Once a powerful seafaring kingdom that dominated the merchant routes to Africa, South America and the Orient, Portugal today is a friendly, low-key place with a laidback vibe and a fantastic coastline, much of it fringed by golden sands and endless dunes. Its rolling interior is perfect for exploring on foot, by kayak, by bike or even on horseback – though a large part of the country’s charm comes from languorous days on the beach, dining on fabulously fresh seafood and kicking back with a beer to watch the sunset over the Atlantic.
The legacy of Portugal’s former wealth and power can be seen in its historic cities – yet the capital, Lisbon, superbly sited on the Tejo river estuary, is as popular today for its lively clubbing scene as for its grand Manueline monuments and medieval alleyways. Porto meanwhile, the country’s second city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the best place to sample some of the many varieties of Portugal’s other notable contribution to the world, port wine.
Portugal’s borders have changed little since it became an independent country in the twelfth century. Mountains make up the bulk of the frontier with Spain, with the large rivers of the Minho in the north and the Guadiana in the south adding to this natural divide. Early Portuguese monarchs fortified the border with a series of walled towns, many sited on dramatic hilltops, and these make the border areas some of the most fascinating to visit.
Beaches and high mountains aside, the rest of Portugal is a diverse and verdant country of deep valleys and rolling hills dotted with stone-built villages. For generations, families have eked out a living from the steeply terraced vineyards of the mountainous north, and from the cork oak plantations roamed by wild boar that dominate the vast agricultural plains of the south.
Food and wine are fundamental. The occasional modern restaurant apart, tradition rules: hearty portions of local dishes, meat, hams and sausages, game in season, magnificent fish and seafood, the beloved salt cod (Bacalhau), copious bread, rice and potatoes, and a bottle of olive oil always at the ready. Dessert is obligatory –1,001 delightful combinations of egg yolks with sugar: lots of sugar.
Portugal’s winemakers have been equally conservative in one respect – keeping faith with their grapes. And no wonder! Portugal’s varieties are unique, with thrillingly different flavours. Yet quality-wise, there has been no resting on traditional laurels. A quarter-century of investment, education, open-mindedness and flair have meant explosive change. Choice has multiplied too. Alongside co-ops and large companies, myriad estates now make their own distinctive wines.