Private and Privileged Portugal
Private – because it has been vastly overlooked as a European tourist destination. For any traveler who wants to become better acquainted with this captivating country, there are still tantalizing towns and cities where you can wander freely and rarely come into contact with another tourist. If authenticity is high on your list of priorities, you’ll find it by the armful in undiscovered villages from Beiras to Algarve.
Privileged – as it has a noble history dating back to 140 B.C. The proud Portuguese people have proven themselves to be courageous and shrewd explorers and the country itself retains the oldest borders in Europe. Today, tradition and modernity blend together in perfect symphony.
The time to discover this hidden gem is definitely now. A country of diverse cultural, geographic and historical influence – Portugal has recently come under the spotlight and is being discovered by a broader sector. Surprised and delighted tourists new to the charming country are returning home with wonderful memories, tales and a thirst to experience more. The superb cuisine, fine wines and hospitable people make Portugal a tourist paradise of the highest calibre.
The Atlantic Ocean that laps the country’s long shoreline has influenced many aspects of its culture: salt cod and grilled sardines are national dishes and much of the nation’s impressive and intricate architecture dates to the 1500s–1800s when Portugal had a powerful maritime empire.
Today, the pristine, almost virgin, 850-km Atlantic seaboard is finding favour with surfers, sun seekers, and sailors – amongst others. The beaches of Algarve have long been a source of snowbird pilgrimages to the south.
With rugged regions to the north anchored by the city of Porto, the golden valley of Douro with its excellent wines and the country’s deluxe accommodations – there is much to attract travellers of all interests. Lively and lovely Lisbon offers everything you would expect from a world-class capital. Venture south to the dramatic landscapes of Southern Alentejo with its hilltop villages and fairy-tale castles. All in all, Portugal is the perfect holiday destination all year round.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Portugal is situated at the southwest point of Europe on the Iberian Peninsula. The mainland portion of the country is 218 km wide and 561 km long. It’s territory also includes the Madeira and Azores archipelagos in the Atlantic Ocean.
Mainland Portugal has a Mediterranean climate with an average of 300 sunny days a year, although the climate varies considerably from one region to another.
Winters: In the Algarve, winters, overall, are mild. In Porto, the northern areas and Beiras region – particularly in areas near Spain – the winters are colder though still mild compared to the rest of Europe. There is occasional snowfall in the Serra da Estrela mountains – sometimes it is even possible to ski.
Summers: The summers are hot and dry, particularly in the inland areas like Alentejo. Due to the influence of the sea, coastal areas have more temperate climes.
The Azores are situated between Europe and North America, a two-hour plane ride from the mainland. The islands’ location provides perfect land and sea temperatures year round.
The Madeira Archipelago is about 500 km off the African coast – about 1-1/2 hrs by plane from mainland Portugal. The climate is exceptionally mild with average temperatures varying between 24ºC in summer and 19ºC in winter. The ocean waters are perfect for a number of water sports.
LANGUAGE, RELIGION AND PEOPLE
Portuguese is spoken throughout the country. English is taught in schools, so most people speak and understand it as well as French and Spanish.
FOOD AND DRINK
The Portuguese are passionate about their food and are probably the proudest food lovers ever encountered. Even small children have an opinion about the bread, pastries, cheeses, etc.
This is an entire nation of foodies. You’ll find Italians waxing lyrical about linguini or a Frenchman in a fervor over a truffle. But a truly, die-hard Portuguese would battle to the death over the merit of his cod fish/cheese/suckling pig – or whatever specialty he happened to be enamored with on any given day.
Luckily for all our travellers to Portugal – you never have to go very far to find an incredible dish specific to the village you happen to be visiting. Hearty helpings of flavorful food abound here.
The cuisine itself is diverse, taking its influences from natural resources (i.e. the Atlantic Ocean), historical influences such as Colonial African flavours, as well as perfect climatic conditions and plenty of arable land for dairy and meat farming.
You cannot fail to notice that there are always one or more cod dishes (bacalhau) on every menu. Far from being boring, there are in fact over 1,000 recipes for codfish alone – that makes for years of codfish eating!
Grilled sardines are a subject to take seriously when they are in season. Eaten straight from the coals, they make the perfect summer dish when accompanied by a fresh salad and local – the locals say red – wine. Be sure to ask for recommendations wherever you are – there are pairings of wine and food that a foreigner would never imagine but, when twinned together, are absolutely delicious!
Along the coast, fish dishes reign supreme. Emphasis is on heartier meat dishes in the interior. Ask for lamb, beef, chicken, stews and suckling pig and you’ll be delighted to find it in many tasty guises.
Catholic monasteries spread widely across the country during the Medieval period and with them came deliciously sweet recipes using very few ingredients: mostly almonds, flour, eggs and, perhaps, liquor. These recipes, like those for salt cod, are abundant and, surprisingly, manage to create a spectacular diversity of different desserts. The best known of all is pastéis de nata – we recommend you try at least one everywhere you go!
Not to be overlooked, the country has been famous throughout history for its prestigious Ports and wonderful wines. International acclaim has been showered on the many grape varietals as well as the world-class wine operators creating savory modern wines with Old World know-how. Port and Madeira, Vinho Verde, Vinho Alvarinho, Vinho do Douro, Vinho do Alentejo, Vinho do Dão, Vinho da Bairrada and Moscatel are amongst the must-tries.
Since at least the 1820’s, the Portuguese have been enjoying Fado. Originally, these mournful tunes and lyrics were about the sea or the life of the poor but they eventually progressed into tales of daily life around the city and the quirky interchanges between its inhabitants. They are usually accompanied with the Portuguese guitar. Fado was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2011.
The local currency is Euros. There’s no shortage of banks and exchange bureaus in the cities, but changing money may be more difficult in the provinces.
Lisbon and Porto are a shopper’s delight with bustling bespoke boutiques and excellent specialty shops. Expect to find deluxe name brands, too, as well as all degrees of clothing and shoe stores.
The outlying villages typically offer local-made goods like cotton, wool, lace and cork products, olive oils, wines and cheeses. The quality of all goods on offer is excellent – with a definite sense of pride in the presentation and design of all nationally-made pieces.
You’ll find bargains in shoes, bags, innovative cork products from umbrellas to neckties, ceramics and beautiful textiles.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
Shoulder Season (Apr–Jun & Sep–Nov)
Wildflowers abound during this time and the mild days are ideal for hikes and outdoor activities. Lively festivals take place throughout the month of June. Crowds and prices are average and ocean temperatures are colder.
Summer Season (Jul & Aug)
The Algarve is more crowded during this time, but you can still find unspoiled coastal resort areas. Expect high temperatures and warmer ocean conditions.
Winter Season (Dec – March)
Winter brings many sunny days throughout the country and the climate is naturally mild. Coastal and southern areas can be very pleasant for all outdoor activities, sightseeing and religious festivals.