Portugal a mixture of the old and modern worlds

Portugal, one of the eurozone’s poorest nations, is immersed in debt, barely has a functioning government and is widely expected to receive a Greek-style bailout by June. But travellers willing to jump aboard this economic roller coaster could find bargains in a country small enough to tour in a week’s time.

While periodic strikes have disrupted train and subway transportation over the last year as Portugal’s financial problems deepened, the work stoppages have always been announced with plenty of advance notice on when they will start and end. And almost no one is expecting strikes during August because the Portuguese themselves will be on vacation.

One week in Portugal is plenty to sample Lisbon’s historic wonders, then travel by train to Porto, another Atlantic Ocean port city, and squeeze in a visit to a winery. Within that period you could do sun and sea at the beaches in southern Algarve province.

Arranging it all is fairly easy online because most websites have English sections, and the Portuguese themselves usually speak decent English — unlike many of their neighbours in Spain. It’s part of the legacy from Portugal’s historic links with Britain going back centuries, and the fact that all movies and TV programs originally made in English are subtitled and not dubbed.

“Portugal has long been the ideal destination for the U.S. travellers,” said British travel writer Simon Calder. “It’s the wild western fringe of Europe, with a scattering of Atlantic islands, a fascinating history and superb landscapes. The cuisine is world-class, the climate benign, the welcome warm. And it’s the ideal location for any American seeking a European bargain this summer.”

For hearty Portuguese meals featuring dishes such as feijoada (bean stew) and cabrito (goat), basic local restaurants called tascas offer up the best lunch bargain across the nation. The menus always feature traditional Portuguese food with plenty of fresh fish out of the Atlantic as well as dried, salted cod (bacalhau) — a Portuguese staple.

Lisbon itself is an architectural jewel, with ancient St. George’s castle (Castelo de Sao Jorge) and a medieval fortified cathedral overlooking the magnificent estuary of the Tagus, one of Europe’s mightiest rivers. Christian soldiers took the castle from its long-standing North African Arab occupiers in the 12th century.

The cathedral is a rare survivor of one of the deadliest earthquakes in history — a massive 1755 temblor and subsequent fire that wrecked the city. As in Japan, a vast tsunami rushed back to engulf the riverside buildings, killing tens of thousands of people and obliterating much of what was then one of Europe’s wealthiest cities.

The rebuilt lower quarter of the city, Baixa Pombalina, has an untypical but easy to navigate grid pattern of streets, with decent hotels starting at about $54 a night (38 euros) a night, making it an ideal base to explore the capital of a country the Romans once referred to as Lusitania.

From Lisbon, the 318-kilometre (198-mile) train ride to Porto and you end up in Portugal’s second largest city — declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. The highlights are its churches, a 14th-century Romanesque wall around the old city and its bridges over the Douro River’s estuary.

In Lisbon, travellers with children, and especially girls, should head to the famed Doll Hospital in Figueira Square, which has been “treating” dolls since 1830. Visitors can see damaged dolls put inside a small elevator that takes them down to a workshop for basic repairs. The dolls later emerge fully restored on the elevator. Repairs of antique dolls are also offered.

After taking in so much of Portugal’s history, it’s time to head to the beach — a spot staked out mainly by British tourists in recent decades. The southern coast of the Algarve is the most popular, where there are plenty of hotels and also basic hostels. Villa rentals abound, and tepees are even available for those who want greater contact with nature.