Where to stay and get away from it all in Portugal


Oct 31 | 10 minutes read
Where to stay and get away from it all in Portugal

Hauntingly gorgeous towns, hot springs, unspoiled beaches, fantasy castles... Portugal has so much more to offer than the hustle and bustle of the Algarve Hidden... Greece | Croatia | Italy.

This summer, Britain's love affair with its oldest ally is likely to be revived. The United Kingdom is Portugal's largest overseas tourist market, and it was the first EU country to allow Britons to enter via electronic passport gates after Brexit. Because of the relaxation of Covid travel restrictions, hundreds of thousands of British tourists are anticipated to return this summer, lured mostly by its beautiful south coast. But Portugal has so much more to offer than the Algarve's beaches and bars.

 

Alentejo, Marvo

Alentejo city

 

Tourists heading south to the Algarve or east to the Spanish border may imagine the Alentejo (literally "beyond the Tagus") river as a never-ending expanse of cork oaks and olive trees that takes long to pass. Barrel through its wide plains and the only thing you'll notice is how massive it is; Alentejo is Portugal's biggest and flattest province, occupying more than a third of the country.

However, in the north-east corner of the Alentejo, close to the Spanish border, the Serra de Sao Mamede is a mountain range that challenges this notion of the Alentejo (there might even be snow in the winter). Some of the villages in this range enjoy stunning scenery, notably Marvo, a tranquil and storied medieval village perched 862 meters above sea level on a granite cliff. Marvo, with its tiny roads, whitewashed homes, and strong castle, provides vistas across the Alentejo plains and into Spain.

Another charming walled town nearby is Castelo de Vide, with its castle rising above the town's dazzlingly white buildings, flower-lined cobblestone pathways, and quiet squares. The crystal-clear mineral water that spouts from the lovely public fountains in this historic Roman spa town is revered by the locals.

Those looking for a charmingly unspoiled Portugal can find plenty to admire in this region of the nation, where life moves at a slower pace. And there's no better way to get in the spirit than by taking one of Rail Bike Marvao's two picturesque rides (from €20) down a decommissioned railway line. Between June and September, the firm offers three "full moon" night cruises every month (€35 per person, including beverages, petiscos, and live music). Visitors zigzag around megaliths in the picturesque Serra de Sao Mamede natural park, with vistas of Marvo and Castelo de Vide, on specialized, two-person pedal-powered rail bikes.

 

Where to stay

Gaviao Nature Village, which opened last year, is located near the protected river beach of Alamal and serves as an excellent base for exploring the region. It offers 13 glamping tents (doubles start at €145) as well as 10 magnificent cork eco-shelters that sleep two, four, or eight people, and the restaurant has a great view of the 12th-century Belver castle. In Flor da Rosa, Pousada Mosteiro do Crato (doubles from €130) is a refurbished 14th-century convent with a magnificent pool.

 

Ponte De Lima, Alto Minho

Ponte De Lima city

 

Holidaymakers in Portugal are rediscovering Alto Minho, the country's greenest region in the country's north-west corner. Unlike much of the rest of the nation, its fertile soil, abundant rainfall, and thermal springs keep it permanently green. On a hot summer day, there's nothing better than a shaded walk in the hills and a cool bottle of vinho verde, the region's characteristic white wine. It is simply green in name, but it is somewhat effervescent, with a fruity fragrance and acidic taste, making it one of the great thrills of northern Portugal travel.

Viana do Castelo, located on the Lima estuary, is the principal town of Alto Minho. Its historic center is filled with ornate homes, winding lanes, and charming squares. It's a terrific place to start exploring the Atlantic coast; the unspoiled beaches of Cabedelo and Moledo are popular with residents who face the chilly Atlantic seas on a daily basis.

The region's centerpiece, though, is Ponte de Lima, a half-hour drive east of Viana do Castelo. This market town is one of the oldest and most beautiful in Portugal, although it receives few visitors. The town is called after its exquisite medieval bridge, which is built along the mellow banks of the Lima; five of the bridge's 13 stone arches date back to Roman times.

The modest, medieval center with twisting lanes contains cafés and homes, but the charm of Ponte de Lima's lush environs is also worth exploring. The Centro Aventura offers guided kayak and paddle tours beginning at €30, and there are eco-trails and cycling routes on both banks of the river.

A little farther out, the charming Lima valley is dotted with old villages, antique manor homes, Romanesque churches, and beautiful vineyards. Quinta do Ameal, one of the top vinho verde producers, provides tastings and tours (€25) of the picturesque vineyard and winery, which is only a 15-minute drive from Ponte de Lima.

 

Where to Stay

Viana do Castelo played a major role in supplying ships and mariners for Portugal's great maritime discoveries of the 16th century. Armadas Lodge (sleeps eight from €475 a night) is a tiny eco-friendly property near Caminha that was recently restored into the mansion of a skipper who sailed with Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.

Terra Rosa Country House & Vineyards (doubles from €180) is a refurbished 18th-century wine estate operated by father-and-daughter pair Francisco and Eliana Rosa, located closer to Ponte de Lima. Casa da Roseira (doubles from €75 B&B) is a 19th-century farmhouse in a calm, rural setting five minutes' drive from Ponte de Lima.

 

Vila Nove de Milfontes, Alentejo

Vila Nove de Milfontes

 

However, it is pricey. Comporta, on the coast south of Lisbon, has lost its place as one of Portugal's best-kept secrets (Jeff Bezos was photographed there with his girlfriend over Easter this year). If you're traveling from Lisbon, skip Comporta and proceed beyond the industrial refineries of Sines to charming Vila Nova de Milfontes, one of the most gorgeous and pleasant villages on the Alentejo coast, if not the entire nation.

