by Chantal Lemieux
Compared to its western European neighbors Portugal is probably the country less traveled. After several years of economic turmoil, major cities are slowly making a come-back and travelers are flocking to uncover all its hidden gems. We mapped out our self-drive itinerary between Lisbon and Porto. Along the way, we visited UNESCO World Heritage sites, strolled along medieval towns centers, joined other pilgrims and ate the exquisite cuisine of fresh seafood and varied meats to our hearts delight. The scenic shorelines, old-world charm of historic buildings, and hilltop castles make for a charming journey.
Lisbon’s architecture spans 5 centuries and it is very common to see restored masterpieces beside abandoned and decrepit buildings. Lisbon was built up, down and around 7 hills so bring comfortable walking shoes. Alternatively, take a break from the walking to hop on any of its; funiculars, streetcars or bike and scooter rentals. Several Portuguese towns have free-bike programs, you can show up at the local free-bike agency, provide a photo ID, fill out a form and pedal off to visit a plethora of UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the Fortress of Belem and the St Jerome Monastery just to name a few of my favorite. Along the riverfront, the impressive Maritime Monument pays homage to the Age of Discovery, most notably Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India, and across the river the outstretched arms of Cristo Rei welcome you to modern day Portugal. To get a real feel for local everyday living we wandered the enchanting Alfama neighborhood, a labyrinth of cobblestone streets that Romans, Moors and Crusaders walked on and we often took refuge from the heat under orange trees or in a fado-filled tavern.
Sintra: Where Fairy Tales are Made
A short ride out of Lisbon is the fairy-tale hilltop town of Sintra where Alice in Wonderland meets Snow White and the Seven dwarfs in the magical Pena Palace. Ask about getting a combination ticket, which includes the whimsical gardens, monastery and palace. Onward toward Porto the atmospheric university town of Coimbra is home to one of Europe’s oldest university. Contributing to its charming aura, students roam the streets wearing Zorro-like black capes, a long-standing Portuguese tradition.
A trip to Portugal is incomplete without a visit to one of its beaches. Nazaré hit the map as Portugal’s surf scene with some of the world’s legendary waves. The official world record until recent was held by Garrett McNamara an American surfer who rode a 78-foot wave.
In contrast to the vastness of the shoreline, a stroll along the cobblestone lanes of the walled medieval city of Óbidos, a wedding gift from the king to his wife in 1228, was like a trip back in time.
The scenic drives with hillsides dotted with olive groves, cork trees, wild- flowers and frozen-in-time villages made each car ride unique. One of the most awe-inspiring modern architectural gems was undoubtedly the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima. Millions of Catholics make the pilgrimage to pray on the site where in 1917 the Virgin Mary was said to have first appeared to 3 peasant children.
Have a Drink in Porto
One of my favorite cities on this trip was Porto. Famous for its wine cellars, the city has a distinctive mellow urban feel. We explored its riverfront; discovered old churches and its castle; and enjoyed the delightful street music on every corner. We uncovered tiny eateries in hidden alley ways that close when the produce has been all served up. A signature attraction is the Lello & Irmão bookshop which inspired JK Rowling in writing Harry Potter. Porto is undeniably charming, authentic and has a little something for everyone.
I read somewhere ages ago that the book with the most stories should be your passport. The old-world charm of its villages, thriving cities, sunny beaches and scenic drives are just a few reasons why Portugal should be visited.