Portugal. Without the rally? No problem. There’s plenty to keep you occupied, especially up in the north of the country.
Down south, it’s mostly about the Algarve. Hmm. Got to be honest, it wasn’t really for me. I don’t like golf. And I wasn’t overly fussed about the over-priced food up for grabs in the Vilamoura marina. Vilamoura is, apparently, part of Portugal’s ‘golden triangle.’ The other corners are made up of an old village – might be a town – called Almancil and a gated development called Quinta de Lago.
It’s all very upmarket with plenty of swish restaurants and swanky tucker, but it’s not for me.
The Portuguese capital, Lisbon, is a stunning city with stacks of culture on offer. And the world’s smallest bookshop in Livraria Simão. It has to be seen to be believed. If you go in there, keep your browsing to a minimum – there’s only room for… you in there. It’s a bookshop for one.
Once you’re done with that, make a beeline for the Pastéis de Belém bakery, where you’ll find the finest Pastéis de Nata (a Portuguese take on the egg custard) in the world. They’re served warm and are simply epic. But get there early, they run out pretty quickly.
You’ll notice that much of my Portuguese travel advice surrounds eating and drinking. And surfing.
If you’re up for some surf, trek north from Lisbon and look out for the town of Nazaré in the Oeste region. This place is as famous for what goes on beneath the water as what’s above it – just off the coast is the Nazaré Canyon where the water drops to a maximum depth of 5000 metres, or just over three miles. That’s deep. And it goes 140 miles out into the Atlantic. That offers tremendous opportunity for swell to build. How big are the waves?
Try 80 feet, or 24.38 metres. Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa rode that one in November 2018, finding his way into the Guinness Book of Records. If you’re not up for catching a tube or if the surf’s just not quite cutting it that day, don’t worry, you can take the funicular from beachside in Praia to Sítio on the top of the cliffs.
Both are radical in their own right.
But if you’ve got any sense, you’ll bin the waves and head into Porto. Drive over the Dom Luís I Bridge and take in the vibrant Ribeira District. Porto’s centre is now listed as a World Heritage Site – it’s one of the oldest in Europe. But it’s old gold and very cool.
Sitting at the side of the Duoro River, you can watch some of the country’s largest Port producers light up the night sky with their names in lights high above their premises. ‘Taylors’ and ‘Cockburns’ are writ in large red letters. It might sound a bit tacky, it’s not, it’s kind of magical. Especially after a bottle or two or fortified wine.
Port can only come from the grapes on the Duoro valley – and the English names come from an early 18th Century deal done between the Brits and Portuguese when another war with the French made a good red wine was harder to come by.
But before it goes dark, you absolutely have to take a wander through the streets of Matosinhos and smell your supper cooking. Even if you’re not a seafood fan, I absolutely defy you not to be taken in by the fabulous aroma of fish whipped from the Atlantic that afternoon and thrown straight on the grill in one of the hundreds of restaurants that line the streets. There’s nothing flash, nothing fancy, just simply delicious fish cooked on an open grill and served with, well, some of the nicest chips I’ve ever tasted. Wash that down with a cold Sagres, then head into the old town for a Port or two. Perfect.
One of the best things about Portugal is some of the smaller districts, places like Foz do Duoro. Slightly off the beaten track, life’s lived at a slightly slower pace. A pace there there’s always time for a cup of coffee and a chat.