With so many students, Coimbra is a lively place. The narrow alleyways of the upper city are backed with bars and taverns serving cheap, hearty dishes. Visitors can occasionally hear the plaintive tones of Coimbra's own version of Portugal's bluesy fado music. Among the region's other cities, Aveiro is known as Portugal's Venice, thanks to the canals linking it to a vast, mysterious marshland.
It's renowned for art nouveau houses, brightly painted boats and artery-clogging egg and sugar confections called ovos moles. Also well worth a visit are the sturdy hilltop cities of Viseu and Guarda whose cathedrals castles and solid stone houses seem hewn from the rocky terrain.
Portuguese cooking is rooted in regional traditions. Many will appeal to more game eaters. Eel stew is the signature dish in Aveiro. The area around Mealhada lives largely off spit-roasted piglets served whole in vast roadside eateries. In the hills east of Coimbra, old goat , slow cooked in red wine is a rustic favorite. Portugal's center also produces notable cheese and wines, notably in the Dao and Bairrada areas.
A visit to the cellars of the Alianca vineyard is a treat. In addition to excellent drinks, the Underground Museum contains African sculpture, Portuguese ceramics and other works from the eclectic collection of millionaire art aficionado Joe Berardo. Serra da Estrela: Skiing with lines, just not the kind you're used to. Tourists don't usually come to Portugal for the snow.
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Yet at more than 6, feet, the Serra da Estrela mountains are home to the sun-soaked country's only ski resort. It'll never rival the Alps, but the Serra da Estrela and other smaller ranges rolling from the Atlantic to the Spanish border offer spectacular scenery in summer or winter. Portugal's largest wilderness features soaring peaks, bolder-strewn plateaus and crystalline lakes. Wolves prowl the forests, golden eagles soar overhead.
The serras also offer a scattering of historic villages, like Belmonte unique Jewish heritage , postcard-worthy Piodao and Monsanto, once voted as the archetypal Portuguese village. Many here live off the rearing of sheep, which produces soft-patterned blankets and sweaters, creamy cheeses and the unique Serra da Estrela dogs that are fluffy cute, but tough enough to scare off wolves. There's a distinct edge-of-the-world vibe on the broad beaches and breezy headlands of mainland Europe's most westerly shore, but it's less than an hour's drive from Nazare to no less than three spectacular World Heritage Sites that bare witness to the region's glory days.
First stop is the great monastery of Alcobaca. Construction got underway here in , while Portugal's first king battled to gain control of the country after years of Arab rule. Portuguese visitors come to see the ornate tombs of King Pedro I and his murdered mistress Ines de Castro, whose tragic 14th-century love story is etched in the national psyche.
Once a stronghold of the Knights Templar, this mysteriously spiritual complex has at its heart a round church inspired by Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
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In July, there's a chance to witness Tomar's other claim to fame, the Festas dos Tabuleiros. Held every four years, this six-day festival is crowned by a procession of white-robed maidens who each balance on their heads a tray loaded with 30 flower-decorated bread loaves. The third in this World Heritage trio of sacred sites is the Convent of Batalha , a multispired Gothic pile in soft-yellow stone built in thanks for Portugal's victory over an invading Spanish army in a field nearby. It's a short drive from there to an altogether more recent religious shrine -- the towering basilica at Fatima where many Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children during World War I.
Today the town is a major pilgrimage site, drawing thousands of visitors.
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The huge candlelit outdoor mass held every May 12 can be a moving event for visitors of any or no faith. Freelance journalist Paul Ames has been hooked on Portugal since visiting as a kid in the s. He lives in Lisbon but remains a frequent visitor to his wife's home village in the heart of the Centro region.
A year of the world's Best Beaches There's a perfect beach for every week of the year. There are hundreds of scallop shells scattered across the sand and the beach quickly shelves away to deep water. This is a blue flag beach, so there is a lifeguard during the summer months plus a number of cafes near the steps. Where to stay Quinta da Figueirinha near Silves, 14km away, is a farmhouse set among olive and carob groves, with an eccentric Irish bar at the end of the garden. A pine tree-lined footpath leads over the salt marshes to the island and 11km of endless sand await.
It can be busy near the restaurants but, on the western side of the island, beyond the striking anchor graveyard, is the quieter Praia do Barril. This is a naturist-friendly beach and the dazzling white sands and calm waters are perfect for whiling away lazy days in the sun. For more luxury, head to Herdade da Corte , a grand but welcoming country estate 15km north-west of Tavira.
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Come at low tide for a gentle dip, or at high tide for wild crashing waves. Head 10km south from Caneiros for the geothermal pools at Ponta da Ferraria, which are said to have ancient healing properties. There is a hand-rope for swimmers to grab on to as the swell sweeps in and out of the pool.
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For some truly magical solitude, head down there in the evening and take a dip under a canopy of stars, ideally at low tide. There is also a great restaurant on the rocks, Termas da Ferraria , which serves traditional regional dishes and local wines.
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