No Dozing In Portugal.

As I sit waiting in our hotel room for room service to deliver us a bottle of 20 year old tawny port, Tim and I reflect on our first two days in Portugal. Yesterday after leaving Lisbon we ventured North in the direction of Porto. With no map nor the basics of the Portuguese language we ventured on.

To be sure, we hoped to find the coastal road so we could ride it to Porto. Using our intuition, the sun and a few inset maps we uncovered after finally cracking the binding of our tour book we figured we had a grip on the back roads of Portugal.

With Tim nodding in and out of consciousness and me doing the best I can to understand the Portuguese road signs soon I found us in the small village of Monsanto. Some travel writers named this quaint town to be the most traditional of all small towns in Portugal. As we explored the area around this medieval town we tried to figure out exactly where we were.

Soon we found ourselves riding through vast open fields dotted with olive trees and strewn with boulders of limestone. This rocky wasteland atop Portugal's highest mountain range carved by glaciers perhaps was the line of demarcation between northern and southern Portugal. Meticulously placed stones formed a fascinating grid or patchwork of land plots that went on as far as we could see. Sometimes we'd see what looked like a huts or buildings shaped like igloos made of this soft and porous stone.

We had stumbled onto Parque Natural das Serras de Aire E Candeeiros. We'd soon discover this area is the largest limestone range in Portugal and home to spectacular caves carved by underwater lakes and aquafirs. As we wound our way through this desolate and rocky landscape the only sign of life was the sheep and cattle that dotted the landscape.

The beauty of traveling in Europe this time of year is the blatant lack of tourists or Europeans on holiday. So when we passed a few massive parking areas we couldn't help but think of busier times where tourists would outnumber the sheep, cattle and limestone rocks of this glacier strewn land.

The Grutas de Alvados was discovered in 1947 by sheep ranchers and opened to the public in 1971. Walking into the modest ticket office, tourist shop and cafe we were greeted by Philip who took us on a 30 minute walk through the precious caves. A tall thick haired man in his late twenties he simply pointed North and said just over there when asked where he was from. With dark eyes and a charming smile marked by dying teeth he spoke fair English and seemed passionate about the caves that gave character to his homeland.

We continued our path through the villages of Port de Mas, Batalha and Alcabaco where visited medieval castles, monasteries, a winemaking museum and the largest church in Portugal. Clearly off the beaten track, Tim and I tried to make sense of the patchwork of regional maps that dotted our guidebook to forge a route that would take us to the coast.

Soon we were walking along the beach at Nazare that according to our book “had ceased to be the most quaint and picturesque fishing village in Portugal” due to the influx of tourism and modernization. With the breeze sending a mild chill down my shirt the sandy crescent beach was barren save a few lovers walking along its boardwalk and the old women dressed in traditional garb hawking peanuts, pistachios and dried fruit.

Up to this point the lack of sleep, food and miles of driving had taken its toll on me and my ability to stay alert. So I powered a quick espresso while Tim drained a Coca Light we beelined it to Porto on the A8, an “expressway” where we passed convoy of a dozen of the Portuguese's army's tanks and armored vehicles. Hmmm. Must be moving at night to protect the Northern border.

The last half hour was the toughest. My head nodding and eyes watering from yawning, I needed to rest and get out of the car. The last thing I wanted was to appease Myrah so she could cash in on my “cash deposit” for our Italian car.

As we checked in at the hotel we were greeted by two lasses of Port wine. Ahhhh. Porto at last.

Photos: (1) The Santa Maria da Vitoria monastary in Batalha, Portugal; (2) Grutas de Alvados in Parque das Serras de Aire E Candeeiros; (3) The beach at Nazare; (4) Porto at night looking across the Duoro River.