What will you see when you go?

November is kind of a gloomy month here in New England. The weather can be all over the place with snow and ice, and frankly I have tucked my carriages away for the winter months. So how do we come up with an antidote to November in New England? You go to Portugal and experience one of the oldest horse fairs in all of Europe, the Golega Horse Fair!

The Golega Horse Fair has existed since the mid 18th century in a rather small rural town about an hour and half from Lisbon. So what is the Golega Horse Fair like? I don’t want to say that it is a big party but it is! Half of the fun of the Golega Horse Fair is walking to the center of the town. Even the car garages along the walk are turned into stabling. If you are lucky enough to walk by when the doors are open, you see many horse stalls, driving vehicles and tack areas. Every corner of Golega is chock full of horses. Also keep in mind that this event goes on well into the night.

Once you get slightly closer to the town center, the narrow streets are packed with people, booths selling everything imaginable, curbside pastry and wine shops, and restaurants roasting pigs tempting you to sit and eat. As you walk through the crowds, horses both ridden and driven are weaving through the streets. It is not unusual to see a rider or two stopped at the various wine shops having a drink of local wine. As you get even closer to the town center, you see incredible tack stores selling traditional Portuguese tack, harnesses and even a couple of stores full of carriages. Hubby had to constantly remind me that we were going there to see the horses, we were not on a buying trip. While you are doing this, you definitely know you are in Portugal since loudspeakers are playing traditional Fado music with some fabulous recorded singers helping you to get in the mood.

Where do you see the horses displayed? The center of town is taken over by a big dirt ring where classes are held for the Lusitano horses; a dirt track runs around it. There are a couple of buildings on two sides that face the center area with standing stalls that the horses are displayed in. We were there on the first weekend of the Horse Fair which meant that things were less crowded but we didn’t get to see the display of the many stallions in these buildings. This usually happens on St. Martin’s Day (November 11th) and after, or so I was told.

From the driving point of view we saw everything possible and not just Lusitano horses. Most of the driving horses and ponies wore bells around their necks. I had to chuckle on the first day we were there when some enterprising person drove a pair that consisted of a donkey (not happy) and what looked like a Welsh pony. Not a pretty picture as the poor donkey kept trying to exit the track. You see more than a few young children having a blast driving ponies and donkeys around the track being part of this traditional experience. You see beautiful pairs of ponies and horses including more than a few Friesians. Plenty of driving eye candy to keep me happy as we stood by the edge of the track watching whips showing off their turnouts and driving style.

The ridden displays were outstanding and were intermixed with driven displays as they all circle around the track. It is kind of a big free for all for all for those who enjoy their equines. I think the thing that impressed me the most about the whole Golega Horse Fair was the fact that entire families were involved. Many of the children rode behind their father’s or sibling’s saddle on special saddle pads. The riding sticks that you see each rider use are from a quince tree and you can buy a big bundle of them at any of the tack shops.

After visiting Golega, we decided to tone back our travel plans to a more relaxed environment. We decided to drive about two hours southwest to a lovely location in the Alentejo plains (not that far from the Spanish border) to one of the three famous marble towns of Portugal being Vila Vicosa. Why did we pick Vila Vicosa? Vila Vicosa is a charming small town with tons of history and has one of the best carriage collections outside of Lisbon. While it is called the Ducal Palace, it is home to the last royal family of Portugal. We visited the Palace on a Tuesday and joined a non-English speaking tour. It wasn’t hard for us to follow the tour since as a history nut, I knew much of the history and our kind tour guide took time to speak to us aside in English. There are English language tours on other days but the timing didn’t fit into our schedule.

The carriage collection is a Portuguese only tour with little signage. Some experts complain that numerous carriages were taken from the private collection of the Ducal Palace to the new National Coach Museum in Lisbon. The museum store has a great book that includes most of the carriages on display and definitely is a must to purchase. What a fabulous collection of vehicles from ornate ceremonial vehicles dating from the early 18th century to hunting breaks and some more than interesting two wheel vehicles. Sadly, no photographs were allowed. These carriages were used by the royal family. The vehicles came from makers in Portugal, Spain, France and England. For me, the most interesting vehicle was the eyeglass chaise. It has large wheels behind the enclosed area for occupants and includes black wrapping leather curtains with two small glass windows. The two-wheel vehicle could be driven by the occupants or according to the catalogue by a ‘boleerio’ (man on a horse, holding reins, driving by the side).

