– visited September 2020 –
In 2020, the world is fighting Covid-19. In spring the unthinkable had happened and borders sprung up even between members of the European Union. A visit which was so easy just a month earlier, was suddenly impossible. Over the summer restrictions were relaxed and travelling became possible again. The Portuguese handled the situation well, cases of the new disease remained relatively low and that spared the country an extreme lockdown like in neighbouring Spain. By September the number of new cases was picking up all across Europe. Risk areas were determined, some travel restrictions returned and at least in Germany there was a possible catch. If your destination was declared a risk area while you were away, you would have to undergo 14 days of quarantine. No risk, no fun. Follow me to a beautiful and very photogenic country.
It’s easy to fall in love with Porto. Imagine the view. The sun is setting on the mighty river Douro that meanders towards the nearby ocean. On the opposite high bank Porto is spread out with its houses clutching to the hillside and the spires of churches piercing the skyline. If you glance to your left you overlook Vila Nova de Gaia with all the lodges producing Port wine, if you glance to your right your view hits the magnificent Ponte Dom Luís I, a double-deck metal arch bridge that connects the two cities.
But Porto’s real charm lies in the narrow backstreets. Beautiful tile-decorated houses, some newly renovated, some just like they are and some crumbling and in urgent need of repair. Porto is a town where you just need to go out and explore.
The north of Portugal seems like an endless collection of beautiful small towns. Be it Vila do Conde on the Atlantic Ocean, the world heritage (and not so small) Guimarães, the fortified Valença on the border with Spain or Ponte de Lima with its beautiful, name-giving bridge. Ponte de Barca has another bridge with an even more beautiful reflection. Following the beautiful valley of the Lima river I reach Lindoso. The village square is home to dozens of espigueiros, a local version of a granary that allows air to circulate but keeps thieving animals away. I am in the Peneda-Gerês National Park by now. You can walk for hours only seeing a few other people or join the well-dressed crowds in Gerês, it’s up to your taste. The road from Portela do Homem to Gerês through wondeful forest is one of the most beautiful drives I have ever taken. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to stop. In Pinhão, I am back at the river Douro. Here the wine is grown that will be transformed into Port wine in Vila Nova de Gaia. Vineyards line the hills.
I spend a few hours in Viseu before approaching the Serra de Estrela. The mountains rise up to 1993 metres above sea level at Torre, the highest mountain of continental Portugal. You can drive a car to the top. In winter it is a skiing area. The landscape is barren but magical in the setting sun. In Belmonte I discover Jewish life that existed in hiding for centuries. I miss out on Monsanto, maybe the most beautiful village in all of Portugal. You cannot squeeze everything in your itinerary.
The Alentejo is famous for its white painted cities and villages, wine and the cork oak. Cork is the bark of the oak and is harvested in an interval of 9-12 years. Stripped of its bark, the tree develops an intense red before the bark grows back and is harvested again. A number on the tree indicates the year of the last harvest.
The castle of Marvão was part of the defence against the Spanish neighbours, in Portalegre I get to know and value the locally produced tapestries. Beautiful but easy to reach Évora will have to wait for another visit. This time, with my own wheels, I rather explore the dolmens and menhirs in the countryside. A short stop in Beja before spending the night in Almodôvar.
The Algarve feels different. Let’s face it, Portugal is blessed with a long coastline but most parts of the Atlantic are not very pleasant to swim in. It is perfect to cool down but the cooling down is so rapid that it usually leads to a quick return to land. The Algarve is a bit warmer and therefore the centre of mass tourism. And it is beautiful. The western part is composed of mostly reddish cliffs and the coast in most of the eastern part is protected by sandy islands.
The cities are a mixed bag. Some like Silves or Faro have a long history and the castles and churches to show for it. On the other end of the spectrum is Albufeira, which has little history but has grown rapidly with the development of tourism. The streets are lined with bars but business is subdued, there is a nasty virus around and it is not the time to go wild on the dancefloor.