Sunday, November 30, 2008

Portugal Vacations: São Miguel Azores

The Island Of São Miguel

I'll start up my description of the 9 Islands of the Azores with São Miguel.

São Miguel (St. Michael in English) is both the capital of the Azores and the largest of the 9 Azorean islands, roughly 67 k in length and 15 km wide. On the east side of the island you will find the highest mountain summit, Pico de Vara, which is a height of 1105 m. On the western side of the island is where you will find the picturesque Sete Cidades, ( Meaning 'Seven Cities' in English) with a summit of 874 m. In the Centre of the island the highest peak is Pico da Barrossa at 949 m, which includes the nature reserve Lagoa do Fogo(Meaning "Fire Lagoon" in English).

Sete Cidades is a must see for anyone visiting São Miguel. With its breathtaking panoramic views and luscious green hills, it is a place of inspiring beauty. Sete Cidades main attraction are the two lagoons, affectionately known as the Green Lagoon and the Blue Lagoon due to the different color of water in each lagoon. You can see the two lagoons in the image to the lower left.

There is a local legend regarding how the two lagoons were created. It is a tale of a blue eyed Princess and a green eyed Shepard boy and it goes something like this:

Early one summers day, a blue-eyed princess was playing on the green rolling hills when, by chance, she met a green-eyed Shepard boy. That summer, their friendship grew until they were deeply in love.

Rumor spread that the Princess was spending all her time with a Shepard boy, until it eventually reached the ear of her father, the King. Upon hearing of the princess and the Shepard boy, the king became furious and confronted his daughter. He scolded her and reminded her status as a princess was being tarnished by her love for the boy.

The king forbid the princess from seeing the Shepard boy again and devised a plan to send the princess far away from that place. Upon hearing the king's horrible plans, the Princess ran away, seeking the boy.

When the the Princess found the Shepard boy, she told him that she was running away from the king and wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. The Shepard boy realized that the Princess' plan were folly, and that the king would never let them be together. The Shepard boy, fighting back tears, convinced the princess that it was best that she do as the King demanded. Unable to bare the pain that his own words brought him, the Shepard boy ran away from the Princess. In absolute horror, the Princess sat at the top of the highest ridge and wept. The tears from her blue eyes fell deep into the valley below, creating a blue lagoon.

After some time, the Shepard boy realized the mistake he had made and ran back to where he left the princess, but she was nowhere to be found. Heart-broken he sat on that same ridge and wept, his tears falling into the valley below creating a Green Lagoon. To this day, when it rains and if you listen closely, you can still hear them weep.

There are many variations to the tale, but the above is my favorite.

On the east side of the Sao Miguel, you will also find the hot springs and mineral springs of Furnas, a very popular place for locals and tourists alike. Among the many natural springs abundant there, you can also partake in mud baths which are reputed to offer skin and toxin cleansing properties. Furnas is also the place where a peculiar island custom of underground cooking is popular. Locals and tourists bring bring along their own pots from home, pre-filled with an assortment of meats and vegetables. On-site workers will then attach the pot to a rope and slowly drop it into deep man-made holes. Underground, the volcanic heat will gently cook the contents of the pots. When deciding to get involved in this Island custom, it's important to mark the place where your your pot is buried, as it's not unusual for people to mistakenly pull up the wrong pots.

Sao Miguel's capital, Ponta Delgada is the administration capital of the Azores. It is the largest city in the Azores, but still relatively small when compared to cities in North America or Asia. It's recommended that you park your car and take a stroll around this island city, as there are many great old buildings to see and breath-taking vistas to be experienced.

Possibly the most interesting town in Sao Miguel is Villa Franca do Campo. This picturesque little town comes complete with it's own small islet that is used by locals and tourists alike as a natural swimming pool. If you get the chance, why not take a boat out to the islet and enjoy an afternoon in the warm water and sun. You can see the Islet on the picture to the left.

