The hilltop town of Monsaraz

An ideal country, Portugal, and time, now, for road trips

Portugal has placed “número um” on yet another one of those lists posted on the internet by people who seem to know what they’re talking about. This time it was stated emphatically, in bold print, that Portugal is the best country in Europe to go on a road trip.

I don’t know – I’ve been on some pretty good road trips in Croatia, Poland and Great Britain, to name a few; but I haven’t even been to Luxembourg or Ireland, so who’s to say?

The roadtrippers conducted a survey, so that’s one way to look at it. What I do know from personal experience and from multiple friends, and from almost endless posts on Facebook and other social media platforms, is that Portugal is a darn good country for a road trip.

There are several reasons why Portugal does lend itself to getting in the car and taking off for points known or unknown. The primary reason, to my way of thinking, is that Portugal is a relatively small country. If you drive from Sagres to Braga or Bragança way up north, you wouldn’t have driven far enough to have gotten halfway across Texas, but you would have seen much, much more scenery and history.

For some reason, Spain, a much larger expanse, finished second in the survey, and I know I hit some long-haul sections with many miles between points of interest, so another consideration must also be the road conditions.

The roads in Spain that mainly cross the plain are indeed, for the most part, in excellent condition. I found some of the highways in good ol’España to be like driving across a snooker table. I do think the highways in Portugal, the A-2 for example, are well maintained and offer a smooth and safe way of getting from here to Lisbon, for example, in relative short order.

Another reason that Portugal lends itself to car trips is that you don’t have to go very far before you’re someplace interesting. Quite a few residents of the Algarve enjoy lovely day trips to pleasant places with different vibes (How’s that for a “woke” way of putting it?)

From Tavira to Lagos, with Silves and Carvoeiro in between, you can find yourself in a variety of unique locations, with their own particular scenic, historic and culinary flavours. Or you might want to drive up the hills and check out Salir and/or Alte, where they have a waterfall and you can have lunch with a ‘burro’ named Baltazar. And you haven’t left the Algarve yet.

On up the road, via a well-marked highway system, you can find Évora, a historic town with Roman ruins, or Monsaraz, a picturesque hilltop citadel, with a view of Spain across the Guadiana River, which are definitely in striking distance.

Friends of ours just got back from that excursion and enjoyed it. Of course, you can and should visit Lisbon, more than once, and if you haven’t been to the palaces of Sintra, what are you waiting for?

Just south of Lisboa, we stayed in a “parador” (a castle converted into a hotel) in Palmela overlooking the coastal town of Setúbal and it was well worth it.

So, why would somebody living on one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world go for an extended outing along another coast? Well, because the western, or “silver”, coast has its own look and feel about it, and is surprisingly cooler in the summer.

My lovely wife and I recently celebrated our 54th wedding anniversary with a six-day road trip to Nazaré, a surfer destination famous for its huge waves (due to swell again in October, so plan ahead), and Peniche, a peninsula that sticks out into the Atlantic. In both locales, we ate plenty of good seafood.

In between, we headed inland and spent two very romantic nights at the Palace Hotel do Bussaco with a world-class restaurant in the forests near Luso. In six short days, we had a variety of memorable experiences. Also, everywhere we went, our fellow travellers seemed to be doing their best with masks and vaccine passports.

I can also attest to enjoyable road trips to Óbidos, which has a wonderful medieval festival every year, and to Tomar, a charming town steeped in history going back to the Knights Templar. The point is there are plenty more places that I’m sure most of my readers could recommend.

You may have noticed that I haven’t really gotten that far north during our tour of road-trip destinations. Which brings me to my alternative recommendation.

While I, personally, don’t mind driving, I’m not interested in making it a chore that needs to be endured. Back on the east coast of the United States, I had friends who drove all the way down to Miami or even the Florida Keys (one of the nicest road trips in America) all in one go, stopping only for bathroom breaks and maybe a hot dog. That’s not enjoyable, that’s work.

With that in mind, I would like to suggest taking the train if you’re really planning on going much farther. Portugal has some of the highest gas prices in Europe and the tolls starting on the A22 and motoring farther north are not inexpensive. Even when you figure in taxi costs upon arrival, going by train might prove to be an affordable option. It was when we went to the very hilly, university town of Coimbra.

My lovely wife and I and a number of our friends have appreciated taking the train to Porto (approximately €50 round trip in first class) and were delighted to arrive at one of the most beautiful train stations in the world, the São Bento railway depot, with its walls covered with azulejos, gorgeous examples of Portuguese tiles. From there we went on a cruise up the Douro River and visited wineries and drank Port. Not a road trip exactly, though you could do it all by car, but you get what I’m talking about.

We’ve only made it as far as Braga, another very hilly city, which itself has made one of those many published lists of prime destinations recently. So, there are lots and lots of places I haven’t mentioned, like Monsanto, a fortress town literally built out of the boulders and rock formations on the promontory of a singular mountain. Then you could also pass through Aveiro, the so-called “Venice of Portugal”, complete with gondolas, no less. Or there are our friends on Facebook who are constantly showing off where they’ve been and we’re all welcome to take the hints provided.

My lovely wife and I are not afraid to get lost. In fact, we’ve “followed our noses” often enough to kind of enjoy it. However, now with GPS and Waze that’s seldom a problem even when trying to navigate through the narrow streets of one town centre or another that we’ve just come upon and decided to explore.

Finally, autumn in Portugal is the ideal time to get into the car and go. During the months of September and October, it is still warm and sunny enough to make sightseeing a pleasure, but many of the tourists and most of the schoolchildren have abandoned our road-tripping mecca to the residents. Just like us, there are still plenty of people on tour, but that only means the restaurants are still open even though you might not need a reservation.

With some pandemic worries still valid, right now might not be the most desirable time to go much farther afield, but a “staycation” could prove to be a constructive option, which could make a positive contribution to the local and tourist economies. There is no better time to load up the car, turn Spotify up and hit the road in Portugal.

By Pat, the expat
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For the previous 10 years, Pat lived in Panama which used to be rated above Portugal as a top retirement destination (but not any more), where he wrote a column for a tourist publication.

The Palace Hotel do Bussaco
Sunset in Nazaré
The hilltop town of Monsaraz
Baltazar in Alte