There are some very attractive destinations to visit in Portugal, so let us begin by naming four of them. There is Estoril, a coastal resort near Lisbon. Estoril was a popular destination for royalty who had been forcibly retired by their subjects. If former kings and queens decided to spend their exile in Estoril, it must have had something going for it. Then there is Oporto in the north of Portugal, the city that port wine comes from. There are dozens of different companies in Oporto producing port wine, and even more opportunities to taste and compare their various blends. Then there is the university city of Coimbra, midway between Lisbon and Oporto. Founded in 1290, at about the same time as Oxford and Cambridge, the university dominates the area. It has filled the city with medieval monuments and writers and artists, not to mention tens of thousands of students. Finally there is Lisbon itself, the capital of Portugal, sitting on the banks of the Tagus just where that river flows into the Atlantic. One of the largest cities in Europe at the time, it was almost entirely destroyed by earthquake in 1755 and 35,000 people were killed. Although there was a record of prior earthquakes in the area, what seems to have hit Lisbon then was a tsunami. At the time of this destruction, huge waves were hitting the coast as far south as Morocco and as far north as England and Ireland. Yet Lisbon was the center of the devastation. It has since been beautifully rebuilt.
What catches the eye on visiting Lisbon is the Christo-Rei statue, facing Lisbon on the opposite bank of the river. It was built to thank God for the neutrality of Portugal during the Second World War and is based on a similar statue, which overlooks Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The statue is a figure of Christ, with outstretched arms, rising to a height of several hundred feet and appearing to embrace Lisbon.
With such glorious sights to see in Portugal, I hesitate to tell you where I always finished up. Certainly I did visit all the fine cities mentioned above but, on my trips to Portugal every August in the late 1960s, I would always head for the Algarve. The Algarve is the southern region of Portugal, the coast of which faces across to Morocco. The name derives from the Arabic words, Al Gharb, which means “the west”. The area was conquered by the Moors in 711 AD and remained under their occupation for the next 500 years.
The coast of the Algarve runs for about 100 miles in an east-west direction. Then it makes a right angled turn at Cape St Vincent and continues for 35 miles to the north. Cape St Vincent is famous for many reasons. It is the extreme south west tip of Europe. It was the burial place for many centuries of the Christian martyr, St Vincent. It has a tall lighthouse visible for many miles. It was the scene of two major naval victories by the British over the Spanish in 1780 and in 1797. In the first battle, the British fleet was on its way to end a siege of Gibraltar by the Spanish. In the second battle, Nelson participated.
Long before those battles however, Prince Henry the Navigator was based at Cape St Vincent. In 1419, he built himself a fine villa there and had Daddy (King John I of Portugal) appoint him Governor of the Algarve. Now I have always admired how explorers of that time, based in Portugal, undertook risky voyages to open up the sea routes of the world. There were Magellan and Columbus and Vasco da Gama and many others. I always believed that Prince Henry the Navigator was part of that brave tradition. In fact, he never went to sea. He never even left Portugal. He arranged for others to take the risks and the hardships, while he kept the comfort and the glory. Even though, he was a good man who led a long and happy life, am I alone in feeling a little disappointed by Henry?
The south facing coast of the Algarve begins in the east at the Spanish border which is marked by the River Guadiana. The Portuguese border town on the banks of that river is Vila Real de Santo Antonio, next to which was a little fishing village called Monte Gordo. I say “was”, because in forty years it has much changed. It is now a bustling resort, but it was Monte Gordo that I would visit every August. In that area, the land is flat and the beaches are wide and sandy. Thanks to the waters of the nearby River Guadiana, the sea is warm and it’s the sunniest place in Europe. Moving along the coast to the west, the beaches become far rockier and much more fashionable. One passes Olhao, Faro (with its international airport), Albufeira, Portimao, Lagos, Sagres and finally Cape St Vincent. Compared with these resorts, nobody knew Monte Gordo. Yet, all those years ago, it was bliss to sit on the beach there at twilight and watch the lantern-lit fishing boats bobbing their way home. It was bliss to be working one’s way through a plate of grilled sardines, washed down by the local vinho verde or by a Sagres beer. It is no surprise to me that this little fishing village has now become so popular.