There are more ways than one to see Portugal; for Portugal despite its narrow width is a long and varied country with a rich heritage that reflects its foundation in 1139, making it one of the oldest nation-states in Europe. The regions are distinctive, each having their own architecture, their own cuisine and their own wines.
In the cooler north, the landscape is green, with houses in heavy granite; whilst the south is an essay in sun-burnished sands and white-washed cottages with the characteristic lattice-worked chimney pots, evidence of the area’s long occupation by the Moors.
But perhaps it is the country’s western coastline where the furthest reaches of mainland Europe meet the Atlantic, where limestone cliffs and golden coves stand firm against the bracing waves that most represent this resilient country, which unlike so much of the rest of the world has resisted the modern march of globalism.
After sixteen years of living in the country, I continue to admire the Portuguese stand of doing things their own way; of celebrating their culinary heritage, the wines from their own soil, bottled with cork from their own trees, without looking over their shoulder to see what others do or think, like so much of today’s world does, that new is always better.
“In Braga they pray, in Porto they work, in Coimbra they study, in Lisbon they govern and in the Algarve they play” goes the saying but don’t only stick to the cities and the seaside. Explore the wide plains of the Alentejo, where storks nest on every chimney and black pigs roam free under oak trees; megalithic dolmens dot the landscape and fortified medieval towns are illuminated against the clear night skies. Artisans are at their greatest in this region; weaving rugs, making cheeses, bottling fruity olive oils.
The Algarve is an all year destination weather-wise, apart from a couple of rainy weeks at some point between October and April. The North is less certain, with a generally wetter climate but reliably hot summers. Whilst centrally placed Lisbon guarantees warm temperature year round, with its particular brand of white light which dances over the red roofs under an inevitably blue sky.
1. Portuguese palaces and art in Lisbon and Sintra
Sintra, famously described by Byron as a “glorious Eden” brims with rich and romantic heritage from the exotic tropical gardens of Moorish Monserrate Palace, to the colourful eclecticism of Pena Palace. Visiting these accompanied by art historian, Dr Anne Anderson is just part of a fascinating four-day tour which also takes in the Manueline jewel of the Monastery of Jerónimos in Belém, and the opulent mosaics in the Baroque church of São Roque in the heart of Lisbon.
2. Birdwatching in the South
The south of Portugal, right on the migration path, is one of Europe’s top bird watching destinations. From hoopoes to bee eaters, bustards to black bellied sand grouse, there are, both inland and on the salt pans, a huge variety of birds to see. On this seven-day guided tour, led by an expert naturalist guide, you also go out on the Ocean where, while looking for Cory’s and Great Shearwaters in the skies above, you might be lucky enough to see dolphins frolicking in the waters around you.
3. Family adventure in the Algarve
A family holiday in the sunshine with fresh air, lots of exercise and the excitement of learning new sports removes the need for screen time conflicts. KE Adventure offers a week at a converted farmhouse in an unspoilt corner of the Algarve, where the hosts, qualified experts in the sporting activities on offer, will take you kayaking down rivers to the sea, teach you archery, introduce you to surfing, go rock-climbing and every so often allow you a rest in the hammocks in their lovely garden.
4. Cruising through the Douro Valley
The oldest demarcated wine region in the world, the Douro Valley is also one of the most dramatically beautiful, with steeply terraced vineyards tumbling down to the river banks. Wine and port tasting are high up on the agenda of this eight-day river cruise on Her Majesty’s royal barge, the Spirit of Chartwell, led by travel journalist and port expert Martin Symington, whose family have been producers of port here for generations. Magnificent gardens, 14th-century monasteries, medieval towns and even a visit to Salamanca in Spain are no less an attraction.
5. Ride the Atlantic way
Cycling enthusiasts will love this eight-day guided tour, where the breeze from the Atlantic rolls in as you pedal your way from Porto down to Lisbon. The trip takes you through fragrant pine forests and small villages, past golden beaches, where surfers ride the huge waves, to Nazare, famous for its market where women, clad in traditional dress, still sell fish. Continue on along the silver coast to the fortified, medieval, town of Obidos, before arriving in Lisbon for a day to explore the capital. Covering an average of 31 miles a day, activity level is leisurely to moderate with a general level of fitness required.
6. The Duke of Wellington and Iberian history
Military historian, Hugh Macdonald-Buchanan, leads this eight-day trip which visits the scenes of battles, and skirmishes in the Peninsular War, exploring the tactics of brilliant strategist the Duke of Wellington. It does, though, also leave time to enjoy the local wine, with vineyards surrounding many of the sites visited and a stay in the wisteria-covered Vintage House, which borders the Douro River. Starting in Porto and finishing in Madrid, to see El Escoriál, the Royal Palace built for Phillip II, this is an impressively in depth itinerary.
7. From coast to coast by way of rural Portugal
Starting in Lisbon and finishing in Faro, this 10-day guided tour travels through the very best of Portugal’s rural, interior. Staying at a variety of ancient Pousadas, which brim with history and heritage, you will delve into medieval, white-washed towns such as Estremoz, dominated by its 13th-century marble keep; Evora with its Roman temple; Arraiolos where rugs have been woven for over 800 years; the palaces of elegant Vila Viҁosa and the picture-perfect, walled, hamlet of Marvão, set 2,828ft high on an escarpment facing Spain. In between the towns, the sun-baked plains of the countryside studded with olive trees and stork’s nests reveal a Portugal at its authentic best.
8. Paleolithic rock art
Only discovered twenty years ago, these extraordinary engravings form the largest outdoor collection of Paleolithic art. The open-air “gallery”, now a Unesco World Heritage site, is spread over ten miles of a river valley. To understand the rock drawings however, which range from horses to goats to rhinoceroses to humans, you really need the benefit of a guide. Step up Dr Paul Bahn, the leading expert on pre-historic rock art worldwide who will guide this seven-day tour illuminating the way.
9. The heart of Portugal
Whilst so many visits concentrate on Portugal’s north or south, this goes straight to the heart of the country. Running every two years, so next in 2018, it is worth registering interest now to ensure a place on this eight-day trip. The first night is spent at the wild, Manueline, Gothic fantasy Palace of Buҁaco set within a forest and once a retreat for the royal family. Then on to Coimbra, seat of learning, and capital of Portugal from 1139 to 1385. Next is Tomar, with its octagonal, Romanesque, Templar church and the architectural delights of the Alentejo before returning from Lisbon.
10. Walk to the end of Europe
Featuring six of the finest walking routes in the Algarve, this is one for those who want to get under the skin of the region. Days are punctuated by delicious meals at local restaurants and walks through unspoilt countryside, rich with wild flowers. Activity is moderate with full and half day walks at an unhurried pace. Beginning in the town of Alcoutim on the Portuguese border with Spain this eight-day tour takes you right across the Algarve to finish at the most westerly point of Cape St Vincent from where the explorers set sail so many years ago.