Things to see and do - Portugal and Madeira
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Portugal has a wide variety of landscapes, from the mountainous north east to the flatter areas near the coast and in the south. The continental part of the country, south west of the Iberian Peninsula, occupies a relatively small area. Generally speaking, the altitude decreases from the Spanish border towards the Atlantic and from north to south; the Tagus (Tejo) divides a mountainous region in the north from an area of plateaux and plains in the south. The archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores out in the Atlantic are a distant volcanic playground, enriched by a variety of flowers, geology and history.
In the Primary Era the north of Portugal was affected by Hercynian folding which resulted in the emergence of hard granite and shale mountain ranges. These were worn down in the Secondary Era to form a vast plateau out of which rose erosion resistant heights such as the Serra de São Mamede. In the Tertiary Era, the raising of the Alps and Pyrenean folding led to a brutal upheaval of the plateau, dislocating it into a series of small massifs such as the Serra do Marão and Serra da Estrela. The massifs were separated by fissures near which emerged thermal and mineral springs and, especially in the north, metal deposits. The upheavals were accompanied in some cases by eruptions of a volcanic nature which formed ranges such as the Serra de Sintra and Serra de Monchique. It was at this point that the Tagus and Sado basins were formed and the coastal plains folded into the low ranges of the Serra de Aire, Serra do Caldeirão and Serra da Arrábida. This zone of faults in the earth’s crust is still subject to geological disturbance as shown in the earthquake which destroyed Lisbon in 1755 and even more recent tremors.
The coastline became less indented in the Quaternary Era through erosion of the Estremadura and Alentejo cliffs and alluvial accumulation in the Aveiro and Sines areas.
The Cantabrian Cordillera extends westwards into Portugal, north of the Douro, where it takes the form of massive mountain ranges separated by heavily eroded valleys.
Between the Douro and the Tagus, the Castilian sierras extend into Portugal as particularly high relief. Monte da Torre in the Serra da Estrela is Portugal’s highest mainland peak (1 993m/6 539ft). The Mondego and Zêzere valleys surround the ridge. South of the Tagus lies a plateau that drops towards the sea. Its vast horizons are barely interrupted by the minor rises of the Serra de Monchique and Serra do Caldeirão.
The 837km/520mi of coast offer incredible variety, with beaches of fine sand sheltered by rock cliffs, creeks, and promontories such as Cabo Carvoeiro, Cabo Espichel and Cabo de São Vicente. Wide estuaries are occupied by the country’s main ports: Oporto on the Douro, Lisbon on the Tagus and Setúbal on the Sado. Fishing harbours like Portimão have developed in bays, or, as with Peniche and Lagos, in the protection of headlands. However, most of the coast consists of flat sandy areas sometimes lined by offshore bars as in the eastern offshore Algarve and along Ria de Aveiro.
Regions and landscape
The areas described below correspond to the old historical provinces which closely reflect the country’s natural regions. Portugal’s present administrative divisions, known as districts, are also given.
The old provinces of the Minho and Douro are green and heavily cultivated while the inland regions of Trás-os-Montes, Beira Alta and Beira Baixa are bleaker and drier.
The Minho (Districts: Braga and Viana do Castelo) and the Douro (District: Porto)
The region is part of the tourist area around Oporto and Northern Portugal. The greater part of the Minho and Douro provinces consists of granite hills covered with dense vegetation. The exceptions to these are the bare summits of the Serra do Gerês, Serra do Soajo and Serra do Marão, which make up the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, and are strewn with rocky scree. The fields, enclosed by hedges and climbing vines, sometimes produce two crops a year. Vineyards, orchards and meadows contribute to the rural economy. Olive, apple and sometimes orange trees grow on the sunniest slopes. Main roads tend to follow lush river valleys like those of the Lima and the Vez. The region, with Porto (in Portuguese, Oporto) as capital, is an active one and has more than a quarter of Portugal’s population.
