Euro Gonna Love the Bargains in Portugal


You'd love to visit Europe. You daydream of exotic cities, hill towns, folk art, bikini-filled beaches, magnificent museums, but you stop and wonder if the cost of an overseas vacation — especially in light of the record-breaking highs of the euro — might be prohibitive.

Dream no more! Get your passport and make plans to visit Portugal, one of the most delightful — and affordable — countries in the world.

You'll find gentle, friendly people; a marvelous climate; and a diversity of sites to explore. Prices are still among the lowest in Europe, and the escudo buys exceptionally good value.

There is a wonderful variety of accommodations, from deluxe (Lapa Palace, Ritz) to the pousadas — like the paradors of Spain, often former medieval castles or monasteries, luxurious yet very reasonably priced and overflowing with fascinating history.

The small country (about the size of Maine) offers a variety of scenic splendors. There are vast mountain ranges, rolling plains, vineyards, orchards, windmills, ancient villages and modern cities. Portugal's coastline, bordered on the western and southern coasts by the Atlantic, boasts some of the most magnificent beaches to be found anywhere.

The weather in Portugal is glorious — its mild winters, and beautiful spring and summer temperatures make it a desirable destination year-round.

Lisbon, the capital city with about a million residents, is a blend of the old and new. It is here one senses the pulse of Portugal: The happy, cheerful city faces the sea, although it's actually located on the River Tagus, almost where the river flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

This location is an advantageous one, for it created an extraordinary harbor known as Mar Da Palha ("Sea of Straw"), named because of the effects produced by the sun's rays. The bustling port has eight wharves, four of which can berth large transatlantic liners.

Lisbon, so legend has it, was founded by the Greek hero, Ulysses; however, historians attribute its foundation to the Phoenicians in 1200 BCE.

Lisbon is as much of a hill city as Rome. Narrow streets slide and curve around surprising corners. The Baixa — the core of the city– is built in a valley which runs down to the Tagus. Avenida da Liberdade is the central boulevard in the city with an open-air park, sidewalk cafes and ancient bridges.

In the Bairro Alto, the upper quarter, the streets are narrow and run at all angles between tall houses that were once palaces and are now rows of houses. Often, you can see small cages of singing birds suspended from houses — with newly washed clothes hanging out to dry.

In the markets, the ritual of choosing the best fish is a popular activity for housewives and restaurateurs seeking the best catch for the evening's meal.

The Palace of Queluz, a few miles north of Lisbon, is small, baroque, pale pink and exquisite; it is one of the loveliest, as well as one of the smallest, of the royal palaces of Europe. Nearby, Sintra, a beautiful hill town, with its pine-clad slopes and flower-laden lanes, was called a "Glorious Eden" by Lord Byron.

There is a holiday air about Lisbon, perhaps due to its coastal location. But there is also a stark history for the nation when it comes to its Jewish population. Jews endured a Portuguese version of the Inquisition beginning in 1531, with many "New Christian" families — Jews converted to escape persecution — finding their new religion didn't protect them from the harsh realities of anti-Semitism.

Many Marranos — those who converted — escaped to other countries; others weren't so lucky, including such notables as Isaac de Castro Tartas and Antonio Jose da Silva. Today, the Jewish community numbers below 1,000.

But those who remain enjoy the bustling seaport and its marvelous fresh catches, prepared ingeniously and served within minutes of its being hooked.

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