I hope you enjoyed this brief overview of Sao Miguel, Azores. Stay tuned for more as I explore the other Azorean islands with you.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Portugal Vacations: The Azores

The Azores (Os Açores)

Your next vacation to Portugal should include the Azores. Some say that the Azores (Açores in Portuguese) is the most beautiful of all the Portuguese territories. With fantastic blue lagoons, green rolling hills and flowers seemingly bursting out of every nook, one soon loses all knowledge of the troubles left behind. The Azores is truly a feast for the senses, with the scent of the ocean, crisp and clean as it caresses the gentle beaches. The sounds of birds chirping from old growth forests that seem bathed in sunlight, you could be forgiven if you thought you were in heaven. The Azores is absolutely stunning and a perfect place to travel.

Nestled in the mid-Atlantic ocean, the Azores is made up of 9 islands in total, and has a combined land area of 2,355 sq km. The Azores is classified into three groups of islands, The Eastern Group which is composed of the capital Sao Miguel and Santa Maria, the Central Group of which includes Graciosa, Terceira, Faial, Sao Jorge and Pico and the The Western Group of Flores and Corvo. Each one of these islands offers something unique, and are all worth visiting. And as mentioned in a previous post, the Azores historically , has had very little industry, and that means that it is one of the least polluted places on Earth. Each island has something a little different to offer you on your travels, but the common theme is tranquility. There is no doubt that the Azores is the perfect place for those looking for a quiet, peaceful vacation experience in Portugal.

An autonomous region of Portugal since 1439, the Azores was discovered in 1427 by Goncalo Velho, a Portuguese explorer sailing for the legendary Prince Henry The Navigator, while on an expedition westward. The Azores islands were not inhabited when discovered, and there was no indication of any civilization on any of the islands, contrary to myths espoused by some who believe the Azores to be the resting place of the lost city of Atlantis.

The origins of the name Azores (Açores) in Portuguese, is contested by Historians. Many suspect that the name originates from the word Azures or Azul, meaning blue in Portuguese. Others speculate that the Azores got it's name from goshawk (Açor) in Portuguese, but since that bird did not exist on any of the islands, it is assumed by historians that it is unlikely that the Azores was named after the bird. Still others believe that the original inhabitants on the islands may have misclassified a local bird called the (Buteo buteo) buzzard as the Açor, once again lending credence to the goshawk as the original inspiration for the name Azores. To the Azorean people there are no conflicting theories, to them the Azores synonymous with the goshawk, as can be seen in their regional flag.

There is much to do in the Azores, from boat cruises, to whale watching expeditions. Recently, echo-tourism has become very popular on the islands, with nature walks and cycling becoming popular. There are also off-road ATV excursions that are absolutely amazing and not to be missed if you are Vacationing in Portugal.

In the next posts I will tell you more about the Azores with emphasis on the individual islands, so stay tuned to Portugal Vacations.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Portugal Vacations

Top 10 Reasons Why You Should Vacation In Portugal

The following is my top 10 list on why you should choose Portugal as your next vacation.

  1. Portugal All Inclusives: Portugal has got some of the best all inclusive resort deals anywhere in Europe.
  2. Portugal For Honeymooners: Portugal is the ideal location whether you're celebrating your 50th anniversary or your honeymoon. It is a romantic paradise.
  3. Portugal Tourist Information: Portugal's Board Of Tourism was voted as Europe's best at a recent The World Travel Awards in Slovakia.
  4. Mainland, Azores & Madeira: Portugal has something for everyone. Whether you love to island hop or journey through historical Portugal. You will never run out of things to do.
  5. Golf Courses: Portugal is world renown for having some of the best golf courses anywhere on this planet. It is an ideal golfer's paradise.
  6. Pousadas: As I mentioned earlier, Portugal's Pousadas are a vacationers dream.
  7. Portugal Properties: Whether you're looking to spending 1 week or a whole lifetime, Portugal has some of Europe's best standards in construction, with many homes considered estate homes here in North America.
  8. Boating: Portugal has always been known as a seafaring nation. Watercraft is always just hours away, no matter where you are.
  9. Food and Wine: Portugal's long history as a nation of explorers means that the Portuguese have been exposed to many different herbs and spices throughout the world. They have brought the spices home and incorporated it into their cuisine, making Portuguese cuisine one of the most unique, anywhere.
  10. The People: The Portuguese are some of the friendliest and welcoming people you will ever meet. Once you've made a Portuguese friend, you have one for life.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Portugal Vacations Famous Portuguese Landmarks

