5-Days Road Tripping Around Portugal

 

Portugal has enjoyed (and suffered with) being an increasingly popular mass tourism destination in recent years. That’s why visiting both famous and overlooked places during off-season can be rewarding.

The appeal of the nation’s most visited destinations – from the Algarve beaches in the south, the bustling capital Lisbon, the funky looking pastel-hued Pena Palace in Sintra, to the Northern coastal gem Porto - is difficult to resist.  
Portugal is one of those countries that is worth multiple visits, and it’s also a relatively small country with good roads that connect most regions. So if you have the privilege to be able to stay for more than just a weekend or you’re less constrained by time, then you can easily add destinations to your itinerary further out than the big four mentioned above.

Fortunately, I have close personal links to the country. Having visited Lisbon and other main tourist hotspots on previous occasions, this time around the plan was to go on a little road-trip and discover new places, bits of history I wasn’t aware of and even landscapes that I wouldn’t normally associate with the most Western country of European mainland.

 

Megalithic Enclosure of Almendres

Located about 130km from Lisbon, Almendres Cromlech is a megalithic enclosure that, while less visually striking than Stonehenge, is about 2000 years older than the famous English site. It’s also free to visit and not crowded or fenced off by any means, so you can get as close to the stones as you wish.

We spent some time wondering why these stones exist here and trying to spot the engravings that remain on some of them, not an easy task due to heavy erosion. 

About 90 granite stones remain standing in two rough circles, in what might have been a ceremonial site assembled here in about 5000 BC, around the time humans were transitioning from hunter-gatherer to a settler society. They were discovered in 1966, but the exact reason why these Neolithic stones were put in the Alentejo site remains a mystery.

There are no real tourist amenities and gladly no souvenir stalls. And there are also no good roads that lead there. The access road is not far from the highway, but it is dotted with huge potholes, so expect a very bumpy ride. 

 

Évora

The capital of Alentejo region gets a lot of tourist appeal due to its historic and well preserved old town, surrounded by 14th-century walls, from which the remains of the Roman Temple of Évora sticks out as the city’s most prominent landmark.

Built in 1st century AD, the temple has undergone a lot of changes but has been preserved thanks to it being largely forgotten over time and its ruins having been incorporated into other buildings after the end of Roman rule. This saved it from deteriorating any further, making it one of the best preserved Roman structures in the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. It’s located in the town centre, impossible to miss.

Évora’s Cathedral, which dates back to the 13th century, is also worth seeing. For €3.50 you can go up to the roof and enjoy 360 views of the city, and also visit the church itself.

We decided to skip Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones), another landmark, as we had already spent our allowance of church money that day by visiting the Cathedral (I’m not in favour of giving out my money to religious sites and places of worship – judge me). Though if you haven’t been to the Catacombs in Paris or any bone churches that can be found in Europe (commonly referred to as ossuaries), this might be interesting. The entry fee is €5.

Traditional Alentejo dishes are well known to use a lot of meat (like pretty much everywhere in Portugal, seafood being more present around coastal towns) so I wasn’t hoping to find a lot of vegan options, but we stumbled upon a veggie & vegan buffet-style restaurant: Salsa Verde. They serve a lot of affordable and local dishes, including the vegan version of the traditional Açorda Alentejana – a mushy soup made with broth-soaked bread.

Curiously and conveniently, in case you’re looking for late night snacks and some bare essentials, there are quite a few of 24-hour vending machines scattered around the old town.

 

Covilhã

Moving further up Northeast, we stopped by this city in the Centro region of Portugal mainly due to it being the ‘gateway to Serra da Estrela’, but Covilhã itself packs a few things worth a visit.  

Located in between mountains and the Goldra and Carpinteira river streams, Covilhã is a pretty scenic spot. The abundance of natural resources and its surroundings were essential for Covilhã becoming the country’s wool industry capital, from the XVIII century until the late 70’s. What’s left of it now are a few old empty factory buildings, some of which have been refurbished as part of University facilities.

The 16th century Santa Maria Church with its 20th-century addition of blue & white azulejo façade is an attractive sight.  

And then there’s street art. Covilhã hosts the yearly creative festival WOOL, no doubt a nod to its prosperous past, which aims to put the city down on the list of major European urban art destinations, while at the same time celebrate the revitalisation of public spaces. We had a good time tracking down every possible mural and piece of street art we could find. Most of them are in one way or another honouring the past, the present and the people of the region.

 

Serra da Estrela National Park

The highest mountain, first national park, largest natural protected area and the only ski course in the country are just some of the facts about Serra da Estrela that make it exceptional. I never even thought about snow-topped mountain landscapes in association with Portugal before getting there.

The highest point in continental Portugal, Torre, aka Tower, sits at an altitude of 1993m. Visiting on a sunny Winter day, we got an excellent view of barren landscapes with sporadic heaps of snow. I even liked the couple of whacky old radar stations with broken ‘golf ball’ domes.

