Portugal - Football fever

Portugal hosts the European football championships in June. But JEREMY HEAD takes a look at what else the country has to offer.

Portugal hosts the European football championships in June. But JEREMY HEAD takes a look at what else the country has to offer.

For fans of the beautiful game everywhere, Euro 2004 will be three weeks or so of football heaven. Between 12th June and 4th July the host nation Portugal will be the focus of the world's attention, with about nine billion people watching the event on television. As a tourist destination, Portugal has tended to lose out to its bigger neighbour Spain, but this looks set to change with all the exposure that Euro 2004 will bring. The tournament is being staged in eight different cities across the country, providing an ideal insight into what Portugal has to offer for travellers ­ whether football fans or not.

LISBON

Portugal's capital city spreads out across a series of hills on the north bank of the River Tagus. It combines historic charm with a relaxed, friendly atmosphere and an excellent range of hotels ­ many taking advantage of the splendid views afforded by the hills. It's easy to get around and offers a great combination of culture, shopping and dining.

The city's architecture is also impressive. The Baixa district has been described as the greatest uniform architectural undertaking of the Age of Enlightenment. This part of the city was destroyed by the earthquake of 1755, and rebuilt as a grid of streets under the oversight of the Marquês de Pombal. Many of the street names depict the crafts that were practised there. The Rua da Prata (Silver Road) housed the silversmiths, and the Rua do Ouro (Road of Gold, now the Rua Aurea) was for goldsmiths. You'll find plenty of other craftsmanship in Lisbon, too. The Museu do Azulejo, with its unusual examples of ancient tiles; the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, which contains the world's largest collection of 18th-century French silverware; and the world-class oriental and occidental art of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum will keep culture vultures happy for days.

Like most Catholic countries, Portugal celebrates Saints' days with huge street parties. St Anthony was born in Lisbon, and on the eve of his feast day on 13th June the streets are crammed with partygoers. Celebrations start with a meal of grilled sardines served on trestle tables and continue with a parade. With the Feast of St John on 24th June and the Feast of St Peter on 29th June people tend to make a fortnight of it, and the city council lays on free concerts and other entertainment.

PORTO

The historic centre of Portugal's second city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of particular note is its Stock Exchange, the Bolsa, built in the 1830s, with its remarkable pseudo-Moorish ballroom, the Arab Hall. Portugal's most dazzling church also stands right next to the Bolsa. The walls and ceiling of the Church of São Francisco are a mass of golden foliage, with an assortment of golden cherubs crouching among it.

If you like more modern art, Serralves, Portugal's most contemporary art gallery, is the place to head for. The building itself is worth the trip. It was designed by internationally acclaimed local architect Álvaro Siza, and is set in 18 hectares of formal and informal gardens. Part of the collection is displayed in a fabulous Art Deco mansion.

Festival time in Porto is the 23rd and 24th June, when everyone hits each other over the head with giant leeks to celebrate the Saint's day of patron saint São João. Aside from such leek bashing, festivities also include the lighting of bonfires and a spectacular fireworks display over the River Douro. Apart from leeks, the other local delicacy is fast food. Francesinhas are toasted rye sandwiches filled with ham, fried steak and pork sausage, covered with melted cheese and coated with a seafood sauce. They were introduced by a Portuguese emigrant from France in the 1960s. The food may be fast, but the drink is for savouring. Porto has given the world Port, and this is the obvious place to drink it. Most port is matured in vast warehouses in Vila Nova de Gaia, which faces Porto across the mouth of the River Douro. Huge neon signs advertise the different producers, and each lodge welcomes visitors with most offering tours.

AVEIRO

Aveiro is a charming, low-rise little city, crisscrossed by canals and on the edge of a lagoon. Located 45 miles south of Porto and less than half-an-hour's drive from Atlantic beaches, few of its buildings are more than two storeys and many of them are fishermen's cottages or Art Nouveau villas. The town stands on a saltwater estuary that stretches over 30 miles from Ovar to Mira, fed by the waters of the River Vouga and the River Águeda. The seaweed that grows on the estuary was an ancient source of income for the city. It was traditionally harvested using low-slung, wide-bottomed moliceiro boats and used for fertiliser, and these days you can explore the canals and visit nearby beaches on board one of these old craft.

If you fancy getting around under your own steam you could try pedal power. Aveiro's town council recently introduced a new scheme, providing 200 bicycles free of charge at 39 locations across the town. So just jump on a bike at any blue-and-white cycle point and go for a ride along one of the specially-marked cycle routes. Once you've worked up an appetite you can sample some traditional Portuguese rural cuisine. The Largo da Praça do Peixe is full of little restaurants and bars that spill out onto the square, and there are many more restaurants in the nearby Rua do Tenente Resende. The city's gastronomic specialities include suckling pig, braised lamb or kid, roast veal, mixed fish stews and eels. For dessert you can try one of the many egg-and-sugar confections pioneered in the local convents of old. Try the ovos moles ­ they're delicious.

BRAGA

Braga, a little way north of Porto, is noted for its Baroque architecture, whitewashed mansions with granite casements, and the abundance of its churches. The town's cathedral dates from 1070 and contains two fabulously ornate Baroque organs facing one another, both crawling with cherubs. The cathedral's Sacred Art Museum contains a pair of platform shoes that belonged to a very short Archbishop, who couldn't reach the altar without them and a plain metal cross used at the celebration of the first Mass in Brazil, following the country's discovery by Portugal's Pedro Álvares Cabral in 1500.

Braga's traditional industries are also associated with the church: candle-making, organ-building, stonemasonry, bell founding, embroidery and cabinet making. Even today you're likely to come across shops selling religious statuettes cheek-by-jowl with shops selling short skirts and beaded bags.

