Portugal: Ox-drawn ploughs or golf-course buggies - the choice is yours
Beaches, hilltop villages and some serious wilderness in between - Jeremy Atiyah finds something for everybody in Portugal's seven provinces
Sunday 31 May 1998
This is the far north-western corner of the country, hard up against the coast and the Spanish province of Galicia. One feature of the area is a countryside which is one of the poorest in Western Europe: farmers still rely on ox-drawn carts and ploughs. A great way to explore the region is by staying in Turismo Habitacao accommodation, otherwise known as Turihab, which is particularly plentiful in this area - grand old manor houses or farmhouses right off the beaten track (call the Portuguese tourist board on 0171-494 1441 for a brochure). The two urban centres in the region, neither of which are large, are Braga - packed with historic churches - and the finely preserved mediaeval city of Guimaraes, which incidentally has two of the country's finest pousadas (Portugal's de luxe, government- run hotels).
If anything, this province is even poorer than , and wolves are said to roam the mountain villages. It is a harsh landscape, freezing in winter and broiling in summer, but its two national parks offer some serious wilderness for hiking in. The top end of the Douro River valley runs through the southern part of the province, including the most important port-producing area.
This is actually three provinces: the litoral (coastal), alta (upper) and baixa (lower). As a whole, the region includes the country's highest mountain - the Serra da Estrela - as well as its longest river, the Rio Mondego. The highlands were the heartland of the Lusitani, a fierce indigenous people whose leader, Viriato, is a national hero for his stubborn resistance to Roman invaders 2,000 years ago. The highlight of the area is the ancient and hilly university city of Coimbra, perched above the Rio Mondego.
Curiously, Estremadura is not adjacent to the Spanish province of Extremadura, but squeezed up against the coast above Lisbon. Apart from Lisbon and Sintra, the main attractions are a few seaside resorts such as Ericeira, full of Lisbonites enjoying themselves at weekends in summer. In the north of the province are a couple of architectural masterpieces: a 12th-century Cistercian monastery in Alcobaca and the Gothic-Manueline monastery in Batalha.
There is not much to shout about in this thin little province to the east of Lisbon, except for a couple of historic little towns, Santarem and Tomar, the latter being the one-time headquarters of the Knights Templar.
The alto (high) and baixo (low) Alentejo between them make up most of the lower half of Portugal. In summer, the rolling plains are monumentally hot and empty - the land is divided into vast agricultural estates still based on the old latifundia, the original country estates established by the Romans two millennia ago. The place to aim for is the fantastically historic city of Evora. Fortified hilltop villages surrounded by miles of cork and olive are also a feature; Monsaraz is the best known.
This is Euro-holidayland par excellence. Parts of the coast, especially between Faro and Lagos, have been predictably over developed and Albufeira probably takes the biscuit as the local Torremolinos, with its crowded pubs and restaurants catering exclusively to German and English holidaymakers. That's the bad news. The good news is that the sun shines warmly almost all year round, the beaches are excellent and, in recent years, luxury villa resorts and golf courses have been added to what is generally a low-cost market.
Leading specialist tour operators featuring Portugal include Destination Portugal (01993 773269), Portugala Holidays (0181-444 1857), Caravela Tours (0171-630 9223) and Latitude 40 (0171- 229 3164).
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