Unique, romantic and affordable, Portugal beckons

| June 1, 2011 | 0 Comments
Oporto (the English spelling for Porto) is Portugal’s second largest city, known worldwide for its prime export, Port wine, but also for its winning soccer team.

Oporto (the English spelling for Porto) is Portugal’s second largest city, known worldwide for its prime export, Port wine, but also for its winning soccer team.

One of the best reasons to visit Europe’s west coast is that Portugal offers some of the best value in Europe even in the midst of a challenging economy. My country is attracting visitors at a brisk pace not only because they get more for their money but mainly because they get a fresh and “real” experience, courtesy of the country’s remarkable ability to remake itself as a wonderful blend of the traditional and the new, the classical and the modern. It has a culture and history uniquely its own, with a distinctive personality.
Among its many accomplishments, Portugal was the first European nation to discard Latin in favour of its own unique language. Portugal’s borders have remained stable for centuries, giving them the longest-lasting borders in Europe. Most importantly, Portugal was the first nation to build a global economy. Its sea-faring explorations — from the 1400s through the 1600s — opened trade routes that reached Brazil to the west, Africa to the south, and Macau and India to the East. It is widely acknowledged that João Corte-Real, and later his son, Gaspar, were among the first Europeans to reach the shores of Newfoundland.
But we don’t only revel in the past. We also look into the future. Today’s Portugal boasts some of the most exciting new buildings in Europe, from Porto’s Casa da Música to Cascais’ new Casa das Historias Paula Rego Museum. Its restaurants and cafés serve bold new dishes that combine traditional Portuguese cuisine with flavors of the other regions once explored by Portuguese mariners, making it an ultimate destination vacation for foodies. Portugal’s cities are also heavily influenced by the cultures of the distant lands, and especially the cuisine, which appeals to the history buff in every traveler.

Sao Miguel Island, nicknamed “the Green Island,” is the most populous island in the Portuguese Azores archipelago.

Sao Miguel Island, nicknamed “the Green Island,” is the most populous island in the Portuguese Azores archipelago.

There’s obviously also something for wine lovers. Portugal’s burgeoning wine industry is being reborn as the country employs today’s technology to get the best from grapes that have been cultivated for centuries and that are unique to my country. Wine drinkers will know that Portugal is home to the world’s first demarcated wine region — the Douro River Valley — but it also has many more wine regions for a visitor to explore.
So what defines Portugal? Start with its vast cork forests, move on to discovering its ancient castles and forts, check out its mighty cathedrals and abbeys and explore its white-washed towns and vibrant cities. The traditional songs of Fado thrive among a new generation of Fadistas, who are the singers that turn the melancholy melodies into art. Portugal’s islands — the Azores and Madeira — also offer lush landscapes and dramatic scenery yet several of their cities compete as hotspots with the best in Europe.

Where to go?
The city of Lisbon, where I was born and raised, is called “the capital of cool in Europe” and it’s a claim that continues to be true today. Lisbon has created top-level restaurants and has attracted some of the finest chefs from around the world. Luxury hotels have sprouted up everywhere. Museums, theatres and art venues draw talent from the best artists.
From Lisbon, a visitor can easily reach the resort towns along the Atlantic Coast.
Some of the more classic towns include Estoril and Cascais, where I now live, while the historic towns — such as Sintra, Óbidos, Mafra, Tomar, Santarém, and Alcobaça – offer an authentic view of older Portuguese culture.

Pena Palace (Palacio da Pena) in the town of Sintra was home to Queen Rainha D. Amélia from 1889 until 1910 when Portugal was established and the queen went into exile.

Pena Palace (Palacio da Pena) in the town of Sintra was home to Queen Rainha D. Amélia from 1889 until 1910 when Portugal was established and the queen went into exile.

Oporto is Portugal’s second largest city, known worldwide for its prime export, Port wine, but also for its winning soccer team. In 2006, the region marked the 250th anniversary of Port wine production along the Douro River Valley, which is easily explored by car or river cruises and was in 2009 ranked No. 7 in the world in terms of sustainable destinations by National Geographic Traveler. Porto has become known for its granite Baroque architecture, breathtakingly exemplified in its relatively new futuristic concert hall, Casa da Música, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Porto is also the gateway to Portugal’s official birthplace, which dates back to the 12th Century. Yes, we are almost 900 years old. The city of Guimarães in the northeast of Porto is the nation’s first capital, and marks the birthplace of Portugal’s first king, Dom Afonso Henriques. The region is dotted with towns and manor houses in classic Baroque style.
The Azores archipelago — from where most of the members of the Portuguese community who now make Canada their home come from — consists of nine islands, 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) out to sea, making them nearly as close to North America as they are to mainland Portugal. They’ve been a stopping-off point for great sea-faring explorers from all over the world since the 1400s. While the volcanic topography makes for some great flora and fauna, with crater lakes shimmering in blue and green, the remoteness of the islands has contributed to their culture. Distinct in cuisine, dialect and traditions from the rest of Portugal, the Azores have continued to carve out a unique corner of Portuguese history. The towns are full of historic churches, yachting clubs, fishing harbours and museums. The United Nations has recognized two Azores locations as World Heritage Sites, to be preserved for their historic value: the town of Angra do Heroismo on the island of Terceira and the vineyards on Pico Island, the smallest of the Azorean islands. In 2007, the Azores were named by the National Geographic Centre for Sustainable Destinations as the world’s second most appealing islands destination.

