Portugal’s Heartland

Portugal has an oversized history, fascinating culture, and boatloads of sardines. Saving the capital city of Lisbon for another episode, we'll dance on the beach at Nazaré, marvel at a medieval abbey in Batalha, visit a royal library and revel with university students in Coimbra, savor port wine with the people who made it along the Douro River, and get to know Portugal's gritty and fascinating second city, Porto.

Travel Details

Cervejaria Galé (Nazaré)

Run by António Brígido Afonso, this place is the last fisherman's dive along Nazaré's beachfront strip, serving lots of shellfish and salty options to go with your beer (at Avenida da República 30).

Monastery of Santa Maria (Batalha)

Considered Portugal's finest architectural achievement, this great monastery celebrates a dramatic medieval battlefield victory. Construction stretched over two centuries (1388–1533), but the result was an original take on Gothic style and Manueline decoration.

Basilica of Our Lady of Fátima

The towering Neoclassical basilica has a 200-foot spire with a golden crown and crystal cross-shaped beacon on top. Inside, a huge painting depicting the vision is flanked by chapels dedicated to the Stations of the Cross and the tombs of the children who saw the vision. The basilica is busy with many Masses throughout each day.

Church of Santa Cruz (Coimbra)

The most active religious spot in town, this musty church boasts a grand facade, houses several historic tombs, and is lavishly decorated with 18th-century tiles that tell the stories of the discovery of the Holy Cross and the life of St. Augustine. Its exquisitely carved pulpit is considered one of the finest pieces of Renaissance work in Portugal.

Cristina Duarte

Cristina knows Portugal well, and leads private tours in Lisbon when not on the road leading tours for my company.

Old Cathedral (Sé Velha, Coimbra)

Highlights here include some of Portugal's oldest tiles, one of its best Renaissance altars, and its oldest Gothic cloister (open daily).

Fado ao Centro (Coimbra)

An all-male ensemble of current and former Coimbra university students sing fado here in the unique local style. The 50-minute evening shows, held daily in a cute little 50-seat hall, end with a glass of port and a little Q&A with the musicians. This is a nice alternative to late-night shows, but can be popular with tour groups; reservations are smart in summer (call or drop in to reserve a seat).

King João's Library (Coimbra)

In this elegant building, one of Europe's best surviving Baroque libraries displays 40,000 books in 18th-century splendor. The books, each dating from before 1755, are in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Imagine being a student in Coimbra centuries ago, when this temple of learning stored the world's knowledge like a vast filing cabinet (and consider how readily accessible the world of information is to our age). Timed-entry tickets allow visitors into this 300-year-old temple of thought. Reservations aren't possible — if you anticipate crowds, arrive by 10:00 to avoid a long wait, or buy your ticket at the Science Museum, where there's often no ticket-buying line.

Quinta de Santa Eufêmia (Douro Valley)

At their vineyard in the Douro Valley's Parada do Bispo, the fourth-generation Carvalho siblings make innovative wines, such as a 20-year white port. In their large, open tasting room just behind Porto's riverfront, they showcase the success of a non-corporate winery.

São Bento Train Station (Porto)

The station has a main entry hall that features some of Portugal's finest azulejos — vivid, decorative hand-painted tiles that show historical and folk scenes from the Douro region. Originally a Benedictine convent, the land and building were nationalized and used to provide an ideal welcome for trains when they arrived in the 1870s. All the painted tiles seem even older, but they're actually Portuguese revival art from the period just after World War I, celebrating the country's heritage in a romanticized way, typical of that age.

Rota do Douro (Porto)

This company is one of several offering well-promoted "Six Bridges" river cruises, which usually last about 50 minutes and leave from the waterfront in the Ribeira district.

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.


Hi, I'm Rick Steves. Back with more of the best of Europe. This time, we're enjoying some rich musical culture and a whole lot more. It's the heartland of Portugal. Thanks for joining us.

