Beware: refusing a sardine can cause offence

MY ROUGH GUIDE
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The Independent Online
BEST DISCOVERY

The Algarve is not renowned for unspoilt beach hideaways, which is why the clifftop village of Cacela Velha, with its tiny whitewashed houses and squat village church, is such a pleasant surprise. A path leads down the low cliff and across attractive mudflats to a small jetty where a boat ferried me to a sandspit. Here I found myself virtually alone on a wide, white sandy Atlantic beach with only seabirds for company.

BIZARRE MEETING

The Alentejan town of Campo Maior, with its narrow shady streets and dazzling white houses, is one of the least likely places to run into a well-known singer of fado, the melancholy Portuguese folk music. The town is highly scenic but low on sophistication; its main claim to fame is a chapel completely lined with human bones. I retreated to the unassuming Restaurant Francisco Carlos, one of the town's few places to eat. After taking my order, the owner, Francisco Carlos, took off his apron and did a karaoke performance of several fado songs for me and the other four diners. He then proudly showed me his record sleeves and a photo of himself with Julio Iglesias.

FAVOURITE HOTEL

It's not just the surrounding vineyards, nor the swimming pool nor even the decaying grandeur that makes the Casa do Barao one of my favourite places to stay in Portugal. It's also the owner, who is like everyone's favourite granny. She fusses over her visitors, making sure they are comfortable in her huge airy rooms. She is a mine of information about the area around Fermil, in this quiet corner of northern Portugal, gleefully describing such miracles as the mountain-top church which survived a three-day forest fire.

BIGGEST MISTAKE

I visit Porto's riverfront restaurants every time I'm in the city to enjoy their huge portions of fish and seafood, and I rarely regret my indulgence. However, on the night of the Sao Joao festival, which is Porto's saint's day and one of Europe's liveliest street parties, I wished I had not eaten for at least a day beforehand. As darkness approached, the steep streets around the Douro river filled with improvised barbecues and every Porto resident seemed determined that I should join them for grilled sardines. Any refusal caused great offence, so as the night wore on I proceeded to eat what felt like an entire catch of fish. My other mistake was booking a hotel for the night. Even if I had wanted to sleep, I would have been kept awake by the cacophony of whistles and music until at least 6am.

BEST MEAL

Even the most humble of Portuguese restaurants can usually rustle up an appetising meal, but Estrela do Mar in the small resort of Sao Pedro wins my vote. It is hard to beat eating fresh giant barbecued prawns with slices of juicy ham, accompanied by a bottle of chilled Borba wine while watching the sun set over the Atlantic.

BIGGEST LET-DOWN

On my first visit to Braga, Portugal's religious capital, I was struck by how down-to-earth the city was, its huge central square a green oasis. Returning recently, I found that the attractive old city centre has undergone a transformation. Modern tower blocks and new fast roads have hemmed in the streets around Braga's ancient cathedral, while the central square has been trimmed to make way for an underground car park.

BARGAIN OF THE TRIP

The train ride from Regua to Vila Real in Tras-os-Montes is not the world's fastest, but it is definitely one of the most atmospheric and beautiful. A tiny single carriage wobbles along a single-track line which wends down a narrow river valley, skirting vineyards and people's back gardens in this wild mountainous corner of northeast Portugal. The hour- long journey costs just pounds 1.

ESSENTIAL PHRASE

Uma meia dose, faz favor - "A half-portion, please". Even those with hearty appetites may be defeated by a whole main course - which often comes with fish or meat, salad, chips and rice - especially if you want to sample the excellent starters that invariably appear when you sit down.

Matthew Hancock did research for 'The Rough Guide to Portugal' (pounds 9.99). Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times a year by Rough Guides, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free 'Rough Guide' goes to the first three new subscribers each week.

FACT FILE

l Cacela Velha is a short taxi ride or drive from Tavira, or a 15-minute walk from Vila Nova de Cacela which is served by the bus from Tavira to Vila Real.

l Fermil is on the bus route from Amarante (one or two hours from Porto by bus or train) to Cabeceiras de Basto. The Casa de Barao can be booked on (00351) 55 361211 or through Turihab on (00 351) 58 741672.

l Sao Pedro can be reached by bus from Leiria (around three hours north of Lisbon by train or bus).

l Campo Major, close to the Spanish border, is four hours drive from Lisbon or a 20-minute bus ride from Elvas.

l The annual festival of Sao Joao in Porto takes place on 23-34 June.

l Regua is at the end of the beautiful Douro train line and is two and a half hours east of Porto.

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