PORTUGAL: VILLAS AND VINHO?
PORTUGAL: VILLAS AND VINHO?
There are certainly a great many sun-drenched seaside houses to rent in Portugal - and indeed, much locally produced wine to consume. But to characterise the country solely as a chill-out beachside holiday destination with cheap alcohol is to overlook the cultural richness and astonishing variety of landscapes of this slice of the Iberian peninsula. Rivers, forests, mountains, plains and pastureland are packed into a rectangle about a seventh the size of neighbouring Spain. It is almost as a finishing touch that the country is bordered to the south and west by long stretches of sandy beach.
As recently as a decade ago, travel between the picture-book villages, glorious medieval towns and wonderfully bulbous Baroque churches that dot the hinterland was a tortuous and time-consuming activity. Transport difficulties added to Portugal's reputation as an backward relative of Spain. But that is a far cry from the nation of today, where welcome changes have included radical road improvements. Portugal's highways carry relatively little traffic, and you can now drive from the northern city of Porto down to Lisbon in about two and half hours. The onward journey from the capital to Faro, in the Algarve, takes only a little longer, although it is as well to be aware that Portugal's accident rate is the worst on the Continent, and four times higher than Britain's.
Of course, much sprucing-up has been taking place in preparation for the Euro 2004 football championship ( www.euro2004.com) that Portugal will be hosting from next Saturday, when the home country will play Greece at the new Estadio Dragao in Porto. There has been a significant increase in the amount of tourist accommodation, from the seriously luxurious to inexpensive rural retreats.
Portugal's pousadas, for a start. (The name means simply "places of rest"). They began in the 1940s when the government decided to build new lodges that would provide reasonably priced food and accommodation while reflecting the traditions of the areas in which each is set. In the 1950s, the remit expanded beyond construction and a number of historic buildings - castles, convents, monasteries and the like - were restored and converted into hotels. There are now 43, most with 30 rooms or fewer. They generally offer swimming-pools and bars as well as local cuisine and wines. And expansion is in the pipeline: last year, the Portuguese hotel group Pestana bought into the operation and is now handling the promotion of the network and overseeing the opening of six new pousadas over the next two years.
In the 1980s, concern about the dilapidated condition of many of the country's rural manors and stately homes prompted the government to establish a grant system, which continues today. Funds for the refurbishment of private properties of historic merit are provided on condition that these are subsequently opened to tourists. Many of them are now B&Bs of varying degrees of eccentricity, often hosted by aristocrats, who welcome guests into houses filled with family heirlooms and antiques. The scheme also comprises a number of self-catering options on old estates, or quintas, and casas, or rural homes. Of several umbrella organisations marketing this accommodation, the best known is Solares de Portugal, with about 100 properties (00 351 258 931 750; www.solaresdeportugal.pt).
SO WHERE CAN I LIVE LIKE A LORD?
Head for the green and temperate Minho region in the far north of Portugal, where many aristocratic families established their country seats. Manor Houses of Portugal Promotions (0871 871 6745; www.manorhouses.com) - a rival group to Solares de Portugal - has a range of noble B&Bs. For example, Casa de Esteiro, in the small town of Caminha, is an 18th-century hunting lodge. It was built by the Visconde de Guilhomil and has been owned by the Almeida Villas Boas family since the 1850s. The present incumbent is Jose-Maria do Patrocinio de Almeida Villas Boas, formerly Portugal's ambassador to China and the USSR. He entertains his guests with tales of diplomatic life while serving wine from his ample cellar. The lodge, complete with chapel and hung with portraits of ancestors, is a few minutes' walk from a long, windswept beach. Double rooms from €85 (£61), including breakfast.
HOW ABOUT A GREEN AND PLEASANT PLACE I CAN CALL MY OWN?
An increasing number of inland villas with swimming-pools are available to rent in the verdant countryside of the north. Destination Portugal (01993 773269; www.destination-portugal.co.uk) has such properties on its books, including Moinho da Porta, a converted watermill near the small town of Povoa de Lanhoso. Set beside a trout river, and with ultra-modern furnishings, it sleeps four and costs from £770 per week with a twice-weekly maid service.
The Individual Travellers Company (08700 773 773; www.indiv-travellers.com) also offers a range of rural retreats. Among the more remote is a cottage for four in the hamlet of Lazaro, 20km north of the medieval town of Arouca. Furnishings and facilities are simple (although there is a working bread oven) and its mountain setting is glorious - many of the slopes are terraced with tumbling vineyards. The cottage costs £375-£640 per week inclusive of car hire.
CAN I STAY AT A VINEYARD?
Indeed, and in some places you can even roll up your trousers and participate in the post-harvest treading of the grapes. Portugal's burgeoning wine regions are principally north of the university town of Coimbra, such as Bairrada and the Dao Valley, and north-east of Lisbon around the Ribatejo area. Smaller wine-producing regions include Bucelas, north of Lisbon, and Reguengos in the Alentejo. Vinho verde (young, or "green" wine) is made in quantity in the Minho region. And Portugal is also famous for its fortified wines: Madeira from the Atlantic island; port from the Douro Valley.
