Christmas time for me evokes many warm childhood memories. Decorating our family tree, shopping with mom in the big department stores all decked out with lights and displays, and of course, Santa Claus. I remember how excited we would get as Christmas day approach; the anticipation was palpable.
Many if not most of our Christmas traditions are deeply rooted in European culture. From the Christmas stories we read, Christmas TV shows and movies, Christmas music and Hallmark cards, all seem to depict those Dickensian or Currier & Ives themed scenes of a simpler time. What’s more traditional than the Christmas Market? These Christmas Markets date back to the Middle Ages celebrating the Advent season leading up to Christmas day.
What is it about European Christmas Markets that keeps drawing us back? When you walk the cobblestone streets of a European Christmas Market, usually located at the main Cathedral square or at centuries old town hall plazas, the past seems to come alive. Vendor chalets selling hand crafted ornaments, decorations or toys, plenty of local street food and the famous hot mulled wine (German Gluhwein or French Vin Chaud). For me this is magical, reinforcing the Christmas Spirit.
This years Christmas Market visit was to Brussels. Flying on the day after Thanksgiving, arriving for the opening weekend of Brussels’ Plaisirs D’hiver or Winter Wonders celebrations. The festivities are spread throughout the city and my hotel was in front of the main Christmas Market at Place Sainte-Catherineis.
The crowds were huge for the opening weekend with all ages; families with kids, young and older adults, lots of locals and tourists. Obviously a very popular place at Christmas time.
The Sights & Sounds of Brussels’ Christmas Markets
The main Christmas Market at Place Sainte-Catherineis with over 200 vendor chalets was located right across the street from my hotel, the Brussels Welcome Hotel. The hotel was quaint and quirky, with each room decorated in a different country decor. My room, the Cuba Room had a model of a ’57 Chevy convertible on the door (instead of a number), and the interior had cigar themed pictures and decorations plus a large wall mural of an old Havana building facade. The owners, Michel & Sophie and their staff were very friendly and helpful. They had their own chalet at the Christmas Market that featured oysters and champagne, that’s classy!
Speaking of the food, this Christmas Market had most of the typical fare; German bratwurst, pretzels, other comfort food, and of course, the Gluhwein. But there were some upscale selections as well, such as escargot, Russian caviar and vodka, along with the local favorites, fresh Mussels, Belgian chocolate and Belgian waffles. Fortunately there is a lot of walking at these Christmas Markets, so you can burn off those excess calories.
There were several other Christmas Markets within walking distance. Grand Place, the main city square, with its towering 17th Century city hall surrounded by the gold trimmed Guild Halls, featured a large Christmas Tree in the center of the square. Grand Place was the site of an amazing light and sound show, presented every evening (several showings each night), with colorful lights projected against the facades of the old buildings.
Grand Place Light & Sound Show video
After a week in Brussels it was time to go home. This was the last trip for our 2019 travel season. Another Christmas Market completed and awaiting the New Year for new and exciting travel adventures.
Our previous blog post, “Cruising the Douro River”, had quite a bit of detail, photo’s and video clips of our Viking River Cruise along Portugal’s beautiful Douro River Valley. At the end of that long blog post was a slideshow that captured the panoramic beauty we encountered on the journey. For those who enjoy viewing the photo’s, here is that slide show………
The actual river cruise portion of our trip started on Saturday, October 12, 2019. Our ship, the Viking Torgil, left from city of Vila Nova de Gaia near the mouth of the Douro River at Porto and traveled about 200km to Barca d’Alva at the Spanish border (of course then returning to Porto) and along the way, some of the most beautiful scenery unfolds around each bend of the river. Due to navigation regulations, ships can only transit the river during daylight, which is perfect for sightseeing. At night the ship is docked at small riverside towns and various shore excursions are scheduled around these stops.
