This region includes the Douro Valley and part of the mountainous areas surrounding it and can be divided into two major zones. Firstly, there is the coastal area, which includes the Porto Metropolitan Area and all its satellite cities and the Minho, the greenest area in Portugal, where rainfall is high and natural sanctuaries such as the Peneda-Gerês National Park can be found in the mountains.
The other area, through which the River Douro runs, bristles with mountain ranges and is called Trás-os-Montes (literally, “behind or beyond the mountains”). It starts in the city of Vila Real and extends northwards and eastwards as far as Spain. It is a rugged area where nature is relatively wild, yet in the northern interior there is also something of the Upper Alentejo region, where the sparse trees, olive plantations and almond trees give it a Mediterranean feel.
One of the most famous wines in the world has, for centuries, been produced in the Douro valley. The vines are grown in terraces cut into the rocky schist and granite slopes where machinery cannot reach and they can only be tended by hand, as has been the practice for generations. The River Douro cuts deep into the landscape and it is not unusual to find high plains followed by ravines where the river below plunges onwards towards the sea. This region is also the birthplace of the Portuguese national identity and the area where the Condado Portucalense (the origin of the kingdom of Portugal) was established. It therefore features strongly in the national imagination and many legends and tales associated with its fountains, churches and ruins survive to this day. The name “Portugal”, of course, comes from Porto.
The Vouga and the Mondego, both medium-sized rivers with their source in the Serra da Estrela mountains, run through this region. The Vouga reaches the sea a little after the city of Aveiro, flowing through a large fertile plain with an important aquatic ecosystem. The city of Aveiro itself is a port. The Mondego flows through the university city of Coimbra to reach the sea a few kilometres later. This city nestles in the hillside overlooking the small and very beautiful Mondego valley.
The cities in the central region are medium-sized and are all located in very different landscapes. The region has traces of both the north and south and, in terms of climate and geography, is a transitional zone. The interior is very mountainous and its cities, such as Viseu, are wedged between mountains or, like Guarda (said to be the coldest city in Portugal), lie at the foot of the huge Serra da Estrela mountain range.
The central region is essentially very diverse. It is much greener than the south, but slightly less so than the north. The coastal strip has flat lands and gentle inclinations, whilst the interior is ridged with mountains. It is home to the Serra da Estrela mountain range, a harsh, rugged landscape rising to almost two thousand metres at its highest point. Winter sports are popular in the Serra da Estrela and it offers dazzling scenery throughout the year, with shepherds and their flocks still wandering along the old paths in search of pastures.
The central focus of this region is the Tagus, the largest river of the Iberian Peninsula. Lisbon is the European capital that lies at the mouth of the Tagus. The Setúbal Peninsula is situated at the mouth of the Tagus and Sado rivers. It comprises a wonderful natural park, Arrábida, with limestone hills and characteristic Mediterranean vegetation. There is also an uninterrupted passageway that travels up Caparica beach to the Cabo Espichel cliffs, where you come across a large expansion of pine trees.
Adjacent to the city of Lisbon, there are two major villages: Cascais and Sintra. The latter is a unique place, with its humid, misty climate and its breathtaking mansions peeking over the woods below. To the north of Lisbon is the “saloia” (rural) region, the Portuguese Estremadura, which is filled with cliffs, beaches, and pockets of interesting small towns. The local economy is made up of agricultural and the services sectors. The coastline around Lisbon provides the perfect conditions for watersports such as surfing and windsurfing. However, sometimes the sea can be excitingly unpredictable and dramatic. Lisbon airport is serviced by a well-developed road and rail network which links the airport to the rest of the country.
What not many people know, however, is that an average year’s rainfall in Lisbon is practically the same as in London. The only difference is that in London it rains all year long and in Lisbon it’s just once in a while. But when it does rain, it rains cats and dogs!
