Portugal, especially beyond its cities, has an almost somnambulant air, a country dreamily contemplating its powerful past while enjoying the present, with just a touch of gentle ruefulness. The Atlantic that surrounds half of this tiny nation defines the Portuguese, who used their seafaring genius to build a global economic empire that reached its height in the 1500 and 1600s.
There’s more to Portugal than its empire-building past. It’s a land of great natural beauty and terrain so varied that there is no one typical Portuguese landscape. Sun-starved northern Europeans flock to the sophisticated resorts on the sunny beaches of the Algarve and Estremadura. Its islands include the Azores, a paradise in the Atlantic, and the semi-tropical island of Madeira.
More interesting, perhaps are the Alentejo, the mountainous Beiras, or northern Trás-os-Montes, still underdeveloped and home to timeless scenes such as old women driving donkeys laden with kindling down quiet country roads. Small towns and hamlets seem rooted in a past that took time for self-reflection. Its quiet roads and picturesque villages make it perfect for bicycling; many of its rivers were made for rafting.
Lisbon is a bustling mix of old and new, a place to see elegant architecture in the Belem district (so named for the great Belem tower, a classic piece of Manueline style architecture) and the 18th-century Pombalene downtown. Even modern buildings keep a maritime theme in districts such as the Parque das Nacoes. Sit back in one of its cafes to enjoy its street life, then meander around its old quarter.
Just north of Lisbon is the royal city of Sintra, with more palaces are in that unique-to-Portugal Manueline style, which is startlingly surreal, considering its medieval origins, that combines seashells, ropes and religious symbols. But you should go here not just to see the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, originally built by the Moors for sultans, then modified over the centuries, or the relatively modern 19th-century Pena Palace and its mix Manueline, Renaissance, Baroque, Moorish and Gothic styles, but for its great, lush gardens as well.
In the arid Alentejo region are ancient stands of olive trees, orange groves and vineyards (be sure to enjoy Portuguese wine--vinho tinto and vinho blanco). There’s the beautiful but remote Douro Valley, spectacular for its beauty but also to be enjoyed for its port wines. Oporto, Portugal’s second-largest city, is the capital of this region and a cultural mecca as well.
Portugal’s culinary influence is huge--the Japanese learned about tempura from Portuguese traders and missionaries. Vindaloo draws upon a Portuguese vinho (wine) and alho (garlic) sauce. Even dried salt cod--the fact that it could be dried and preserved made long ocean voyages possible--fueled Portuguese exploration.
Portugal has good weather year round and its beaches are pleasant well into the fall. It’s easy to get to Portugal; there are airports in Lisbon, Oporto, Faro, Madeira and the Azores. The national rail company, CP (Caminhos de Ferro Portugueses) provides excellent service throughout the country.