From Anita: One of our favorite parts of traveling is meeting the locals–and for us, that includes expats–who have plenty to share about their adopted homeland. Last month, Tom and I had a chance to spend a little time with Portugal’s top expat blogger, Julie Dawn Fox.
Who better to provide an introduction to our series of posts from six weeks on the road in that wonderful country! To get us started, we asked Julie to provide a brief overview of Portugal’s landscapes and gastronomy, and offer a few tips for a first-time visitor. Over to you, Julie!
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When Anita asked me to take you on a brief tour of the country I’ve been living in and exploring for seven years, I was a little overwhelmed. There is so much to see and do here! So I will keep to the basics, and hope to whet your appetite for Portugal’s diverse landscapes and the gastronomic highlights that lie in store for travelers here.
Varied landscapes, all appealing
I’ll start with the north, characterised by its greenery, rivers and mountains, ancient local traditions and the country’s only national park, Peneda Gerês. East of Porto, Portugal’s captivating second city, and one of my favourite places for a cultural weekend break , lies the beautifully undulating wine-producing Douro Valley.
The centre of Portugal encompasses the mainland’s highest mountain range, the Serra da Estrela, forested hills, majestic boulders, coastal flats, windswept dunes backed by pine forests, medieval villages with ruined castles plus several fascinating cities like Coimbra. Since moving to this region, I’ve shifted my allegiance from sandy coastal beaches to the network of unique river beaches around Coimbra.
The colourful capital city, Lisbon, sprawls across seven hills and the banks of the River Tagus. Within a 50 kilometre radius of Lisbon, you’ll find the fashionable beaches of Cascais and Caparica, Arrábida natural park and Sintra, a town bursting with palaces and castles. Each of these deserves at least a day and ideally two or more days for Sintra, although I’d avoid weekends.
Extending east and south of the capital, Alentejo is famous for its extensive plains, punctuated by reservoirs and historical towns like Évora, Monsaraz and Beja. It also has one of the prettiest coastal regions in the country.
The Algarve, a strip of land across the bottom of Portugal, is eternally popular thanks to its coves of golden sands surrounded by sandstone cliffs. The landscape varies from the wild, rugged coastline near Sagres to the forests of Monchique and the lagoons and islets of Ria Formosa Natural Park. In this touristy part of the country, it’s a good idea to get off the beaten track and explore the region. I’d steer clear of the peak months of July and August unless you crave the party scene.
Last but not least, are the volcanic island clusters of Madeira and the Azores with lush, mountainous scenery and a profusion of flowers thanks to their respective sub-tropical and temperate climates. I’ve not made it to the islands yet, but hope to do so in the near future!
Portugal’s four food groups
The Portuguese love their cuisine and are intensely proud of it. Ingredients tend to be simple and traditional recipes are highly prized. You’ll notice that many restaurants have almost identical menus. A good tip is to try whichever dish your chosen restaurant specialises in.
Fish, seafood and meat. Fresh fish and seafood are bountiful given the extent of the country’s coastline. My absolute favourite Portuguese dish is polvo à lagareiro (baked octopus, usually served with baby jacket potatoes). I do find it rather bizarre that the nation’s favourite fish is dried salted cod (bacalhau), which is used in over 1000 recipes. Meat, especially pork, features heavily on the menu. You’ll also find game and poultry, thick lean steaks and a range of cured, smoked sausages and ham.
Cheese. Cheese lovers won’t be disappointed. In my opinion, the best cheeses here are made from sheep’s milk and this includes the delightfully gooey Serra da Estrela cheese and its by-product, requeijão, a soft white cheese made from the whey.
Sweets. Sweets are in a category all their own. Portuguese cakes, such as pastéis de Tentúgal, have a long history. Heavy on the egg yolk and sugar, they can be mouthwateringly tasty, if disastrous for your waistline.
Wine. Portugal’s wines and liqueurs are among its hidden treasures. For a fraction of the price you’d normally pay, you can find superb vintages and fortified wines such as port wine and muscatel. I also highly recommend the herby Licor Beirão and very ‘moreish’ ginjinha cherry brandy.
Best times to visit?
Weather-wise, Portugal is a great year-round destination but the best times to visit are April to June and September to October when it’s usually pleasantly warm albeit with some chance of rain. July and August tend to be stinking hot with hardly any rain anywhere. In the Alentejo and central Portugal, temperatures often hit 40°C or more.
Winters in Portugal can be cold and wet but the rainy days are usually interspersed with sunny spells. The north and centre tend to get more rain, hence the greenery. The Algarve has the warmest winters and slightly more moderate summers than the interior.
So, are you headed to Portugal for your next holiday? Visit me on Julie Dawn Fox in Portugal for practical tips and inspiration for travelling to Portugal, such as packing advice and other things you need to know before your first trip.
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To see all our travel stories from Portugal, click here.