Proper Portugal: six great adventures without the crowds | Portugal holidays

Stay in a schist village

The interior of central Portugal, with its mountain ranges and rivers, ispeppered with castles, hiking and cycling trails, and little villages with houses made from schist. This brownish-grey metamorphic rock has a flat, sheet-like structure and was used to build hamlets up in the hills (it’s also the terroir of the Douro valley and some Azores vineyards).

Electricity and running water were not common in the serra and building materials hard to get, so these quirky homes have small doors and windows. The schist villages – aldeias do xisto – formerly housed communities connected to the forest and nature, but many homes lay neglected for years as people left to find work. More recently, these places have been rejuvenated with visitors drawn to a slow pace of life, and an EU-funded restoration project has begun.

Restored houses in the Serra da Lousã.
Restored houses in the Serra da Lousã. Photograph: Rui T Guedes/Getty Images

Now you can stay in refurbished homes in 27 villages across the region (that includes the Serra do Açor mountain area, the Zêzere River and Tejo-Ocreza) and try mountain biking, trail running, canoeing, climbing or just a gentle walk on marked trails. You can sign up for workshops in weaving, woodworking, ceramics or design, learn to make bread and local cheese, or take a night walk between Castelo da Lousã and the village of Talasnal.

There are arty villages such as Cerdeira, which hosts an annual outdoor exhibition in July; Gondramaz has engraved art and carved stones on the front of its houses. To the north-east, the small town of Oliveira do Hospital hosts a skate festival and local organisation XJazz invites musicians to go and live in the villages as well as perform.
Aldeias do Xisto is a comprehensive website with trails, activities, restaurants and accommodation: Prices for rooms at houses begin at €40 a night. Portugal Outdoor Alliance offers walking tours that take you from village to village:

Take a train across the eastern Algarve

The charming architecture of Tavira on the Gilão River in the Algarve.
The charming architecture of Tavira on the Gilão River in the Algarve. Photograph: Jacek_Sopotnicki/Getty Images

Faro, the capital of Portugal’s southern Algarve region, is often overlooked in favour of the big, brash beach towns up the coast. But its gem of an old town and lovely marina make staying here for a night or two a great start to an exploration of the quieter east. The municipal market is good for a casual lunch and Restaurante Alameda is the place for an exquisite taste of the region. There’s a chic (and pricey) new hotel in town, 3HB Faro, but boutique Aqua Ria has double rooms from €60.

Faro station is the first stop on one section of the Linha do Algarve, the state-run train line that takes in the towns of Olhão and Tavira and ends at Vila Real de Santo António, just across the Rio Guadiana from Spain. It’s a cheap, if infrequent, service that allows you to cover some of the loveliest places in the region without hiring a car, whether on day trips or a multicentre break.

Olhão – a seven-minute train ride from Faro – is a once down-at-heel old fishing town (that has not yet been too gentrified) with amazing markets, great light (many artists have gone to live here) and sunsets that often set the sky ablaze.

A waterfront walkway has recently been tastefully upgraded while the old town’s cobbled streets are lined with white cubist-style houses and quirky cafes – look out for handmade gelato at São Gelados. The Avenida 5 de Outubro has dozens of restaurants with outside spaces, and the waterfront restaurant at the yacht club – Restaurante Grupo Naval de Olhão – serves incredible cataplana, a pork and seafood stew, and fresh fish. Casa dos Mercados has rooms just across the street from Olhão’s market from €100 a night.

Trains from Faro serve the quieter eastern Algarve from Faro.
Trains from Faro serve the quieter eastern Algarve from Faro. Photograph: Alamy

Tavira – 29 minutes away – is much more manicured than Olhão and thus has far more tourists. The town is split between the banks of the Gilão River – crossed by the Ponte Romana Bridge – and has Moorish remnants amid baroque architecture, 37 churches and countless restaurants.

Ilha de Tavira, with its glorious long beach and funky bars with chairs in the sand, is just a short ferry ride away. A Muralha is a simple, newly renovated hotel (double rooms from €80 B&B).

