By Mike Grenby
Special to the News
I don’t know why I always wanted to visit Portugal.
“Go to Spain, there’s much more to see and do,” friends who had been there urged.
But I’ve gone from surf beaches to a medieval university town to 2,000-metre alps, with plenty of history, culture, interesting food and friendly people along the way. What more could I want?
Portugal rarely makes the A-list of international travel destinations. And that’s a good reason to put it on your list of places to visit.
Europe can be expensive. But here in Portugal you can still find accommodation for $50 a night and meals including a glass of wine, for less than $10 — and given the typical portion size, probably the best eating value in Western Europe.
Most important, the people are never in your face yet are friendly when you approach them (and you can usually find somebody who speaks English — if not, sign language works well):
• After stopping the car three times for directions to my bed-and-breakfast in Coimbra, I asked a student if she could come with me and I’d pay her cab fare to wherever she was originally going. She got me to my destination, but wouldn’t take any money.
• At Torre, the highest (1,993-metre) point in Portugal, shopkeepers offered not only samples of the local mountain sheep cheese, prosciutto and bread but also glasses of wine — even when it was clear from my carry bag I’d already done my shopping.
• Travelling and eating alone, I particularly appreciated it when people at nearby tables invited me to join them. One couple even invited me for a night on the town when I reached Lisbon.
I decided to go with the suggestion in Lonely Planet’s Portugal to follow “roads less travelled” and base myself here in Manteigas in the mid-north Beira area — despite the warning that the main approach N232 road from Seia and Gouveia in the west “is one of the most tortuous in Portugal.”
However, for contrast (and to recover from jetlag), the trip started in Cascais, on the Atlantic coast about half an hour from Lisbon airport. En route, one soon notices two of the less appealing sides to Portugal — graffiti and garbage on and beyond the roadside despite large and prominent recycle containers.
But the ocean breezes quickly sweep away those impressions as you explore the area north of Cascais to Guincho, a surfing favourite, and Sintra, the first of many villages you will see with narrow winding cobblestone streets, stone buildings and in this case, a pair of palaces.
If you are a foodie with an expandable budget, eat (and perhaps even stay) at Fortaleza do Guincho, a restored 17th century fortress above two of the best beaches, with rooms and a one-Michelin-star restaurant. (Order dessert and you are served a tasting menu of 10 different sweet treats.)
As in all Portuguese (and many other European country’s) restaurants, you must pay for what you eat — even if the food (like bread, butter, fish paste, olives, etc. and sometimes dessert) arrives unordered. Here it’s called couvert or cover. But you can decline such food, no problem.
Smoking is no longer allowed in most restaurants, but some cafes and most bars are still smoker-friendly; smoking is allowed in outside dining areas.
Although road signs are reasonably clear, I found driving on my own a bit stressful. If you are going to visit mostly main centres and don’t mind train, bus and taxi travel, you can probably do better without a car.
However, because I wanted to explore those roads less travelled in the mountainous areas, I chose to rent a car.
As usual, use the internet to shop around for the best deal. Think fuel efficiency: most prices at the pump have long since passed $2 a litre. Also think small if you like visiting historic towns and villages, as those winding cobblestone streets with parked cars can be very narrow.
That was certainly the case in Coimbra (pronounced Kweembra), home of Portugal’s first and most prestigious university, and one of Europe’s first universities.
Founded in 1290, the Universidade de Coimbra now is located in many buildings originally part of a fortress built in the 10th century by the Moors, then used as a palace by the kings of Portugal between the 12th and 15th centuries — including the 100 years when Coimbra was the country’s capital.
Today the students bring a modern and lively energy to the hilltop campus with its historical buildings and steep, winding cobblestone lanes.
I stayed right in the middle and near the peak of the old town in the Dutch-run Casa Pombal bed-and-breakfast with a great view from … my bathroom!
The main attractions — from the historic buildings to the cafes and restaurants — are all within easy walking distance. And there’s a funicular when you don’t feel like the steep climb back up the hill.
You can eat a lot for a little at most student cantinas during term. Or look into non-descript alleyways for very local restaurants like Ze Manel (Beco do Forno 12).
Coimbra is one centre of the Beiras region, which spans the country’s mid-north from the Atlantic to Spain and features the Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela with the rugged alpine area.
Here I stayed in the Pousada de Sao Laurenco, part of the national chain of inns.
At $200 a night it wasn’t cheap, although you can find package trips to bring down the cost.
For me the stunning views — both from my room with its own little garden and also from the restaurant — over the mountains and most spectacularly 600 metres almost straight down into Manteigas made it worth the money. (You can easily stay and eat in town for one-quarter of what I paid.)
From here I drove to several of the other alpine centres, including the peak at Torre, and went hiking across the glacially scoured mountain tops — including a meander through gorse and broom with a shepherd and his flock of 30 sheep and goats, their bells tinkling.
Then it was time to head back to Lisbon and civilization — and TV with as many as 45 ads in a 15-minute break between programs.
Despite the big city bustle, the locals continued friendly — whether you were window or real shopping in the old parts of town or at the ’98 Expo site by the river, dining to live fado (the melancholy traditional Portuguese folk music) or visiting churches and museums.
My trip ended in the Algarve, perhaps the country’s most famous and popular tourist area — thanks to the (mostly) good weather, surf (on the west coast) and tiny bay beaches (south coast), and picturesque inland mountainous areas with the whitewashed houses and their orange tile roofs you see in most of Portugal.
Sitting at 37 degrees north latitude, the same as San Francisco, the Algarve (the southernmost part of Portugal) has a similar climate — but without the fog and accompanying cool, damp weather SF gets.
Some of the cities are a bit tourist tacky, but it’s easy to ignore that and find the warmth of the people as well as of the weather in most areas.
Travel writer Mike Grenby teaches journalism at Bond University, on Australia’s Gold Coast.