Solares de Portugal lists several small vineyards with holiday houses to let, but for total immersion in a larger estate head for the port-producing Quinta de la Rosa (00 351 254 732254; www.quintadelarosa.com), 2km from the village of Pinhao in the Douro Valley. Here, two farmhouses can be rented in their entirety, each with its own swimming-pool: Amarela, sleeping eight, costs from €520 (£371) per week, while the spectacularly situated Lamelas, sleeping six, costs from €630 (£450) per week. In addition, B&B accommodation is offered on the main premises - a 16th-century house and an annexe built a century ago as dormitories for the estate workers - from €63 (£45) per person per night.
Arblaster and Clarke (01730 893344; www.winetours.co.uk) offers four-day, tailor-made tours for groups of eight in many of the wine regions. A short break taking in the festival of St John in Porto (24 June), for example, features trips to the quintas of the Douro Valley, where many types of port can be sampled. The price of £595 per person includes accommodation, meals and tours, but not flights.
AND SOMEWHERE TRULY GRAND?
Make that a palace. Across the country, several stately edifices have been converted into luxury hotels. One of the most magnificent is the 19th-century Bussaco Palace Hotel (00 351 231 937 970; www.almeidahotels.com), set in Portugal's revered National Forest of Bussaco in the mid-west of the country. Built in neo-Manueline (or Gothic) style, this was the hunting palace of the last kings of Portugal and is resplendent with vaulted arches and marble staircases. An elegantly furnished double room here costs from €95 (£68) (€135/£96 at weekends) per night, with breakfast.
Further south, in the lush and lovely town of Sintra, near Lisbon, is the Palacio de Seteais (00 351 219 233 200; www.tivolihotels.com). Exuding 18th-century grandeur, the hotel is approached through an imposing neo-Classical arch. Inside, the sense of majesty continues, with 30 large bedrooms featuring period furniture and great swathes of curtains. Such opulence is reflected in the price: a double room costs €240 (£171) with breakfast during Euro 2004 (which continues until July 4) - at other times the rate is €185 (£132).
In central Lisbon, the Lapa Palace Hotel (00 351 213 949 494; www.lapa-palace.com) overlooks the leafy estuary of the river Tagus. The 1870 building was the private residence of the Count of Valenca. He employed two of Portugal's most celebrated 19th-century artists, the brothers Columbano and Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, to decorate the interior. The palace was converted into a sumptuous hotel in the 1990s and is now part of the Orient Express group. A double costs from €325 (£232), including breakfast.
A CITY BREAK?
Lisbon and Porto are the most obvious destinations for short breaks - not only due to cultural appeal but also for convenience. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.britishairways.com) and TAP Air Portugal (0845 601 0932; www.tap-airportugal.co.uk) both fly daily to Lisbon from Heathrow and Gatwick. The low-cost carrier Air Luxor (020-7589 8171; www.airluxor.com) flies daily from Gatwick. From Manchester, Portugalia (0870 755 0025; www.pga.pt) flies to Lisbon via Porto. Porto is also served by TAP from Heathrow and by BA from Gatwick.
A number of tour operators offer reasonable deals for packages inclusive of flights and accommodation. Mundi Color (020-7828 6021; www.mundicolor.co.uk), for example, charges around £288 per person for a two-night trip to Lisbon, staying in a central, mid-market hotel. Kirker Holidays (020-7231 3333; www.kirkerholidays.com) has a similar break for three nights at about £355 per person. This year, for the first time, the company also offers Sintra near Lisbon as a luxury, three-night destination, where accommodation is at the Palacio de Seteais - the package is £550 per person.
WHAT'S THE UP-AND-COMING AREA?
The Alentejo region in the south-east - a much-overlooked area that offers panoramas of wheat-growing plains, plantations of cork oaks, and some of the best-preserved medieval towns and villages in Europe. Many of Portugal's finest historic pousadas are located in the Alentejo. The best is the Pousada de Rainha Santa Isabel, at Estremoz in the Upper Alentejo - a castle palace originally built in the 14th century as a gift by Dom Dinis for his wife Isabel of Aragon (later canonised). It is adorned with Baroque statues and antiques and commands superb views. A double room including breakfast costs £110 during the week, £122 on Friday and Saturday.
Over in the west, Pousada de Dom Afonso II is set in the former castle of Alcacer do Sal, one of Portugal's oldest ports. Although Dom Afonso II (also known as "the fat") was a 13th-century king of Portugal, the castle is far older, and a variety of Roman, Viking and Moorish remains have been found here. In the 16th century it became a convent for Carmelite nuns - their accommodation a severe contrast to the fabulous, strikingly modern interior of today. The cost per person per night, including breakfast, is from £42 Sunday to Thursday, and from £47 Friday and Saturday. Contact Keytel International (020-7616 0300; www.keytel.co.uk) for details on both pousadas.