The end of this train line brings you to Vila Real de Santo António – 26 minutes from Tavira – an elegant town with 18th-century Pombaline-style buildings and a large number of pedestrianised streets and squares. The air here is one of gentleness and peace, a world away from the banging buzz of the Algarve’s west-coast resorts. Stay in the terrific pousada on the town’s main square, Praça Marquês de Pombal (double from €106) and in the morning head over the estuary on the ferry to Ayamonte in Spain for lunch or a drink on what is a very different main square. The contrasts between the two towns are lovely to note.
Tickets on the Comboios de Portugal train begin at €1.45 for the Faro to Olhão section (over-65s half-price with passport). Total journey time across four stops is just over an hour

Passadiços do Paiva and the Arouca Geopark

A wooden walkway above the Rio Paiva.
A wooden walkway above the Rio Paiva. Photograph: Luis Fonseca/Getty Images

Wooden walkways – passadiços – almost on the edge of the Rio Paiva bring you as close to nature as possible in the Arouca Geopark, just under an hour’s drive south-east of Porto. There are more than five miles of them, skirting the left bank of the river, taking in waterfalls, river beaches and gorges. The journey allows close access to examine the biology, geology and history of the area as written in the landscape. There’s the Paiva gorge, the Aguieiras waterfall, the Gola do Salto and the Espiunca geological fault.

The route towards from Areinho to Espiunca is the least physically demanding, though there’s a steep climb at the start – watch out for the heat and don’t wear jeans. There’s an Indiana Jones-esque bridge across the river for the brave – it wobbles when you cross it – and a river beach at Vau for a swim. The Paiva in spate is a thrill for whitewater rafters.

Staircases take you up past steep slopes and rocky drops to 516 Arouca, which at 516 metres is one of the longest pedestrian suspension bridges in the world, hanging 175 metres above the gorge. The metal grid under your feet affords a clear view of everything below.

One of the 300-million-year-old pedras boroas (birthing stones) in Arouca Geopark.
One of the 300-million-year-old pedras boroas (birthing stones) in Arouca Geopark. Photograph: JoaoMartinsARC/Getty Images

Arouca is home to the Trilobite Museum with some of the largest fossils in the world and the uninhabited “magic” village of Drave, which can only be accessed on foot (it’s a two and a half mile hike), sits 600 metres above sea level and is between three mountain ranges. The area is also the pasture for Arouquesa cattle.

You can try the regional speciality – Alvarenga steak seasoned and cooked in a wood‑fired oven – at Casa dos Bifes Caetano and stay in Paradinha, a village where the houses are made from schist, slate and wood. You can rent one of these properties directly from the owners or stay in a minimalist, modernist house at Syntony Hotels Paradinha Village from €110 a night.

Stay on a houseboat in the Ria Formosa natural park

Ria Formosa.
Ria Formosa. Photograph: Getty Images

The Ria Formosa lagoon is protected from the Atlantic by five barrier islands, running from west of Faro down to Tavira, all with some lovely beaches (probably the quietest in the Algarve). Barra Velha, an often-empty beach right at the tip of Ilha da Fuseta, is the home of four houseboats for rent (two for two people, one for four, and one for six adults and four children). You can only reach your boat or the mainland at the twice-daily high tide, so careful planning is essential.

The location, however, is spectacular: it’s perfect for dipping in and out of the ria, swimming over to the island and crossing for a swim in the sea, fishing from your back deck or simply sitting on your roof drinking beer.

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Flamingos at Ria Formosa.
Flamingos at Ria Formosa. Photograph: Valter Jacinto/Getty Images

The houseboats are just a short hop on a water taxi from the small fishing town of Fuseta, with great fish and seafood restaurants such as À do Rui – the clams dug from the sandbanks of the Ria Formosa at low tide are some of the best you will ever eat. Of course, you can buy a bag from the market and take it over to your boat, along with some garlic and coriander. Or you can have your food delivered to your ladder – a pricey option. Fuseta has a few bars and a fabulous flea market on the second Sunday of the month. And the town of Olhão is a short train ride away.

