Forget the Algarve and instead discover the charm and natural beauty of central and northern Portugal with this Lisbon-to-Porto itinerary
Portugal is a hot destination right now – and we don’t just mean the weather.
Having been hit hard by the recession, the country’s tourism industry appears to be recovering; 2013 saw a record number of visitors – 14 million to be exact – flock to the southern European country. Unsurprisingly the Algarve, with its miles of beautiful coastline, picture-perfect towns and sunny climate remains a favourite amongst holidaymakers – – a report released last year showed that, of all of the country’s visitors, 20% passed through Faro airport.
Away from the Algarve, capital city Lisbon continues to draw the crowds, as increasingly does the northern city of Porto, which topped Lonely Planet’s list of top 10 European travel destinations in 2013. And rightly so; both offer architecture, culture, top food and nightlife. Yet the space between the two cities, the Centro and Norte regions, remains largely unexplored. With this in mind, we set out on a one-week road trip to discover the area’s stunning natural beauty, authentic local experiences and the traveller’s Holy Grail – a path that feels largely untrodden by other tourists.
After touching down in Lisbon, it’s well worth spending a night or two in Portugal’s vibrant capital city. Take in the beautiful historic architecture of the Jerónimos Monastery and Belem Tower (both World Heritage Sites) and marvel at the magnificence of the world’s most expensive chapel at Igreja de São Roque by day, then enjoy Lisbon’s vibrant nightlife. For a first-night-on-holiday treat head to A Travessa, a beautiful little restaurant tucked away inside a 17th century monastery – a selection of starter dishes features a mouth-watering serving of blackened pork, whilst the scallops with spinach risotto come highly recommended. From there, it’s a pleasant 15 minute walk to Barrio Alto and the heart of Lisbon’s nightlife scene where you can party until dawn should you wish.
After you’ve recovered from the night before, it’s time to pack up the car and head north to the heart of the Centro region. Just a three-hour drive away lies Yurt Holiday Portugal, a secluded site in the Coimbra district. The journey, despite consisting largely of motorway, is surprisingly pleasant, passing fields of sunflowers and orange trees, but be warned: you’ll need to keep cash or a card handy as all of Portugal’s motorways operate a toll system. A sat nav comes in useful too, as the final thirty minutes of the drive take you up hills and down windy roads that feel designed to get tourists lost.
Once you reach Yurt Holiday Portugal, it’s certainly worth the effort. Set in the shadows of the surrounding hills and next to a babbling brook, the site features just two yurts, each squirreled away in its own private corner. Chestnut Tree Yurt is a cosy hideaway for two that demands laziness from its guests thanks to a chaise lounge and a rocking chair inside, and a pair of hammocks under the aforementioned chestnut tree outside. On the other side of the site, Apple Tree Yurt offers more space, making it perfect for families or larger groups.
Owners Derrick and Hannah meet new guests with a warm welcome and Baloo the dog at their side. Having swapped their life in Brixton, London for the Portuguese farm house they now call home, the husband and wife team welcomed their first guests back in 2007 and have been making people feel instantly at home ever since. They’re on-hand to help with pretty much anything, from usual host duties such as advising on local activities and hand-delivering a home-made picnic to your yurt to above-and-beyond services; need some aloe vera for a spot of sunburn, or a spare layer when the temperature dips come sunset? Just ask and they will happily provide.
With such a beautiful location and helpful hosts, it would be tempting to spend all your time at Yurt Holiday Portugal curled up in a hammock with a book and a pitcher of Derrick’s excellent capiririnha, but there’s so much to do in the area’s great outdoors that the call of nature will likely prove too tempting. Each yurt comes equipped with a guide to the local area, including a rough yet totally charming hand-sketched map detailing local walking trails in the surrounding hills that take you past pine trees, heather and wild flowers dancing with butterflies. The final stretch of the three-hour route winds its way down from the hilltop to the small village of Pracerias via a barely distinguishable goat track – yet another opportunity to get lost, but it feels like you’re properly off the beaten track and, best of all, you won’t meet another soul.
