The past three solo trips I've done have been fabulous, but after a month traveling in Portugal this summer, I have to say I felt ready to go home. Then again, now I am home I already miss certain things: greasy batatas fritas (french fries), my daily sampling of port wine, the easy-going Mediterranean ambience in the south, and the friendly disposition of the Portuguese. Last year I spent nine days hiking in Switzerland, and though it was enjoyable, I thought I would have hiked longer distances had I not been alone. For that reason, I decided, this year, to combine my solo trip with a 2-week group tour with the travel company Explore.
My first two weeks on my own were based in Faro, in the Algarve, southern Portugal, then in Sintra, a beautiful village just a 45-minute train ride west of Lisbon. Both places were excellent transportation hubs with frequent, inexpensive buses to other beach resorts and villages, such as the popular beach resort of Cascais, which was a 40-minute bus ride from Sintra. Sintra was my favorite stop because of its extremely friendly and courteous people, its lushly forested surroundings with excellent hiking, its romantic castles and manor houses, and also because I found comfortable accommodation at Residencial Sintra (see If You Go).
As always when traveling alone, from time to time I met up with other solo travelers, and we shared stories and experiences. Meeting fellow travelers is always a highlight and among my most cherished memories of solo trips.
At the beginning of my third week, I traveled by bus from Lisbon to Porto in northern Portugal to meet up with the Explore group. I arrived a day early and was delighted to find Porto a charming, if ramshackle, city with a very compact center making it easy to explore on foot. I couldn't speak with such fondness of Lisbon.
After two weeks on my own in southern and west central Portugal exploring different beach areas, coastal villages, and hiking solo, I looked forward to having the companionship of the group while touring and walking the mountain valleys and medieval towns of northern Portugal.
I joined the group the following day, and we traveled eastward toward Spain, spending several nights each in Peso da Regua and Bragança, then we looped back westward to the spa town of Gerês, then to Braga, Ponte de Lima and finally, back to Porto at the end of the two-week tour.
I enjoyed peaceful and scenic rambles in the Parque Natural Do Montesinho, the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, and the hilly vineyards, wooded areas and farmers' fields in the Lima valley region. Ponte de Lima was my favorite spot for independent hiking.
I found the traditional farming methods and way of life in northeastern Portugal almost alarming in their simplicity and medieval character. The absence of other tourists in these areas gave me the feeling that we were experiencing an exclusive peek into the villagers' daily life. All the people we encountered were quick to exchange greetings with a friendly bom dia or boa tarde.
The last few days were pleasantly spent in Porto doing several port wine lodge tours, a river cruise down the Douro, and just lingering in the city's rich and colorful atmosphere.
On the positive side of group experience, I am glad I connected with this group because I believe each of our unique personalities contributed to a few fun evenings and lots of shared laughter. With the group I traveled and hiked in regions I never would have ventured to on my own. It was, for me, a good way to experience the more remote areas of northern Portugal. Also, I did have opportunity for more independent time in the latter half of the tour, which allowed for personal exploration of nearby countryside and villages. However, after the do-as-you-please freedom of traveling solo, I found the rigid schedules and group mealtimes and meal choices very restrictive. As with any group of people, some were less friendly and easy-going than others. All in all, I found group travel more stressful than solo travel.
While there were pros and cons for each side of the experience, on the whole, this part-solo, part-group trip made it apparent that my preference is for solo travel.