Journalist Roger Green explores the unspoiled beauty of Portugal’s Silver Coast and finds the ideal festive retreats for those wishing to get away from it all.
To visit the Estremadura region of Central Portugal and its Silver Coast is rather like stepping through an Alice in Wonderland looking glass into a world of enchantment and beguiling natural beauty.
Everywhere you go there is something to bewitch the senses or excite the imagination. The charm of this region will enfold you in its embrace and never let go, tempting you back again and again.
Until recent years, the Silver Coast was not considered a serious alternative to the Algarve as a holiday destination.
But in the last decade this stretch of stunning coastline, extending from just north of Lisbon to Porto, has emerged as a leading tourist region.
The Silver Coast is aptly named. It is famed for its long, pristine sandy beaches, dramatic cliffs, enchanting fishing villages, verdant, rolling landscape with orchards and vineyards, rickety windmills and picturesque architecture.
The monasteries, convents, castles, churches and museums bear witness to the priceless patrimony of the region much of which is classified as World Heritage.
The Silver Coast, officially known as the Western Tourism Region, is also home for famous art treasures of porcelain and crystal as well as its gastronomy, which is strongly influenced by the sea, and counterbalanced by its tasty Bairrada wines and mouth-watering sweets.
Once difficult to reach, it is now easily accessed from Lisbon and its international airport by the new A8 motorway and equally accessible from Porto and its international airport in the north.
The climate, with springtime temperatures in the winter months and cool summers freshened by Atlantic breezes, is ideal for golfers and there has been a significant increase in the number of golf-based residential resorts along the coastline.
One of the biggest residential golf resorts is Praia D’El Rey Golf and Beach Resort which overlooks the beach and ocean just outside the town of Óbidos and a few kilometres from the fishing port of Peniche,
Óbidos is a beautifully preserved walled medieval picture postcard town that resembles an open air museum with its ancient buildings and monuments, narrow winding streets and whitewashed houses with windows and terraces adorned with flowers.
Walking the ramparts, visitors can enjoy views of windmills, vineyards, and orchards.
The shops are piled high with local handicrafts and in springtime the town is ablaze with geraniums, bougainvillaea and morning glory.
This exceptionally beautiful historic town was once a wedding present given by King D Dinis to his Spanish bride Isabel of Aragon.
The 15th century royal castle in the town has been restored and turned into an elegant pousada, providing high class tourist accommodation.
Just five kilometres from Obidos is the Lagoa de Obidos, a natural lagoon protected from the rolling waves of the Atlantic and overlooked by the village of Foz do Arelho. The great British statesman Winston Churchill used to stay in a hotel overlooking the lagoon.
Sailing, rowing and windsurfing are the main water sports and freshwater fishing, while hang-gliders head for the beaches of Montejuno, Serrada Socorro and Santa Rita.
This is a highly picturesque area where a number of British and other Europeans have settled over the years.
It is interesting to note that the beauty of the Silver Coast was discovered by an eminent Englishman nearly 200 years ago.
The 18th century Gothic novelist William Beckford penned his final published work Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha, in which he waxed lyrical about several engaging towns and villages during his travels in the province known as Estremadura.
Beckford’s travels took him from Lisbon to Batalha, visiting Óbidos along the way and the old-fashioned spa town of Caldas da Rainha.
There was one area that Beckford missed – the fishing port of Peniche and the Berlenga Islands. But although he didn’t visit the town he was enamoured with the local cuisine.
“We were regaled with a magnificent banquet of fish caught near the rocks of Peniche and reckoned to be the best along the whole coastline,” he wrote.
Time has not changed this scenario and the fresh, succulent seafood served daily in a plethora of harbour-front restaurants is a good reason to visit this busy Atlantic port.
There are delicious fish stews, baked or boiled sea bream and rock bass which is so fresh it winks at you off the plate!
Freshwater eels and cockles from the Óbidos Lagoon are another treat while shellfish from the beds at Porto de Barcas produce the local delicacy ‘lagosta suada’ a lobster dish found nowhere else in Portugal.
Another sightseeing delight is to take a ferry to the Berlenga Nature Reserve, a protected bird sanctuary on a 78-hectare island 10kms offshore.
The Berlenga Islands are also renowned for scuba diving and the area around Peniche is famous for fishing and surfing.
One of the great natural wonders of the world is also to be seen on the Silver Coast – the spectacular caves and grottoes of Grutas de Mira d’Aire 14kms south-west of Porto do Mos. The largest cave system in Portugal, it is a bewitching and eerie underground world of colourfully lit caverns bristling with sinewy stalactites and bulbous stalagmites.
Caldas da Rainha is famous for its spa and its pottery and owes its existence to Queen Dona Leonor who was so impressed by the healing qualities of the strong sulphuric waters bubbling up in and around the town that she founded a hospital in 1484, initiating four centuries of noble and royal patronage. The hospital still stands today and attracts all manner of folk seeking cures for their rheumatic ailments.
The ceramics museum (Museu da Cerâmica) housed in the former Palácio de Visconde de Sacavém, houses an outstanding collection of beautiful hand-painted tiles and Caldas pottery, notably the work of Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, the 19th century artist renowned for his whimsical clay figurines.
Horse lovers from all over Portugal flock to the town of Golegã during the first two weeks in November for the eight-day National Horse Fair (Feira Nacional do Cavalo) the oldest and one of the largest fairs of its kind in Europe.
The traditional Portuguese way of life here is untouched and the annual festivals and fairs add colour and flavour to the lifestyle in this part of the country.
For more information, please call the Oeste Tourism Board on 262 955 060 or email [email protected]