Curiously, most British buyers of Portuguese property focus on the crowded, golf course-strewn Algarve, known for being home to some of Europe's most expensive coastal property.
Yet head into rural areas away from the coastal new-builds and older homes materialise in and around charming, attractive old Portuguese villages at a fraction of the cost. Finding them can take a bit longer as there are very few agents geared to English-speaking buyers, but it is well worth the effort.
The Beiras Litoral in the centre of the country, dominated by the historic university city of Coimbra, is a rich source of such properties. Just over half a day's drive from the northern Spanish ports of Bilbao and Santander, this lush green region remains from an earlier age, unspoilt and hardly touched by tourism. There are extensive forests of eucalyptus, pine and fir, while olive, orange, lemon and kiwi trees are widespread.
The area, extending from Figueira da Foz on the coast to Oliveira do Hospital to the east, is north of Lisbon (a two-hour drive) and south of Porto (a 90-minute drive). The upgraded road system has greatly increased accessibility. "We used to live in the Algarve, but that's like Blackpool now, and very expensive," says John Fergus, 68, who lives with wife Josie, 66, in the village of Dreia, near Coimbra, in a £43,000 1930s art deco two-bedroom house with an enormous basement.
"Here, it's not the sun, cheap booze, low cost of living and great food that attracted us - though they're in abundance - but the people are so friendly. The locals are free and easy and our neighbours very generous. They're always giving us gifts like olives, oranges and wine. We speak a bit of Portuguese and as soon as you do so they appreciate it around here, their eyes light up." The centre of the region boasts the Serra da Estrela mountain range, ideal for winter skiing, while activities such as boating, hiking, horse riding and swimming in the numerous lakes are also possible. Fluvial (or river) beaches are common, and many have restful restaurants and cafés or bars alongside. Both the sea and golf courses are within an hour's drive.
"The current property market is very buoyant, there has been a two-fold increase in interest compared with last year," says Fiona Sheffield of Lapis Lazuli, an agent based 40km east of Coimbra. "When we arrived about a decade ago, no one English-speaking was living here, but now you can't go to the supermarket without stumbling into some, although it is certainly not overrun with foreign buyers."
Ruins and land plots start at under £15,000 while basic rustic cottages start at £25,000 or so, while larger houses in good condition typically begin at £85,000 upwards. Lapis Lazuli is currently selling a £28,000 two-storey stone rendered house near the pleasant historic market town of Arganil. There are two bedrooms, a lounge and large loft and ground floor storage rooms for conversion. The small garden is arranged in terraces with olive and fruit trees.
For £93,000 Lapis Lazuli offers a two-storey four-bedroom farmhouse near Vila Nova de Poiares with lovely views, its own well and plenty of land with olive and fruit trees and grapevines. Rustic Portugal offers two properties near the pleasant town of Figueiro dos Vinhos, south of Coimbra, a £139,000 renovated villa with three bedrooms, and two modernised country homes in an idyllic location by a mountain stream, a two-bed and three-bed sharing a single roof.
The spacious grounds also include an old stone olive mill and a ruin of another house which might provide a basis for building permission. It costs £174,000 in total. Focusing near the coast in this region can also unearth more affordable properties.
"The coast, known as the Silver Coast or Costa de Prata, is known for its long sandy, and sometimes deserted, beaches which are popular with surfers and watersport enthusiasts," says Connie Vitto of Quadrant Overseas Property. "Quaint fishing villages mix with historical places of interest and religious sites. There is very little development in this area. It is becoming more accessible with the completion of the new A8 motorway linking Lisbon with Porto, plans to build a second airport at Ota (50km north of Lisbon) and the introduction of daily Ryanair flights to Porto from Stansted."
Quadrant currently offers several rural properties situated within a 10-minute drive of the coast near either Obidos or Caldas da Rainha, including a £190,000 one-bed detached villa with separate guest studio and spacious garden, a £92,000 three-bedroom villa with small garden and a £100,000 two-bedroom villa with garden.
Moving southwards, the countryside of the Alentejo, Portugal's largest and most laid-back province, is another under-developed area rich in inexpensive properties. Approximately an hour's drive east of Lisbon, the region's well-preserved historic capital, Evora, proclaimed by Unesco as a "world heritage area", boasts splendid architecture.
The extensive rolling plains are broken up by fields of sunflowers, oak, cork and olive plantations, occasional traditional farms and pleasant villages. Attractive towns include well-preserved Estremoz, Avis and Arraiolos, which all sport their own castles. The Alentejo region is known for its traditional handicrafts, excellent cheeses and superb wines. Walking, cycling, water sports, fishing and horse riding are all popular.
Overseas Real Estate is offering a farmhouse with seven acres of land for £86,000 near Estremoz, as well as a £260,000 five-bedroom 19th century farmhouse at Quinta Dos Penedos, Elvas, with a small farm and swimming pool set in a wild rocky valley made up of parkland and olive and citrus orchards.
www.lapis-lazuli.co.uk; 00 351 239 455773
www.quadrant-property.com; 01276 507513
www.rusticportugal.com; 00 31 35 691 8418