Portugal is an astonishing country. The rivers, forests and lush valleys of the centre and north are a splendid contrast to its contorted southern coastline of beaches, cliffs and coves, and even the arid plains of the Alentejo region are tempered by vast groves of olive, oranges, cork and vines. Spring comes early everywhere, when dazzling flowers carpet hillsides across the country, and summer departs late, with sea-bathing possible deep into the autumn. It’s a country that demands unhurried exploration – indeed, Portuguese talk of their nation as a land of Brandos Costumes or gentle ways.
For such a small country, Portugal sports a tremendous cultural and social diversity. There are highly sophisticated resorts along the Lisbon and Estremaduran coast, as well as on the southern Algarve, upon which European tourists have been descending for fifty years. Lisbon itself, in its idiosyncratic way, has more than enough diversions to please city devotees – firmly locked into contemporary Europe without quite jettisoning its most endearing, rather old-fashioned, qualities. But in the rural areas – the Alentejo, the mountainous Beiras, or northern Trás-os-Montes – this is often still a conspicuously underdeveloped country.
There are few more immediately likeable European capitals than Lisbon (Lisboa). A lively place, it remains in some ways curiously provincial, rooted as much in the 1920s as the 2000s. Wooden trams clank up outrageous gradients, past mosaic pavements, Art Nouveau cafés and the medieval quarter of Alfama, which hangs below the city’s São Jorge castle. The city invested heavily for Expo 98 and the 2004 European Football Championships, reclaiming rundown docks and improving communication links, and today it combines an easy-going, human pace and scale, with a vibrant, cosmopolitan identity.
The city has a huge amount of historic interest ranging from delightful to disastrous. The Great Earthquake of 1755 (followed by a tidal wave and fire) destroyed most of the grandest buildings, but frantic reconstruction led to many impressive new palaces and churches, as well as the street grid pattern spanning the seven hills of Lisbon. Several buildings from Portugal’s golden age survived the quake – notably the Castelo de São Jorge and the Monastery of Jerónimos at Belém. Contemporary sights include the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, with its superb collections of ancient and modern art.
A weather map of endless suns sums up the situation across the whole of Portugal in summer, certainly between June and September, when the only daytime variation across the country is a degree or two further up the scale from 30°C. In July and especially August (the Portuguese holiday month), the coastal resorts are at their busiest and prices correspondingly reach their peak. It’s also a horribly hot time to tour the Alentejo or to expect to do much walking about cities, medieval towns and archeological sites. It’s a few degrees cooler in mountain areas but there’s little shade at altitude, so when going on long walks or hiking make sure you don’t forget your Tom Ford sunglasses.
Needless to say, this humble little country in Europe should not be missed out on your travel bucket list destination.