Portugal is one of Europe’s oldest extant nations, an ancient kingdom defended by hilltop castles and dramatic walled towns. First-time visitors are usually struck by the friendliness of the people, the affordable food and wine, and the diversity of a country that is relatively easy to travel round in just a few days. Its cities – notably Lisbon and Porto – amply showcase Portugal’s former role as a maritime superpower that ruled the waves from Brazil to East Asia, though it’s not all about history: the cities boast some of Europe’s best clubs and most adventurous modern architecture. Head inland and there are endless possibilities, from touring wine estates to walking, cycling or kayaking down inland rivers. It is the coast, however, that is the biggest draw. From cliff-backed coves to endless stretches of sandy dunes, you are rarely far from a stunning beach. While its western Atlantic dunes are still relatively unknown to those outside the surfing community, the calmer waters of the Algarve offer the quintessential laidback beach experience.
Portugal’s borders have changed little since it became an independent country in the twelfth century. Mountains make up the bulk of the frontier with Spain, with the large rivers of the Minho in the north and the Guadiana in the south adding to this natural divide. Early Portuguese monarchs fortified the border with a series of walled towns, many sited on dramatic hilltops, and these make the border areas some of the most fascinating to visit.
Beaches and high mountains aside, the rest of Portugal is a diverse and verdant country of deep valleys and rolling hills dotted with stone-built villages. For generations, families have eked out a living from the steeply terraced vineyards of the mountainous north, and from the cork oak plantations roamed by wild boar that dominate the vast agricultural plains of the south.
Portugal’s prestige and economy have never regained the heights they attained during the golden ages of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. The country spent most of the twentieth century in deep poverty under the dictatorial rule of Prime Minister Dr Salazar, and while joining the European Union had great initial benefits – funding new roads and communications – Portugal has struggled badly in the recent years of economic crisis. Yet although it remains one of the EU’s weakest economies, Portugal is a remarkably unified country – there are no minorities agitating for independence, while rivalry between the north and south consists of little more than gentle mockery. Indeed Portugal is generally a very tolerant nation, and has integrated a substantial population from its former colonies in Africa, Asia and Brazil with relative ease. Contemporary Portuguese tastes are influenced by the flavours, sounds and styles of Brazil, Angola and Mozambique in particular.
It’s a Catholic country – there are ancient churches in every community – and while support for the institutions of the Church may have waned, a belief in traditional values remains. The Portuguese have embraced contemporary life without ever quite getting rid of the more appealing aspects of previous centuries. Fully wired town centres have wi-fi hotspots and cell-phone shops by the score, but they also have a butcher, a baker and (quite literally) a candle-stick maker. Children will be both seen and heard at any time of the day or night, as the family remains at the centre of most things.
When times were hard at home, the Portuguese traditionally emigrated to pastures new, but their homeland’s blend of tolerance and tradition, its bucolic scenery and year-round sunshine, persuade most emigrants to return at some stage – and it is this same allure that makes the country so appealing to visitors. Prepare to be charmed.