In the previous post of Portugal Vacations I told you a little about some important things to remember while on your Portugal vacation. In this post I would like give you some travel information on Portugal's landmarks. Since Portugal has thousands of historically important buildings, this is by no means an exhaustive list. That said, this short Portugal guide is intended to show you some of the more eye-catching structures in Portugal.

But first, imagine that you've just started your family vacation and are now in Portugal. The warm Portuguese sun is shining, and you've just checked into one of the beautiful Portuguese Pousadas. Let's imagine that you are staying the night at one of the beautifully restored Portuguese castles and are now looking out into the gorgeous Portuguese mountainside.

Now that you've settled in, what next? In my opinion, a stroll around the Pousada grounds is in order. I suggest getting familiar with the history and culture, perhaps a drive to a local town for an espresso would be a good start. After settling in and getting acquainted with the lay of the land, I suggest that you start your Portugal vacation by heading over to one of the thousands of historical monuments.

For such a small country, Portugal has one of the largest number of historical monuments, ancient cathedrals and castles per square kilometer in Europe, if not the world. Portugal is indeed unique, because the former kings of Portugal decided to convert much of their wealth gained during Portugal's age of discovery into building Portugal's national treasures. In fact, Portugal is one of the few nations on the planet to claim honor to a unique form of architecture, called the Manueline style. Manueline is a form of Portuguese Gothic architecture that includes ornate designs primarily on windows and doorways. Many of the buildings are so lavishly designed that they may shock a more reserved tourist from Canada or the United States. I'll outline a small handful of Portuguese Monuments to give you an idea of the treat that's in store for you. Your Portuguese vacation isn't complete until you visited these amazing historical buildings.

Guimarães Castle

The Guimarães Castle is considered one of the most important buildings in Portugal due to its historical significance. It was from Guimarães castle that both an independent Portugal was born and from where Dom Afonso Henrique, Portugal's first King, continued the Christian Reconquest of Portugal, by capturing Moorish held lands to the south. Portuguese folklore says that so great was his strength that Dom Afonso Henrique could cut a man in half at the waist with a single strike from his heavy sword. He was indeed the most significant man in the birth of the Portuguese nation. Guimarães castle should not be missed on your next Portugal vacation.

The Batalha Monastery

The Batalha Monastery, is located in the town of Batalha, in the District of Leiria. It is a Late Gothic architecture spiced up with Manueline style.

King D. João I began construction of the monastery to thank the Virgin Mary after the battle of Aljubarrota in 1385 where the highly outnumbered Portuguese defeated the larger Castilian army.

Although construction commenced in 1386 the monastery itself took almost 2 hundred years to build, in which time many architects were involved, each adding a different flavor to the majestic structure. The Batalha Monastery was put on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list and today serves as a museum. Be sure to add the Batalha Monestary to your itinerary, as it is a must see in any Portugal vacation.

The Pena National Palace

The site where the Pena Palace stands was originally occupied by a small chapel built in the middle ages and dedicated to Our Lady Of Pena after a apparition of the Virgin Mary was seen in that place. For centuries the small chapel was used for meditative purposes, and many people generally have a feeling of calm in that area. The great earthquake of 1755, which left much of Lisbon in ruins also severely damaged the chapel, and it wasn't until 1838 when King Ferdinand decided to purchase the chapel ruins and surrounding territory to commence the building the Pena Palace. Construction spanned from 1842-1854, in which time ornate Manueline designs were infused into this Romantic style building. The Pena palace is an inspiring place to visit, and people often leave the premises in awe and amazement. It is today on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list and a must see on your Portugal vacation.