The Ria Formosa – with its lagoons, flamingos, salt pans and tidal islets – stretches down 35 miles of coast and, aside from floating on your boat or beachcombing, there’s kite surfing, paddle boarding, shore and game fishing, and dolphin watching nearby.
Nightly rental of a houseboat from Passeios Ria Formosa begins at €175 (low season). This includes check-in at Fuseta ticket office and a water taxi to and from your houseboat

Coast along the backbone of the country

Roman stepping stones across the Tâmega in Chaves.
Roman stepping stones across the Tâmega in Chaves. Photograph: Ruibento/Getty Images

The Estrada Nacional 2 – the old Estrada Real de Portugal, known as the N2 or EN2 – is like the backbone of Portugal. Running from north to south, the road is just under 460 miles long and takes in 11 districts, four mountain ranges and 11 rivers. It cuts down the entire length of the country starting in the city of Chaves in Trás-os-Montes (where there’s a 0km sign), and runs through the whole Douro wine region, passing some fine towns and cities, going all the way to Faro.

The journey – whether by car, motorcycle, bicycle or on foot – unfolds the diversity of the country, from rugged peaks to the flat, arid plains of the Alentejo. Travelling the road allows you to discover how Portuguese cuisine changes from region to region, according to climate, terrain and local produce.

At Chaves, head to the tourist office to pick up an Estrada Nacional 2 passport – which has a page for stamps from each of the regions on the route’s tourist offices. The N2 journey can be done in two to five days’ driving, but a week would be more relaxing. Cyclists can do it in five days but most do it in seven to 10 days.

Mateus Palace in Vila Real.
Mateus Palace in Vila Real. Photograph: vanyi/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Chaves is a beautiful city, its thermal waters attracted the Romans, and its strategic position brought conquerors, each leaving influences on architecture and cooking (Forte de São Francisco hotel has doubles from €100 B&B). From here the road begins, shadowing the flow of the Rio Tâmega for a while before descending towards Pedras Salgadas – where the famous Água das Pedras comes from – and on to the city of Vila Real, with its cathedral, churches, chapels and its palace, Casa de Mateus. A rather special overnight option is Pedras Salgadas spa with eco houses in a beautiful nature park (from €183 B&B).

From here you’ll pass Peso de Régua and it’s worth a short detour over to Miradouro São Leonardo de Galafura – with a brilliant panorama out across the Douro valley – if you have time. The route to Lamego is one of the most astonishing parts of the N2. This town is home to some glorious old buildings and the Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios.

As you venture further, stops can include the city of Viseu (Lamego hotel and Life has double rooms starting at €62 B&B), which dates back to pre-Roman times, the town of Penacova, the schist villages across the region, or a river beach for a swim.

In the Alentejo, a large section of the road is flat, and the landscape a little samey – cork trees and small towns – so it is worth straying off the route to the region’s capital, Évora (half an hour), and its traditional restaurant Fialho. Boutique Évora Olive hotel is a delight (double rooms and breakfast from €67).

The brilliant twists and turns of the Serra do Caldeirão bring you to the Algarve section of the road and into Estói, where you can stay in its 19th-century palace, Pousada Palácio Estói (rooms from €136 a night). The last stop on the N2 is Faro, where you can pick up your final passport stamp and hit the beach.

Live in a restored whitewashed village

A restored house in Aldeia da Pedralva
A restored house in Aldeia da Pedralva

Aldeia da Pedralva was once home to 100 people but in 2006 this village of one-storey cottages had just nine residents left. The buildings were falling into disrepair and many houses were uninhabitable. This sorry state of affairs saddened António Ferreira, who bought some of the cottages one by one, then asked his Portuguese friends to crowdfund in a bid to save the whole place and turn it into a kind of village hotel, but remaining faithful to the original design.

As much of the old furniture has been refurbished as possible in the 26 restored houses, which all now have internet. There’s a restaurant, Sítio da Pedralva, a cafe, lounge and swimming pool.

Slightly inland from the town of Sagres, near Vila do Bispo, south-west Algarve, Pedralva is just 13 minutes from to the beach at Praia do Amado, and the other beaches of the Costa Vicentina are within easy reach.

A meal in the Sítio da Pedralva restaurant in the village of Aldeia da Pedralva.
A meal in the Sítio da Pedralva restaurant in the village of Aldeia da Pedralva

The village has an activities centre with 32 bikes as it is near 200 miles of mountain bike trails. A surf school, jeep tours, boat trips and picnics are also all available.
The houses range from one bedroom to four bedrooms with patio starting a €125 a night

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