Portugal's a small country of 10 million people with an oversized history. With a rich heritage, fascinating culture, and tons of sardines, it's inexpensive, friendly, and easy to explore.

We'll dance on the beach, visit a royal library, savor port wine with the people who made it, marvel at a medieval abbey, feel the emotion of fado, visit Portugal's second city, and celebrate with students.

Portugal shares the Iberian Peninsula with its neighbor, Spain. Our travels take us through the heartland of Portugal. Saving the capital city of Lisbon for another episode, we explore Nazaré, Batalha, Coimbra, the Douro River Valley, and visit the city of Porto.

Our first stop? The fishing town of Nazaré. We're here in May and the beach is all ours. While touristy in the summer, Nazaré offers a good look at how bits of traditional Portugal survive.

The community faces its sweeping beach. People stroll the promenade. Old timers enjoy the scene. Kids use the beach for a soccer field. And families catch some springtime sun — before the hordes of summer vacationers arrive.

Nazaré has a strong fishing heritage. While nothing like its heyday, fisherman still manage to harvest the sea. Working as a team as the sun drops, they set their nets with wisdom passed down from their grandfathers. The next morning, the women of the town prepare the day's catch. Splayed and salted fish are put out on nets to dry under the midday sun. This simple way of preserving fish carries on, unchanged for generations. Locals claim they're delicious…but I'd rather eat another salty treat: barnacles.

[At Cervejaria Galé eatery]

Rick: So, this is a barnacle?
Waiter: Yep.
Rick: How do you say that in Portuguese?
Waiter: Percebes.
Rick: Percebes. Can you show me the trick to opening it?
Waiter: You…
Rick: Ah. Mmm, it's good! So where do these come from?
Waiter: From the rocks, from there.
Rick: Just from right over there, huh?
Waiter: Yeah.
Rick: Today?
Waiter: Yeah.
Rick: Really? Today. So it's fresh. So, I break it, mm-kay, like so? Look at that. It's beautiful. Mmm. How do you say "delicious?"
Waiter: Muito bom.
Rick: Muito bom. Percebes — muito bom.
Waiter: Good.
Rick: And with beer, perfect.
Teresa: Obrigado.
Rick: Bon appétit. Thank you.
Waiter: Thank you.
​Rick: Obrigado.

Nazaré's women are known for their traditional skirts, with many layers of petticoats to keep them warm…reminiscent of the old days, when they'd sit on the beach awaiting the return of their fishermen.

Rick: Bom dia. [Good day.]
Woman: Boa tarde! [Good afternoon!]
​Rick: Boa tarde!

And this proud woman is eager to describe her outfit. The short skirts are made bulky by many petticoats. The aprons are embroidered by hand. The stockings are high and loud. Flamboyant jewelry is passed down from generation to generation. And, when the wind whips up, her shawl keeps her warm.

Woman: Si? [Yes?]
Rick: Nice!
Woman: Si? [speaks Portuguese]
Rick: Obrigado.
Woman: Obrigado.
Rick: Boa tarde.
Woman: Boa tarde.

Nazaré's folk club keeps their traditions lively with music and dance. This troupe has been gathering crowds since the 1930s.

Nazaré's sister town, Sítio, is perched high above on a bluff. A funicular connects the two, and it's been saving locals a steep climb since 1889.

Sítio has its own vibe. The stony main square evokes a bygone age. Its wealth came from farming rather than fishing. And today the main economy is tourism.

From the edge of the bluff you can enjoy a commanding view. Nazaré and its golden beach stretch all the way to the new harbor. In the other direction, a wilder beach stretches far to the north. And when the surf's up here…it's really up.

This bluff is famous among surfers for some of the biggest waves in the world. When conditions align, they create monster waves a hundred feet high, as dare-devil surfers enjoy the ultimate ride.

It's dinnertime and we're ready to feast on the bounty of the sea. Tempting appetizers are put on the table. But beware: In Portugal you pay for every nibble. If you don't want them, just say so.

