Living in Portugal

Sipping from a tiny stem glass filled to the brim with regional red wine, I warily eye the plate in front of me. It contains tremoços, a slippery legume grown like peanuts, with the appearance of pale-yellow lima beans. My first exposure to them was a disaster. Not knowing to peel off the fine, filmy covering before eating, I found them chewy and unpleasant.

“Eat,” my friend Catarina urges, as I look over her shoulder in an attempt to spy a bag of potato chips hanging on the wall of the café. “They are good for bones and for…” She pauses and frowns, flexing her knee as though kicking a giant beach ball. “Joints?” I suggest. She beams with pleasure and nods.

Welcome to my personal Portugal.

A few years ago, when I began writing about my adopted home, it was with an eye to revealing one of Europe’s best-kept— and affordable—secrets. My goal was to introduce readers to this gem of a country—its people, geography, major cities, and more. These days it’s a different story. Through reading, online research, perhaps attending an International Living conference, or traveling here, many are now versed on Portugal’s charms.

Most visitors begin their journey in Lisbon. Direct flights from San Francisco, New York, Miami, and other North American cities offer easy access to the capital and its culture, cafés, restaurants, nightlife, parks, and plazas.

The next glimpse of the country is often the “second city” of Porto in the north, across the Douro River from where the centuries-old tradition of port winemaking is faithfully carried on in Vila Nova de Gaia.

Finally, tourists flock to the ever-popular expat region of the Algarve. There they find stunning, craggy cliffs and crystalline waters bordering golden sand beaches like those of Carvoeiro and Benagil.

And all that is a solid start in sampling Portugal. But if you’re planning an extended stay—say three months or so— and want an insider look at this country that continues to gain more and more attention, here are some suggestions.

A City to Suit Everyone

By moving away from waterfront cities like Lisbon, Porto, and Lagos and heading inland, you’ll discover new worlds. Speaking of surprises, you may be interested to know that while the autonomous regions of Madeira and the Azores (which are islands) are famous for their volcanic, mountainous locales, mainland Portugal has its own share of elevation.

Close to the geographical center of the country, at 3,465 feet, Guarda is the highest city in mainland Portugal. It’s located off the northeastern edge of the Natural Park of Serra da Estrela, home to the country’s highest mountain range. When I toured the area, I stayed in Lajeosa do Mondego, just 30 minutes away, in a 19th-century stone manor house offering a common room with fireplace, WiFi, cozy bar, and more.

Guarda is an excellent choice for many reasons. The population of roughly 42,000 is proud of their emblematic cathedral, a Gothic and Manueline masterpiece 200 years in the making. Climb to the top for magnificent views of the city and land in all directions, and later pay a visit to the Judiaria, the Jewish quarter, dating back to the 13th century.

Just 30 minutes by car from Guarda city center, a trip to the village of Almeida is a must. Here, in one of the best-fortified areas that exists in the country, you can stroll the 13th-century fortified town walls and also explore the elegant arched tunnels which lie underneath. Return to Guarda and dive into pizza and pasta at my favorite restaurant in town, the top-rated Simple. Guarda, a five-minute walk from the cathedral.

Another plus is Guarda’s proximity to the golden city of Salamanca in neighboring Spain, which you can reach by bus in two hours, less if you drive. Stay at the 4-star Soho Boutique Canalejas in the heart of old-town Salamanca for $57 and sample local cuisine like farinato—sausage made with pig fat, breadcrumbs, olive oil, and spices (including anise and paprika) topped with fried or scrambled eggs. One chic and classy spot is La Hoja 21, on Calle San Pablo 21.

Small—and Smaller—Towns

The Alentejo region of the country is viewed with a sort of mythic respect by the Portuguese. There, history speaks through dolmens and menhirs—silent stone soldiers from prehistoric times—and the well-preserved Roman ruins and towering castles of centuries gone by, which are dotted throughout the region’s spreading plains of multi-colored wildflowers and stately cork oak trees.

Two hours due south of Guarda in the Alentejo lies Portalegre, with a population roughly half that of Guarda’s. Situated on one of the sides of the Serra de São Mamede mountain range, Portalegre is an ideal town to spend time, especially if you are into handicrafts; you’ll never look at a tapestry in the same way once you’ve visited their Museu da Tapeçaria.

More specialty goods can be found in the small jewel of a town, Nisa, 35 minutes from Portalegre. Renowned for its dense, creamy, slightly sweet sheep’s cheese with a hint of walnut, Nisa also is a center for distinctive decorative clay pottery inlaid with small white stones. If that isn’t enough, the area’s lacemaking tradition is also well-presented in the exhibits in the Museu do Bordado e do Barro.

Well-preserved Roman ruins and castles.