Thirty minutes’ drive from the yurts on the banks of the Ceira River lie the cobbled streets of Gois, a town popular with Portuguese holidaymakers and the perfect place to spend a fun-filled day. Head to the riverside bar and restaurant where a beer and a bitoque (a small steak served with a fried egg and chips) will set you back €10, and try to bag one of the in-river tables to dangle your feet in the water as you eat. Then work off your lunch with a spot of kayaking – boats are for hire right next to the restaurant for €5 an hour. Ask the staff to carry your kayak over the dam so you can paddle up river – you’ll need to haul the boat over another dam a little further on yourself, but you’ll be rewarded with a stretch of water that’s surrounded by lush flora and full of idyllic swimming spots. Be sure to stop on the way back at the secluded riverside bar for a well-earned drink too.
After a busy day of walking, kayaking and swimming, there’s no better way to kick back than with a home-cooked meal on Hannah and Derrick’s terrace. Derrick wears the chef’s hat, and serves up fantastic three-course meals made where possible with organic, locally-sourced ingredients (€20 per person, order in advance) – when we visited, blackened aubergine dip with cornbread, Moroccan chicken with apricots, and lemon and poppy seed cake were all on the menu. If both yurts are occupied, guests all eat together, making for interesting conversations and new friendships, helped on by jugs of locally-made red wine.
With all this and more to do in the local area – there are secluded wild swimming spots further up the Ceira, and the charming university town of Coimbra is a short drive away – it would be very easy to spend a happy week enjoying Hannah and Derrick’s hospitality, but the road beckons – next stop, Senses Camping. Located another two hours’ drive north on the eastern edge of the Serra da Estrela national park, it’s yet another beautifully isolated spot – so much so that, unless you’re driving a 4×4, you’ll need to take the dirt path road into the site very slowly. Set up just two years ago in 2012, Senses is ran by yet another husband and wife team, Dutch sculptor Michel and British former DJ Natasha. They may not have been in business long, but they’ve certainly achieved a lot in that short time. Sense sits on the banks of the Mondego river – handy for a mid-afternoon dip to beat the heat – and features two safari-style tents suitable for groups of up to five, several basic but comfortable bell tents, plus a limited number of sites for guests who prefer to pitch their own tent, meaning there’s an affordable option for everyone.
There’s much more to do on-site at Senses too. Helped by their super-friendly team, Michel and Natasha offer archery lessons, sculpting workshops (great if you’ve ever harboured a desire to wield a chainsaw!), guided walks and even night runs that take you over the local fields and often finish with a wade through the river. And if you prefer pampering to pounding the ground, manicures, pedicures, facials and massages can all be arranged via the team with a local beautician who comes direct to your tent. If you’re looking for ultimate relaxation, then an open-air massage as the sun sets is hard to top. Alternatively, simply while away your time by the site’s small pool with a book from the small communal library.
Eating and drinking is a laid-back affair at Senses. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all available if requested in advance – evening meals consist of three set courses, whilst breakfast and lunch are rustled up on the basis of what they’ve got in the kitchen on the day. Thirsty? Simply grab a member of staff and they’ll fetch you something from the bar, adding the cost to your tab as they go.
The food is good at Senses, but if you fancy trying a local dining experience you’ll need a decent pair of shoes – the nearest restaurant, Cortelha da Burro, is a 45 minute walk away. It’s an authentic Portuguese experience, with locals making the journey from the surrounding villages to enjoy traditional dishes such as bachalau (salted cod) and beef steak served with various sauces – the bifa da cortelha comes with shrimp in a rich seafood sauce, and is delicious. As in most Portuguese restaurants, couvert is served as soon as you sit down, but rather than the usual mix of pate, cheese and olives, Cortelha da Burra serve up excellent mini plates including cod fishcakes and seafood empanadas. What’s more, the food – and the excellent local wine – is cheap; a two-course meal for two with drinks costs around €35.
