Take a litre of sunshine, stir in jutting cliffs smeared with peanut butter-coloured sand, sprinkle with ancient villages and towns, top up with plenty of hospitality and decorate with a splash of port and a pastel de nata and, voila! Portugal. Oh, and did I mention that this dish is extremely good value? As in stunning value for Europe.
Three separate trips saw me visiting Portugal. Firstly the azul skies and soft sands of the Algarve on the southern coast – perfect for families, flying and flopping and, if you’re that way inclined, golf.
Secondly, it was a day’s stop over in Lisbon and, thirdly, a city break to Porto.
First off, Lisbon. There be hills in these parts; seven if the legend is to be believed. My advice is to look very carefully at which one has the sight you wish to see perched at the top. I wanted the castle, misjudged which hillock it perched upon, and ended up spotting it from the hill next door. Cue cursing and another sweaty ascent (although the thigh burn allowed for extra custard tart…) The view from the citadel was gratifying with a mishmash of terracotta roofs pouring down the hills before settling around beautifully laid out plazas. Of course the backdrop of the glittering sea and a gentle onshore breeze made walking the city even sweeter with its cobbled streets, ornate balcony-infused edifices and plethora of cafes on every corner.
One attribute that both Lisbon and Porto share is a sense that time has stood still; a rather wonderful feature not often found in the modern world and especially not in bustling cities. Peeking into dark shops I would see shoemakers hammering nails into boots, wooden boxes overflowing with fresh fruit and vegetables in the grocers, or long counters where reels of material or paper were measured out, by hand, for customers.
Frankly anywhere that still uses antique weighing scales without irony (I’m looking at you, East London) is a place I want to be.
Porto also has its hills which plummet dramatically into the Douro River. One one side of the river, which is criss-crossed by iron bridges designed by the likes of Gustav Eiffel, you have the UNESCO old town; another jumble of burnished buildings tumbling down the hill where children play in the streets, washing is strung between balconies and cats leap from bin to bin gnawing on scraps. This is a city that actually feels lived in and not just a showhome for tourists.
The other river bank is flanked by warehouses full of port and ye olde vessels ply the water transporting barrels of this sweet nectar. I highly recommend indulging in a port tasting session and then heading to one of the back streets and into a local restaurant for a delicious lunch before heading back up the hill to the main town.
At this point the shopping in Porto deserves an honorable mention. Stylish boutiques, gift shops and delis line the winding streets and, as I keep harping on about, everything is so cheap! And individual! My God, if you’re the type to stress about what to get that friend or family member for birthday or Christmas then I implore you to fly to Porto and do all your present shopping in one go. The cost of the flight will pay for itself a thousand times over in the bargains you secure and peace of mind you will achieve knowing that everyone will be delighted with their presents and there’s no fear of Auntie Liz getting three of the same pairs of earrings.
Another honourable mention goes to the people. The lovely, lovely people who are endlessly welcoming and helpful and don’t seem to have that weary we’re-dealing-with-another-tourist’s-asinine-questions air that sometimes pervades other visitor-saturated towns. So go. Enjoy it all before Portugal suddenly stops, realises that perhaps it should try and be a bit more woke and loses its wonderful charm.