Cruise Through History on Portugal’s Striking Scenic Routes

Post originally Published December 22, 2023 || Last Updated December 23, 2023

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Cruise Through History on Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes - Wind Through Vineyards on the Estrada Nacional 2

Cruise Through History on Portugal’s Striking Scenic Routes

Meandering along Portugal's verdant Douro River Valley, the Estrada Nacional 2 offers travelers a scenic route through terraced vineyards and charming villages. This national road stretches nearly 200 miles, connecting Porto to the Spanish border, making it an ideal road trip for wine lovers and landscape photographers alike.

Unlike the straight and fast highway that parallels it, the EN2 twists along with the contours of the land. Cruising at a leisurely pace allows you to soak up vistas of orderly rows of vines cascading down the hillsides. Spring brings bursts of white and pink blossoms, while fall showcases gold and amber leaves.
Around every bend are opportunities to stop at wineries for tours and tastings. Many are located on quintas, grand agricultural estates that have been producing wine for generations. Sample ports, reds, and whites right where they were made while taking in views of the river from expansive patios and terraces.
Charming villages punctuate the route, beckoning you to explore their cobbled lanes and ancient squares. Pause for a strong bica coffee at an outdoor café and watch locals go about their daily routines. The pace of life is slower here, in keeping with the winding road.

For the best scenic experience, avoid the highway and take the EN2 between Peso da Régua and Pinhão, the heart of port wine country. Take the riverside road from Pinhão to Pocinho for jaw-dropping vistas at every bend. Or head upstream from Peso da Régua over the marble bridge to Mesão Frio, surrounded by hillside vineyards.
Wherever you travel along the EN2, you’ll be rewarded with glimpses of rural life. See grand historic quinta houses and humble field shelters side-by-side. Watch as elderly locals slowly navigate the roads in tiny cars. Breath in the perfumed air, fragrant with the smell of grapevines.

What else is in this post?

  1. Cruise Through History on Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes - Wind Through Vineyards on the Estrada Nacional 2
  2. Cruise Through History on Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes - Marvel at the Atlantic from the Western Algarve Coastal Road
  3. Cruise Through History on Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes - Traverse Mountains and Valleys on the N222
  4. Cruise Through History on Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes - Stop for Photos on the Route of the Romanes
  5. Cruise Through History on Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes - Take the Slow Road through Évora and Monsaraz
  6. Cruise Through History on Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes - Cross Roman Bridges along the N122
  7. Cruise Through History on Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes - Follow the River on the N222 from Pinhão to Pocinho
  8. Cruise Through History on Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes - Discover Abandoned Villages on the N338-1

Cruise Through History on Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes - Marvel at the Atlantic from the Western Algarve Coastal Road

Tracing the rugged western edge of Portugal's Algarve region, the coastal road offers awe-inspiring vistas of dramatic cliffs plunging down to the wild Atlantic Ocean. This lesser-known route reveals a more natural side of the Algarve beyond its bustling resort towns.

As you drive west from Lagos, the shoreline becomes more rugged and windswept. Sheer cliffs of ochre and burnt sienna tower above secluded coves that can only be reached by boat. The brilliant blues and whites of the ocean and sky meet in sublime panoramas. Watch waves crashing into sea caves and natural arches carved into the rocky cliffs.

Inland, rolling hills blanketed in emerald pine and cork trees stretch as far as the eye can see. Prickly-pear cacti and aloe vera plants dot the landscape, hinting at the region's subtropical climate. Hilltop towns cling to these ridges, their whitewashed walls and terracotta roofs standing in colorful contrast to the vegetation.
This section of the road alternates between hugging the cliff's edge and cutting inland. Stop frequently at the miradouros (viewpoints) to gaze down at secluded beaches in small rocky coves. Admire the constellations of upswept rock formations scattered just offshore, carved by the elements.

One highlight is Praia do Amado, popular with surfers for its epic waves. In summer, colorful umbrellas dot the long stretch of golden sand. But even at the height of tourist season, the beach is never crowded. The further west you explore, the quieter the shore becomes.
Beyond Odeceixe, the border village with Spain, the road winds through a natural park protecting the southwest coastline. Here you might spot endangered chameleon and Seville wall lizards sunning themselves on rocks. Bottlenose dolphins frequently play in the waters below.

