Oh, Portugal!

Portugal is a country that many know for its famous cities – Porto and Lisbon – or for its resort-infested southern coast in the Algarve region. I had a few days to get to know Portugal by car and what I saw changed my relationship with the Iberian Peninsula forever. Portugal is an under-populated, generous, picturesque and affordable Mediterranean paradise.

Day One: The Wild West and wine valleys…

Trás-os-montes. The land behind the hills. The northwest region of Portugal that connects with Spain and where the great Duoro River leaks out into Castilla to become the Duero. A land of drought and cacti. A land of poverty and dusty little towns forgotten by tourism and unknown to the world. It is also a place of rugged canyonlands and old medieval towns from where the young have emigrated. At the little hilltop town of Torre de Moncorvo no English is spoken and smashing up some Spanish I am able to order coffees and a bun. No smiles. The famous trasmontano hospitality. Not rude. Just old and rural.

Then over a high pass where vineyards had sprung and the world fell away to greener pastures. We had entered the Duoro wine valley. A UNESCO wonderland of steep river-canyon walls tickertaped with vine terraces covering 41,700 hectares. Away from the motorways tiny roads slinked up into the heights affording views that painters would drool at. Here and there a Quinta – estate – would sit primly with a whole tapestry of wine wrapped around it; bone white amongst the green.

Under nebulous spitting clouds Pinhão – a scruffy village at the heart of the wine region and on the bend of the river – offered a brief refuge. Safe from a violent rainstorm I sipped some homemade ‘vinho generoso’ at a local bar where they didn't bother to put the lights on and which had walls covered in small bottles and panels of keyrings and postcards lining the doorway. Past walls covered in beautiful duck blue and china white tiles called azulejos we crept out of the valley, away from its bursting verdancy and its little roadside markets where old ladies sold cherries from their cars.

Before reaching the last, fast corridor of motorway that shot to Porto there was time for a brief stop in Amarante – an odd town sunk in a shallow valley and gracefully straddling the Tâmega River. Visually there were a few attractive streets but nothing much else until the eye chances upon the rebuilt medieval São Gonçalo Bridge that jumps high from one bank to another. On the other side is a striking white monastery with a theatrical terracotta tiled roof and just set behind it on a little clump of hill, another small church with bumpy cobbles streets whispering around it.

Day Two: Porto the pearl of Portugal…

Where to begin with this most romantic of cities?

With the food? There were hunks of cod cooked slow with roasted red peppers, sweet onions and olives and served Bragança style with fried potatoes; plates of melted azeitão cheese and azaruja sausage; sweet egg custard tarts called pastéis de nata; slow baked veal with saffron rice and roast potatoes; sardines served in piquant oil; delicate presunto ham; line-caught whole roasted sea bass…

With the drinks? Port wines that range from warm, sweet and blackcurrant-coloured Rubies to smoky ochre Tawnies and cold, chip dries and that are best served at the hillside Taylors winery; the ever so slightly fizzy and refreshing vinho verde from the northern Minho region; fruity reds from the Duoro that are best drunk with cooked meats; or fiery homemade aguardente spirit that sets flame to your chest and lifts you up after dinner…

With the city’s visual appeal? Porto is a town whose beauty is as postcard-perfect as it is ramshackle. Hugging the Duoro River a staggered layer of multicoloured tiled walls rise up onto a hillside. Scarlets and pastel lemons; Wedgwood blues and creams; Cadbury’s browns and bright peaches and pinks; a Technicolor wall of civilization sitting under orange terracotta. Viewed from afar, from the Gaia district over the enormous wrought-iron bridge on the other side of the water, the city seems carved by the eye of a Venetian artist. Up close the smashed windows, faded paintwork and scarred doors tell the story of a poor country. 

What hasn’t left this area, the Ribeira district, is the romance. Little alleys snaking away up and around, plump with cobbles, hide tiny family-run restaurants bursting with seafood and super-chic wine bars proffering little known cheeses. The waters of the Duoro always feel nearby. The cathedral looks over everything; a kaleidoscopic explosion of hues and spires. And over the water, over that giant bridge, a large monastery beams back, with the Port lodges at its base and little boats, barcos robelos, bobbing with barrels. Stray cats own the old town and little old ladies in pinnies dust their doorsteps as the occasional tourist bent on exploring peers up and down with a lens.