The peak is easily accessible by car, and that should be your primary way to get there, but be aware that it gets jam-packed during peak Winter season, when the ski course is in full operation.

In fact, hiking doesn’t seem to be a big thing here. Even though we found some nice-looking scenic spots on Google maps, we couldn’t find any clearly marked trails, which led us to our next adventure.

Apparently, if you head to the tourist information centre in Manteigas, they will give you some pointers and maps of paths, but we decided to venture on our own, and it was kind of a mistake.

In hindsight, it doesn’t seem all that bad but sometimes it’s really worth listening to your gut instinct. It’s not so much that there were no clear markers or trails, it’s that it was quite evident from the start that trying to hike up a wild terrain full of boulders and weeds is a bad idea.

I kept getting poked by pointy grass everywhere and tripping over big boulders as we tried to make our way up a hill to get a decent viewpoint. We decided it was not worth the effort to carry on forward but then struggled even more on the way down. The sun was getting dangerously low, and with the absence of any path, we had moments where I questioned if we were going to be able to get back to the car in one piece. I love hiking and scrambling, but I don’t like tripping over rocks, risking falling down a waterfall and having panic attacks on my way down.

So my tip to you is – be smart and find some trail maps by either doing a thorough research online or visiting the tourist information point in Manteigas. I found a good resource on hikes in Serra da Estrela here, which is useful if you are any good at reading maps. If you’re inexperienced in hiking but are keen to explore the area, it might be best to find a guide as markings here are either non-existent or unreliable.

SerraDaEstrellaHike.jpg

Don’t listen to your daredevil friends unless they are professional climbers. And if they repeatedly ignore you, putting you both in harm’s way, and you manage to survive – at least make them buy you dinner and a bottle of wine (by the way, the wine of this region is excellent).

Even if you skip the hiking altogether, it is one of the most beautiful drives ever, in between pine forests, jagged mountains and the glacial valley of Zêzere, passing by isolated farms and small villages.

 

Côa Valley Archeological Park

Not only is Foz Côa Valley beautiful and scenic, it also includes a vast open-air Palaeolithic rock art site, revealed here in the early 1990s.

To give you a notion of how vast - there are hundreds or rocks with over a thousand markings scattered over 80 different sites depicting zoomorphic, anthropomorphic and abstract designs carved in several different techniques leaving marks dating as far back as 22 000 BC. Although the vast majority of these are from Palaeolithic times, the newest of drawings are as recent as the 20th century and depict religious motives and modern landscapes.

As you’ll be able to witness in the museum exhibition, since the rock engravings were spotted in Vila Nova de Foz Côa, it took a lot of support from the local population and the general public to preserve these archaeological findings and cancel a dam project that would submerge the area, making them a thing of the past forever.

I strongly advise booking your visit to Foz Côa Valley Archeological Park and Museum in advance. For us, going there was a spontaneous decision made on the night before, but I wish we had planned it so we could see the actual rock paintings live. As this is a working archaeological site, the only way to access it is by booking a guided visit, which was sold out for the day when we arrived there.

In any case, you should not give the interactive and very informative Côa Valley Museum a miss. You’ll find some selected original pieces and replicas of the engraved panels.

Entry to the museum costs €3, guided visit to the park is €15 per person, you can find the full price list here.  

 

Douro Valley

Ok, fine, this is a reasonably well know place for travellers. After all, Douro is one of the main wine-making regions of the country and one of the oldest and most renowned in the world. The vineyards here supply grapes for some of the best winemakers; you’ll be able to spot the brand names displayed on hillside billboards as you drive by. It also provides grapes for producing the famous Port wine as well as oil from the vast old olive groves stretching across the landscape.

However, Douro Valley shouldn’t be reserved only for those who are into wine or olives, expensive tasting tours and boat cruises. The views alone are worth going. It is one of the prettiest scenic drives in Portugal and doing it by car allows the flexibility of stopping at as many lookout points as you want to take pictures and admire the views. Driving from Foz Côa to the city of Peso da Régua, we followed the river from inland, passing by several small villages where you can see a more rural lifestyle and Northern Portuguese culture widely on display.

January might not have been the best time to visit since the Autumn grape harvest is long over, but the winding curved roads, hillsides and terraced vineyards are still incredibly beautiful if you get the right amount of sun.

 

Figueira da Foz

A popular holiday destination for over 100 years, Figueira da Foz is also known as Rainha das Praias (Queen of Beaches), which speaks for itself. Apart from the casino - which doubles as a music and events venue – the bars and the restaurants, the main attraction here is the beach.

If you happen to visit off-season, there is not much to do since swimming and sunbathing is off the itinerary, but you will be rewarded with cheap seaside accommodation and quiet, charming old streets.  

We caught the sunset at Cabo Mondego viewpoint, a few km north of the city, and then walked around exploring the streets of Figueira, a lot of which are still lined with traditional tiled buildings which made for a sweet ending to the trip before we headed back to Lisbon the next day.