Portugal: At the edge of the world

Wherever you roam in Portugal you'll find a country that's spectacular, unspoilt and hugely inviting, says Eric Almonds
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The Independent Travel

Three decades ago, a journey through Portugal from top to toe was quite an undertaking: the main road and rail networks tended to follow the valleys. Travelling from the misty Minho river in the far north to the gently roasting Algarve remains a thrilling prospect, a sequence of encounters with distinctly different landscapes and communities. Happily, the infrastructure has improved beyond recognition, making the trip a more manageable proposition for those burdened with many demands on their time.

To comprehend the many dimensions of Portugal, it helps to divide up the country - or, rather, make use of the natural boundaries. North of the Douro river, you find a wildness alongside the economic dynamism of Porto. Few visitors stray far from the handsome old town, except perhaps to visit the wineries along the river or to enjoy a costa that has yet to be over-run. Yet if you aim north and east, you encounter the sort of Europe that most of us imagine has vanished - with, in the Trás-os-Montes region in the extreme north-east, a character that feels distinctly rural.

Even far inland, the sea infiltrates every aspect of Portuguese life. One reason is that deep river valleys define the landscape as they carve their way towards the Atlantic; another is that the nation's location at the extreme west of Continental Europe creates an outward-looking perspective.

The Mondego river forms the next natural divide. Coimbra, the university city that perches on the north bank, was finally put on the map as a venue for the European football championships in 2004 when England beat Switzerland 3-0 there, which says much about the power of sport. Today, it is peaceful once again, and provides a very civilised gateway to the Beiras - a region of, well, three halves. The coastal part, Beira Litoral, is the place to go for a beach holiday somewhere the neighbours will not have been: the cheerful resort of Figuera da Foz. Inland, Beira Baixa is (as its name translates) low, with vast, empty skies almost overwhelming the distant horizons - except to the east, where Beira Alta rises with Portugal's mightiest mountain range.

Many outsiders mistakenly think that Lisbon lies halfway along the west coast; in fact, the capital is two-thirds of the way south, making it one of the warmest European cities in winter yet relatively fresh in summer thanks to the benign effect of the Atlantic - though to visit the Cabo da Roca, Europe's westernmost extreme (and barely an hour from the capital) on a gusty day is not exactly a vision of serenity.

Inland, it is not just the transport infrastructure that has improved; rural tourism is spreading, allowing visitors to slow to the pace of country life. All the way through your journey you keep encountering the past: lonely, ruined castles, venerable but nurtured chapels, hill towns comprising cottages that seem to have been randomly scattered on the slopes. The Alentejo is where the layers of history are most visible - and is also the pantry for Portugal. The area is known for its excellent free-range pork and lamb, as well as seasonal game such as partridge and hare. A popular main course is carne de porco à alentejana, pork served with clams and coriander. Coriander pops up again and again, providing an aromatic sauce often served with pork knuckles or lamb stew. Portugal's ubiquitous bacalhau is also popular in Alentejo, while cação, or dogfish, a strongly flavoured, soft-fleshed fish has traditionally fared better in the heat of the interior. Cação is usually served in soups or poached in coriander sauce topped with slices of fried bread. The area's vast sun-baked plains make this an excellent wine-growing region, best-known for its full-bodied reds.

The lure of the south remains. Despite the excellent new highways and accelerating railways, your progress to the Algarve is sure to be slowed by the stunning, heavily wooded hills that insulate the south coast from the rest of the country. For some, the Algarve represents a promised land of golf courses and luxury apartments. Personally, I shall wander off to the west as I did in 1976, and reacquaint myself with the edge of the world - a perfect finale to a journey.

CLIMATE

Portugal has a location for every season. In the depths of winter, head for the Algarve where the average daily high even in January is 16C and rainfall is low. In the centre of the country, spring or autumn is a delightful time: April, May and October are particularly good months to travel in the Alentejo, while nearer the coast June and September are usually sparkling.

For the minimum chance of rain, visit in July and August; these months can be extremely hot in the Alentejo, but further north - in Porto and in the Douro valley - the average daily high peaks at a comfortable 25C.

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