If I think about the one word that I found myself saying over and over again while in Portugal, that word was ‘magical’. (Usually with an exclamation mark or two.)
Every time I turned a corner, visited a different city, drove to a new region, or even walked into a train station in Portugal, there seemed to be something that deserved to be described as ‘magical’. But to whet your appetite, here is a small sampling of the embarrassment of riches this country has to offer and at least 5 reasons to visit Portugal.
Fantasy Beaches in the Algarve
The Algarve may be the one region that most people think of when Portugal comes to mind, because as the playground for both locals and foreigners, this Mediterranean coastline boasts an incredible beauty that needs to be seen to be believed. With turquoise waters lapping secluded golden sand beaches, taking a hike here will test your camera memory card’s capacity.
But it was a particular beach cave that I had seen in photos that drew me to Benagil, a tiny community near Lagoa. Reached only by boat, Benagil cave needs few words to describe it’s beauty and you can probably see why I organized our visit to include this piece of paradise. (You can read more about Benagil sea cave here.)
Purple Explosions in Alentejo
The Alentejo is to Portugal what the prairies are to Canada: both the breadbasket and rural heart of the country. In fact, everyone we met in Portugal spoke longingly about the bucolic lifestyle of this, the largest but least populated region in the country. Most of the year this is a dry, hot place characterized by rolling fields of hay-coloured grain crops, studded with cork trees that provide one of the important crops for which this province is known. But we had the good luck to visit the Alentejo in May, and a particularly rainy May at that, and were rewarded with an explosion of wildflowers that turned these normally beige fields into a canvas spattered with purple and gold!
Fleeting and beautiful, these fields would soon look entirely different, but for us, they were decked out in these regal colours for as far as the eye could see.
Palaces Fit for Royalty
Whimsical, sumptuous, exotic, impressive…these words only begin to describe the palaces and castles we found not just in a couple of towns in Portugal, but everywhere we went. Whether they are ruins left by the Romans, fortifications built by the Moors, private residences built by inspired aristocrats, or summer getaways for the ruling family, Portugal’s palaces are something you need to see to believe. And the absolute best part is that you can actually stay in some of them – and not for a King’s ransom, either.
For every child who has dreamed about being a prince or princess, Portugal has a palace to make even a grownup’s wishes come true. If you don’t believe me, check out Bussaco Palace!
Towns That Defy Imagination
You see photos of some places and think, no way, that was photoshopped. Or you get there and are disappointed that it doesn’t live up to your expectations. Not so with Monsanto, a tiny town that is built on the top of a hill, between, around, and literally under, giant boulders.
The best part of this town is that despite its bizarre and unique appearance, it is not a freak-show destination filled only with tourists and entrepreneurs taking advantage of hordes of gawkers. Genuine, welcoming and peaceful, like the people who live here, Monsanto is off the radar of most visitors to Portugal. And I sincerely hope it stays that way (in fact, I’m almost hesitant to share it here!)
Pagan FestivalsIt may just be the world’s largest and longest toga party, but Braga’s Braga Romana festival does more than just celebrate its past as a former Roman capital of the province known as Gallaecia. Braga Romana is a 4-day long excuse for the whole town to party and indulge in all things pagan, from late-night theatre performances in the shadow of the historic centre’s Sé cathedral, to Bacchanalian feasts with flavoured wine and roasted pig.
Stroll the cobbled streets in costume, refill your wine goblet at one of the temporary Tavernas (taking the party to the streets is encouraged during Braga Romana), or try your hand at archery competitions. Throw in a few buskers, falcons, gladiators and fire, and you’ve got all the makings of a magical festival.
Take a small but diverse country. Add that special something that comes with stunning geography, rich history and a multi-cultural past, and what you get is an expression I must’ve said a dozen times during our visit, and something I’ve come to use as my summary of our visit: “Portugal is Magical” (which I think should definitely be its next tourism campaign.)