The cuisine in the region is distinctive, featuring the frequent use of coriander and mint and dishes like sopa de beldroegas (purslane soup) and migas, a bready, crumby dish also made in Spain. Eight subregions of the Alentejo produce wine, and award-winning selections from vineyards like Adega da Cartuxa are an excellent reason to visit.

Castelo de Vide, on another green slope of Serra de São Mamede, has been known for its curative waters since Roman times and its castle, which gave the town its name. My personal favorite castle in the area is the one in Marvão, set on an escarpment facing both the Serra de São Mamede and Spain. Lovely trimmed gardens, small shops, and the delightful boutique hotel of Dom Dinis add to the experience of visiting medieval Marvão.

The entire loop, from Portalegre to Castelo de Vide to Marvão and back, can be made in an hour and 15 minutes. But take time to savor the countryside—it’s more than worth it.

Mountain Options

Skiers flock to the Serra da Estrela range in winter (unless they have the opportunity to travel to the Alps or Pyrenees), because this is the location of the only ski area in the country, Vodafone Ski Resort. It’s small, with only nine runs and 426 feet of vertical descent, and over half the terrain is beginner level. But that makes it ideal for those just starting out, or maybe for those who just want to build a snowman.

Nestled in these mountains is the charming village of Manteigas (population 3,400), an ideal location to pick up handmade woolen garments, expertly crafted from the generous donations of the flocks of sheep that make their home in the region. Don’t neglect to pick up some of the legendary Serra da Estrela cheese. Spend a night at Casa Cerro da Correia and you will not only immerse yourself in a mountain retreat but can opt to work with paints made from the pigment of local flowers.

If your kind of mountain includes camping—especially in luxury—you’ll find it in the Serra da Gardunha range. An hour southeast of Manteigas, Natura Glamping in Alcongosta provides a restaurant and gift shop, specially constructed geodesic domes with WiFi, a swimming pool, and a lovely view of the city of Fundão below, stretching forth to the Cova da Beira plains. Just keep your head on a swivel. For many decades, stories have been told of sightings of strange, brightly lit objects in the skies over Serra da Gardunha and encounters with alien beings.

Almost as mysterious but, ahem, more down-to-earth, is the extreme northeast region of the country, Trás-os-Montes. Travel there for majestic mountains giving way to deep valleys, villages where the way of life has changed little over centuries, and to hear “the other language of Portugal,” Mirandese, spoken in municipalities like Miranda do Douro. This is home to the Pauliteiros, who carry on traditional dancing with sticks—modern versions of original swords—to the beat of drums and the bleat of bagpipes.

Regional cuisine is strongly focused on game meats, so while there be sure to taste hearty wild boar stew with chestnuts and mushrooms. You might think that’s not so unusual, so try this one on for size: sopa de cavalo cansado. Literally “tired horse soup.” Many years ago the bread and red wine mixture, sometimes with added sugar, was given to travelers’ horses to refresh them. When food and money were in short supply, it was also given to children, maybe with an egg yolk or honey, for breakfast.

River(s) Run Through It

If you were to guess the number of Portugal’s rivers, what would it be? I’ll give you a clue: each time I travel a stretch of autostrada here I see many signs reading “(fill-in-the-blank) Rba.” Rba. is an abbreviation for ribeira, the Portuguese word for stream. It’s no wonder I encounter so many of these signs on a single drive; there are more than 200 rivers on the mainland of Portugal (although, surprisingly, not one in either of the autonomous regions of Madeira and the Azores).

The Tejo

Perhaps the most famous river in Portugal is the Tejo, also known by its Latin name, the Tagus. More than 625 miles long, the Tejo begins in eastern Spain, running through Toledo on its way to Portugal, then flows southwest before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean near Lisbon.

Wild boar stew with chestnuts and mushrooms.

The river gives its name to an entire region, the Alentejo. Literally “beyond the Tagus.” This region begins just south of central Portugal and extends to the southern region of the Algarve, bordering Lisbon on its way and then spreading toward the rugged southwestern coast of the country. By the way, if you’re looking for what is considered the finest stretch of European coastline, look no further than southwest Alentejo and Costa Vicentina Natural Park. And oenophiles are well aware of the many award-winning Alentejano wines.

The Douro

In the north, Spain’s Duero River becomes the Douro as it enters Portugal, then stretches across the country before emptying into the Atlantic in Porto. Vila Nova da Gaia, directly across the river from Porto, is home to the centuries-old port winemaking houses, a must-see in the area.

The Douro Valley, with its velvety, emerald green terraced vineyards, is most pleasantly explored by taking a river cruise. Options range from a brief outing for part of a day up to two weeks from Porto and back, including Madrid and Salamanca in Spain and various Portugal stops including Lisbon, Coimbra, and more. One cruise company offers a Paris add-on as well. You might want to start here:

The Dão and the Mondego

Moving south toward the central region, the Dão River in the district of Guarda is the foundation of the Dão wines cultivated in the area. Eventually it empties into the Mondego, the waterway famously ribboning its way through the bustling cultural center of the university town of Coimbra, to the popular expat seaside town of Figueira da Foz.

