Great Drives

PORTUGAL

for Conde Nast Traveler Magazine

by Stephan Wilkinson

Portugal is five-eighths-scale Europe, a miniature of the classic Grand Tour playgrounds. Which is bad news and good. Except for Lisbon, the cities are small, a bit grim, and--despite cathedrals and ancient fortress walls--ordinary. It's not easy for the peripatetic to find world-class accommodations. (The country's new manor-house home-stay program is said to be an adventuresome alternative, but each requires a minimum three-day stay.) Portuguese food is for the most part blue-plate specials with superb bread and cheap wine, and "filling" is often the best that can be said of it. And if you're looking for sites, structures and experiences that can be checked off your wonders-of-the-world master list, you won't find many in Portugal.

Yes, but: the Portuguese are absolutely splendid hosts, delighted to have travelers come visit them, endlessly helpful and never condescending, kind even to Americans who intrude upon their medieval hilltop villages driving an automobile the size of a studio apartment. Prices (except for the $4-a-gallon gasoline) are roughly the same you'd pay traveling around the U.S. rather than the times-two rates you'll find in the rest of Western Europe. Go off-season--I tried October, but April or May works just as well--and you'll have the country to yourself. And, best of all, there are still places in Portugal where you can look from horizon to horizon and see little to disrupt a continuum that stretches back through Templar knights and Visigoths, Lusitanians and Romans to Neolithic times.

The nameplate on the car--a Ford Explorer--gave me the charter to go as far afield as possible. Ultimately, this surprisingly sedan-like four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle hunted down two of the most magnificent roads I've ever driven...as well as the all-time worst, a route that enthusiastically tested the Explorer's off-road pretensions.

Day One: Lisbon to Estremoz via Monsaraz (205 miles)

You know you're back in Europe when you see the classic "brassieres ahead" international warning sign--the mammary bumps that define an uneven road, of which there are many in Portugal. This is a land for comfy, soft-sprung, meandering Explorers, not pavement-hammering Porsches or Mazda RX-7s. Some backroads are surfaced with stone blocks; others are ripply, endlessly patched quilts of ancient highway; and plenty are tracks so narrow that you'll be staring at a truck's tailgate until you've memorized every dent.

In the old walled city of Evora's maze of narrow streets, I try to park the Explorer illegally, but a helmeted motorcycle cop wags his finger. Being Portuguese, he then not only gives me directions to the municipal lot but stops traffic and helps me back up along the one-way street so I can turn and use the most direct route.

The restaurant O Fialho, down a narrow backstreet nearby, has been described as "the cathedral of Portuguese gastronomy," but unfortunately, you can't take it from me. Unaware how rare a great Portuguese restaurant will prove to be, I peek through the window, decide it looks way expensive--it is--and opt for a nearby culinary chapel where the prime talent proves to be the ability to boil pig parts and potatoes. Think of it as Portuguese roadfood.

Monsaraz is no mistake, however. A tiny fortified town high atop a crag some 40 road-miles east of Evora, it lies hidden till the last minute, steaming in the fog as the Explorer winds up the steep approach road while the afternoon sun burns slowly through. As the wisps of cloud tatter and dissolve, an enormous panorama of Portugal and Spain, to the east, opens far below. It's hard to know where to look next, for the 13th century castle and steep-alleyed, nearly changeless Medieval village--admittedly there are a couple of discreet Mastercard decals on shop windows here and there--are no less fascinating than the view.

Portuguese pousadas--government-owned inns and small hotels, many of them in or among historic buildings--are a mixed blessing, judging by the three I'll try. The first is tonight's Pousada da Rainha Santa Isabel, said to be the most palatial of the 32 hostelries in the chain. Well, it is in what used to be a palace, I'll give them that. But the bathwater is barely tepid, the drain clogged and the shower broken. And years of general desuetude seem to have given the public rooms and corridors the air of a theater-props warehouse--a strange hodge-podge of waiting-room furniture, heavy reproductions and gloomy paintings.

Day two: Estremoz to Castelo de Vide (91 miles)

I avoid horses--vicious, potato-brained, slack-eyed creatures that periodically bit me, stepped on my toes and shucked me from their backs like a sack of onions when I was a boy. But it was hard to resist the former royal stud farm outside Alter do Chao, on the old road to Portalegre. It's ignored in most guidebooks, but signs will lead you there, and if you're lucky, you'll get a lengthy personal tour of all the stables.

My guide--a heavy-gutted but tough-looking stablemaster in an anonymous blue uniform, a military cap and polished riding boots--didn't know a word of English, nor I of Portuguese. Yet communication was complete, with a few words of French, figures drawn in the sand, international gestures and unmistakable Portuguese phrases. ("Inseminario naturale" he said when I asked with rude motions whether the mares were artificially bred. For here are mated, foaled and raised the rare Lusitano horses of the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art--Iberian Lippizaners.)