Cruise Through History on Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes - Traverse Mountains and Valleys on the N222

Winding through the heart of Portugal’s Serra da Estrela Natural Park, the N222 carries travelers over high mountain passes, through deep river valleys, and past timeworn villages. While not as fast as the highways, this national road rewards leisurely drivers with vistas and villages largely undiscovered by tourists.

Departing the university city of Coimbra, the two-lane road immediately begins climbing into the mountains. The greenery below gives way to granite boulders and pine forests at the higher elevations. Stop frequently to admire the panoramas at miradouros along the route. Gaze out over an intricate patchwork of fields and orchards in the valleys below, dotted with white houses ringed in orange tile roofs.
The road reaches its highest point at Torre, the base village for Portugal's tallest mountain, at 1,993 meters (6,539 ft). While the icy summit is only accessible to hikers, it's possible to take a gondola up to the base. From here, trails lead to waterfalls and glacial lakes with the craggy peak looming overhead.

Continue heading north and plunge into the glacier-carved Vale do Zêzere, another of the Serra’s treasures. This pristine valley encompasses sheer cliffs, pine forests, and crystalline rivers ideal for trout fishing and kayaking. Pull over at roadside miradouros for breathtaking vistas over the valley’s plunging gorges and farmland quilted with olive and almond trees.
Allow time to lose yourself in the medieval village of Linhares da Beira, named for its impressive 12th century castle. Park outside the ancient walls and wander labyrinthine cobbled lanes lined with granite houses adorned with flowerboxes. Have a strong bica coffee in the leafy main square and admire the granite pillory and church, testaments to the village’s antiquity.

Likewise, detour to Piodão, considered one of Portugal’s most beautiful and well-preserved villages. Enter through an arched gateway in the wall encircling town to admire whitewashed houses accented with vibrant splashes of color. Embracing its clifftop setting, the village cascades down a hillside in neat terraces.

Cruise Through History on Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes - Stop for Photos on the Route of the Romanes

Dotted with Roman ruins, medieval castles, stone bridges and rolling vineyards, the scenic N122 road in central Portugal offers boundless opportunities for photography enthusiasts. Stretching from the historic city of Coimbra to the town of Viseu, this route showcases well-preserved vestiges of Roman civilization alongside stunning natural landscapes.

Whether you’re shooting on an SLR or smartphone, plan an early start to capture the magical golden light during sunrise. The soft dawn rays beautifully illuminate weathered ruins nestled amid hilly vineyards along the road. As the sun climbs higher, stop to photograph the formidable castle dominating the skyline of the walled village of Montemor-o-Velho. Dating to the 11th century when it defended the surrounding lands from Moors, this imposing granite complex inspires awe.

Further along is sleepy Conímbriga, home to the country’s most extensive Roman archaeological site. Wander amid intricate mosaic floors, crumbling baths and towering columns to channel your inner Indiana Jones. Don’t miss the remarkably intact bridge spanning the old road to Olisipo, now modern-day Lisbon. Marvel at how its elegant six arches have endured centuries.
Near Figueira da Foz, stretch your legs at the windswept Cabo Mondego lighthouse. Perched 130 feet atop rugged cliffs, it has safeguarded ships since the 1760s. Capture romantic sunsets as the historic beacon begins to glow, warning mariners away from treacherous rocks.

The following morning, catch first light streaming through the trees as mist rises over the dense forest of the Serra do Buçaco. Shrouded in an air of mystery, this secluded wooded range conceals meandering trails leading to hidden grottos and fountains. Seek out the moss-covered steps ascending through mystical glades for an almost fantastical shot.

Finally, revel in panoramas over endless rows of vines and picturesque homesteads from atop the steeples of medieval Viseu. Housing a splendid Renaissance cathedral, this historic town retains its traditional charm. Immortalize the age-old scenes of villagers tending their vineyards before modernity encroaches on this unspoiled region.

