Portugal: adventures beyond the Algarve

You think bleached sands and turquoise water is all that this country is about? Head inland and you'll discover crumbling elegance, culture and history, stunning scenery, and rivers of port. Travel far enough and you'll even reach the end of the world.
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The Independent Travel
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

Individual Travellers Spain and Portugal has an unusual collection of windmills, village houses, working farms and manors to let, in parts of the two countries where tourists seldom visit.

There are properties, for example, in Planicies, a huge agricultural region occupying much of central and eastern Portugal, with towns such as Evora, Estremoz, Moorish Campo Major and Elvas providing historic highlights. The Spanish counterparts Merida, Caceres and Trujillo lie within striking distance in Extramadura over the border.

If you're a sun and sea lover, look at the cottages and town houses in Tavira, one of the genuine unspoilt and underdeveloped delights of the Algarve, its skyline pierced with the spires and domes of 37 churches, the lazy River Gilao straddled by a fine Roman bridge and 16th- and 17th- century balconied patrician mansions flanking its squares. You take buses or boats (or a mile-and-a-half walk) to the best beaches, some of them on sandy spits, dunes and islets. Fishing ports such as Olhao and the tiny hideaway of Cacela Velha near by show how the Algarve must have looked before the mass packages got there.

Individual Travellers offers old town houses sleeping two in Tavira for between pounds 496 and pounds 772 per property (not person) for two weeks. A restored farmhouse near Evora sleeping four or five costs pounds 736-pounds 1,232. Prices include car hire or ferry fares for car and passengers.

Individual Travellers: 01798 869485

STUDYING PORTUGAL

If you want Portuguese culture in depth (Romanesque and Baroque churches, the fine gardens of its manor houses, the British influence on the port wine trade, or the exuberant Manueline style and historic riches of central Portugal), Martin Randall Travel has two fact-packed study tours in the autumn accompanied by an expert, Carol Rankin.

A week's visit starts at the restored medieval palace of the Dukes of Braganca and the remains of the castle built by Henry of Burgundy, then moves on to Braga, the country's religious centre. The last two nights are spent at Viana do Castelo. The tour costs pounds 990 and this includes scheduled flights, half-board and entrance fees.

The central Portugal tour in October costs pounds 1,070 for one week and concentrates on Evora, the city protected by Unesco due to the beauty of the buildings within its city walls, and Coimbra, Portugal's oldest university town, before travelling from the plains of the Alentejo to the mountain-top fortress villages guarding the frontier with Spain. Highlights include the Batalha, built to commemorate Portugal's independence from Spain in 1385, and the Cistercian Monastery of Alcobaca, for centuries one of the greatest monasteries in Christendom, its church and cloister considered among the inspired achievements of Portuguese architecture. The abbey contains the 14th-century tombs of the doomed lovers Dom Pedro and Dona Ines de Castro, whose fate is a favourite theme of Portuguese epic poetry.

Martin Randall Travel: 0181 742 3355

TWO IN ONE

Many tour operators offer Lisbon as a short city break; Cresta Holidays has a special deal which twins the Portuguese capital with Oporto, with internal flights between the cities and hotel stays in each.

If Lisbon is well documented, Oporto, Portugal's distinguished second city is less known; it's still a merchant community - "Lisbon plays, Braga prays, Coimbra sings and Oporto works" the guides will tell you.

The source of much of its prosperity can be found on the left bank - the port lodges where the grapes were delivered. Here familiar names such as Cockburn, Sandeman and Taylor, representing some of the country's most ancient families, are splashed in white paint on red tiled roofs. The pride in the product is still there, and visitors are welcome on tours and tastings.

A jumble of sober-faced churches with exuberant interiors, bookstores, banks and the stock exchange crowd the right bank's cobbled streets, the city's old medieval quarter which is now being restored.

Cresta's offer combines three nights at the Dom Henrique Hotel in Oporto with a further three nights at the Britannia Hotel in Lisbon for pounds 386 b&b, including return flights from Heathrow and internal flights.

