Destination guide: North Portugal

From deserted beaches, Port wine and sardines to the university that inspired JK Rowling's Hogwarts, the best way to explore this sunny country on the Atlantic is by bike

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There’s more to Portugal than the Algarve; the north offers wild Atlantic beaches, historic lighthouses and pine forests. The best way to explore the varied landscape is on two wheels. On a week’s holiday (starting in Porto and finishing in Lisbon), you can snake down the coast on scenic trails, seafront promenades and through natural parks, stopping off along the way. Read on for quick guide to the region…

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Porto

The home of Port wine is littered with excellent waterfront cafes and restaurants in which to sample the local tipple. Although shabby, the beautiful Neoclassical and Baroque buildings are decorated with ornate tiles, pastel paints and stretch six storeys high. Incredible views reach from the beautiful metal arched Luís I Bridge to down the Douro River, connecting central Portugal with the coast. Cyclists can take a short ride to the seafront using the boardwalk adjacent to the river. The route offers a view of coloured buildings that appear stacked on top of each other across the city and the chance to see local fishermen gracefully cast their lines along the riverbed. People from all walks of life can be found at the mouth of the river, where sparkling yachts in the brand new marina sit side by side with women washing their clothes in an outdoor laundry. 

Espinho

A gentle 13-mile cycle south from Porto brings you to a typical northern seaside town, where you can spend an afternoon lazing around on the beach, watching the wild sea. The town’s two defining features are a casino (there’s a legal gambling zone here) and the Igreja Matriz de Espinho, a Neo-romanic church with a giant bell tower that was built in the early 1900s to replace the previous church which was destroyed by the sea. Seventeen miles away, cyclists will find the Aveiro Conservation Area, where quiet roads circle Europe’s last remaining untouched coastal marshlands and a lagoon stretching more than 600 km2. Visitors will find a variety of migratory aquatic birds and unusual flowers and plants on a ramble around the area.  


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Aveiro

In the 1500s, this charming town was a roaring coastal port, but trade halted when the river mouth was silted up and turned the area into swampy marshlands. Years later, canals were built to open up the town once more and to help drain the water from the land. Today, the canals are mainly used for touristy boat trips, which cruise up and down with elegant traditional vessels named Moliceiros, once used to harvest seaweed. The area is also known for its fine porcelain trade. Five miles away by bike (in Ilhavo) is the Alegre Factory and Museum – the oldest porcelain factory in the country. Founded in 1824, the factory still produces handmade items from simple bowls to intricate ornaments, tiles and everything in between. It’s possible to book a guided tour and get a rare glimpse into the workshops, painting rooms and factory floors of a working porcelain factory. Pick up an original keepsake to take home at the shop on site.

Costa Nova 

Eight miles from Ilhavo is the stripy town of Costa Nova where wooden fronted houses are painted in all manner of coloured strips, it’s so kitsch it could be an old fashioned British seaside resort. Around town there are dozens of cute souvenir shops, cafes and ice-cream parlour, exactly what you want from a traditional beach-side experience. Nearby, Barra beach has an excellent local seafood restaurant (named Bronze), serving delicious seafood casserole family-style (in a big serving pot) with prawns, clams and white fish.


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Coimbra

J.K. Rowling lived in Porto for a few years, it’s believed that she got inspiration for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts in the Medieval student town of Coimbra. A day’s cycle (47 miles) from Costa Nova, the town’s university, established in 1290, is one of the oldest educational faculties in the world. Some of its structures date back to the Roman era. It’s easy to see elements of the Harry Potter novels when walking around the grounds. There’s a real mystical feel about the place, paintings of Deans from throughout history hang on the walls and seem to follow you with their eyes with every step you take, students at the university wear Hogwarts-style black gowns and the cathedral-like library has laddered levels of antique books and houses a family of bats. Honestly, a game of Quidditch wouldn’t be out of place in these dramatic grounds. Meanwhile, the city itself also has plenty of culture and soul; live events from Fado concerts and traditional dances often take place in the streets, while artwork hangs in little lanes and independent bookshops,  and antique shops and boutiques are dotted around the place.

Lisbon 

The final stretch on a cycling trip of the north is 126 miles from Coimbra to Lisbon (best done over two days). Portugal’s most visually striking city is chock full of Gothic cathedrals, Moorish alleys and Art Nouveau cafes. The best place to start? A ride on the 100-year-old vintage yellow tram 28, which criss-crosses across the city centre, through narrow streets and past the city sites. Particular points of interest in town include the Romanesque Sé Cathedral and Estrela Basilica’s dome, and of course St George’s Castle, offering fantastic views of the Tagus River below. Top it off with a trip to Jerónimos Monastery and be transported back to Portugal’s Age of Discovery.


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Population
10.46 million

Region
Europe

Airport
Porto (if starting from the north), Lisbon (if you plan to travel north)

TV and films shot here:  Carlos Saura’s Fados, The Invisible Life, The House of the Spirits (starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons), plus the country inspired JK Rowling’s Harry Potter.

Local food: Bacalhau (slated cod), Caldo Verde (onion, potato and kale soup), clams, cod fish fritters, roast suckling pig, pão de Ló (rich sponge cake, made with egg yolk), sardines.

Stay: Hotel Bessa, Porto, Furadouro Boutique Hotel Beach & Spa and Hotel Vila Gale, Coimbra

Getting there: TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; flytap.com) fly from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester daily.

Getting around:
The best way to see the nation’s sights is by bike. Headwater (01606 828 527; headwater.com) offers a self-guided, seven-night Porto to Coimbra cycling holiday from £1,248pp. The price includes accommodation with breakfast, four evening meals, bike hire (rental of an e-bike is £50 extra), a GPS device between two people, notes and maps, luggage transfers and back-up services as well as flights with TAP Portugal from Gatwick to Porto.

Images courtesy of Michael Cranmer

Radio Times was hosted by Headwater, all of our contributors maintain editorial independence at all times and conduct first-hand research.


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