And if Spain is the head of Europe, Portugal, set as its western extremity, where land ends and sea begins, is, as it were, the crown on the head.
Portuguese epic poet Luis Vaz de Camoes in The Luisiadas, 1572
PORTUGAL is one of those places generally less well known as a country than some of its more famous exports: Port, Madeira, lace, ceramic tiles. Even when thinking of geography, people tend to think more of the Azores, the stunning islands in the Atlantic that lie nearly 1,500 km from the European coast, or Madeira ? which is closer to Africa than Lisbon, Portugal?s capital.
What is generally less well known is how varied and interesting the landscape of the country is and what a bargain it is for North American travellers.
Porto and the north of Portugal
At the north of Portugal is Porto, the country’s second largest city. Famous for its fortified wine, Porto is a charming old seaport at the mouth of the Douro river. Its historic centre was recently designated a World Heritage Site and, along with Rotterdam, shares the title of the 2001 Cultural Capital of Europe.
The wine for which it is famous also has a connection with Canada. In 1679, in one of those moments of serendipity, casks of port shipped by Hunt Roope to Newfoundland as ballast for fishing boats was so improved by the trip that a storage bond was set up in Newfoundland.
All the major port shippers have cellars in Porto and one can sample some fine vintages in Vila Nova de Gaia or take a stroll in the Ribeira where bars and restaurants serve fine tawny and ruby. There are several places to buy a bottle or two and, although the great vintages aren’t cheap, they are much less expensive than in Canada.
But Porto is more than Port. It has cobblestone streets that wind down to the sea, a fabulous 12th-century cathedral that dominates the hill overlooking the city and an elegant modern iron bridge built by a disciple of Eiffel.
The cathedral, like so many Portugese churches, has tile pictures on the outside and a Romanesque rose window that dazzles in the setting sun, bathing the nave of the church with golden light that finally focuses on the high altar.
The region to the south of Porto is Beiras, with beaches and fishing villages along the coast and mountains in the interior that dominate the landscape.
The northern border of Beiras is the south side of the Douro river; its southern border defined by the Tagus river. Aveiro, with its famous lagoon and Coimbra, one of Europe’s oldest university towns, are two of the better known places of interest. Coimbra is also known for the soulful “fado de Coimbra,” a traditional song accompanied on guitar that the students sing.
Lisbon and the Valley of Tejo
Lisbon and the Valley of Tejo (the Tagus river) is the region to the southwest of Beiras. The Tagus empties into the Atlantic at Lisbon. Taken from the Moors by Portugal’s first king, Dom Afonso Henriques, in 1147, Lisbon has been the capital of Portugal since 1255. Legend is that the Roman name Olisipo derives from Ulysses who paused on voyage and seduced nymph Calypso. Heartbroken at his departure, she changed into a serpent whose coils are the seven hills of the city. Home to more than one million people, the city is full of picturesque houses with tiled facades, has numerous museums and parks and the monastery of Jerunimos, famous for its Manueline architecture.
The region to the south and east of Lisbon is Alentejo, a less populated area dominated by vast plains. There are fine beaches along the coast and in the northeast are charming villages and towns on the Rota dos Castelos (Castle Route). Near Beja, towards the south of the region, are Roman ruins at Pises. The town was a Muslim cultural centre at one point and the local museum has many items of archeological interest.
South of Alentejo is the Algarve, famous for warm sandy beaches and golf resorts, luxury hotels and an exciting nightlife. The region was the last to be regained from the Moors in 1292 and architecture reveals a strong Moorish influence.
Portugal’s many architectural and archeological gems are the tangible remains of a colourful history.
The Lusitanians (Celts) began to settle in the Iberian peninsula – modern Portugal and Spain – around 700 B.C. Subsequently, the Phoenicians and Greeks invaded the area. In the 2nd century the Romans moved in, creating a conduit for Judaism and Christianity. As the Roman empire collapsed, the Visigoths took charge until the Moors crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 711, bringing Islamic culture to the region for 400 years.
As Christians reconquered southern Europe, the House of Burgundy provided Portugal’s first ruling dynasty in the mid-12th century, and by 1249 the country’s borders were established and are essentially what they are today.
In the 15th century, like other European maritime powers, the Portuguese began to explore the world beyond their shores. Under the influence of Prince Henry the Navigator, mariners sought trading routes – which translated into an empire – to India, the Far East, Africa and Brazil.
The glory was short-lived but influential. Portuguese is still one of the worlds most popular languages, spoken in several African countries as well as Brazil.
As its empire declined, towards the end of the 16th century, Portugal was briefly occupied by Spain.
From the 14th century, Portugal has had a close relationship with England. In 1387, Philippa of Lancaster married the king. Nearly 300 years later in 1661, Catherine of BraganCa married Charles II of England.
Those ties proved useful in the early 19th century when an Anglo-Portuguese alliance repelled the invading armies of Napoleon.
But fate was less than kind to the country in the following years as the kingdom declined. In 1932, the dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar seized power, ruling until 1968 when he sustained brain damage after falling off a chair.
Rebellions in the colonies resulted in costly wars in Africa leading to a bloodless military coup in 1974 and independence for the African colonies – and more than 500,000 refugees fleeing to Portugal. In 1986 Portugal joined the European Community.
As a result of being part of empires and, albeit briefly, having an empire of its own, Portugal is a treasure trove of Islamic-influenced architecture and fabulous churches, many of Romanesque origin as well as Gothic buildings dating from the 16th century. These frequently feature dazzlingly gilded altars and shrines – testament to Portuguese explorers who discovered vast gold deposits in Brazil. The gilt 18th-century interior of the Igreja de Santo Antunio in Lagos, Algarve is nearly blinding in its beauty.
Architecturally, there are also several interesting monasteries: AlcobaCa, Batalha and Jerunimos; an 8th- to 9th-century Moor castle in Sintra; and the unique 16th-century Tower of Belém.
When you are exhausted from absorbing so much culture, you can take up some recreation on the beach or the golf course. Portugal also has fine golfing facilities with gorgeous vistas. Recently, the Algarve received the Worldwide Golf Destination of the Year award from the international Association of Golf Tour Operators.
Finally – but certainly not least – Portugal has exquisite food, including delectable sweets. It’s a country where there is no excuse for the traveller going hungry.
International airports are in Lisbon, Porto, Faro, Funchal (Madeira), Ponta Delgada (Sa Miguel, Azores) and Lajes (Ilha Terceira, Azores). The national airline is TAP-Air Portugal. British Airways provides twice-daily service year-round from Toronto to London, Heathrow with connections to Portugal. Daily year-round service is also available from Montreal and Vancouver. BA offers four classes of service, and while waiting for the connecting flight, both First and Club World passengers have access in Heathrow to the arrivals lounge with individual shower suites, suit-pressing service, a mini-gym health and beauty services, breakfast buffet and business facilities.
In Portugal, the country is well served domestically with trains and buses (trains are preferable for the traveller).
560 km from north to south and 220 km wide, 91,600 sq. km
Population: 10.5 million
Climate: temperate maritime climate, mild summers and moderate winters: mid-winter in Lisbon and Porto, 4?13; summer, 18-27 in Lisbon, higher in the Algarve
Industry: leading exporter of cork; sardine, tunny and anchovy fisheries; olives, almonds and figs
Currency and shopping hours: 150 escudos = $1; shops open 9a.m.-12:30 or 1 p.m., reopen from 3 p.m.-6 or 7 p.m.
Telephones: country code 351; emergency 112