By Doug Hansen
"To travel is to live," proclaimed Hans Christian Andersen, and for two weeks my wife and I lived our dream of exploring Portugal's towns, wine regions, historic spots and its popular island, Madeira. Here's what we discovered.
Portugal's compact size lends itself to discovery without overly long journeys. It's one of the oldest countries in Europe, with a population of only 10 million, but its history looms surprisingly large given the country's small size. We found it clean, safe, attractive and full of historical sights worth seeing. We easily drove our rental car in the Douro and Alentejo regions on well-engineered highways and uncrowded country roads. We found our favorite towns, fortresses and landscapes in the less-well-known Alentejo region, where prices generally seemed reasonable and the people were friendly and polite.
An easy bus ride took us from Santiago, Spain, to Porto. Set in the heart of the historic center, Porto's popular riverfront area, the Ribeira, was a fun place to relax in one of the many outdoor cafes and watch the sleek tour boats gliding up and down the nearby Douro River. We crossed the river to watch the sunset from a grassy hillside and to visit one of the many wineries famed for their port wines. We chose the Sandeman wine cellar for a tour and tasting and weren't disappointed.
Visiting the world-famous Douro Valley outside of Porto was high on my "must-do" list, so we rented a car and explored the renowned wine-growing region known for its many wineries and steep terraced hillsides that flank the sinuous Douro River. We visited three wineries with a delectable variety of ports and a few red wines.
When we learned that Madeira had more than 1 million visitors last year, we wanted to find out why. Located 300 miles northwest of Morocco, this small island (35 by 14 miles) with about 290,000 people surprised us with its mountainous beauty and varied activities. After a two-hour flight from Porto, we began our exploration in Funchal, the island's capital and principal tourist destination. Funchal impressed us with its clean, flower-filled parks, assorted restaurants (especially in its small but attractive old town) and shops. Many hotels have sweeping ocean views.
We soon discovered that Madeira offers a wide range of activities, including levada walks (hikes along mostly gentle paths that follow man-made water conduits through forests and along mountain hillsides), cable-car rides, four-wheel-drive island tours, dolphin- and whale-watching, wicker toboggan sled rides down the streets of Funchal, mountain biking and canyoning. We spent an unforgettable three hours of hiking and rappelling down a mountain valley with its cold, rushing stream.
When we flew back to Lisbon, we immediately headed for the upscale coastal city of Cascais for two days. This proved to be a good location for visiting Sintra and Lisbon, with easy transportation to both places. Cascais was small, peaceful and attractive.
With only half a day to visit world-famous Sintra, we decided to focus on the exquisite, mountaintop Pena Palace and its nearby gardens. Anywhere else this would have been enough, but someday we'll have to return to see Sintra's other must-see palaces and museums, each of which needs hours to do it justice. Getting there early is a good tip to beat the crowds.
Lisbon has become a must-see destination, so depending on the time of year, the most popular areas — like Belem — can be crowded. During our two days in Lisbon we enjoyed walking along the picturesque harbor in Belem, ogling the ornate royal carriages in the Carriage Museum, viewing the old city from the top of the Santa Justa elevator, sipping sangria in the Alfama (don't miss the nightly fado music there), and touring the hilltop S?o Jorge Castle that overlooks the city and the river.
Our three-day tour of the Alentejo region, located southeast of Lisbon and stretching to the Spanish border, proved to be the highlight of our trip. My favorite town in Portugal: Elvas. My favorite countryside: Alentejo. The most irresistible hand-painted pottery: Sao Pedro do Corval. The most morbid but captivating holy place: Evora's Chapel of the Bones.
We drove first to Evora, an easy 1.5-hour drive from Lisbon. After entering the town's fortress walls, we contemplated the Chapel of the Bones' lesson about life and death, then walked along more cheerful cobblestone streets to see the remains of a first-century Roman temple.
Our drive to Elvas led us through a pastoral countryside with grassy hills dotted with cork trees. On the way, we stopped at a small town, Corval, with a cottage industry of hand-painted ceramics. The quality and beauty of the ceramics proved impossible to resist. The small town of Elvas delighted us with its magnificent Roman aqueduct, the ancient star-shaped fortress whose stony walls surround the town, and its serene, picturesque streets and plaza. Our tour of another star fort on a nearby hilltop provided fascinating history lessons and a commanding view of Elvas and its serene countryside.
We spent our final night in the hilltop castle town of Monsaraz, near the border with Spain, and despite the rain, we were captivated by the vast views of farmlands and the largest man-made lake in Europe. This town added the final piece to the must-see triumvirate in Alentejo: Evora, Elvas and Monsaraz.
WHEN YOU GO
TAP Air Portugal's Stopover program allows travelers, at no extra cost, to spend up to five nights in either Lisbon or Porto while on their way to Madeira, the Azores, Algarve or TAP's other destinations in Europe and Africa: www.flytap.com or 800 221-7370.
Hotel Cascais Miragem: www.cascaismirage.com.
Evora Hotel: www.evorahotel.pt.
Hotel Santa Luzia in Elvas: www.slhotel-elvas.pt
Monte Saraz cottages, Monsaraz: www.montesaraz.com
For more information: www.madeiraallyear.com
Hotel Carlton Pestana, in Funchal, Madeira: www.pestana.com/en/hotel/pestana-carlton-madeira
Hotel Olissippo Oriente, Lisbon: www.olissippohotels.com/en/hotels/oriente/the-hotel.aspx
Doug Hansen is a freelance writer and photographer whose photos and articles are at www.hansentravel.org. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Cruises on the Douro River are a popular way for visitors to see the wine terraces in Portugal's Douro Valley. Photo courtesy of www.hansentravel.org.