The word “Alentejo” literally means “beyond the Tejo” and refers to the land on the other side of the river (from the point of view of those travelling down from the north). It is the largest region in Portugal and the least densely populated. A predominantly agricultural district, it has huge areas of dry, arable land where cereals ripen in the sun. There are also some medium-sized cities, such as Portalegre, Beja and Évora. In general the area consists of vast, gently undulating and geologically old plains, relieved by the occasional house or ruin standing on top of a hill and sparse vegetation in the form of cork oak or olive plantations, in a landscape that resembles a savannah. The main produce from the Alentejo plantations is cork and olives.
It is usually very hot in summer. There are no major rivers, apart from the Sado, which has its source in the Algarve and reaches the sea at Setúbal in a very beautiful estuary, and the Guadiana, which flows along the Spanish border and across part of this region. The largest dam in mainland Europe has been built on a stretch of this river that runs through the heart of the Alentejo. In the east, the region borders on Spain, and there is almost no difference between its landscape and that of Spanish Estremadura. In the south, it extends as far as the Algarve, and in the north, to the Ribatejo. The west consists of a lengthy and much cooler coastline, with some of the most beautiful scenery and beaches in Europe, lined with cliffs and endless sands.
It is also the best region for observing the night skies. Countless constellations can be seen in the heavens and you do not have to wait long to catch sight of a meteor with its tail blazing through the sky. In Portugal, it is the custom to make a wish when you see a falling star.
The Algarve is a totally different region from the rest of mainland Portugal. It is a province with very individual and distinctive geographical, climatic and cultural characteristics. Shaped like a rectangle, it ends at the coast in the south and west, in a chain of mountains (Caldeirão, Monchique) in the north and in the east the River Guadiana forms a natural border with Spain. Its name derives from “Al-gharb al-Andalus” meaning “West Andalusia”, which is the name Arabs gave to the region. In 1249, King Afonso III conquered the Algarve from the Arabs after six centuries of Islamic occupation. The Arabs left many remains, as the Romans had done before them.
The Algarve has three sub-regions, corresponding to three biotypes. Firstly, there is the coast, with its magnificent beaches and, nowadays, a significant amount of tourism. However, this also includes some protected areas, such as Ria Formosa, an estuary of great zoological importance, or the coastal area of the Costa Vicentina (the coast stretching north from Sagres to Odeceixe) with its very specific geography, flora and animal life. The second sub-region is called the Barrocal which is still today an agricultural area that has many orchards. This area of flat land rises slowly until it becomes the third sub-region, the mountains, where the main activities focus on forestry and dams.
The Algarve, with its tepid, calm, almost Mediterranean, waters and extensive beaches is perfect for all types of beach activities. Here you can go to the beach from March to November, making it especially attractive for people used to colder climates. No wonder the Algarve is the Portuguese region where the largest number of foreign citizens including the British, German, Dutch and Scandinavians, choose to live.
The archipelago of Madeira is located in the North Atlantic, near the Canary Islands (Spain) off the coast of West Africa. It has a temperate subtropical climate with local microclimates that result in impressive diversity. While it is near to sea level, the number of optimal days in this set of islands is very high. The archipelago is made up of a large island, also called Madeira, and another, rather smaller one called Porto Santo, as well as various uninhabited islets.
The main island’s shape is approximately that of a bean pod with its convex side turned to the south, which is where the archipelago’s capital, Funchal, with a population of some 110,000, is to be found. Madeira has volcanic origins and mountain peaks of more than 1,800 metres – of which the two best known are Pico Ruivo and Pico do Areeiro – so creating a very dramatic landscape. The island was uninhabited until its colonisation by Portugal in 1424. Its name, which means “Wood” comes from the fact that it was completely covered by laurissilva or laurel forest when it was discovered. However, most of the island is today covered by species introduced in the last 500 years by Madeirans, such as sugar cane, fruit trees such as banana, pineapple and papaya, and vines from which Madeira’s famous fortified wine is made. There are various other fruit trees, such as chestnuts, pines, eucalyptus and other species.
The archipelago is nowadays a travel destination for people from around the world and is a little over one hour by plane from Lisbon.