Friday, April 26, 2013

Porto, a must visit for port wine lovers:The Spain and Portugal Diaries, Part IV

Like Lisbon, Porto is a river city on steep hills; unlike Lisbon, Porto is not covered with glistening tiles. Although I did not fall in love with Porto the way I did with Lisbon, Rick and I enjoyed it very much.

Porto has a rich architectural heritage but unfortunately much of it is in disrepair. The signs of economic distress were much more visible in Porto than in Madrid. But Porto retains its charm nonetheless—especially on a sunny day.

We arrived in Porto on a gray, gloomy day and the shabbiness of some parts of the town was a little depressing. A few days later, on a dazzling sunny day, sections which had looked down-at-heels now looked delightfully picturesque. Porto is a city of towers and a gray granite tower gains against a gray sky just can’t compare to that same gray tower against a dazzling blue sky.

We managed to see almost the entire metropolitan area by hopping on and off the city bus tour. One of the highlights was the Ribeira district with tiny houses perched on vertiginous hills. It reminded me little of Italy’s Amalfi coast, especially as many of the houses were festooned with laundry hanging out to dry. And there were tiles if not so spectacular as those in Lisbon

Another highlight was Porto’s Atlantic coast. Parts of Porto and the neighboring town of Matosinhos opened onto the Atlantic. We jumped off our tour bus, headed straight for the beach and spent a few hours sipping red wine and staring at the ocean--just as we had in Barcelona last year. Of course since this was March, we were bundled up with scarves and sweaters, but I actually prefer this to a broiling summer beach.

The high point of our visit to Porto was our trip to the Port wine houses in Gaia, a small neighboring town across the Douro River, devoted to the making of port wine. For port-lovers like us, this was equivalent to a pilgrimage to Mecca. It was fascinating to learn how our beloved wine is made and yes they really do dance on the grapes.

We usually look for small hotels, but we found a really good deal at the Hotel Intercontinental and decided to try it. For what we paid, it was a fantastic deal with all sorts of amenities and amazing breakfasts. It’s a relatively new hotel in an old palace and trying to build its reputation, so I don’t know how long the good deals will last. The staff were extraordinarily helpful --all in all, a great experience. The hotel staff recommended a seriously good restaurant Paparico – wonderful food , charming setting , great service and surprisingly affordable.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Spain's Paradores and Portugal's Pousadas-- Government run hotels which work: The Spain and Portugal Diaries, Part III

Cathedral in Viseu

One of the pleasures of going to Spain and Portugal in early Spring is the bright green landscape. When we drove through central Spain in 1986, we found a depressingly barren, brown, rock-strewn landscape. In mid-March it’s still austere, but the green got brighter and lusher as we approached Portugal.

Our first stop in Portugal was Viseu which our guidebook described quite accurately as having “an enthralling old town.”

Old town square in Viseu

We stayed in one of Portugal’s pousadas—a government run hotel housed in a converted early 19th century hospital. Rick and I are drawn to historic buildings converted into modern hotels and we’ve stayed in more converted convents and monasteries than I can remember.

This however was our first converted hospital and a very enjoyable stay at an affordable 81 euros a night. Another advantage of off-season travel in Portugal and Spain is that off-season rates for the government run pousadas and paradores are significantly lower than high season rates.

From what we’ve read recently the pousadas (of Portugal) and paradores (of Spain) are going through something of a crisis. They were established in the early 1970’s as a way of luring tourists out of Madrid and Lisbon into the provinces, thus spreading the tourist dollar around. When they first opened they were often the only game in town. Now they have competition form new boutique hotels with a more “flexible” labor force.

The staff of the pousadas and paradores are government employee with benefits that most workers in the hospitality industry can only dream of. A recent New York Times article acknowledged that the paradores “For the most part...get high marks for service and food.” But according to Ramón Estalella, the secretary general of the Confederation of Spanish Hotels and Tourist Accommodations, “As a government enterprise, the paradores also have a bulky and inflexible staff...As government workers, they expect to be employed for life.”

According to the New York Times reporter, one criticism of the paradores is that “the staff, which averages more than 18 years on the job, is set in the old ways of hotel manners. Staff members speak few languages and tend to get about the business of checking you in without the friendly banter people are used to these days. “

This was not our experience. We found the staff to be friendly and competent and if you like the idea if a hotel run by well-compensated employees with benefits maybe then maybe the pousadas (of Portugal) and paradores ( of Spain) are the place for you.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Salamanca--Gorgeous Even on a Gray, Rainy Day: The Spain and Portugal Diaries, Part II

The Cathedral in Salamanca

We picked up a rental car in Madrid and headed west to Salamanca. We weren’t sure Salamanca was worth an overnight stop. Were we ever wrong! It’s worth a minimum of two nights and I could happily have spent a week there.

We had the misfortune to have gray, drizzly weather in Salamanca but the old town with its perfectly preserved Medieval and Renaissance architecture was spectacularly beautiful despite the gloom. We decided that if the weather was good on our way back, we would stop again to see that golden stone in bright sunlight.

The rain did have one upside. The cathedral, the University buildings, and the Plaza Mayor were all brilliantly lit at night and the rain on the cobblestone streets reflected all that light, making Salamanca at night one of the the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.

The Hotel we stayed in, Hotel Rector, could not have been more charming—all Rick’s internet research really paid off.

Unfortunately when we drove by Salamanca on our return to Madrid, it was another gray day, but the town is so beautiful it didn’t really matter. This time we managed to see the University of Salamanca, founded in 1215. When we were there a week earlier we arrived at 1:30 just as the doors were closing. It would have been a real loss not to have seen the interior of the university.

The entrance to the University Of Salamanca

Apparently, medieval Salamanca had its problems with campus violence and according to the guide provided by the university, Alfonso X El Sabio, King of Castille 1252-84, “banned students from buying weapons and advised the university proctor to “imprison or expel quarrelsome students.” It was difficult to imagine warring students disrupting the tranquility of that serenely beautiful place.

We really would have liked to linger in Salamanca but we had a 2 ½ hour drive to Toledo ahead of us. It looks like a sunny day in Salamanca is one of those travel experiences that will forever elude us