Lisbon is charming city of seven hills so be prepared to climb these hills whether on foot, using a funicular, lift or the fabulous old tram. Much of the city you see today is a product of reconstruction done by Marquess of Pombal after the 1755 earthquake. This earthquake happened on November 1st (All Saint’s’ Day) and between the earthquake, tsunami, and massive fires, Lisbon was nearly destroyed. This earthquake is considered one of the deadliest in history. Only the haunting ruins of the Carmo Convent in the Chiado district were left as a reminder of this horrible day. Out of all of this destruction, two parts of Lisbon survived with little damage, namely the Belem district and the Alfama.

While Lisbon has many charms, I think I need to focus on our favorite part of Lisbon: Belem. Why is it our favorite part of Lisbon? It would have to be because of the National Coach Museum. We previously visited this museum back in 2007. The museum opened in 1905 in a rather unique building being a former royal riding school that was completed in 1828. It is a rather difficult building to visit just once. Your eye is drawn to the fabulous ceiling paintings, the incredible architecture and then when you get your senses under control, you get to see carriages that span three centuries of royal carriage design. For me, it was like visiting one of the finest cathedrals of Europe with the art form being carriages. People talk about art being “in situ” being the place the art should be. For me, this was the case.

I was hesitant about visiting the new National Coach Museum that had been under construction for more than a few years. Viewed from the outside, the new National Coach Museum looks like a cold cement building and it is rather hard to find the entrance that is hidden under the massive building. While the building doesn’t have the grandeur of the riding school, it is climate controlled. There is much more space for the vehicles to be displayed and preserved for future generations and I want these fabulous carriages preserved. Sadly there was little signage describing these vehicles but you can see them in all their glory from all angles in a big space. Photos are allowed. A visit to the bookstore can solve the signage issue since they have an excellent book on the collection. You can purchase a combined ticket for both the new National Coach Museum and the Riding School (old National Coach Museum).

There are so many notable carriages at the National Coach Museum. My favorite is the Embassy Coach to Pope Clement XI – Oceans. This is a breath-taking creation that I can’t do justice to by describing (see photo). It underwent restoration between 1995 and 1999 that returned it to 18th century magnificence. It is only one of the many examples of this collection of vehicles where you just need to take the time to just stand and take in what you see. For me, this is not a museum that that I can rush through. I needed time to think about how the history of Portugal shaped this collection just as with the Ducal Palace carriage collection. Both of these carriage museums are treasures that we are so lucky to be able to enjoy today. Combined with the living heritage of the Golega Horse Fair, I can’t think of a better trip to Europe in November. Take my word and just do it. You will never regret your trip

Planning tips:
You do need a rental car to visit Golega and Vila Vicosa but driving in Portugal is very easy. I do recommend that you get a transponder for your car since some of the toll roads have no toll takers and some roads are transponder only.

If you want to stay in Golega for the first weekend of the Horse Fair, you need to start about six months in advance to get a hotel room. If you opt for the last weekend of the event, I would recommend a year in advance. We stayed at Hotel Lusitano in Golega and would highly recommend it Vila Vicosa has several fine hotel options and we found no booking problems in November. Note that most major museums are closed on Mondays in Portugal.

You do not want a rental car in Lisbon because parking is extremely difficult. It is easy to take a taxi from the airport to your hotel in Lisbon and costs about 15 euros. Public transportation is outstanding and the taxis are very reasonable. There is a Lisboa Card that includes free or discounted admission to many of the museums in Lisbon and free transportation. You have to do your homework and see if you are going to visit enough museums to have the card pay for itself. Many museums do have a senior discount. The Via Viagem card (public transportation) costs .50 euro and is reloadable for up to a year. You can do it for one day (6 euro) or zapping for specific amount of money. We did the daily option.

Every third Sunday, Lisbon has the Changing of the Guards at the Belem Palace. Well worth seeing it if you have the chance. If you are interested in visiting the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art, it has recently relocated from the Queluz Palace (we attended a fabulous display in April 2014) to just behind the Royal Riding School in Belem at the Henrique Calado Riding Ring. You can find their schedule at You can attend training sessions, weekly performances and monthly special events with tickets available online. Sadly, when we were there in November there were no performances or training sessions.

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