Cruise Through History on Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes - Take the Slow Road through Évora and Monsaraz

Meandering through the heart of Portugal's golden Alentejo region, the sleepy N380 rolls past sprawling cork oak forests, vineyards, and time-worn villages where life moves at an unhurried pace. This quiet road connects two gems of southern Portugal's interior – Évora and Monsaraz – that reward travelers who take the scenic route.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Évora is an open-air museum of medieval, Moorish, and Portuguese Renaissance history. Inside the 14th century walls, lose yourself along narrow lanes lined with whitewashed houses, flower-filled window boxes, and wrought-iron balconies. Feel yourself winding back centuries while contemplating the Roman temple and 2nd century aqueduct. Climb the spiral staircase inside the creepy Chapel of Bones, with walls adorned by 5,000 skeletons. Then ponder the price of Portuguese independence at the spot where national hero Vasco Gama was born in the 15th century.
Beyond Évora sprawl endless groves of twisting cork and olive trees, sprouting rosemary and lavender. Stop at roadside vistas to soak up the sweeping panoramas. Pull over at pint-sized villages, where elderly locals congregate on shaded benches, more interested in chatting than hustling tourists. Pop into tin-roofed cottages converted into rustic restaurants for hearty comfort food and robust local wines.
Rising from a rocky mound and encircled by medieval walls, the fortified hilltown of Monsaraz offers a majestic perch. From its craggy cliffs, Turkey vultures ride thermal winds, scouring olive groves and cork oak forests below for prey. This tiny time capsule transports visitors back centuries through uneven stone lanes that weave among bleached cottages. Flowering geraniums add colorful accents to weathered façades with hand-painted blue trim. Inside the 15th century parish church, marvel at the rare circular nave and whitewashed walls etched with faded frescos.

Don't miss the castle keep, converted into an upscale restaurant with 360° panoramas over the Alqueva Dam. Created in 2002, this massive reservoir drowned medieval villages, Roman ruins, and farmland, generating hydroelectricity for the region. While controversial, the emerald green lake now attracts recreational boaters. Contemplate the trade-offs between tradition and progress while watching the sunset reflected on its still surface from Monsaraz's fortified walls.

Proceeding north from Monsaraz, the road cruises through more cork oak woodlands. Make time to experience the tree's unique harvest firsthand. Visit roadside companies where workers still strip the thick bark manually to sustainably harvest cork. Observe their handiwork fashioned into everything from wine stoppers and coasters to purses and hats.

Cruise Through History on Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes - Cross Roman Bridges along the N122

Dotting the landscape along Portugal's scenic N122 road, ancient Roman bridges transport modern travelers back in time. These engineering marvels still carry vehicles and foot traffic two millennia after their construction. Seeing these well-preserved relics of the mighty Roman Empire inspires awe and makes history come alive.
Spanning the Rio Criz near Santa Comba Dão, the handsome Ponte de Criz features five graceful arches and a monumental span of 490 feet. Though partly destroyed in the 1700s, its lengthy form still makes an impressive statement across the river gorge. Hand-carved blocks fit seamlessly together, a testament to advanced Roman building skills. Scramble down the grassy bank to admire the sleek bridge from below and envision legion soldiers marching across centuries ago.

Further north near Tondela, the Ponte de Abrunheira imparts a more intimate experience. Built around 27 BC under Emperor Augustus, this quaint Roman bridge ambles over the Rio Lagoa with just a single arched span. It almost blends into the rural scenery, save for the precisely cut granite. Though now used only by foot traffic, its stout form easily accommodated carts and horses for hundreds of years. Visitors can stand in the center and touch the cool, timeworn stones that supported Roman conquerors, medieval pilgrims, and 21st century travelers alike.
No Roman bridge on the N122 provokes more powerful emotions than Ponte de Segura near Oliveira do Hospital. Named for the Roman governor who commissioned its construction in 136 AD, its towering form looks as sturdy as ever over the burbling Rio Alva. However, the bridge partially collapsed during a 1967 flood, leaving six arches tragically broken. Engineers added a modern concrete span to buttress the surviving ancient arches that convey an enduring sense of strength through their graceful lines and confident stature.
Though the century-old concrete mars their symmetrical beauty, the Ponte de Segura's surviving arches continue standing tall. They seem to proclaim the true resilience and engineering prowess of their Roman creators. It's easy to imagine the imperious governors and engineers who carved this land nearly 2,000 years ago when confronted by their handiwork. Though battered by time, the bridge defiantly refuses to yield completely to the ages.

