No travel now for nine months so taking a look back at good times in Portugal…
Have Bag, Will Travel
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After three excellent days on the south-west coast of Portugal we were rather sad to leave before setting off inland so after we had settled the bill and driven away we first of all headed north towards the smart seaside resort of Vila Nova de Milfontes where we stayed for just about an hour or so before reluctantly setting off east.
After a short while we stopped for coffee in the delightful village of Cercal where they were preparing for a festival, a tomato festival as it happened, which was to take place next weekend. The region is famous for tomatoes as it happens and this was another narrowly missed party.
Now we were in the Alentejo Region and soon we were in an Iberian wilderness with miles and miles of open countryside and barely any inhabitation. One of the poorest, least-developed, least-populated regions in Western Europe, the Alentejo has been dubbed both the Provence and the Tuscany of Portugal. Neither I would say is entirely accurate, it is more subtle and nowhere near as busy as the poster regions of Italy and France and the charms of this land are made up of wheat fields, cork oak forests, wildflower meadows and tiny white-washed villages and absolutely no ‘A’ list celebrity villas..
First we drove through endless miles of cork oak plantations, bark stripped trees with vivid orange scars and without any sign of human activity and then the cork gave way to olive groves. It is an interesting fact that olive trees only grow well in the Mediterranean region (there are some attempts to grow in the Americas and the Far East but these are not especially successful) and Portugal is one of the leading producers (Spain is the World’s largest producer with annually over five million tonnes). Interestingly (or not) I have an olive tree in my garden in England which continues to grow quite vigorously but sadly without fruit.
After the olives then the grapevines twisting away like Chubby Checker until giving way further east to open countryside where fields of golden stubble stretched out forever all around us as far as the eye could see until they finally met the yonder big sky. Long straight roads took us between towns and villages and for a time through the mess of marble quarries where spoil heaps decorated the countryside in an unsightly sprawl. This area of Portugal is the second largest source of marble in Europe after Carrera in Italy.
This is what it looks like inside a deep mine marble quarry. I didn’t take this picture of course…
We arrived in the city of Beja just as the siesta was beginning and doors and shutters were closing tight as we walked through deserted streets searching for our hotel we eventually came upon it and it turned out to be a delightful family run place in the middle of the busy city.
We liked it, we only had one night in Beja and we were already regretting that it wasn’t two so with only limited time to look around the place we set off immediately onto the street. In mid afternoon the temperature was rising and there was a stifling heat so we weren’t surprised to learn that Beja is statistically the hottest place in all of Portugal. Later that day someone told me that if it was 40° in Lisbon then it would be 45° in Beja. Thankfully it wasn’t quite that hot today.
Away from the modern city shopping centre Beja was a delightful place with a labyrinth of old streets with flaking wooden doors and rusting iron balconies, it is a place of classic elegance even though it perhaps gives the appearance of being slightly past its best.
The walk took us past Roman excavations and remaining parts of the medieval city walls with detours into churches and museums and an interesting art gallery but all the time we were making our way to the highest point in the city and to the tallest castle in Portugal. There were one hundred and fifty steps to climb to the top of the granite and marble tower but that didn’t bother us, last year in Bologna in Italy we climbed five hundred to the top of the Asinelli Tower and two hundred and fifty at Milan Cathedral. It was a climb well worth making because from the top there were massive views in all directions across the Alentejo plains.
A town like Beja is a real find, not really on the tourist trail so booking an overnight stay in a place like this can be a bit of a gamble but this one really paid out. From the castle we explored more streets as we began to look for somewhere suitable for evening meal later. We found what we were looking for close to the hotel, a simple sort of place with plastic menus and good Portuguese food so we had no hesitation in returning there later.
Kim ordered beef ribs and I had pork with clams which seems to be a popular combination in Portugal. We had walked seven miles today.
We should have stayed an extra night and spent more time in Beja but the next morning we had to leave soon after breakfast because we were driving to our next destination, the town of Estremoz.
Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…
We generally take our main annual holiday in September. Sometimes we go to the sea, usually the Greek Islands which are our favourites and sometimes we travel. This year we decided to travel and we chose to go to Portugal.
There are organised guided tours available for this sort of thing but we prefer to make our own arrangements and not be restricted by a holiday company schedule and inevitable stops at shopping centres and outlet factories that suit the Company but not the Traveller.
In 2017 we travelled through Northern Portugal using the trains but this time we planned to go South where the railway network is difficult or practically non-existent, so this time we were driving. Our plan was to visit the Algarve region and visit the towns and beaches of the south and west and then head inland to the historic towns of Beja, Evora, Estremoz and Elvas and also to spend a few days in Extremadura in Spain.
In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting.
I started as usual with the Human Development Index which ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed amongst other criteria from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income. Portugal is ranked forty-first which is quite low, especially for Europe but it is improving and is up two places from the previous year.
Although it is in Western Europe (in fact it is the most western mainland European country) Portugal did not begin to catch up with its neighbours until 1968 after the death of the dictator António Salazar, the Left Wing Carnation Revolution of 1972 and eventual entry into the European Community in 1986.
Unhappily, the European economic crisis has had a negative effect on Portugal’s position in the Europe Happiness Index and it is rated at only fifteenth out of thirty which is one place behind the United Kingdom. Finland is the happiest and Albania (no real surprise) the least jolly.
The Country has fifteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites and our previous travel took us to six – The Tower of Belém in Lisbon, built to commemorate the expeditions of Vasco da Gama, The National Palace of Sintra, the Convent of the Knights Templar of Tomar, the University of Coimbra, the Historic town of Guimarães and the Historic Centre of Porto. This time we would add two more, the Garrison Border Town of Elvas and its Fortifications and the Historic Centre of Évora.
Portugal is famous for its Atlantic beaches which stretch for one thousand, one hundred and fifteen miles and along this coastline are three hundred Blue Flag Beaches which is the fifth highest amongst all participating countries but looking at the statistics in a different way they get even better and dividing length of coastline by number of beaches, Portugal is way out in front and storms into first place with one proud blue flag flapping away every three and three-quarter miles or so.
When it comes to wine, screw caps have all but completely replaced the cork. Interestingly 35% of the World’s cork forests and 50% of World supply comes from Portugal so there for the time being the cork stopper still reigns supreme even in the cheapest bottles of wine.
My next measure is always the Eurovision Song Contest and Portugal has participated in the annual contest forty-nine times since its debut in the 1964. Up until recently the country held the unfortunate record for the most appearances in the contest without a win but they put that right in 2017 when they won in Kiev with Salvador Sobral’s entry, “Amar Pelos Dois”.
In my research I have discovered some more impressive statistics: Portugal is ranked third in the Global Peace Index, just behind Iceland and New Zealand. The index gauges global peace using three measures – the level of safety and security in society, the extent of domestic and international conflict and the degree of militarisation. Portugal for example was one of only a few European countries that escaped involvement in the Second-World-War, the others were Spain (even though they supported Nazi Germany), Switzerland (only in theory of course because they did a lot of Nazi banking and gold trading), Sweden and The Republic of Ireland.
On the subject or war and peace, the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance (Aliança Inglesa) ratified at the Treaty of Windsor in 1386, between England and Portugal, is the oldest alliance in the world that is still in force – with an even earlier treaty dating back to the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373. England (UK) and Portugal have never been on opposite sides in any military conflict which is a very impressive statistic when you consider that in that time England (UK) has at one time or another been at war at some time or another with almost every other European country.
We left the UK from a dreary, overcast Manchester Airport in late afternoon and in less than three hours later we were watching a glorious sunset from a hotel balcony in Faro in Portugal.
I like Portugal and I was glad to be back.