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DISCOVER PORTUGAL OF THE NORTH

Ovelooking River Mondegofrom the Upper Town of CoimbraHoliday in Portugal? Most people instantly think Algarve. But, as Reg Butler discovered, the northern coastline between Oporto and Lisbon is much closer to England.

On a coach tour we had great sightseeing at Lisbon itself, at several towns which I had not previously heard of, three nights at Estoril and finally Oporto. It made a real tour of discovery.

Two nights were spent at Figuera da Foz - a maritime resort which merges with family-style Buarcos to share an enormous long and wide sandy beach.

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Several coach  companies operate variations of this tour. Ask your travel agent for brochures. 

What else to eat and drink: caldo verde - shredded cabbage soup with dark maize bread; variations on dried cod; small cheeses served as appetisers; pork dishes rather than tough beef; vinho verde ('green' wine which is red or white).

More information: Portuguese Tourist Office,  11 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PP.  
Contact: tourism.london@portugalglobal.pt

Various brochures can be downloaded from the web site.

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If you like a bit of history with your tourism, Wellington landed in 1808 at Figuera to launch Britain into the Peninsula Wars. That's where Wellington first made his name as a successful general, victorious over Napoleon's army. 

A former royal palace forms the historic centre of Coimbra University
About 25 miles inland is Coimbra, settled and fortified by the Romans, captured by the Moors and re-conquered by the Christians in 1064. Portugal's top university was founded here in 1290, about the same time as Oxford and Cambridge. Coimbra was also Portugal's first capital.

All the old-time architecture and traditions survive in the Upper Town, with a gorgeous view of the River Mondego from the hilltop university patio. 

Our Portuguese tour manager, who had studied at Coimbra, told us how student life today is still traditional in style. That includes wearing dark capes or gowns, and serenading the girls in a classic Coimbra version of fado - the Portuguese ballads of nostalgia and wistful love.

As we headed south next day, our guide announced a visit to Obidos, which I couldn't find on the little maps you get in pocket guidebooks. 

But Obidos was a stunning highlight - a castle and walled city perched on a steep hillside, and captured from the Arab occupiers in 1148. This beautiful town is perfectly preserved in its medieval layout. 

Along the main street of ObidosTourist cameras go click-click-click along the narrow cobbled streets with flowers cascading down gleaming-white houses and craft shops - many decorated with blue tiles. Every few steps there's another picture worth taking. 

The main street leads up to the hilltop castle and former royal palace, now converted into a pousada - a state-owned luxury hotel. Obidos is "not to be missed" even if you've never heard of it before. We had a 90-minute stop, but it was worth half a day.
A beachside emigre castle at Estoril

Our target for the Lisbon area was Estoril, with time to explore the neighbouring seaside resort of Cascais, the former royal palace at Sintra and the capital itself.

Estoril was the preferred social centre for Europe's 19th- and 20th-century refugee royals and aristocrats. There they could while away their exiled years in the Casino and among their social equals. 

Estoril today is running short of aristocrats. Or maybe the royal exiles have run out of money to rule the roost. So mid-price tourism fills the economic gap, and life is very pleasant for residents in this hilly garden city within easy commuting distance of central Lisbon. It's only a 30-minute electric train ride, costing just over a pound.

Today the dress rules at the Casino have been relaxed, and you're no longer barred for not wearing a tie and jacket. Stakes can be high in the gaming rooms, but there are plenty of one-arm bandits for losing your euros. 

Cascais - within walking distance of Estoril along the shoreline - has dozens of restaurants at modest prices. Everywhere, fish is far better than the meat.

A fish soup and a platter of grilled sardines makes a meal to remember. In the main summertime sardine season, the average helping is half a dozen, each six inches long, which have no resemblance to the tiddlers squashed into a sardine can. The flavour is fantastic.

On our return journey we stopped two nights at Oporto, the country's second city, which has given its name both to Portugal and to port wine. 

Here the British connection is very strong, with a grateful statue of a lion (Wellington) subduing an eagle (Napoleon). But it's the wine lodges which are the big attraction, mostly founded several centuries ago by English merchants. 

World-famous names like Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Ferreira and Sandeman dominate the left bank of the River Douro. Each wine-house parks a traditional rabelos boat along the quayside to advertise their brand. These boats formerly brought barrels of wine down from the lush vineyards of the Douro valley. 

Everyone's welcome to visit the cellars, sample the port wines from tawny to dry, and load their suitcases with bottles to take home. It all blurs your eyes to the fact that the older sections of Oporto are very run-down and grubby. 

Decrepit buildings are covered by preservation orders, and are awaiting national and European funds for restoration to their former glory. 
On a beach at Cascais
Like all good things, it's always nice to leave something else for "next time". My personal listing is to visit the Costa Verde - the Green Coast - north of Oporto. And to explore the Douro Valley, possibly based at Sabrosa - birthplace of Magellan who first sailed round the world in 1519 to 1522. There's always something about Portugal which makes you want to explore and discover more. Or maybe just to relax on a beach?


"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

A Concise History of Portugal (Cambridge Concise Histories)  by David Birmingham - Well worth reading before you travel: a concise work which gives a deeper understanding of the historical background of the cities of northern Portugal. 

Lonely Planet Portugal - Complete with 78 maps, this volume follows the standard pattern of the Lonely Planet series with good coverage of the country's sightseeing, heritage, cuisine and language.

Port and the Douro (Classic Wine Library)  by Richard Mayson - A superb book for the dedicated wine-lover who wants to know more about the Douro Valley, Oporto and the range of port wine styles.

Portugal (Rough Guide Travel Guides S.) - The ultimate guide to one of Europe's most interesting countries; with full-colour illustrations to the introduction.


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