It’s worth making the most of your car during your time at Senses and exploring the local area. A drive over the Serra da Estrela national park to Linhares offers stunning hilltop views, whilst the sleepy little town itself won’t fail to charm you with it’s tiny, windy streets and castle ruins. There’s also a top-rate restaurant in Cova da Loba (closed Wednesday and Thursday), the perfect place to indulge in a slap-up lunch. Alternatively, if holiday money is tight, head slightly further to Celorico da Beira where there’s another castle to explore, little stores selling local cheese, meat and jam, and a brilliant budget restaurant, Muralhas de Celorico, where the lunchtime menu do dia – including soup and bread, a fish or meat main course, dessert, water and wine – will set you back just €7 per person.
Leaving Senses and heading north once more brings you to the Douro Valley, one of Portugal’s leading wine regions. As one of the country’s fastest developing tourist destinations there are a wealth of great places to stay right along the river, but if after a string of nights in nature you want to treat yourself to a night of luxury or two, there’s no better place to check in than Aquapura. Located two hours’ drive from Senses, the spa hotel occupies an imposing 19th century family house set in a secluded corner of the valley with stunning views of the surrounding terraced hillsides and the Douro River itself.
Recently acquired by the Six Senses group, at the time of writing the hotel’s 41 double rooms and nine spa suites were due to undergo refurbishment that will see their plush but claustrophobically dark interior transformed into something altogether more modern and relaxing, and it will no doubt be an improvement. But in all honesty, it would be a waste to visit this impressive site and stay in one’s room. Outside there’s a glorious swimming pool to be enjoyed; relax on one of the padded double poolside beds, marvel at the glorious valley views as you take a dip, or simply sip on a cocktail from the pool bar whilst you while the day away. Further relaxation awaits in the hotel’s spa, available for use by all guests. Featuring 10 treatment rooms, a heated indoor pool and three experience areas including a steam salt bath, panoramic sauna and heated water beds (we challenge you not to fall asleep on one), the extensive facilities are the perfect antidote to any aching muscles caused by the holiday’s earlier activities.
Given that the region was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status for its long history of wine (and, in particular, port) production, no visit to the Douro would be complete without a spot of tasting. The concierge can arrange tours to localquintas on your behalf, but if you’re short on time then swing by the hotel’s wine room at 7pm where their on-site sommelier doles out local samples, along with expert advice on pairings and recommendations if you’re looking to purchase. And after discovering what your palate enjoys, put your new-found knowledge to good use by selecting a wine to compliment the delicious dinner menu at the hotel restaurant, where many of the ingredients are grown in the hotel’s own gardens. The succulent monkfish skewers are cooked to perfection, and come recommended.
All good things must come to an end, but try squeezing in one last stop at Porto if possible. It’s grittier than Lisbon, with much of the beautiful historic architecture left to crumble, but there’s a definite buzz about Portugal’s second biggest city. As its name suggests, there’s more port tasting to be found – major names including Taylor’s and Graham’s have their cellars just across the river at Vila Nova de Gaia, whilst there are plenty of smaller cellars in the city itself – as well as a growing foodie scene, cultural fixes in the form of the Museu de Arte Contemporânea andCasa da Música (worth a visit for the Rem Koolhaas architecture alone) and plenty of photo opportunities – head to Cais de Gaia for a stunning view of the city’s skyline.
At the end of such a busy trip, it’s cheering to discover that the flight time from Porto’s Francisco Sa Carneiro airport to London is just two hours and twenty minutes, just another factor that will no doubt make you want to return to Portugal – along with those 14 million other visitors – very soon.
Stays at Yurt Holiday Portugal start from £65 per night. Bookings are for a 2 night minimum except for July & August, in which it is minimum 4 nights. For more information and to book, visit canopyandstars.co.uk. Prices at Senses range from €3 per person to pitch your own tent, €35 per night for a bell tent and €65 for a safari tent. Aquapura is closed from November 2014 to February 2015, when it will reopen as Six Senses Douro Valley. For more information visit sixsenses.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.