The cuisine experience
To fully experience Portugal’s diverse cuisine, travelers should dine in both the north and south, on the mainland and throughout the islands. One of the more common Portuguese meals is bacalhau — a dried, salted cod eaten throughout Portugal. Until not long ago, almost all the catch of cod was done in Canada’s east coast by sailing boats known has the “white fleet.” The country’s chefs claim there are 365 ways to prepare this national dish, one for every day of the year. Another country-wide favourite is grilled sardines, mostly found in the Algarve region during the summer season.
But it doesn’t end there. The wide-open Alentejo Region and the coastal Algarve Region each has its own distinct cuisine. Bread dishes, dry soups, rich sausages and dark hams are popular in Alentejo while one of the area’s delicacies is a soup called Açorda Alentejana. It’s made made with bread, cilantro, garlic, olive oil and poached eggs. I can guarantee it is really delicious. The Algarve also specializes in spicy, grilled seafood.
And, last but certainly not least, Lisbon isn’t just a city of restaurants, it’s the city of restaurants. The city features both grand, old establishments that can trace their history back generations, and some of the newest trendsetters with world-class chefs in their kitchens. Continental classics rival the culinary scene of any other major European city but are also complemented by local Fado cafés and the culinary influences of former Portuguese colonies such as Brazil, Cabo Verde and Mozambique.
Best museums
Portugal is home to some of the finest art in the world. Renowned museums include Lisbon’s National Museum of Historic Art (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga), the Modern Art Centre (Centro de Arte Moderna) and the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. Each has an extensive collection of both classic and modern art but, for creations with a strictly Portuguese flavour, travelers aim for Lisbon’s Chiado Museum and the Serralves Museum in Porto. Each city has its own museum (such as the Machado de Castro Museum in Coimbra and the Sacred Art Museum in Funchal). But tourists can find art and artifacts outside of museum walls, including Portugal’s delicately painted tiles, the azulejos, which are remnants of the country’s early occupation by the Moors.

Where to stay?
The town of Sintra features such a stunning setting that it was once a summer palace for the Portuguese crown. The town square is flanked by fountains, cafés, a medieval castle and antique shops, and features both a national palace and Pena Palace (Palacio da Pena). The latter was the home of Queen Rainha D. Amélia from 1889 until 1910 when the Republic of Portugal was established and the queen went into exile. About five minutes outside of town you’ll find Seteais Palace, a pink, 18th-Century palace that is now a luxury hotel.
The Buçaco Palace Hotel was once a Carmelite monastery: It now serves as a luxury hotel on the mountain rising above the town of Luso. Surrounded by the Buçaco Forest, this property also once served as a royal palace. The town of Luso sports its own thermal springs, which have attracted visitors for their healing qualities since the 1800s.
One of the favourite ancient stories among the Portuguese is that of the tragic love between Pedro and Inês de Castro. Pedro was heir to the throne in the 13th Century, and Inês was his wife’s lady-in-waiting. When Pedro’s wife died, he publicly declared his love for Inês, who was then promptly killed by the king. Pedro got revenge by tearing out the hearts of two of the killers and leading a revolt against the crown. With victory, Pedro had Inês exhumed, posthumously crowned Queen of Portugal and ensconced in the great Abbey of Alcobaça. Today, visitors can stay at the very palace where Inês and Pedro lived, which is now part of the hotel Quinta das Lágrimas in Coimbra. The garden where Inês was murdered is on the hotel’s grounds and is called the Garden of the Tears. At the Abbey of Alcobaca, about 50 miles (80 kilometres) away, the tombs of Pedro and Inês lie foot-to-foot so that, on Judgment Day, the first thing the lovers see will be each other.
You see, we always have been romantic.

Pedro Moitinho de Almeida is ambassador of Portugal to Canada. Reach him at 613-729-0883 or embportugal@ottawa.dgaccp.pt

Be Sociable, Share!

Category: Delights, Destinations

About the Author ()

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *