20 Reasons Why We'll All Return to Portugal When This is Finally Over

Mon 27 Apr 2020

In the new dawn of travel, when the starting gun has sounded and we are all longing for a taste of the unknown, exotic or merely different, Portugal is that rare thing of being near but with beaches that rival the Caribbean, of being foreign but familiar. 

Here are 20 more reasons why Portugal should be your first holiday after lockdown is lifted.

1. Pastéis de Nata
This little custard tart, with a delicate dusting of cinnamon, has started popping up everywhere due to its popularity. But these imitations pale in comparison to the real thing, eaten still warm under blue Lisbon skies. For authenticity, head to Pastéis de Belém, where the recipe originated in 1837, brought, some say, through a secret underground corridor by monks in the kitchen of the magnificent, neighbouring Monastery of Jerónimos.

2. The beaches
They are the finest in Europe. In the Algarve, cove after sandy cove framed by mellow, yellow, limestone cliffs run along the coast alternating with long, as-far-as-the-eye-can-see stretches of sun-burnished sands. In the east of the Algarve they are washed by gentle seas, infiltrated by a bit of Mediterranean warmth, in the west, they are pounded by the fierce Atlantic. Travel up the coast of Portugal, past beaches like Odeceixe, a turquoise swirl of river running through it, to the seductive, powder-white sands of Comporta. Then on to Lisbon’s playground of Estoril and Cascais, where a lick of golden beach runs in front of the grand old 19th-century villas; and onwards and upwards to Foz, where the River Douro flows into the sea and simple fish restaurants line the sand. Portugal's 10 most beautiful seaside towns

3. The wine
One of Portugal’s best-kept secrets is its wine. An infinite number of small producers keep volumes low, meaning the world doesn’t get to see the treasures of the Portuguese vineyards. From the Douro in the north – the oldest demarcated and regulated wine area in world – to new wineries like Herdade Aldeia de Cima in the Alentejo, whose elegant and complex wines are preserving the history of a region which has grown grapes for over 2,000 years.

4. Tiles
Nothing is quite so Portuguese as the tiles that glint in the white sun on the Lisbon façades or the blue and white tiled panels inset in Porto’s grey granite. In the Algarve, rust-red Santa Catarina tiles cover the floors, the faint white stripes on them, done by the fingertips of the artisans who make them. In the Alentejo, geometric tiles come in browns and yellows, greens and blues, echoing the colour of the surrounding landscape in spring.

5. Markets
Markets are bustling, not to be missed, affairs. Quality is superb, prices are keen and a walk through the daily (save Sundays) fish market in Olhão in the Algarve or the Saturday farmer’s market in Alentejo’s Estremoz yield rich rewards. To eat rather than shop, head to the Time Out Market in Lisbon, housed in the 19th-century Mercado da Ribeira. There, stalls from many of Lisbon’s best restaurants offer an affordable taste of their style.

6. Surfing
They gather, the surfer dudes, tanned and tousled on beaches along Portugal’s west coast to hang loose or hang ten. Nazaré, above Lisbon, still holds a world record after Brazil’s Rodrigo Koxa surfed an 80ft wave there in 2017. Just along the coast is Peniche, an old fishing town popular with surfers for its Praia do Medão beach, off which magnificent tube waves form. It is good for learners too, with an abundance of surf schools.

7. Soap
Soap houses in Portugal are up there with the best. Don’t miss Claus Porto, its fragrant soaps enveloped in vibrant, belle époque wrapping, or Benamor 1925, which captures the glamour of the Twenties with its Rose Amélie soap, a tribute to favourite customer, Queen Amélie of Portugal, and its purple Jacarandá soap, a nod to Lisbon whose streets throng with Jacaranda trees in spring.

8. Coffee
It’s good, everywhere – even in the tiny corner cafés. Why? Because Portugal has a coffee culture brought back from Brazil. Ask for a 'bica', or, if you want a drop of milk, a 'bica pingado'. A 'galão' is the equivalent of a latte, while an 'abatanado' is a large, black coffee.

