So said Luís Vaz de Camões, Portugal’s greatest poet, of his country in the 16th century, and it is still probably true today. As unlike much of Western Europe, there are still swathes of undeveloped countryside in Portugal, something much highlighted by Barry Hatton in his 2011 book ‘The Portuguese‘.
Portugal is one of the smaller European countries, slightly bigger in area than Austria but not even a quarter of the size of its neighbour Spain. Portugal’s population is also small compared to other western European countries, currently estimated at 10.4million compared to Spain’s 46million and the UK’s fast approaching 65million. No wonder the countryside feels so open and undeveloped, and so much remains of the native vegetation.
We’ve only explored a tiny portion of Portugal’s countryside, but what we have seen has been stunning. Although we know not everyone agrees. We bumped into some fellow English tourists in Alcoutim earlier this year who expressed their disappointment at the ‘natural parks’ of the Algarve. They had explored a tiny bit of the Ria Formosa and also ‘Reserva Natural do Sapal de Castro Marim’ from their base in Monte Gordo, but clearly they had been expecting something quite different. When we met them in Alcoutim they were en route to Parque Natural do Vale do Guadiana, a few miles further north in Alentejo, in the hope it would be (in their words) a ‘proper park’. I suspect they were going to be disappointed yet again as during our brief chat I got the impression they were looking for more managed scenery with lots of well-marked easy trails. Parque Natural do Vale do Guadiana in Alentejo, just a few miles north of Alcoutim, is stunning but as its name suggests it isn’t a managed park. We’re planning a stay in Alentejo early next year mainly to see the Great Bustards again, but also to explore more of Parque Natural do Vale do Guadiana. We can’t wait as we love the tranquillity and beauty of these steppe plains.
I’m also looking forward to returning to the beauty of the Ria Formosa, and to exploring more of Portugal’s long coastline. Not sure we’ll make it to Cabo da Roca, west of Lisbon, the most westerly point of continental Europe, but we will definitely be heading west to the Atlantic. I know it is also the Atlantic off Olhão da Restauração but this south east coastline feels more Mediterranean than North Atlantic. In fact Portugal as a whole has a Mediterranean climate, and is one of the warmest countries in Europe with around 2500 to 3200 hours of sunshine a year. That’s around 6hrs per day in winter and 12 hours plus in summer in the far south. All of which nicely leads me onto the original purpose of this post, the geography of Portugal.
- Bordered only by Spain and the Atlantic Ocean, it is known as a coastal nation as its coastline is longer than its land borders
- The country is divided into seven regions. Five on the mainland – Norte, Centro, Lisbon, Alentejo and the Algarve. There are then the two autonomous island regions – Madeira and the Azores.
- For such a small country its geography is incredibly diverse. The north is a mountainous region, characterized by many small farms and vineyards. The mountains continue into the the central region, where Coimbra and Lisboa are located. On the Centro coastline you will find dunes and pine forests, and inland it is much drier than it is in the north but there are still stunning river valleys. As you head further south into first Alentejo and then the Algarve the mountains become rolling plains and then rolling hills, and the land, at least in summer, becomes drier and drier.
- There are no large natural lakes but there are some long rivers – Minho, Douro, Mondego, Tagus and the Guadiana
- The highest peak is in the Azores (Monte Pico 7,713ft) and the second highest is the mountain range known as Serra da Estrela in the Centro region.
- The Alentejo region is the largest in terms of area but the 4th smallest population wise. And it is the only region with falling population numbers, not that the others have seen a huge population growth in the past 25 years. Apart from that is in the summer when the population in the tourist regions double or even triple in size thanks to the influx of tourists. The tourist economy is a vital lifeline for Portugal’s economic future, particularly the Algarve, Azores and Madeira. However whilst good for the economy the rise in tourists is not so great for the environment. I’m not sure what the answer is, do you?