Trás-os-Montes (Districts: Bragança and Vila Real)
Trás-os-Montes means “beyond the mountains”. True to its name, this province of high plateaux relieved by rocky crests and deeply cut valleys, stretches out beyond the Serra da Marão and Serra do Gerês. The moorland plateaux, dominated by bare summits and covered with stunted vegetation, are used for sheep grazing. Remote villages merge into the landscape. The more populous river basins around Chaves, Mirandela and Bragança, with their flourishing fruit trees, vines, maize and vegetables, seem like oases in the bleak countryside.
The Alto Douro region in the south contrasts with the rest of the province by its relative fertility. The edges of the plateaux and the slopes down to the Douro and the Tua have been terraced so that olive, fig and almond trees can be grown, and particularly the famous vine that produces the grapes for port wine and vinho verde.
The Beira Alta (Districts: Guarda and Viseu) and Beira Baixa (District: Castelo Branco)
This region, the most mountainous in Portugal, is geographically a westward extension of the Spanish Cordillera Central. The landscape consists of a succession of raised rock masses and down-faulted basins. The mountains, of which the principal ranges are the Serra da Estrela and Serra da Lousã, have thickly wooded slopes crowned with rocky summits. Occasional reservoirs fill the sites of ancient glaciary corries or gorges hollowed out of the quartz.
The greater part of the population lives in the Mondego and Zêzere valleys. The Mondego valley, a vast eroded corridor and a main communications route, is rich arable land; with vines extending up hillsides in the vineyards of the Dâo region. The Upper Zêzere valley, known as the Cova da Beira, specialises more in livestock, wheras the main town, Covilhã, has an important wool industry.
The Beira Littoral (Districts: Coimbra and Aveiro)
This low lying region cut by many water courses corresponds approximately to the lower valleys of the Vouga, the Mondego and the Lis. There are rice fields in the irrigated areas around Soure and Aveiro. The coast consists of long straight beaches and sand dunes anchored by vast pinewoods such as Pinhal de Leiria and Pinhal do Urso, while at Aveiro, the ria or lagoon provides an original touch to the scenery. Inland, the cottage gardens of wheat and maize are bordered by orchards and vines. There are some beautiful forests, including Mata do Buçaco. The region’s two main centres are Coimbra with its famous university and Aveiro with its ria and salt-pans.
Estremadura (Districts: Leiria, Lisboa and Setúbal)
In the past, this was the southern limit of the lands reconquered from the Moors, hence the name Estremadura which means extremity. Today, the region, which includes the Lisbon area, contains a third of the country’s population.
Between Nazaré and Setúbal the countryside is gently undulating. Villages of single storey houses are surrounded by fields of wheat and maize. Olives, vines and fruit trees grow between clumps of pine and eucalyptus.
Along the coast, where tall cliffs and sandy beaches alternate, there are many fishing villages. The Serra de Sintra is a pleasant wooded range near Lisbon, while the Serra da Arrábida, south of the Tagus, provides shelter for small seaside resorts.
The region’s activities are centred on Lisbon, the political, administrative, financial and commercial capital.
The Ribatejo (District: Santarém)
The Riba do Tejo, or banks of the Tagus, is an alluvial plain formed in the Tertiary and Quaternary Eras. On the hills along the north bank farmers cultivate olives, vines and vegetables. The terraces along the south bank grow wheat and olives.
The plain is covered with rice fields, market gardens and acres of grassland for rearing horses and fighting bulls. The region, with its main centre in Santarém, is renowned for its Portuguese-style bullfights known as touradas .
The Alentejo (Districts: Beja, Évora and Portalegre)
The Alentejo, meaning beyond the Tagus (Além Tejo) , covers nearly a third of Portugal. It is a vast flat plain, except for the Serra de São Mamede. There is almost no natural vegetation. However, in spite of the difficulties of irrigation, the land is seldom left fallow. The Alentejo, Portugal’s granary, is also the region of the cork oak, the ilex (holm oak) and the olive tree; in addition plums are grown around Vendas Novas and Elvas, while sheep and herds of black pigs are still reared on the poorer land. The vast stretches of open countryside dotted with old villages make this one of Portugal’s more attractive regions.
Traditionally, the region has been one of huge estates centred on a monte or large remote whitewashed farmhouse, built on a rise. The other local inhabitants live in villages of low houses with big chimneys. The situation changed after the Carnation Revolution when the land reform of July 1975 split up the estates into smaller co-operatives . As this has not been very successful, there has been a return to medium and large scale properties.