In one small barn, 18 mares are tied, each with the stable's royal brand on its flank. Three, separate, are pregnant. In another crowded stable, three dozen belled fillies chomp, stamp and gossip, filling the barn with a continual clonking dissonance, like a manger gone mad. The stallions live well, in partially walled-off individual stalls, but the 30-odd dressage and carriage horses have it best, each with its own large pen, fresh hay and barnyard cats to dart about its hooves. My guide knows the age of each horse, which he lugubriously recites, drawing with his finger on each stall door. "Nove." "Sete." "Cinco."

Would that my next acquaintances, though they spoke English, had communicated so completely. Carlos Ribeiro and his cohort are Portuguese four-wheel-drive enthusiasts well-met in Marvao, where they are driving an UMM, a small, agricultural-looking Portuguese jeep perhaps named for a mantra. Marvao sticks mightily up into the sky, like Monsaraz a fortified eyrie, its achingly white little houses built around reefs of mountaintop granite. Ribeiro and his friends are peering into and under the Explorer in the tiny town plaza when I return from a walk.

"Very nice, but not four-wheel drive, no?" says Carlos.

"Oh yes," I smugly say.

"But we see no gear levers."

"Electric," I boast, pointing out the two dashboard buttons that at a touch selected all-wheel drive and shifted the entire transmission into granny gears--low range.

"Ah!" That did it for Carlos. He stood up straight, squared his shoulders and said, "We invite you, as our guest, to join us for the weekend. We are leading a cross-country drive for the Portuguese Fiat Panda four-wheel-drive club."

Well, I'm outa here northbound, no can do. But I can't resist their offer to lead me back down the remarkable route they used to reach Marvao.

"It is an old Roman road, no longer used, but for you it will be no problem. We will have to reverse a few times, you don't mind?"

Hey, what's so hard about backing up?

I follow the UMM to the edge of the village, where it pauses, farts Diesel smoke and drops out of sight into the forest. The 2,000-year-old highway it has taken, a narrow trace of ancient, overgrown stone slabs snaking down through groves of cork oak, plunges so steeply I'm soon hanging by my seatbelt.

Ahead, the little UMM is already backing and filling to round the first switchback, a corner so sharply crotched it was obviously designed for the turning circle of small donkeys. Boulders and trees help define it, and I suddenly realize that "reversing a few times" means maneuvering this limo through spaces and over rocks where, even if it doesn't fit, there's no turning back.

The faithful Explorer's suspension groans and bangs, and this rather luxurious car is suddenly proving that it can also be a truck. Its fat tires clamber over stones as big as suitcases. Somehow, I keep from high-centering the frame on any of them, and thus avoid proving yet again the major disadvantage of four-wheel drive: it allows you to get stuck so far off the road that you never get back.

Day three: Castelo de Vide to Viseau through the Serra da Estrela (210 miles)

The mountain villages--first Monsaraz, then Marvao, today Monsanto--have come as a crescendo. Monsaraz was tidy, charming and postcardy; Marvao placid, benignly remote; but Monsanto is the most dramatic hill settlement in all Portugal--a vertiginous, triply fortified site that looks impervious to anything short of a Schwarzkopfian air strike.

Castle and stone, tile-roofed cottages are set haphazardly among, under and atop basaltic boulders the size of houses, so high upon the mount that it's like being in a balloon. The air is breathless. Smells of woodsmoke and herb gardens drift up, and you can plainly hear dogs barking and cocks crowing in the lowlands a mile and more below while the bells of hobbled goat lawnmowers clank and dingle in the ruined castle keep. I feel like an alien, rope-laddered down from a spaceship. The Explorer, which I've stupidly wedged so far into the narrow-alleyed village that disassembly may be the only way out, heightens the impression.

But the big Ford pops out like a cork after 10 minutes of inch-by-inch maneuvering, and soon I'm climbing the edge of Portugal's mountainous core, near Fundao. The vistas are enormous, crystalline, a spectrum of New Englandish fall colors spoiled only by Portugal's unaccustomed recent prosperity: new-construction houses the best of which look like Greek diners. And, prominent above the highway at a bend, monarchist graffiti: "Deus, Patrius, Rei!" (Would they settle for Prince Chuck and his wife?)

West of Covilha, the Explorer assaults the steep flank of Portugal's prime national park, the Serra da Estrela, and at one point we go four-wheeling again, bouncing up a rocky dirt diversion to an abandoned observation tower. Directly below are several huge, gutted, silent resort hotels. An economic neutron bomb had obviously hit the area, for there are also occasional rudely boarded-up, unfinished manor houses along the highway, and it turns out to be the remains of a Portuguese ski resort that had everything but snow.