AND THOSE SEASIDE VILLAS?
Although mainland Portugal offers fine sandy shores along its western seaboard, beaches here often feel as if they have air-conditioning, most notably when breezes blow in across the chilly waters. So it is with good reason that the hordes head south to the warm seas of the Algarve. Not all of this area is crowded and covered in concrete development: the trick is to find a comfortable base and make forays from there to less-frequented spots west of Lagos or east of Faro. Among the many companies offering holiday homes in the area, the Villa Agency (01273 747811; www.thevillaagency.co.uk) specialises in the Algarve and has a wide range of classic properties. Mai Pen Rai, for example, is an airy, bright white villa about 11km from Albufeira. It sleeps six (with an extra bed for a child), has a swimming-pool and terrace for outdoor dining and costs from £595 per week.
For those with fatter wallets, Chapters by Abercrombie and Kent (0845 070 0610) has a selection of spectacular Algarve villas. Its most exclusive is probably the Casa da Infanta, belonging to the former Portuguese royal family. Set on the cliffs at Ferragudo and overlooking the Bay of Lagos, it has a music room, breakfast room (as well as dining-room), swimming-pool, private chapel, and even beds bearing the family coat of arms.
The whole house, with accommodation for 18, costs from £3,710 (£6,860 in peak season), although it is possible to rent just half of the villa.
WHERE CAN I GET AWAY FROM IT ALL?
A little-known part of Portugal is sprinkled across a small patch of the Atlantic, 1,280km west of the mainland. Except for its bubbling volcanoes, the misty, green archipelago of the Azores is a sleepy place of scattered villages, imposing churches and spectacular (if often wet) scenery. The islands of Faial and Terceira, the most important of the nine, are accessible from Lisbon on TAP Air Portugal. Inter-island flight connections are operated by SATA International (00 351 7072 27282; www.sata.pt). The small number of hotels here - such as the very rural Quinta do Martelo on Terceira (00 351 295 642 842; www.quintadomartelo.com, doubles €100/£71 including breakfast and car hire per day) and the elegant L'Escale de L'Atlantic on Pico (00 351 292 666 260; www.ciberacores.com/escale, doubles €68/£49 with breakfast) - will be swelled by the opening of two new pousadas later this year: the Estalagem de Santa Cruz, a 16th-century fortress at Horta on Faial; and the Forte de Sao Sebastiao in the small city of Angra do Heroismo (itself declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1983) on Terceira.
ANY OTHER ISLANDS?
Madeira, of course - and neighbouring Porto Santo. Blessed with year-round sunshine and year-round greenery thanks to its fecund, volcanic soil, Madeira has for years attracted a steady stream of well-heeled British visitors of a certain age. It presents a halcyon package: lovely scenery, pretty towns and villages, and a capital, Funchal, that is served directly from Gatwick by British Airways and from Heathrow and Gatwick by TAP Air Portugal. Its lack of sandy beaches is hardly a problem - Porto Santo's golden shores are an hour's boat-ride away from Madeira.
Recently, however, the island has been seeking to broaden its appeal and to shake off its somewhat staid image with a spate of spa and boutique-hotel openings. Chief among these is Choupana Hills (00 351 291 206 020; www.choupanahills.com), set in secluded woodland above Funchal. It is a dreamy place, with 34 chalets, four swimming-pools and a treatment centre offering everything from aromatherapy to hydro-massage. Doubles cost from €240 (£171) with breakfast.
Nearby is the smaller, and considerably cheaper, Quinta Mirabela (00 351 291 780 210; www.quinta-mirabela.com), an 1880s estate house (with a sympathetically devised extension) that is now a sleek 24-room hotel. Doubles cost from €60 (£43) including breakfast.
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
Specialist tour operators to Portugal include Caravela (0870 443 8181; www.caravela.co.uk); Casas Cantabricas (01223 328721; www.casacantab.co.uk); Castaways Unicorn Holidays (01737 812255; www.castaways.co.uk); Classic Collection (0870 787 3377; www.classic-collection.co.uk); Magic of Portugal (0870 888 0220; www.magictravelgroup.co.uk); Portugala (020-8444 1857; www.portugala.com); Sunvil (020-8758 4722; www.sunvil.co.uk); and Travel Club of Upminster (01708 225 000; www.travelclub.org.uk).
Two useful publications, both with website booking, offer a good choice of hotels. The Portugal Hotel Guide ( www.maisturismo.com) is published by Maisturismo and features more than 2,000 places to stay around the country.
The 2004 guide, available in English, costs €50 (£36) (inclusive of postage) from Maisturismo, Avenue Almirante Gago Coutinho, 147 1700-029 Lisbon; or order by e-mail from email@example.com. A more exclusive selection of one-off Portuguese accommodation is offered in Alistair Sawday's Special Places to Stay series (01275 464891; www.specialplacestostay.com). His 2004 Portugal book costs £8.99.
For more information about the country, contact Tourism Portugal's London office on 0845 355 1212; or go to www.portugalinsite.com.