Hotel in Fiais da Beira. The Stroganov Hotel resembled a Russian bordello  and is a must visit, just for the experience.

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THEM THAR MOUNTAINS…Guarda, Belmonte and Monsanto.

imageOur last Saturday night in Afurada as the sun set over the Atlantic. We had a stunning fresh fish meal overlooking the Douro River- ‘ Cataplana’ the  traditional Portuguese fish stew. Fado music drifted across the river, as the bridge and the banks of the Foz do Douro lit up. Families had set up makeshift outdoor table settings on the footpath, and old fishermen were carousing in the boys only cafe, sternly watched over by the black widows from their window

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We then caught the bus to Guarda the highest town in Portugal. It sits atop the mountains to spy on those pesky Spanish and Moors. Established in 1197.

We were highly offended yet again to be instantly granted the Seniors discount, no proof required! What are they thinking?After a cool and drizzly week near the ocean, it was searingly hot up in the Sierra de Estrella.

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The owners of the Hotel Santos which was the best accommodation available, were eccentric. As it seems, is everyone else we have encountered in ‘them thar mountains’. We put it down to the long winters, as in winter it is blanketed in snow.

Very little English is spoken here and the locals insisted on these long verbose one-sided conversations in Portuguese. The owner of the Hotel Santos, a frail old woman insisted on lugging our suitcases, despite our objections while engaging in a long and complicated conversation which we clearly did not have a clue about. The hotel is built into the old castle walls, and the foundations on the inside appeared to be almost Roman.

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Later that evening we got lost yet again, while attempting to locate the Dom Garfo Restaurant which was highly recommended on the Old  Trippy. I am starting to hate google maps and smart arse millenials who can use them. Go in a SW direction down Rua de Gama. I have no idea where SW is and the streets are missing their signage. We arrived finally, and encountered another mountain weirdo. The owner immediately ordered us to wash our hands ( with sign language and a bit of pushing). Not only did we look like confused seniors but we also looked like we needed a good wash. And so the night disintegrated.

The only other patrons were an anal American couple who also shared some dismay at the unusual but garralous owner. The handwriiten menu in English did not match the Portuguese menu.. The enthusiastic antics of the owner and his long Portuguese conversations made ordering confusing. We had worked out that lula meant squid, and he was yelling LULA in my ear, because I hadn’t selected anything. Then the rest of the evening he kept rushing over to fill our wine glasses after every sip, with a maniacal grin on his face, while still rabbitting on in Portuguese to the confused 4 tourists.

The main part of Guarda old town is dominated by an intimidating and dark cathedral.

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Guarda has on old medieval town with a sizable old Jewish Quarter, the Judaria. It was mostly deserted and very weirdly spooky. Belmonte also had a secret Jewish population which was maintained up until the 1980’s with the traditions passed down verbally from mother to daughter. The Jews had moved to the more isolated regions of the Sierra da Estrela to escape the Inquisition. In Belmonte we stayed at the Pousada Convento de Belmonte.

 

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The Pousada had been built on the ruins of a 13 th century convent and had a stunning view over the now very HOT plains. It was a pleasant break from airbnb and we revelled in the luxury of a swimming pool while avoiding the quite scary wasps who had take up residence by the pool.

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We then started a dodgy part of our trip, relying on drivers to take us from one town to the next. We had no idea if they would be reliable or punctual, but it has worked out really well and so stress free. We met 2 American ladies over dinner at the Pousada who had got lost repeatedly even with their GPS and a 2 hour drive took them all day.! We no longer felt like the loser seniors who can not read google maps.

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Then finally we were driven to Monsanto…the Fred Flintstone town in our own foot peddled car.. Picnic at Hanging Rock meets early cave houses!