The river winds through miles and miles of the valley where steep man-made hillside terraced vineyards rise up from the river’s edge. These terraces were built centuries ago and grapes are still picked by hand. Wine has been produced in the area for more than 2,000 years, but it was not until 1756 that the industry became organized and internationally recognized.
As the ship moves further upstream, the true story of the area’s wine country begins to unfold. Here, in the Alto Douro Wine Region, winding roads pattern the landscape, leading up to wonderfully lush vineyards. Gleaming white quintas, or wine estates, are visible and offer a glimpse of a traditional way of life that has existed for centuries.
Sightseeing along the Douro
Dams and Locks
The trip up to Barca d’Alva requires passing through five locks that are connected with large dams. The dams were build in the 1970’s-80’s for flood control and hydro-electric power. The lock systems allow larger vessel traffic to navigate the Douro and, of course, opened up the river cruise tourism industry. Each lock raises the vessel above the dam and the lock at Carrapatelo Lock Dam is one of the highest locks in the world at 35 meters. The ship also passes under many bridges, some are very low and there is very little clearance. The ship’s pilothouse can be hydraulically lowered, and all masts are lowered. It’s quite a thrill to be on the sundeck when passing under low bridges. At one particular bridge, the crew required everyone on the sundeck to remain seated.
Going through the Crestuma – Lever Dam/Lock, Carrapatelo Dam/Lock, low bridges and narrow, rocky passages.
A stop in the area’s largest riverside town, Regua which is an important transportation crossroads and where the steep hills and terraced vineyards begin to rise above the river. In nearby Vila Real is one of the region’s most elegant houses—Mateus Palace. This 18th-century baroque house and gardens, once belonging to local counts. The house’s interior is an extravagant display of period furnishings and decor while its gardens, among the finest in Portugal, feature a 115-foot-long tunnel carved from fragrant cedar trees. Today, the estate enjoys celebrity status: It is depicted on the labels of Mateus Rosé, though the wine is produced elsewhere.
A visit and tour of the Favaios’ wine cooperative, Adega Cooperativa de Favaios, provided incite into this area’s very famous wine, Moscatel de Favaios. Our visit coincided with the end of the harvests season, where we saw lots of activity. The tour was followed by a tasting of this Moscatel variety, which is nothing like that fortified “Muscatel” wine we may remember from our youth.
After the winery visit we did a walking tour of the small town of Favaios with visit to a famous family run bakery that produces the local “four corners bread”. The baker, Dona Manuela, a grandmother, has been featured in Viking Cruise’s promotional videos.
When the ship docked at Barca d’Alva we had a full day excursion over to Salamanca Spain for a walking tour of that city, visiting several interesting sights along with free time for lunch. The coach ride was about 2-hours.
We started our tour with a visit to the main indoor market, Mercado Central, where Viking had arranged a tasting of the local cured hams, cheeses, olives, and of course, some wine. There were a number of carnicerías (butcher shops) with the famous Jamon Iberico hanging on display. You see many grades of Jamon Iberico (acorn fed aged black pig leg), and some were priced as much as EU499! Several fish markets featured a variety of fresh seafood, but also had lots of salted cod, the local staple of the Iberian Peninsula. Then there were plenty of fruits and vegetables, bakeries and some specialty shops featuring Spain’s famous saffron. We did buy some saffron, it was expensive, but not as much as we would pay here at home. We will need to get out our favorite paella recipe!
Our walking tour with a local guide was interesting, but the weather didn’t cooperate, with rain showers turning into more steady rain fall. This was the first bad weather day we encountered on the cruise.
A visit to the Salamanca Cathedral gave us a chance to get out of the rain. There are two cathedrals, the Old Cathedral and New Cathedral. Back in the 16th Century it was decided that the original cathedral was too small, so a new, larger cathedral was needed. Originally it was planned to demolish the Old Cathedral, but then it was decided the New Cathedral would be build adjacent to the existing one.
The Old Cathedral is Romanesque, dating from the 12th century, and is famous for its ornate Gallo Tower. Its breathtaking 15th-century altarpiece features no less than 53 panels depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus Christ and Mary, topped by a presentation of the Final Judgment.
