Lisbon - A few years ago, an advertising agency had an idea for selling Portugal to the world. The slogan was this: Portugal – Europe’s West Coast. I have the presentation here on my computer screen. It promises a land of sun, sea and surfing, a country of people who are “creative, open and welcoming, who wish to share with you the best of everything that they have and know about, appealing to your senses and celebrating life”. You can see where they were coming from.
Portugal has sun. It has kilometre upon kilometre of beaches, including the longest coastal national park in Europe. And, think about it – the main city, linked to the principal landmass by two suspension bridges, is full of steep hills, trams and rolling fogs, and was once hit by a famous earthquake. And it is indeed on the far west coast.
But Portugal is not California, and Lisbon is not San Francisco. It doesn’t take long to get from Lisbon airport to your city centre hotel room – 20 minutes, max – but it’s enough time to figure out that you’re not going to find much of that laid-back, West Coast vibe here.
The streets are handsome, but subdued. The people seem slightly uptight and rather melancholy. They speak like Russians trying to get their tongues around Spanish – expressive, but slow and slurred. Like Prague or Krakow, Lisbon feels like a town that’s come late to hedonism and is still getting to grips with it.
Less West Coast, then – more Eastern Europe, with better seafood.
Sure, you have the Bairro Alto, the renovated bohemian quarter of Lisbon, which is as hedonistic as anywhere in Europe after dark. But the tenor of Portugal is Atlantic, not Mediterranean. The humour of the place is wet and damp, not dry and hot.
I had my theory all mapped out when I met the man from the Alentejo tourist board. And he was amazed. Melancholy? Pah! The Portuguese are southern, he said, emotional, expressive. Look at José Mourinho.
I appealed to an Anglo-Portuguese friend for adjudication.
“You’re both right,” she said. “The Portuguese are never quite sure where they fit in the world.”
That may be why Portugal is going through another “repositioning”. The West Coast of Europe has been left behind. Instead, holidaymakers are being offered a country where hillsides are as important as beaches, Roman ruins celebrated as much as golf resorts, rural vineyards promoted as well as luxury marinas. It’s a more varied experience, and – compared with a stay in Tuscany or Provence – tremendously good value too. So, has Portugal come up with the right offer at the right time?
The statistics suggest it has. Last year, 14.1 million overseas travellers visited Portugal; 3.8 percent more than in 2010.
Which brings us to a dry, hot, sparsely populated land east and south of Lisbon. This is the Alentejo, the region at the heart of the new Portuguese plan. Most visitors perform a heart bypass as they zoom into Lisbon or Faro, but I took the road less travelled, driving a couple of hours south from Lisbon airport to the coastal resort of Zambujeira do Mar.
Perched above a sweet little bay, Zambujeira was subdued: farmworkers having coffee, lost-looking German teenagers and a couple of surfers.
At the Monte da Galrixa, a farm 7km from Zambujeira, set among the ancient cork and pine trees, you can get a homely little apartment looking on to a quiet garden with a small swimming pool. You can go for a walk around the lake or take the dodgiest mountain bikes on the Iberian peninsula for a spin.
The Monte da Galrixa is part of a new front just opened for the foot soldiers of European tourism – the ramblers. It’s one of the many rural stopovers on the Rota Vicentina, a 338km trail that winds from Cape St Vincent in the far south west to Santiago do Cacem in the Alentejo. One branch reaches inland, the other – the Fisherman’s Trail – along the coast. At Zambujeira, the straight, sandy roadside track is broken by smaller trails, where you can take your chances on the breezy cliffs.
No one would call the Troia peninsula at Alentejo’s northern tip “unspoilt”. It’s the site of Portugal’s most ambitious tourism development. With its blue-turquoise waters and stretches of white sand, Troia looks as if it’s been transported from the Indian Ocean and dropped on to this scrubby land of semi-deserted villages and empty tree-lined roads.
It was developed in the 1960s in an ideologically precarious deal between German trade unions and the authoritarian right-wing government in Lisbon. Only one of the ugly hotels from that era has survived. The new centrepiece is the Blue & Green Design Hotel, a visionary piece of coastal architecture with wave-like balconies, which are lit up at night like futuristic beacons.
Now under Portuguese ownership, the new Troia resort feels as if humans have yet to get their grubby paws on the seaside cafés, walkways, marina and shops.
A little way down the coast at Comporta, there are even more ambitious plans afoot, in hopes of attracting the kind of well-to-do hedonists that can usually be found in Dubai, Marbella or Quinta do Lago. Only this time, the developers are trying to do it the green way.
For centuries, the seven villages huddled between the marshes and the coast have been an unlikely centre of rice-growing. Now real estate people are putting it on the map.
The Alentejo coast has plenty of space for any number of luxurious palaces. But the story of Portugal has moved inland, to the wineries and walking routes, the Douro and the Alentejo, the rivers and nature reserves. The Algarve may as well be another country. Visitors are finding their own private Tuscany or Dordogne in its hinterland.
Perhaps we’re no clearer in placing Portugal, geographically or emotionally. But, after five days of good food, great wine, beautiful weather, low prices and no hassle – does it matter? – The Independent on Sunday