Exploring the Beauty and History of Central Portugal

Romance is celebrated everywhere in central Portugal but nowhere more so than the beautiful city of Coimbra. Verona in Italy may have the legend of Romeo and Juliet but this former Portuguese capital has the very true story of Pedro and Ines, a tragic tale of royal love, murder and revenge.

In the fourteenth century Prince Pedro, later to become King Peter I of Portugal, fell in love with a Spanish noblewoman, Ines de Castro, much to the horror of his father, King Afonso IV, who resented any Spanish influence on the royal court.

Pedro was forbidden from seeing her and Ines was banished to the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha in Coimbra. But the star-crossed lovers found a way of meeting secretly when Pedro would release a tiny wooden boat into the aqueduct delivering water to the convent.

When she saw it, Ines would go for a walk and meet her love nearby in the gardens of what is now the beautiful five star Hotel das Lagrima. Pedro, whose first wife had died, refused his father’s orders to marry again, instead declaring his love for Ines.

The furious king then ordered the murder of the noblewoman and she was decapitated next to the fountain where they used to meet. Devastated Pedro later hunted down two of the three killers and tore their hearts out claiming they had shattered his own heart.

Legend has it that when he became king in 1357, two years after Ines’ murder, Pedro had her body dug up and made the Portuguese nobility swear allegiance to their “queen.” The story of Pedro and Ines was immortalised by numerous poets of the time and there have been 20 operas written about their doomed love.

Today romantics can visit the hotel and see the small irrigation ditch where Pedro would release his little boats and the fountain where they would meet.

Coimbra also has a 15-day Love Festival every July enhancing its reputation as one of the romance capitals of the world. And foreign couples, particularly Americans and Brazilians, are flocking to the city to get married.

Romance is a word you hear constantly in this beautiful region northeast of Lisbon where the rolling hills are covered in olive groves, vineyards and lush orchards.

The hotels we visited on a recent trip were some of the most romantic imaginable, including the beautiful Palace of Bussaco, a wondrous fairy tale castle in the middle of an enchanted forest.

Built between 1888 and 1912 for the last Portuguese kings, it was converted into a luxury hotel in 1917 and is adorned inside with magnificent tiled frescos and gothic arches. Regarded as one of the most beautiful hotels in the world, it was one of the highlights of our trip, even though we only paid a flying visit.

We began our journey by flying into Lisbon on a direct Aer Lingus flight from Dublin before taking the two hour road trip to Coimbra.

Tucked away in the cobbled streets of this lovely city of 140,000 people is the ultra-modern and stylish Sapientia Hotel Books and Wine, where we enjoyed glasses of prosecco on its roof terrace under a clear blue sky before sitting down to a gorgeous lunch.

We enjoyed a selection of three soups served in glasses, French garlic, carrot and green vegetable, followed by chicken on a bed of chunky fries and greens, and finished off with cheesecake.

The 22 rooms in this trendy boutique establishment are all named after Portuguese writers and poets and are individually decorated, some with works of the authors on the walls. The Portuguese, like the Irish, take great pride in their cultural heritage.

Next stop was the nearby University of Coimbra, a World Heritage Site and the oldest university in the country dating back to 1537. It is home to 24,000 students.

During a walking tour we took in the Royal Chapel of St Michael, the magnificent Royal Palace and the 184-step University Tower dating from 1732 which has great views over the city.

We were booked into the Hotel Quinta das Lagrimas, home to the Pedro and Ines love story and a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group.

Built in an 18th Century palace with 12 acres of lush gardens, it has been operating as a hotel for 24 years with a new spa wing added in 2004. It has become a major wedding destination and has its own chapel for civil ceremonies.

The name Lagrimas means tears and so the hotel, and a fountain behind it, commemorate the Pedro and Ines story.

Dinner was a wonderful array of courses, starting with prawns in a crisp batter, smoked duck magret, with beet, mushroom macaron and tapioca, followed by nectar foam and “Queijo da Serra.

Next day saw us drive further inland for a walk in the Bussaco National Forest and our visit to the Palace, mentioned above.

We then drove to the remote village of Marialva, only 30km from the Spanish border, where our home for the night was the unique Casas do Coro, a mini- village of individually and beautifully designed stone houses and cabins, some painstakingly restored from older buildings, filled with antiques and quirky furniture.

Guests enjoying the outdoor pool in summer can marvel at views of the Castle and its walls which dominate this small village.

It was dark when we arrived so we had to leave a tour of the 13th Century ruins until the following morning and concentrate on dinner in front of a roaring log fire in the cosy restaurant.

One word of advice, the village is 2,000ft up so the temperature plummeted from the 15C degrees we had enjoyed during this sunny January day and was below freezing the following morning.

Next day saw us travel to the coastal town of Aveiro, often referred to as the Portuguese Venice because of its canals. We took a moliceiro – the local version of a gondola – for a fun trip around the city which is famous for its Art Nouveau buildings, its houses painted in colourful stripes and its beaches.

We stayed in a new five star hotel, Vista Alegre Ilhavo Hotel & Spa, eight kilometres from Aveiro on the site of the world famous Vista Alegre porcelain factory and museum which we visited.

Next day saw us visit the stunning Hotel do Seixo on Santa Cruz Beach an hour north of Lisbon, a haven of tranquillity with 14 unique bedrooms and 16 villas.

Located in a natural reserve with 20kms of beaches nearby, the laid back hotel is full of sustainable and reclaimed furniture, has an amazing boho style and grows its own food in an organic garden.

It served up a delicious a la carte lunch and I tried fried cuttlefish for the first time followed by a rabbit risotto. The menu was as adventurous as the décor. Sadly, this was our last stop and it was on to Lisbon Airport and our Aer Lingus flight home.

FACTBOX

For information on central Portugal see: www.centerofportugal.com
Aer Lingus flies direct to Lisbon from Dublin and Cork. www.aerlingus.com

Accommodation:

Hotel Quinta das Lagrimas: Rooms begin at €130. www.quintadaslagrimas.pt

Casas do Coro: Rooms from €190. www.casasdocoro.pt/

Montebelo Vista Alegre Ilhavo Hotel: Rooms from €130. www.montebelohotels.com

Meals:

Sapientia Hotel Books & Wine: www.sapientiahotel.com

Hotel Areais do Seixo: www.areiasdoseixo.com/en

FEATURE BY JIM GALLAGHER

Jim is a veteran traveller who has toured extensively in six of the world’s seven continents.

A former Fleet Street reporter, he was a New York correspondent for five years and managed to visit all but three of the fifty US states. He returns every year on hiking trips to the American West.

Based in Dublin for over 20 years, he is a huge fan of the great Irish outdoors. A regular visitor to the Wicklow Mountains, he recently walked Northern Ireland’s beautiful Causeway Coast Trail.

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