PORTUGAL has a veneer of prosperity—thriving towns, elegant shops, wellgroomed girls, spruce colourwashed houses, plenty of sleek cars, first-class hotels and restaurants with a full international cuisine, up-todate factories.
But scratch the surface and a vastly different world, where affluence has little meaning, is revealed. Dilapidated villages with a communal water pump and a few ramshackle shops, which arc an incredible confusion of rusting tins, dusty bottles, stacks of soap and, possibly, live hens. Women laundering clothes standing knee-deep in none-too-clean rivers or trudging barefoot and heavy-laden to market.
Peasants cooking their daily meal of sardines and peppers on open braziers, working in fields irrigated by water wheels to the accompaniment of the song of windmills, whose canvas sails are fitted with ocarinalike instruments to show that they are working.
Donkeys and carts drawn by oxen with a five-foot span of horn that bring traffic to a standstill. Small girls crouching in doorways embroidering gifts for souvenir shops. Old women kneeling immobile in prayer on the steps of churches.
On the whole facilities for holidaymakers are good, although away from the main centres hotels are still a bit thin on the ground. This deficiency has been partly remedied by the 'pousadas' and 'estalagems', Government-run hostels, all outside towns in particularly attractive areas. They are reliable, relatively cheap and essentially Portuguese down to the last detail but you can only stay for three days.
Portugal begins at the edge of the Spanish Meseta and slopes down to the coast, which has an almost unbroken fringe of golden sand. Strung like a necklace along it are the fishing villages, some completely unspoilt, rooted in the distant past.
Beware the sea on the Western seaboard. Not only is it icy cold as it is by-passed by the Gulf Stream but the Atlantic breakers are deadly and bathing is strictly controlled almost everywhere. Transgress at your peril.
For those. with small children the few places where bathing in unrestricted and safe are worth noting. There is Praia da Mira, unfashionable, well off the beaten tourist track and a curious amalgam of resort-cum-fishing village-cumshanty town.
It is a holiday mecca for the less affluent Portuguese, who gather in large family groups on the scorching beach fully and sombrely dressed in layers of dark clothes. The attraction is the pine-fringed lagoon, ideal for swimming.
San Martinho do Porto has a landlocked bay which is almost as calm as a lagoon and Cascais is protected by the Lisbon headland. Of course, the Mediterranean coast presents no problems.
A point to remember if you stray from the international resorts is that the Portuguese have strict notions of propriety in beach wear. Notices warn of the penalties for over-exposure. Best to leave your bikini at home.
Central Portugal has a flat,
sun-baked coastal plain, broken in places by pine forests planted to check the advance of the sand, backed by the highest mountain range in the country, the Serra da Estrala. Puzzling are the low wire fences that often flank the road until you realise they are for drying the salted cod to make the famed 'bacalhao', still to some extent the staple food. It sounds horrid but is served in countless delicious ways.
Lisbon is the focus of this area. Approaching it, the resorts appear to concertina into one another. With the exception perhaps of Prague, Lisbon is the loveliest capital city in Europe. Built on an arc of the Tagus it rises in terraces of buildings, washed in muted colours of pink, yellow and green.
Organised sightseeing needs determination. Perhaps it is better just to wander willy-nilly through the squares and mosaic-paved streets. Many buildings are decorated with exquisite ceramic tiles. They are a pleasing architectural feature throughout the country but are seen at their most perfect in the tiny chapel of Sant' Amara on a hilltop in the suburb of Belem (Portuguese for Bethlehem).
Here, too, is the magnificent Jeronimos monastery with its strikingly spacious interior, its fan roof of fantastic intricacy supported by enormous, elaborately-carved columns.
Outstanding places within excursion distance of Lisbon are the ornate Gothic Batalha Abbey (86 miles away), built in 1388 to commemorate a miraculous national victory over a superior Castilian army. A complete contrast is the 12th century monastery at Alcobocoa (74 miles away), the largest Cistercian monastery in the world, which has an uncluttered simplicity of immense beauty. The shrine where Our Lady appeared to the shepherd children at Fatima, 2,500 ft. high on the barren hills of Cova da Ilia is 88 miles from the capital. Nearer, 45 miles up the Tagus valley is Santarem, heart of the bull breeding country where mountain herdsmen still wear a traditional dress of green and red stocking caps, white shirts, red waistcoats and dark blue knee breeches set off by white stockings. The name derives from Saint Irene, who was martyred at Tomar and whose tomb was borne down the Tagus by angels until it came to rest at what is now Santarem.
Southern Portugal — the Algarve — is cut off from the the rest of Europe by the Serras of Monchique and do Caldeirao, a I0-mile wide Jumble of pine and cork clad heights with only two passes suitable for roads. So although the Christian re-conquest was completed by 1249, so strong is the Moorish flavour — white houses glaring against almond, fig and twisted cork trees, doorways mysterious, beaded — that it looks as if it has been sliced off the continent of Africa.
In this 'garden of Portugal' the climate is so clement that flowers bloom profusely all the year round. With magnificent beaches it is ideal for a winter holiday.