James Jeffrey

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

  • From Spectator Life
The National Palace of Pena, Sintra (iStock)

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

iStock-498389995.jpg
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.

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