THE ALGARVE/SOUTHERN PORTUGAL:
Southern Portugal‘s sunshine coast wouldn’t be an immediate choice for an agriturismo farmhouse holiday or rural retreat being as it is, an immensely popular beach holiday area. It does indeed attract huge numbers of foreign, and local, visitors every year, but increasingly these days not everybody is chasing after beaches and nightlife, many families in particular, and the rural hinterlands of the Algarve and Southern Portugal sway to a very different rhythm. You really don’t have to travel very far to feel it also, beyond the coast Southern Portugal is rural, peaceful, agricultural and traditional, and it has some of Portugal’s best agriturismo even quite near the Algarve coast.
The beaches of the Algarve are of course fantastic but have been very heavily developed in recent years especially from Albufeira east to the capital city of Faro. Farther to the east of Faro, towards the Spanish border, things are a little calmer and more favored by local tourists, and there are some nice natural areas, including agricultural areas and many villages only slightly touched by mass tourism.
The interior, as mentioned before, is less developed still, and places like the picturesque spa town of Caldas de Monchique or the historical Moorish town of Silves do attract some visitors but generally a slow drive around the interior is a welcome break from the immensely popular but sometimes claustrophobic coast.
ALENTEJO & CENTRAL PORTUGAL:
Alentejo, Portugal’s largest region is its undoubted agricultural heart, with huge flat plains growing everything from wheat to wine, and some of the world’s largest cork production, on large estates known as latifundios.
Most of it isn’t on the tourist trail, especially the rural areas but it does have a few places that attract attention; Evora particularly with its Roman Temple of Évora or Temple of Diana and the imposing Cathedral of Évora, a massive 12th century Gothic structure is a must visit in the area.
The historic centre of Evora is a UNESCO world heritage site, as is the the ancient fortress town of Elvas, a hidden gem on the arid plains of the Spain/Portugal borderlands. There are a lot of other nice smaller places around too; the walled city of Estramoz for example or pretty villages like Monsaraz or Mertola. These are just some examples, there are many more all around, places where you’ll find foreign tourists few and far between and where you can get a real feel for an authentic Portuguese way of life that is increasingly lost in the main cities and tourist zones.
Alentejo produces most of Portugal’s wine and has earned itself a good international reputation. Agriturismo here is increasing, and all around the region there are plenty of opportunities for vineyard tours and wine tasting, plus a few good vineyard hotels or B&Bs.
Alentejo is still a lot more famous for cork production than wine; as someone once said ‘Cork is to Alentejo what crude oil is to Saudi Arabia’, but this domination of the world’s cork markets mean that wines from as far away as France, Austria, Australia and South Africa are more often than not fitted with caps made from Alentejo’s finest.
The province of Lisbon and the Tagus Valley lie just to the north east of Alentejo. It is dominated of course by the country’s capital and largest city but is a large enough province to have great stretches of countryside that are very similar in nature to Alentejo and just to the north; the province of Centro. And you will find a few good agroturismo farm stays conveniently near the city of Lisbon itself.
Centro runs all the way north, almost up to Porto, and across to the border with Spain. It is an unassuming, quietly enjoyable region that contains one of Portugal’s most charming cities Coimbra, along with some of its most beautiful countryside.
The Serra de Estrela mountain range dominates the Centro. A rugged, relatively untouched wilderness that sees very few tourists, especially foreign tourists, but is an ideal place for hiking and mountain biking, or canoeing along the Mondego river that runs through the range.
Centro also has a strong agricultural tradition and it is also known for its rich food; Local specialities like leitão; a roast suckling pig dish, or Chanfana, a thick casserole of goat or lamb meat stewed in red wine are two good examples. And it is very much a wine growing region, still less famous than that of its southern neighbour, Alentejo, but slowly growing in respect.
The North of Portugal, dominated by the somewhat industrial but still very pleasant city of Porto, is less visited than Lisbon, or the Algarve on the South Coast, but this is changing quite fast and Northern Portugal has started to be seen as a kind of new ‘insiders choice’ in European rural tourism.
There is lots of quite lovely countryside to be explored, most of it conspicuously different to farther south, being lush and green thanks to its cooler, less dry climate. There are many nice little villages around as well, you’ll find the people friendly, and the pace of life slow.
Northern Portugal is very much wine country; a lot of wine is produced here, wine which has, over the years, developed a good international reputation, with Port wine especially being among Portugal’s most famous exports.
The industry is mainly centered on the picturesque vineyards of the Douro River Valley and just to the north, around the Minho River valley; in an area known as Vinho Verde. Many of these vineyards, particularly in the very picturesque Douro Valley, also involve themselves in agriturismo. North east of Douro lies the beautifully rugged Tras-os-Montes, a wild area full of forests and lakes, and a fantastic place for hiking and wilderness walks.
Just to the north of Porto lies the country’s most northernly province; Minho. Much of the coastal area is slowly becoming quite built up but you don’t have to go too far inland to find yourself lost in peaceful green countryside and some still quite traditional little villages. Its main city, Braga, is a charming place with a rich history, especially religious history. Minho is also where the aforementioned Vinho Verde wine region lies and it is the location of Portugal’s only national park; Peneda-Geres, a truly wild region of forested hills where wolves roam and golden eagles can be spotted in the sky above.