Portugal’s most unusual attractions – five quirky favourites
Which country is home to volcanoes, to a man-made lake stretching for 250km, to an ancient Moorish capital known as Xelb, to chapels made of bones, to a bookshop that inspired a best-seller… Admittedly, I’ve given away the answer in the title, but would you have guessed otherwise?
Portugal is one of my favourite countries, somewhere I return to again and again, and which I realised has played a big part in several of my most memorable trips. My babymoon in the Azores, that final overseas trip before my daughter came along to introduce me to family travel. Our first European holiday as a family of three, where viruses and terrible teething tested my new-found family travel confidence – but which proved we could still have some wonderful moments.
Lisbon is also one of my favourite cities, including beautiful Belem (and *those* custard tarts), as well as the fairytale Pena Palace at nearby Sintra, pretty Cascais (which I’ve only ever seen in sunshine) and the gloriously dramatic coastline with its rocks and crashing waves.
Soon, we’ll be heading to Porto, a city that’s been on my wishlist for a while – and not just for the port… though that’s definitely part of it. Portuguese white port is another happy discovery along my travels.
Famous for its colourfully eye-catching architecture and the enchanting Livraria Lello which is as magical as the world conjured up by frequent visitor JK Rowling in her Harry Potter stories, it will be my first visit to the north of the country.
And as we plan our family city break, it’s started me thinking about some of my favourite Portuguese memories – including some of Portugal’s most unusual attractions.
Portugal’s most unusual… lake: The Grande Lago
Stretching for around 250km, the man-made lake in the Alentejo region was created as a reservoir to provide the arid sun-baked interior with water. But this practical plan resulted in a stunning place to explore the region, with boats for hire from Amieira Marina, around an hour from Evora – home to one of those fantastically macabre bone chapels.
Cruising leisurely along the still water, the glistening blue hides its own secrets – the submerged village of Luz, ancient Roman ruins and prehistoric rock art lie beneath since the valley was flooded. And on the hillsides, fortified villages dating back over a thousand years where you can wander the ramparts and look out onto the countryside.
Then as night falls, more stars than I’ve seen anywhere else in Europe, far from light pollution.
Tempted? There’s more about my trip in the piece I wrote for The Independent.
Portugal’s most unusual… castles: the palaces of Sintra
A splash of yellow, bright against the blue sky. Portuguese azulejos, traditional tiles glinting in the sun. The quirky ‘pepperpot’ towers, their minimalist white hiding ornate ceilings and decorated rooms inside. The fairytale wonderland to be found in the gardens, carvings and tunnels adding to the otherworldly atmosphere.
Around 40 minutes from Lisbon, Sintra is a world away from the capital – the summer retreat of the royal family, the palaces scattered on the hillsides are all different, all unlike most European fortresses and palaces, and all unmissable.
Although despite several trips, I always run out of time to see everything I plan to.
Portugal’s most unusual… scenery: the volcanic Azores
The most westerly point of Europe, scattered in the Atlantic, lie the islands of the Azores. As much part of Portugal as Lisbon, they dot the ocean a thousand miles from the capital. The traditional white churches are the same, but here the villages are set among tea plantations and calderas, volcanic lakes shining blue and green in the sun.
The underground heat warms thermal pools that feel like floating in the hottest of baths; elsewhere you can cook your lunch in special pots buried for hours, until the traditional ‘cozido’ is ready to be eaten.
And in the capital Ponta Delgada, brightly coloured buildings line the harbour and sleepy streets but whales swim through the waves nearby and pineapples grow in special glasshouses, piled high in the markets or transformed to a deliciously sticky liqueur.
Portugal’s most unusual… place to stay: Lisbon’s Alfama
Lovely Lisbon could easily fill its own post with things to do, places to see, unusual spots, unexpected finds: after all, this city is home to lifts and funiculars just to get around, to the fabulously intricate architecture of Belem, to soaring bridges and aqueducts, to a pink street that’s one of the hottest places to go out.
And the chance to stay in a kitchen, be woken by peacocks and roam a castle after dark. In Lisbon’s historic Alfama district, washing is strung between the narrow buildings and the cobbles are definitely not designed for high heels. There, by happy chance, I checked in to Solar do Castelo* on my first visit to the city. The original castle kitchens, they’re now outside the walls but the strutting peacocks act as a unique alarm clock – even if I couldn’t work out what the sound was until I visited the Castelo de Sao Jorge next door.
Home to a camera obscura, the castle is also the setting for the Casa de Leao restaurant. Behind the locked gates, you’re allowed in with a reservation – and get the opportunity to walk through the silence castle after the crowds of visitors have gone home. Then back to the complimentary port at the hotel…
Portugal’s most unusual… history: the Algarve
Looming above the town, the solid red battlements look as imposingly fearsome as they must have done to invaders centuries ago. Away from the beach resorts of the Algarve lies a spot almost frozen in time, where the Moors and a Portuguese king fought for control of the castle at Silves.
The mighty Moorish capital of Xelb was a prize for either side – until the river below began to silt up, ending trade and leaving this once strategic port abandoned. With its twisting cobbled streets, a cathedral built in the shadow of the castle, and a feeling that you might just have stepped back in time to the Middle Ages, it’s a world away from the endless golden sand which tempts most visitors to Portugal’s south.
Drive a short way to nearby Guia and there’s another unexpected claim to fame – the restaurant where piri piri chicken was invented. Two unexpected achievements that prove there’s always more to find in this wonderful country.
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