Although Portugal is one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations, it is surprisingly easy to get away from it all and escape the crowds. Most people head west from Lisbon airport into the bustling maelstrom of the city, but head east instead over the Vasco da Gama bridge – at 11 miles, it’s Europe’s longest – and within an hour you will be driving through a bucolic landscape of cork trees, vineyards, orange groves and nesting storks.
Here, Matthew Hancock, co-author of The Rough Guide to Portugal runs down the best places to get off the tourist trail and away from the crowds.
It may be just a two-and-a-half hour drive from the capital, but this tiny, whitewashed, Alentejan village, perched on a rocky outcrop by the Spanish, border feels like a world away. First fortified by the Moors in the eight century, the remote village is surrounded by an almost-intact circuit of seventeenth-century walls. Designed to provide a strategic and far-reaching panorama over the expansive plains of Spain and Portugal, they provide unbeatable views that are just as impressive today.
Watch the sunset over the surrounding serra while swallows swoop overhead, or scramble down the old Roman road through cork and olive trees for a swim in the river below.
You can walk for hours along sections of the coastal Trilho dos Pescadores without seeing a soul – in fact, you’re more likely to come across goats, ponies, soaring birdlife and the odd brave surfer than a fellow walker. Following local fishermen’s routes along the coast, this long-distance footpath is divided into sections that can be easily walked in a day and end in seaside settlements where you can get a welcome meal and a bed for the night.
Starting in the Alentejan fishing village of Porto Côvo, the path meanders over clifftops, through river valleys and along beaches to Odeceixe, where it links to the Caminho Historico, a rural trail running inland through farmland, wooded valleys and hills to reach Portugal’s far southwestern headland of Cabo de São Vicente in the Algarve.
Whilst the Algarve’s central section may be overdeveloped, its western coast is completely different. Less than an hour’s drive west of Faro airport, you’ll find no shortage of traditional, sleepy villages and a wild unspoilt coastline.
One of the best places to stay along this coast is the laidback village of Odeceixe whose cobbled streets and tiled cottages tumble down a hillside to a verdant river valley. A road winds along the valley to a fabulous, wide beach, where in-the-know surfers ride the rolling Atlantic breakers – if you’re not up to taming the surf, there’s also a more sheltered lagoon for swimming.
The best way to explore the tranquil Mondego river valley in Central Portugal is by kayak. Start at Penacova and you can paddle for 25km along a river lined with pine trees and vineyards (grapes dangle tantalizingly above the river if you fancy a quick snack), watching kingfishers swoop and birds of prey soar overhead.
There are a few small rapids on the way, but generally the river is calm all year and in summer you can stop at any number of small river beaches for a picnic and a swim. The waters run right into the centre of the ancient university city of Coimbra, where you can re-fuel with a delicious pastel de nata (a flaky custard tart) at the one of the city’s many atmospheric cafés.
There’s little to do in Sortelha, but it’s a good place to experience rural Portugal at its most traditional. Tucked away beyond the mountainous Serra da Estrela, its ancient houses are built into a granite landscape dotted with giant boulders. With just one café/restaurant and a population barely into double figures, it’s a truly sleepy place.
For a real get-away-from-it-all experience, you can stay the night in one of the old village houses with stone walls and traditional furnishings.
Portugal’s only national park, the remote and spectacular Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês covers a stunning and varied landscape, from lush wooded valleys to steep granite mountain peaks. It’s very easy to head off the beaten track on foot here, with marked trails leading up to spectacular viewpoints, past gushing waterfalls tumbling down hillsides and tranquil, hidden swimming spots.
Some of the region’s stone cottages have been restored for visitors to stay in too, in villages such as the picturesque Soajo or Lindoso, close to the Spanish border. Lindoso’s stunning location with mountains glowering above it and a reservoir glistening below is eclipsed by the sheer number of traditional nineteenth-century espigueiros (grain stores) that remain dotted around the village.
In Portugal’s far northeastern corner, the Parque Natural de Montesinho is as remote and wild as it gets in Portugal – time has stood still here and its landscape of oak forests, rolling hills and grassy plains have changed little over the centuries.
It’s one of the few places in Portugal where Iberian wolves still live in the wild, though you’re more likely to spot the park’s other inhabitants such as deer, wild boar and golden eagles. Right up in the north, the pretty village of Rio do Onor straddles the Spanish border – until the last century, it was so cut off from the rest of Portugal that it developed its own dialect.
Today, the frontier is marked by little more than a change in the road surface from cobbles on the Portuguese side to tarmac in Spain.
Additional contributions written by Amanda Tomlin.
Top image: Beach of Camilo, Algarve, Portugal © Shutterstock