The Last Old Place

Latin but not Mediterranean, cosmopolitan but not crowded, Portugal is a country where a fair portion of the population still lives as people have always lived – in peaceful places far away from the hustle and bustle of modern life.

Considered by many as the last old place in Europe, so loveable a country as this, lying wide open and greatly exposed to the vast Atlantic Ocean, a land intersected by rich valleys and surrounded by extensive mountain ranges, has always have been a favourite part of the continent.

Rock paintings, dolmens and strong traces of primitive civilization dot the landscape and the country’s history has all the wonder of a tale from the Arabian Nights.

Portugal’s northern frontier is marked by the capricious course of the Minho and has never changed. Then there’s Trás-os-Montes, the region ‘beyond the mountains’, embedded between a frontier of fast-flowing rivers and a barrier of great rocky masses where time seems to stand still in isolated villages of robust stone dwellings with quaint rye-thatched roofs.

For today’s visitor it’s a case of discovering the land that discovered the world. Guided by the tales of the early explorers and observations of the 15th- and 16th-century navigators, Portuguese cartographers sketched out the first maps of the modern world.

In fact, Portugal was born of the marriage between the land and the sea and there are many visible signs of this long and passionate union, such as the high prows of the fishing boats turned up like those of the old Phoenician barques.

Portugal is one of the smaller countries tucked away in a cosy corner of Europe at the western edge of the Old World. It’s a country of caravels, abandoned windmills (many now under careful restoration), wild lavender, ripe figs, green wine, ancient castles and, some say, the perfect loaf of bread.

A land of brazen castles and uplifting cathedrals, Portugal is a place of unique beauty, with a mélange of monuments and landmarks visible nowhere else on earth.

Take Coimbra as an example, the most academic of all Portuguese cities, which has been a university city since the 14th century and is rich in romantic and academic legend to which each generation adds its episode.

Where to go in Portugal

The Portuguese have always had a love for rural life and the old, traditional way of doing things and the true essence of this ancient country can easily be discovered through its folk songs, recipes, embroideries, costumes, legends, carvings and country fairs.

Its coastline runs right the way along the south-western edge of Europe, hammered by the hard rolling force of waves that flood and ooze over long stretches of fine golden sands laden with brightly-painted fishing boats bulging with the catch of the day.

The country has been inhabited since pre-historic times and has often been the aim of covetousness since, and not just the attacks of pirates as in the Algarve who swept down and looted a port or two and then made off to sea with their booty.

There were the Normans at Murtosa, the Greeks at Ovar and the Phoenicians at Ílhavo, all of whom were so attracted by this idyllic coastline that they founded colonies along it.

And although the Arabs were dislodged from Coimbra in 1064, they left there Mozarabic Christians with much Islamism in their blood and even in the rites of their religion.

These influences, so distant in time, have persisted. The pure profile of some, the green eyes of others, a certain warmth in colour and a certain slenderness of line, are the attractions of a mixed race.

After the young Afonso Henriques had crowned himself king of the country and thrown back the armies of his former sovereign, he set out to reconquer the place we now call Portugal.

And little has changed since those earliest of days; the long Atlantic coast gives its fish, the fertile countryside its fruit and vegetables and the lush, green hillsides their wine.

Each province has its own typical dress, dances and songs, as well as its legends (usually full of poetry and mystery) and its customs, which are normally the result of centuries of tradition.

And as a manifestation of folk art, an extensive range of local craftsmanship reflects the open-minded spirit of a people who like to paint, draw and sculpt real or fantastic figures on objects of everyday use, thus giving Portuguese arts and crafts such rare individuality.

Need more sightseeing ideas for your next visit? Listen to the Portugal Travel Show, the podcast for people planning a trip to sunny Portugal…