9. Churches
Beauty lies within as far as many Portuguese churches go. Severe and restrained exteriors reveal opulent, gilded interiors. Statues wear real clothes, walls are clad in blue and white, hand-painted tiles. From the white-washed churches of the south like the 18th-century São Lourenço in Almancil and the 16th-century São Roque in Lisbon to São Francisco in Porto, where over 450 lbs of gold encrust the interior, these are churches that demand a visit.

10. The light
It is the biggest feel-good factor Portugal has. The light here uplifts, day after day. The dawn breaks later, by about an hour, but by the time you have coffee in hand, the sun is shimmering through the trees and the Algarve’s blue skies are set for the day. In Lisbon, the famous white light bounces off the Tejo River illuminating the tiled façades. And then there are the sunsets...

11. Olive oil
A bit like the wines, Portuguese olive oil is one of the country’s best-kept secrets, but once tasted it is never forgotten. There is a huge choice, particularly in the Douro and the Alentejo where the wineries proliferate. One of the best is Herdade do Esporão’s extra virgin olive oil made from cordovil green olives. It is slightly spicy and quite fruity with a nutty finish. Salads just aren’t the same without it.

12. Heritage
It is the backbone of the Portuguese, their heritage, and a rich seam to mine while visiting. From the epic 16th-century poem, The Luisads by Camões, celebrating the discovery of a sea route to India, to the haunting melody of Fado, sung wistfully in back streets, to the many medieval monasteries, theirs is a heritage which they carry proudly on their 21st-century shoulders.

13. Handicrafts
They live from the land, the Portuguese, especially in the Alentejo. Here artisans still today work the delicate pink marble quarried near Estremoz, make clay figurines for nativity scenes in Evora, weave wool in Monsarez and throw pottery in Redondo. Across the whole country, cork is used for furniture and wicker for baskets, while in the north lace and embroidery and filigree jewellery are typical.

14. Walking trails
Well signposted and with good weather, walking is a pleasure here. There are routes through schist villages in the north, along a fisherman’s trail on the Rota Vicentina, which follows the coast line up from the Algarve to the Alentejo for 140 miles, or shorter ones like the Seven Hanging Valleys Trail in the south which is seven miles along the flower-filled cliffs above some of Europe’s best beaches.

15. Port
The country’s most famous export remains a popular drink at home. Visit some of the port houses in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the Douro River from Porto, for a tasting and to explore the difference between tawny and vintage, ruby and pink. Dip into Espaço Porto Cruz beside the river in Porto for one of their cocktails such as Cruz Porto Pink – pink port with orange and chilli.

16. Cheese
Pride of place goes to Serra da Estrela cheese, made exclusively with milk from the sheep which graze in the mountains in the north of the country. Hand-made and coagulated using cardoon thistles, it must mature for a minimum of 30 days. Unctuous and intense, it is traditionally wrapped in cloth. A similar method is used for Azeitão, another sour and salty gem which comes from Setubal, below Lisbon.

17. Blossom
Starting in January with the delicate pink almond blossom, which, from a distance and en masse, appears like snow. Spring sees yellow mimosa and purple jacaranda and fragrant white orange blossom. Summer is dominated by bougainvillea, flaunting itself unashamedly, while in autumn it’s the white of the strawberry tree, whose fruit makes the popular medronho (brandy). Winter brings forth the brilliant red leaves on the poinsettia trees.

18. Food
The fact that Lisbonites are called ‘little lettuces’ or ‘alfacinhas’ and people from Porto are called ‘tripe-eaters’ or ‘tripeiros’ (both of which involve a story too long to tell here) indicates the importance of food in Portuguese society. From the national dish of bacalhau to the garlicky clams with coriander or octopus with rice, food is the centre of daily life.

19. Festivals
In Lisbon it is St. Antony on June 13, accompanied by gifts of basil and sardines grilled in the street; in Porto it is St. John on June 23, celebrated with fireworks and feasting. All over Portugal, June sees parades and festivities, many of which seem to involve jumping over bonfires.

20. Golf
And I haven’t even mentioned the golf...

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Photo by Liam McKay on Unsplash

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