When the Portuguese voted for their favourite land and seascapes as part of the 7 Natural Wonders opinion poll, the outcome was a genuine showcase of the country’s most magnificent and much-loved vistas.
Almost 700,000 voters can’t be wrong. That’s how many people took part in a one-off survey that took place over a seven-month period. And if the vote were to take place a second time, the chances are the very same attractions would top the list again and again.
It was no surprise to see the fairy-tale twin-lake setting of Sete Cidades on the Azores island of São Miguel appear prominently on the list. It’s such a phenomenon of nature with one of the lakes emerald green and the other sapphire blue, with local legend adjoining the two, as it often does in Portugal.
Picture if you can the story of the green-eyed princess crying for the forbidden love of a local peasant boy with the deepest blue eyes, and as their respective tears fill up the lakes you’ve got the beginnings of a Disney movie. Another legend has it that beneath the Sete Cidades waters lie seven towns founded by seven bishops who were fugitives from Portugal.
Another mid-Atlantic marvel is rated very highly by the Portuguese people, namely Pico mountain in the Azores, a dormant volcano that last rumbled in anger almost three centuries ago. It’s the highest point in Portugal and a beacon for trans-Atlantic ships and other seafaring vessels crossing the high seas.
Standing tall and proud, Pico is in fact the top of the world’s largest and mostly underwater mountain range known as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which measures 16,100 km long and 805 km wide.
The Azores is a geometric centre of the world with many more natural attractions to see. Linked with three continents, this long-lost archipelago owed its name in former days to the great birds that once hovered above it.
There are nine Azores islands in all, but curiously in 1812 a violent convulsion cast up from the depths of the ocean a tenth island, named by the locals as Sabrina, which was engulfed by the waves and lost to view a few months later.
Still in the Atlantic Ocean, the subtropical island of Madeira received the coveted 7 Natural Wonders certification on account of its much-lauded Laurisilva Forest, a portion of the island that existed long before Zarco the Portuguese sea captain first arrived there in 1419.
In UNESCO’s much-valued opinion, Madeira’s ancient forest is an ‘outstanding relict of a previously widespread laurel forest type. It is the largest surviving area of laurel forest and is believed to be 90% primary forest. It contains a unique suite of plants and animals, including many endemic species such as the Madeiran long-toed pigeon’.
Madeira is in actual fact a mountain that was partly swallowed up by the sea and beneath the smooth covering of vegetation that it now wears may be found the traces of a violent history. Vivid lines of colour streak the black basalt slopes and up to a height of over 250 metres there are beds of fossilized shells.
Over on the mainland, four places of particular beauty have captured the hearts and minds of the Portuguese people since time immemorial. Take Ria Formosa for example, a renowned nature reserve in the popular holiday haven of the Algarve.
Established in 1987, Ria Formosa Natural Park covers 18,400 hectares and encompasses a barrier island system stretching 60 km between Ancão and Manta Rota in the eastern Algarve. Essentially, it is a lagoon separated from the sea by a coastal dune system and an important wintering ground for birds from northern and central Europe, as well as being an important stopover for migrant birds flying between northern Europe and Africa. It is also a place of refuge for rare Portuguese birds and a nesting site for many endangered species.
Likewise, the idyllic setting of Portinho da Arrábida (indicated on the map below), with its prime setting in the shadow of the Arrábida mountains, ranks high among the best beaches in Portugal. And very few people are aware that the great limestone ridge of the Serra da Arrábida, 40 km south of Lisbon and clearly visible from the city’s higher points, is home to the world’s oldest living examples of Mediterranean vegetation.
Last but certainly not least, visitors are urged to wander well off the beaten tourist track to see the magnificent caves of Mira D’Aire near Fátima in central Portugal, while in the extreme north of the country, Peneda-Gêres National Park completes the list. This wild and very remote area of striking landscapes harbours traces of human history dating right back to 6,000 BC.