For a tiny country 900 years old and only measuring 1200km coastline by about 200km, Portugal packs a massive punch; for mind-altering overland experience, a colourful crazy history, and house music loud extrovert fun people. Our initial plan – to rip up this country in a short 2 weeks travelling the coastline – ended up very close to a month crisscrossing the entire country.
But beware; all is not as it seems in Portugal. You should take note of the following!
ONE: It is almost impossible to leave such an incredible contrastingly beautiful country.
You will forever want to go back for the striking sunsets over Douro valley, the sunny warm days on the beaches in the Algarve and old cities like Porto and Lisbon. Portugal is an incredibly diverse country of deep valleys and rolling hills. For generations, families have eked out a living from the steeply terraced vineyards of the mountainous north, and from the cork oak plantations.
The coolest thing about Portugal is that you do not have to cross continents and travel mega miles to see interesting stuff. There are new things to experience around every turn. It’s a compact country that offers an intense travel experience.
The Douro River winds its a way through Winelands and olive farms. Picture perfect, a wonderful mix of old farming methods meeting the new modern. Now mix in some Port tasting stops and you have fresh new heaven!
Portugal will even leave those who maintain the highest appreciation for the wonders of nature speechless. Storybook picturesque mountains lay to the north. Everywhere you turn gives you a post-card like a view.
The Algarve region in the far-south features mostly rolling plains. Its coastline is notable for limestone caves, grottoes, and mind-blowing beaches. If you enjoy being surrounded by large-scale natural beauty, golden beaches and surfers paradise you will love the experience of being in Portugal.
TWO: The Portuguese will wear you out!
That is if you are an introvert and not much of a social soul. If however, you love mixing with people and making new connections, Portugal is for you. The Portuguese are loud, social, lively, warm and adventurous, with a romance language with Latin roots. This is one of the first countries both of us agreed we could quite easily make our home.
And this is the problem; it is easy to get comfortable with local folk.
It is not easy to say no-thank-you for an invite to eat and drink any time of the day. We received invites from complete strangers insisting we share lunch or dinner with them. We loved the bold personalities that can be very entertaining and fun! You will not want to leave; it just feels like leaving old friends and family behind.
Saul & Isabel and Braza from Faro bike club
Pedro, Helder and Paulo we have met in Angola for the first time and now again at their home in Lisbon. And Daniel with his cool family.
The folklore is vibrant and there is often traditional music played, home-made items for sharing, and elegant artwork. The signature of Portuguese art is beautiful blue paintings on white tile. With that, the religious history of Portugal has inspired some really beautiful structures and arts.
We came in from Spain at the top of Portugal, on directions from our old friend Pedro (a friend we previously met in Angola on his and our travels in 2010), we headed back North towards Braga and then the Gerês. Our first day already gave us the most fascinating experience. We entered a small town and found a ‘shop’ selling old motorbikes – wrecks are a better description.
No one could speak English, but the mutual admirations we showed toward the bikes were enough. A visitor started telling Michnus in VERY broken English about more priceless ‘motos’ that could be found in a private collection consisting of around 1000 motorcycles between Cabreiros and Ferreiros. A few hours later, with no address and very vague directions, we headed in that way, anyway…
On entering a circle at the first town, we saw a bike shop on the one side and Michnus stopped to ask if anyone had an idea where the collector might be found. The shop owner did not understand English very well, a visiting customer in the shop immediately took us under his wing. He also knew about the collector but himself never made it to viewing. He got on the phone, then in his car and told us to follow him …
Short of the long, we did not find the collector but ended up spending a memorable day with this family – enjoying the first of many hospitable Portuguese days. We were treated to a traditional lunch of oven-baked chicken, beef and potatoes with rice. It reminded me so much of our South African ‘boerekos’ (fresh homemade food).
We spend two nights at a very neat and affordable hotel, Cavalcho Adaujo, as it was raining constantly. We walked the streets, observing the tourist and locals alike, took outrides with our bikes into the park, and even got a glimpse at how a funeral was held in a small town. The stunning scenic views at Gerês and Parque Natural Peneda/Gerês are unbelievable. The park borders Spain and has some of the highest peaks in Portugal.
THREE: The food will kill you!
This is serious stuff! You eat knowing goodness is going to kill you sooner than later but you can’t stop yourself. Portuguese food is that good. I do not think there is a place in the world where the seafood is more loved than on the coasts of Portugal. Grilling most seafood from Sardines to Octopus you’ll taste the sea like never before.
