Central Portugal is the authentic heart of the country.Olivia Rawes escapes the Algarve and discovers Centro. The information in this article is taken from The Rough Guide to Portugal, your travel guide for Portugal.
For myself and millions of others, the Algarve is Portugal. Summer sun, packed beaches, busy restaurants and groomed golf courses.
It's fun. It's easy. The weather's guaranteed. But it can also be expensive. It's often crowded. And it seldom feels authentic.
In search of authenticity I went to Centro Portugal.
Centro's in the centre of the country. It's roughly between Porto and Lisbon. And it stretches from wild Atlantic coast to lush interior. It's also underestimated and little known.
Centro combines rugged beauty with rich history. The local cuisine is traditional, yet inventive. The region's mountains invite exploration. And you can hike, bike, water walk, canoe or just relax. The region has 24 river beaches.
Central Portugal is untouched. But it's still very accessible. Viseu and Coimbra make great bases for countryside exploring. And historic hotels like Palace Hotel do Bussaco dot forests, mountains and valleys.
Only 30 minutes from Coimbra we canoed down River Mondego. It twisted between steep mountain slopes. Flat stretches mixed with gentle rapids. Eagles and hawks flew overhead. And the silence was astonishing.
Centro is key to Portuguese culture. Coimbra was Portugal's capital from 1129 to 1255. Today it lures visitors with a charming old town. Steep cobbled streets are framed by medieval arches. Buildings come in pastel shades. And waterfront bars line the riverbank.
Coimbra is also the setting for the tale of Pedro and Inês. It's Portugal's greatest love story.
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Coimbra is home to Portugal's oldest university. It dates back to 1290. And it's now a World Heritage Site.
The Baroque library is the university's most famous building. Completed in 1717, it's unimaginably grand. Carved bookshelves are embellished with gold leaf. There are ornate balconies. And trompe l'oeil paintings grace the ceiling. Beautifully bound books pile from floor to roof. And the effect is more elaborate cathedral, than library. How anyone studies here is beyond me.
Immerse in vintage Coimbra. Stay at Hotel Residencial Alentejana in the old town.
The university is also the birthplace of Coimbra fado. This variation on Portuguese fado music was first performed by male students. Like traditional fado it speaks of love, loss and suffering, Yet Coimbra fado differs in that it's sung only by men. And Coimbra singers are not professionals. They just love to sing. A passion that's clear in every performance.
Keen to hear authentic fado? Book an evening of music and port tasting in Coimbra.
Aveiro is another Centro cultural highlight. A lovely town, it's just inland. Sheltered from the ocean by dunes and a wide lagoon.
Colourful moliceiro boats ferry tourists on Aveiro's canals. Faded Art Nouveau buildings line the waterfront. And every cobbled street is a charming ocean-themed mosaic. With anchors, fish, sea horses and eels reflecting Aveiro's heritage.
Head to the old fishing quarter. Here the simple houses are covered in tiles. Beautiful, and also a guard against the sea air.
Make some seaside tradition of your own. Stay at Typical House Aveiro close to São Gonçalinho Chapel.
A strong sense of place is also found in Aveiro restaurants.
Salpoente restaurant is set in old salt house. We ate traditional codfish served as a salty ceviche. Paired with pepper sauce it came in a tin. A nod to Aveiro's canning industry. Our dessert incorporated ovos moles. A sweet made at local convents from communion wafers, egg yolk and sugar. But ovos moles Salpoente style arrived in Kilner jars with raspberry sorbet.
Quinta das Lagrimas in Coimbra also twists tradition. Here, everyday corn bread is dyed with squid ink and sprinkled over curried fish.
Centro now produces wines to rival its neighbour, Alentejo.
Paço dos Cunhas de Santar is set in the heart of the Dao. We enjoyed several local wines here. Each perfectly paired with a course of our meal. The menu was fantastic. And the wine even better, But what struck me most was the people. Everyone working here loved their job. And I'd noticed that time and again during this trip.
Central Portugal has so much to offer. Beautiful countryside, grand architecture and peace. Yet what stands out is the warmth of locals. Untouched by mass tourism they're genuinely passionate. You should come for the tranquillity. The untamed nature and rich culture are irresistible. But it's the genuine welcome at the heart of Portugal that will stay with you longest.
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