Surrounded in the south and west by the Atlantic Ocean, Portugal is famous for its impressive coastline; the population of this old European state was initially part of Spain but when they ousted the Moors in the 12th century, achieved independence. What was left behind was blended into today’s fabric of many cultures, religions and cuisines appealing internationally to tourists and assuring its position as one of the most visited countries in the world. Some of the most interesting sites include Lisbon, Sintra, Coimbra, and Porto, stops from south to north along the Atlantic Coast.
Just north of Lisbon along the Atlantic Coast is the suburban community of Sintra which because of its 19th century architecture and romantic landscapes has become a tourist mecca. Here, along with the Sintra Mountains and the Sintra-Cascais Nature Park, the town sports royal retreats and castles from the 8th and 9th centuries as well as buildings from the 15th century such as the Castelo dos Mouros and the Pena National Palace. UNESCO has designated these as well as the Sintra National Palace as World Heritage Sites.
Continuing north along the coast and somewhat inland is Coimbra home of the University of Coimbra, one of Europe’s oldest colleges. In addition to this distinction, many structures in the city date to Roman times when Coimbra was named Aeminium: there is a nicely maintained aqueduct as well as an ancient subterranean passage way, vaulted and lighted by outside openings in the vault. Because of the medieval appeal, there are bookshops, boutiques, galleries and antique shops to entreat any visitor as well as local traditional pottery shops which are also a must.
On the northwest coast along the mouth of the Douro River lies another World Heritage Site dating to when the outpost was Roman. In Latin, its name is Portus Cale which is believed to be the origin for the country name of Portugal. The Moors conquered the city briefly, but by the year 1000 it was back in European hands as a result of the Reconquista becoming with surrounding territory an independent kingdom. Some spectacular sites include Avenida dos Aliados where churches Sao Francisco and Santa Clara literally exude gold; the Palacio de Bolsa and Sao Bento Station have tiled walls reflective of the Moorish influence; and the medieval quarter’s colorful houses face the river, a district where nightlife begins with lively bars and restaurants. For the artistically bent, visit the exhibitions at Serrralves Museum where like the Guggenheim there is contemporary art which is never permanently on display. But of course, a complete taste of the city includes an appreciation of the Port wines from the vineyards in the Douro Valley. One of the world’s great vintages, Port is fortified with aguardente which stops fermentation, leaving sugar in the wine and boosting the alcohol content. Contrary to some historians, this wine received its name from the city of Porto rather than the other way around.