What a difference a day makes! This morning the mist had lifted and the views from our hotel terrace and breakfast room were fabulous. The lagoa de Óbidos had always been there on my wish list, a must-see place on the coast before we headed inland to the spa city of Caldas da Rainha then slightly south to the walled hilltop town of Obidos. It felt very strange to be gazing at a hitherto unvisited landscape made so familiar by Google Streetscene.
The salt-water lagoon (the largest in Portugal) offers some of the safest bathing on the Silver Coast with its waters an average of just two metres deep and only five metres at the deepest. In fact, the water channel is regularly dredged to prevent the silting up of the lagoon. In the bright sunshine, the scenery’s resemblance to the Cornish coastline was as striking as ever.
Once again, our hotel breakfast was a pretty impressive affair and we ended up eating far more than was good for us. At least we had the excuse of having a hard day’s hiking ahead of us unlike the majority of the guests.
We left Foz de Arelho having seen very little except of the place except for the wide road leading down to the lagoon and the hotel. The centre of town lay slightly inland and uphill and, of course, we lacked the energy to walk anywhere last night. A cycle path runs adjacent to the northern shoreline and it was bustling on this sunny morning … we even saw several runners. Local men in wellingtons waded into the water carrying spades and plunged their hands into the shallow waters to pull out cockles and clams (the lagoon has long been an important source of income for local communities).
Our curiosity was picqued by a solitary rock standing on a flat area of grass to our left. Rocha do Gronho was a fair distance from both the limestone cliffs and lagoon’s shoreline, yet its tell-tale arch (the principles of sea erosion is the only thing I remember from O level Geography) reveals this wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, the rock would have been pounded by the Atlantic waves, yet now it stands on dry land, clear evidence that this enchanting place is gradually silting up. While it may be that I’ve become somewhat confused by the Portuguese-English translation (especially when said translator is a computer programme), I think I’m right in saying that the lagoa de Óbidos is artificially maintained in that the channel leading into the Atlantic Ocean is maintained by dredging the constantly shifting sands. Without man’s continued assistance, the stunning lagoa de Óbidos could well disappear in the not-so-distant future.
We were disappointed to be leaving the coastline on such a glorious day, albeit for just the one night; however, I was excited at the prospect of visiting Caldas da Rainha. At some point during the spring, I’d identified this spa city with a population of just over 27,000 as being a real possibility in our long-held ‘move to country with half-decent weather’ plans (that’s if Brexit doesn’t completely scupper them). It certainly ticked all the right boxes: close to the sea, not too far from the mountains, good transport links (a nearby motorway and an hour from Lisbon airport), plenty going on and, most important, reasonable house prices.
The trouble with walking everywhere – and always needing to push on – is that we necessarily miss out much of the sightseeing enjoyed by more sedentary types, i.e. you often miss many of the tourist landmarks, especially if they’re not close to one another. For example, Caldas is best known for its thermal spas and ceramics, but we saw evidence of neither as we wandered into town past the enchanting Florobidos Jardinagem, the ubiquitous car salesrooms and apartment blocks which looked like they’d been scattered across the landscape from above. As we headed into the city centre, I could tell from Harri’s face that he wasn’t impressed with what he’d seen so far.
Unfortunately, with the exception of the lush and beautiful (and much photographed) Parque Dom Carlos I – where we enjoyed the strongest and expensive beer of our whole holiday (Czech beer at three euros per half pint bottle) – we were underwhelmed with Caldas. Of course, there were pretty sights: the narrow, tiled streets lined with shops, the flower-laden bicycles (was there some kind of Caldas in Bloom competition going on, we wondered?) and even a peculiar model frog-pool which surely must have been Paul McCartney’s inspiration for ‘We All Stand Together’.
Things got even weirder when, tempted into a pastelarias, we noticed some of the offerings were rather suggestively-shaped. We thought we must be mistaken and the resemblance purely coincidental (dirty minds and all that), until further along the Rua da Liberdade, we spotted a phallic-shaped angel in a shop window. Now, we knew this kind of thing went on in Roman times – a large, distinctively male part is even carved into a Roman wall at Empúries on the Costa Brava – but mixing angels and willies seemed to be taking the whole masculinity theme a bit far. Further research was needed.
The tradition was allegedly started by a royal – King Dom Luis I (who ruled between 1861 and 1889) – who, when visiting Caldas, suggested to local potters than they produce something more interesting than their usual painted crockery. Well, they certainly took his comment to heart because you can now buy all manner of saucy souvenirs here: bottles, mugs, statuettes of footballers (?), even edible items. How I resisted the urge to purchase something I’ll never know!
Our intention had been to spend the afternoon in Caldas da Rainha before catching the teatime train to nearby Obidos, but now we found ourselves torn. It seemed daft to force ourselves to kill hours in a place that hadn’t really caught our fancy when Obidos was within easy walking distance. With a two-hour wait for the next train, we decided to do what bored hikers will always do … it was time to get walking.
Our disappointing experience in Caldas da Rainha made me think about the couples who appear on Channel Four’s Place in the Sun having never previously visited the resort, or occasionally even the country, and base their decision on where to live/holiday long-term purely on their internet research. On ‘paper’ Caldas indeed looked perfect for us (the town even boasts a Lidl, which of course we popped into for some nibbles); however, now we were actually here something about the place just didn’t feel right … for either of us. In contrast, we’d been captivated by Coimbra, a city which hadn’t even appeared on my holiday wish list.
If you want to follow in our footsteps, download our route from Foz de Arelho to Obidos (21.12 km).