All is well at Manteigas, however--a tidy alpine town deep in a narrow, surreal glacial valley, midway along perhaps the most magnificent drive in Portugal, certainly one of the most spectacular I've stumbled onto anywhere: N339 from Covilha up the mountains to N338 straight down to Manteigas, then N232 corkscrewing up, up, up and back down to Gouveia. In the bottom of the valley far below N338 is a chilly river fed by waterfalls that tumble and skein down the mountainside. Along the river are settlements of heavily thatched stone huts and goat tracks that seem nearly Neolithic--probably one of the most contentedly remote spots in all Western Europe.

It's nice to be in a tank like the Explorer, which, as I loftily look down on the roofs of little Peugeots and Seats, I've come to think of as The Intimidator. The switchbacks on N232 are so incessant that I can barely push past 30 mph anyway, fat front tires plowing and howling, so sportiness is no requisite. And one guidebook warns that on the Serra da Estrela roads, "Flimsy cars are at risk of being blown into the granite guardrail."

Day four: Viseau to Guimares (160 miles)

My copilot is squeezing the passenger-side armrest into a new shape, and her toes, she tells me, are curled like a canary's as she stabs at a nonexistent brake pedal. For her side of the Explorer hangs half a mile above the Duoro River Valley, on the utterly un-guardrailed edge of tiny, lane-and-a-half N222 west-bound from Lamego toward Oporto.

It is a poor man's Corniche, a switchbacked spectacular with magnificent views down to the wide jade water. Unlike the forest fastness of yesterday's Serra da Estrela roads, here the overlay of civilization is so complete that not a square foot of this steep-sided gorge is without terraced vineyards, patchwork fields or red-tile-roofed houses.

It's Sunday, and the road is dotted with groups of Portuguese walking to church or perhaps to grandma's house. And everywhere there are hunters with old shotguns, off to pepper gamebirds. A group of boys gives the Explorer--too highly taxed and expensive to be sold in Portugal--big waves and whoops as we go by. Odd to turn heads with a car that is ubiquitous in American mall parking lots.

But it's not odd that I'd been warned by several people who should have known better, "They're crazy, Portuguese drivers, the worst in Europe." For this happens wherever one goes, whether it's Jamaica or Japan: local drivers are inevitably judged by travel sages to be kamakazis. Yet in 32 years of international driving on every populated continent, I've never run across drivers any worse--and they're usually better--than the average American.

It's true of Portugal as well. The country indeed has the worst accident rate in Europe--four times as many fatalities per 100,000 vehicles as the English tally--but it's the fault of the minimal roads and horsecart/minibike/car/tractor-trailer traffic mix, not the drivers. Portuguese drivers understand vehicle dynamics far better than most Americans do, and you never see the spoor of the brain-dead tailgater--skidmarks on the road. Portuguese passing techniques might seem a little overenthusiastic to timid Americans, since if the road is wide enough they'll occasionally pass two at once, one car hugging the shoulder and two others making like Mansell and Senna contesting a corner. But they'll never do it without an "out," either for themselves or for oncoming traffic.

The government's Pousada de Santa Marinha, outside Guimares, turns out to be everything the Estremoz hotel wasn't: tasteful, magnificent, charming, filled with real treasures and a treasure itself. It's in a 12th-century monastery, and the most desirable rooms are in fact renovated monk's cells on an interior courtyard, with small, granite-casemented windows, one of which has a little bench and table--I suppose for monkish meditation--within its curtained bay. There are slightly larger rooms with a moderately interesting view of Guimares, but they're in a modern wing, so it's your choice: scenery or authenticity.

In front of the monastery is a small cemetery, tomblike graves in the Portuguese manner, with sepia photo-plaques of the occupants. A sauced old man takes me by the sleeve and gives an account, in gestures and tipsy Portuguese, of each occupant. This one seems to have been his grandmother, that one perhaps his child, there a young beauty cut down in her teens.

His eyes are wet as he pauses to pray briefly before each, and he's getting to me, too. Until he shows me the grave of a family--mother, father and handsome young son--and with steering, skidding motions mimes the terrible crash that took all three at once. But the death dates on the stone are years apart.

Day five: Guimares to Batalha (217 miles)

In Braga, I do the requisite cathedral but find it difficult to gawk at somebody's else's religion, particularly since a mass is in progress. In the "Treasures of the Cathedral" museum, room upon room filled with gold-embroidered vestments, miters and silver censers, I can think only of a joke: the fey young man who plucked at the sleeve of the bishop swinging a censer as he advanced up the aisle and said, "Darling, I love your dress, but your purse is on fire."

It's raining hard, so I head for Portugal's sole superhighway--the A1 tollroad toward Lisbon--and give the Explorer its head, which turns out to be an indicated, though probably slight- ly optimistic, 110 mph before the rev limiter interrupts the fun. But this quasi-truck cruises at an easy 85, and gone is its most irksome trait: a tendency to hobby-horse nervously on bumpy backroads.

