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By Darwin Porter Danforth Prince
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-4282-6
Chapter OneThe Best of Portugal
Centuries ago, Portugal was a pioneer of worldwide exploration. Until recently, however, it was never as successful in attracting visitors to its own shores. Outside of greater Lisbon, the Algarve, and the island of Madeira, Portugal remained unknown and undiscovered by the mainstream visitor for many decades.
Today's travelers are beginning to realize that Portugal was unjustly overlooked. It offers sandy beaches, art treasures, flavorful cuisine, a unique form of architecture (Manueline), charming handcrafts, a mild climate, relatively moderate hotel rates, and polite and friendly people. Only 2 million annual visitors came to Portugal in the late 1970s. The number swelled to 20 million in the mid-1990s, and an explosion of hotel and resort building has kept pace.
Despite its small size-225km (140 miles) wide and 612km (380 miles) long-Portugal is one of the most rewarding travel destinations in Europe. Exploring its towns, cities, villages, and countryside will likely take longer than expected because there is so much richness and variety along the way.
The people, whose warmth is legendary, inhabit a majestic land of extraordinary variety. You'll see almond trees in the African-looking Algarve; cork forests and fields of golden wheat in Alentejo; ranches in Ribatejo; narrow, winding streets in the Alfama in Lisbon; ox-drawn carts crossing theplains of Minho; and vineyards in the Douro. Azaleas, rhododendrons, and canna grow for miles on end; the sound of fado music drifts out of small cafes; windmills clack in the Atlantic breezes; sardine boats bob in the bays; and gleaming whitewashed houses glisten in the sun. The sea is never far away.
This list is an embarkation point for the discoveries, like those by the mariners of old, that you'll eventually make on your own.
1 The Best Travel Experiences Hiking in the Algarve: Portugal's incredible physical beauty makes it a spectacular place for outdoor activities. In the southern Algarve region's low-lying lagoons and rocky highlands, the panoramas extend for miles over the nearby ocean. Especially rewarding is trekking through the territory near Sagres, which has retained its mystical hold on journeyers since it was known as the end of the world. Other worthwhile hikes include the footpaths around the villages of Silves and Monchique, where eroded river valleys have changed little since the Moorish occupation. See chapter 8. Pousada-Hopping: After World War II, the Portuguese government recognized that the patrimony of its great past was desperately in need of renovation. It transformed dozens of monasteries, palaces, and convents into hotels, honoring the historical authenticity of their architectural cores. Today's travelers can intimately experience some of Portugal's greatest architecture by staying in a pousada, part of a chain of state-owned and operated hotels. The rooms might not be as opulent as you'd hoped, and the government-appointed staffs will probably be more bureaucratic than you'd care to encounter. Nonetheless, pousada-hopping rewards the visitor with insights into the Portugal of long ago. Playing Golf by the Sea: British merchants trading in Portugal's excellent wines imported the sport of golf around 1890. Until the 1960s, it remained a diversion only for the very wealthy. Then an explosion of interest from abroad led to the creation of at least 30 major courses. Many courses lie near Estoril and in the southern Algarve. The combination of great weather, verdant fairways, and azure seas and skies is almost addictive (as if golf fanatics needed additional motivation). Swooning to Fado: After soccer, fado (which translates as "fate") music is the national obsession. A lyrical homage to the bruised or broken heart, fado assumes forms that are as old as the troubadours. Its four-line stanzas of unrhymed verse, performed by such legendary stars as Amália Rodrigues, capture the nation's collective unconscious. Hearing the lament of the fadistas (fado singers) in clubs is the best way to appreciate the melancholy dignity of Iberia's western edge. Finding a Solitary Beach: Portugal has long been famous for the glamour and style of the beaches near Estoril, Cascais, Setúbal, and Sesimbra. More recently, the Algarve, with its 200km (124 miles) of tawny sands, gorgeous blue-green waters, and rocky coves, has captivated the imagination of northern Europeans. While the most famous beaches are likely to be very crowded, you can find solitude on the sands if you stop beside lonely expanses of any coastal road in northern Portugal. Fishing in Rich Coastal Waters: Portugal's position on the Atlantic, its (largely) unpolluted waters, and its flowing rivers encourage concentrations of fish. You won't be the first to plumb these waters-Portugal fed itself for hundreds of generations using nets and lines, and its maritime and fishing traditions are among the most entrenched in Europe. The mild weather allows fishing year-round for more than 200 species, including varieties not seen anywhere else (such as the 2m/6-ft.-long). The country's rivers and lakes produce three species of trout, black bass, and salmon; the cold Atlantic abounds in sea bass, shark, tope, grouper, skate, and swordfish. Trekking to the End of the World: For medieval Europeans, the southwestern tip of Portugal represented the final frontier of human security and power. Beyond that point, the oceans were dark and fearful, filled with demons waiting to devour the bodies and souls of mariners foolhardy enough to sail upon them. Adding Sagres and its peninsula to the Portuguese nation cost thousands of lives in battle against the Moors, and getting there required weeks of travel over rocky deserts. Making a pilgrimage to this outpost is one of the loneliest and most majestic experiences in Portugal. Come here to pay your respects to the navigators who embarked from Sagres on journeys to death or glory. Half a millennium later, the excitement of those long-ago voyages still permeates this lonely corner. See chapter 8. Losing It at a Spa: Compared to the sybaritic luxury of spas in Germany and France, Portuguese spas are underaccessorized, and by California's frenetic standards, they're positively sleepy. Still, central and northern Portugal share about half a dozen spas whose sulfur-rich waters have been considered therapeutic since