Crest Holidays: 0161 927 7000

THE WILDERNESS

Four-centre walking holidays in the national parks of northern Portugal - a showcase of the country's wildest, most remote and varied scenery, where birds of prey and wild horses are likely to be your only companions - are on offer from Ramblers Holidays. The first centre is the old town of Vila Real in the port wine region, from where you strike out into the Alvao and Morau mountain ranges, noted for their rock formations and gorges. Two contrasting centres in the Peneda-Geres National Park, the remote village of Piteos das Junias and the town of Geres, are next on the itinerary, with a final night in Oporto.

Daily walking time rarely exceeds six hours in terrain that is moderate, with energetic days among the hills and easy mountain trails. Prices range from pounds 598-pounds 652 for two weeks including flights and half-board in hotels that offer traditional Portuguese cooking.

If you prefer independent walking, Sherpa Expeditions can organise flights, routes, overnight stops and escorted walks, also in the Peneda-Geres National Park. Seven-night independent walks costs pounds 630, and escorted walks costs pounds 690, including flights and half-board accommodation.

Rambler Holidays: 01707 331133

Sherpa Expeditions: 0181 577 2717

BIKING IT

If you prefer two wheels to two feet, Bike Tours can offer the Peneda- Geres National Park on the move; a week's itinerary takes in the pilgrim village of Senhora de Peneda in the park, and Soajo, where espigueros - the ancient granite grain stores on stilts - cluster above the village.

It also includes glimpses of the Minho which the Portuguese see as their Arcadia, a rural idyll of woods and pastures, feasts and folklore. Wood- wheeled bullock carts still trundle round its winding lanes; at Barcelos you can buy anything from a carved yoke to a hand-painted egg cup at one of the largest handicrafts market in Europe.

Cycling routes vary from 16 to 41 miles a day in undulating terrain with a couple of stiffish climbs, staying in a collection of manor and village houses, an original pilgrim's hostel and some hotels en route.

A tour price of pounds 490 covers bed and breakfast, route maps, transport of luggage and the services of a courier-mechanic. In addition expect to pay about pounds 220 for the return flight to Oporto and pounds 50 for bike hire.

Bike Tours: 01225 480130

TO THE END OF THE WORLD

The fim do mundo (the end of the world) was the name given to the bleak headlands of Cape St Vincent by Henry the Navigator's sailors sent out from his training school at Sagres near by. It's the goal of Equitour's 14-day "Trail to the End of the World" riding holiday which hugs the west coast from Milfontes along the foot of the Cercal Ridge, including canters through the sand dunes and pine forests. The trail ends with the giant cliffs that marked the end of the old known world.

There are three or four hours of moderate-paced riding each day on Lusitano horses, and the cost is pounds 980 excluding fares which can be arranged. Shorter six-day rides are also available for pounds 398, and for those who want to improve their riding skills, there are courses in dressage.

Equitour: 01865 511642

ON THE BATTLEFIELDS

You will get a trooper's view of Wellington's Peninsular Wars along the Portuguese-Spanish border if you take part in battlefield specialist Holt's Tours "The Stand on the Frontier" tour between 18-22 August.

The years 1810-1812 saw Wellington's defensive and offensive campaign in the Northern Corridor reverse the fortunes of the French, and the tour follows the cat and mouse game played around Almeida and along the River Coa to the scene of the Battle of Fuentes d'Onoro where Marshall Massena was finally humiliated, and then moves to Ciudad Rodrigo and on to Salamanca. Experts accompany the tour which costs pounds 981 and includes return flights to Oporto, and half-board accommodation in three-star hotels - the Grao Vasco in Viseu and the Pousada Senhora des Neves, situated within the walls of Almeida's fort.

Holt's Tours: 01304 612248

DOURO CRUISE

Rabelos are the old port barges used to ferry the harvest from the upper terraces of the port vineyards down the Douro River to the port lodges at Oporto. And though the river rapids have now been tamed by a series of dams and the harvest is mainly transported by road, a trip up the river is still one of the most scenic in the country.

You can do it by rail or by road, but the most relaxing way is to take a short cruise of one or two nights - Mundi Colour offers them as "add- ons" to its city breaks or tailor-made pousada tours (see separate entry).