Cruise Through History on Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes - Follow the River on the N222 from Pinhão to Pocinho

Tracing the curves of the Douro River between Pinhão and Pocinho, the N222 scenic route treats road trippers to ever-changing vistas of terraced hillsides, quaint villages, and the shimmering, snake-like waterway. Though slower than the highways, this national road running along the north bank of the Douro delivers a feast for the eyes around every bend.

Leaving Pinhão, the road immediately hugs cliffs high above the Douro, just upstream from where the river becomes navigable. The engineering marvel of dams and locks carved into the sheer rock walls enables river cruise ships to tackle the once treacherous rapids. Gaze down in awe at these concrete structures and ponder how construction crews managed such a feat before modern machinery.

Past the locks, the valley opens up to reveal sweeping panoramas over the Douro. Rows of vines cascade down to the water in geometric patterns. Hilltop quintas with grand manor houses overlook their vineyards. Long before the scenic highway, the Douro served as the main transportation artery. Imagine Roman ships with huge clay amphorae full of olive oil plying these waters.

The upper Douro River Valley rates among Europe’s most unspoiled landscapes. As the road continues north, the slopes rise ever steeper on either side, feeling positively alpine. The palette shifts from vibrant greens in spring to burnished autumnal colors as vines relinquish their leaves. Silvery olive and cork oak trees cling to near vertical grades.

Unlike the well-manicured vineyards, this is wild country. Patches of scrub and jagged boulders break up the natural terrain. Hawks and eagles soar overhead, scanning the riverbanks for fish and small mammals. The lack of guardrails underscores the precipitousness of the narrow road, hewn right from the granite cliffs. Let slower cars and trucks use the pullouts to safely navigate past.

Right where the Mogadouro tributary merges, the N222 crosses the Douro’s might via an arching modern bridge. The river is now over 300 meters across, though in a few months it will shrink to a relative trickle. This section sees some of Portugal’s more extreme seasonal fluctuations in water volume.

Northern Portugal’s once remote Douro Valley still holds hidden treasures, viewable from various roadside miradouros. Spy crumbling monasteries clinging to implausible ledges. See abandoned hillside villages where only a handful of elderly residents remain, keeping traditions alive. Imagine the colorful tile-adorned ships that transported port wine to England and beyond in centuries past.

Cruise Through History on Portugal's Striking Scenic Routes - Discover Abandoned Villages on the N338-1

Dotting the dramatic Beira Baixa region of central Portugal, the N338-1 winds through a rugged landscape once populated by scores of villages that now stand hauntingly abandoned. As modernization lured residents to cities over the past century, these settlements emptied out until only a handful of inhabitants remained. Exploring these ghost villages offers a melancholy yet captivating experience unique to this area.
Venturing down the N338-1 reveals village after village where crumbling houses slump amongst overgrown weeds and vines, slowly surrendering to the elements. Doors and windows gape open, brick and plaster walls speckled in lichen and moss. Only the pristine village church, its brilliant white façade defying decay, shows signs of care.

Cobblestone lanes that once bustled with farmers heading to the fields and washerwomen beating laundry by the creek have gone quiet. Yet beckoning like an apparition around the next bend, another abandoned village appears. Their alarming frequency suggests a countryside once overflowing with rural folk, now hauntingly vacated.
In Tríbilos, grassy banks have reclaimed the cement patios where women sat shelling beans and mending clothes on sunny days as chickens pecked nearby. The yawning doors of abandoned barns evoke thoughts of cattle and goats sheltered for the night, now long gone.

At Medelim, a once vital community fountain spurting drinking water stands dry, its stone mouth stopped up by debris. Without children coming with buckets to fill, the moss-covered spout will give forth no more. Curious hawks now perch up where elderly men rested after working the fields, watching village life unfold.

More than just architectural ruins, these empty shells evoke nostalgia for the many souls they once sheltered. Their worn thresholds bring to mind barefoot children chasing one another while mothers called them home for dinner. Now only the wind wanders these desolate lanes.
Yet not all is loss; new life springs up amid the vacant dwellings in poignant contrast. Delicate red poppies adorn rubble that was once a sturdy home. Wildflowers thrive untrodden in yards where young lovers trysted under the stars. And tall pines inhale carbon from the same air once scented by hearth fires and home-cooked stews.

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