So, in Portugal, they put this on the table whether you ask for it or not. You might think it's free, but it's not. But it's always delicious.

But these are just too tasty to miss. Vinho verde — literally "green wine" — is a Portuguese specialty. Refreshing and sprightly, it's a young, or "green" wine — picked, bottled, and enjoyed without aging.

A key to good seafood here is fresh ingredients and simple preparation.

Rick: All right, Teresa. Here comes some shrimp with garlic for you.

With a small group, I order family style to maximize the experience. We're enjoying grilled sardines, sea bream, garlic shrimp, and caldeirada — the local fish stew.

I like driving in Portugal. Like all of Europe, Portugal has made a huge investment in infrastructure. And, in this small country, laced with new freeways, you can get around in a hurry.

Standing boldly, just off the highway, is one of the most revered sites in Portugal. Both historic and sacred, this is the monastery of Batalha.

Batalha means "battle," and this was built to celebrate a pivotal battle in 1385, when Portugal beat the mightier Spaniards. This victory allowed for independence under a Portuguese king — rather than rule by a Spanish king.

This monastery and its church, the symbol of Portugal's national pride, were built by Portugal's King John I. It's an ornate, late-Gothic structure with pointed arches, fanciful gargoyles, and flamboyant pinnacles representing the flickering flames of the Holy Spirit.

The nave, with its towering pillars and warmly lit by stained glass, has an air of solemn simplicity. This is classic Gothic from Europe's Age of Faith.

The adjacent cloister, designed for meditation and tranquility, is Manueline. That's the uniquely Portuguese style named after King Manuel, who ruled around 1500. It features symbolic motifs that celebrate the sea and trade: coils of rope, pearls, artichokes, and lotus flowers from the recently explored Orient. Armillary spheres symbolize how, with expert navigational skills, Portugal sailed the globe.

A few miles away is Fátima, one of Europe's most important pilgrimage sites. The basilica, facing a vast square, marks the spot where the faithful believe the Virgin Mary appeared several times.

On May 13, 1917, three young shepherds reported being visited by Mary, who said "peace is needed." World War I raged on, and she appeared again on the 13th day of each of the next five months — each time calling for peace.

Ever since, for over a hundred years now, on the 13th of each of those months, pilgrims gather here. The Vatican recognized the apparition of Fátima as a bona fide miracle. And, on its centennial in 2017, over a million people gathered here with Pope Francis I to remember Mary's still-timely call for peace.

An hour north of Fátima is the university city of Coimbra. Fortified on its hill, overlooking the Mondego River, in its medieval heyday, this was Portugal's leading city.

In the Middle Ages, when Muslim Moors controlled Portugal, this was the dominant city. And then, for an entire century, it was the country's capital. Only later, when Portugal was becoming a maritime power, did the port cities of Lisbon and Porto become more influential than Coimbra.

The city was established by the ancient Romans at a strategic bridge that crossed the Mondego River at this point. Today's bridge leads to the main square, a great place to begin your Coimbra visit.

Coimbra is a delight on foot. The pedestrian-only main drag is perfectly straight — an indication that it survives from ancient Roman times.

It ends at another people-friendly square facing the Church of Santa Cruz.

To be sure I get the most out of my travels here, I'm joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Cristina Duarte. Wherever you're traveling, you can find private guides listed online and in guidebooks.

It seems like I've got friends all over Europe, doesn't it? But you know, I'm paying them to be my sidekick. And you can, too. I find hiring a private guide to be money very well spent.

Rick: OK, so, the gate is just this way, isn't it?