Portuguese cuisine is rich, fresh, and full of flavours that have been perfected over generations. The Portuguese will change your impression of cooking 3 different types of meat in one pot. And then there’s Barrancos Ham – something you must eat before you die!
Francesinha – Grilled cheesesteak sandwich in a beer sauce. Sagres and Super Bock are local preferred beers.
The treats to death continue with diabetes-induced desserts. They know how to turn sweets into heart attacks. Specialty desserts also include queijadas, a decadent pastry that you will have to experience yourself to understand! Espresso is a right like having water and every meal finishes with an espresso and Pastel De nata. They also do that as a nice snack throughout the day.
This is no fast food joint. Traditional music & singing, while enjoying wine poured directly from the huge clay pots. Then the restaurant owner who talks like you is a local and long time friend. The food is some of the best on offer in Portugal.
After a jovial reunion with Pedro, while gorging on the famous local Porto Francesinha sandwich and beers, we were ‘instructed’ to turn back and appreciate the inland of Portugal too! Well, was he right!!
Porto is such an interesting city, old and new mingles with tradition and if you wander a bit off the touristy track you find gems. The historical waterfront along the Rio Douro is packed with restaurants and architecture. The historical part of Porto is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site and well worth spending time in.
One of Portugal’s internationally famous exports, Port wine, is named after Porto. If you are not going to travel up the Douro River to the wineries, do try the varieties available here – it is sweet but not much can beat it for taste. If the food does not kill you the Port and wine will!
We visited the Azulejo National Tile Museum. Established in 1965 and located in the former Convent of Madre Deus.
FOUR: Abandon all logic and common sense for the life of a freeloader living on a beach in the Algarve.
The entire Algarve region has a groovy laid back, old school, surfers feel to it. It’s still sort of stuck in the past with authentic houses and architecture. Nothing happens fast – tomorrow is another day. Spending the days at the cafe’s drinking beer, surfing, and grilling seafood is well worth walking away from corporate life.
The beaches in Portugal are a bit more conservative than France, so not too many topless girls around, but immensely beautiful, with vast empty unspoiled stretches. The beaches of Portugal are among the most incredible in the world and are among the country’s greatest highlights.
You want to look at the beach and commit it to memory. Some are tame and exquisite, offering pure white sands and calm clear blue waters; others have a greater intensity where surfers dare some of the biggest waves in the world. Whatever your preference, you will surely fall in love with the beaches of Portugal.
Our friends we met in Angola were waiting for us in Sesimbra, so we had a quick stop at a rainy, arty town -Sintra. I will be returning to spend some time here for sure.
The main road along the ocean towards Lisboa (Lisbon) was a first world pleasure. Most of the time 3 lanes, well organised and allowing quick access to areas. We took the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge (at 17kms the longest in Europe) across the Tagus river to Sesimbra.
Apparently there are 3 of these statues in the world. One here, one in Angola and the famous one in Rio. We have visited two of the three now.
Lisbon – Old, new and super modern all combined – a lively city.
Sesimbra gave us an insight into the daily coastal living for both the working class and the fishermen. A mere 40 km from Lisbon, it makes for a peaceful lifestyle for those willing to commute.
The harbour is quite busy with both professional and sport fishing, but there is, unfortunately, a big tourism foot here too. The town is famous for its beaches, fish restaurants, and nightlife, well in – season, we were a bit too early /late.
The original name of Celtic origin was Cempsibriga, meaning the Burg (Briga) of the Celtic tribe the Sesim. Close by, on a mountaintop, 240 m above sea level, lays the Moorish castle, and it affords a beautiful panorama over Sesimbra, its harbour and the surrounding countryside.
Our friends took us on a day trip to the Arrabida National Park, east of Sesimbra, located on the northern shore of the Sado River estuary. The park covers the beautiful Arrábida Hills. Mediterranean-like vegetation and two of the popular beaches are ‘guarded’ by the Convento da Arrabida, which was established in the 16th century.
The Portinho da Arrábid beach is famous for being a regular feature on Portuguese TV commercials and the perfect stopover. We also had a great view over Setubal and the now-famous Praia de Comporta where some well-known stars own houses.
We left Sesimbra after a blissful week and went exploring inland again. Sesimbra, Setubal, Evora, Mourao, back via Monsaraz, Alentejo and meeting our friend again at the coast, Vila Nova de Milfontes.