Isabel Conway travels the Route 66 of Europe —Portugal’s 739km Estrada Nacional — and discovers the country’s ancient towns and treasures
There’s a lot to be said for ‘slow travel’, ditching the frantic rush on holidays to pack everything into a blur of monuments and museums, shopping malls and overcrowded itineraries which are soon forgotten.
That thought strikes me while watching a spectacular sunset against a patchwork quilt of remote vineyards in the Douro Valley and later cooling off in a rustic swimming pool hidden behind an orange grove.
Estrada Nacional (National Road 2) N2, spanning 739 km is the longest road in Portugal, running the length of the country.
The route, marked by elderly milestones and sporadic road signs, connects ancient Chaves in the shadow of mountains in the north and close to the Spanish border to Faro and the Algarve’s southernmost beaches.
Overlooked since the arrival of its motorways network, the 70-year-old N2 is starting to enjoy a new lease of life as home of the ‘Route 66 of Europe’.
A mapped guide listing attractions across 35 municipalities passes a wondrous diversity of inland landscapes, history and culture. Travellers, even those who have visited before, are introduced to ‘the other Portugal’ and its regional food and wines along the way.
The long and winding route crosses the vast river valleys of the Douro, Mondego, Tejo and Zezerre.
The asphalt climbs mountains, swings into hilltop villages whose cobbled streets are so narrow there are traffic lights enabling cars to pass each other and much later descends into Alentejo’s gentler terrain of cork oak forests, olive groves and vineyards.
The lure of a long road trip is bound to bring on excitement and trepidation in equal measure.
What lies ahead, I wonder, visualising all that can go wrong — a shattered windscreen, empty fuel tank, losing our way in the middle of nowhere, quarrelling with my navigator, GPS reception fall out?
Our journey on Portugal’s Route 66 begins in late May and, yes, my husband and co-pilot and myself are miraculously still on speaking terms, follows.
We’ve no sooner arrived at Porto airport, vaguely thinking about a detour for a first look at the popular city than twilight falls and it’s a race to the rental car zone with a two-hour drive north to Chaves in darkness ahead.
The rental company upgrades us to a zippy Renault Captur automatic. The forecourt assistant’s command of English is almost non-existent. He’s appears surprised to have to translate the GPS commands into my native language.
Alas the customary bossy female voice (who has saved many a relationship over wrong directions) is but a feeble whisper.
The voice volume is set so low that bending double my navigator can’t make out a word she’s saying. Nothing for it but to follow an old fashioned folded map getting back on the motorway after a short excursion into a dead end industrial estate.
Day One: Chaves is home to Termas (Boiling Springs) and Spa, an enormous complex, renowned for medical-thermal therapy treatments to relax and re-energise, at prices which are a steal compared with elsewhere in Europe.
The slogan “Give more life to the Years, give more years to life” entices many to seek out its miracle cures from the mineral rich hot thermal water.
Chaves Tourist Information office, housed in a monumental building, issues a yellow passport for stamping along the N2 route and the motorbike clubs (and myself!) pose for photos with it at a stone on a roundabout marking the start of the marathon journey.
From Chaves we drive to Vila Real, home of Matteus Rose. A portion of a strenuous new inland Portuguese Camino Walk passes Santa Marta de Penaguiao, overlooking the Douro valley.
My glass of local white wine, the reward for hiking a few km of the Camino, is poured from a type of jerry can and the bill comes to 40 cents.
Most of the local men knocking back port and beer are stooped over from a lifetime’s toil tending vines and handpicking grapes on impossibly steep hillsides.
We overnight in lovely comfortable Lamego Hotel. The gardens and swimming pool overlook the south Douro vineyards and the bar’s wine and tapas menu, like almost everywhere else a bit off the beaten track here, is dirt cheap.
Day Two: Lamego, the main town in the southern Douro Valley is high up and reached by a narrow, steep twisty road with some erratic driving ahead.
We retrace our journey of the previous evening to visit Regua, home of port cellars and its Douro museum.
Pinhao, further along the valley, is the departure point for popular Douro river cruises beneath the hilltop vineyards.
Regua’s port and wine tasting cellars are a must do as long as someone else is doing the driving. Earlier we wandered through the heritage small city of Lamego, a baroque gem well worth a visit.
Pousadas are Portugal’s showpiece accommodation housed in palaces, monasteries and castles. Our overnight accommodation is in Pousada de Viseu, a former hospital dating back to 1852, in the heart of noble Viseu, voted the best city to live in Portugal, home of superb Dao wines.
