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.
Portugal’s prestige and economy have never regained the heights they attained during the golden ages of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. The country spent most of the twentieth century in deep poverty under the dictatorial rule of Prime Minister Dr Salazar, and while joining the European Union had great initial benefits – funding new roads and communications – Portugal has struggled badly in the recent years of economic crisis. Yet although it remains one of the EU’s weakest economies, Portugal is a remarkably unified country – there are no minorities agitating for independence, while rivalry between the north and south consists of little more than gentle mockery. Indeed Portugal is generally a very tolerant nation, and has integrated a substantial population from its former colonies in Africa, Asia and Brazil with relative ease. Contemporary Portuguese tastes are influenced by the flavours, sounds and styles of Brazil, Angola and Mozambique in particular.
It’s a Catholic country – there are ancient churches in every community – and while support for the institutions of the Church may have waned, a belief in traditional values remains. The Portuguese have embraced contemporary life without ever quite getting rid of the more appealing aspects of previous centuries. Fully wired town centres have wi-fi hotspots and cell-phone shops by the score, but they also have a butcher, a baker and (quite literally) a candle-stick maker. Children will be both seen and heard at any time of the day or night, as the family remains at the centre of most things.
When times were hard at home, the Portuguese traditionally emigrated to pastures new, but their homeland’s blend of tolerance and tradition, its bucolic scenery and year-round sunshine, persuade most emigrants to return at some stage – and it is this same allure that makes the country so appealing to visitors. Prepare to be charmed.