Portugal, the country and its regions

Portugal is not very different from a rectangle tuck in between Spain to the east and north and the Atlantic Ocean to the west and south.
Actually, that’s only the mainland. Don’t forget the Islands of Azores, or Açores in Portuguese, (in the middle of the Atlantic ocean) and Madeira (off the coast of Africa and slightly north of the Spanish Canarian islands).

But that’s nowadays! It was only in 1999 that Macau was returned to China after a lease that went on and off since the year 1557.

Well, the past is past, so let’s get down to business and look at those regions and what is more characteristic of each.

You can view a map of Portugal here.

Azores (Açores)

Situated midway across the Atlantic, they are the best pit spot for any cruiser connecting Europe to North America. That’s why the US have a military airport located there.

They are actually several islands, 9 major islands and several smaller ones.

They are divided into 3 groups: Ocidental – Flores and Corvo; Central – Graciosa, Terceira, São Jorge, Pico and Faial; and Oriental – São Miguel, Santa Maria and Formigas. They are all volcanic in origin and were initially populated by people from different regions of Portugal, but also from other countries. Pico is Portugal’s highest mountain and a volcano still in very very very mild activity.

The sunrise at Pico – the highest mountain in Portugal, in Azores.

Madeira

It’s also more than one island, but in this case, only two are inhabited. The Desertas (deserted) and the Selvagens (wild) are visited very seldom by scientists and researchers. But they are very valuable, they largely increase Portuguese fishing waters, which creates disputes with Spain and the Canary islands.

Trekking in Madeira.

Mainland

The mainland is usually divided into North, Centre and South. But the Portuguese regions are a bit more than that and they do not only follow geography but also traditions, customs and landscape.

There is a huge difference between the seaside and the interior of the country. It’s an unbalanced scale, with most of business and population by the ocean and very little people as you go east. Over the last decades, some villages lost almost all of their population and a few have even become deserted.

Refer to the map above for your district capitals and the outline of the several regions.

North: Minho and Trás-os-Montes

On the northwest we have Minho, a vast and green region which has a great affinity with Galicia, an autonomous region of Spain which borders with it.

Both regions are the only place in the world that can produce a wine called “Vinho Verde”, a lighter but more acidic wine produced from grapes that grow in this region. Agriculture is done in steps built on the mountain and in not so big areas.

The landscape is very green and there are a lot of rivers, all of which reach the ocean but start their journey in Spain.

Douro is one of the most well known rivers, due to the Port Wine grapes which grow in this region only. But this river also starts its course in Spain and goes across both Minho and Trás-os-Montes.

Trás-os-Montes is a whole different story. Located in the northeast, most of it is highland where the saying goes:

“6 meses de Inverno, 6 meses de Inferno” (translates to “6 months of Winter, 6 months of Hell”).

The temperatures are really harsh, but it’s a lovely region with very different gastronomy and wonderful landscapes.
Although nearly improper for vegetarians, the king dish is the “posta”. Lina has written a post about her favourite Portuguese food, which includes two dishes from this region.

A landscape of Trás-os-Montes region.
A landscape of the Trás-os-Montes region.

The Douro region is UNESCO World Heritage and has views to die for, all along its stream!

Port wine vineyards in the Douro Valley.

Come in the almond tree flowering season and you’ll be bashed by a spectacle of colours that will melt your heart.

Almond Blossom: usually around March the almonds start blossoming and some towns have Almond Blossoms Festivals (Festa da Amendoeira em Flor).

Minho has its perks all year and serves a wide crowd. Nature lovers will be at home in the Peneda-Gerês National Park but will find interesting treks all throughout the northern region.

Trekking in the Peneda-Gerês National Park.

If surf is your game, you’ll find some international spots as well. If you like the city and a good dish, be sure to travel through Braga, Guimarães, Ponte de Lima, Viana do Castelo, just to name a few.

Centre: Beira Alta e Beira Baixa

The landscape changes slightly has you come to this region. The mountains spread apart and leave space for agricultural fields that spread far. It’s here that rice and similar cultures are produced and where the culture of bullfighting and horse riding becomes stronger.

Some of the most imposing cathedrals and monuments outside of Lisbon and Porto are in this region. As is Portugal’s pilgrimage destination, Fátima, comparable to Lourdes in South France or Compostela in Galicia/Spain.

The Monastery of Batalha.

The beaches are interesting and the fishings villages have their own charm. Inland you’ll find some of Portugal’s main attractions, of which you shouldn’t miss Coimbra and its unique fado grown between its ancient University and the people that didn’t make it that far in school.

South: Alto Alentejo, Baixo Alentejo and Algarve

Alentejo and Algarve are probably the regions that have more similarities with northern African communities have. They were the last regions to become Portugal and so different from the northern regions.

The land is flatter, as there is only a stretch of small mountains that separate Alentejo from Algarve. This flatness gives place to very large agricultural complexes, some of which with more than 500 hectares. So cities are further apart more each other, usually 30 km or more.

A landscape of Alentejo.

Another important aspect is the climate, drier and warmer, with less water supplies. It’s here that the only Portuguese river that starts and finishes inside our country flows, but the water is much harder than the one you find in the mountains of the North.

The culture is also very different, people are calmer and life just goes about slower. The gastronomy is exquisite: what it lacks in ingredients, compensates in flavour and freshness. As for the customs, they are probably the most connected with the land and the environment.

Algarve is the number one tourist destination for package beach holidays. It’s full of tourists and lives mostly of the summer months, when most of the country, and a lot of foreigners, move there for holidays. The rest of the year you’ll find a lot of pensioners but a quieter scene, with plenty to do and visit.

Both are great regions for long walks and easy treks.

The seaside has amazing beaches, wild and deserted in Alentejo; calmer and hotter in Algarve.

Inland you’ll find nice villages with picturesque houses and castles. Évora is a must, but there are plenty more options.

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