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About Portugal

Portugal brief

In the southwest corner of Europe lies Portugal, one fifth of the Iberian Peninsula it shares with Spain. Portugal has its own language, the 6th most spoken in the world (think Brazil-Portugal’s former colony), its own culture and cuisine. Portugal’s shape is rectangular, the longest north-south distance is 349 miles/561 km and widest east-west distance is 135 miles/218 km. It’s roughly the size of the U.S. state of Indiana. the country’s modest dimensions make it easy to visit when time is short. Portugal is divided into regions, each offers unique features , history, scenery and cuisine. The regions are from south to north: Algarve, Alentejo, Lisbon and Lisbon Coast, Estremadura and Ribatejo, the Beiras, Douro and Tras-os-Montes and the Minho.

Portugal also includes 2 island groups: the Azores (800 miles southwest of Lisbon) and Madeira (600 miles south of Lisbon)


Portugal’s climate is mainly Mediterranean. The southern regions are dry and sunny with warm/hot summers and mild/rainy winters. Traveling north, the weather pattern becomes cooler and wetter, especially in winter. Snow is possible in the mountains of the northeast. Overall, Portugal enjoys an enviable climate which explains why it’s so popular with northern Europeans looking for relief from their too often less comfortable weather.

The Azores Island have a moderate Marine climate with year round mild temperatures and rain. Madeira and it’s neighbor island, Porto Santo, are subtropical with normally dry weather year round.

History (briefly) and where you can find examples

Portugal’s history is through to reach back to 1000 BCE to the Phoenicians, the seafaring people who settled in the southern coast. In fact, human habitation dates back much farther. Megalithic ruins of stone circles, dolmens and menhirs have been dated to 4000-2000 BCE and cave paintings to 18,000-13,000 BCE (found near Evora in the Alentejo region). Through the years, Portugal has been colonized by Celtic tribes, Romans (found in Evora in the Alentejo region and near Coimbra in the Beiras region), Vandals, Visigoths and Arabs (Moors). The Moors (Mouros in Portuguese) dominated Christian Portugal from 711 until finally forced out in the 12th and 13th centuries. Moorish influence can be found mainly in the Algarve and Lisbon-Lisbon coast regions. In the 15th century, Portugal led the world in exploration primarily to find a sea route to India which held a monopoly in the lucrative spice trade. Under the patronage of Henry (the Navigator), a prince of the royal house, Portuguese ships rounded Africa for the first time in European history and sailed into the Indian Ocean and on to India. Portugal went on to establish many colonies and create its own monopolies. Brazil was discovered in 1500 and became Portugal’s richest colony. Prince Henry never left dry land but it is thought he created a School of Navigation in Sagres in the Algarve.

Note: The first circumnavigation of the world (begun in 1519) was under a Spanish funded trip but its captain, Ferdinand Magellan, was Portuguese. His Portuguese name is Fernao de Malgalhaes.

The once poor kingdom of Portugal became rich from its colonies and a mercantile superpower. It didn’t last. In 1580 King Henrique died without an heir. Phillip II of Spain claimed the throne through his mother, a daughter of a previous king of Portugal, Manuel I. Spain’s foreign polices, common to both countries at this time, let to a steady loss of colonies to the Dutch. The Portuguese throne was reclaimed by the illegitimate side of the royal family in 1640 after a revolt against Spanish rule. The ensuing years brought exchequer excesses, madness and other follies common to monarchies.  The rococo Queluz Palace and eclectic Pena Palace, both near Lisbon and the Bucaco Palace (now a hotel) in the Beiras region are fine examples of royal indulgences. After a 1910 revolt, Portugal became a republic. King Manuel II fled into exile. Portugal entered WWI on the side of Britain and France. In WWII, Portugal is theoretically neutral but is forced to sell minerals to Germany who threatened Portuguese shipping. Lisbon became a hotbed of WWII spies! From 1928 to 1974, Portugal was run by oppressive prime ministers. The country suffered poverty and unemployment under severe austerity measures. The Carnation Revolution of 1974 ended the dictator government. Portugal joined the European Union in January 1986.

Lisbon: 09:30 on November 1, 1755. Earthquake, Fire and Tsunami

3 seismic waves rolled through Lisbon on All Saint’s Day, reducing over half the city to ruins. Fires broke out after the third shock and raged for a week. An hour later, huge waves came rolling into the Tejo river estuary inundating the lower part of the city and sweeping people and ships out to sea. The city center was rebuilt on a grid pattern planned by the Marques de Pombal. Today, Lisbon’s Baixa and Chiado districts are easy to explore due to the grid.


With a coastline of 586 miles/943 kms, it’s not surprising that seafood is front and center of Portuguese cuisine. It’s said that there is a cod dish, dried and fresh, for each day of the year. Regional specialties abound. In the Algarve, Cataplana , a fish and shellfish dish named for the cookware used, is a treat. Caldeirada, a fish stew with potatoes, is also popular. An unusual combination hailing from the Alentejo is a combination of pork and clams.  Lisbon offers a range of cosmopolitan restaurants but you may wish to try Frango Piri-Piri (chicken with chili) and be sure to indulge in a local pastry, Pasteis de Nata, delicious custard-cream tarts. In the north, Feijoada, a stew of beans and cured meats is popular as well as Rojoes, a spiced pork stew in wine and garlic. We suggest dining in local restaurants to experience true Portuguese cuisine. Portions are generally huge but many restaurants offer half portions.

The Azores islands have a more simplistic cuisine but it’s also based on the sea. A local favorite from the island of Sao Miguel is Cozido nas Caldeiras, a stew made from sausages, meats and vegetables cooked in containers lowered about 1 meter into the steaming ground around Furnas lake, a volcanic crater. There it cooks gently for about 7 hours.


Portugal is home to the first demarcated wine region in the world: the upper Douro Valley where Port wine grapes are grown along the Douro river in terraces cascading down the steep slopes. Port is Portugal’s most famous wine. It originated in the 17th century when British merchants added brandy to wine to prevent it from souring in transit. Today it’s appreciated world wide. Port grapes are harvested and transported to Vila Nova de Gaia, across the Douro river from Porto. Here they are aged and bottled. Many of the Port Wine houses are open for tours and tasting. Portuguese wine is much more than its famous Port. Grapes of many varieties are grown throughout Portugal. The wines from the Dao region are among the finest reds. The white wines of the region north of Porto feature the delightful Vinho Verde, light, refreshing and slightly effervescent. In the south of the country, the wines of the Alentejo are gaining notice for their excellence. Wine connoisseurs consider Portugal’s wines to be both under appreciated and great bargains.

Madeira island is noted for Madeira, a fortified wine. The Azores islands once provided wines to the tsars of Russia. Today, renewed interest in these wines, including Verdelho, are flourishing on several of the islands. On the island of Pico, some of vineyards, surrounded by volcanic rock walls to collect more heat, are a UNESCO World Heritage site.