Friday, 7 March 2014

Portugal: one of Europe's best-kept secrets

When considering where to vacation in Europe, most of us probably think first of Britain, France and Italy. The Greek islands are in there, too, along with Spain, Austrian ski resorts and destinations like Prague and Budapest.

Somewhere that is not usually front of mind is Portugal, which remains something of a well-kept secret despite its fine food and wine culture, historic cities and affordable prices. 

We are sitting at a cafe in the fishing village of Ericeira (below), overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. We’re feasting on deliciously fresh grilled sardines, a bottle of chilled vinho verde and some crisp, fresh bread. The sun is shining – all is well with the world.

From the historic capital of Lisbon, 2500 years old, to the famous vineyards outside Porto, home to the fortified wine we know as port, to the beautiful island of Madeira, home to the majority of Australians of Portuguese heritage, there is much to discover and much to savour.

Portugal, with a population of just 11 million, is located on the western part of the Iberian Peninsula and is bordered to the east by Spain with the Atlantic Ocean to the west.
Lisbon is one of Europe’s most atmospheric capitals with its old buildings and busy waterfront – but it is not an easy city to traverse, given its many hills. The rattling trams, many dating back to the 1930s, are a great way to get around the westernmost capital in mainland Europe
There’s history galore here; the city was under Roman rule from 205 BC, when it was already well established. It has been ruled at various times by Germanic tribes and the Moors from North Africa before the Crusaders re-conquered the city in the 12th century and it became the major political, economic and cultural centre of Portugal.

The good news for potential visitors is that Lisbon has a Mediterranean climate that makes it one of the mildest capitals in Europe. It is sunny throughout the year – although the city is certainly at its best in summer when the locals dine on terraces late into the night. Visitors should make sure to visit a fado club to hear the traditional mournful songs of Portugal and the soundtrack of the city.
Many of the fado venues are in Alfama, the old part of town, between the Castle of Lisbon, one of dozens of historical buildings, and the Tejo River.
Visitors should also check out the Bairro Alto, or upper quarter, an extremely hip district of restaurants and bars – many of them featuring live entertainment. The Bairro is best reached by funicular railway as it is among the highest of Lisbon’s seven hills.
Just outside central Lisbon is the Belem quarter, from where explorers including Vasco da Gama set out on their voyages of discovery.
Sports fans, too are well catered for here, with two of Europe’s leading soccer clubs, Benfica and Sporting Club, based in Lisbon – meaning there can be big games a couple of times a week during the season.
Perfect for day trips out of Lisbon are the seaside towns of Cascais and Estoril, once sleepy fishing ports but now busy resort towns with myriad attractions, including a casino in Estoril, and the fishing and surfing centre of Ericeira, although it, too, is becoming rapidly developed.
Visiting the hilltop town of Sintra (right) and making a pilgrimage to Fatima are also highly recommended.

Wherever you go in Portugal you will be assured of eating and drinking well.


In addition to the refreshing vinhos verdes (young wines made in a green style) and ports, Portugal is also making some absolutely outstanding red wines at very affordable prices. Quinta do Crasto is a label to look out for.
Traditional dishes worth sampling include the ubiquitous bacalhau (dried cod) which is served in hundreds of different ways, grilled sardines and caldeirada, a potato based stew with either fish or meat.
Grilled meat served on skewers, known as espetadas, are also popular, particularly on the island of Madeira, in the Atlantic Ocean.
Madeira (below) is particularly popular with British retirees and is home to Reid’s Palace Hotel, one of the most famous in the world. It is a fascinating place to visit because of its maritime history, the production of sweet Madeira wine and the many levadas, or aqueducts, which have created a fascinating range of walking tracks that offer amazing island views. 
The capital of Funchal is a lovely little town – well worth a stay for a few days.
Back on the mainland there is Porto, the country’s second city on the Douro River and one of the world’s great wine capitals. Porto is a UNESCO world heritage site and a city of immense charm – one of many in a country that is currently offering great value right now.
So many possibilities, so little time. 
Thai Airways International flies 40 times a week from Australia to Bangkok with connections domestic Thailand, Asia, India, South Africa,  the US and Europe, including Lisbon as a code share with TAP. For more information, quotes and bookings visit www.thaiairways.com.au.


   

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