Visiting the Gardens of Portugal & Galicia: Part 1

By April 8, 2019April 11th, 2019Garden Tour
Galicia Garden Tour - Camellia

About a month ago I was lucky enough to co-lead a garden-centric tour to Portugal & Galicia for The Hardy Plant Society of Oregon.  HPSO has a robust garden-centric travel program, where the tours are often less expensive than similar options because the tour leaders do their work as volunteers.  It was my first time doing a tour for HPSO (but not the last!), and there was a tremendous amount of planning that went into it, but even with all the planning I didn’t know exactly what to expect.

As a younger person I traveled extensively, backpacking as a student in Europe, living in London for a little while after graduating where part of my job was to take small graduate student groups on tours of western Europe, visiting friends in Costa Rica, and traveling to India a couple of times for work.  My ex husband is from Scotland, so we also made many trips there and took advantage of the proximity of Europe to explore while visiting his family. Since moving to Portland, however, my travel schedule slowed down because a couple of super cute dogs (Gus & Ernie) joined my life, and it’s never felt right to leave them for long periods of time.

Gus & Ernie

Since the divorce, I know I can leave the dogs with my ex and that they’ll be well cared for and loved, and that allows me to take off for parts unknown. So this trip was my first trip to Europe in about decade.  I’d been to Barcelona in Spain a couple of times before, but never Galicia, and I’d never been to Portugal, so all of it was new to me.  Luckily, my co-leader, Lois Moss, is a seasoned tour leader, had done a scouting trip to many of the places we visited about a year earlier, and was happy to be my mentor.  Like I said, lucky me!

A learning experience for me was in my arrival time for the tour.  I should have arrived an entire day early to give myself time to adjust a bit, catch up on some sleep, and recalibrate… instead, due to overestimating myself, I arrived around 5am the morning of our first day.  I did have the entire day to myself, because our first joint event was a dinner that evening, but it would have been nice to get a full night’s sleep before diving in.

The mist on the river in Porto just after arriving in town.

Our hotel the first night in Porto, the Pestana Vintage.

The buildings along the Douro river in Porto.

This bridge, that we walked over later in the evening to get dinner, is the Maria Pia Bridge. It’s a railway bridge built in 1877 and attributed to Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame).

I did some exploring with Lois and one of our group members, Doris, that first day and we saw some great cathedrals and lovely architecture. Here’s the walk up the hill from the hotel at the river.

Lots of the buildings there are covered in beautiful tiles.

Here’s the bridge up close as we walked over to get dinner.

And here’s the amazing view from the bridge looking back over Porto and our hotel.

As you can tell, I’m going to share more than just the gardens we saw, but there are great gardens coming, I promise.  There were just over 30 of us in total on the tour, and we traveled by coach (aka: bus).  It was a sweet ride, very comfortable, and piloted by a lovely driver, Arturo.


Inside of the coach.

The first stop on our first full day was Guimarães, which has a hilltop castle with sweeping views, and a lovely, walkable town center.  This seems like a good time to introduce, Gavin, our guide.  He gave us amazing history and context while on the bus to prepare us for what we were seeing each day, and coordinated our visits with the local guides at our stops.  He speaks fluent Portugese (and many other languages) and is exceptionally good at his job.

Gavin, our guide, coordinating things on his mobile from atop a rock in Guimarães.

Exploring Guimarães.

A local seed supplier.

Beautiful balconies that seem well utilized and loved.

Exiting a cathedral with some impressive door decoration.

The kind of architecture that’s been around for awhile. Everything there is built of granite.

A courtyard garden in Guimarães.

The gardened balconies of Guimarães.

More gardened balconies.

The trip took place during Camellia season, and Camellias are a big deal there because the conditions are perfect for them to thrive.  I’m going to be honest with you, I think Camellias are just an okay sort-of plant.  I can think of lots of things I’d rather have in my own garden, because it’s a bit of a one-trick pony, but I can still appreciate how beautiful they can be. They also do well in the PNW because we also have the kind of climate (and soil) that they thrive in, but now when I see them I get to remember this trip, so they’ve taken on a new dimension for me. Our next stop (after lunch) included a beautiful camellia garden at a castle, and had us crossing over the border into Spain.

It’s easy to see the visual connection between Galicia and Ireland and Cornwall, and why the Celtic people must have felt so at home there. This is Castillo de Soutomaior.

The fallen petals of Camellia japonica.

There were also a surprising number of tree ferns in many of the gardens, showing just how mild and damp their winters are.

The view down into the valley from Castillo de Soutomaior.

Leaving Castillo de Soutomaior, we headed to Pontevedra (which means old bridge) for the night.  In my next post we’ll see one of my favorite gardens from the trip, do our first wine tasting, and visit a Camellia show.  Stay tuned!


Kate Anchev

Author Kate Anchev

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Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Jerry Larimer says:

    You did a great job! Just a reminder of a great time in our lives. Will be waiting to see the rest of our journey.

    • Kate McMillan says:

      Thanks, Jerry! Have the lovely postcard from you two here on my desk. Looking forward to going through the rest of our journey in future posts too.

  • Lois says:

    Love this!! Your photos are fabulous and it’s so nice to read and revisit the tour. I’m usually so distracted and thinking about the next thing to come that I don’t see what’s right in front of me. I’ll enjoy leisurely enjoying the tour again. Kate – you were a fabulous co-leader and I’d love to do another tour with you.

  • This is exactly the kind of travel post I enjoy! Plants, architecture, little random details. I’m so excited to share your trip with you….

  • Oh, beautiful, Kate! Thanks so much for sharing this with us. The old world craftsmanship is such a pleasure to see–not as good as being there, I know, but your experiences are as close a “degree of separation” as I can feel. How interesting about Galicia, Ireland and Cornwall. Tree ferns…sigh <3. So close to Portland climate, yet so far.

    • Kate McMillan says:

      Thanks, Alyse! I’m putting together the next installment now — looking forward to sharing more.

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