Travelling around Portugal in the spring of 2003 it seemed to us that the
country was only half finished. The UEFA Cup was to be hosted there in 2004
and a frantic process of modernisation was underway. Building construction
was on the go everywhere and every route we took had a "desvio" or deviation
to allow for massive roadworks.
We had enjoyed Lisbon, loving its rather rakish run down look, as if it was still
recovering from the harsh regime of Salazar and perhaps even the earthquake
and tsunami of 1755.
We particularly loved the colourful Azulejos embellishing even the humblest of
buildings. It seemed a pity that some of the money going into new
construction couldn't be used to repair some of this heritage.
This trip had a little less walking than most of our other trips but it was with
good intentions that we set off from Lisbon. Deciding to avoid the more
touristy Algarve area in the south, our route was in a loop - east from Lisbon
to the marble towns of the Alto Alentejo, north to the Parque Natural da
Serra da Estrela, further north via Braganza to the Parque Nacional da
Peneda-Geres, up to the Lima and Minho rivers and then south to Porto.
You can't go far in northern Portugal without encountering
Dom Dinis a heroic king from mediaeval times.
After the land known as Portucale had seen off Romans,
Visigoths and Moors, the crusader Henry of Burgundy
arrived in 1097 and styled himself 'King of Portugal' (in
much the same way as William of Normandy became
King of England).
The new kingdom now confronted the kings of Galicia,
Leon and Castile while continuing the Reconquista
towards the Algarve. What emerged from this struggle by
1297 was an independent country within the borders of
modern day Portugal.
Dom (king) Dinis ruled from 1279-1325, following his
father Alfonso III who had stood up to the Church and
begun a process of administrative reform. Dom Dinis
brought order, prosperity and culture. He also saw the
need to defend the borders with Castile and Leon and
built or rebuilt 50 strong fortresses along the border.
Those built at Estremoz and Braganza are good
examples. His foresight paid off as the wars with Castile
were not resolved till 1411 when Portugal finally became
Dom Dinis and a little bit of history
Painted tiles, or azulejos, are a particular feature of Portuguese
buildings, both exteriors and interiors. Whole facades of buildings are
decorated with these colourful tiles, whether churches, private houses,
public buildings or railway stations, gardens, fountains and stairways.
Walking down a shabby street in Lisbon you are just as likely to be confronted with the
amazing facade of an apartment building as to discover a beautifully decorated church in the
central plaza of a small town, or to come upon a modern mural dominating the scene in a
business centre or retail establishment.
The earliest tiles were Moorish. Al-zuleique is the Arabic word from which the Portuguese
azulejo originated. It meant the 'small smooth, polished stone' used by the Muslims in the
From these first tiles, the Portuguese kings took up the idea to decorate the floors and walls
of their palaces. After that they were adopted more widely, with the blue and white Delft style
flooding the market for a time.
An imaginative Portuguese style was
to emerge and develop into a more
contemporary style. There are
geometric patterns, historical
scenes, religious storytelling,
landscapes, profane or comic
scenes and modern works of public
art. An excellent museum in Lisbon
tells the story of their development
and houses many examples of the
The Alto Alentejo: A tour of the marble towns
We made Estramoz a base for exploring this area, which is about 170 km east of
Lisbon and not far from the Spanish border.
It is an area where all the threads of human settlement can be seen - from
megalithic dolmens and menhirs, to Roman and Moorish remains, to the powerful
defensive structures and domestic architecture of more recent rulers and peoples.
The Romans arrived round 59BC, introducing crops, building irrigation systems
and establishing towns and cities. The Moors appeared in the 8th century, further
developing the irrigation systems and towns and, in their defence against the
Reconquista, establishing citadels and fortresses. These defences were later
reinforced by the Portuguese kings, particularly Dom Dinis who strengthened the
chain of defence along the Spanish border.
