The Portuguese often compare their country to California, and in some ways that isn’t far-fetched. Both comprise long and relatively thin coastal strips that lie at the western edge of a much larger landmass; both have a cool, rainy northern region and a sunbaked southern one; and both have areas devoted to fine gastronomy and wine production. Of course, California is twice as long and has a population four times as large. But why quibble? For a small country, Portugal is an exceptionally rewarding destination: Its people are welcoming, its landscapes are varied, and it is surprisingly inexpensive.
The charms of Lisbon — its great museums, fine restaurants and setting on the estuary of the Tagus River — are well-known. What is surprising, however, is that so much of the country remains under the radar. On a recent trip, I decided to explore central Portugal, a lush green swath lying between Lisbon and Porto and stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the mountains along the border with Spain. The region combines unspoiled landscapes, historic towns like Coimbra and Viseu, and one of Europe’s great wine regions, the Dão River Valley.
Quinta das Lágrimas
Leaving Lisbon just after noon, we stopped for lunch in Santarém, a pretty little town on the Tagus about 75 minutes north of the airport. Friends had suggested Taberna Ó Balcão, a stylish contemporary tavern, where chef Rodrigo Castelo cooks delicious dishes like river fish soup with barbel roe, and sirloin with coriander and lemon rice. A further 90-minute drive brought us to Coimbra. The delightful university city is perched on a hill overlooking the Mondego River, and there, it was a pleasure to reacquaint ourselves with the 52-room Quinta das Lágrimas. One valet saw to our luggage and another parked our car while we walked up to the 18th-century main villa through a green tunnel of vines.