Discovering Portugal

The modern and the ancient mix well in this small, captivating country.


September 19, 2004|By Alan Friedman and Karen Hosler

"Why come here?"

The waiter surprised us with the question, especially coming as it did just after he served us a tray of huge, lobster-like grilled prawns.

He must have been so accustomed to tourists blowing by the quiet seaside town of Faro for trendier spots on the Algarve beach scene that he assumed all but the locals were immune to its charms.

But as we look back over 10 days of one lovely Portuguese adventure after another, it's that evening in Faro we recall most fondly - dining with a handful of others on the deck of a small restaurant overlooking the neat little harbor. A full moon gleamed over the palm trees and the belfry of the town church, casting reflections of sailboat masts on the still waters below.

Earlier that day, we had driven three miles out of town to Praia de Faro, a long white-sand beach on the Atlantic Ocean rimmed with grasses, dunes and family-style cottages reminiscent of Ocean City in the 1960s. Cocktails at a beach bar to toast the sunset completed an afternoon that could be topped only by the seafood feast that awaited us at dinner.

Forget the fast crowds and "slide and splash" amusement parks that are overwhelming more upscale Algarve destinations. This simpler beauty and serenity were what we had come to Portugal for.

We were far from the first Americans to discover this small country - about three times the size of Maryland - wedged between Spain and the Atlantic Ocean in the southwestern corner of Europe. Yet there are still many roads less traveled, despite a landscape that varies from spectacular coastlines to mountain ranges, along with castles and walled cities dating back nearly two millenniums.

Although the Portuguese were among the pioneers of global exploration - once signing a treaty with Spain to divide the earth between them - the world has only recently begun to make its way back to this land that easily mixes the modern with the ancient. Palaces are preserved as hotels called pousadas, and outdoor cafes in the cobblestone towns rock with youthful beats.

Perhaps most appealing, says Frederic Kneubuhl, a Swiss native who decided a decade ago to make his home here, are the Portuguese people - "their kindness toward foreigners, their willingness to help, to assist others."

We planned our trip to cover enough of the country to give us a sampling of Portugal's rich variety and yet be manageable enough so the vacation wouldn't seem like a forced march. We spent two days in the capital, Lisbon, then rented a car and headed east, spending another two days in the walled city of Evora before heading south to the harbor towns and beaches of the Algarve.

We completed the circle by returning north, spending a night in the castle at Alcacer do Sal and two nights in Sintra, only 40 minutes away but worlds away from where we would drop off our car at the Lisbon airport.

None of our choices would disappoint.

A walker's city

We found Lisbon, with a population of 3.9 million, wonderfully convenient and best explored on foot. Narrow cobblestone streets, many closed to traffic and turned into outdoor cafes, meander through commercial districts where tourists mix with stevedores and sailors, bureaucrats and poets. Trams and funiculars provide picturesque help in climbing steep passageways up the hillsides.

A good place to start is the Castelo de Sao Jorge (St. George's Castle), reached by foot or tram, which overlooks the Alfama district and provides stunning vistas over the red-tiled roofs of the city, the Rio Tejo (Tagus River) and the hills beyond. The site was a fortress in Roman times, and we could peer out from castle walls built by Moors who ruled the land more than a thousand years ago.

The Bairro Alto (Upper City) dates back 500 years. Its colorful streets, lined with balconied houses, come alive at night. Small bars and budget restaurants serving local dishes such as duck, roast pork, tapas and cheeses offer an alternative to pricier eateries and dark nightclubs where traditionalists play and sing fado music, the Portuguese version of the blues.

Dinner there one night found us among the city's stylish thirtysomethings and two tables away from Christopher Lloyd, the drug-fogged Jim from the Taxi television series.

At the waterfront end of the Baixa district, the Rio Tejo flows past the Ribeiro fish market, where the sun rises over baskets of the catch of the day. We had a second Lisbon dinner nearby, at a small spot tucked in the former fish warehouse that used generations-old recipes for charcoal-grilled fare.

We invested a half-day of our Lisbon time to take a tram ride along the river out to Belem, once a separate city but now a Lisbon district, where the Rio Tejo meets the ocean. From here in the 15th century, Prince Henry the Navigator inspired generations of explorers, including Vasco da Gama and Bartholomeu Dias, onto the "Sea of Darkness" in search of the riches of the east.

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