Evora, shaped by its Roman and Moorish occupations, is one of the main
attractions of a visit to this area. UNESCO listed, it is an intriguing place with a
Roman temple, Moorish alleys, a circuit of mediaeval walls and some well
preserved 16th century mansions. The architecture of the streets is typical of the
area - a pleasing combination of white buildings, red tiled roofs and ochre
Forty km further east of Estremoz is Elvas, one of Portugal's
strongest frontier posts. Its castle stands on Roman and
Moorish remains and is one of the best preserved military
fortifications in Europe. After being captured from the Moors in
1230 it withstood periodic sieges and attacks over the ensuing
Another of the town´s principal features is the great Aqueduct
which was begun in 1498 and completed in 1622. This
impressive structure has 843 arches in up to five tiers and
some of its towers rise above 30 meters.
On the plains near
Evora are several
sites with menhirs,
among the largest
shady cork trees
these are wonderful
Top: Residence facade, Lisbon
Middle: In Royal Palace, Belem
Bottom: from Museu Azalejos
Above right: Residence facade, Lisbon
Estremoz, 46km from Evora, is a market town and the largest
of the, so called "marble towns", internationally known for the
fine to medium-grained marble that is quarried here. Nearby
Borba and Vila Vicosa are the others. Driving between the
towns is like driving through a giant marble quarry. Monsaraz
is another beautifully restored white hilltop town, though
rather a museum piece full of pensaos and artisinat shops.
Portugal is the second largest exporter of marble in the world,
surpassed only by Italy. About 85 % of this marble (over 370,000 tons)
is produced around Estremoz. It occurs in several colours: white,
cream, pink, grey or black and streaks with any combination of these
colours. It has been used since Antiquity as a material for sculpture and
architecture. The first exports were in Roman times and later the
Portuguese navigators exported it to Africa, India and Brazil.
There is so much marble around here that it replaces more prosaic
building materials and is used everywhere; even the doorsteps,
pavements and the cobble stones are made out of marble. It is also
converted into whitewash for painting the houses.
Parque Natural da Estrella
Mainland Portugal's highest mountain, Torre (1993m), is found in the Parque
Natural da Estrella. During the Quaternary period the region was subjected to the
action of ice and all the evidence of glaciation is prominent here - horseshoe
shaped valleys, ravines, polished rocks and deep lakes are among the formations
that demonstrate the importance of the ice and snow in modelling the mountains.
Throughout the park, a traditional mountain economy is practised, centred on
agriculture, shepherding of sheep and goats. The villages are mainly at the bottom
of the mountains and date back to medieval times.
There are reasonably
well marked and
mapped trails and the
area is never terribly
busy. Many of the best
walks start from the
town of Manteigas
where we made our
base. It is in a beautiful
location at the end of
the spectacular glacial
valley of the River
Zezere. There are
mountains and terraced
hillsides all around and
a variety of walks.
We did a walk to a waterfall called the Poço do Inferno (Hell's Well). It should have been
relatively easy but poor signage and indistinct track junctions had us declaring it every bit a
hellhole. When we finally found it, however, it was a lovely oasis set in a cool craggy gorge.
Other walks take you up into the mountains or along and up the Zezere valley which is a
textbook example of a U-shaped glacial valley. With limited time, we drove up the valley
stopping frequently to admire the glaciation and the view back down to Manteigas. Rocks
deposited by the retreating glacier were strewn about the hillside and there were
The valley floor was very green and dotted with the stone huts used by shepherds. There
were not a lot of sheep about at this time of year but down in the town, we saw big
mountain dogs ready for their season in the mountains. There were lots of small mountain
dogs in the souvenir shops, but surprisingly very few tourists.
Vila Nova de Foz Côa
Somewhere along the way we had seen intriguing photos of Palaeolithic rock
engravings at a place called Vila Nova de Foz Côa. We made some bookings to
visit the site and discovered an amazing story.
The engravings had been first discovered in the late 1980s but in 1995 a plan to
construct a dam on the lower part of the Côa Valley was approved and work
began. When the extent of the engravings was publicised by archaeologists
working in the area, the press, conservation groups and UNESCO immediately
began to take action.
The electricity authority tried to disprove the age of the carvings so as to
continue the dam project, but archaeological investigations were intensified. A
citizens group became active and UNESCO formally identified the sites as
being from the Palaeolithic. The government came under pressure from the
international community and finally in 1995, after a change in government, the
dam project was cancelled. An archaeological park was established and
UNESCO designated the site as being of World Heritage significance in 1998.
