Dramatic scenery, fairytale castles and alluring beaches

It might only be a small country but Portugal manages to be both astonishingly beautiful and endlessly surprising. If, when you think of places to visit in Portugal, you imagine the sandy beaches of the Algarve or the idiosyncratic cities of Lisbon and Porto, then any journey into the real heart of Portugal promises to be a revelation. It’s not just the landscape that captivates, though there is a stunning variety of scenes – from the steep mountains and lush valleys of the centre and north to the arid plains and cove-speckled coastline of the south. But there’s also great charm in a country that preserves its medieval villages, walled towns and glorious monuments while at the same time embracing progress and modernity with a style all its own.

These qualities are best displayed in the capital, Lisbon, which has acquired a contemporary, boutique sheen without quite jettisoning its most endearing, rather old-fashioned, characteristics. On the Algarve and elsewhere, family-friendly resorts – the mainstay of European tourists for more than fifty years – also combine a gentle sophistication with enduring traditions. And other main towns all have their thriving festivals, restored historical quarters, sparkling new cultural centres and wi-fi zones. But head into the deep rural areas – the Alentejo, the mountainous Beiras or Trás-os-Montes – and a different, slower-paced Portugal emerges. Despite massive EU-funded road-building schemes, and a burgeoning interest in rural and ecotourism, central and northeastern Portugal particularly are still conspicuously underdeveloped. For anyone wanting to get off the beaten track, there are limitless opportunities here to experience small towns, hamlets and rural regions that still seem rooted in earlier centuries.

The country has a striking north-south divide that’s as much to do with history and politics as geography and climate. Above a roughly sketched line, more or less corresponding with the course of the Rio Tejo (River Tagus), the people are of predominantly Celtic and Germanic stock, living in a corn, cabbage and potatoes belt of often marginal land. It was here, in the north at Guimarães, that the Lusitanian nation was born (following the Christian Reconquest from the North African Moors), and here too that early industry was concentrated, with the city of Porto still considered an economic powerhouse. The Romans, and later the Moors, on the other hand, established themselves south of the Tagus, where vast agricultural estates could be developed, producing the classic Mediterranean crops of oranges, olives, figs and cork.

More recent events are also woven into the pattern. The 1974 Revolution, which brought to an end 48 years of dictatorship, came from the south, an area of rich landowners and a dependent workforce; while the later conservative backlash came from the north, with its powerful religious authorities and individual smallholders wary of change. But more profoundly even than the Revolution, it is emigration that has altered people’s attitudes. After Lisbon, the largest Portuguese community is in Paris, and there are migrant workers spread throughout Europe and North America. Returning, these emigrants have brought in modern ideas and challenged many traditional rural values. New cultural influences have arrived, too, through Portugal’s own immigrants from the old African colonies of Cape Verde, Mozambique and Angola, while the country’s close ties with Brazil are also conspicuous.

The greatest of all influences, however, is the sea. The Portuguese are very conscious of themselves as a seafaring race; mariners such as Vasco da Gama led the way in the exploration of Africa and the New World, and such links long ago brought influences to bear upon the country’s culture: in the distinctive music of fado, blues-like songs heard in Lisbon and Coimbra, for example, or the Moorish-influenced Manueline architecture that provides the country’s most distinctive monuments.

This “glorious” history has also led to the peculiar national characteristic of saudade: a slightly resigned, nostalgic air, and a feeling that the past will always overshadow the possibilities of the future. The years of isolation under the dictator Salazar, which yielded to democracy after the 1974 Revolution, reinforced such emotions, as the ruling elite spurned influences from the rest of Europe. Only now have things really begun to change and the Portuguese are becoming increasingly geared toward Lisbon, Porto and the main towns. For those who have stayed in the countryside, however, life remains traditional – often disarmingly so to outsiders – and social mores seem fixed in the past.

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