the days of the ancient Romans. Luso, Monte Real, and Curia are the country's most famous spas, followed closely by Caldas do Gerês, Vimeiro, and São Pedro do Sul. Don't expect the latest in choreographed aerobics and spinning classes; instead, sink into communion with nature, rid your body of the toxins of urban life, and retire early every night for recuperative sleep. Tasting & Touring in Port Wine Country: Across the Rio Douro from the heart of the northern city of Porto lies Vila Nova de Gaia, the headquarters of the port-wine trade since the 1600s. From vineyards along the Douro, wine is transported to "lodges" (warehouses), where it is matured, bottled, and eventually shipped around the world. More than 25 companies, including such well-known names as Sandeman, maintain port-wine lodges here. Each offers free guided tours, always ending with a tasting of one or two of the house wines. The tourist office in Porto will provide you with a map if you'd like to drive along the Douro to see the vineyards. See chapter 11. 2 The Best Towns to Visit Sintra: Since the Moorish occupation, Portuguese kings and nobles have recognized this town's irresistible charm. You'll find a denser concentration of beautiful villas and gardens here than you'll find anywhere else in Portugal. At least five major palaces and convents are tucked amid the lush vegetation. See section 5 in chapter 5. Óbidos: This town is the most perfectly preserved 13th-century village in central Portugal. Its historic authenticity is the primary concern of the population of less than 5,000. For 600 years, Óbidos was the personal property of Portuguese queens, a symbolic love offering from their adoring husbands. Óbidos has always breathed romance. See section 1 in chapter 7. Nazaré: This folkloric fishing village in central Portugal produces wonderful handcrafts. The town has a strong sense of traditional culture that's distinctly different from that of nearby communities. See section 3 in chapter 7. Fátima: In 1913, an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children from Fátima, who were called upon to spread a message of peace. Their story was at first discounted and then embraced by a church hierarchy under assault by the ravages of World War I. Later, 70,000 people who were assembled on the site claimed to witness miracles. Today Fátima is the most-visited pilgrimage site in Iberia, home to dozens of imposing churches and monuments. See section 5 in chapter 7. Évora: A well-preserved ancient Roman temple rises across the street from convents and monasteries that flourished when the kings of Portugal used this town as their capital in the 12th century. These buildings combine with remnants of the Moorish occupation to form one of the most alluring architectural medleys in Europe. Although not large, Évora is one of the country's most perfectly preserved architectural gems. See section 4 in chapter 9. Tomar: Beginning in the 12th century, the Knights Templar and later the Knights of Christ (two warlike and semimonastic sects) designated Tomar as their Portuguese headquarters. They lavished the town with adornments over the centuries until it looked, as it does today, like a living monument to the architecture of medieval Portugal. See section 1 in chapter 9. Coimbra: The country's academic center, this town boasts a university with roots in the Middle Ages, a rich historic core, and a tradition of troubadour-style singing that's one of the most vital in Iberia. See section 3 in chapter 10. Porto: The second city of Portugal, Porto has rich associations with the port-wine trade. Entrepreneurs who returned home after making their fortunes in Brazil built some of the town's most imposing villas in the late 19th century. See section 1 in chapter 11. Guimarães: The birthplace of the country's first king, Afonso Henríques, and the core from which the country expanded, Guimarães is the cradle of Portugal. Its medieval core is one of the most authentic anywhere. The town was also the birthplace of Gil Vicente (1470?-1536?), a playwright referred to as the Shakespeare of Portugal. See section 1 in chapter 12. Viana do Castelo: This northern town with strong folkloric traditions is noted for pottery, women's regional dresses, abundant rainfall, and a collection of distinctive and dignified public buildings. Its heyday was in the 1500s, when fleets departed from here to fish for cod as far away as Newfoundland. Profits from their activities helped pay for the town's handsome collection of Manueline buildings. See section 5 in chapter 12. 3 The Best Beaches Costa do Sol: Sometimes called the Estoril Coast, this stretch of seafront extends 32km (20 miles) west of Lisbon. Its two major resorts are Estoril and Cascais. Once the playground of the wintering wealthy, the area now attracts throngs of tourists, mainly from northern Europe. See sections 1 and 2 in chapter 5. The Algarve: This region at the southern tip of Portugal gained its place on world tourist maps because of its string of beautiful, clean, sandy beaches. Lovely coves, caves, and grottos-some accessible only by boat-add to the region's allure. There are hundreds of beaches to choose from. Albufeira and Praia da Rocha are set against a backdrop of towering rock formations; the best cove beach is at Lagos, a former Moorish town with a deep-water harbor and wide bay. See chapter 8. The Beiras: In central Portugal, north of Lisbon, some of the finest beaches in Europe open onto the Atlantic. Like gems in a necklace, good, sandy beaches stretch from Praia de Leirosa north to Praia de Espinho. The surf can be heavy and the undertow strong. Major resorts include Figueira da Foz and nearby Buarcos. The beaches between Praia de Mira and Costa Nova are more secluded. See section 2 in chapter 10. Costa Verde: As the northern coastline approaches Galicia in Spain, the Atlantic waters grow colder, and even in summer, they're likely to be windswept. But on certain days they're among the most dramatic in Europe. We like the wide, sandy beach at Ponte de Lima, but there are many others. Notable destinations are the resort of Espinho, south of Porto, and other beach meccas, including Póvoa do Varzim and Ofir, which have some of the best hotels, restaurants, and watersports equipment in the country. See sections 2 and 4 in chapter 11. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Frommer's Portugal by Darwin Porter Danforth Prince Excerpted by permission.
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