The two-day "Monumental Douro" tour, which also visits S. Joao de Tarouca monastery, costs pounds 177. With an additional two-night city break in Oporto, the all-in cost would be approximately pounds 400 including fares.

Mundi Colour: 0171 828 6021

TRADITIONAL PADS

Manor houses or quintas ranging from aristocratic homes to modest farmhouses converted into self-catering accommodation or family-run b&b's, provide a more traditional view of Portuguese culture than modern holiday villas and hotels.

A number of small British tour operators package these manors; in northern Portugal for example, Sunvil can offer holidays on the Quinta do Convento de Franqueira at Barcelos, built in the 16th century as a Franciscan monastery and set in 35 acres of grounds. The accommodation includes four-poster beds, family room, private bathrooms and pool. Car hire and flights are included in the price of pounds 457 per week for bed and breakfast.

Vintage Travel's manor houses are rented on a self-catering basis, though at the Quinta do Paco, perched on a hill among the vines and overlooking the Douro River, the housekeeper will prepare traditional dishes, mainly cooked over an open hearth. Holidaymakers looking to replenish their port cellars can visit local producers. The price of the property with its pool, barbecue and all mod cons starts at pounds 1,145 a week and it sleeps eight people. Fares are extra and can be arranged.

If you're looking for a holiday with a touch of grandeur, International Chapters can arrange for a party of 20 people to have Paco da Gloria, an 18th-century fortress near Ponte de Lima, to themselves. Originally built as a home for the King of Portugal's mistress, it is on a small wine estate which produces its own vinho verde and guests are welcome to help themselves to this.

Antiques, a pool, tennis court and resident staff are part of the deal, and hire of the owner's private cars, a Range Rover and a 1940 Bentley Continental are available on request. The price per week is pounds 4,950 shared between 20 (which works out at pounds 247.50 each). Flights are not included.

Sunvil Travel: 0181 568 4499

Vintage Travel: 01954 261431

International Chapters: 0171 722 0722

WINE ROUTES

Independent self-drive themed tours from specialist operator Destination Portugal include a nine-day wine route meandering from manor houses with active vineyards to large wine producers, sampling along the way. The tours are tailor-made, but on a typical nine-day tour you could stay two nights in Porto with a visit to Taylors Port Lodge, moving on to a manor near Viano do Castelo where they make vinho verde on the premises. The house of the first exporter of vinho verde to the Americas, Casa do Sezim, near Guimaraes, is the next stop, followed by overnight stops in the Dao wine region and at the Quinta do Sao Lourenco near Bussaco, which produces Bairado red and white wines.

The price of this nine-day tour is from pounds 444-pounds 470, including scheduled flights, bed and breakfast accommodation and car hire.

A week's self-drive "Wellington's Footsteps" tour with visits to Bussaco, Mondego Bay where 9,000 men landed in small boats, Coimbra and Obidos costs pounds 438, also including car hire, accommodation and flights.

Destination Portugal: 01993 773269

STAYING IN POUSADAS

Like Spain's paradors, the state-run pousadas are often converted castles, monasteries, palaces or national monuments in remote and sometimes dramatic settings, with restaurants that offer local food and wines. Costs vary from around pounds 24-pounds 53 a night for bed and breakfast in low season to pounds 34-pounds 65 in July, August and September.

The most interesting, such as the Pousada dos Loios at Evora where you can stay in the former monks' cells of a converted 14th-century monastery, or the Pousada do Castelo where you sleep surrounded by history in a castle within medieval walls, need booking well in advance. You can do this through the pousadas' UK representative, Keytel International.

Independent self-drive tours staying at the most historic pousadas can be put together by Unicorn Holidays. A week's itinerary costing pounds 818 includes scheduled flights, car hire and b&b accommodation in the pousadas at Evora and at Obidos, as well as the Pousada do Costello de Palmela, south of Lisbon, and the exuberantly decorated Pousada da Rainha Santa Isabel at Estremoz.

Keytel International 0171 402 8182

Unicorn Holidays 01582 834400.

Mundi Colour 0171 828 6021 and

Magic of Portugal 0181 741 1181 also organise holidays in pousadas

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