The coast is generally uninviting although several seaside resorts are beginning to develop. There are few harbours apart from Sines, which is well-equipped.
There are no large towns; Evora with its 35 000 inhabitants acts as the regional capital but lives mainly from tourism.
The Algarve (District: Faro)
Portugal’s southernmost province takes its name from the Arabic El Gharb meaning “west” for this was in fact the most westerly region conquered by the Moors. The Algarve, separated from the Alentejo by shale hills, is like a garden: flowers grow alongside crops and beneath fruit trees, allowing one to see geraniums, camellias and oleanders, cotton, rice and sugar cane as well as carobs, figs and almonds. Many cottage gardens are surrounded by hedges of aloes (agaves). The villages have brightly whitewashed houses with decorative chimneys. To the west rises a mountain range of volcanic rock, the Serra de Monchique, covered in lush vegetation. The coast is very sandy. The Sotavento stretch east of Faro is protected by offshore sandbanks, while the Barlavento section to the west consists of beaches backed by high cliffs which form an impressive promontory at Cabo de São Vicente.
Over the last few years the Algarve has undergone extensive tourist development, sometimes to the detriment of traditional activities such as fishing, canning, horticulture and the cork industry. Most of the small fishing villages have become vast seaside resorts. The main towns are Faro, Lagos and Portimão.
Parks and reserves
There are several conservation areas in Portugal to protect the beauty of the landscape and local flora and fauna.
Portugal’s only national park is that of Peneda-Gerês (72 000ha/ 177 919 acres) in the north.
Among Portugal’s specially protected areas are the nature reserves of Montesinho near Bragança , Douro Internacional in a grandiose setting of natural beauty, Alvão near Vila Real, and Serra da Estrela . Near Fátima are the nature reserves of Serra de Aire and Serra dos Candeeiros , which form a beautiful limestone landscape with many caves, Sintra-Cascais , nestled between the ocean and surrounding forest, Serra da Arrábida , Serra de São Mamede , the Guadiana valley alongside the river of the same name, Sudoeste Alentejano and Costa Vicentina , and Ria Formosa (18 400ha/45 468 acres), an ecosystem which is home to a variety of rare sea birds . All these nature reserves are in mountainous regions with the exception of the last two, situated in the Algarve, where the aim is to protect coastal areas from the harm caused by mass tourism and the rapid erosion of this coastline.
Many areas have been singled out for the protection of their flora and fauna. Among them are mountainous regions like Serra de Malcata , swamps such as Paúl de Arzila and Paúl do Boquilobo and river estuaries which have a particularly rich birdlife, including the Tagus estuary , the Sado estuary and Sapal de Castro Marim-Vila Real de Santo António in the Guadiana estuary. Dune areas, including the São Jacinto dunes in Ria de Aveiro and those on the Berlenga islands off the coast of Peniche, have also been designated as conservation areas . Most of the beauty spots in Madeira and the Azores are now classified as conservation areas.
Some of Portugal’s coastal areas have been declared protected landscapes to prevent uncontrolled building development. They include Esposende (440ha/1 087 acres) and the Costa da Caparica as well as a number of other listed sites around the country.
The diversity of plants in Portugal is a visual reminder of the contrasts in climate and types of soil found here.
The robur and tauzin oak , together with chestnuts , birches and maples, grow on the wet peaks over 500m/1 500ft. South of the Tagus and in the Upper Douro valley where summers are very dry, there are dense woods of ilex (holm oak) and cork oak , which grow beside heaths and moorlands sparsely covered with cistus, lavender, rosemary and thyme. Cork oaks are particularly abundant in the Alentejo. Portugal is the world’s leading cork producer.
Eucalyptus mainly grows along the coast together with maritime pines and umbrella pines, which form vast forests beside the beaches near Leiria, Coimbra and Aveiro. Aleppo pines dominate in the Serra da Estrela. Eucalyptus and pines are being planted on ever-increasing areas of land.
Mediterranean plant species acclimatise well in the Algarve, where one may see aloes (agaves), as well as carob , almond , fig , orange and olive trees.