Wednesday, 01 August 2012 00:00
So, the dust is settling in Europe, and a few things are clear. Prices are lower today in Portugal today than two years ago. New hotels are opening, and new places to eat are all around. The weather has been great, and this is a great time to discover the oldest (maybe coolest) nation in Europe. But, let us add one important thing: much of Portugal is undiscovered... so we randomly and unscientifically came up with this “Top Reasons to Go Now,” being super cool places you have never written about - and are worth a trip of their own.
Reasons to write about Portugal now.
A Seleção - Say it to any soccer fan, they will know. Seleção, the hottest soccer splash in modern times. They wowed in the Euro 2012, following a strong showing in the last World Cup. How in a couple of decades did a nation of just ten million manage to become a major soccer powerhouse? Good players, like the stylish and goal scoring Cristiano Ronaldo. So, want to see the next generation of soccer stars? Pop in to an Academica Coimbra, Maritimo Funchal, or Sporting Braga game…big modern stadiums with top players. Want a real show? Get tickets to see FC Porto, Benfica or Sporting Clube de Portugal play and get ready for a show. If you love soccer, then we have a team for you! Season runs September to June. Plus, the Cascade Performance Football Academy, in Southern region of Algarve, can provide everything a professional team or individuals needs for the perfect training environment. Occupying a wonderful location on the cliffs above the stunning Ponta da Piedade overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. All facilities are just a 1 minute walk from the hotel.
Almourol - This is a castle that just drops your jaw - set on an isle in the middle of a river - untouched for centuries... Almourol floats on a tiny, rocky island in the Tejo River, rising like a dream over the calm waters. It was never attacked and today is one of the purest castles to be found in terms of retaining its original design. Even before the arrival of the Romans, a fort was there and the Moors held the isle briefly. In 1171 Gualdim Pais and his fellow Templars were given the task to build a new castle to solidify the lines of the Tejo they were defending. The result was an imposing castle that looked like a stone ship. It rises 18 meters high, and is 310 meter long and 75 meters wide. With the total defeat of the Moors in 1249, Almourol lost its military importance, and was left to its river and the wind. Soon, legends and ghost stories were told about the place. But, sitting on an isle, vandals, stone thieves, and invading armies all left the castle alone, and it has survived intact to the present time. The castle’s plan is simple: one high keep is flanked by a wall on either side and one wall in the middle. A series of small round towers defend the walls, and a double castellated wall juts out like a prow to the east. A small boat carries the visitors to the island for a pittance. Eerie and silent, the enchanted isle remains a place of legend. For more information visit
CP – Leave the driving to Portuguese Rail - Comboios de Portugal (CP), or Portuguese Rail operates all passenger trains in Portugal. Renting a car is never cheap anywhere- and with tolls and gas, it may not be the best option for some travelers. The good news, Portugal has an excellent network of rail that can get you most of the places you want to go in speed, comfort and style- Plus with an Avis partnership you can get a car at the station you are going to. CP's flagship service high speed, introduced in 1999, is called the Alfa Pendular, operating 300 miles from Braga to Faro. This modern train hits a top speed of 150 mph with FIAT/Siemens tilting trains. Porto to Lisbon is mere 2.5 hours, about an hour less than driving, and tickets may be purchased online with seat selection, meal requests and other nice touches. Today, CP's network reaches most of the country, and the Lisbon to Alentejo line was just rebuilt with faster service. For historic train fans, the Tua Line features a restored steam locomotive that chugs with its vintage train set along some of the most scenic river valleys in the land. For more information visit www.cp.pt.
Castelo de Vide - the Town that has it all! - The walled market town of Castelo de Vide in the Northeastern Alentejo has been welcoming guests since the days of the Romans (a nearby ruined Roman town called Miróbriga is also fun to explore). Today - the well-preserved city is like a living museum with an imposing castle, Renaissance marble fountain, lots of open squares, and its medieval Judiaria, (Jewish Quarter) with cobble stone streets and whitewashed houses. Here you can see the oldest synagogue in Portugal, complete with a stone alter for the Torah. In the square, by the Jewish Quarter, is the Renaissance fountain with a pyramid roof supported by six marble columns, and a central urn. The nearby spa offers water treatments. From the square a short hike brings you to the ruined 14th century castle that crowns the town. Inside the walls, the medieval quarter seems lost in time. And, the lack of tourist shops is as good as it gets.
Douro Internacional Natural Park – wild and wonderful: Douro Internacional Natural Park covers 852 square kilometers (about 400 Square miles) in the east of the Trás-os-Montes region, along the Portuguese/Spanish border -- northeast of the Douro Valley that runs from east to west. This is the second largest natural park in Portugal and is where the Douro River passes through breathtaking, mountainous territory with some big gorges. The area adjacent to Spain is also protected, and together they encompass the Douro Canyon. The area was designated a Natural Park to protect the ancient landscape of granite, quartz and slate of the headwaters of the Douro River, where it forms the Portugal/Spain border. Birds of prey is also one of the reasons for its protection. The amazingly preserved and charming city of Miranda do Douro is a great place to explore these wild lands – as it teeters on the precipice overlooking the Spanish lands on the other side of the river. Mogadouro, just inland, first became part of the kingdom of Portugal when it was taken from the Moors in the thirteenth century. The land was then given to the Order of the famed Knights Templar, who built a castle here. Today the landscape is cultivated, rolling, and punctuated by round pigeon houses. The best time to visit this region is in February/March, when the almond-trees are in blossom and the fields are covered with a blaze of white. These beautiful landscapes are best admired from the hilltops of the Serra da Castanheira or from the nearby castle of Penas Róias.
