Internationally famed for its beaches, golf courses and tennis centres, Portugal also has an ideal climate for a variety of other outdoor pursuits including surfing, windsurfing, walking and adventure sports. Spectators can enjoy top-class football throughout the country, or seek out Portugal’s own brand of bullfighting.
The outdoor activity scene is rapidly expanding, with many regions now offering paragliding, abseiling, rap jumping, rafting, canyoning, caving, mountain biking and 4WD expeditions. There’s most scope in the mountain areas – notably the Serra da Estrela and Peneda-Gerês parks – and on the major rivers (Douro, Mondego and Zêzere), but many of the smaller natural parks and reserves also have local adventure outfits ready to show you the surroundings. It’s always worth contacting operators in advance, since activities are sometimes only for groups and are always heavily subscribed at weekends and during summer holidays. Prices vary considerably, but you can expect to pay from €20 for a day’s guided mountain walking, or €50 for whitewater rafting or canyoning.
Beaches, river beaches and swimming pools
The Algarve has the country’s most popular sandy beaches, many of them sheltered in coves – the sea is warmest on the eastern Algarve, and remains swimmable year-round if you’re hardy. The west of the country faces the Atlantic, and while there are some stupendous stretches of coastline you need to beware the heavy undertow and don’t swim if you see a red or yellow flag. The EU blue flag indicates that the water is clean enough to swim in – sadly, not always the case – and that the beach has lifeguards.
An unsung glory of central and northern Portugal is its river beaches – you’ll see signs (praia fluvial) everywhere directing you to quiet bends in the local river or to weirs or dramatic gorges. Often, the local municipality erects a summer bar (usually open June to September), and there are usually picnic and barbecue areas, and public toilets. Many towns also have a summer outdoor swimming pool (piscina), also only open from June to September. At indoor municipal pools (open all year) you may have to show your passport, and you’ll have to wear a swimming cap.
The Portuguese bullfight (tourada) is neither as commonplace nor as famous as its Spanish counterpart. In Portugal the bull isn’t killed, but instead wrestled to the ground, but the bull is usually injured and it is always slaughtered later in any case.
A tourada opens with the bull, its horns padded or sheared flat, facing a mounted toureiro in elaborate eighteenth-century costume. His job is to exhaust the bull and to plant the dart-like farpas (or bandarilhas) in its back while avoiding the charge – a demonstration of incredible riding prowess and elegance. Once the beast is tired, the moços-de-forcado, or simply forcados, move in, an eight-man team dressed in “seven dwarfs” hats. They line up behind each other across the ring from the bull, while the front man shouts and gesticulates to persuade the bull to charge them. In theory, the front man leaps between the charging bull’s horns while the rest try to subdue it, but in practice it often takes two or three attempts, the first tries often resulting in one or more of the forcados being tossed spectacularly into the air.
The bullfighting season lasts from April to October, and there are weekly fights at the bullrings in Lisbon, Cascais and at Albufeira and Lagos on the Algarve. However, the great Portuguese bullfight centre is Ribatejo, where the animals are bred. If you want to see a fight, it’s best to witness it here, amid the local aficionados, or as part of the festivals in Vila Franca de Xira and Santarém. Local towns and villages in the Ribatejo also feature bull-running through the streets at various festivals.
There is a small band of Portuguese bullfighters and fans, mostly in the town of Barrancos in southern Alentejo, who claim the Spanish model as their own and spent the 1990s defying the law by publicly killing bulls in the ring. Their defiance has finally met with legal approval, allowing the practice in areas where this was traditional.
Portuguese football has a long tradition and is the country’s favourite sport, bar none. The exploits of the most famous Portuguese coach, Jose Mourinho, and the most famous Portuguese player, Cristiano Ronaldo, always make headline news, while the national team came closest to glory in the 2004 European Championships, held in Portugal – they were beaten in the final by surprise winners Greece, though the real legacy was the construction of several excellent stadiums, including the Estádio do Dragão in Porto and Benfica’s Estádio da Luz.
The leading clubs, inevitably, hail from the country’s big cities, Porto and Lisbon. Over the last two decades FC Porto has swept up every title available, including the national league on many occasions (that of 1999 made it a unique five times in a row), the European UEFA Cup in 2003, and – its crowning glory – Europe’s Champions League title in 2004. Lisbon-based Benfica experienced a similar golden age in the 1960s, when Mozambique-born striker Eusébio was at his masterful height. The other big team is Sporting, also from Lisbon, and these days usually the closest rivals to Porto. Just about every Portuguese citizen supports one of these three teams and, in the provinces, usually one of the lesser, local outfits as well. Of these, Sporting Braga and Guimarães are the most successful.
Ticket prices for a clash between two big names average €15–40, depending on the seat, while tickets for other games cost about half that. The Superliga season runs from the end of August to mid-May, most matches being played on Saturdays and Sundays. Live televised matches are regular fixtures in most bars and restaurants, usually on Friday or Sunday evenings, often other days too. A good website in English is wwww.portuguesesoccer.com, an independent soccer magazine with all the latest news, results and reports.
Holiday sports and activities
Portugal is a year-round golf destination, though exclusivity is often the key word. Some of the country’s finest hotels and villa complexes have golf courses attached, or have connections with a golf club, and undoubtedly the best deals are on special golf-holiday packages. Otherwise, green fees on 18-hole courses start at around €60, though multi-play packages and discounts are nearly always available. The Greater Lisbon area and the Algarve have the bulk of the courses: for more information consult a specialist tour operator or check out the websites wwww.portugalgolf.pt and wwww.algarvegolf.net.