Milfontes is a hotchpotch of lovely squares and sun-bleached cottages that is popular with domestic visitors but mostly unknown to the rest of the world. The ancient town grew up around a little 16th-century castle constructed to protect it from pirates, overlooking the peaceful Mira estuary. Milfontes also offers excellent restaurants serving Alentejan cuisine and seafood feasts, yet the town has a casual attitude even in the height of summer.

The river is still an untapped wonder in the area. A boat excursion upriver allows you to appreciate the peace and quiet while floating over the environment and viewing the birds on the banks. Even most Portuguese are unaware of this picturesque scene. Mil Emotions provides a range of tours (€10-€30) departing from Milfontes.

The Atlantic coast offers picturesque beaches abounding in this region, as does the Rota Vicentina's network of walking paths. Milfontes boasts beautiful beaches on both the river and the sea, but just 20 minutes away is the spectacular Praia do Almograve, ideal for watching the sunset. Brejo Largo and Praia de Nossa Senhora are two less-known possibilities.

A bit further out, Praia da Amália is named after the country's most famous fado singer, Amália Rodrigues, who had a vacation house there. Also close is Cabo Sardo, a peninsula with stunning towering cliffs facing the unyielding Atlantic Ocean - unquestionably one of the greatest natural vistas in the region.

 

Where to Stay

Monte da Bemposta (doubles from €210) is a newly opened converted farm with 10 homes, three apartments, and a pool. Herdade do Amarelo (doubles from €220) is also close to Vila Nova de Milfontes. For more cheap lodging in the vicinity, consider the new Ocean House Alentejo (doubles from €70 B&B) in Porto Covo, a former fishing community with one of the country's most beautiful squares.

 

Alcoutim, Algarve

Alcoutim

 

Finding an unknown spot in the Algarve has become nearly difficult, although the little hamlet of Alcoutim is arguably the closest. It's a picturesque, untouched community some 30 miles inland, on the banks of the Guadiana River, which serves as the boundary between Argentina and Spain. It's a little town with a calmer pace of life than the crowded beaches to the south.

Because of Alcoutim's strategic river port importance, travelers in the past tended to stay. None remained longer than the Moors, who held Alcoutim from the early eighth century until King Sancho II eventually drove them out in 1240. The river was an important commerce route at the time, but its importance decreased by the 16th century, and Alcoutim became the tranquil, picturesque town it is today, with its white churches and majestic fortress.

In the summer, the neighboring Pego Fundo, a white-sand river beach on a little tributary, is ideal for a refreshing plunge. Adventurers may take a short boat journey across to the Spanish community of Sanlucar de Guadiana in Andaluca - and then return on the world's first cross-border zipline at 50mph (€20, Limite Zero).

Those with a car will find enough to do in the nearby towns, which range from the scenic Castro Marim, with its majestic walled fortress, to the lovely, cobbled village of Cacela Velha, with a pretty church and a pocket-sized fort. The Vale do Guadiana nature park to the north and the Sapal nature reserve to the south both include paths and a diverse plant and bird life, including migrating flamingos.

 

Where to Stay

The ancient customs house in the border town of Vila Real de Santo António has been converted into a Pousada hotel with three pools (doubles from €115) and is well located for exploring the Algarve's far east. Monte do Malho (doubles from €125), a quaint, calm nine-room eco-hotel on a hilltop near Castro Marim, is another local alternative. The journey to Alcoutim along the Guadiana River takes around 40 minutes. Alcoutim is also useful for beaches in the eastern Algarve, such as Praia Verde and Praia de Cacela Velha, which are calmer and have warmer water.

 

Trancoso, Beira Alta

Trancoso

 

Many years ago, when I first brought my English girlfriend - now my wife - home to Portugal, she was enchanted by the ease with which we could drive into historic castles. There were also laundry lines with clothing hanging between the antique walls.

While you can't do that anymore, Portugal's castles are hard to surpass, and few are more enchanting and less explored than those of Beira Alta - an ethereal area of sun-bleached plains and hilltop fortress towns. The province, located in north-east Portugal near the Spanish border, has a fascinating history since it was plagued with Moorish and Spanish invasion routes for ages.

Trancoso is one of my favorite fortress towns in this area. Trancoso, formerly an important stronghold, was the location of the young King Dinis' marriage to Isabel of Aragon in 1282; the dowry included 12 castles and four towns, including Trancoso. Today, it's a peaceful town with a charming labyrinth of gorgeous squares, churches, and small alleyways all surrounded by powerful 13th-century walls.

Marialva, a hauntingly beautiful medieval hamlet behind 12th-century walls that was all but abandoned in the 18th and 19th centuries — one reason for its abandonment is that it was just too difficult to visit (its population is now 177).

The majority of visitors tour this rough but beautiful region by automobile, but the most thrilling way to explore is to climb into a motorbike sidecar with seasoned motorcyclists Rob and Zayne. Gusto Motorbikes & Sidecar Adventures (from €200 a day) is based in central Portugal and provides tailor-made tours as well as the opportunity to drive through winding country lanes for a genuinely off-the-beaten-path experience.

 

Where to Stay

The new Casa no Castanheiro (doubles from €200) is a beautiful cabin composed of wood and cork in Valeflor, 20 minutes from Trancoso and Marialva. It earned Portugal's national design prize for wood building in 2021 and provides breathtaking views of the valley and the Marofa mountains. Casas do Côro (doubles from €218) is a charming mini-village with 13 buildings and a magnificent swimming pool in the hamlet of Marialva.

Casa do Castelo (doubles from €50 B&B) is a terrific bargain alternative located inside historic castle walls in Sernancelhe, half an hour from Trancoso. It was the priest's home before being converted into a lovely guesthouse.


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