The overall site comprises more than 30 locations where there are thousands of
engraved drawings of horses, mountain goats, aurochs, deer and other animals,
dating from 22,000 to 10,000 years BCE. These species are all typical of the
large herbivores that were part of the ecosystem in the region during the Upper
Engravings of fish are also found, along with rare images of human and abstract
figures. The engravings were etched using quartz or flint, the images being
scratched into the shiny, glaciated rock walls using straight lines or zigzags.
Three sites are open to the public and visits are made by four wheel drive in the
company of guides from the Archaeological Park.
We were so enthralled by our first experience that we immediately booked
another tour to a different site for the next day. The engravings were at first quite
difficult to see but with explanation, were fascinating. You wonder how they
were ever found. Night time visits use special lights to make viewing easier. We
found that increasing the contrast in our photos has produced images that are
more distinct than our actual viewing.
From Foz Côa our route took us north towards the Peneda Geres National Park
with an overnight stop in the wonderful town of Braganza which is situated high on
a plateau very close to the Spanish border.
A town was fortified here by the Romans and subsequently trashed by Christian
and Moorish campaigns. It was rebuilt as a semi-independent duchy, ruled for
several centuries by the dukes of Braganza, finally becoming incorporated into
Portugal in 1640.
Braganza has a small mediaeval town centre of narrow streets spreading out from
a largish cathedral. More impressive is the very grand and well-preserved citadel.
Built in the 12th century by Benedictine monks and reinforced in the late 14th
century, it towers above the town. Within its walls are houses where people still
live, plus a handful of handicraft shops and cafes.
Nearby to the north is the 700 sq km Parque Natural
da Montesinho in the heart of Tras-os-Montes' Terra
Fria (Cold Land) country. It is one of the least
well-known areas in Portugal and is a wild and
relatively untouched mountainous area clothed in
ancient oak forests and home to various protected
species. They include the Iberian wolf. The area was
designated a natural park to protect its wildlife but also
the traditional culture of its inhabitants.
While no formalised walking trails had been
established in 2004 there was a network of roads and
dirt tracks with advice and schematic maps available
from the parks office.
Parque Natural da Montesinho
Parque Nacional da Peneda Gerês
This was the first protected area to be founded in
Portugal in 1971 and it is the only National park in
the country. Having once been the home of the brown
bear and the mountain goat, Peneda-Geres is today
one of the last refuges of the wolf and the royal eagle.
The establishment of the park was also intended to
protect the rural way of life. Transhumance is still
practiced from the traditional villages which otherwise
struggle to survive.
The best opportunities for walking are from the towns
of Soajo and Gerês. There are several high altitude
itineraries and many day walks and maps are
Planning to do some serious walking here we made a
base for a couple of days in Gerês, an old spa town of
somewhat faded elegance where hotels were strung
along a green and very wet valley. It was so wet that,
as we looked up into the mountains, all we could see
was cloud, so serious walking was abandoned in
favour of a stroll along a remarkably well preserved
The 2 km of road that is open for walking is a small
section of a 320 km military road that ran in Roman
times between Braga and Astorga, in Spain. Along the
route are milestones that define their position and
carry an inscription about the emperor who was ruling
at the time of construction.
Driving around this area and up towards the
Lima and Minho rivers we found ourselves in
a mountainous agricultural area where the
rustic villages had red tiled roofs and
names like Brufe. Long horned cows were
driven along the roads by old ladies dressed
in black and wearing practical gumboots
and sometimes carrying loads on their
An intriguing feature of the area were the old granaries
grouped alongside farmhouses or clustered in villages.
They are called espigueiros and are found in this
mountain region of Portugal and also throughout
Galicia in SpaIn. They are constructed of huge granite
slabs sitting on stilts, slatted timber walls and stone
or iron roofs and topped with a little cross. Encrusted
with moss they look like ancient shrines and are
incredibly photogenic. They have been used for
generations to store grain and corn and are apparently
Tall haystacks shaped like
witches brooms stood upright
alongside the road.
Ponte de Lima
Two big rivers, the Minho and the Lima, mark the northern
extremities of Portugal and it was up here that we finally had
some clear and fine days for walking.