The Guadiana

This river is next in length after the Douro, flowing generally westward through south-central Spain and southeastern Portugal for 460 miles to the Gulf of Cádiz in the Atlantic. In the south you can cruise the river, but this is also the place for a Jeep ride on the Moorish Trail, excellent fly fishing, searching out varied flora and fauna, and enjoying the general ambience of the Algarve. See:

The Minho

By now you probably have noticed a pattern in the rivers mentioned here, with major Portuguese rivers beginning in Spain, sharing the border, and then meandering across Portugal. The Minho in northern Portugal begins as the Miño (pronounced the same way), enjoying the distinction of being the longest river in Galicia (Spain).

River cruises are an option here as well or rent a bicycle at the beach club at the mouth of the Minho (or a kayak) and explore that way. The Cycle Trail of the Minho River is renowned.

River Beaches

All these (and other) rivers aren’t just for cruising. An extensive national network of river beaches, known as praias fluviais, pepper Portugal with well over 200 of these local favorites. The north alone, in locales like AveiroBraga, and Porto, boasts 76 of them. In the Alentejo near Évora, and in the Algarve near Faro and other towns, the count is a respectable 19. The true treasure trove is found in the central portion of the country, with a whopping 128 river beaches offering pristine waters, leafy groves, waterfalls, pools, cafés, bars, and more to delight and refresh the senses. Each of the official beaches is monitored for water quality and has prominent signage to alert you if there might be a better day to visit. I have never seen a warning in all my visits.

One of my favorites is located in the Serra da Estrella town of Unhais, a short 45-minute drive from Castelo Branco. It features three separate swimming areas, wide open grassy areas for playing and sunbathing, and a waterside café with a burger worth the trip on its own. The water is always rated A+ for cleanliness by authorities, as its source is the misty heights of the mountains towering above. Nearby there are a few local crafts stores to poke around in, but this is primarily a local secret, so the town is rather quiet.

Shoot across the border for tapas and flamenco.

A must-do while there is lunch (Saturday and Sunday) or dinner (Tuesday through Friday) at the medieval restaurant Lenda Viriato, named after a legendary Portuguese hero who fought the Roman invaders in 200 B.C. Today this namesake restaurant serves up acclaimed local game meats and medieval-style Lusitanian dishes by staff dressed in authentic garb, who also stage a show. Veado, venison, is prepared here in the medieval style, with honey and forest fruits of the region. Dinner for two, including wine, is moderately priced at about $50. See:

A Day at the Beach

The Lisbon area offers multiple beach choices, and many think one of the best is a short bus ride across the Tejo river at Costa da Caparica. This resort is renowned for those who want to experience the beach life for an afternoon or an extended vacation. The beach is backed by dramatic cliffs, and the boardwalk makes the journey to the water pleasant as it crosses the wide sandy stretches. Chairs, umbrellas, and other conveniences are available for rent.

The town boasts accommodation choices from hostels to 4-star hotels. For the price/quality ratio I like the Residencial Mar e Sol with its proximity to beach, dining, and shopping. If you happen to arrive on a rare cloudy day, head to Thalasso Caparica for a dip in one of its heated saltwater pools. Offering a total spa experience, the full-service thalassotherapy center is the closest one to Lisbon.

The southern coast of Portugal, the Algarve, is home to dozens of world-class golf courses, tennis clubs, Michelin-starred fine dining, and, of course, some of the finest beaches in Europe. Another plus is the weather, favorable to beachgoers from late April to early October. Vacationers come from all points of the compass to enjoy relaxing days, weeks, months or more.

Monte Gordo, and the immediate environs, is a family vacation spot still undiscovered by most non-Portuguese visitors, therefore it is inexpensive and less crowded than the more expat-oriented tourist destinations spread across the south of Portugal.

Nestled in the east of the country’s coastline next to Spain, it offers warmer waters, more affordable prices, and the option to shoot across the border for tapas and flamenco if the mood strikes. Stay at the Vasco da Gama Hotel on the beach for easy access to the water and to be within a few minutes of the center of town.

Sampling seafood is a must while in Portugal. Mar Salgado features the freshest catch in the area and a magnificent ocean view.

Monte Gordo’s location offers other perks. Less than an hour from the international airport in Faro, it’s also just a short ride into Tavira, where you can enjoy a sunset dinner on the river walk along the Gilão. Or take the ferry to laidback Ilha Tavira for its superb sands and a smattering of charming bars and restaurants.