Cristina: And this is the gate of the old city.
Rick: Of the old city. What was the name?
Cristina: Medina. Arco de Almedina.
Rick: "Medina" is an Arabic word.
Cristina: Is an Arabic word, and reminds us that we were ruled by the Moors for a couple of centuries…
Rick: OK.
Cristina: …and defense was very important.
Rick: So…
Cristina: That's why the street, you see, it's not straight. It forms an angle.
Rick: Oh, OK.
Cristina: And if you look up, you have mata-cães
Rick: Mata-cães.
Cristina: …meaning "kill the dogs," because it was meant to throw the stones to the enemies.
Rick: Oh, no!
Cristina: Yeah.
Rick: "Kill the dogs" — I don't want to be here.

Rick: What's this?
Cristina: This is the Old Cathedral.
Rick: How do you say that in Portuguese?
Cristina: Sé Velha.
Rick: Sé Velha.
Cristina: It's a 12th-century cathedral, Romanesque.
Rick: So, Roman- — 'cause you've got the round arches.
Cristina: That's true.
Rick: Now, it also looks like a fortress. Look at the crenellations up there.
Cristina: We were on the times of the Moors and Christians fighting for the same territories.
Rick: So they were still worried about the Moors?
Cristina: Oh, yes. They were. They were.
Rick: So this is kind of a double building — a church and a fortress?
Cristina: Yes.

We're dropping into a tiny theater [Fado ao Centro] to enjoy a fado performance. Fado is a uniquely Portuguese style of music — soulful and nostalgic. While most fado is sung by the women, here in Coimbra, it's the men. The songs are serenades of love — usually sad, unanswered love. These troubadours have long provided the soundtrack for life here in Coimbra.

Coimbra is home to the country's oldest and most prestigious university — founded in 1290. As a traveler, it's fun to drop into this venerable academic world.

Seven hundred years ago, Coimbra's university taught the medieval basics: like law, medicine, theology. Later, as Portuguese sailors were navigating the globe, astronomy and geometry were added.

The university's Baroque library has an impressive collection of antique books. University researchers are still allowed to read these centuries-old volumes. King John V still oversees the library he founded in the early 1700s. The reading tables — inlaid with exotic woods: ebony from Sri Lanka, and rosewood from Brazil — come with silver inkwells. The gold leaf is South American, and the motifs are Chinese. Everything reminds us that Portugal's wealth was both immense and imported. The heavy teak door is kept shut to keep out the humidity.

When school's in session, Coimbra bustles with a youthful energy. We're here in May, and students are out in the streets — as they celebrate the completion of another year of studies.

Many Coimbra students live together in groups of about a dozen in communal houses called repúblicas. Today these function as tiny fraternities — each with their own personality, and an unbridled urge to express it.

With the help of a couple of six packs, Cristina and I have talked ourselves in for dinner. And, within moments, we're engulfed in stimulating conversation.

Rick: Do you guys talk politics like this all the time?
Students: Yes, yes.
Rick: I like that.

Students here see formal education as job training, and their time in these co-ops as life training. They brag that in one year of this communal living, you gain social skills that'll last a lifetime.

The conversation rages on at the dinner table. Part of the ethic of república living is eating together. No cell phones are allowed at the table. The students pool their money to hire a cook so everyone can enjoy this enriching social time. And whenever there's a memorable event — like a visit from an American film crew — the gang shares a special cheer.

From Coimbra, we drive a couple hours farther north into the mountains of the interior to explore the scenic Douro River Valley, famous as the birthplace of port wine.

The Douro River's steep and twisting valleys, laboriously terraced over the centuries, are ideal for growing grapes. Unlike other great European river valleys, the Douro was never a strategic military location. So, rather than castles and palaces, you'll see farms and vineyards — almost all dedicated to the production of port, the region's beloved fortified wine.

A 50-mile stretch of prime land is home to scores of quintas — vineyards that produce port. Many quintas welcome the public, offering tours and tastings.

Visiting a family like this [at the Quinta de Santa Eufêmia], we enjoy a peek at local life. It's spring, and the workers are busy taming the fresh growth. In their cellar, the sister, who runs the vineyard, explains how this is just the first stage of a very long process.