We made a base in the town of Ponte de Lima, an agreeable
market town on the Lima river with a multi arched bridge
spanning the river. Throughout the town there are remains of the
14th century fortifications that once protected the town. There
were lots of good restaurants and one day we discovered a book
fair under the plane trees along the river.
Architecture in the town, as in much of northern Portugal, is
marked by the use of the local granite. The walls are
whitewashed and cornerstones, architraves, windows and
doorframes all use the beautiful soft colours of the dressed
stone. We also loved the interesting decorations and statues
that adorned the walls of buildings.
There is a story that when the Romans
passed through here the soldiers
believed that the Lima was the mythical
River Lethe. If they crossed the river they
would lose their memories. They were
only convinced to cross when their leader
made the crossing and then called all
their names from the other side. It is said
that the present day bridge marks the
spot, though very little, if any, is left of
the original construction. There have
been some huge floods over the years
and signs throughout the town mark the
levels that have been reached. However,
the Lima was very tranquil on our visit
and the town's washing was hung on
lines that were strung along the bank.
A helpful tourist office provided walking maps of the area. Although this region is
popular with many walking companies we saw no other walkers. One day we did
a walk up into the hills following a route up a mountain stream where there were
remains of old water mills and, on the hillsides, shepherds kept an eye on their
big dogs which, somewhat alarmingly, were muzzled (for our protection?).
As we had come to expect the trail was not particularly well marked but it
certainly had its rewards as, when we completed a descent through rocks and
prickly bushes, we found ourselves in a clearing where there was a lovely old
church and a very welcome stone drinking fountain.
There are also opportunities for walking along the coast around Viana do
Castela and in the estuary of the Minho round Foz do Minho which we were able
to briefly investigate on an excursion from Ponte de Lima.
This part of the coast is known as the Costa Verde not only because the
countryside is lush and fertile but also because it is from here that the
celebrated vinho verde originates. This is very young wine, either red, white or
rosé, which is light, fresh and slightly spritzy. It does not cellar and is frequently
encountered as table wine.
Porto was our last stop on this Portuguese circuit. Located on a gorge near the mouth of the
Douro, Porto is a city of bridges and port wine warehouses.
A cruise along the river under five dramatic high level bridges and a visit to at least one of the
port wine cellars are obligatory for the visitor. After these there is much to enjoy in the narrow
lanes and passages of the old Ribeira district and along the restaurant lined quayside. There
are splendid azulejos throughout the city, on the exterior walls of churches, the cathedral and
even the railway station.
There are six crossings along a 10km stretch of the Douro
in Porto. The oldest is the Ponte Dona Maria Pia built by
Gustav Eiffel in 1876-77 as a rail bridge but taken out of
use in the 1990's. It has been designated a civil
engineering historical landmark by the American Society of
The next to be erected, in 1881-66, is the magnificent two
level Ponte Dom Luis. The plans for this bridge were drawn
by one of Eiffel's assistants. This remains in use and you
can walk across both levels.
The others are more modern, but no less elegant. The
Ponte S. Joao is a prestressed concrete bridge dedicated
to rail use and the stylish Ponte de Arrabida was, when
constructed in 1963, the longest concrete arch bridge in
the world. The other two are newer motorway road bridges.
Port is quintessentially associated with gouty English gentlemen. But how did
this come about?
British traders established themselves in Porto in the 13th century but were
interested in olive oil, fruit and cork rather than wine, as they had good trade in
wine from France. This changed when cloth imports from England to France
were banned in 1667 and, in revenge, England's Charles II banned the
importation of French wines into England.
An alternative source had to be found and shipments of red wine from Porto
and Viana began. In the search for better and more reliable quality, brandy
was added. By the 17th century Porto had become an established depot and
various treaties and business deals guaranteed a dependable supply to the
British (and world) market until the second world war.
Since then various competitors and changing tastes have transformed the
market but sales from the remaining firms in Porto continue.
From Porto we caught a train to Santiago de
Compostella an account of which is to be found in the
page on north east Spain.
Castle at Estremoz
Street in Estremoz
Poço do Inferno
Côa valley, petroglyphs
Bridge, Ponte de Lima
In Ponte de Lima
Stream, Ponte de Lima
River frontage, Porto
Santo Ildefonso church
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