Portugal Experience

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Manueline Architecture

Named after King Manuel (1495–1521), this exuberant style mirrored the ostentation of explorers like Vasco da Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral, who were grabbing at new lands overseas hand-over-fist. Unsurprisingly, the style incorporated maritime elements and discoveries brought from these voyages, and subsequently spread throughout the Portuguese Empire, to the islands of the Azores, Madeira, enclaves in North Africa, and even to Goa in India. Tragically, much of the original Manueline architecture in Portugal was lost in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and subsequent tsunami. In Lisbon, King Manuel's magnificent Royal Palace was destroyed, along with the All-Saints Hospital and several churches. The city, however, still has some outstanding examples left.

Batalha. The flamboyantly designed Santa Maria da Vitória bristles with flying buttresses and balustrades. The interior is awesome as well with its vast star-vaulted chapel and the Royal Clausters with its tangle of carved Manueline symbols.

Lisbon. Chief among the many fabulous Manueline buildings in Lisbon is the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, designed by Diogo Boitac and featuring filigree and elaborately carved stonework. Nearby, the multi-turreted Torre de Belém is another Manueline extravaganza.

Tomar. The Convento do Cristo here is the most extraordinary Manueline monument in Portugal; it's a riot of twisted and ornate carving with twisted knotted ropes of stone and strands of coral.

Hilltop Villages

The hilltop villages of Portugal are especially beguiling, as they are often made of stone sculpted out of the rock face. Most of them date to Roman times, when they were garrison towns, but they later came in handy during the 17th-century War of Restoration against the Castilians. If you can manage an overnight stay, dusk is the best time of all to visit these castles. Visitors have left and the narrow streets take on a misty otherworldly air.

Marvão. A small population of 1,000 inhabit this dramatic hilltop village in the Alto Alentejo, which is surrounded by the original 17th-century city walls. A castle founded by the Moors in AD 715 still reigns supreme.

Monsaraz. Another jewel in the Alentejo tiara, this tiny village is surrounded by fascinating Neolithic megaliths. Narrow lanes, lopsided cottages, and a handsome castle are here, together with stunning views of the surrounding olive groves which are planted in straight lines along the ancient Roman roads.

Óbidos. Whitewashed houses bordering brilliantly colored bougainvillea make up this pretty medieval village, reputedly a wedding gift from Dom Dinis to his wife (beats a mere ring!). Óbidos has plenty of wining and dining choices and several places to stay.

Azulejos

Somehow, no matter how many catalogs you peruse and stores you tramp through, those tiles you end up decorating your bathroom or kitchen with at home just look so plain compared to Portugal's all-encompassing decorative azulejos. These brightly colored tiles are everywhere: houses, shops, monuments, and murals that brighten public spaces all over the country. Azulejos probably came to Portugal from Seville in the 15th century, made by Muslim craftsmen. They at first bore geometric designs, but have since gone through many indigenous stylistic revolutions.

Lisbon. The Museu Nacional do Azulejo traces the development of tile making from its Moorish roots. Don't miss the Cervejaria da Trindade, a vaulted beer hall on Rua Nova da Trindade that has stunning azulejos with figurative designs typical of the late 19th century, or the metro stations with their contemplative azulejo designs, including Colégio Militar and Camp Pequeno.

Porto. This is a fabulous city for azulejos, starting at the São Bento train station with its magnificent mural of battle scenes. Churches are literally smothered by tiles here, including the Igreja do Carmo and the Capela das Almas.

Sintra. One of the best places to see the early-16th-century geometric tiles is Sintra's magnificent Palácio Nacional da Pena. Throughout the historic property you'll find beautiful palaces and mansions adorned with azulejos.

Family Pursuits

The Portuguese adore children and welcome them everywhere, including at bars and restaurants where families drink and dine together. If your young ones grow tired of such grown-up pursuits, Portugal also has a healthy dose of sights and activities geared to children of all ages. This is a culture that revolves around family life throughout the day and well into the evening; bedtime is late here, with many children still up at midnight during the summer months.

Algarve. A major holiday destination, the Algarve offers plenty of choice, including water parks, zoos, boat trips, and horse riding. There are also miniature trains that chug around the various resorts and, of course, the cheapest activities of all: making sand castles and splashing in the sea.

Churches and Castles. Children will love the fairy-tale quality of Portugal's magnificent churches and castles. Several stand out, including the Knights Templar Convento de Cristo, in Tomar, where kiddies can light a candle and wonder at its otherworldly Da Vinci Code feel. The castles at Sintra and Elvas are other winners.

Dinosaurs. For a real Jurassic Park experience check out the fascinating Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros, near Fátima, where you can follow in the footsteps of the dinosaurs. There are special children's tours available, otherwise just follow the signs.

Beaches

The best-known area for beach holidays is, of course, the Algarve, with its relatively sheltered waters and oodles of tourist facilities. But for unspoiled coastal beauty or the right conditions for water sports, look elsewhere. Even the country’s two largest cities have sandy beaches within easy reach, so you can balance sightseeing with sunbathing. If you’re going to brave the relatively chilly waters, though, pay heed to the color of the flag flying on the beach: if it’s red, stay close to shore.

The Alentejo Coast. Some of Portugal’s most stunning beaches are in its undeveloped southwest, protected from overbuilding by a long stretch of coastal national parkland. Towering cliffs give way to empty pristine coves. Until recently, facilities were limited to a couple of local cafés and a pensão, but a recent ecotourism project—a 345-km (215-mile) coastal hiking trail—is drawing environmentally friendly tourists. This area and the western Algarve to the south also draw water-sports enthusiasts, thanks to strong wind and waves.

Around Porto. South of Porto, the dunes around Espinho are topped by wooden decking that is great for lung-filling walks; to the city’s north, Póvoa de Varzim is the gateway to the Costa Verde, named for the deep-green pine forests that line the coast.

Around Lisbon. The seemingly endless strands of the Caparica coast draw many of the capital's residents on warm weekends. Each stretch has its own restaurant or bar, with its specific atmosphere and clientele; in summer some later turn into nightclubs, rocking until dawn. Farther south, in the lee of the Serra da Arrábida, sandy beaches are lapped by warmer waters; across the Sado River is Troía's sweep of sands. And there's Guincho, a stunning cliff-side beach less than an hour from the capital on public transport, which has often hosted the World Surf Championships.

Estremadura. Perhaps the most varied portion of Portugal’s long western coast is in this region, around the fishing ports–cum-resorts of Peniche and Nazaré. The latter was made famous in 2013 when American surfer Garrett McNamara broke the world record for the surfing the biggest wave in the world—a 100-foot monster. Tourists who prefer a less death-defying experience can find excellent and affordable seafood just a few steps away from the beach.

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