Mairead Robinson shares the things she loves about this popular holiday destination
While Irish people have flocked to both mainland Spain and the Balearic Islands for decades now, the attraction to Portugal has largely been limited to golfing trips. While these are extremely popular, with large numbers of people returning year after year for the golf, many Irish people have even bought holiday homes on the Algarve in order to be able to easily visit several times a year.
While not a golfer myself, I can certainly see the many attractions of Portugal, both the coastal and the inland regions. So, where to start?
Well the climate is kind, and it is a lovely country to spend our Irish winter months in. It has loads of culture, great food, outstanding wines, easy travel and generally a very pleasant population who mostly speak English. And most importantly, Portugal represents excellent value for money. While situated on the Atlantic coast, rather than the Mediterranean, winter swimming is not the same as it is further south, off the Spanish and African coasts, but the mild day time temperatures, even in November, December and January, mean that you can certainly manage a dip most days. On my most recent visit in late November I saw several people surfing on the waves most mornings when the tide was lively. No need for wetsuits, as the water temperature was warm enough, certainly much warmer than it was at home.
Staying on the coast in and around Albuferia, there are plenty of walks to enjoy also. I took myself off most mornings for a long walk on either the cliffs or the beach itself, and it was just beautiful to see the big orange sun rise light up the sky. The whole area is kept incredibly clean even though it is a tourist hot spot, and while it is quiet in the winter months, it is much busier in the summer time. Of course there are so many other parts of Portugal to visit and enjoy, but Faro is so easy to get to if you fly from Cork Airport that hopping over a couple of times a year is tempting for me. I have taken the train up to Lisbon and stayed there for a week a couple of times. It is a great city to visit. You can get around easily on the trams, there are fabulous restaurants – especially if you like seafood – and it is incredibly affordable. In fact I would say that Lisbon is one of the best value cities in Europe. Now from Lisbon you can take a train up to Porto – and this is definitely so worth visiting. In fact Ryan Air now fly direct to Porto, so it is even easier from Dublin. All of the great port houses are here, and a visit to them is fascinating. Porto itself is architecturally beautiful and once again home to some fabulous restaurants. While most visitors to Portugal do stay in the Algarve, as I mentioned for the golf and the beaches, there really is so much more to explore and enjoy in this country. The train service is so easy and cheap and very reliable. So moving from the Algarve to Lisbon, and Lisbon to Porto is surprisingly easy. You can also get a train out to the lovely little towns of Cascais and Aveiro. Many residents enjoy living in towns like Cascais and commuting by train into the city for work each day. Once you visit these places for yourself, you will see how it is such a lovely place to live, with an easy commute to the capital for work, schools etc.
I am a big fan of Portuguese wines, and the quality just keeps getting better and better. Often overshadowed by its big sister, Spain, the two main wine producing regions that I have visited are the Duoro Valley in the north, considered one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world. But if you want to visit wineries and taste the great red wines that Portugal is producing, the best way to do this is the hire a car in Lisbon and head east towards the border with Spain, and discover the great Alentejo regions.
The region is all within a two hour drive from Lisbon airport and as you head east towards Spain, you pass through a variety of agricultural enterprises including cereals, olives, cork oaks, the famous black pig and wine. The landscape is varied and the wild life is the richest in Portugal. With over 3,000 hours of sunshine per year, a figure well above the national average, the wines from here are full-bodied and fruit-driven and with luxurious and traditional accommodation offered at many of the wineries – a visit to Alentejo should be on every wine lovers’ bucket list. However of the thousands of Irish people who visit Portugal each year, the vast majority – 80 per cent – will head to the Algarve. While there however, the bulk of Portuguese wines that they will enjoy in the local restaurants will be from the Alentejo region which altogether takes up some 22,000 hectares of planted vineyards. Virtually one out of every two bottles of wine that is now consumed in the whole of Portugal is produced in the Alentejo. But you would be wrong to think that this is some ‘new’ wine producing region as vines were planted here as far back at the 9th century BC. The area was also under the influence of the Greeks and later the Romans. Interestingly there are traces of ancient civilisation to be found today in the maturing of wines using large traditional casks.
You can discover so much of Portugal’s history and culture by venturing out of the Algarve region and exploring the rest of the country. As I said, the trains are super efficient and affordable, and I had no problem at all travelling on my own. I took a train up to the Duoro Valley on another occasion, and once again it was a fascinating experience to discover parts of Portugal that are relatively unknown to many visitors to this country. The Duoro is the same river as the Duero in Spain – Ribero del Duero wine region being well known – and so the Portugese wines from this region are also of excellent quality.
As well as using the public train service together with trams and busses, hiring a car and taking off from the airport is always a great adventure and a voyage of discovery that too few people embark on. So the next time you fly over, from Dublin or Cork, to Faro, Lisbon or Porto, make sure that you allow yourself the thrill of discovering some hidden gems. An exciting road trip is a wonderful way to discover Portugal.