The provinces of Estremadura and Ribatejo have played a crucial role in each phase of the nation’s history and have the monuments to prove it. The monastery at Alcobaça, the extraordinary abbey at Batalha and the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Tomar – some of the most exciting buildings in Portugal – all lie within a shallow triangle, easily accessible by bus or car. Other attractions are equally compelling, from the walled medieval town of Óbidos to the tremendous castle at Leiria, while there’s a different kind of fascination in visiting the obscenely ornate palace-monastery of Mafra. Heads are also turned by the shrine at Fátima, the country’s (and, indeed, one of the world’s) most important pilgrimage sites.
Along the Estremaduran coast Nazaré and Ericeira are justifiably the most popular resorts, but there are scores of less developed beaches, while ferries sail from Peniche to the remote offshore bird sanctuary of the Ilha da Berlenga. For isolated beaches, you can also try the area around São Martinho do Porto or the coastline west of Leiria, backed most of the way by the Pinhal de Leiria pine forest. Inland, getting off the beaten track means delving into the spectacular underground caverns of Grutas de Mira de Aire around Porto de Mós and viewing the amazing nearby sauropod tracks, all of which lie within the Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros.
Virtually all of these highlights fall within the boundaries of Estremadura, an area of fertile rolling hills. Although the flat, bull-breeding lands of Ribatejo (literally “banks-of-the-Tejo”) fade into the dull expanses of northwestern Alentejo, the valley of the Rio Tejo itself boasts some of Portugal’s richest vineyards, while many of its small towns host lively traditional festivals. The wildest and most famous of these is the Festa do Colete Encarnado of Vila Franca de Xira, with Pamplona-style bull-running through the streets, though it’s Santarém, the Ribatejo capital, which has the province’s longest history.Read More