Portugal – the land of natural beauty
Every year, some 17 million tourists come to Portugal to enjoy its warm climate and beautiful landscapes. The best-known destinations are the historic cities of Lisbon and Porto and the sunny beaches of the Algarve. But there is a lot more to discover in this country, if you get into the spirit of its famous explorers.
Portugal is Europe’s westernmost country, stretching along the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula and bordered by Spain on the land side. Portugal occupies roughly 16% of the Iberian Peninsula plus the small Atlantic archipelagos of Madeira and Azores. Its population is just over 10 million people, most of whom live along the coast.
Although it’s not large, Portugal is a country of great regional diversity, with high mountains and green forests in the North and the centre, contrasting with the dry plains of the South. In general, the climate tends to be temperate throughout the year, with long, hot summers, mild springs and autumns and relatively mild winters, although the temperatures and climate conditions are marked by strong local differences. In the Azores, the weather is mild, while sub-tropical Madeira is a bit warmer and very pleasant all year round.
The impulse to explore
Portugal is famous for its explorers and sailors, who were at the forefront of the so- called “age of discoveries”. As a coastal country, the Portuguese were keen to control the sea-lanes and expand their possibilities for trade. Prince Henry the Navigator (1394 – 1460) encouraged Portuguese sailors to explore the coast of Africa. It was under his reign that the Atlantic islands of Madeira and Azores were put under Portuguese control.
Thanks to their new ship designs, the Portuguese sailors were able to go further. Vasco da Gama introduced new shipping trade routes that connected Europe with India, while Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered Brazil and claimed it for Portugal. Fernão de Magalhães was the first to sail around the world, establishing a route from the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific Ocean. The Portuguese went on to establish a widespread maritime empire including Brazil, parts of Africa’s West and East coasts, and important harbours in the Indian Ocean and the Far East.
Modern artists and outstanding football players
Nowadays, artists and athletes have taken the place of the intrepid sailors. Joana Vasconcelos, for example, challenges ideas of femininity in her art and, in 2012, became the first woman and the youngest artist to exhibit at the Palace of Versailles. The writer Jose Saramago (1922-2010) received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998 for what the judges described as his “parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony”. He is best known for his novel “Blindness”. What makes Saramago’s work so special is his attempt to take the reader further, as he wrote in his novel “The Cave”: “Some people spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they don’t understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason they’re there is so that we can reach the farther shore, it’s the other side that matters.”
The Portuguese are big fans of football. Three national daily newspapers, A Bola, O Jogo and Record, are dedicated to sport (meaning about 90% football coverage), so it’s no wonder to find many football players among the most famous Portuguese. For instance Eusebio, who won 11 league titles for Benfica in the sixties and seventies, and Luis Figo, who played 127 times for the “Seleção das Quinas” (the Portuguese national team is named after the shields on its emblem), or José Mourinho, the football manager regarded as one of the best coaches in the world. But it is probably Cristiano Ronaldo who is best known of all. He won the Ballon d’Or trophy for the best football player in 2008 and became the world’s most expensive player when he was transferred from Manchester United to Real Madrid.
Melancholy and passion – Fado and wine
Fado is the “soul” music of Portugal. Characterised by sad songs accompanied by bittersweet guitars, it can be heard everywhere, but it’s natural habitat is the Fado house. Some of the best Fado houses are in Alfama, one of the oldest districts of Portugal’s capital city Lisbon. This picturesque district is a labyrinth of narrow streets which can turn into steps, old tenement houses that almost touch each other and small, cosy squares.
And while you’re listening to the Fado singers tell their melancholy tales, what could be better than a glass of Port? This wine is made in the beautiful Douro region classified by UNESCO as World Heritage. A trip up the river reveals enchanting views of vineyards on the hilly slopes of the Douro. But no visit would be complete without stopping by at a Port wine cellar. What makes this wine different from the others is that the fermentation of the wine is not complete, being stopped in an initial phase through the addition of a neutral brandy. That is why Port is a naturally sweet wine (since the grapes’ natural sugar does not completely transform into alcohol) and stronger than other wines (between 19° and 22º of alcohol). Where there’s wine, there’s cork: Ever wondered where the cork in a bottle of wine comes from? Most often from Portugal, the world’s leading producer. Cork is the bark of the cork oak (Quercus suber). In Portugal, there are more than 720,000 hectares of cork forests, and more than 20,000 people work in the cork industry.
Madeira, the evergreen island
Portugal does not end at the coast. There is much more to discover in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Madeira is a beautiful island blessed with a permanent mild climate. Temperatures are around 25 ºC in the summer and only four or five degrees lower in winter. The sea is always welcoming, making Madeira a perfect destination for vacations throughout the year.
Madeira has something for everyone: You can go on sailing trips to see dolphins and whales, sunbathe in exotic gardens or just enjoy the beautiful views over an infinity bathed by the most beautiful blue and pristine waters. A unique attraction for tourists in Madeira is walking along the irrigation channels called “levadas”. These narrow channels form an irrigation system built to distribute water from the wetter regions in the north to the drier regions in the south of the island. The “levadas” date back to the 16th century and cover a total distance of 2500 km. The local food is rich and varied, and the great range of restaurants in Funchal, the capital, has something to offer for every taste. Funchal is a busy harbor but also a modern city with interesting churches (the cathedral is more than 500 years old) and museums. Here’s how the writer Júlio Dinis (1839-1871) described its charm: “The sea on one side, the mountains on the other, and between these two majestic splendours, the city smiles like a child sleeping, safe and warm, between its parents.”