James Jeffrey

Portugal’s secret sanctuaries: why it pays to roam far

Portugal's secret sanctuaries: why it pays to roam far
The National Palace of Pena, Sintra (iStock)
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My trek along the entire length of Portugal began on a small boat with Captain Juan standing beside the outboard. Accompanied by five other rucksack-laden pilgrims who I met during an extended Camino de Santiago pilgrimage to escape UK lockdowns, we were crossing the Minho River that serves as the border between Spain and Portugal’s northern edge. It was all rather dramatic and felt a bit like a Special Forces’ insertion, additional frisson coming from uncertainty over whether the border was actually open. It didn’t seem the issue was much on the mind of Captain Juan either way.

The following 560-plus kilometres of hiking due south brought ancient towers, castles, cathedrals and defunct windmills straight out of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. When the walking sticks took me to the coastline it became empty beaches alongside picturesque fishing villages.

It all highlighted how much more remains beyond the scope of most British tourists visiting this part of the Iberian Peninsula. The usual focus stays on the likes of Lisbon and Porto for city trips, and on the southern Algarve region for beaches and holidays. Those deserve their vaulted reputations, and I shall always remember those ghostly seagulls in the night sky above Porto, their undersides illuminated by lights emanating from below. But what follows is an insider’s hot tips for those Portuguese traveling treats that lie beyond.

Tomar

Tomar, Portugal (iStock)

Atop the hill overlooking the small city of Tomar, I explored stone corridors passing courtyards of orange trees in the fortified headquarters of the Order of the Knights Templar, the legendary organisation of devout Christians that during the medieval era defended the faith and protected European travellers and pilgrims visiting holy sites. Down below, I stayed in a sprawling old family home converted to a hotel, whose owner we nicknamed 'The Count' as a fellow pilgrim had just read Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

A rakish-looking fellow—a cross between a ski instructor and a slick politician—The Count told us around a blazing fire in a wood-panelled room with the family crest painted on the roof that he had five daughters from three wives. He also said he’d once been a bit of a con man during his younger days to survive after his family was forced into exile during Portugal’s political upheavals in the 1970s. The next morning as he cleared our breakfast dishes he suddenly quoted a few lines of Robert Frost’s poetry. I left with a better understanding of why Portugal—which happens to be the UK’s oldest ally—and its people have long appealed to Brits.

Coimbra

Coimbra boasts one of the oldest universities in the world, established in 1290 (iStock)

I adored Coimbra, a riverfront city in central Portugal and the country’s former capital. Black-caped high school students in the medieval old town appeared to have just been let out of classes in Hogwarts. Small funky student bars lined the steep narrow cobbled streets ascending to the historic university, the oldest in Portugal, close to the cathedral atop a hill. From there you could see into the cloisters of various monasteries amid the muddle of streets below, where the monks were offering, presumably, prayers and proprieties to offset the livelier ways of the city’s student population.

Nazaré used to be a small unknown fishing village first settled by Phoenicians in pre-Christian times. Now it is the Mecca of monster wave surfing due to it the uniqueness of its underwater topography which turns the great global currents arriving from thousands of miles across the Atlantic into 30-meter-high behemoths. Atop a rocky promontory with shades of the classic film Black Narcissus, albeit with far less foreboding, you can look down on the main town abutting a long beach gently curving toward the horizon or look the other way to where the promontory carves into the ocean. There people gather around the lighthouse to watch surfers being towed out by jet skis to face the mayhem unleashed by Mother Nature. Some of the local women still wear seven colourful layers of skirts, a tradition attributed to when women gathered on the beach in the wind and rain pensively awaiting husbands or sons to return from the sea.

Sintra

Sintra (iStock)

To the west of Lisbon is the jewel that is Sintra. A resort town for the Portuguese in the foothills of the Sintra Mountains, its forested terrain is studded with pastel-coloured villas and palaces. The Sintra National Palace with its iconic conical twin chimneys, looking like a souped up version of Madonna's infamous cone bra, and elaborate tile work pays homage to the Moorish history that gives the town its feeling of Scheherazade and Arabian Nights mystery. Exploring the Quinta da Regaleira gardens is like entering a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, culminating in the Initiation Well that takes you deep into the ground. The hill-top 19th-century Pena National Palace overlooking Sintra shimmers like something out of the James Bond film Octopussy and offers sweeping views toward absurdly beautiful sunsets.

Unspoilt Algarve

Fuseta, Portugal (iStock)

If you go to the Algarve and need a break from its more boisterous side, there are numerous charming fishing villages to visit. Fuseta, approximately 20 kilometres east of Faro, offers one of the best examples of unspoilt traditional fishing life. If you’re there early enough you may see fisherman loading or unloading their boats for the day. Alongside the small harbour are open-air restaurants grilling fresh fish. A short walk away lies the lagoon and its beaches.

As with the overt focus on particular places to visit, a similar telescoping effect applies to the Peninsula’s abundance of wines. Spanish Rioja always grabs the limelight, including from all the other splendid Spanish wines one might try. Wherever you end up in Portugal, its wines are similarly varied, affordable and underappreciated, like much else in this friendly land whose people go out of their way, to an almost puzzling degree, to appeal and cater to us Brits, who arguably aren’t always the best of allies.