The New Cathedral was constructed between the 16th and 18th centuries in two styles: late Gothic and Baroque. Building began in 1513 and the cathedral was consecrated in 1733.
Brief video tour of Salamanca’s Central Market, New Cathedral and rainy walk around town.
This medieval hilltop town, a bastion of the country’s heritage, provides a glimpse into the Portugal of yesterday. Due to its location near the Spanish border, it has been the subject of many frontier battles over the centuries. However, the structures did little to deter the determined Spaniards and so these fortifications were constantly under assault, besieged and rebuilt. It is a testament to their strength that as many as 20 have survived as lasting reminders of a long and bloody period of dispute between the two nations. The castles’ architectural styles range from medieval to Gothic.
The region around Castelo Rorigo has many almond orchards and as we walked through the medieval streets, local vendors were offering samples of everything almond; candied almonds, savory almonds, almond liquers. We couldn’t leave with purchasing several packages of various almond treats.
We spent a morning in the town of Lemego, starting at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remédios on a hill high above town. This is an important pilgrimage church with a staircase of 686 steps leading from the town below to the church. Landings on the stairway have statues and chapels and are adorned with beautiful blue tile mosaics. During the annual pilgrimage many penitents climb the steps on their knees. Needless to say, we didn’t walk the stairs.
With some free time in the town below we had our obligatory coffee with Pastel de Nata at a local coffee shop on the square. We also visited the Cathedral and the Lamego Museum. The museum is a must see, with an impressive collection of Portuguese and European paintings from the 16th to the late 18th centuries, plus pottery, sculptures, tapestries, and other artifacts dating back to Roman times.
What stood out on this trip was the amazingly beautiful scenery in the Douro Valley. It’s safe to say it is one of the most beautiful places we have visited so far in our world travels. Another thing that stands out is the friendliness of the Portuguese people. We have met some wonderful people and came away with new friends. This will not be our last trip to Portugal, must return!
This slide show illustrates the natural beauty of the Douro Valley, please enjoy.
After two days in Lisbon our Viking Cruise itinerary had us heading to Porto where we would join our river cruise ship, the Viking Torgil. On the coach ride to Porto we stopped in Coimbra for a tour of the historic University of Coimbra, followed by some free time in the town and then a traditional Portuguese lunch at República da Saudade restaurant accompanied by Fado music. The university is the oldest in Portugal and one of the oldest, continuously operating universities in the world.
A video recap of our visit to Coimbra
Portugal’s second largest city, Porto holds a place of great traditional importance. The town lends its name to the port wine produced in the region and throughout the nation. Located along the Douro River, the city boasts picturesque neighborhoods, fashionable restaurants and cozy coffee shops. Like Lisbon, Porto has a rich past; its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A great walking city where you find narrow cobblestone streets brimming with romantic buildings spanning the centuries and a stunning Romanesque cathedral on a hilltop overlooking the river and city.
At the riverside, small barcos rabelos, boats once used to transport casks of wine, paint a charming scene. A major landmark on the river is the Ponte Luís I or Luís I Bridge. This iconic metal bridge, a true engineering marvel, built in 1886, connects Porto with Vila Nove de Gaia. The bridge has two levels, the lower level carries vehicle and pedestrian traffic while the high upper level is for street tram and pedestrian traffic. The upper level offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Douro, Porto and its surrounding areas.
Our ship, the Viking Torgil was docked across the river from Porto in Vila Nove de Gaia, where all the major Port makers have their warehouses. You see all the big names on these warehouses and tasting rooms such as; Sandeman, Taylor, Cockburn’s, Croft. The riverfront adjacent to our vessel is a very lively waterfront area with many restaurants, bars, shops and other attractions. A nearby cable car carries you up to the top of the hill where the upper level of the Luís I Bridge crosses over to Porto.
