A glass of port on the terrace?

Low-cost flights linking London to Porto could bring a wave of British homebuyers to northern Portugal
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The Independent Online

The north of Portugal is full of pretty period houses you can still buy at bargain prices. They are surrounded by spectacular mountain ranges, gorges and clear rivers: a bit like Cumbria in the sunshine, but without the traffic.

The north of Portugal is full of pretty period houses you can still buy at bargain prices. They are surrounded by spectacular mountain ranges, gorges and clear rivers: a bit like Cumbria in the sunshine, but without the traffic.

British buyers have been wary of taking these houses on despite their enormous charm because of the expensive journey from the UK, but that is about to change as the low-cost carrier Ryanair has just started flights linking Porto to London. In future it will be possible to make the journey most days for less than £10, so long as you book well in advance.

"The weather is glorious for most of the year and you are virtually guaranteed daily sunshine from May to September," says Sophie Kempin of agents Pure Portugal, based near Coimbra to the south of Porto. "Access and water supply are the two key issues to sort out before buying in the region, there is no point in having great views if you have to trek up a goat track to get home," she says.

Significant numbers of British people have already come to the area, Kempin adds, attracted by the cheap property and the climate. The confusion of local plant species which range from sub-tropical to alpine offers a clue to the varied weather patterns.

Wages have traditionally been low in Portugal's rural north, to the extent that many locals have been forced to seek work abroad. This has had a significant impact on the local property market. When they return having made their fortunes, emigrants tend to build themselves ostentatious houses known as casas de emigrante.

Consequently much of the stock of period village houses and farmsteads is ignored by those locals with the money to do them up as they prefer to build new, and the market for many of the old properties is driven by demand from Northern Europe. It is a pattern repeated in many rural areas of Europe, but here the stock of old houses is virtually untouched.

Sea temperatures are cool even in high summer peaking at around 16C (60F). "There is a lot surfing along stretches of the coast but inland people prefer river swims," says Keith Potter from Northern Portugal Holiday Properties.

Access to the coast is not as crucial as in other holiday areas unless you specifically want a surfing base. The principal areas to search for a beach house are around the main resorts. To the north of Porto these are Povoa de Varzim and Viana do Castelo, to the south Espinho and Aveiro, the latter being on a saltwater lagoon although close to a nature reserve and the beaches.

For €110,000 (£78,500) Potter can offer you a divine little cottage up in the mountains with a kitchen 15ft square, set in terraced pasture and close to a praia fluvial (river beach). A little cobbled lane leads to the house past a threshing area and two corn stores. To the side, the same vine-covered lane leads to the lower floors which were used to keep livestock but could be converted to create a substantial country house. There is a good water source for irrigation of crops, he says, and the new motorway to Porto airport is 20 minutes' drive.

The old schoolmaster's house, built of granite and standing on massive stone pillars with its outbuildings grouped around its own courtyard, is for sale in a village on the edge of the Peneda-Geres national park which straddles the Peneda and Geres mountain ranges. The asking price is €70,000 (£50,000) and again the lower floor was originally used to keep livestock but could be converted into more accommodation. In this case the beach is a 40-minute drive and the Spanish border and market town 15 minutes in the other direction.

The EU has pumped development money into the area which now has a network of motorways. It used to take three hours to drive from Porto to the heart of the port wine producing area in the upper valley of the river Douro, now the journey can be done in half the time.

Old men still drink the purple-coloured local wine from white porcelain bowls in cafés on the street corners of Porto, but it has been transformed into a modern bustling city with a population of more than 250,000 and has four new metro lines. The old trams in their coffee and cream livery have been retained on two routes.

There still exists a large British community in Porto involved in the port shipping industry, but the business has declined in recent years. Port bottling and shipping now rank fifth in importance in the local economy, according to the chamber of commerce.

One of the advantages of living locally is being able to drink port regularly without the crusty image that it has in the UK, but trying to make a living out of vines and agriculture is a sure route to bankruptcy, warn expatriates already in residence. If you want to live there permanently, then by all means rely on the good phone links with broadband connections that most areas now have, but be wary of romantic images of revitalising peasant winemaking. You need a business head as hard as the local granite walls to make a go of it.

Pure Portugal: 0871 871 0718; www.pureportugal.co.uk.

North Portugal Holiday Rentals & Estate Sales: 00 351 9141 28345; www.north-portugal-holiday-rentals.com.

Real Estate & Capital Investments: 07005 800738; www.reesin.com.