Many larger Algarve hotels also have year-round tennis courts. If you want to improve your game, the best intensive coaching is at the Vale do Lobo Tennis Academy (packages organized by Light Blue Travel, wwww.lightbluetravel.co.uk) or the Praia da Luz Ocean Club near Lagos (Jonathan Markson Tennis, wwww.marksontennis.com).
Horseriding stables around the country offer one-hour or full-day rides, often on Lusitano thoroughbred horses. The main areas for tourist rides are Estoril and Sintra, the Algarve and the Alentejo, while the province of Ribatejo lies at the heart of Portugal’s equestrian traditions. Prices start from around €20 for an hour’s trek, rising to around €80–100 for a full day, which usually includes a picnic lunch. For details of centros hípicos (riding schools) in a particular area, contact the local tourist office.
The only skiing is in the Serra da Estrela (usually possible from December to February, sometimes March), though you wouldn’t specifically travel to Portugal for it. The slopes lie just below the serra’s highest point, Torre, with access easiest from Covilhã via Penhas da Saude. The lifts, ski school, and ski and snowboard rental are operated by Turistrela at the Estância Vodafone (wwww.skiserradaestrela.com); a day’s gear rental starts at €25, one-hour lessons from €30, and you can also book reasonably priced ski packages. The year-round artificial run at Ski Parque, near Manteigas, is another option, and this also doubles as an outdoor activity and adventure centre.
Walking in Portugal’s parks
Portugal only has one national park – the Parque Nacional Peneda-Gerês, in the Minho – but there are over thirty other protected areas, designated as parques naturais (natural parks), reservas naturais (natural reserves) or other specifications. You’ll find them all listed and profiled on the website of the government’s Instituto da Conservação da Natureza (wwww.icn.pt – some information in English available). All the main parks, and many of the minor ones, are covered in the guide and between them account for some of Portugal’s most dramatic landscapes – from the high-mountain scenery of the Serra da Estrela to the limestone caves of the Serras de Aire e Candeeiros, or the island hideaway of the Ilha Berlenga to the lagoons, dunes and marshes of the Ria Formosa.
Throughout the guide we’ve recommended walks and hiking trails wherever possible. All of the parks have information centres, and most promote trails and tours within their area. Marked walking routes are becoming more popular, but signage and trail maintenance are extremely patchy. English is rarely spoken, even at major information centres, making it difficult to find out about the status of routes, while there is a real paucity of proper walking maps. Hiking in Portugal’s highest mountains, the Serra da Estrela, can be particularly disappointing; more reliable places include the Peneda-Gerês national park, Montesinho natural park and Beira Baixa.
Surfing in Portugal is renowned throughout Europe, though the currents and the raw power of the swell here require a high level of expertise. Supertubos on the south side of Peniche (Estremadura) is the original surf destination in Portugal – it’s one of the few breaks to work in northerly winds – while Ericeira, also on the Estremadura coast, attracts highly talented local surfers and travelling pros, so beware. There are international competitions held at all these places, as well as at Espinho south of Porto (popular with bodyboarders) and Figueira da Foz near Coimbra, while the more protected west coast of the Algarve, around Sagres, is excellent for beginners and experienced surfers alike. The biggest windsurfing destinations are Guincho and Praia Grande, north of Lisbon, and Sines on the Alentejo coast. We’ve highlighted rental outfits and surf camps in nearly all these places, while good websites include wwww.wannasurf.com and wwww.beachcam.pt (in Portuguese) for breaks, photos, reports, surf-savvy weather and wave height forecasts, and wwww.surfingportugal.com, home to the Federação Portuguesa de Surf, which organizes competitions.
Some adventure outfits offer kayaking in the serra rivers, though there’s a more gentle introduction on the Rio Mondego, starting from Penacova, basically a half-day float trip downriver to Coimbra.
Scuba diving for beginners is best off Praia do Carvoeiro near Lagoa in the Algarve, where Tivoli Diving (wwww.tivoli-diving.com) and Divers Cove (wwww.diverscove.de) offer standard dives with equipment rental for around €45, plus night and wreck dives for experienced divers, and full PADI-accredited four-day Open Water courses (with tuition in English, from €440). On the west coast, conditions can be more trying, with a strong undertow, though there are more sheltered waters between Lisbon and Cascais. Experienced divers should appreciate the wrecked German U-1277 submarine off Matosinhos in the north of Portugal: contact Mergulhomania (wwww.mergulhomania.com).Read More
Watching the football
Watching the football
If you’re going to the game, or watching on TV, you need to know the basics if you want to join in. Arriving after kick-off, ask resultado? (what’s the score?) and settle down in time to watch the guarda-redes (goalkeeper) make a complete frango (cock-up) of a save. The meio-campo (midfield) looks decidedly dodgy and your ponte de lance (centre forward) keeps getting caught fora-de-jogo (offside) – that’s when he’s not being clattered from behind. That’s a falta! (foul!) and a grande penalidade! (penalty!), surely? If he scores, the TV commentators will invariably celebrate Brazilian-style – golo! (try goooooaaaaalllll!) – before referring to the festa nas bancadas (party on the terraces) that’s now under way. If, on the other hand, you’re losing, heaven forbid your team resorts to punting it aimlessly up the field, route-one style – sad to say, the long-ball game is known disparagingly as o jogo Inglês (the English game).