If you want Baroque till you drop, then another of the country's most impressive and photogenic Baroque structures stands a mile or so east, at Bom Jesus do Monte. Set into a densely-wooded hill slope, the fabulous zigzag Baroque staircase allows penitents to ascend on their knees to the Santuário do Sameiro. Don't feel you have to indulgence in knee-bending though ­ nowadays most people take the funicular to the top.

COIMBRA

Located in between Porto and Lisbon, Coimbra is a picturesque city, home to Portugal's oldest university. It was made capital of Portugal by King Dom Afonso Henriques, who was crowned king in 1139. The university was formally created in 1288. Every year in May the university students hold a festival Queima das Fitas to celebrate the end of the academic year, with a series of parades and events such as a Portuguese guitar concert (serenata) and an amateur bullfight.

Coimbra is also a good base for exploring the nearby regions: 10 miles south is Conimbriga, Portugal's most elaborate Roman site, famous for its wonderful mosaics. It was first occupied by the Romans around 200 BC; the town became a city under Vespasian, 69-79 BC, and it flourished again in the 3rd century. The Villa of Cantaber was one of the largest city residences in the western Roman world.

FARO

Faro has been the capital of the Algarve since the second half of the 18th Century, and because of its airport is the entry point to the region for many of its visitors. Palms fringe the pretty marina, and the pink flowers of Oleander trees adorn the city's squares. Pedestrianised streets are home to designer shops and pavement cafés.

You'd be hard-pushed to imagine that the city began its life as a prehistoric fishing village, but it came to real importance under the Romans. Due to fire and earthquake damage, only parts of the ancient city walls are still standing around the compact Old City, which can be easily explored on foot. Today, most of the impressive buildings date from the late 18th and 19th centuries, such as the São Francisco Church decorated with tiled scenes depicting the life of St Francis, the Palácio Bivarin and elegant Paço Episcopal (Bishops' Palace).

Faro has excellent beaches too, made up of long, thin spits of sand lying between the ocean and the mainland forming a lagoon. You can catch a ferry from Faro to Faro Island, Barreta Island ­ also known as the Ilha Deserta or Deserted Island ­ and Culatra Island for a wander along the beach and relaxed drink in one of the cafés. If you're feeling a little more energetic, the Algarve is also famous for golf. There are over 30 world-class courses within easy reach of Faro.

GUIMARÃES

Guimarães is the birthplace of the Portuguese nation, with a core of medieval streets that are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located among rolling evergreen hills, about 40 miles north east of Porto, its historic streets are narrow and cobbled, overlooked by little balconies with wrought iron or wooden railings and plenty of geraniums ­ the Rua de Santa Catarina and the Rua Egas Moniz are particularly delightful. Once you've been for a stroll head for the two squares at the heart of the town, the Praça de Santiago and the Largo da Oliveira. The cafés here with their outdoor tables are perfect for soaking up the ancient atmosphere and watching the world go by.

One of Portugal's finest small museums occupies the conventual buildings of the Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira. The Alberto Sampaio Museum houses an astonishing collection, of which the centrepiece is the fabulous silver-gilt late fourteenth-century tryptych altarpiece made for Dom João I; the central panel shows the Nativity, with plenty of cow heads in attendance. The Martins Sarmento Museum, meanwhile, features an awesome 3000-year-old giant, the Colossus of Pedralva.

The region around Guimarães is also the only place in the world that produces vinho verde, a light and slightly pétillant wine with a hint of acidity balanced by its fruitiness. It's best drunk very chilled.

LEIRIA

Set on a fertile coastal plain 90 miles north of Lisbon, Leiria is built around a castle hillock. It is an excellent base from which to visit two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: The Abbey of Batalha and The Abbey of Alcobaça.

The Abbey of Batalha, 8 miles south of Leiria, was built by Dom João I in thanksgiving for his victory at the battle of Aljubarotta in 1385, which secured the independence of Portugal from Castilian domination for some two hundred years. The arches of the cloister are decorated with carvings of scaly artichokes, amongst other things, dating back to the sixteenth century. Scaly artichokes were used on ocean voyages to prevent scurvy, so generations of great navigators and seafarers held them in the highest respect.

The Abbey of Alcobaça, 20 miles southwest of Leiria, was constructed in the years after 1178, and is said to have housed 999 monks before the Black Death reduced their number to eight. The church's transepts contain the magnificent tombs of Portugal's most famous lovers, Dom Pedro and Inês de Castro. They have been laid foot-to-foot, so on Judgement Day they will open their eyes and gaze on one another.

Portugal's most spectacular caves are also to be found at Mira de Aire, 20 miles southeast of Leiria. They are spiked with stalagmites and stalactites, and weird rock formations with names like Hell's Door and the Organ. Coloured lights add to the atmosphere and the 45-minute tours end with a visit to a huge lake 110m underground.

Crucial info

GETTING THERE BA flies to Porto, Lisbon and Faro from Gatwick ( www.ba.com). Monarch Scheduled flies from both Stansted and Gatwick to Faro. ( www.flymonarch.com)

STAYING THERE Portugal's attractive rural hotels, known as Pousadas, are a nice, traditional alternative. Prices from £62 a night for rooms in converted castles and manor houses. Call 020 7616 0300 or log on to www.keytel.co.uk

FURTHER INFORMATION Portuguese Tourist Board: www.portugal insite.com; For Euro 2004: www.euro2004.com

RECOMMENDED READING

The Rough Guide to Portugal (£12.99, www.roughguides.com)

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