Some interesting facts about Porto:
Porto is one of Europe’s oldest cities, having been founded inBC as a Roman settlement.
With its six bridges that cross the Douro, Porto is known as the “City of Bridges”.
Two of Porto’s six bridges were designed by Gustave Eiffel before he began work on his famous namesake tower in Paris.
Porto is Portugal’s second largest city.
In 1996, the city’s historic center was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The city is famous for its historic port wine trade, the center of which lies at Vila Nove de Gaia on the south bank of the Douro River.
Lisbon, Portugal’s capitol and largest city is bursting with culture, history and tourist attractions. The city is situated along the Tagus River very close to the Atlantic Ocean. This location by the sea is important to Lisbon’s rich history, the jumping off point for the Portuguese explorers in the Age of Discovery.
Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in Western Europe, having its origins as an indigenous Celts settlement around 800BC, also as Phoenician and Greek trading posts in the same era. Then occupied by Carthaginians and eventually become part of the Roman Empire as the city of Olisipo. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Visigoth German tribes occupied much of the Iberian peninsular, including Portugal. The invasion and occupation by the Islamic Moors from North Africa in the 8th Century lasted about 4 centuries until they were ousted by Christian crusaders. The influence of the Moors is still very evident throughout Portugal in the beautiful ceramic tiles (azulejos) that adorn palaces, churches, public buildings, even homes.
In 1755 a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated Lisbon and the surrounding areas. The Secretary of the State of Internal Affairs at that time, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, popularly known as the Marquis of Pombal, lead the bebuilding efforts. Pombal employed new building codes and methods including earthquake-proof architectural design. Much of what you see in central Lisbon today are the results of this 18th Century rebuilding effort. A large monument at the Praça Marquês de Pombal square honors the Marquis of Pombal.
We spent the first two days and the last two days of our trip in Lisbon. This gave us enough free time to do some walking around. Lisbon is a hilly city with cobblestone sidewalks and streets, so walking can be a bit challenging for us older folks. Lots of stairs and steep streets will ramp up your FitBit numbers rather quickly. We found the public transit system in Lisbon to be excellent and very affordable. On our last full day we purchased a 24-hour Metro pass (about 6.00 Euros each) which covered subway, buses and the famous street trams.
Enjoying Aperol Spritz at a Praça do Comércio cafe
Some good Douro Valley red
Douro vinho tinto with jamon iberico
Making Pastel de Nata
Some visited sights
Rua de Plata walking street
Praça do Comércio
Cloister at Jerónimos Monastery
Cloister at Jerónimos Monastery
Cloister at Jerónimos Monastery
Beautiful architecture along Avenida da Liberdade
Scrulpture at St. George’s Castse grounds
Wine shop display
Peacocks at ST. George’s Castle
One of the interesting features of Lisbon is the extensive cobblestone paving of miles and miles of sidewalks. These cobblestones are small, irregular shaped and are hand fitted. On the sidewalk at the southeast corner of Praça dos Restauradores (Restaurant Square) there is a tribute of the pavers who build these extensive works of art.
We just returned from our 12-day vacation in Portugal where we did a Viking River Cruise of the Douro River Valley. Our Viking itinerary had us spending the first two days in Lisbon, then on to Porto where we joined our ship, the Viking Torgil, for 8-days of cruising the Douro Valley. We returned to Lisbon to spend 2-days on our own exploring that city.
In this blog we will describe our overall impressions of Portugal, in the next few days we will publish additional blog posts to share some specifics:
Cities of Porto and Lisbon
Beautiful Douro Valley
The Viking River Cruise Experience
In our history classes long ago, we learned about the famous Portuguese explorers; Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Pedro Álvares Cabral and others. The discoveries of these explorers opened sea trade routes to Brazil, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, China and Japan making Portugal a powerful empire in the 15th – 16th Centuries. Now, Portugal is a relatively small country in the European Union, but that rich history and culture is still alive in the beautiful buildings, palaces, cathedrals, universities and cuisines and the Portuguese people are proud of this heritage.