Belém Tower

Located on the banks of the Tagus in Lisbon, this beautifully ornate Belém Tower is said to have been been used as a customs outpost for incoming ships during Portugal's age of discovery. It also offered protection to the city itself. It is a great example of Manueline architecture and a must see on your Portugal vacation.

Jerónimos Monaster

Just a stone throw from the Belém Tower, the Jerónimos Monastery is one of the most beautiful examples of Manueline architecture. Started in 1502 and taking about 50 years to build, the monastery is the resting place of the great Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama, and is a must see on your Portugal vacation.

Convent of the Order of Christ

The Convent of the Order of Christ was built by the Knights Templar in about 1160 and remained under their control until the European backlash against the Templars in 1312. Portugal's king Dinis saw the Templars as an important and vital part of the autonomy of Portugal and refused to buckle to European pressure of jailing and executing the Templars as was done in much of Europe at that time. Instead, king Dinis renamed the Knights Templar, The Order Of Christ effectively saving the order. The Order Of Christ served Portugal well during both the Christian Reconquest as well as Portugal's Age Of Discovery. Don't miss this impressive structure on your next Portuguese Vacation.

Santa Maria da Feira Castle

Located between Porto and Aveiro in Portugal's central Region, the Santa Maria da Feira Castle is a gorgeous medieval castle that still resonates with history.

Quinta da Regaleira

Situated in Sintra and built between 1904 - 1910 the Quinta da Regaleira emanates mysticism. Infused with cryptic symbols of alchemy, Masonry, the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians, the Quinta should not be missed on your Portugal vacation.

As you can see from the above images, there is much to see in Portugal. But the above is only a small tip of a large iceberg in what you can see in this wonderful country. There are thousands of important historical sites dating from many historical periods. On your next Portugal vacation, be sure to put your walking shoes on and your city guides out, because you will be in for a real treat.

Images above:

The Quinta da Regaleira:: Lusitana

Monday, November 3, 2008

Portugal Vacations: Things To Remember

In the last post I told you about the great Pousadas de Portugal. They are an absolute great way to enjoy your Portugal vacation.

In the next few posts, I will tell you about interesting places in Portugal to make your Portugal vacation a memorable one, but first, I thought it would be a good idea to give you a few basic tips to help make your next Portugal vacation a good one.

The Portuguese are generally a very 'relaxed' people. Unfortunately, many of you may have found lists of do's and dont's on the Internet offering suggestions on how to behave in Portugal. Many of these tips tend to be either partly or completely wrong. I've put together a list of common misconceptions that I've found on other websites, and have added my perspective on each. This will be useful on your next Portugal vacation.

1) Myth: The Portuguese are loud.
1) Fact: Generally, the opposite is true. Portuguese tend to be soft spoken. That said it isn't unusual for Portuguese to greet each other from afar (often seen in small towns), it's just the Portuguese way. Otherwise, keep preconceptions to a minimum.

3) Myth: Never speak to the Portuguese in Spanish, as they will take offense.
3) Fact: I usually get a chuckle out of this one because it is absolutely far-fetched. The Portuguese are fairly comfortable with their National Identity. Many Portuguese speak Spanish and welcome an opportunity to try out their Spanish on a stranger. On the rare occasion that you have offended a Portuguese citizen, they will usually correct you and take the opportunity to tell you how Portuguese and Spanish are different, in which case you've made a friend or two.

But If you want to get a few brownie points, then I suggest learning a few Portuguese words. Although Portuguese is an infamously difficult language to speak, most Portuguese will take your desire to communicate with them, graciously.