Portuguese tolls cost serious money. At one booth, I hand over the equivalent of $6.75 for about 40 miles of four-lane and calculate that tolls and gasoline alone are costing half a dollar per mile. Maybe that's what Americans need to modify our own often-aimless driving habits.

The enormous 15th century abbey at Batalha is Portugal's major monument, in size and scope the equal of any of Europe's great cathedrals and the sole Portuguese structure to which Michelin grants three stars ("worth a journey"). Oddly, the truck route to Lisbon thunders right past, spoiling some of its Gothic grace. The fact that it has no towers, due to Dominican modesty, doesn't help either, but inside, the soaring heights, arching vaults and meringues of Manueline filigree are awesomely excessive. And here lies Prince Henry the Navigator, son of the founder, King Joao I, and his English queen, John of Gaunt's daughter Philippa.

The government inn at Batalha, right next to the monastery, resembles an adequate 1960s highway motel--Pousada Ramada. A battle rages in the guestbook. "There is an air of sleepy, late-Stalin hostelry hanging over this pousada, heavy Moscow-style hotel appointments, a breakfast table not properly maintained, bathroom mirrors chipping at the edges, a smell of mildew hanging in the corridors," a dyspeptic Brit gripes. "Would not recommend this overpriced accommodation," warns an American. "Inexplicable plumbing in room 10," whines another.

Yet, "This is the jewel in the pousada crown--marvelous staff, rooms, ambience and motif," a couple from Texas enthuses. More explicable is the note left by "Henry and his baby," who write, "We spent beautiful time, making love all day and night, without any repression. We wish love also to you."

Day six: Batalha to Sintra (135 miles)

Arcane driving tip: In Germany, the car behind you that's flashing its headlights wants to pass. In Portugal, it's just a truckdriver's way of saying hubba-hubba to cute pedestrians.

The ultimate indoor attraction on this, another damp day, turns out to be Portugal's largest cavern, in fact Europe's deepest cave, the Grutas de Mira de Aire, about 17 miles south-east of Batalha. Some of it is so gaudily illuminated that it looks like a lava-lamp mine, and you need to ignore the hidden sound system playing "Feelings" and "Lara's Theme," but deeper in the grotto, the ochres, greens, blues, glistening crystal and Sedona reds of the more plainly lit rock are splendid.

Tiny Obidos is a town made for travel posters--an ancient, walled and whitewashed little village that but for a forest of TV antennas (soon to be banned) is crisply perfect yet somehow avoids feeling like a touristy stage set. Wisteria pours from rooftops and blooms in wall chinks, and geraniums thrive everywhere. In a craft shop, two tourists debate the merits and provenance of some gaudy Portuguese pottery, which my too-cynical companion opines is like having expertise in the varieties of bobble-headed dolls.

After nearly 900 miles of mountain and forest, cactused piedmont and impossibly terraced vineyard, the Atlantic, once the bearer of Portugal's power and gold, finally comes briefly into sight north of the fishing village of Ericeira. A towering red-clay headland, utterly unlike the western bookend of the dunes of Cape Cod and America's barrier beaches, juts up from a welter of boulders where ocean rollers end their lives. I stand shakily near the edge, peeking down, and when Susan walks out even farther, I wail. She laughs and points out that both of us are standing above empty space, on a three-foot-thick slab of crumbling clay well-eroded from below.

At Ericeira, an ugly strew of multicolored condos and apartments spills down the hillside to the landward edge of the shore road, but on the beach below, the town itself remains whole. On the bouldered breakwater, smoky with haze from the crashing rollers, three young men fish in the surf with spinning rods the length of a small sailboat's mast. One gets a strike that bends his pole like a hook, fights it briefly, then comes up empty. An older man, watching, turns toward me, shrugs and flashes a brief, friendly Portuguese grin.

Save the best for last. Go to the romantic palace town of Sintra, just 19 miles west of Lisbon, and book a room at the Palacio de Seteais, one of the world's great luxury hotels and said by many to be the finest in Portugal. In high season you'll happily pay $400, but the October rate seems to be more like $200--an entry-level price at an adequate European hotel these days. There are only 30 rooms, and it seems that well more than half the 18th century villa is given over to the most gracefully furnished and carpeted of public rooms and corridors, frescoed and hand-detailed, immense bouquets of fresh flowers everywhere.

Will success spoil Portugal, with tourism one of its prime industries and a country that has classically been the poorest in Western Europe now its fastest-growing economy, throwing itself particularly enthusiasticallly into the European Economic Community? It's a distinct danger, but at least today, Portugal is a land, and the Portuguese a people, that deserve further discovery.

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