Portugal — the European continent’s west coast — has become rather fashionable in recent years. Sure, the appeal is understandable with its hundreds of miles of shore and a California-type climate, but beyond that it’s an ancient compact land with a very rich history, pretty villages, monumental architecture, excellent food and wine, 17 UNESCO cultural World Heritage Sites, hospitable people and laid-back lifestyle. Five hundred years ago Portuguese explorers set out to explore the world. Now the world (some of it anyway) is coming to them.
Portugal’s second city PORTO is fast catching up to Lisbon as a worthwhile destination in itself thanks to its UNESCO World Heritage riverside, cultural happenings, and cool factor. In recent years the city has taken off as a center of arts, fashion, and nightlife. The charming old neighborhoods remain (with quite a bit of facelifting going on), but impressive modern touches have made their entrée as well in the likes of a concert hall and an arts center designed by renowned architects.
Between Porto and the border with Spain the DOURO RIVER flows through some of the world’s most beautiful wine country. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, steep vine-covered, terraced hills flank the river. Speckled amidst the scenery are the wineries many of which are located in centuries-old manor houses. We sample some vintages in one of the valley’s historic quintas (estates) surrounded by the stunning environment.
The ancient university city of COIMBRA is arguably Portugal’s most romantic, thanks perhaps to a famous medieval love story associated with the city and present-day students playing their guitars al fresco. Its atmospheric narrow alleys lead to the prestigious hilltop university — one of the oldest in Europe, founded in 1290.
The city of EVORA is a treasure house of tradition and is surrounded by the vast rolling plains of the ALENTEJO region (the country’s largest), where black pigs feast on acorns under forests of cork oak trees to produce tasty hams. The area is known for its hearty cuisine and some excellent wines. The city — with its near uniformly whitewashed buildings — is one of Portugal’s prettiest and another UNESCO World Heritage SIte. Its architectural ensemble, from Roman to Mudéjar, Gothic to Renaissance, is well preserved thanks in part to centuries of rural isolation.
At the wide mouth of the Tagus River LISBON, the “city of seven hills,” is the country’s political, cultural, and economic epicenter. It supposedly enjoys more sunshine than Madrid, Rome, or Athens. It’s got treasure-packed museums, very atmospheric old neighborhoods, impressive monuments, great restaurants, antique trams, wonderful views, an increasingly hip vibe, and more. We finish our trip here with three nights including a day trip out to the towns of SINTRA and CASCAIS.