With its variety? Tiring of city life – such as that is in central Porto – the beach is just a short bus ride west. Foz do Duoro. Clean sands try to find space between a lively coastline studded with boulders and seaweed. Little bars take advantage of their slots and throw tables and chairs onto the shore. A stubby lighthouse stands proudly at the end of a pier covered with fisherman catching sea bass as the Atlantic pummels the city for all its worth. Little old trams occasionally float past and tiny fishing boats covered in gulls turn slowly in the estuary while churches and forts draw the eye.
Where to begin with Porto? Where to end?

Day Three: Universities and Monasteries…

The drive down to Sintra warrants as many stops as could fill an entire holiday. To choose but two is heartbreaking. But the call of that southern fairytale town meant we couldn’t bear to arrive too late.

Through a landscape reminiscent of a sun-soaked Galicia – furry hills covered in eucalyptus forests and more green than you knew existed – we arrived at Coimbra: Portugal’s answer to Oxford. A hill on a river in the coastal Beira region. A dense web of attractive but impoverished streets covered in graffiti produced a charismatic hub of lanes that would be horrible for the elderly or invalid. At the peak of this steep warren of cafes and religious buildings sits one of the oldest universities in the world, and the oldest in Portugal. The nobility of its scholastic centre is matched by the beauty of the buildings themselves. Bright cream coloured and bedecked with turrets and flags, the main university building sits like a fort on the summit of the hill. Students walk around in long cloaks while red-faced visitors snap away. Back in town a local festival is taking place. Coimbrans in local dress play guitars and drums, sing folk songs and sell traditional pastries. It is a busy and buzzing place.

Deep into the Estremadura region we reach Tomar, a pleasant village surrounded by a horseshoe of gentle peaks, upon one of which sits an enormous monastery-fortress once owned by the Templars. The Convent of Christ could be central Portugal’s Alhambra. It is a silly and overblown complex of churches, cloisters, spiral staircases, stuccowork and gardens all surrounded by a crenellated wall. Other giant UNESCO-listed monuments were nearby – Batalha, Alcobaça – but the call of Sintra snagged us and so we once again joined the empty motorways and headed south towards Lisbon.

Day Four: Medieval Fairytales…

Sintra spread over an afternoon and a morning and included a night. It was…like nowhere else I had ever been. The closest thing resembling it is the mad but brilliant lunacy of Portmeirion. The only difference being that that eccentric Welsh resort was designed by one man trying to create a Portofino in Britain, whereas Sintra is the result of a history of one-upmanship by a cadre of wealthy Portuguese.

Sintra is a frilly selection of absurd by undeniably beautiful palaces and mansions rising up from the cutesy town to pepper the small and singular mountain range that sits immediately next-door. All manner of styles and colours are present, so trying to describe the place is futile. Standing guard over the town are two very different buildings that top two neighbouring peaks of the Serra do Sintra. One is the fine remnant of an old Moorish castle and the other is the over the top Pena Palace.

The Moorish castle is low walled and looks like it has been drawn by a child. The views it commands are wide-reaching – the sea, the villages, the fields, the mountain range. Everything is visible. The Pena Palace is a ridiculous and gargantuan mish-mash of different styles all comprising one large complex perched precariously on one of the highest points of the range. A yellow, red, grey, mustard and cream hodgepodge of Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic and Neo-Renaissance styles all clumped together in the 19th century. It is a wonderful sight.

Before being swallowed up by Spain there is time left of a day to visit the large sandy arms of beach that hug the Atlantic coast near Sintra before hitting the motorway again to stop in Evora – the jewel of the Alentejo region. Sheltered by a large medieval wall Evora is a yellow and white town of a homogenous beauty that wouldn’t look out of place in Andalucia.

A settlement of grand churches, isolated cobbled streets, an abbey with a cave of bones, of hearty roasted meat dishes served with heavy red wines, of Roman temples and of panoramas disappearing off to rumbling plains speckled by farmsteads. The old city is hot and sits reflective under a powerful blue sky. The asymmetrical cathedral looks like an old thin cat that lives in a town famous but retiring calmly in its old age. Evora: a place to write a poem with a glass of something red and then move on to headier climes.

Portugal showed itself to me and left me wanting more. The Algarve, the forgotten villages of the inland Beira region, those great old cities of northern Minho, the canals of Aveiro and the castle of Obidos. So much more to see. And of course there is always the sensual pull of Porto or the thrill of Lisbon to invite me back. Portugal: the close friend who you knew nothing about.