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Beyond a sun-bleached Algarve

Jonny Beardsall braves the back roads of Portugal in search of an antidote to the hectic beaches of the south
I loosened my grip on the dashboard. Feeling less tense, I put it to my Portuguese driver that, just maybe, something could have been coming the other way. "Maybe not," he grinned. Perhaps I should have driven myself.

To get around the Estremadura province on Portugal's Atlantic coast, a car is a necessity. But in a country with one of the worst accident rates in Europe, you venture out on the roads at your peril.

Yet at least in this area you'll find Portugal for the Portuguese. In the village of Gradil, only 30 minutes drive from Lisbon's airport, I enjoyed the antidote to the blend of tourism that afflicts the sun-bleached Algarve. For now, the place remains a sleepy backwater.

Beyond the village is the 19th-century Quinta de Sant'Ana. The quinta, or farm, with its lichen-covered terracotta roofs and smudged ochre walls hung with bougainvillaea and wisteria, has 100 acres of vines, forests, fruit orchards and gardens. Beside the family house is an original chapel that dates from 1754. As well as the wine-making, paying guests are also becoming its life-blood.

Since the quinta opened its doors a little over a year ago, a steady flow of visitors - mostly English and German - have bumped their way up and down the labyrinth of Gradil's narrow, cobbled streets. The restaurant and village shop has never been so busy.

Portugal's Revolution in 1974 brought democracy and, with it, pumpkin time for owners of many large estates. But in this quinta's case, the German owner, Baron Gustav von Furstenberg, had loyal friends. A local caretaker kept the Communists locked out and the place went into hibernation.

The quinta has remained in the hands of the landed elite. In the late Eighties, the baron returned and has installed his enterprising daughter and English son-in-law to run the business. With its old-world feel, the place is now a turismo de habitaco - part of a scheme whereby historic properties offer bed-and-breakfast accommodation in a rural setting.

Gradil is a fine base from which to explore the region with the Baroque palace of Mafra, the royal castles of Sintra, and Queluz and the medieval walled village of Obidos - all within an hour's drive.

From the quinta, you watch the sun rise over the Serra de Socorro, the large lump on which Wellington built a sturdy look-out during the Peninsular Wars. Nearby, he master-minded the building of the Lines of Torres Vedras in 1809, the network of hill defences that outfoxed the French aggressors.

And a fascinating and little known discovery lies over the quinta's eight-foot garden wall which borders the whole acreage. Here is the Tapada, the former hunting ground of the Portuguese royal family. Not since the last monarch, King Dom Manuel II, fled to Britain in 1910, has the 2,000- acre estate been enjoyed by any royal. Owned and managed by the state, it has been opened to the public.

On walks along the mossy tracks through the woods and clearings you encounter fallow and roe deer, wild boar and foxes. There is also a captive breeding programme for wolves and a falconry school where visitors can see the birds at close quarters.

As the Tapada must annually cull a number of its furry inhabitants, it attracts paying guns and accommodates them in royal fashion. When you step through the door of the traditional lodge deep in the forest, it is as if they turned the lock after the last monarch departed - royal crests are still blazed on the crockery, the bed-heads and the lavatory seats.

The stable block is being rebuilt and horses will shortly be available for hire. The Lusitanian - used in Portuguese bullfighting, in which the bull is not killed - is actually a placid conveyance. It must be the best way for the less bloodthirsty to enjoy the Tapada and get closest to the wildlife.

Not far from the Tapada, the landscape is changing: Europe's fastest new autoroute is dissecting the Estremadura countryside. Emanating north from Lisbon, it takes in the traffic from the congested and highly dangerous smaller roads. Although this may come as a relief to visitors who tend to quake behind the wheel, there is a downside. It will bring villages like Gradil well within the range of Lisbon commuters.

Already, other medieval-looking hamlets are being ruined by the waves of urban incomers who build new houses rather than renovate originals.

"The trouble is," says James Frost, Quinta de Sant Ana's keeper, "the Portuguese now like everything to look square".

With scant planning restrictions, he would be pleased if the commuters never find Gradil. He prefers dicing with the blind hairpin bends to the autoroutes.


How to get there

TAP Air Portugal (0171-828 0262) and British Airways (0345 222111) have daily flights from London to Lisbon. The cheapest flight before 24 September is pounds 231.40 on Air Portugal. After that the fare drops to pounds 172.40.

How to get around

Book a rental car in advance from any of the leading international car rental companies, such as Holiday Autos (0990 300400).

Who to ask

The Portuguese National Tourist Office, 22 Sackville Street, London W1X 1DE (0171-494 1441).