Travel Portugal: Where every left turn reveals another wild beach

Matthew Hancock nearly misses the Estremaduran coast
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The Independent Travel
In Sao Pedro de Muel I stopped to buy fresh rolls for a picnic lunch. This small, white-washed village is on the Atlantic half way up Portugal's western coast, and that morning a low mist cloaked most of it. Once armed with my picnic, I had planned to continue inland where the skies would, hopefully, be clearer.

Yet by the time I had finished shopping the mist had lifted sufficiently to reveal Sao Pedro's great stretches of sandy beach. I realised what I had almost missed and decided to stay.

It would be easy to pass by the Estremadura region of Portugal. Between the "unspoilt" north and the "sunkissed" Algarve, it is a relatively small, relatively overlooked region just a few hours' drive north from Lisbon. Yet for some reason, apart from day-trips to its more obvious sites such as the abbeys of Alcobaqa and Batalha, this area is rarely visited by foreigners.

The Estremaduran coast is almost one long stretch of beach. To the north, the sands are fringed by the Pinhal de Leiria, a 700-year-old pine forest planted by King Dinis in a far-sighted attempt to protect rich agricultural land from the Atlantic winds. Drive down the ruler-straight road from Sao Pedro towards Pedrogao, and any left turning will reveal a wild beach - as long as you are not hypnotised by the dappled sunlight and pine fragrance first.

My only beach companions were fishermen who still use colourful, high- powered fishing boats to ride the often fierce Atlantic waves. Indeed one reason why many people are put off this region is because of the respect you must pay the sea when you go swimming.

Yet out to sea I went, on a queasy boat trip to the Ilhas Berlengas. These protected islands can be reached from the congested, sprawling port of Peniche. They are the only islands off the western coast of Portugal, and are as ruggedly beautiful as those off the Scottish highlands.

The boat tour offered the chance to snorkel or fish, but I was content to sit back and admire the incredible watery grotto, Furado Grande, big enough for the boat to pass right through, and to stroll along the bird- congested shores by the old fort of Sao Joao Batista.

Back on land, salvation was next on the agenda. Fatima is one of the holiest sites in the Catholic world, after three children saw a vision of the Virgin Mary here in 1917.

The town has done very well out of the visitation; apart from an endless series of car- parks, it has a mass of hotels and trinket stalls selling religious souvenirs. Yet it would be hard to find a place with a more relaxed atmosphere. Even without strong religious feelings, I found the candlelit procession to outdoor mass in the huge central square strangely moving, accompanied as it was by ethereal chants which filled the evening air.

From Fatima it is easy to get to an incredible series of caves that have eaten into the surrounding limestone landscape. The most picturesque location is at Mira de Aire, deep in the Parque Natural das Serras de Aire. Overlooking rolling hills, these caves were known only by locals until 1947. They were opened to the public in 1971.

The caves plunge 110 metres down and stretch 10 kilometres underground. Inside the warm cavern, the guide pointed out a natural underground well. "If you throw a coin in, you will be lucky in love," he explained. Nearby was another hole. "This is mother-in-law's well. It has a sheer 20 metre drop, so when you have been lucky in love, you can put your mother-in- law in it." Mother-in-law jokes, I reflected, seem to have become a sort of Esperanto.

The climax of the tour was past weirdly shaped stalagmites - aptly named "jellyfish", "martian" and "organ" - to an underground river, its natural wonders somewhat spoilt by coloured lights and a machine-driven fountain display. A lift then whisked us back to the clear airs above and the chance to cool off in an aquatic park, neatly hidden in the folds of the hills. And for the time being, at any rate, you can be pretty well assured that you'll have much of the place to yourself.

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