Tasting the family's finest port, surrounded by their vines, I enjoy yet another chance to appreciate the pride of artisans so passionate about their traditions and craft.

The Douro River begins as a trickle in Spain, runs west through Portugal, and to the city of Porto, where it spills into the Atlantic.

Porto, the town that gave the country and port wine its name, is the second largest city in Portugal.

And, like second cities throughout Europe, Porto is a hard-scrabble town with a rough past. It's recently emerged from a post-industrial funk to become trendy, revitalized with a fresh and creative energy.

The city is full of Old World charm: Prickly church towers dot the skyline. Houses with red-tiled roofs tumble down its hills to the riverbank.

Porto's a solid city — it seems made entirely of granite.

The main drag, Avenue of the Allies, is named for Portugal's WWI alliance with Britain and America. The wide boulevard, watched over by the huge city hall, is lined with monumental examples of Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

As if to counter all the heavy stonework, inviting shopping streets are ornamented with playful architectural touches. There are lots of lovely blue-tiled facades. Churches that are otherwise just more blocky granite are beautified by these fine blue ceramic tiles, called azulejos. And for a closer look, visit the old [São Bento] train station.

Storefronts evoke good times from the early 20th century. Delightful facades decorate venerable cafés, as Porto seems to cling to the style of an age gone by.

Porto's romantic riverfront, the Ribeira district, is the city's most scenic and touristy quarter. But before tourism, this was a hard-working port.

As you stroll, imagine the busy port scene here, before the promenade was reclaimed from the river. Cargo-laden rivercraft lashed to the embankment, off-loading their produce and wine directly into 14th-century cellars.

The old arcades lining the promenade are filled with hole-in-the-wall restaurants and souvenir shops. Behind the arcades are skinny, colorful houses draped with laundry fluttering like flags. The contrast of today's tourist crowds amid these vivid, authentic neighborhoods is striking.

From here, a double-decker iron bridge crosses the Douro River. Inspired by Gustave Eiffel, when it was built back in the 1880s, it was the biggest such bridge in the world. Recently, its top deck was closed to traffic — now it's just people and trams.

Across the river is a harbor lined with traditional boats called rabelos. Historically, these cargo boats transported kegs of wine from the inland vineyards down to Porto. The boats have flat bottoms, a big square sail, and a long rudder to help them navigate the twisty and, at times, shallow river.

Facing the riverfront is a district filled with warehouses. These port-wine lodges are where the world's port wine comes to mature. Eighteen lodges compete and most offer tours and tastings. We're visiting one [Graham's 1890 Lodge] to learn about the wine that put Porto on the map.

After the year-old wine is offloaded from the boats, it ages even longer here in these enormous barrels. This aging, on the cool, north-facing bank of the Douro, takes years, and even decades. And, when the refined and time-honored process is finally complete, the beloved port wine is ready to enjoy.

Rick: What is the difference between port and red wine that we think of?
​Port server: The difference between a port wine and a traditional wine is the fact that the traditional wine has a complete fermentation, and a port wine is a fortified wine, so you stop the fermentation the second day by adding a really strong wine spirit, brandy, that has 77% of alcohol and kills all the yeasts. We have mainly two different styles: rubies and tawnies. The rubies, they age in big vats, so they will have little contact with oak, little contact with oxygen. The exact same wine, if you age it in smaller barrels, they will have higher contact with oak, higher contact with oxygen, and the oxygen will change the color. The coloring of tawny is lighter, and, you start to understand, much older, and much more mature fruit.

After enjoying our tasting, a fine way to cap our Porto visit is on a lazy boat ride. Several companies offer hour-long narrated cruises along the historic waterfront. Here in a city built over the centuries upon the fruit of the vine and the hard work of its people, we ponder the impressive and salty mix that created Portugal.

Thanks for joining us. I hope you've enjoyed our look at the many dimensions of the heartland of Portugal. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time…keep on travelin'.