7,700 feet from the sea level - Pico is a big black peak Created by dramatic volcanic activity hundreds of millions of years ago, the Azores exist as an unusual and varied environment. And, in those nine islands the 7,700-foot peak of Pico island rises above the green, sculptured landscape to the highest peak in all of Portugal. With a wild and lava strewn countryside perfect for hiking, World Heritage vineyards, and some of the best whale watching in the world, Pico is Portugal’s high point. Pico was the obvious choice of name for the highest point in all of Portugal. You cannot miss it! Its giant peak soars about the clouds most days, and is often seen by approaching planes rising above the cloud cover. It is impressive from any angle! Some intriguing places to visit are Escalada ao Pico, where tourists can scale Portugal’s highest mountain, and Quinta da Rosas, a forest park with exotic species. The interior of Pico is mostly a natural park, and the trails are well marked. The climb up to the 7,700-foot summit can take up to three hours, but the views are worth it. Hiking is abundant, and trails soar up the mountain and along the coast, with spectacular views. The volcanic explosions that built Pico are visible in the island’s wild landscapes, soaring peaks, and black cliffs that drop into the sea. Many days the peak is covered in clouds, however, on clear days, it can be seen from surrounding islands, with its lava cone rising above the massive volcano. Ancient lava flows are frozen in solid rock in areas called misterios.Could be a living museum – but we call it a great secret... Mértola: Mértola is an Alentejo riverside border town with a long history. The square white washed church, topped with conical pilars, was converted from a mosque in the 12th century, after Portuguese troops took the town from the Moors. Today, the church retains an Islamic feel in its horseshoe arches and a mihrab prayer niche facing east to Mecca. Above the church soars the town's ruined 13th century castle, with vast views of the town and next door Spain, and sometimes a black stork, kestrel, or falcon. There are several small museums scattered around town with Roman and Islamic leftovers from Mértola’s past, including a collection of Portuguese Islamic art made up of ceramics, coins, and jewelry. The "Islamic Festival" that takes place every two years in May recreates the Islamic period of the town with music, exhibitions, and a street market.
Jewel of the Algarve - Tavira: Tavira is one the most beautiful cities in the Algarve, with its own style of homes, historic monuments and beaches welcomed Romans, Moors and Christians. In Tavira, there are more churches than in any other city in the Algarve, 32 in total counting the chapels. The Igreja do Carmo on the east side of the river is the most ornamented, exhibiting a heavy Baroque style, and very sought by tourists together with Igreja da Misericórdia nearby the city hall. Looking for the perfect beach? Since most of Tavira beaches are part of a natural park. To access them, you must catch the ferry from the port of Tavira. The island offers camping, and peace in a wild and unique environment.
Porto Santo – best beach you never visited!: Madeira has a little-known sister island that through lots of infrastructure investments and planned growth has emerged as the best little beach in Europe. While Madeira is a lush, green island, Porto Santo is a dry crescent with a six-mile long beach on its central bay. The light yellow sand is rich in magnetic rock and the sand has a healing power. The clear waters of the bay are always warm with no undertow. Tiny islands cap either end of the long beach and dunes with beach grass and cactus flowers back the rest. An occasional café is off of the beach, but for the most part, the ample sands turn into fields where grapes are grown for the local wine. Start off by snorkeling and taking a peek at the marine life in the popular spot just south of Porto de Abrigo, where the wreck of the "O Madeirense" is found. With a mean temperature of 70 degrees the sea around Porto Santo is inviting year-round. The dry and stable climate and the warm sea make this island an ideal beach location 12 months a year.
So for a beach without high-rises, a laid-back feel, healing sands, and even bits of china washing up on shore from shipwrecks, check out Porto Santo. Yes, it has golf, tennis, new hotels and carting, but once you see the beach… you won’t want to go anywhere else. The downtown is charming and historic with a 17th century museum dedicated to Columbus (he lived on the island for years, and married the island governor’s daughter) and a central square from the 16th century. About four main eateries and a few boutiques flank the square. But, even in mid-summer, there is a sleepy, relaxed feel to Porto Santo.
Lastly, Portugal is timeless
In his Illustre Casa de Ramires by José Maria Eça de Queirós, the author describes the main character’s complex personality as reminding him of Portugal this way:
“Honesty, gentleness, kindness, goodness, his immense goodness ... Hot flushes of enthusiasm, which soon go up in smoke.... The generosity, the constant disaster in the business, and a sense of great honor, a scruples, almost naive, is not it? ... The imagination that leads him to exaggerate almost to the point deceit, all the while with a practical spirit, will always attentive to the useful reality…. Faith in some new miracle, like the old miracle of Ourique, that will wash away that all the challenges …A base of sadness, in spite of being so talkative, so social. The terrible distrust of himself, that makes him cower, shrink, until one day he decides, and appears a hero, demolishes everything ...”
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