words Alexa Wang
Despite welcoming over 12 million visitors each year, Portugal remains the most undiscovered tourist destination in Europe. Most travellers to Portugal head for the spectacular beaches of the Algarve, but this richly diverse country has so much more to offer the curious tourist.
Instead of opting for a single location holiday in a beachside hotel, why not consider booking several shorter stays in self-catering accommodation which will enable you to get to know the authentic and endlessly fascinating, other Portugal. Getting around by public transport is inexpensive and there are some amazing train journeys which you can take, but if you really want to seek out the more isolated spots you will need to hire a car. Here are just a few suggestions to whet your appetite.
Dreamy fishing villages that time forgot
Portugal has over a thousand miles of coastline and gorgeous as the beaches of the Algarve are, it’s the Atlantic coast which holds the real gems. Places like Costa Nova do Prado, an hour south of Porto, with its candy stripe houses, or Nazare, with its spectacular waves and equally spectacular seafood. With so much coastline to explore you need to forget your schedule and just dawdle where the road takes you.
There are dramatic coastal caves, like the Boca do Inferno, where Aleister Crowley faked his suicide back in the thirties and there are wildernesses like the Geres National Park. Situated in the northeast of the country this 70,000-acre area of wilderness, strewn with rivers and waterfalls is the perfect place to completely immerse yourself in nature.
A bibliophile’s delight
Books may not be the first thing which spring to mind when you think of Portugal, but this is a country with a long tradition of learning, and it is home to some of the oldest universities in Europe. The Livraria Bertrand, in Lisbon, is the world’s oldest bookshop and the Livraria Lello, in Porto, is generally regarded as the world’s most beautiful bookshop. Now famous as a haunt of J.K. Rowling, this Art Nouveau masterpiece features a stained-glass ceiling and an exquisite sweeping staircase which spans the shop. At the Mafra Palace library, sumptuous Rococo bookshelves hold over 36,000 leather bound volumes dating from the 14th Century. These ancient volumes are particularly vulnerable to insects and so they are watched over by a colony of bats, which live in the library and patrol nightly, devouring the potentially harmful insects.
Portugal’s Manueline architecture is an ornate gothic variant which has left the country with a heritage of dramatic architecture such as the bewildering architectural fantasy of Quinta a Regaleira at Sintra. This palace is a symbolic puzzle straight out of the Da Vinci Code, drawing on alchemy, the Free Masons, Knights Templar and Rosicrucians for its imagery. It’s ornate gardens, with fountains, grottoes, caves and tunnels are equally extraordinary. And if you really want to experience architectural extremes, try visiting one of Portugal’s bone chapels, like the Capela de Ossos at Faro or the even more impressive skull chapel in Evora.