The Monument to the Discoveries , located in Belém – Lisbon
We arrived from Newark into Lisbon’s Humberto Delgado Airport which is very close to the city center. The airport is like any international airport, although it wasn’t too much of a walk from the arrival gates, through passport control out to baggage claim. Viking staff were waiting at the arrivals hall where we joined a bus with other Viking passengers to take us to the Hotel Tivoli Avenida Liberdade, our home for the next two nights. This hotel is located on Avenida Liberdade, a beautiful, wide, tree line boulevard, called Lisbon’s “Champs-Élysées”.
Portugal, being part of the EU uses the Euro and now the US dollar exchange rate is very favorable, at US$1.10 while we were there. Also, Portugal is very affordable (for Americans) when compared to other European countries.
The language of Portugal is, of course, Portuguese. We learned that Portuguese is the 9th most spoken language in the world. We found most people do speak English, so it wasn’t difficult communicating. It helps to learn some basic phrases and locals appreciate the effort. Many years ago, I traveled a lot to Brazil for business and some of the Brazilian Portuguese I picked up came back to me. With my pronunciations, some locals picked up on the Brazilian accent. I have used the App Duolingo, which is very helpful for learning language basics. Doulingo is a free App on Android and IOS and I recommend it. Some basic phrases:
Thank you…. a man would say Obrigado, a woman would say Obrigada
You’re welcome…. De nada
Good morning…. Bom dia
Good afternoon…. Boa tarde
Good evening…. Boa noite
Please…. Por favor
Everyone we met, hotel staff, tour guides, shop keepers, restaurant servers all were very friendly, welcoming and helpful. Social media allows us to connect with people all over the world and on Instagram, we have been connected with an Instagrammer named Libi from Porto. Libi posts images and stories about daily life in Porto and she visits some great coffee shops and posts interesting pictures around Porto. In the past year or so we have been following each other, commenting about each others posts. When planning our Portugal trip earlier this year, we mentioned to Libi our trip and asked about things to see and do. She was excited and enthusiastic about sharing her city and country. We made arrangements to meet for coffee at one of Libi’s favorite places. So when we arrived in Porto she met us, had some gifts for us and we enjoyed a coffee together. Libi is a wonderful young woman and we now have a good friend in Portugal.
Our Instagram friend Libi from Porto took us for coffee at a classy coffee shop C’alma.
Yeah, there is good food in Portugal, you won’t go hungry and you may need to loosen the belt a bit before you leave. Watch out for the favorite pastry, the Pastel de Nata. This custard based tart can become addictive, it’s a great treat to have with coffee at one of the excellent coffee shops you will find in Lisbon, Porto or anywhere in Portugal.
Salted Cod dishes abound, I didn’t realize there were so many ways to prepare salted cod, or Bacalhau. It can be boiled, fried, made into cod cakes, croquettes, it seems that some restaurants have pages of cod dishes.
Salted cod dish and Pastel de Nata.
Our first night we decided to stay at the hotel (Tivoli) and eat at the attached restaurant called Cervejaria Liberdade. I had the best pork dish ever, this was grilled pork tenderloin steaks from the famous acorn feed black pigs. Amazing experience.
Bucket List Fulfilled?
Portugal was on our bucket list and our experience there was just amazing. Such a beautiful country, great food and the people are so friendly. It seems that on this trip we didn’t get enough, so we now add Portugal to the “Got to Go Back” list! In the following blogs we will share photos of the amazing sights and experiences, so please come back.
We will be off to the airport later this morning for our next adventure, Portugal.
We will be joining a Viking River Cruise tour of the Douro River… River of Gold, for what should be a fantastic time. Arriving tomorrow morning (Tuesday Oct 8th) in Lisbon, we will stay 2-nights before a motor coach tour up the coast to Porto to join our ship, the Viking Torgil. The below map shows the 10-day itinerary.