4) Myth: The Portuguese love affection with strangers. You should expect them to touch and embrace you often.
4) Fact: I've seen this one scattered across the Internet, and I cringe every time I do. Becoming overly affectionate with your hosts is a sure way of, at best, getting a few mean stares and at worst getting yelled at. The Portuguese tend to show affection with with those they know ie. close friends and family, not necessarily with strangers.

5) Myth: Advise your children not to look at older Portuguese people in the eye.
5) Fact: Older Portuguese love it when younger children look at them, as long as it is done respectfully. For the Portuguese, family is highly valued and appreciated. The Portuguese will never find offense in a well mannered child's behavior.

Now that I've broken down some of the myths about the Portuguese, I'll outline a few basic rules, which will be of great value on your next Portugal vacation.

1) Be respectful. Respect is a universal concept and applies to any person, or country. By respect I mean not making rude comments about things that you may not enjoy. For example, if you don't like how the food you've been served tastes, kindly tell your waiter so, don't make rude gestures which may be interpreted as offensive.

2) Smile when you meet someone. The Portuguese are very people aware , and not smiling can often be taken as a sign of snootiness. Just smile, you're on vacation.

3) Always say 'excuse me' when asking for assistance or attention.

4) Men always shake hands.

5) Ladies, kiss on both cheeks. If you aren't accustomed to kissing a stranger, don't sweat it, the Portuguese haven't been living in a bubble and they know that not everyone lives by the same rules. But a small peck on the cheek isn't the end of the world and can be a great ice-breaker. It's the European way.

6) When you greet someone of the opposite sex, use your judgment on whether to kiss or shake hands. It's usually best to let the locals initiate and just follow suit. Once again, a small peck on the cheek isn't the end of the world, and can be a great ice-breaker. It's the European way. Steps 4 - 6 are directed at intimate gatherings and not done generally. ie. If you are invited to a new friend's home, or asked to join fellow diners at a table, it is perfectly fine. Kissing your waiter or porter is not ;-).

6) Display of anger in public places is frowned upon, just keep personal squabbles at home. The Portuguese, 'generally' do not openly express negative emotions in public. Be nice to one another, it will make your Portugal vacation a memorable one.

7) Politeness is key. Do not shove, wait your turn. Be gracious and accommodating to those older than you, and expect the same from those younger. It's just basic common courtesy which is still highly regarded in Portugal. In smaller towns, it is common to be greeted with a "Good Morning" or a "Good day", respond back and smile, much brownie points you will get.

8) If you ask for help while on your Portugal vacation, be prepared for an extra dose of it. The Portuguese love to help strangers in need. They will go out of their way to assist you. Thank them with a smile or a handshake and tell them what a wonderful person they are. If you are a man say "Obrigado" the ladies say "Obrigada" (It's Portuguese for Thank-You, notice the 'o' & the 'a' at the end of the word, the Portuguese language uses masculine and feminine to distinguish between men and women. The 'o' represents the masculine and 'a' represents feminine).

9) The Portuguese are generally very hospitable, and if you are in a small town don't be surprised if you are invited in to someone's home for a drink. Don't be alarmed, old world hospitality is still alive and well in Portugal.

10) Portugal is one of the world's safest countries, violent crime is virtually non-existent. Women traveling alone are rarely hassled. That said, as the saying goes "You are who you wear", and ladies, if you wear provocative clothing, don't be surprised if you are approached by young Portuguese men. That said, you will most likely get a 'talking to' from an older Portuguese lady first, so don't say I didn't warn you (This is applicable in small towns and not large cities). Either way, it may make your Portugal vacation an interesting one. ;-)

11) Most importantly do not to be too self-conscious, just be yourself within a respectful frame of mind, you will be amazed at how many doors will open for you. Respect goes a long long way.

If you remember to follow the above rules you will have a great Portugal vacation.