A wander through old town takes us past streets lined with restaurants into the Baroque historic centre and museum Grao Vasco — home of Portuguese primitive painting.
Muralha da Se Restaurant in a building next to the museum is a true find — fantastic regional cooking, whose soups are priced from €2.50 and main courses averaging €14-€15.
Day Three: The GPS goes on strike again between Viseu and Abrantes, crossing pine clad mountains and escarpments of time warped hamlets before the larger settlements of Gois, Pedrogao Grande and Serta.
Reaching central Medio Tejo region we enter the industrial hub of Abrantes, whose unremarkable approach is of soulless blocks of apartments.
Closer exploration unveils a medieval centre and castle positioned on an islet of the Tagus river. Luna hotel Turismo de Abrantes where we overnight is an interesting mid- century architectural bygone.
The building is cleverly constructed in tiers tucked into the hillside, filled with light and sympathetic retro furniture showing off splendid views of the Tagus river which glistens far below.
We are served heavenly Fios Ovos (Angel Hair) — a traditional Portuguese desert made of eggs drawn into thin strands and boiled in sugar syrup — at the close of a memorable dinner featuring wild boar, local lamb and accompanying wines.
Tania Evaristo, general manager of the hotel, tells how the building was originally built to the orders of Antonio Salazar — Portugal’s long term dictator who used it to entertain foreign guests and investors.
Day Four: We’ve already heard about an idyllic hideaway close to Evora, in the Alentejo region, a top wine producing area and famous too for its food, medieval castles, Roman ruins and important megalithic sites.
Imani Country House, a boutique property, is a seven- bedroom traditional farmhouse estate, cloaked with bougainvillea whose terraced suites have sun terrace steps from orange groves and two small ornamental swimming pools.
We’ve keyed the address into the GPS after a couple of hours drive south east descending from mountains and hillsides covered in pine and eucalyptus to flat terrain of cork-oak plantations.
We meet little traffic apart from huge truck trailers hauling their loads of stripped cork bark.
Picture this: We head for Imani Country House, near Evora, largest and most important of the region’s towns and a UNESCO heritage site, taking to a dusty track with no indication of our final destination or any signs so far except for a board which points to “ Casa de Campo”.
Imani has less than ten bedrooms so the municipality does not allow the property to advertise its name on any signposts, we discover.
But maybe it’s all for the best, another guest points out, as we help ourselves to drinks from the honesty bar, spoil the resident cat and enjoy wonderful chilled surroundings and the excellent food and wines of Imani.
Day Five: Reluctantly, we force ourselves to move on from Imani Country house.
The rental car is cloaked in dust, its suspension put to the limits when we travel up an adjoining track to the megalithic site of Cromeleque dos Almendres, a series of ninety five standing stones dating back to 6,000 BC.
The 5 km long torturous boreen is littered with deep potholes.
Its remoteness is no deterrent to the many who visit a spot, reputedly two thousand years older than Stonehenge.
Back on the road we travel ever southwards, now less than 200 km from Faro, stopping for lunch at Hotel O Gato’s traditional restaurant in Ferreira de Alentejo.
We fortify ourselves with a huge tuna salad at €3.50 and a pizza large enough for two to share at €7 — yet another example of Portugal’s big portions and great value.
The temperature soars to almost 30 degrees by mid- afternoon. Blackened skeletal forests and fire walls mirror the ravages of wild fires.
Through whitewashed streets of Castro Verde and onwards to Almodovar the N2 dips and climbs, twists and turns into the Caldeirao mountains arriving above the interior Algarve of awesome views.
A corkscrew-like series of endless turns leads us gradually downwards towards faraway Faro, meeting dozens of bikers on a vintage motor rally.
Day Six: Pousada Estoi-Faro. A grand finale to any road trip is ending at this fairytale pink and cream rococo style palace building, decorated with statues from antiquity.
Getting here has been a snakes and ladders puzzle up and down the village of Estoi on the verges of Faro — road diversions and one way streets confounding the GPS, yet again, which directs us onto a gravel grassy goat path under the new motorway viaduct.
Our last morning takes us past the end point of the N2 out to Olhao’s colourful port and daily food market with a meander through the last bastions of its once powerful canning industry and an exploration of an area unfortunately often bypassed by tourists.
Our feisty, interesting guide Diana Nunes takes us to the marina sheltered behind old historic Faro castle for a power boat tour around Parque Natural da Ria Formosa’s bird rich wetlands saying, “don’t worry anymore, someone else is doing the driving at last”.